“It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. “
Its been many years since film noir was the popular genre of film in Hollywood. There was once a time when nonlinear, dark, and convoluted detective films were very popular. Among these popular films was Double Indemnity(1944) which was directed by Billy Wilder. Double Indemnity was what critics have considered the best of film noir as it laid down many of the rules and structures such as the dying protagonist, the mysterious and seductive lead woman, the non-linear plot structure, and the very distinct lighting patterns. The film is certainly what many would consider a classic. Looking back one may wonder just how well Indemnity holds up in modern times. Does the movie still hold up under the scrutiny of a modern film goers?
Double Indemnity begins by showing us Walter Neff(Fred MacMurray) as he pulls into his insurance company. As he exits the car we see that he is wounded and there at an odd hour of the night. After he gets into the building he begins recording a message for his employer Keyes(Edward G. Robinson). The film then begins following the story that Neff is telling. We see that he is asked to look into a case concerning a woman named Phyllis Dietrichson(Barbara Stanwyck) who was simply making a call about automobile insurance. The two begin talking and some type of romance develops almost right away. After a few trips to her house Neff falls for Phyllis and they begin to plot as to how they can get rid of her very wealthy husband and make a profit from his death. The two come up with a very complex scheme to get rid of him after taking out a claim on his life insurance. The ploy seems to go well until the investigators begin to see inconsistencies in the death of Mr. Dietrichson. Eventually his daughter Lola(Jean Heather) begins to play a role in the investigation and Neff becomes nervous and tries to keep his scheme straight. Eventually Neff’s boss Keyes gets involved and the entire mystery begins to fall apart. By the end of the film we find out that Phyllis has been playing everyone from the beginning as she plans to murder Neff and run with the money. Eventually Neff’s story catches up with the present and the entire lie is revealed. The movie has a very dramatic conclusion that leaves the protagonist Neff in a very sad spot.
The story in the film is certainly one that follows one of film noir but I think the more important thing to notice at least in the case of this analysis is how well the story holds up today. Surprisingly I believe that the story actually holds up rather well. It is a pretty tight story with very few noticeable holes and the nonlinear story line actually gives the story a more fascinating pace. The story never becomes too slow(although modern film goers may disagree) as something is always happening whether it be the characters developing or the dialog intriguing. The story is intricate and has some ambiguity to it which gives it a certain amount of rewatchability that many films from this time period fail to obtain. The characters are actually far more interesting than one would think. Neff may be the lead character and seeing his corruption and redemption is certainly interesting, but the character I found most interesting was actually Phyllis who was very well played by Barbra Stanwyck. What I found most interesting about this performance was how seductive and meanipulative she clearly was yet she never seemed to be the master manipulator and killer that she ends up being. In the end this reality is believable because of the many layers that Stanwyck gives to the character. When we meet her she is seductive and in other scenes she is clearly manipulative which actually builds to the revelation that she is a killer without giving it away. This must have been a fairly complex role for Stanwyck to play because she had to play many different facets while staying grounded to the core character. The other performance that I found most enticing was the performance of Keys by Edward Robinson. Robinson delievered a very fast and intelligent character who would not settle with half truths. The way in which Robinson performs the character is not only fun to watch, but also builds intensity to the film as Keyes is constantly trying to figure out the mystery that Neff left for him.
Billy Wilder directed this movie and I believe that he did a great job as he brings some great cinematography and some terrific lighting effects to the film. In the scene above we can see how the lighting affects the mood of the scene. The scene is very dark and there is very little light on the characters aside from the moonlight that shines on Neff as he closes the blinds before getting shot. The scene is essentially where the crap hits the fan and Phyllis plans to kill Neff before running away. This is only one example of how the lighting is used in the movie to create a particular mood. Nearly every scene in the movie uses some type of lighting effect like this and I believe that this does more for this film than having color ever could have. The black, white, and grey color the ideas, themes, and mood of the movie more than any color ever could because of the type of story Wilder was trying to tell. Aside from Wilder’s directing I have to say that the writing in this movie was very exceptional because of how it delivered fast, snappy, and overall colorful dialog that painted the scene and the characters in a very ambiguous way. There was actually one point in the movie that Neff and Phyllis have a conversation that left little to the imagination as to the sexual relationship the two were having despite the fact that it was never shown on camera. The writing was an essential part of the film as this movie is a dialog and character driven film verses an event driven film.
Overall I think that Double Indemnity uses many techniques that have been long forgotten in modern film making that are still as effective as ever. The film leaves just enough to the imagination while still giving the audience a complete movie to watch with few holes in the story. If there is any major flaw in the film I will say that it lies in the development of the characters other than the two leads. The audience knows all about Phyllis and Neff by the time the movie ends but there are a couple of characters like Lola, Nino, or Keyes that you can’t help but wish had had more screen time to develop. I suppose in the end the movie really isn’t about them which is why so little time was spent on them. Another complaint I could make is the ending which is fairly anti-climatic. The movie never really gives us a chance to have any doubt as to whether or not Neff would die at the end of the film. These complaints aside I believe that the movie is very well directed, greatly acted, and masterfully written even by today’s modern standards in film. Does Double Indemnity hold up to modern standards? I can gladly give a resounding “yes!”.
Double Indemnity is an intricatly written story told in a non-linear fashion which gives it an extra layer of depth. While the story is nothing exceptionally unique in film noir it is still a story that holds up better than many films from the same genre. The story has a healthy pacing and ends with a cool twist and a sad fate to most of the characters involved.
The lead cast all deliver great performances for some very well written characters. Barbra Stanwyck does an especially exceptional job by delivering a terrific performance of a very layered and complex character. The characters are all well written with Keyes being the most entertaining character to watch and Neff the most dynamic character to see. The only real weakness in this category is that there are several interesting but underdeveloped characters.
The directing is exceptional because Billy Wilder uses cinematography and lighting to do some very unique things with the mood and the setting. The lighting gives the movie such color without having to be extremely expressive while some of the camera shots in the movie make some of the characters seem even more ambiguous than they were already written.
Overall Effectivness of the Movie: 9.0
Double Indemnity is a film noir and as a film in that genre it exceeds many other films. It delivers on everything a noir is supposed to; suspense,ambiguity, mystery, and even a dark mood to the story. While I would say it does does nothing to change the genre it is is it manages to be exceptional at telling this type of story.
Overall Score: 9