In my last film noir post, I talked about The Maltese Falcon, considered one of the best film noir movies. This week I thought we’d take a peek at Double Indemnity, a classic noir movie, ranking up with the very best of the genre. Double Indemnity has it all: a gritty story based off of a hard-boiled detective novel, a fantastic noir hero (or anti-hero in this case), and a great film noir female.
The Hard-boiled Detective Novel
Double Indemnity is based on James M. Cain’s novella of the same name. The plot has all the elements of great noir: Insurance agent Walter Huff falls for a married woman, Phyllis Nirdlinger, who consults Huff about accident insurance for her husband. Although Huff displays some sort of morality, this wavers and he allows himself to be seduced into helping Nirdlinger kill her husband for the insurance money. It’s a dark story, and what makes it even more stellar is that Huff and Nirdlinger commit the perfect crime, but this crime falls to pieces because these two characters distrust each other so much.
As any talented writer does, Cain intertwines a number of themes into the story as well: religious motifs (the story as confession), sin (lust and sexual desire), and the man rebelling against the economy (outwitting the system). Check out William Marling, Ph.D. for more on this.
A Fantastic Noir Hero
Fred MacMurray, you might remember him from the sit-com My Three Sons, plays the noir hero to perfection. MacMurray was known for playing good guys and he didn’t see himself as a great actor. But the director, Billy Wilder, convinced MacMurray to take the role, and it showed that he could indeed act.
In the movie, MacMurray’s character is renamed Walter Neff, a successful insurance salesman. We want to feel sorry for him at first, he seems like a good guy at heart, but he really is a heel, and he’s weak, as shown by his falling for the femme fatale. As Nirdlinger pursues him, pouring on the charm, Neff falls for her and helps commit the crime. But he never trusts her and things fall apart for him.
A Great Film Noir Female
Can you say sex? Women in film noir are sultry and seductive. In this case, Barbara Stanwyck plays a provocative housewife who wants to kill her husband. Wilder wanted her to play Phyllis Nirdlinger from the beginning, even though she was not only the highest paid actress at the time, she was the highest paid woman in America. Stanwyck loved the script but because of the dark nature of the role, she hesitated to take it on. Wilder convinced her and the role earned her an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight).
Stanwyck plays Phyllis Nirdlinger perfectly, creating such sexual tension throughout the movie that in some ways it’s amazing that the movie made it past the Hays Production Code (the industry censorship guidelines of the time). As you watch the movie, you just hate her character – attribute that to her acting the role to perfection.
This film has wonderful dialogue, and a great look that employs light and shadow. This further emphasizes the sleaziness of the characters and story. Interesting to note, the original story has Neff and Nirdlinger committing suicide, but this would not pass the Hays Production Code standards, so Wilder wrote an ending where Neff goes to the gas chamber. This was not used however (I won’t spoil it be revealing the ending).
Finally, Double Indemnity explored new territory on the screen. Never before had audiences seen the motives, the means, and the opportunity to commit murder displayed through this visual medium. Also, the Hays Production Code said that criminals should be shown paying for their transgressions and the screenwriting does this is a unique way. It took great writing, acting and direction to pull this off so successfully.
So get your popcorn and drink, get comfortable on the couch and watch Double Indemnity. You won’t regret it.
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