Synopsis: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in this gripping film noir from Academy Award-winning director Billy Wilder. A calculating wife encourages her wealthy husband to sign a double indemnity policy proposed by smitten insurance agent Walter Neff. As the would-be lovers plot the unsuspecting husband’s murder, they are pursued by a suspicious claims manager (Edward G. Robinson). It’s a race against time to get away with the perfect crime in this heart-racing Academy Award®-nominated masterpiece.
‘Double Indemnity’ is one of those films that I requested from the library at some point and, by the time I got it, had no idea why it was waiting on the shelf for me. I actually had to re-request it later, when I realized that it was a Billy Wilder film, having thrown it back the first time around.
I had no idea that Wilder had made film noirs until recently, so it’s natural that I had skipped it originally; I love the genre, but I don’t think they’re all great. And since I also had no idea just how noteworthy this film is (7 Academy Award® nominations is quite something!), it just looked like one of many to me.
For starters, there is a sardonic humour in the characters’ remarks that completely sets up the film’s edginess. Sure, the exchanges between some of the characters aren’t realistic, but they’re sharp anyway. It’s very nice banter; you’d want to be able to talk that way in real life – it’s like an intricate dance.
Then there’s the film’s look, filled with impenetrable blacks and heavy shadows. There’s more to film noir than just the visual style, but one would be hard-pressed to understate just how important its contribution is. I wonder if one could make a film noir in total daylight, and in colour. It might be possible, I suppose, but I think that it would be quite the challenge.
Another thing that set up the film’s mood was in getting a vague sense of the outcome from the start. This was a marvellous way to propel the film, because we knew something bad had happened, even if we didn’t really know what. Unfortunately, the film lost some of that momentum as it dragged on with unconvincing twists, deflating the suspense.
The main character’s confession to his boss was really nice device; it gave us a narration which was essential to the understanding of the case. What I found odd was that he would describe things that he originally didn’t know about until later. It wasn’t a narration in the present tense; it was clearly retrospective and he was filling in some blanks. But it was used very effectively.
Fred MacMurray is quite convincing in the lead, even though he isn’t natural; it’s clear that this is due to the film being from a pre-Method era, not because he’s a terrible actor. I couldn’t place his face, even though it was super familiar to me, but it turns out that he had smaller role in ‘The Apartment’. He was terrific in that, actually.
Barbara Stanwyck didn’t captivate me in the way that I would have expected her to, considering MacMurray’s utter fascination with her. I really didn’t understand the allure; neither her looks or her on-screen persona appealed to me at all. In fact, I found her quite cold. She should have been able to steam up the screen enough for us to understand why he would throw everything away for her.
Edward G. Robinson turned his part into a third lead out of sheer screen presence. At first, he reminded me of James Cagney, but he quickly dissipated that impression by turning in an infinitely more nuanced performance than Cagney could ever dream of. I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything else other ‘Soylent Green’, his last film, so it was nice to see him in action during his heydays.
I think that the reason why the film lost its grip on me over time is twofold:
1. There’s the obvious: I don’t understand why our protagonist would fall for that feeble “femme fatale”. I didn’t buy it, even though the narration helps us to get into the lead’s mind.
2. I also wasn’t at all convinced that their plan was a good one. Even though he knows the insurance business extremely well, I got the impression that this was a poorly concocted caper. I certainly didn’t find it foolproof; it looked far too full of variables to be safe. But, hey, what do I know? I certainly don’t have a super strategic and/or criminal mind…
All this to say that it’s hard to stick with the film when you aren’t buying it. If I had felt the heat between the two leads, I would have understood the reasons why it was taking place. If I had found the plan ingenious, I would have been riveted to my seat watching it unfold – and then would have lost my mind as we saw it fall apart. THAT would have been something.
But, as it stands, it’s a film that begins with a promise that it didn’t fully fulfill. It’s a flawed gem that deserves attention and is absolutely worth a second look, but it’s not at all surprising to me that it didn’t cash in on its many nominations; ‘Double Indemnity’ isn’t everything that it should have been. Almost, but not quite.