I have to admit it’s many years since I’ve read James M. Cain’s classic and very dark novel, “Double Indemnity” – and it deserves a re-read – but I did sit down to watch the classic 1944 film the other day. I’ve watched it many times over the years and it never loses its power. A great classic of film noir.
I’m not going to give away much of the plot in case you’ve never seen it. Briefly, though the film starts with insurance agent Walter Neff walking into his closed office and relating the narrative into a dictating machine.
Neff (Fred MacMurray) has visited the home of Mr Dietrichson to try and to get him to renew a motoring insurance policy. His client is out but Neff meets and becomes attracted by his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck at her femme fatale plus).
They get talking – as you do if you’re in insurance – about life insurance. And particularly about the provision in some policies about a double indemnity clause, where the pay-out on death is doubled if the subject of the policy dies in certain obscure ways.
The talk leads ultimately to fraud and murder and then disaster. Neff finds himself leading a double life as he tries mislead his company’s ferocious claims investigator Barton Keyes (a stunning performance by Edward G. Robinson).
The film departs somewhat from Cain’s original novel, mostly to satisfy the dreaded Hays Office censors, who baulked at a story which included a massive fraud, the planning of a murder and even suicide.
It took a considerable bit of screenwriting to get round these restrictions. Fortunately, the film managed to acquire two of the best in the business, in its director Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler. Not that it was an easy alliance. They fought like cat and dog over the script, though Wilder insisted later their disagreements led to the strong script.
Like all good film noir “Double Indemnity” is shot in black and white and is all the stronger for it.
Many leading Hollywood Stars turned down the role of Walter Neff, including Gregory Peck, James Cagney, George Raft, Fredric March, Spencer Tracey and Alan Ladd.
It went to Fred MacMurray in an inspired piece of casting, for MacMurray never looks like a film actor, just the kind of ordinary Joe you might see working for an insurance company. MacMurray up to the point was best known for light comedy roles, so this was a considerable departure for him. It is a terrific piece of acting. Totally believable.
“Double Indemnity” is a film that defines film noir, an example for many films to come.v