April 21, 2016

Double Indemnity (1944)
Grade: 90/100

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

What it's about. A black and white film noir from Hollywood's golden age. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an experienced insurance salesman. Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is Walter's coworker and friend. He is also a relentless claims investigator.

Walter, a bachelor, visits the home of wealthy but ill-tempered businessman Dietrichson (Tom Powers) to secure an auto insurance renewal. Instead, Walter meets Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), Mr. Dietrichson's scheming wife. She wants to take out an accident policy on her husband. Before long, Walter and Phyllis begin an affair and plot to kill the hapless Dietrichson to collect on his new policy.

The plan involves Walter strangling Dietrichson in his car. Walter then boards a train, impersonating Dietrichson, and jumps from the slow-moving train from the observation deck at a pre-determined location. There, Phyllis awaits in the car with the corpse, which is placed on the railroad tracks.

At first, the smug Walter thinks he will get away with his crime, an impossibility during the Production Code era. But Keyes gradually deduces what has happened, closing in on Stanwyck, and thus MacMurray. Meanwhile, complications arise when Phyllis' hottie daughter-in-law Lola (Jean Heather) and her malcontent boyfriend Nino (Byron Barr) respectively begin dating Walter and Phyllis!

MacMurray and Stanwyck earlier played lovers in Remember the Night (1940), an equally implausible but more happily ending effort.

How others will see it. Double Indemnity enjoyed critical praise from the beginning, and was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography. It lost in all categories, mostly to the crowd-pleaser Going My Way, coincidentally the only other notable film in the short career of ingenue Jean Heather.

The film's reputation has only improved with time. It was added to the prestigious National Film Registry in its fourth year. At imdb.com, it has an unexpectedly large 95K user votes, and a lofty user rating of 8.4. Women over 45, my favorite demographic, place it even higher at 8.7 (out of 10).

Most everybody loves the film. Even the complaints about Stanwyck's blonde wig are meant as an aside. Most recognize that the heavy smoking by the characters, which would be highly unusual today, was nearly requisite for a 1940s film noir.

How I felt about it. Billy Wilder is often mentioned as one of the greatest film directors of all time. I am unconvinced by his later movies, although many (e.g. The Apartment, Some Like It Hot) are highly regarded by others. In my opinion, his only two outstanding films were made consecutively early in his career as a director (Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend). He also had a good four-film run (A Foreign Affair, Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17) a few years later.

Although Stanwyck got the most mileage from this movie, we like Edward G. Robinson as the irascible claims adjuster. It's true that any leading man could play MacMurray's role, but he was certainly a reliable actor.

As far as the plot goes, it seems difficult to believe that grouchy and ugly fifty-something Dietrichson has a beautiful teenage daughter, and it is curious she is dating Nino when he is ill-mannered and appears to dislike her. While Walter is on the train, he doesn't attempt to disguise his deep voice to more closely match the nasal Dietrichson, and the height difference provides another problem.

We also wonder why Walter tells Stanwyck that he is going to kill her and frame her lover for the crime, then turns his back on her. Not a wise move. Even dumber is to head for the office and leave incriminating voice mail for Keyes. Better to apply pressure to the wound and go to a clinic as a "victim of road rage."

At least some of these plot difficulties can be blamed on the Production Code, which ensured that both Phyllis and Walter would pay for their crimes. On the whole, it remains a gripping crime drama with crackling dialogue and A-list actors.