A classic film noir filled with shadows and silhouettes that define the shady and treacherous nature of this story. It’s a Hollywood picture that had it’s fair share of problems in casting and actually being made in its content being the first of its kind for its time. A plot thick with untrustworthy characters, conspiracy and murder that paid off and still feels tense and dangerous nowadays.
An insurance salesmen played by Fred MacMurray happens upon a wife unhappy with her marriage and after their second meeting it transpires she wants her husband dead, luckily Walter’s (MacMurray) profession can help in executing the best murder to appear as an accident to pick up the double indemnity clause leaving him and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to scoop $100’000.
Billy Wilder who directed and helped write this idea based off a novel, manages to craft a beautiful and threatening universe where people are played, language is artistic and firmly noir and lighting adds to the foreboding atmosphere. The use of blinds was a new tool in creating shadowy lines that represent prison bars, a sort of entrapping device that lingers over Walter Neff as if foreshadowing his outcome. This is an example of near perfect genre filmmaking with music contributing to character and layering in over the action to provide suspense, especially when the murder setup is carried out, it goes off without much off a hiccup and perhaps in it being too perfect the music seems to signal that this highly thought through plan is the start of their downfall. To be fair the train idea is quite clever and it is neat watching this plan come together and take effect, even to this day it’s one of the best murder scenarios in a movie that I’ve watched and if the characters weren’t so deliciously despicable you’d root for them to get away with it.
The story is told through flashback and narration where the introduction of typical film noir dialogue arrives in the fact Neff starts recounting his story for his boss to hear. A form of admission to his crime and it is a little cheesy in him confessing through telephone and going to the start just to give the movie some reason to get to the flashback but after this it’s fine. The writing is engaging and notably with the dialogue shared between Neff and Dietrichson it’s fast and slick. A smooth operation of back and forth, one example of this is in the sexual undertones of their conversation about speeding and getting a ticket. A brilliant piece of acting and writing that go hand in hand to pay off as sultry and smart.
The main obstacle in their journey is Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) who always has a hunch or a little man inside that tells him when a claim is amiss. This is set up with another client earlier on that acts as a hint that this is the figure that could unravel the accidental death idea. It’s an interesting dynamic between Neff and Keyes that feels patriarchal and friendly too. The symbolic gesture of Neff always helping the older gentleman light his cigars comes across like some helpful tool in setting up their relationship. After studying this film there’s also ways in which people see this pairing as something deeper and that they are gay, the phallic imagery of the cigar and Neff being there to ‘light’ it as something to think about whether you believe that train of thought or not.
Stanwyck plays the sly and manipulative woman with confidence and you fall for her looks and charm, it’s a tough female role that doesn’t rely just on her appeal to draw you in, there’s more to her character and in fact she’s the strongest element of the film in using Neff, having a dodgy past and having dark thoughts in general to keep herself afloat. The only sort of weakness is that she does indeed fall in love with Walter and therein she falls to becoming a generic helpless female who fails due to loving a man.
spoilers in this paragraph: The main issue is in the believability of Walter making the call and not being known way before, as when he hears a message from Keyes saying he doesn’t believe Walter is guilty due to having no contact with Phyllis, you wonder how someone set up as intelligent hadn’t clocked Walter saying he’d been over to the household and that Phyllis said she’d met Walter, therefore he’d have then made the connection. It seems a little much that he trusts someone he knows as sufficient reason to let him off the hook. Also the gunshot wound lasting just long enough for the reveal at the end of the film seems a little too coincidental for Keyes to find him there.
A film that broke ground in talking about planning murder and the consequences that follow. A clever and shadowy world led by a smart woman who knows what she wants and gets it, even if the main moral here is to show murder never works and leaves them both worse off in one way or another. This is a smart and slick film noir thriller that looks and sounds both alluring and fatal.