The epitome of film noir, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is still one of the sexiest movies ever made. TCM recently showed the movie in theaters nationwide, as part of their continued partnership with Fathom Events. Host Robert Osborne opened things up by discussing what could have been: predominately a cast with the likes of Alan Ladd or George Raft as our philandering insurance salesman. As it stands now, Double Indemnity is just as risque and intriguing now as it was in 1944.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman for Pacific All-Risk. In trying to close a sale he meets the beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who wants to covertly buy her husband some accident insurance. In collaborating together Walter and Phyllis plan to murder her husband and collect the insurance money. When its discovered Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is set to go on a business trip on a train, the two realize it will trip the double indemnity clause doubling their money. When Walter’s friend and claims manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) starts investigating, the death of Mr. Dietrichson puts Walter and Phyllis in a tight spot.
Double Indemnity is a classic in the film noir genre, right up there with Out of the Past. Where I think this one is better than Out of the Past is in the sexual tension. Every line out of Walter and Phyllis’ mouth is sexual, to the point where my glasses started to fog up! People don’t talk like this anymore, and rewatching this makes you wish we did. Every line drips with sexuality, proving you don’t have to show sex for something to be sexy. From the minute the two are introduced, with Walter giving her a smirk and Phyllis in a towel these two are about thisclose to jumping on each other.
After that, all bets are off as Phyllis uses her feminine wiles to convince Walter to murder her husband. I’m not a huge MacMurray fan, if only because he did such a great job playing a total asshat in The Apartment, so I haven’t trusted him since. Osborne, in the outro, actually touches on MacMurray’s few roles where he played scumbags, of which this was his first. As for Stanwyck, there’s no one better to show the vulnerability, command, and cold cruelty of Phyllis. Oddly enough, four years before this Stanwyck and MacMurray made a sweet Christmas romance called Remember the Night.…that had to be awkward in reteaming for this.
The classic film noir tropes are all established here. The dark lighting, the way the only light tends to be the slits through the Venetian blinds or the light off a match. Phyllis is highly sexual and duplicitous, turning on the waterworks and relying on the dependence of men to make them believe everything is their idea. When Walter realizes he’s been had Phyllis has to remind him “you planned this.”
The element of control is tenuous throughout this entire movie and when you think one person is in control, they’re not. Fate also deals heavily in this movie as throughout there are moments where one thing goes wrong and everything could end badly. After Phyllis and Walter dump Mr. Dietrichson’s body on the tracks the car won’t stop. The fickle finger of Fate playing a cruel trick once again.
This leads me to something I noticed on this viewing; how Walter is continuously surrounded by women! He mentions numerous times that Phyllis pervades his thoughts and women don’t leave the entire movie. There are female secretaries in his office. He meets Phyllis at a grocery store where women are everywhere. He even references Fate, and in classic mythology the Fates are women! This makes his downfall even more bittersweet as it seems to be utterly inescapable.
The acting is all top-notch with Stanwyck continuing to thrive as the two-faced femme fatale! Edward G. Robinson is also good and has a sweet bromance with MacMurray. While I’m not a huge fan of this movie in comparison to others, it’s a staple in one’s film noir education and a damn fine movie.