A Double Indemnity Review: The Noir Classic 75 Years Later

We, fans of the immortal genre and the cultural phenomenon that is film noir, always like to search for patterns and similarities between the films that we watch in hopes of someday finding an absolute definition of noir and cracking the code of this mystery that has enchanted our hearts for decades, and I would say that more often than not, we do succeed. Sure, there is always the element of suspense, the abundance of crimes and heists, the femme fatale that captivates both the protagonist’s heart and ours, the peculiar dim lighting, the witty replies, the long reflective monologues that are swarming with what a private detective or a district attorney would call “fifty-cent words”, the twists and turns of the plot and the inevitability of a climax that is sure to dazzle our minds, but every once in a while, we come upon a film noir that does contain all of these elements and more, but also neglects them completely to create a different and at the same time familiar experience and once again rekindle our love and passion for this beautiful art form. That is Double Indemnity. Formulaic.  Customary. Refreshing.

Double Indemnity is a 1944 film by Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment…) based on a novella by the same name by author James M. Cain, starring Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck as an alluring housewife by the name of Phyllis Dietrichson. Double Indemnity was praised by critics upon release, was nominated for seven Academy awards but didn’t win any, and has held its place as not only one of the most influential film noirs of all time, but also as an important asset in the history of Hollywood, constantly finding its spot in AFI’s best American films lists.

It is the year 1938, Los Angeles is in full and glorious black and white, everybody smokes cigars and uses words like “angel” and “baby” in every other sentence, and people use Dictaphones in offices to record memos. Walter Neff is a 35-year old insurance agent who one days finds his way into Mr. Dietrichson’s house for an insurance renewal only to meet Ms. Dietrichson instead, half-naked,  alluring, flirty and smelling of honeysuckle and raw danger. She informs him that her husband is not at home but that he is definitely interested in the renewal, but also expresses her desire to get her husband an accident insurance without his knowledge, a plan that veteran Niff sees right through and deduces that it is in hopes of killing him and getting the insurance money. Walter Neff confronts Barbara and leaves the house, but that is not their last encounter. The two protagonists fall irretrievably in love with each other and develop the plan together to the point that it is almost perfect, carry it out and almost succeed, but as claims manager Barton Keyes says, “Murder is never perfect”. As the imperfections of their plan begin to unravel and as danger starts to creep in, both Walter and Barbara try to save their necks while other unexpected and rather unwelcome parties enter the play.

As mentioned above, Double Indemnity is both familiar and unexpectedly original, it contains everything that makes noir what it is, but at the same time, it has something of its own, a special ingredient that sets it apart from the rest of the bunch, and what that is exactly, I am not sure as I am sure nobody else is. The film’s method of narration perhaps is what defines it the most, most film noirs follow a strictly methodical linear pattern, the events of the story unfold as the story advances, in one way, no shortcuts, no turns, just straight-ahead, but for Double Indemnity, the story is told as a confession from the protagonist who had just come back from the film’s final and climatic point. This allows for the celebrated monologues of the genre to be both abundant and justified, and provides a different and refreshing take on the usually-fixed method of narration noir utilizes. The story of the film never allows itself to be dull nor predictable; it keeps the viewers on their toes right to the end where it delivers its final and strongest punch and knocks you cold. Perhaps I took the metaphor too far.

But personally, what I love most about film noir, and consequently about Double Indemnity is the incredible and cheesy dialogue, and I’m still wondering how those two words can stand next to each other in one sentence, and if they can do so to describe anything other than noir. Lines like, “I wonder if you wonder”, and, “All wrapped up in tissue paper, with pink ribbons around it”, give me such pleasure and make me smile wide even if I am in midst of an incredibly tense part of the film, and I suspect they may be the reason I love noir in the first place.

Double Indemnity is an iconic movie, an emblem of classic film noir and a masterpiece that has stood the test of time to educate and entertain us 75 years after its first release, from the moment Walter Neff first picks up the Dictaphone to confess and narrate to the point where roles are swapped and Keyes lights Neff’s cigarette instead of having his lit, we are treated to a fine piece of cinema, full of excitement, brilliant dialogue, subtle symbolism and a method of cinematography that fans of the genre will go heads over heels for.


You might also like these articles: