Double Indemnity (1944)

When Fred MacMurray first meets Barbara Stanwyck, she’s been sunbathing on the roof (possibly even in THE NUDE) and Fred says, “No pigeons around, I hope.” You can DuckDuckGo this. You’ll find a lot of articles that mention this. Some, rather thickly, in the context of misogyny or just flirting. I have yet to see one mention of the obvious:

Fred MacMurray is the pigeon.

Coo.

Barbara Stanwyck spots a pigeon. (That wig, tho’.)

That’s the beauty of the line. When the movie opens, Walter Neff (MacMurray) is bleeding to death (maybe) in Edward G. Robinson’s office while he records his confession—the story that unfolds in flashback. So the very first thing the movie tells us is: He’s the pigeon, and he’s not aware of it until the last possible moment.

It’s a timeless tale: Phyllis is a trophy wife (in the parlance of our times) who almost immediately hooks Neff into her plan to murder her husband for the insurance money. Since Neff is a sales guy who works closely with a claims investigator (a great performance from Edward G. Robinson) he knows you can’t get away with that kind of thing, see?

And you know you’re noir and in for it when your objection isn’t “Hey, you know, maybe killing your husband for money isn’t really a solid moral choice” but “You’ll never get away with it.” Because, of course, Neff’s given this a lot of thought, and he’s figured out the perfect way to commit a murder, and make it look like an accident so you get the double indemnity payout to boot!

We have move title!

“Can’t be done. Let me explain how to double your profits, though.”

Well, the fact that the movie begins with Neff bleeding and recording his confession pretty much tells you how it all works out, but it’s a terrific journey. Lots of suspense and paranoia and maybe—just maybe—you’ll learn a little something about, uh, not trying to base your love on adultery and murder.

This was Billy Wilder’s third film in America (Five Graves to Cairo and The Major and the Minor were his previous two) and he only directed one film in France previously (he himself was Austro-Hungarian!), but the whole thing comes off as polished and well-constructed as Hitchcock. (Hitchcock said people often praised him for Witness For The Prosecution—and apparently Wilder got a lot of praise for The Paradine Case, and Hitch is the winner in the case of mistaken identity.)

MacMurray is great. The warmth and wisdom he would later come to be synonymous with is utterly missing here. He comes off more like a Bogie type, except for being a bad guy. The movie doesn’t really do much to soften him: He’s hot for Stanwyck, but there’s no real romanticism of their love. He knows the kind of woman she is up front.

Eddie G!

“Now, I’M the good guy, see?”

Stanwyck…well, she had hair problems. She’s got a goofy wig on. She didn’t do it for me. (I liked her way better in The Lady Eve.) Which isn’t, by the way, to say that she was bad or anything. But I have a similar reaction to The Maltese Falcon. Mary Astor is the weak link, not because she can’t act, but because she isn’t smoking hot enough. (Like a Lauren Bacall or a Veronica Lake or a Rita Hayworth…)

The dialogue pops. It’s impossibly arch and awesome. Wilder wrote the script with Raymond Chandler, based on James M. Cain’s novel, so…yeah. The story is tight and the characters are sharply drawn. It’s just solid moviemaking. So much great camera work by John F. Seitz. It gets the point across stylishly without being super-showy.

Killer score by the great Miklós Rózsa.

Why wouldn’t you watch his?

Go figure.

This shot isn’t in the movie, but wow! I guess Neff lives to be put in the gas chamber?

5 thoughts on “Double Indemnity (1944)

  1. Darn good movie, and one that escaped my full attention until recently even though I went through a whole year where I wanted nothing but more Film Noir.

  2. From RCOCEAN—

    Thanks for noticing that Babs Stanwyck isn’t really the hot tamale the film makes her out to be. I would’ve put Lana Turner in the role. But I’ll disagree with you about Mary Astor. She’s NOT supposed to be a Femme fatatle in Maltese Falcon.

    Anyway that aside, good review. And in another aside, it ticks me off that Chandler doesn’t get enough credit for the dialogue, because almost all that witty banter you hear is his. I’m not taking away anything Wilder as a DIRECTOR, but he always had a good screenwriter to help him out. And they seem to get forgotten in all the Wilder love.

    • Sorry, rc, I accidentally deleted your comment (I get tons of span) but I managed to salvage the text.

      LANA TURNER! Yes, excellent choice.

      Good point about Mary Astor not appearing like a femme fatale, but neither did she have the the deceptively waif-like look called for.

      You may be right about Wilder owing a lot more to his writers than anyone admits. It would explain why his movies started to suck as the language deteriorated.

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