I thought that Maltese Falcon was the birthplace of a lot of film noir tropes. If that’s the case – this is where those tropes graduated high school.
Double Indemnity takes its name from a clause in a life insurance policy which states that if the person insured dies in an unusual accident, the insurance company will pay out double. Our lead Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) knows all about it; he’s an insurance salesman rather than a detective. While making his rounds one day he remembers a client, Mr. Dietrichson, whose auto insurance is about to lapse and drops by; Dietrichson’s not home, but his wife Phyllis is (Barbara Stanwyck), and she seems unusually…friendly. She also seems unusually interested in taking out a life insurance policy on her husband, and Neff is intrigued – until Phyllis says she doesn’t want her husband to know about it. Neff is friendly with his firm’s claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), and knows from him that what Phyllis is asking suggests she’s plotting something skeevy, so he quickly leaves.
But he still has to renew that auto policy, and Phyllis is pretty hot. And come to think of it, Neff’s had so many conversations with Keyes about phony claims, and the mistakes that would-be murderers made in hiding their tracks, that he thinks he’s figured out a way to not only carry out a murder, but 100% guaranteed pass it off as an accident. So when Phyllis confides in him once again – this time implying that her marriage is a burden and that Neff could be her next suitor – he agrees to help.
Of course things don’t go quite so smoothly as Neff hopes. Keyes is better at spotting suspicious items than Neff thought, and Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) shares her own doubts with Neff, revealing some facts about Phyllis which suggest she’s been scheming since before she and Neff even met. Can Neff get away with what he’s done when he’s got two skeptics doggedly pursuing the truth, and he can’t even trust his own partner in crime?
So there were things about this story that did and didn’t work for me. The actual actions of the plot unfolded well – this is essentially a crime story, except the crime itself isn’t the central mystery; Neff is pretty gamely plotting murder early on, and most of the last half are his efforts to try to hide his tracks. But Phyllis is herself a second mystery. She actually seemed pretty suspicious early on – she comes onto Neff awfully strong in their first scene – but all the film’s revelations only make you even more prone to second-guessing everything she says or does throughout, such that even at the very end, as she fervently declares her feelings about something, I was squinting and thinking “yeah, she’s just saying that.”
On the other hand, I really didn’t buy how quickly Neff got suckered into things. The film suggests that he’s seduced into it – he and Phyllis are fervently declaring their love after only a couple scenes – but there’s no real foundation for that ardor that I can see (lust maybe, but not love). Then again, the whole film is being told as a flashback, so we could be dealing with an unreliable narrator, and Neff may simply have been fantasizing about “getting away with murder” all this time.
Speaking of that narrator – that’s another bit that ultimately got on my nerves. The film comes with a framing device of Neff telling his story into a Dictaphone in Keyes’ office, so many of the scenes come with Neff narrating events in voiceover and commenting on the action. There was time or two when this added a bit of nuance to the scenes, but most of the time the script for the narration got a little…florid, and ultimately it bugged me.
Speaking of Keyes, too – I was pleasantly surprised by Edward G. Robinson in this. I hadn’t actually been all that impressed by his turn in Little Caesar – but that may have been more of a function of the script. He came across as a more interesting character in this film; even when all he was doing in a scene was rattling off dry facts. You’ve heard the common expression about how “[so and so] would be fascinating to watch just reading the phone book” – well, here, Robinson is fascinating just rattling off a list of statistics, in an early scene where he tells his dubious boss that the case he suspects is a suicide very likely isn’t.
Robinson almost didn’t take the role; he’d been a lead in all his films up to this point, and even though he was aging out of most lead roles, he still was trying to hold out for them. But ultimately he realized that he was going to have to transition into character roles eventually, so maybe it was better to do it with a good script after all.
3 thoughts on “Double Indemnity (1944)”
I agree, this is one of the key film noirs. I also think it is one of the best. The acting is spot on and this uncertainty as to what the motives are is such a key noir element.
Having watched My Three Sons as a kid, seeing Fred McMurray in this role was quite a surprise.
Heh; sounds kind of like my reaction to seeing Harry “Colonel Potter” Morgan in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT.