Director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is an outstanding and definitive film noir which received seven Academy Award nominations and even today can still be found in the top thirty of the American Film Institute’s greatest American movies of all time.

The film was based on James M. Cain’s hardboiled novella, which he in turn had based on a real-life 1927 murder case. A number of major film studios had expressed a keen interest in Cain’s story if the Production Code run by the Hays office would clear it. But when the synopsis was forwarded to the censors, they replied, “Under no circumstances will this proposed film receive a seal of approval.”  

Promising Paramount that he and his writing partner, Charles Brackett, would deliver a screenplay that would be acceptable to the censors, Wilder persuaded the studio to buy the rights. But Brackett refused to get involved in the project, considering the plot far too sordid. Wilder then asked detective novelist Raymond Chandler to collaborate with him, but he had never written for film before, which created a tension-filled relationship between the two men. It was resolved by Wilder concentrating on plot and structure and Chandler writing the dialogue. Both stuck as close to Cain’s grim double-deception tale of lust and murder as they thought would get past the censor (the final screenplay they produced together appears today in the Library of America series of classic film texts).

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) meets femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to initially discuss automobile insurance

It’s night-time as the film begins. A man stumbles out of a car and staggers into the Pacific All Risk Insurance Agency offices in downtown Los Angeles. Obviously dying from a gunshot wound, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) uses an office dictaphone to record a confession of murder for his boss – chief claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Neff’s voice-over narration provides the running commentary on the prior events that now unfold on the screen.

Neff had called on the Dietrichson house to renew their automobile policies, meeting the seductive Mrs Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Almost immediately there is an obvious sexual energy between them as they talk and flirt. She casually enquires about accident insurance for her husband, who is continually away from home on business.

Over further meetings their relationship becomes adulterous and Phyllis tells Neff that her husband is so cruel and mean that if she could she would get rid of him. Together they secretly take out an accident policy with a double indemnity clause on the husband, where the insurance company would pay double the money for a death deemed statistically improbable, like a train accident.

The lust-obsessed Neff carefully plans and carries out the murder so that Mr Dietrichson appears to have broken his neck in a fall from the back of a train. But the tenacious claims investigator, Keyes, tells Neff that he feels there is something wrong with the Dietrichson’s claim and furthermore believed that the wife had arranged this “accident” with an unknown accomplice.

The scheming pair stage Mr Dietrichson’s “accident”

The now worried Neff then gets a visit from Phyllis’s stepdaughter, Lola, who tells him that her stepmother was originally her mother’s nurse and she had always suspected that Phyllis had murdered her mother and then married her father for his money. In addition to this, Lola had split with her hot-headed boyfriend, Nino, because he was secretly seeing her stepmother. Neff and Phyllis’s criminal relationship now begins to unravel…

Wilder had to cajole Fred MacMurray to take on the immoral role of Neff. The actor had established himself in light comedy movies but after accepting the part, he would experience a beneficial change of image. Likewise with Stanwyck, who was uneasy playing a murderous femme fatale character. However, her performance as Phyllis garnered her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination and she would go on to appear in another dozen film noir features.

This was only the third film that Wilder had directed but the atmospheric cinematography, sparkling dialogue and well-defined characters – especially the surrogate father-son relationship between Neff and Keyes – makes Double Indemnity Wilder’s first movie masterpiece, and a film that would launch hundreds of imitators over the next seven decades.

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