Double Indemnity 1944

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as co-murderers in Billy Wilder's noir classic Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity on screen again

That Ankle Bracelet

Fred MacMurray may be the co-star of Double Indemnity, but he carries the load of most of the screen time as director Billy Wilder sets him up not just as the planner of a murder (and the planned for patsy for the murder by real mastermind Barbara Stanwyck), but MacMurray is also working double-time as the film narrator, explaining the sordid tale into a dictaphone for the benefit of his insurance company pal Edward G Robinson (as Barton Keyes) the one thing he loves as much as Stanwyck's interesting ankle bracelet.

As the movie progresses, MacMurray passes from bad to worse as he is slowly bleeding to death while unraveling the plot for Keyes (and the audience) with continuous flashbacks showing how he fell in with Barbara Stanwyck (as harmless housewife Phyllis Dietrichson) and the two concocted a way to kill off her annoying husband (Tom Powers as Mr. Dietrichson) and to get $100,000 in the process by insuring their victim with a double indemnity accidental death insurance policy.

She only dresses in white

Wilder modulates the film from the beginning to end, which starts with the wise-cracking and confident MacMurray thoughtlessly pursuing Stanwyck because he thinks he's in control, right up to the end when it's clear she played him like a musical instrument, and he was far from in control the whole time, except for the moment in which he shoots her dead.

Stanwyck presents Phyllis Dietrichson as a run of the mill suburban adulterer but this gets softened into a mini-story about a victimized and aimless woman denied a real home and alienated from the family she married into after the death of Mr. Dietrichson's first wife. Besides corralling all of Walter Neff's lust (MacMurray's character) she also plays on his sympathies, selling the idea that husband Dietrichson kind of deserves what they've got in store for him. But as Neff moves through the motions of the murder plan (which he foolishly thinks is all his idea) he discovers Mrs. Dietrichson has not only killed before, but that the uncertainty he feels afterward is turning into fear about not just ending up in the gas chamber for the crime, but whether he can even survive his association with Phyllis at all.

Inspector Keyes

Edward G. Robinson has the third place supporting role, but he jazzes up Wilder's scenes with his energy, rapid-fire delivery and plenty of funny, acerbic lines from Wilder's (and Raymond Chandler's) script of the James Cain novel.

Robinson's insurance inspector Barton Keyes is also the heart of the tale, as he isn't at Pacific All Risk Insurance Co., to sell insurance (like Neff), but his job is to discover and judge the moral state of the people who pass through his office as they seek to adjudicate their insurance claims. Keyes is an honest person up against a steady supply of fraudsters (including his own corporate boss) and he needs trustworthy help. He tries to woo MacMurray's character to join his crusade for justice by leaving lucrative sales and coming into his office as an assistant, not realizing that at the same time he is trying to recruit MacMurray, Phyllis Dietrichson is enlisting Neff for the forces of darkness. Neff might admire and love Barton Keyes, but Phyllis has an ankle bracelet.

Right down the line

The movie has many small details important to the story, and that ankle bracelet is the first item that conceive's Neff's path to homicide, lust turning into a plan and then into murder. But that's not where the path ends. As is stated several times in the film from two different sides, Stanwyck tells Neff repeatedly that they are together "right down to the end of the line." But inspector Keyes, theorizing out loud to Neff about how murderers operate (and completely unaware that the man closest to his heart is in fact the killer he suspects has pulled off an insurance scam), tells him that this path only ends with the plotters in the cemetery.

What Keyes will eventually tell Neff is the judgment from the story itself, that for awhile it seemed like Neff was smarter and better than the other insurance salesmen, but in the end he "was only taller."

Remastered Double Indemnity

In conjunction with the 70th anniversary release of the remastered bluray/DVD version of Double Indemnity, Fathom Events and TCM put Billy Wilder's 1944 murder-noir opus out in American theatres for two days of showings on July 19 and 20, 2015.

The picture quality is excellent, with nary signs of scratches, dirt, etc., though the images show a bit of flattening, apparently from some form of filtering (looks like similar to the pixelate filter from Adobe Photoshop). Other than that, image and sound is nice and clear and the balance of dark and light (and there's a lot of dark in this film) is very good throughout.

Details enlarged

When seeing a film on a large theatre screen after only viewing it prior in home video releases or in broadcast on TV screens, some things stand out which were hard to see before. For example the Hollywood Bowl scene, where Fred MacMurray takes Jean Heather on a date, it is more obvious than ever that there is a process film of a Hollywood Bowl performance projected into the background while MacMurray and Heather chew over the fat and deepen the sense of guilt MacMurray has growing inside him (incidentally, the moody music playing in this scene is Schubert Symphony no 8, also used in the Bela Lugosi Dracula. Both that film and Double Indemnity show off the trouble with vampires).

A few other small details crop up on the large screen. Stanwyck wore a blonde wig for her role, and this isn't obvious except in the scenes by the railroad track, in which a heavy wind is blowing and seems to reveal how the wig is attached around Stanwyck's forehead.


Special effects aside, Stanwyck and MacMurray play against type in Wilder's movie as neither had performed as such death-dealing characters before. Both actors worried taking such roles could damage their careers (TCM spokesman Robert Osbourne discusses this in his introduction before the film and the brief epilogue afterward). But they took the roles and the film was a success, and was showered with seven Academy Award nominations in the 1945 award season (though receiving no wins).

Wilder's visual symbolism, with Stanwyck in white with shining hair leading MacMurray to his doom, is a bit over the top, but it allows Wilder to have that much more of a twist (and there's even a twist in the film's title) at the end of the relationship between the killers. Stanwyck's masterfully scheming Phyllis Dietrichson cannot finish off MacMurray's Walter Neff when she has the chance, her face an expression of surprise, both for her character and the audience.

Double Indemnity - 70th Anniversary Limited Edition - amazon

Original Page July 20, 2015

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