Review: The Un-Unfilmable - Double Indemnity

Lee L. Lind reviews the "unfilmable" Double Indemnity

With its unprecedented portrayal of infidelity, fraud, and murder, Double Indemnity (1944) helped influence the standards of the American film noir movement. Many believed the risque screenplay based on the 1943 James M. Cain novella to be unfilmable, especially when considering the holier than thou decency laws enforces by The Motion Picture Code at the time. If showcasing an unmoral relationship wasn’t enough, Double Indemnity also dissects the motives of committing murder, which at the time, had never before been done in a motion picture. The edgy plot immediately prompted casting problems. No one wanted to portray the less than favorable characters on screen. It was an understandable dilemma considering it was presented in an era where the good guys always played the good guys, as was the same with the leading ladies. Paramount scored big when director Billy Wilder was able to persuade Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck to star in the leading roles. At the time, the two were the highest paid actor and actress in the business. Both stars were apprehensive about the film, especially MacMurray, who was worried that repercussions from film would hurt his image. After a few screenplay rewrites to appease the Code, Double Indemnity became a game changer for all involved.

The film is gritty, like a cheap hotel on a Sunday morning. The majority is told in flashback, a favorable choice of storytelling during the film noir era. The movie circulates around Walter Neff (MacMurray), a successful insurance salesman with a rough edged charm. During a house call he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), an infatuating hot dame stuck in an ice cold marriage. The two playfully flirt, and Ness struggles to cool his desires that burn hotter than all the stars above the L.A. skyline. And then Dietrichson pops the question: "Is it possible for me to open an accidental death policy on my husband without him knowing it?" 

MacMurray and Stanwyck’s steamy on screen chemistry adds an intimacy to their performance that no doubt left many uncomfortable in the theater. Stanwyck would earn a Best Actress nomination for her efforts. Double Indemnity put many of the soon to be known film noir elements to good use. Techniques like dark framing, venetian blind lighting, and silhouettes all add an alluring essence of mystery. It gives the audience just enough to comprehend what's going on. It’s much like driving down a dark road at night. One can only wonder what goes on in the shadows beyond the light. The film tip toes a tightrope of suspense, further enhanced by Miklós Rózsa’s tension building score

Double Indemnity was an immediate hit. No one had ever seen anything like it before. Audiences praised it’s mature subject matter and realistic portrayal. Although they’re were a few who found offense with the film. Singer Kate Smith briefly lead a campaign against the movie, but failed at her attempt of being a moralistic crusader when her self righteousness backfired in her face. The fuss she caused actually helped to promote the film. Overall Double Indemnity would receive an impressive 7 Academy Award nominations, but would go home empty handed, resulting in the first big multi-nominated award snub in Oscar history. As the ceremony wained on, director Billy Wilder was
"This is the worst peep show I've ever seen."
physically annoyed. When fellow Paramount filmmaker Leo McCarey was announced as Best Director for his film Going My Way, Wilder (taking advantage of his aisle seat) took out his frustration by sticking out his foot and tripping McCarey as he made his way to the stage to accept his award. Afterwards, while waiting for his limousine after the ceremony, Wilder voiced his displeasure, shouting out “What the hell does the Academy Award mean, for God’s sake?”

With Wilder’s stylistic approach, and a script that pushed the envelope of on-screen decency, Double Indemnity was the trailblazer that inspired many of the great crime dramas to follow. MacMurray and Stanwyck’s performance gave the term “actor” a new dimension, inspiring others in Hollywood to explore diverse and challenging roles. Most importantly, it helped ignite one of the most exciting and admired eras in film making. Wilder would eventually win the Best Director Oscar for his film’s The Lost Weekend and The Apartment. Yet his influences in the film noir movement have proven to be an equally admirable contribution to cinema, one that will outlast any dust covered golden statuette of recognition. 


- Lee L. Lind