As one who worked in the insurance business for 20 years, one would naturally expect Double Indemnity to be near and dear to my heart. I’m not sure that’s quite the right turn of phrase, but it’s certainly a darn good picture. Like it’s fellow Hollywood-set noir, Sunset Boulevard, this film shows a much darker and seedier side to the city of glitz and glamor.
Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, an insurance man (adjuster? salesman? both?) who has been working for some time under the tutelage of Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes. In the course of his work peddling policies door to door (what a different time, neh?) Neff encounters the beautiful, young, childless, and bored Phyllis Dietrichson portrayed by a bleached-blonde Barbara Stanwyck. She does have a step-daughter, since she’s the second wife of an older, distant, and very busy husband. As a film aficionado of wide experience, you no doubt have already surmised that Neff has his interest piqued by Stanwyck who is openly vamping him.
Their encounters have an electricity borne of sweltering heat, low light, and raw animal magnetism. Neff is inexorably drawn in until he can’t turn away even after it becomes clear she’s not looking for a dalliance or even a divorce, but wants help in accomplishing her husband’s death. Which, again Dear Reader, you knew was coming because you’re familiar with the tropes of the noir drama. Even the title of the film refers to the longstanding practice in insurance of paying double on life insurance when the death occurs while the indemnified party is traveling for business.
I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say that the murder occurs and the claim is investigated by none other than Neff’s boss Keyes. The tension mounts as we watch and wonder if the conspirators will get caught; if they will stick together or betray each other, and how far they’ll go to ensure the success of their plot.
It has a bit less impact today seeing Robinson so firmly on the side of law and order and justice. Contemporary audiences would have found the casting much more interesting since he was so well known for most of his long career as one who almost invariably played, gangsters, crooks, and villains. (Indeed, the classic “gangster voice” put on by Bugs Bunny and others in the old Warner Brothers cartoons is a parody of Edward G. Robinson’s voice.) Curiously, modern audiences are perhaps more likely to find the MacMurry casting the shocking one since he’s known today as well or better for playing the titular absent-minded professor in the original Disney movies about flubber and for being the genial father on the old sitcom My Three Sons. Seeing him here as a hard-drinking, womanizing murderer was quite a revelation to me the first time I saw this film.
Stanwyck is very effective as the trashy though alluring temptress. She puts on a performance that is convincingly both enticing and full of warnings of danger. The choice to switch her natural red hair for bleached blonde locks (a wig?) was an inspired choice. I’m not saying that a young, single Bob would have taken the same path as Neff, but I’m not not saying that either.
It’s a movie, so it has an ending that’s suitably cinematic. I’m not sure it’s actually justice, or perhaps even very satisfying, but it does feel right for this movie. “Accurate” is perhaps the better term, or simply that we end on the natural conclusion to such a tale of murder and betrayal.