Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity ★★★★★

“I did it for the money. I did it for the woman. 
I didn’t get the money. I didn’t get the woman.”

These simple lines—written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder—sum up the film noir genre. That’s because Double Indemnity is the quintessential noir. It has the stereotypical noirish elements, sure— the voiceover, the murder plot, the contrast-filled black-and white photography, the femme fatale (and what a femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck is!). But those things alone don’t make a noir. 

No, it’s the immoral decision of the protagonist—and its consequences—that make a noir a noir. And Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff makes a really, really bad decision. Led astray by Stanwyck’s seductive Phyllis Dietrichson, insurance salesman Neff agrees to help Phyllis commit the perfect murder to claim her husband’s accident insurance. Neff’s decision to help seems truly foolish, considering his co-worker and good friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, in a phenomenal role), has a special gift for sniffing out insurance fraud. 

You might wonder why Neff would risk his life for this woman. Why would he do it when the risk of failure is so great? Walter Neff is a top salesman for his insurance agency. His boss and co-workers trust him. But he is not a good man. His shrewdness in business has made him cocky, until he believes he can literally get away with murder. Does he really love Phyllis that much, or is he just, I don’t know, bored? Phyllis certainly seems so. Maybe that’s all the motivation these two sociopaths need.

Film noir isn’t especially interested in motivation. It merely acknowledges that people are evil; it doesn’t explain why. But noir is not an amoral genre. It doesn’t glory in evil. On the contrary, no noir would be complete without showing the audience the consequences of the evil act.

For Double Indemnity, Wilder wrote and shot two endings. In the first, the consequences for Neff’s actions are explicit. He is sent to the gas chamber for his crimes. Wilder was proud of this ending, but ultimately chose to cut it. What replaces it as the film’s actual ending is much more subtle, and, I think, the correct choice. This wonderful ending, which has to be seen to be appreciated, focuses on how Neff’s actions not only affected him, but his relationship with the one who trusted him most. 

Double Indemnity is dark, surprising, and riveting. It’s a genre-defining movie and an obvious must-see.

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