Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity: The Imperfect Murder

1938: A young insurance salesman going by the name of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) meets the enchanting wife of one his clients, a one Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). One thing leads to another and an affair ensues. She proposes that they kill her husband to receive the money from an accident insurance policy. Walter makes plans to double their takings based on the double indemnity clause. When Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is found dead on a traintrack, the police pass it off as an accident. Yet, Walter’s business partner Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) does not buy this “accidental death” and thinks that Phyllis killed her husband with the help of another man.

Even today, with modern dramas that follow homicides, finding out “who dunnit” at the beginning is virtually unheard of. Yet, in Double Indemnity, it is highly effective in the way the story is told and allows viewers to focus their attention on other bits of the story. Perhaps this was the intention when Billy Wilder (The Apartment) pitched it to Paramount. Rather than trying to find out who committed the crime, we are more interested in how it was executed and what mistakes were made in what seemingly looked like a perfect murder. We’re also forced to take an interest in how Keyes came to his conclusion and what kind of guy Neff is, and whether we should at all feel bad for him.

The MacMurray-Stanwyck double act in Billy Wilder’s film is really great, truly a tour de force
(Double Indemnity, Paramount Pictures)

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis reminds me very much of Blanche (Vivien Leigh) in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. They’re both cold and ruthless manipulators of men. They have no conscience when it comes to toying with other people’s lives. It just so happens that in Double Indemnity, that included death as well. Both characters are “femme fatale” who use their attractiveness and emotional detachment to get someone into a scheme, almost always a man ready to be tainted by the thrills of a love affair. The woman always benefits more than the man, and he almost always ends up dead which is normally the case all too often for the woman too.

Stanwyck and MacMurray are magnetic. Not only to each other, but to the audience too. It’s one of the most authentic portrayals of a relationship I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. They’re both mutually calculating which is why I can now see why Frank (Spacey) and Claire (Wright) recited a scene from the movie in season five of House of Cards. Yet, their interactions are often too perfect, too calculated to the point that it makes you predict that they will betray each other. Both of them plan everything, even down to small conversations with each other. And this ultimately presents to us that both Walter and Phyllis are as sinister as the double indemnity clause in the insurance policy.

There’s no affair as toxic as one that sprouted from one’s desire to kill their spouse for money
(Double Indemnity, Paramount Pictures)

“I liked the way that anklet bit into her leg. I wanted to see her again, up close, without that silly staircase between us” says Neff. We all know insurance salesman along traffic wardens, politicians and lawyers have been labelled as crafty bloodsuckers. Sometimes, snake is a word attached to them. But Walter Neff takes this too new heights. And this is Fred MacMurray in the role. He was a man known for doing light comedies and coming into film noir was a risk. But he’s edgy, sharp and immoral. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing and he manages to hide it well from everyone, including his boss (Robinson). And Stanwyck made ‘The Bad Girl’ role in films to come, not just in film noir.

Based on the novel of the same name by James Cain (Mildred Pierce) and directed by Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend), Double Indemnity works because it’s a story ordinary people can see themselves in. A materialistic woman is trapped in a loveless / bad marriage who jumps on an opportunity when it presents itself. They say “men only have one thing on their minds” and Walter Neff is an embodiment of that. He’s in love with her and is only thinking about sex. Phyllis exploits his infatuation and turns the dial up to one thousand. When it comes to her, he thinks with emotion. And when it comes to crime stories, it’s acts of feeling that allow the culprits to lose their resolve.

Double Indemnity has to be one of the best-acted films I’ve ever seen, truly impeccable performances
(Double Indemnity, Paramount Pictures)

From the acting to the cinematography to the direction to the general look of the film, this picture gave me chills throughout. With seven Oscar-nominations to its name including Best Picture and Best Actress for Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ticks all right boxes and should be on every film fan’s radar if they have not seen it already.

When Barbara met Fred, a match made in murder; and it’s fantastic