Double Indemnity (1944)


Double Indemnity is a 1944 American film noir, directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and produced by Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom. The term double indemnity refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies that doubles the payout in cases when death is deemed accidental. The film stars Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman, Barbara Stanwyck as a provocative housewife who wishes her husband were dead, and Edward G. Robinson as a claims adjuster whose job is to find phony claims. The script was based on James M. Cain's 1935 novella of the same title which originally appeared as an eight part serial in Liberty magazine. Praised by many critics when first released, Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards but did not win any. Widely regarded as a classic, it is often cited as a paradigmatic film noir and as having set the standard for the films that followed in that genre. Deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1992, Double Indemnity was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1998, it was ranked #38 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century, and in 2007 it was 29th on their 10th Anniversary list.


Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a successful insurance salesman for Pacific All Risk. We see him returning to his office building in downtown Los Angeles late one night, clearly in pain, sitting down at his desk and talking into a Dictaphone machine. His memo is intended for colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a claims adjuster, and becomes the story of the film, which is told in flashback: Neff first meets the sultry Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) during a routine house call to renew an automobile insurance policy for her husband. A flirtation develops, at least until Phyllis asks how she could take out a policy on her husband's life without his knowing it. Neff realizes she is contemplating murder, and he wants no part of it. Phyllis pursues Neff to his own home, though, and ups the ante — or at least the voltage — of her flirtation; Neff's gullibility and libido quickly overcome his caution, and he agrees that the two of them, together, will kill her husband. Neff knows all the tricks of his trade, of course, and comes up with a plan in which Phyllis's husband will die an unlikely death, in this case falling from a moving train. The "accidental" nature of his demise will trigger the 'double indemnity' clause of the policy, forcing Pacific All Risk to pay the widow twice the normal amount. The couple carries out their plan, and Mr. Dietrichson's body on the tracks bears mute testament to his downfall. Investigator Keyes does not suspect foul play at first, but the "little man" in his chest keeps nagging that all is not right with this case. He eventually concludes that the Dietrichson woman and some unknown accomplice must be behind the husband's death. He has no reason to be suspicious of Neff, a colleague he has worked with for quite some time and actually views with considerable paternal affection. Keyes, however, is not Neff's only worry. The victim's daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), comes to him, convinced that stepmother Phyllis is behind her father's death: it seems Lola's mother also died under suspicious circumstances — while Phyllis was her nurse. Neff's concern goes beyond his fear that Lola might blow the whistle on the murder; he is not such a heel that he doesn't begin to care about what might happen to the girl, both of whose parents have been murdered. Then he learns Phyllis is seeing Lola's boyfriend Nino behind her — and his own — back. Phyllis's brazen unfaithfulness helps wake Neff from his romantic haze and he wants to save himself from his dire involvement with her and with murder. He reasons that the only way out is to make the police think Phyllis and Nino did the murder, which is what the tenacious Keyes now believes anyway. Neff and Phyllis meet at her house and she tells him she has been seeing Nino only to provoke him into killing the suspicious Lola in a jealous rage. Neff is now wholly disgusted and is about to kill Phyllis when she shoots him first. Badly wounded but still standing, he advances on her, taunting her to shoot again. She does not shoot and he takes the gun from her. She says she never loved him "until a minute ago, when I couldn't fire that second shot." Neff coldly says he does not believe her; she tries hugging him tightly but then pulls away and looks pleadingly at him when she feels the gun pressed against her side. Neff says "Goodbye, baby," then shoots twice and kills her. Outside, Neff hides in the bushes and intercepts Nino as he approaches, ostensibly to visit his lover, Phyllis. Neff advises him to not enter the house, but to leave and contact "the woman who truly loves you" — Lola. Nino agrees and heads out, avoiding what would have been damning evidence against him if he'd entered the murder house. Neff, gravely injured, drives to his office, seats himself at the Dictaphone, and starts explaining. Keyes arrives in mid-confession and hears enough to understand everything. Neff tells Keyes he is going to Mexico rather than face a death sentence — but sags to the floor before he can reach the elevator.