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Double Indemnity
Double Indemnity
Reviewer: Richard Tara
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall

One of the first American Film Noirs. This movie directed by Billy Wilder set the tone and the bar for many other moviemakers and directors. In the annals of movies, this one movie made a great impact because of the unlikely story, the characters that played them and how it ended. Billy Wilder one of Hollywood’s genuine greats directed this candid American Film Noir in 1944. The title comes from the life insurance industry where accidental death of an insured will double the amount of insurance payout.

The story is as follows:
A dumb ass, slimy insurance agent, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), meets a seductive (not necessarily beautiful) girl Phyllis Dietrichson played by Barbara Stanwyck, while trying to sell an insurance policy. He falls for her. From his point of view, it is a fling but Phyllis seems much more genuine in her feelings. Phyllis eventually persuades Walter to become an accomplice in the murder of her husband. Walter reluctantly writes a life insurance policy with the Double Indemnity feature for Mr. Dietrichson. Phyllis plans the murder and eventually Mr. Dietrichson is murdered and his body is dumped on the train tracks.

Initially, the insurance company is willing to settle the case and pay Phyllis the money. But, and this would not be a Film Noir if there was not a “BUT” in it, there is a problem here. That problem is Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson.) Barton Keyes is the insurance company’s claims adjuster and a man Walter looks up to. A claims adjuster has to figure out if the claim is valid. Barton, a lifelong bachelor, breathes and lives insurance and can smell a phony claim a mile off. He has seen all kinds of scams, frauds and swindles. He is also very fond of Walter and thinks of him as a protégé or even a son that he never had. One look at Phyllis and Barton smells a rat. Foolishly, Barton confides to Walter his feelings and Walter in turn warns Phyllis to be careful.

Walter is worried and scared. His problems multiply when Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heathers), from a previous marriage, approaches him and tells him about her suspicions. Apparently, Phyllis was her mother’s nurse and she died under mysterious circumstances. Walter, while a weakling, is a decent man, and is now scared that Phyllis will try to kill the daughter also. That is when he gets a backbone and tries to do the right thing.

This story was based on the actual story of Ruth Snyder and her boyfriend Judd Gray, who murdered her husband for the insurance money. In their case, Ruth tried seven times to kill her husband before finally succeeding. However, she and her lover ended up in the electric chair. The ending of this movie is quite different though. Screenplay was by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder from the book by James Cain. And if you are wondering why this movie and “ The Postman Always Rings Twice” have similar themes, it is because James Cain based both stories on the same event.

Fred MacMurray was short on talent and long on luck. He always played the same even-tempered man and yet he became a big success in movies and later on television. During an interview, in later years, Billy Wilder confided that he cast a reluctant Fred MacMurray against part. Fred was a comedian up to that point. Billy Wilder recalled that when he offered the role to him, Fred balked at the idea by saying that he was just a comedian. Billy Wilder’s response was “you better learn to act.” And, it worked. Barbara Stanwyck as the seductive woman is wonderfully sleazy and cheap. We sense that from the first moment we see her coming down the stairs wearing a cheap anklet, which in those days were worn mostly by prostitutes and loose women. I would cast my vote for Edward G. Robinson, one of the best actors Hollywood ever produced. A small man but what a talent! He played roles as far apart as a gangster in Brother Orchid to Moses’s antagonist, Dathan, in the Ten Commandments. One of the most memorable lines of the movie is when he tells Fred about partnership in crime and how when two people commit a murder together, they are in it for the rest of their lives, like being on a tramline where once you get on you have to be together to the end of the line (graveyard.)

This movie was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. A must see movie before you die! 4 stars, can’t be better.