Today’s movie is Double Indemnity (1944). This movie is almost always on the list of the top five Film Noirs of all times. The story is told in a narrative style so you can see how the main character came to be in the circumstance that they are in. The femme fatale for this film is one of the darkest of all. The angles, lighting, and smoking are first-rate. This is the best example of high pants, fast-talking 1940-1950s filmmaking
While this is not my favorite Film Noir, reserving the number one spot for something with Humphrey Bogart in it, and which will be reviewed as Episode 100, Double Indemnity (1944), is clearly in my top five. I don’t care for Walter Neff as much as I cared for Frank Bigelow in Episode 48 – D.O.A. (1950) an innocent man fighting for his life, I think that Kathie was a more nuanced femme fatale in Episode – 54 Out of the Past (1947), and on sheer coolness, Humphrey Bogart was the penultimate man in The Maltese Falcon (1941).
This movie is based on a story written by James M. Cain, the same guy that wrote: “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay. While there was no love lost, they did write some great dialogue. Raymond Chandler was given a cameo in the film, sitting outside of the insurance office.
This movie was nominated for seven Oscars. It should have been eight as Edward G. Robinson was snubbed by not receiving a best-supporting-actor nomination. The nominated categories include Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Music.
This movie has a very good 8.3 rating on iMDB.com making it the second highest rated Film Noir on iMDB.com (see all film noirs). The film has a very impressive 96 percent on the Tomatometer and 95 percent audience approval on Rottentomatoes.com.
So with that said, let’s move on the actors, several of whom we have previously covered.
Edward G. Robinson played Barton Keyes, a tough insurance investigator. Robinson was covered in Episode 37 – The Violent Men (1955).
Porter Hall was cast as Mr. Jackson Hall was first covered in Episode 89 – Ace in the Hole (1951).
Fred MacMurray played the role of hapless insurance salesman Walter Neff. MacMurray may be the most underrated actor of his generation. MacMurray was born in Illinois and his paternal aunt was in vaudeville. At the age of five, his family moved to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. MacMurray was a good athlete in multiple sports. He attended Carroll College with plans to be a musician. MacMurray had a fairly successful musical career before going on Broadway in 1930. As a result of his stage work, he was given a seven-year contract with Paramount.
Through the 1930s, MacMurray spent time steadily gaining larger roles as he learned his craft. In the 1940s, his career took off with movies such as Above Suspicion (1943), the musical Where Do We Go from Here? (1945), and The Egg and I (1947). This last movie launched the Ma and Paw Kettle series of films.
Of course, this great actor will always be remembered for two bad guy roles. These are of course the Walter Neff character in Double Indemnity (1944) and the scheming Lt. Keefer in The Caine Mutiny (1954). He was such a stinker in The Caine Mutiny (1954) that I always cheer at the ending
The mid-1950s, found MacMurray playing mostly westerns. His acting career perked back up when he got a job from his old friend Walt Disney in The Shaggy Dog (1959). He played an amoral adulterer in The Apartment (1960) with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine before returning to Disney Studios. Some of his films include The Absent Minded Professor (1961), the sequel Son of Flubber (1963) with Nancy Olson playing the girlfriend in both. One of my favorites is Follow Me, Boys (1966) where he plays a scoutmaster to a young Kurt Russell.
Beginning in 1960, MacMurray was also on television in “My Three Sons,” a show that lasted from 1960-1972. He finally retired in 1978 and passed away in 1991.
This movie begins at night with a car speeding across town and running through signals. The man gets out wearing an overcoat and holding his side. When he raps on the door, the elevator operator lets him inside. The operator talks to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) but gets short replies. They stop on the 12th floor at the office of Pacific All-Risk insurance.
Neff makes his way to his office, lights a cigarette, and loads a new wax roll into his Dictaphone. He begins by confessing to his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He says he murdered Mr. Dietrichson and begins to tell his story.
Walter Neff was out driving and he stops by the Dietrichson’s house to get signatures on car insurance policies. How long has it been since this happened? When Neff forces his way past the maid, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) comes to the top of the stairs wearing only a towel as she had been outside nude sunbathing. She returns in a bit still buttoning her blouse. They film an ankle bracelet she is wearing and later make a big deal about it.
Phyllis and Walter start talking about insurance. She asks about an insurance policy for accidental death. The pair slips into a little light flirtation which ends with snappy one-liners being shot back and forth. A mention of her husband shock Neff back to this world.
As Neff drives away he smells honeysuckle and is on a cloud. He comments that tough claims inspector Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) would have caught her game right away. Back at the office, Neff is called into Keyes’ office. Keyes is grilling a man about a claim for a truck that burned. As Neff watches the truck owner breaks under Keyes’ pressure and signs away his right to a claim. Keyes bellyaches about the company taking too many risks by signing shaky customers. As Neff leaves he reflects on how much he loves and respects Keyes.
When Neff gets back to his office there is a note from Phyllis asking him to come to her house at 3:30 when her husband is not a home. He thinks about her anklet and clears all of his appointments for that day. She says she thought her husband would be there and forgot it was the maids day off. They settle down on the couch and she asks if she can get accident insurance without her husband knowing it. He sees that she wants to kill her husband and bugs out. She continues to play innocent.
Neff takes the rest of the day off to drink beer and bowl a few games. He spends the whole trying to get Phyllis out of his head but at nightfall he realized she is too hot to resist. At 8 o’clock the doorbell rings and he already knows who it is. She’s still pretending to be innocent but Neff is all in. After being coy for a bit they get all kissy face.
Neff starts talking about how hard it is to get away with murder and insurance fraud. She talks about her step-daughter Lola (Jean Heather) and says she was the nurse for her husband first wife before she died. She says she is abused and Neff confirms that she wants to kill her husband after she gets the policy.
The time jumps back to Neff recording and he says that he has been thinking about robbing the company for some time. She pours on some extra victim before she leaves. Neff tells her he will do it and do it perfectly.
A couple of nights later Neff goes to the house to trick Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) into signing a policy without knowing it. They also bring in Lola as a witness to the sales pitch. Lola gets ready to go out and her parents remind her not to see Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr). They get the signature and find out the husband is traveling to Palo Alto. Outside Neff tells Phyliss that if they can get him to die on a train they will get the double indemnity payoff at twice the amount.
When Neff gets to his car Lola is waiting inside. She just wants a ride. She plays the victim too and says she is meeting Nino. Neff meets Nino and Nino is pretty hostile. Neff feels really bad about planning to kill Lola’s father.
Neff and Phyllis have stopped phone calling each other. They meet at a local supermarket to discuss the plans for the murder. Neff finds out that Mr. Dietrichson broke his leg and has canceled the trip. She says she is missing Neff but her face tells another story.
About a week after the couple’s last meeting Keyes comes in Neff’s office and offers him a job as an investigator. Keyes gives him the greatest job offer ever. Neff gets a call from Phyllis while Keyes is in the office. She says her husband is leaving on the train that night and the murder is on.
Neff starts laying a trail that can be followed for an alibi. He dresses in the same color suit as Mr. Dietrichson and walked to the house. He gets into the back seat of the car and hides. Phyllis pulls the car forward and her husband gets in with his broken leg. Phyllis drives to a dark street and honks the horn three times. On the signal, Neff rises up and kills her husband.
At the train station Neff, now wearing a cast, gets on the train. Phyllis drives ahead with the body. When Neff makes it to the back of the train there is another passenger Mr. Jackson (Porter Hall) messing up his plan. Neff tricks Jackson into going for his cigars and he jumps off the train. Phyllis is at the jump spot. They take her husband’s body and throw it on the tracks. They have a brief moment of terror when the car won’t start but they get it going. Phyllis has ice water in her veins.
A couple of days later Keyes starts to investigate the case. Keyes and Neff get called to the bosses office. He starts going over the details of the case. Phyllis comes into the bosses office. The boss announces that he thinks it’s a suicide. Phyllis becomes enraged when the boss offers her a settlement for less than the face value.
After Phyllis leaves, Keyes gives the boss the rundown on the statistics. Keyes says there is not one case of suicide by jumping from the back of the train. It couldn’t be any better for Neff and Phyllis. That night Phyllis calls Neff and says she is coming to see him. After they hang up Keyes shows up at the door. Keyes realizes that there should have been a claim put in for the broken leg. This was way before you could call somebody back on a cell phone.
Phyllis hears them talking and waits at the door. When Keyes leaves she hides behind the open door. She pushes the door so Neff knows she is there. Keyes talks about convicting her as the pair try to stay calm. In the room, she plays Neff like a cheap fiddle.
Lola shows up at Neff’s office and tries to convince him that Phyllis is behind her father’s death. She tells him that she believes Phyllis was behind her mother’s death. Neff is feeling really guilty about Lola losing both parents. Lola says she has moved out and broken up with Nino. He took her out to dinner that night and saw her again the next day.
On Monday Neff gets called into Keyes office and outside is Jackson from the back of the train. Keyes has figured out that Mr. Dietrichson was never on the train. He now knows it was Phyllis and someone else that did the killing. The trainman says that Mr. Dietrichson was never on the train and that the man he saw was younger.
Neff calls Phyllis from the market and they meet there. Phyllis is rocking some hip sunglasses in the market. He tells her about the claim being denied and that the murder of Lola’s mother will come out. Phyllis gets mad that she Neff is seeing Lola.
Neff goes out with Lola some more. One night behind the Hollywood Bowl Lola tells Neff that Phyllis is seeing Nino and they killed her father together.
The next day Keyes tells Neff that they have a line on who the other murderer was. Neff sneaks into Keyes’ office. He finds a dictaphone roll that says Neff is not a suspect and Nino definitely is the suspect. Neff calls Phyllis and sets up a meeting for 11 PM.
Neff is planning on murdering Phyllis. Back at her house, Phyllis put a gun under the cushion of her chair. Neff reveals that he is going to lay the murder off on her and Nino. He basically tells her he is going to kill her. Phyllis spins a tale that she was only using Nino to kill Lola. As Neff closes the window so he can murder Phyllis she shoots him in the shoulder. Neff walks over to Phyllis and takes the gun. She then says she knew that it was love because she couldn’t fire the second shot. She hugs him and he fires two shots into her belly.
Outside Neff runs into Nino and convinces him not to go into the house and that Lola really loves him. Neff gives him and nickel and tells him to call Lola.
Back at the office on the dictaphone Neff continues his confession. Neff looks over his shoulder and Keyes is there listening to the confession. Keyes tries to call a doctor but Neff says he is going to Mexico and not the gas chamber. Neff hits the ground from blood loss before he gets to the elevator. Keyes calls the ambulance and the police. Neff tells Keyes he couldn’t figure the case because the guy was too close, right across the desk, Keyes says closer than that, and Neff says I love you too.
The film code wouldn’t allow someone to be seen as getting away with a crime. For this reason, Wilder had to shoot an ending, with Neff walking to the gas chamber. This part of the film has been lost but it would have been terrible.
World-Famous Short Summary – Couple takes a trolley ride
If you enjoyed this week’s show please tell your friends and if you really want to help drop over to iTunes to give me a review. If you want to comment, recommend a movie, or just say hi, follow the links in the show notes to my site.
Beware the moors
Double Indemnity (1944)
Eddie Muller, December 30, 2018. Noir Alley – Double Indemnity (1944). Atlanta, Georgia: Turner Classic Movies (TCM).