FILM ARTICLE: Double Indemnity

By Rob Nixon

Walter Neff is the top salesman at his Los Angeles insurance company, and his close friend, an expert claims investigator named Barton Keyes, wants him to work in his department. But although the two have a bantering, easy-going friendship, Neff decides to stay with his sales job. One day, while making a routine call on an auto insurance client, he meets the client's sexy blonde wife, Phyllis. Although she appears to be subtly seducing him, she coldly rebuffs his advances and sends him on his way. Soon after, however, she invites him to come by her house and discuss additional coverage for her husband. When he arrives, he finds Phyllis alone - no husband and no maid. Their mutual attraction quickly graduates to undisguised lust and before Neff knows it, Phyllis convinces him to sell her additional accident insurance for her husband (without the man's knowledge). It's just the first step in their mutual plan to murder Phyllis' husband and collect on a double indemnity clause in the insurance contract.

Cold-blooded, brutal, highly stylized, and informed with a black sense of humor, Double Indemnity is one of the high points of 1940s filmmaking and a prime example of a genre and style that remains highly influential in its look, attitude and story line. Critics have argued whether or not this movie can be considered the first film noir thriller, but it undoubtedly set the pattern for that distinctive post-war genre: a shadowy, nighttime urban world of deception and betrayal usually distinguished by its "hard-boiled" dialogue, corrupt characters and the obligatory femme fatale who preys on the primal urges of an ordinary Joe hungry for sex and easy wealth.

Edward G. Robinson, best known as the megalomaniac gangster in Little Caesar (1930), was no stranger to playing characters on the wrong side of the law, but in Double Indemnity he plays the lethal lovers' nemesis, Barton Keyes, a shrewd investigator who can smell a phony insurance claim a mile away. The film places the three leads in an unconventional love triangle - Neff lights Keyes' smokes more often and more affectionately than he does Phyllis' cigarettes, and he tells the other man "I love you" at least as much. At the end, it's Keyes who kneels by the fallen Neff, in what Bernard F. Dick, in his book Billy Wilder (Twayne, 1980), calls "one of the most powerful images of male love ever portrayed on the screen: a pieta in the form of a surrogate father's lighting the cigarette of his dying son." It's the most tender moment in an otherwise hard-as-steel story.

Although Barbara Stanwyck played heavies before, she had never been cast as an out-and-out murderess. She was afraid of the role, she told Wilder. "Well, are you a mouse or an actress?" he replied - just the sort of remark to get the desired reaction from Stanwyck. Never one to back down from an acting challenge, she took the part and turned it into one of her best. Known for her easy-going, non-temperamental, and thoroughly professional approach to acting, Stanwyck worked well with Wilder. "She is as good an actress as I have ever worked with," he later said. "Very meticulous about her work. We rehearsed the way I usually do. Hard. There were no retakes." Indeed, Stanwyck was beloved by many directors, actors and technicians in the business. Probably the only negative comment to emerge about her performance in Double Indemnity has nothing to do with her acting; some critics complained about the fake blonde wig she was required to wear as Phyllis. True, it does add to the character's flashy nature and insincere manner, but as one Paramount executive said after viewing early rushes, "We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington."

Casting Walter Neff wasn't so easy. At first Wilder tried to interest Alan Ladd, then George Raft. After the director told Raft the story, the actor asked him, "Where's the lapel?" Lapel? Raft explained he was waiting for the moment when Neff would flip over his lapel and reveal the police or FBI badge underneath, thus identifying himself as the film's true hero in the final reel. No lapel, Wilder said. No deal, Raft replied. Then Wilder came up with the idea of using Fred MacMurray, who had a much more genial screen image at the time. "I'm a saxophone player; I do little comedies with Carole Lombard," MacMurray argued. Wilder eventually convinced the actor to take a bold step. Years later, MacMurray would look back on Walter Neff as his favorite role.

Double Indemnity was both a popular and critical success upon its release. It also caught the attention of Hollywood at Oscar® time, winning eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Dramatic Score.

SOURCE: Turner Movie Classics