Film noir at its best in an all-time thrilling classic
“Double Indemnity” is a seductive crime drama about the dark side of human beings, and thrilling entertainment from start to finish. A perfect mix of iconic performances, blazingly witty dialogue and exceptional direction, this film keeps you on the edge of your seat constantly wondering what's going to happen next. And the interplay between the three stars is spellbinding. It is as good as movie entertainment gets.
“Double Indemnity” is also a prime example of the genre known as “film noir”, a French term that translates to “black” (dark) film. Mostly crime dramas, noir films were often based on pulp magazine stories from the 1930s. Typically black and white with low light, shadows, and creative cinematography, noir films almost always include flashbacks, narration, and a woman who usually leads a man into trouble known as a femme fatal. Film noir hit is peak in the 1940s and 1950s after World War II when the world became less innocent. Audiences suddenly wanted films that seemed more realistic than the escapism and gloss of 1930s. As you start to watch more and more classic films you may start to sense the differences between films made in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Each decade generally has a certain feel to it. Film noir was born out of one of these shifts in tastes, and “Double Indemnity” has all the noir elements in spades. Considered one of the greatest films ever made, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards including “Best Picture", but did not win any.
Based on a 1920s true crime story, Hollywood attempted to make “Double Indemnity” into a film since the early 1930s. Due to the Hays Code (which I explain in the “Red Dust” post), it didn’t get made until it fell into the hands of writer/director Billy Wilder, an expert at getting past the censors. Wilder is among the very top writer/director combinations in film history. He co-wrote and directed so many all-time classic films that he may hold the record for the most films to appear on “Top 10 Films” lists. Just some of his classics include “Double Indemnity”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Some Like it Hot”, "Stalag 17","The Seven Year Itch", "The Apartment”, “Sabrina”, and "The Lost Weekend”. He had a knack for making successful films no one thought would be successful (including “Double Indemnity”). He always wrote with a writing partner and this time it was Raymond Chandler who was famous for writing detective stories. Wilder and Chandler famously did not get along, but in spite of their difficulties they produced a fast-paced, riveting script filled with first rate snappy dialogue. Billy Wilder was born in Austria and later moved to Germany where he wrote screenplays in the late 1920s. With the rise of the Nazis he ended up in Hollywood in 1933 where he began a very successful US screenwriting career. He co-wrote scripts for several classic films including "Ball of Fire", "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife", "Hold Back the Dawn", and most notably the Greta Garbo classic "Ninotchka". Wilder began directing in 1942 with the very fun Ginger Rogers film, "The Major and the Minor”. “Double Indemnity” was his third film as a director, and “Buddy, Buddy” in 1981 was his last. He won six Academy Awards out of a total of twenty one nominations in his career, which included two nominations for "Double Indemnity" (“Best Director” and “Best Screenplay”). He was also awarded an honorary Oscar in 1988 for his body of work. He had a true talent for making movies, so if his name appears in the credits of a film the odds are great it will be fantastic! Billy Wilder died in 2002 at the age of 95.
Fred MacMurray, who stars as “Walter Neff” had to be convinced to take the role. He was a very easy going and tall (6’ 3”) actor who at the time was known as a sweet good guy mostly appearing in romantic comedies. Billy Wilder thought his good guy persona would be perfect for "Neff”, and was right. MacMurray later acknowledged it was one of the best roles of his career, and it turned out to be his most iconic film role. “Double Indemnity” ended up being one of the finest films each of the film's three stars made in their respective careers. Fred MacMurray started out as a singer and played the clarinet and tenor sax. He appeared in a couple of musicals on Broadway before appearing in films in the mid 1930s. Early in his career he appeared opposite Carole Lombard in four films, Claudette Colbert in seven films, and also starred opposite Katharine Hepburn in the classic “Alice Adams”. MacMurray made four films with Barbara Stanwyck (including “Double Indemnity”), and later starred in several Walt Disney comedies including "Son of Flubber”, "The Shaggy Dog", and "The Absent Minded Professor”. He may be mostly known for starring as the father in the hit TV show, “My Three Sons” which ran for twelve years starting in 1960. “Double Indemnity” was a change of pace for him, and afterwards he appeared in a few films as the “not so good” guy, such as “The Caine Mutiny” and another Billy Wilder classic “The Apartment”. Even though MacMurray originally didn’t want to go against his good guy image, it turns out his best performances were when he portrayed morally questionable characters. He was married twice, the second time to actress June Haver. Fred MacMurray died in 1991 at the age of 83. We’ll be seeing a couple more of his films coming up in this blog.
At the time of “Double Indemnity”, Barbara Stanwyck, who plays “Phyllis Dietrichson”, was the highest paid woman in America. She was a big star and a versatile and respected actress who was known for being a consummate professional. One always hears rumors of how beloved she was by her costars and the production crews she worked with. She was one of the rare actresses of her time (like Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland) who often changed her appearance from film to film, not having to always be glamorous. She usually played strong working class women who ranged from nice, sexy, funny, evil, manipulative, and suffering. Like Fred MacMurray, she had to be convinced to star in “Double Indemnity” fearing it was too dark a role. Wilder convinced her, and Stanwyck earned her third Academy Award nomination for “Best Actress” for this film. As “Phyllis" she blends the perfect amount of toughness, seduction and smarts in creating a portrayal we wholeheartedly believe. It is my favorite of all her performances. She would receive a fourth Oscar nomination for the 1948 film "Sorry, Wrong Number”, but would never win one. Stanwyck did receive an honorary Oscar in 1982 for her body of work as an actress, and was voted number 11 of the women on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”.
In “Double Indemnity” she dons a somewhat controversial blonde wig, which people either love or hate (it took me many viewings of the film to warm up to it). It has been said that Wilder chose such a glaring wig to emphasize the looseness and cheapness of her character. Others say its harshness was just an oversight but I doubt the masterful Wilder would allow something unwanted to remain in one of his films. Either way it has become an iconic part of the film. In 1922, Barbara Stanwyck was briefly a Ziegfeld Girl in the famous Ziegfeld Follies (the most famous Broadway revue series of shows, known for their top entertainers as well as their beautiful chorus girls). She worked as a dancer and on Broadway before appearing in films at the beginning of the talkies in 1929. Director Frank Capra, with whom she made five films (four before 1933) brought out the best in her and helped make her a star. She worked until 1986, appearing mostly in television beginning in the late 1950s. Stanwyck appeared in other classic films including "Stella Dallas", "The Lady Eve", "Meet John Doe", "Ball of Fire", "Sorry, Wrong Number" and the Pre-Code film “Baby Face” which is noted as one of the key films responsible for the enforcement of the Hays Code. Her television career was also very successful, and she would win three Emmy Awards. She appeared in TV shows such as "The Barbara Stanwyck Show", "The Thorn Birds", and most notably the series "The Big Valley”. She was married twice, both ending in divorce. Her second marriage (lasting from 1939 to 1952) was to then upcoming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer star Robert Taylor. Stanwyck was sort of his mentor and it was said to be an arranged marriage by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. Barbara Stanwyck died in 1990 at the age of 82. We’ll be seeing more of her films in upcoming blog entries.
Edward G. Robinson brilliantly plays “Neff’s” boss “Barton Keyes”. A huge star, he realized the strength of “Double Indemnity's” script, and took the part in spite of it being a supporting role. Short, stocky, and unconventional looking, Robinson didn’t look the part of a star, and yet he was a giant star and is one of the most talented actors on film. He is mostly remembered for playing gangsters and tough guys, although being so versatile he played a wide range of parts. I feel he is another one of those actors whose work is under appreciated. He is always so natural with emotions swirling around just below the surface. Just watch how real he is in this film and how easy he makes acting look. Surprisingly, he was never nominated for an Academy Award, but was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1973 for his body of work as an actor. Sadly he died just months before being able to accept the Oscar. He was voted number 24 of the men on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. Edward G. Robinson was born in Romania and his family moved to New York to escape anti-semitism when he was ten years old. Robinson started appearing in the Yiddish Theater and quickly made it to Broadway. He began in films in 1929. Playing the title role in the classic 1931 gangster film “Little Caesar” made him a star and an icon. He continued to appear in more gangster roles which created the screen persona for which he is possibly best known. Robinson appeared in just over 100 films and TV shows including many classic films such as “Key Largo”, “The Ten Commandments”, “Soylent Green”, "The Cincinnati Kid", "Little Caesar", and of course, "Double Indemnity”. During the “Red Scare”, he was called to testify before The House Un-American Activities Committee (which I talk about in the “High Noon” blog entry). He named names and was cleared, and while not officially blacklisted (he was "gray listed") his career suffered for years afterwards because of it. He was an avid art collector, and was married twice. He had one child, Edward G. Robinson, Jr., who also became an actor. Edward G. Robinson died in 1973 at the age of 79. We’ll be seeing more of his films in upcoming blog entries for sure.
John Seitz’s Oscar nominated cinematography in “Double Indemnity” is stunning to look at while dramatically creating the atmosphere and emotion of the film. Its stylized shadows, venetian blinds, and low lighting helped solidify the film noir style. Seitz was nominated for six other Academy Awards in his career, including his work on another Billy Wilder classic which we will soon see on this blog, “Sunset Boulevard”.
“Double Indemnity’s” superb film score is by Miklós Rózsa, a giant in film music. It precisely creates that dark noir atmosphere while adding tension throughout. In Rózsa’s career he composed scores for nearly 100 films, mostly dark and psychological dramas, including classics such as“Ben-Hur”, “The Lost Weekend”, “Adam’s Rib”, “The Asphalt Jungle”, “A Double Life”, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”. He won three Academy Awards for his work out of a total of seventeen nominations, including his nomination for “Double Indemnity”.
The costumes in “Double Indemnity” were by designer Edith Head, who I mention in the “A Place in the Sun” entry. When I watch this film I can’t help but notice how much the glasses worn by “Phyllis” in the iconic grocery store scene look similar to Edith Head’s trademark glasses.
Something I’ll just mention for those who might not know. In the very clever banter between “Phyllis” and “Walter” when they first meet, he makes a fleeting joke mentioning “The Philadelphia Story”. That is a reference to the title of a classic 1940 film starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, which I will present in upcoming weeks.
“Double Indemnity” is a truly classic film as well as one of the ultimate film noirs. So get ready for a wild ride with the immensely entertaining “Double Indemnity”. Enjoy!
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I’ve always been struck (pun intended) by the use of matches in “Double Indemnity”. They are lit often in the film and shed light on the characters (literally and figuratively). Most notably the matches can be seen as symbolizing the “bromance” between the two male characters as they light each other’s cigarettes and cigars throughout the film -something men usually did only for women in those days.
There was a “strike anywhere” type match at the time in which you could use your thumbnail to light it, as “Walter” does so expertly over and over.
Another thing I think is worthy to point out in “Double Indemnity”, is how director Billy Wilder got around the Motion Picture Production Code. It is a prime example of how films seemingly “gloss over” things prohibited by the Code. In the scene where "Phyllis" comes to "Walter’s" apartment, she subtly suggests she came to sleep with him. Being a married woman, the Code would forbid such behavior in a US film. So Wilder shows them embracing and on the couch, cuts to Water speaking into his dictaphone, and then cuts back to them on the couch. However, this time they have changed positions. Walter is now reclining while smoking in somewhat wrinkled clothes and Phyllis is putting on lipstick. An ingenious way to show they just had sex while getting past the Code! There are so many subtleties like this in classic films, sometimes not as obvious. They are easy to overlook but if you notice them they always inform the viewer, making the film more understandable and intriguing.
The “Double Indemnity” house exterior and iconic staircase were filmed in an actual house rather than a movie set. As “Walter Neff” describes the house in the film, “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This one must have cost somebody 30,000 bucks. That is, if he ever finished paying for it". While the house in the film is supposed to be in Glendale, the house where they filmed is located in the Hollywood Hills and it still stands today looking much like it did back then. It is estimated today at having a value of close to two million dollars.