Classic Movie Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Title: Double Indemnity
Release Date: July 3, 1944
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

When I was a kid, Fred MacMurray always appeared in goofball family films (and the tv series Eight is Enough) as a nice but dimwitted father figure.  I also recall him playing a more serious role in The Caine Mutiny, but generally “starring Fred MacMurray” equaled a bad movie for me.  Well, watching Double Indemnity makes me reevaluate my opinion of MacMurray’s acting skill.  And so much for being a “nice guy,” he’s positively slimy in this movie.

MacMurray plays successful insurance salesman Walter Neff.  On a house call to encourage a client to renew his auto insurance, he instead meets the client’s beautiful wife, Phyllis Dietrichson.  While flirtatiously bantering, Phyllis inquires about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge.  Neff initially acts outraged over the implication of murdering her husband for money.  Without too much convincing, though, Neff comes up with a plan to have Mr. Dietrichson killed in way that it looks like an accident on a train, so the plan will pay out double.

The stunning thing about this movie is that although Neff and Phyllis talk about running off together with the money, neither one of them appears to be particularly attracted to the other or interested in the money.  They’re behavior is all the more appalling because they seem to be driven by the desire to commit a murder and get away with it rather than lust or greed.  Everything is cold and calculated.

The best part of this movie is Edward G. Robinson as the claims adjuster Barton Keyes.  Tasked with saving the insurance company from paying out settlements, Keyes is an expert at determining when there’s something wrong with the claims.  Keyes also admires Neff and acts as his mentor and a father figure.  Robinson is brilliant in figuring out the details of how the murder went down while still being blind to the fact that the younger man he admires is the murderer.

Double Indemnity is a groundbreaking progenitor of the film noir genre, and its cinematography and lighting have influenced dozens of subsequent films.  The snappy dialogue is also memorable, much of it provided by crime novelist Raymond Chandler, who made his screenwriting debut, collaborating with the director, Billy Wilder.

Rating: ***1/2