You have to hand it to a movie in which the main characters are so unlikable, nobody wanted to play them. Such is the case with Double Indemnity, number 38 on the AFI 100 List, and the first piece of film noir we’ve encountered so far. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity is a stylish piece of work that undoubtedly stood out in the 1940s for its callous protagonists.
MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a jaded insurance salesman. On a routine call to renew an auto policy, Neff becomes interested in Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), who quickly tries to involve him in a scheme to murder her husband and collect insurance money. It is Neff himself who plans and orchestrates the entire enterprise, even though he knows that Inspector Keyes (Robinson), the claims adjuster for his company, has an uncanny knack for uncovering phony claims. As the story unfolds, Neff and Phyllis become suspicious of each other, and their relationship spirals out of control. The film opens with an injured Neff leaving a memo of his confession for Keyes, so the audience knows right away that there will be no happy endings.
This is a very intense film. Even though there is no real mystery involved (I always thought that mystery was a key component of noir), the audience is drawn into the increasingly tangled web that Neff and Phyllis have spun for themselves, and we watch with a sort of morbid anticipation for what will happen next. The script, adapted by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder from the novel by James M. Cain, is lean, mean, and lightning-fast. The cinematography is fascinatingly dark, with tight shots that add dramatically to the tension. The movie feels very modern in some ways, not least of which is the coldly fascinating characterization of its leads.
Neff and Phyllis are, indeed, extremely unlikable. From the very beginning, Neff is cynical and somewhat crude, and Phyllis is obviously sly and conniving. When they first enter into a romance with one another, there is a somewhat disturbing lack of passion or interest: their relationship seems conducted merely out of boredom and intrigue. As their plans unfold, they seem to lose interest in one another, with Neff focused on getting away with the thing, and Phyllis making her own plans. Neither shows the slightest hesitation or remorse for what they are doing. Both Stanwyck and MacMurray are impressive in these roles; MacMurray’s deadpan narration truly adds to his character’s lack of spirit, and Stanwyck plays the femme fatale as a woman for whom it is too easy to use her sex to get what she wants. On the other hand, Robinson’s Inspector Keyes is a blustering, affable little chap, and it gives one pause to consider the ease with which his mind is able to understand the lengths of depravity to which others might go. Ultimately, he is the hero of the piece, but his good-guy qualities are effectively overshadowed by the disturbing nature of Neff as villain. He really is a sociopath. As much as it is Phyllis who instigates the plot, it is Neff who performs every function with no notable emotion whatsoever. This would be “normal” in other situations involving criminals, but since Neff starts out as nothing more than an insurance salesman, his calm descent is even more unnerving.
All in all, a fascinating film. From start to finish it is a taut, dramatic piece of work, with very little extraneous content. Double Indemnity is apparently held up as a prime example of film noir, and has influenced many films that followed it. Without knowing a great deal about the genre, I would say that there is a definite feel to the movie, exemplified by the dark cinematography, angular camera work, and the emotional distance of its characters. At various points throughout, I found myself questioning whether or not I thought the acting was good, or whether or not the plot had gotten confusing, but in the end, it all seemed to fall into place so neatly that one must acknowledge the the whole is greater than its parts, and that the film, unusual for its time, stands up against films of today that may go further, but do not capture so effectively the sometimes ugly nature of humanity.