Double Indemnity (1944): Billy Wilder’s Film Noir–First Masterpiece

Billy Wilder’s first masterpiece, “Double Indemnity” is a seminal work in film noir, demonstrating vividly all the thematic and visual elements that characterize this uniquely American brand (and genre) of filmmaking.




Based on the notorious Snyder-Gray case of 1927, “Double Indemnity” is both a starkly realistic in its exteriors and carefully stylized in its interiors. On his first studio assignment, author-screenwriter Raymond Chandler peppered the dialogue from the original novel by James Cain, who was unavailable to do his own adaptation, while adding his distinctive brand of hardboiled cynicism

Told in a long, interrupted flashback, the macabre story begins at present with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), bleeding from a bullet wound on his left shoulder, staggering into his office building and beginning to talk into his dictating machine. It’s July 16, 1938, Los Angeles.

In flashback, we go back to the spring when the saga begins. We learn that Walter is a 35-year-old insurance salesman who becomes involved with the sleek and greedy Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Phyllis convinces Walter to help her take out a life insurance policy on her older husband, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers), without his knowledge, and then help her murder him in order to collect the double indemnity.

Staging an unlikely accident in order to qualify for the “double indemnity” clause in the contract, the deadly duo must face harsh-as-nails but also human claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose instinct tells him that there’s something suspiciously wrong about the case, first framed as an accident.

Sorely tested, Walter and Phyllis’ faith in their story and in each other begins to decline, as new kind of evidence about Phyllis’ murderous past is brought the surface by her resentful stepdaughter Lola Dietrichson(Jean Heathers), who had witnessed the merciless death of her mother while Phyllis was her nurse.

Also brought into the picture is Nino Zachette (Byron Barr), Lola’s boyfriend, who may or may not be Phyllis’s lover and accomplice in a new murderous scheme. Walter and Phyllis square off in a fatal game of cat and mouse that leads to a deadly shootout in Phyllis’ house, with one of the best final dialogues between lovers written in film noir.

The entire dialogue is brilliant and replete of memorable (and quotable lines) that space doesn’t permit me to describe. Take, for example, the scene in which Phyllis and Walter engage in flirting by using the metaphor of a speeding motorist.

Ace composer Miklos Rozsa, a specialist of noir, contributes a typically edgy score and John Seitz’s black-and-white cinematography makes great use of such noir devices as sharp camera angles (low and high), heavy shadows against dark walls, and lights slatted by Venetian blinds.

All the elements of the film gell, and Billy Wilder’s typically detached and stylized direction fits this sinister story like a silk glove. As helmer, Wilder also deserves credit for coaxing three riveting performances that represent the very best of their respective players” Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Robinson. Indeed, it is the three central actors that lend the tautly constricted and staged thriller the cold bite and propulsive energy to make “Double Indemnity” a compelling crime classic that has easily withstood the test of time.

Stanwyck, in a deliberately phony blond wig and cheap-looking wardrobe, remade her career with her striking portrayal of the ultimate icy femme fatale, an immoral and amoral black widow whose boredom and desire fuel a plot of murder and intrigue. “Rotten to the heart,” as she describes herself, Phyllis is one of the most misogyunist protagonists in American film, way ahead of the times.

Though not a first choice for the role (George Raft was first contacted), Fred MacMurray, in a great change of pace, gives the best performance of his career as the shifty loner fall guy, who gets excited by the challenge and the deadly dame’s anklet and has to pay the consequences for that.

As protagonist and the film’s narrator, Neff the story of his transformation and demise. “Double Indemnity” is about a man’s obsession with shaping a woman’s desire, and his slow realization that he had never been able to do so.

The movie depicts a remarkable shift in the status of the hero, Neff, an insurance salesman, who goes from a self-confident aggressor at the beginning of the film to a confused victim of Phyllis at the end.

Yet at the end he rdeems himself, not only reasserting his belief in romantic love by sending Nino back to Lola, but also by asking Keyes to tell the innocent Lola of his misconduct
before the news breaks out publicly.

Edward G. Robinson, in one of his first character roles, after a long career as a lead man, shines as the only sympathetic character, a father-boss figure to Walter, who gives the film its heart. He delivery of Keyes’ speech about death statistics, rattled off at top speed, is one of the film’s-and Hollywood’s–highlights.

“Double Indemnity” is arguably the first film that unapologetically played noir for what it was–small time, unredeemed, unheroic, deadly, and macabre. As such, it differs from other noir of the era, such as the romantic noir “Mildred Pierce,” also based on Cain’s novel, and “The Big Sleep,” scripted by Raymond Chandler.

The movie was poorly remade for TV twice, in 1954 and in 1973, with Richard Crenna in the MacMurray role.

Made during WWII, “Double Indemnity” was critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated in seven categories, including Best Picture, but the Academy opted for more conventional and schmaltzy fare like the Bing Crosby melodrama, “Going My Way.”

Oscar Alert

Oscar nominations: 7

Director: Billy Wilder
Actress: Barbara Stanwyck
Screenplay (adapted): Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Cinematography: John Seitz
Score: Miklos Rozsa
Sound recording: Loren Ryder

Auteur Alert

Directed by Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity as film noir is perhaps the most ironic of all movie genres. Wilder explores in many of his films themes of impersonation, deception, especially emotional. Some of the many great films Wilder has directed are: The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960).