Double Indemnity On Film
James G. Cain wrote three novels that were adapted into classic films: "The Postman Always Rings Twice", "Double Indemnity" and "Mildred Pierce". I have enjoyed reading these books and watching the films in what has become a lengthy passion for American noir. The second of the Cain novels, "Double Indemnity" was published in book form in 1943 after it ran as a magazine serial seven years earlier. It was the first of Cain's novels that Hollywood adopted into a film, and it is often regarded as the film which inaugurated the difficult to define genre of film noir. It is a great, celebrated movie, included on the National Registry maintained by the Library of Congress of films deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Billy Wilder directed this 1944 film and wrote the screenplay in a stormy collaboration with Raymond Chandler. (Chandler has a bit, cameo role in the film, sitting in the corridor of the insurance company building reading a newspaper.) John Seitz was the cinematographer of shades, shadows, and darkness, and Miklos Rozsa composed the foreboding, dramatic music (with a scene with Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" added in.) The movie features outstanding performances from the three leads. Fred MacMurry plays Walter Neff, 35, a lonely, single, and bored insurance salesman. Barbara Stanwyck is Phyllis Dietrichson, the stunning and unhappy wife of an oil company executive and a manipulative, irresistible femme fatale in her blond wig. Edward G. Robinson plays Barton Keyes, the insurance company claims adjuster, a crusty character who is a friend and father figure to Neff.
The film is set in Los Angeles in 1938. Neff becomes smitten with Phyllis while in the process of trying to get her husband to renew an auto insurance policy. He and Phyllis scheme to take out an accident insurance policy on the husband with pays a double indemnity for death resulting from death on the train. The would-be couple then plot an elaborately staged scene in which hubby suffers death by apparent train accident within weeks of the policy. After the murder, the plot gradually unravels through the work of the indefatigable and cigar-smoking Keyes.
The story is told in a voice over by Neff with extensive flashbacks to the events of the story. Both Neff and Phyllis are lonely for different reasons. Neff is vulnerable with a streak of cruelty and violence of his own, while Phyllis is manipulative, smolderingly vicious, and fully aware of her power over men. Keyes is also single and lonely. The movie shows passion, loss, greed, and violence in large corporations and in a depersonalized urban life.
With its story of lust, violence, and internal torment, "Double Indemnity" became a model for many subsequent noir films, through Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard", of 1950, also set in Los Angeles and using an extensive voice over. But "Double Indemnity" is more than a story. The use of lighting and shadows inside and outside is an integral part of the film and intensifies the feeling of claustrophobia. The opening sequence shows downtown Los Angeles in the dead of night with its haunted streets and its figure of the wounded Neff. The lighting moves from shadows to almost total darkness in some critical scenes where violence is to be perpetrated. The music is insistent and dramatic. The film shows the torment, ambiguities, and loneliness of its principal characters.It also works to gain sympathy and understanding for the characters even with their crimes, violence and misdeeds.
"Double Indemnity" was highly successful upon its release more than 75 years ago and still retains its power. The film makes an immediate impact on the viewer. With its combination of story, dramatic tension, cinematography, and music, the film will also bear watching many times. Almost anyone who likes movies will enjoy seeing "Double Indemnity". The film is essential for those with a passion for noir and in learning about the genre, whether in novels or on the screen.