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Double Indemnity (1944)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"From the Moment they met it was Murder!"

This Billy Wilder directed film noir classic is dictated as an insurance company office memorandum (the entire story is given as a flashback) from insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), the male protagonist, to Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) an insurance claim investigator who also works for All Risk Insurance. The story narrated by Neff begins when he meets Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while stopping by to see Mr. Dietrichson about his lapsing auto insurance. The seductive Mrs. Dietrichson and the smooth talking insurance salesman seem attracted to each other almost immediately, although we discover later that most of the genuine attraction is on the part of Neff toward Phyllis. She has other ideas: getting rid of her husband and collecting a bundle of money from it.

The dialog and storyline are quintessentially 40’s crime drama and many of the themes will be familiar: “crime doesn’t pay” and “murder will out” among them. However, part of what makes Double Indemnity very special is the style of the screenwriting (also by Billy Wilder assisted by Raymond Chandler), Wilder’s excellent direction, the Miklós Rózsa music and especially the outstanding performances of Stanwyck, MacMurray and Robinson. From MacMurray’s “baby” to Stanwyck’s “straight down the line” the dialog sizzles and the portrayals are matchless.

There is more to Double Indemnity than the film noir crime story; although in that respect it does rate as a best of breed. Steve Martin’s satirical send-up of film noir movies: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, uses a fair amount of footage from Double Indemnity, including parts of the famous Jerry’s Market scenes. However, in addition to all that, Double Indemnity shows one way in which the market helps to solve and deter crime. Keyes, the claims investigator, epitomizes this function of insurance. Police are virtually absent from the crime solving equation shown in this film, but crime is solved.

There are other great Billy Wilder films which showcase business in its positive aspects, such as 1954’s Sabrina; and there are other movies whose screenplays were written by Wilder which showcase Stanwyck: for example, Ball of Fire is one of my favorite films. However, Double Indemnity stands out as a classic which isn’t usually considered as a pro-liberty film. It shows ways that market forces solve problems which are often used as a justification for the existence of a State.

The hero of this film is the character Barton Keyes: the shrewd insurance investigator with his internal “little man” who has his hunches. Edward G. Robinson is superlative in this role, just as he was as a similarly dedicated professional in such films as Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and A Dispatch from Reuters. Double Indemnity demonstrates both why Fred MacMurray was once a significant leading man and why Barbara Stanwyck was the Black Widow Queen of film noir. It is also one of many films that show Edward G. Robinson as one of the great actors of the 20th century. It is a film that deserves to be watched by anyone who enjoys suspenseful movies.

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