What happens when you get a femme fatale, a life insurance firm, and a detached member of The American Dream? Double Indemnity, of course. Made within the reign of the Hay’s Production Code, Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir is arguably one of the genres finest—a true gem in the catalogue of American film due to its mesmerising script, artful performances and cinematography.
Focusing upon an insurance agent, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) and his quest to finally achieve some sort of cohesive position in society and his life. He seeks the aid of the married, promiscuous Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to help achieve this idea; the only small problem for Neff and Stanwyck is successfully pulling off a profitable murder scam against Phyllis’ husband, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) and the company that Walter works for, as headed by the enigmatic Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes.
The ability to transcend the basic features of film noir at the time of its creation, by rejecting the societal constraints of its time, is paramount to the plaudits of this fundamental piece in modern film history.
Opening the film with the streets of a dark and dirty L.A.—as opposed to the stereotypical New York, Double Indemnity sets out on a path of switching the known formulaic narratives and features of previous film noir films out of the window.
This is not to discount such classics as Public Enemy and Scarface as inferior to Wilder’s piece, but they lack the creative fluidity that is permeating to Double Indemnity. Effectively beginning the film with its ending, Neff is injured by a bullet wound and speaks eloquently into a cylinder recorder about the whole insurance scam, as if he wasn’t slowly loosing blood.
Neff is a charming but broken man whose meaty prey for the menacing and beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson, one of film’s most distinguished femme fatales. Instantly creating a hierarchical relationship between the two twisted lovers, Wilder’s ability to convey a manner of themes and translations in a single shot is unprecedented in most modern film making techniques.
The relationship between Stanwyck and MacMurry is electrifyingly unprecedented—their relationship is witty, charming and alluring, even if Phyllis is always one step ahead of her male counterpart. Acting as a symbol for America’s dominant patriarchal society as well as being Neff’s father figure, Edward G. Robinson delivers one his finest performances, alongside Little Caesar. His quick-talking, articulate Barton Keyes is built to win, and does so.
Nonetheless, Wilder’s direction formats low-key lighting and deep silhouettes into his cinematic framework. The conjuring of this technique is known as chiaroscuro, and is a marvellous joy to behold. If only all films were filmed in black and white, and an hour and a half long.
Double Indemnity truly placed film noir’s importance in American cinema—its thematic exploration of femininities’ vindication and the pursuit of the American Dream positions it towards a contemporary context. Though both Neff and Phyllis are born to lose, it is one hell of a ride.