4 out of 5 stars

The tropes and trappings of film noir—the shadows, the shady motivations, the inevitability of fate—are so familiar it’s difficult to imagine a time when they weren’t. But even if there wasn’t a single “first film noir” in any meaningful sense, there was certainly a time when the style was new and distinctive.

One of the films that introduced it to mainstream audiences was Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s 1944 adaptation of a James M. Cain novel, which remains compellingly watchable today and ticks all the noir boxes: the most important in this case being not its visual manner but the way the two protagonists are so lacking in scruples they can hardly even be called “morally compromised”. They act as if moral considerations simply didn’t apply to them, and for a while at least they seem likely to profit handsomely from this disregard.

This last consideration, in particular, had made it difficult for Hollywood to adapt Cain’s book (published in serial form in 1936, though it only appeared as a novel in 1943). But by the mid-1940s interpretations of the Motion Picture Production Code (the studios’ self-regulating guidelines better known as the Hays Code) were becoming a little more liberal, and although the question of how to end the movie still posed a problem for Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler (the Code forbade portrayals of suicide, and its main enforcer was also dubious about the idea of an execution scene in a gas chamber), most of the earlier objections to the corruption at the core of Double Indemnity had eased.

It’s the late-1930s. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman and a bachelor in his thirties, gives the gist of the plot away early on in his voiceover narration, saying “I killed him for money and a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” (Noir in less than 20 words? Another Cain work was actually filmed in 1940 under the title Money and the Woman.)

How he embarks on this course soon becomes apparent when, during a routine client visit, he encounters Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and is soon having an affair with her—as well as selling her an accident policy which will pay out on the death of her husband (a small role for Tom Powers).

Phyllis doesn’t want her husband to know about the policy, and Neff suspects this is because she plans to murder him and collect on it. At first his instinct is to discourage her and stay away from such a dangerous idea (“stop thinking about it” he says to her), although you can see (and the voiceover confirms) that he can’t get it out of his head. (With one crucial exception, almost the entire story is told from Neff’s point of view, so we only know what he knows.) So he’s drawn in and together the pair devise a scheme to kill Mr Dietrichson in a staged accident that meets the criteria to pay out double (the “double indemnity” of the title).

Neff’s expertise in insurance and insurance investigations might, they hope, help them concoct the perfect crime. (Among other things, he dissuades Phyllis from faking her husband’s drowning in their swimming pool—conjuring up the opening shot of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)—but neither has reckoned on the intelligence and dogged determination of Neff’s colleague Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the insurance company’s claims manager and sniffer-out of fraud. Nor do they expect the suspicions of Phyllis’s stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather), further complicating matters.

On the surface, then, Double Indemnity is all about Neff hoping to get the woman and get a share of the money… and failing in both. As Richard Schickel—who contributes the outstanding commentary on this Criterion reissue—has written elsewhere, Phyllis and Neff “are not smart, they only think they are.” Equally important, though, is Neff’s very different relationship with Keyes, competitive but affectionate and in the end strangely intimate; it’s to Keyes, not Phyllis, that Neff is eventually completely honest.

As a Wilder movie, Double Indemnity is all about the screenplay. Certainly, it’s very stylish visually, with cinematographer John Seitz suffusing the tale with literal as well as metaphorical darkness, and managing to make the empty insurance office look positively threatening—a manifestation of implacable authority just waiting to catch Neff out. As Schickel puts it, this is “a drama about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the shadows.”

Interesting Los Angeles locations help too, and the importance of cars (not then as prominent in movies as they’d later become) both to the city and to the film is clear from the beginning. Almost the first things we see are an automobile and a stoplight (but it’s too late for Neff and Phyllis to stop on their road to ruination), and their chemistry is at its finest in an early scene where she reminds him to observe the “speed limit” in a new love affair.

Miklos Rosza, meanwhile, contributes one of his best scores: meandering, dissonant, rarely resolving, frequently hovering in the background as a reminder of peril. The scene in a grocery store where Neff warns Phyllis that Keyes is onto them is a musical highlight.

But still, Wilder was primarily a director of words rather than images (he reportedly wouldn’t tolerate actors’ slightest deviation from a screenplay). Charles Brackett, already established as the director’s favoured writer, disliked Double Indemnity and didn’t get involved with the film; so for that matter did Chandler, who thought Cain’s work “dirty”, but he took the job nonetheless.

Much of the author’s dialogue didn’t transfer successfully to the screen (though some survived the transition) but the raw material was there to create a tight, well-structured story which, taken as a whole, is more satisfying than the book.

Cain’s ending is contrived, over-complicated and over-reliant on revelations about Phyllis’s past, whereas Chandler and Wilder’s is simpler and punchier (as Cain agreed). There’s wit in the film (Phyllis claims she’s “fully covered”, supposedly speaking of insurance, really referring to the then-salacious amount of flesh on display), but there’s also more hardness, even in the characters’ names. Cain’s slightly comical Huff and Nirdlinger become Neff (nefarious?) and Dietrichson. The script is more focused than the novel, too, concentrating on three people—Neff, Phyllis and Keyes—and minimising the roles of Lola and her boyfriend.

The tiny details of Chandler and Wilder’s screenplay have done as much as the large-scale changes to make Double Indemnity a classic. The carefully dissected minutiae of the central crime, and the wealth of detail on the insurance business, are absorbing. Seemingly throwaway lines can be full of meaning—for example, Phyllis asking “Pacific All-What?” when Neff introduces himself as a representative of the Pacific All-Risk insurance company (does she not understand the idea of risk?), or the woman in the store complaining that “they always put what I want on the top shelf” (do we forever covet the unattainable?).

If the script is the heart of this film, the cast in the three main roles give it life and depth. MacMurray was a brilliant choice for Neff (after George Raft and many others had turned down the part)—an amiable actor better known for comedies like Take a Letter, Darling (1942), he was the last person in the world audiences would expect to commit cold-blooded murder for money, and that’s why his strained, panicky performance works so well.

Stanwyck is the prototypical sexy, deadly noir female, being cold and brittle (though Phyllis’s glamour evaporates when she tells Neff the truth about her marriage). She was a bigger box-office draw than MacMurray, but interestingly the trailer on this disc doesn’t emphasise her to the men’s exclusion, and refers to “three great stars”—the third being Robinson as Keyes, the most difficult of all the characters to read and therefore the most interesting. (Just how much does he know, or suspect, and when?) Among the smaller parts, Richard Gaines is amusing as the insurance company’s pompous boss.

Critics were confused by Double Indemnity, not sure whether this was an important film or a cheap-and-nasty one, and though it was nominated for seven Academy Awards (including ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Screenplay’), it didn’t win a single statuette. James Agee acknowledged it “broke the ice” for “shabby realism”, but he also found it “academic and complacent”, more interested in superficial plot mechanics than the inner lives of its characters. Edmund Wilson called it “a kind of devil’s parody of the movies” (a point anticipated by Cain in the novel, where he describes Phyllis and her husband’s corpse as looking “like something in a horror picture”). The box office gross, too, was modest.

Today, though, we can see it as not just a superbly entertaining movie but as a template for so much of the noir that followed. One could draw a direct line from Double Indemnity to movies like the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). Wilder’s film sets the standard for a notoriously difficult-to-define style not just in its visuals but in its pervasive sense of doom (we know from the beginning how it ends, after all); with its exploration of the way that attraction (we can’t really call it love) turns to obsession, then fear, then hatred; with its use of flashbacks (becoming respectable in Hollywood A-pictures around this time) and with its interest in psychology (very 1940s). 

It’s striking, for example, how much another Cain adaptation a few years later, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), resembles Double Indemnity. Postman is an inferior film in every respect, relying far too much on luridness, but even though it’s based on an earlier novel it frequently feels like a retread— right from the first appearance of Lana Turner, inescapably echoing Stanwyck’s. 

Double Indemnity is interesting on at least three counts, then: as a masterfully effective film in its own right, as a case study in adapting novels for the screen, and as a progenitor of noir. Criterion’s reissue, with one of the best and most generous selections of extras I’ve seen in a while, serves it very well—and though James M. Cain did suggest that tragedy for fictional characters can lie in getting what they want, in this case it’s worth getting.

USA | 1944 | 107 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. A flawless transfer.
  • Audio commentary featuring film critic Richard Schickel. Recorded in 2006, this has lots on Cain and noir in general as well as Double Indemnity specifically; Schickel, movie critic at Time magazine for many years, wrote the BFI Film Classics book on this film.
  • New interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, editor of Billy Wilder on Assignment. There’s not much on the movie itself here (though Isenberg makes an interesting comparison between the role of family in Double Indemnity and Wilder’s anxieties about his own family in the 1940s). But there’s a great deal on Wilder’s life, enlivened by lots of photos and ephemera.
  • New conversation between film historians Eddie Muller and Imogen Sara Smith. In this new recording, Muller (founder of the Film Noir Foundation) and Smith (author of a book on noir) contribute an outstanding discussion of Double Indemnity ranging from the significance of the Los Angeles settings to the character of Keyes and the changes made to the ending.
  • Billy, How Did You Do It?’—a 1992 film by Volker Schlöndorff and Gisela Grischow featuring interviews with director Billy Wilder. A three-hour, three-part documentary originally made for the BBC’s Arena series; extensive interviews with Wilder go into great depth although Double Indemnity is, of course, far from the only topic.
  • Shadows of Suspense, a 2006 documentary on the making of Double Indemnity. This 40-minute film focuses largely on the creation of Double Indemnity rather than the finished product, with plenty of anecdote and a wide range of interviewees.
  • Radio adaptations from 1945 and 1950. MacMurray and Stanwyck (but not Robinson) both appear in these adaptations; their similarities to and differences from the film are interesting.
  • Trailer.
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • Essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién.
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Cast & Crew

director: Billy Wilder.
writers: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler (based on the novel by James M. Cain).
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck & Edward G. Robinson.