The Highest Achievement of American Film Noir

Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Robinson at their best in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in <em>Double Indemnity</em>, 1944 (Everett Collection)
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, 1944 (Everett Collection)

Director Billy Wilder’s 1944 film, Double Indemnity, is the ne plus ultra of American film noir. If we were to give out noir awards on the model of the Oscars, I believe it would win for best picture, best screenplay (written by Raymond Chandler in collaboration with Wilder), best femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck), and best supporting actor (Edward G. Robinson). Excellent as a villain and a dupe, Fred MacMurray would get a nomination for best actor in a lead role but would lose to Out of the Past’s Robert Mitchum.

The plot is that old reliable, homicidal adultery. Man falls for woman whose husband stands in the way. To consummate the illicit affair requires the couple to collaborate on eliminating the obstacle. As in The Postman Always Rings Twice, also based on a book by James M. Cain, murder presents itself as a feasible solution, albeit one that involves an intricate scheme. In both movies, the woman’s husband is almost incidental to the plot—though Cecil Kellaway’s Greek diner owner who likes getting drunk and sings “She’s Funny That Way” in Postman is a live wire next to Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers), the stiff to whom Stanwyck is married in Double Indemnity. There are various love triangles involving Stanwyck’s stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather) and her boyfriend (Byron Barr), but in all of them, the husband figure is almost an afterthought, like the corpse in chapter one of a detective novel. It is Stanwyck who dominates the picture, and the triangle in which she and Robinson stand at opposite poles in MacMurray’s consciousness is the most vital one of all.

Our narrator is the wounded Walter Neff (MacMurray), a bachelor in his 30s with a healthy libidinal appetite, dictating his confession into a recording device: “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” Neff is the chump who works for an insurance company and knows that, because of the so-called “double indemnity” clause, the firm pays double for accidental deaths incurred while a policyholder is traveling. He and Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) conspire to amend Mr. Dietrichson’s policy before bumping him off. Then Walter will impersonate the victim and fall off a moving train, though one that is going very slowly. He and Phyllis will plant the corpse on the tracks. Plausible on paper, but it smells bad to an experienced insurance investigator—and then, to paraphrase Dana Andrews in Laura, the dame pulls a switch on you. It turns out that Phyllis has manipulated Walter to do her bidding all along. She’s in it not for love, but for her husband’s dough. She loves somebody else—to the extent that she loves anyone other than herself. By the time Neff gets cold feet, it’s too late. “The machinery had started to move, and nothing could stop it.”

Some favorite moments:

1. Stanwyck as traffic cop and MacMurray as speeding motorist when he first calls on her, hoping to get her husband to renew his life insurance. Mr. Dietrichson is not at home, but Mrs. Dietrichson is scantily clad at the top of a staircase. She descends. Sparks begin to fly. Walter has come on a bit strong, and the dialogue is a wonderful fencing match:

Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

Walter: How fast was I going, officer?

Phyllis I’d say about 90.

Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.

Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.

Walter: That tears it.

When Stanwyck later scolds her partner in love and crime, she proves to be the tougher of the two. “Nobody’s pulling out,” she says. “We went into this together, and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us. Remember?” It is not an accident that the last name of this paragon of the femme fatale alludes to another, Marlene Dietrich.

2. The speech made by Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, claims manager (and MacMurray’s boss) at Pacific All-Risk Insurance, refuting the theory that Phyllis’s husband killed himself. Death by suicide would let the insurance company off the hook, so naturally it is the theory favored by Mr. Norton (Richard Gaines), the head of the firm. But Keyes will have none of it:

Why, they’ve got 10 volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there’s not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We’re sunk, and we’ll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.

Keyes has a soft spot for Neff, but he wises up in time. “I thought you were a shade less dumb that the rest of the outfit,” he says. “Guess I was wrong. You’re not smarter, Walter. You’re just a little taller.” Robinson stood at five-foot-seven; MacMurray at six-foot-three.

3. There are lovely subtleties and secret puns in the screenplay. When Walter first visits the Dietrichson house and is waiting for Phyllis to descend the staircase wearing her alluring anklet, the maid tells him the liquor cabinet is locked, and he replies that he brought his own keys.

I think, too, of the movie’s last line (“I love you, too”) as MacMurray dies in Robinson’s arms, a scene that poet Suzanne Lummis beautifully characterizes as “the pietà that closes Double Indemnity, where instead of mother and crucified son it’s Boss kneeling by his fallen Star Employee, insurance salesman Walter Neff, blood seeping from his bullet wound. Turns out it was a love story after all—the kind the Greeks called philia.”

When Double Indemnity was released in 1944, the critical reaction was mixed, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times complaining that the lead actor and actress lacked “attractiveness” and that, though “diverting,” the movie had a “monotonous” pace and was too long. In The Nation, James Agee characterized it as “essentially cheap.” Hollywood gossip queen Louella Parsons was much closer to the mark when she called the film “the finest picture of its kind ever made.” Alfred Hitchcock told the director that since the release of Double Indemnity, “Billy” and “Wilder” had become “the two most important words in motion pictures.”

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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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