Do you like double surprises? If you’re like me, as a child, I remember Fred MacMurray as the affable, non-threatening, pipe-smoking, all-knowing dad, Steve Douglas, on “My Three Sons,” and Barbra Stanwyck as the tough, cattle hustling matriarch of “The Big Valley.” However, before MacMurray and Stanwyck did their respective turns on episodic TV in the 1960s, they made “Double Indemnity,” a film noir made just three years after the “The Maltese Falcon.” (1941).
The setting is Los Angeles. It’s 1938, and MacMurray plays Walter Neff, an insurance agent with an edge and a dark side. The movie begins with Neff recording a confession, then takes us back in flashback to reveal the details leading up to the confession. In some film noir, a detective and his case are the vehicles for the tension (The Maltese Falcon), and the detective often does the voice over for the film. In this movie, perhaps due to Wilder’s sense of humor and absurd view of life, Neff the insurance agent does the voice over as if he is a detective on a case.
Neff meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) when he arrives at her house to discuss auto insurance with her husband. Suddenly, they’re not talking insurance at all, but throwing out double entendres while barely taking a breath in between. Neff’s second visit to the home reveals a wide-eyed Dietrichson seeking accident insurance for her husband who works in a volatile career field. Red flag: “Could I get an accident policy for him (the hubby) without bothering him at all?” Is she innocent or conniving?
Then suddenly she shows up at Neff’s apartment, and they’re calling each other “baby,” and discussing bourbon, and how mean her husband is to her, and how his life insurance goes to his daughter. Is she a genuinely abused spouse, or is she playing Neff by using her sensuality and feminine wiles? Do her actions throughout the movie protect Neff or set him up?
Neff writes the accident policy, then reveals to the Missus a “double indemnity” clause woven discretely within the policy so that if her husband dies under certain extraordinary circumstances she will receive twice the payout! Bonus!
I love the historical details inherent in the film which show us, nearly 68 years later, how some things have progressed while others have not. In an initial scene in an elevator, a bell hop asks Neff how the insurance business is going, then prattles on about he cannot get insurance because of a pre-existing condition (some things never change!). Neff speaks into an archaic, mini-megaphone stenographic machine which today has been replaced by our smaller, sleeker tape recorders. The speed limit in California was 45 miles per hour. Today’s technological advances, including hidden cameras and 24/7 surveillance at most major transportation sites, would have more easily uncovered the scheme.
I don’t normally think of MacMurray and Stanwyck as hotties, perhaps because I remember them as much older versions of themselves, but in this movie, both are smoldering! Edward G. Robinson plays the tough, fast-talking, instinct-driven Barton Keyes who manages the claims department and takes glee in piercing through fraud like a walking lie detector test. Keyes even investigates women he would prospectively date – he’s not paranoid or anything – maybe he just has some subconscious trust issues with women or with Mommy. Even if the police declare an insured’s death “accidental,” Keyes remains on the case, seeking to undercover the covert truth.
Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote (with detective novelist Raymond Chandler) Double Indemnity just six years before he created my all-time favorite movie, “Sunset Boulevard.” (1950). Edith Head did the costumes. Even daytime scenes in the movie feel like night. I am curious about why the movie is set in 1938 in pre-World War II. Did it take Wilder 6 years to make the movie, so that he kept the original date in the script? Or was there another reason – a reflection back to a simpler time still imbued in the end of the Depression and prior to aftermath of the harsh reality and innocence lost brought on by the war?