Written by: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall
The best-laid plans do not always yield the desired results, especially when lust and money get involved. These two factors can mess everything up and also serve as a catalyst for plenty of unsavory behavior. The man we follow in Double Indemnity falls into the whirlwind of a romance and finds himself in a precarious situation where it comes with high risk but a potentially delectable reward.
Achieving plenty of success as an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) attempts to renew the policy for one of his clients when he meets his alluring wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyk). After sharing the affections they have amassed for each other, they concoct a plan to manufacture an accidental insurance policy for her husband and then kill him off in order to receive the payout and live out their days together.
Opening with an exhausted Walter Neff outlining his confession sets the stage for realizing Double Indemnity will not have a happy ending. As he states, he did not get the money or the girl, which makes sense for the actions they decide to partake in for a cash payout. This recorded confession then leads us through the story to learn how this affair began and exactly what went so wrong in the process. Right away, the difference in appearance between Walter at the opening scene and the flashback to when this whole ordeal began shows he’s in for quite the experience.
From the onset, this film begins to show its greatness through its dialogue, as it pans to a discussion between Fred and co-worker Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The snappy dialogue establishes the profession of these two as insurance workers and how they calculate what will most likely benefit the company. However, the key distinction between them lies in what they specifically do with the profession with Walter being a salesman and Keyes being responsible for the claims and detecting if they contain any fraud. They represent two different sectors within the profession with Walter being the sleazy side where deception and smooth-talking get you ahead and then the strident side focused on detecting any shady dealings. They work as respected colleagues, but things get complicated when Walter meets Phyllis.
Her introduction to the story will forever remain iconic because of the salaciousness of the time. Walter enters the house looking for her husband, who owns the insurance policies and Phyllis appears at the top of the steps in nothing but a towel. For this time, this equaled erotica in displaying a woman with little clothing, especially in front of a stranger she does not know. It says plenty about Phyllis as she did not display any shyness or abrasiveness when realizing she’s only in a towel in front of this man she has never met. She proves to be a different kind of woman, one who can get whatever she wants. Their conversion begins with Water expressing plenty of interest in this married woman and she mentions the possibility of setting up accident insurance for her husband seeing as he works in the oil industry. The first inkling of something more sinister and she caught Walter right in her web.
The tension built in Double Indemnity perfectly simmers throughout because Phyllis can never truly be trusted, which is made plainly clear to the audience, but Walter cannot see through it because he has something else on his mind. With all of his years working in insurance, he knows better when someone like Phyllis wants to put a policy on their spouse secretly, but his affections and lust for her create a mirage where he cannot think straight. Love or delirious love might be a reason to go through with it but there are moments where Phyllis exclaims that she loves him where he does not return the phrase back to her. It’s all about lust and the possibility to pull one over on those in his own industry. Phyllis does have some influence but he did not need much of a nudge to dive into this plot mercilessly.
So many scenes stand out to establish the mood and the detail-oriented structure of the story matches this idea. As Walter continues his confession as a voice-over for the rest of the film, he remembers everything in spectacular detail and the production design assisted in it. Nothing ever looks out of place, from the grocery store to the offices. Having this level of detail serves the function of telling the complete story, but it also displays how well Walter took everything in and how easily he could remember every particular detail happening around him as some sort of insurance policy. See what I did there? Plenty of images from this film have retained their iconic status like when Phyllis stands on the other side of the door as Keyes exits Walter’s apartment or when the lovers stand side by side in the grocery store looking at all onlookers as enemies. This whole experience gets defined by the untrustworthy feelings these characters have for those around them and eventually those suspicions get turned towards each other.
The acting duo of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck work splendidly together in this noir feature. Stanwyck always put in earth-shattering performances during her prime, but this may be the best of them all. As the femme fatale with her piercing blonde hair, she utilizes her appeal to form a character someone like Walter would get lost in trying to please. She takes the dialogue provided to her and uses each word sound more alluring than the last. Stanwyck used her sexuality to the extent it was possible in this time whether it be the towel scene or any instance where she continues to spin this web around Walter. A true screen legend at the height of her powers and she commanded the screen each time she appeared.
Scanning the filmography of Billy Wilder shows a director with such incredible range, especially when comparing this masterpiece with Some Like it Hot. From hilariously comedic to tension-filled dread, Wilder had it all. What he crafts in Double Indemnity is a spiraling journey of dismay where the audience gets wrapped into it all. Phyllis traps Walter in her web but she does the same with the onlookers watching this all unfold. Wilder always worked beyond his years and he makes it clear as the story progresses that while Phyllis may have been the catalyst for the actions of Walter, he only really needed a nudge and he was capable of doing some heinous things. So who really is the villain in all of this?
By far the greatest noir film ever made and a story to continually revisit for its small details, Double Indemnity takes us down the rabbit hole of insurance lingo and a game of deceit. It all gets wrapped into a downward spiral for a man who got involved in the wrong situation that ended up activating his darkest impulses. Money and lust have the potential to do that to anyone, which typically makes noir films so darn entertaining to watch and this masterpiece happens to be their apex as a genre.