#29 Double Indemnity

“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”
Walter Neff

Billy Wilder displays his versatility as a director in his noir tale of love, insurance, and murder.

Walter Neff (Fred Macmurray) is an intelligent, hard working insurance salesman. His life seems to be going well, that is until he travels to the Dietrichson house to re-sell Mr. Dietrichson auto insurance. But when he arrives Mr. Dietrichson is not home, So Walter is forced to deal with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman that he is instantly attracted to.

Walter and Phyllis banter for a while, and soon, Phyllis is the only thing on Walter’s mind. So when Phyllis asks Walter to meet with her, he is all too willing to blow off his previous engagements in order to oblige.

At this meeting Phyllis expresses her uneasiness regarding the safety of her husband. She claims that his job is dangerous yet, due to superstition, he refuses to get accident insurance. Phyllis proceeds to ask Walter if there is a way to insure her husband without him knowing it. Despite her pout, and Walter’s attraction to her, Walter quickly sees that Phyllis’s request is actually a murder plot.

Instead of reporting her though, Walter decides to help Phyllis in her plot to take out an insurance policy and kill her husband.

The task is not as simple as it would seem though. Working at Walter’s company is Barton Keyes (Edward Robinson), a manager that has developed a sixth sense for dealing with insurance fraud.

Still Walter is confident that he can pull of the perfect murder. His bravado is so great in fact that he attempts to walk away with double the maximum payout by capitalizing on the double indemnity clause in the insurance policy.

The murder, and the claim, goes off with out a hitch. But when Walter’s boss starts to get a hunch that Mr. Dietrichson’s death was no accident, Walter quickly feels the walls of his freedom closing in around him.

He quickly engages in a struggle against Phyllis, his boss, and even his own morality if he hopes to escape the long arm of the law.

This film depends heavily on how well the viewer receives Fred Macmurray. There are very few shots that do not include him, and most of the dialogue is either delivered by him, or plays of something he has said.

This can be troubling. MacMurray holds the screen well enough, but something about his demeanor can be off-putting in this film. This works a little on some levels, but does not on others. In scenes that Walter portrays himself as a romantic interest for Phyllis, or a close friend to Keyes, his “side mouth smile” and piercing eyes undermine the character. In scenes that Walter is a killer, adulterer, and insurance con man, his demeanor is perfect.

The rest of the cast just sort of fall into place around MacMurray. Every other actor serves solely to put the spotlight on the lead, and these understated performances were exactly what the film needed.

The film’s strongest asset though is not its performances, it is its narration. MacMurray is at his best, as is the film, when he is narrating. His strong, melodic, voice sets the mood for the film perfectly. And despite any of the other shortcomings he may have had, his voice made him perfect for this role.

The film is an enjoyable watch. It is dark, but it’s still enjoyable. This is no doubt the subtle touch of Billy Wilder, the expert director behind Some Like It Hot and Sunset Blvd. With this film Wilder expands his already impressive resume. Like a chameleon behind the scenes Wilder is able to adapt his style to suit whatever the film needs, and the result is a taut, well told story of murder, deception, and the stupidity of infatuation.