Double Indemnity (1944)

by George Watches Things


The screen is dark. A man, that we can barely see, is covering himself with his jacket. The music is mysterious. It makes us curious.

Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray as Neff (an insurance salesman) and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson (a mysterious client Neff takes a liking to), is a narrative set in Los Angeles, much like the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. Both were made by the legend himself, Billy Wilder. The crazy back-and-forth between MacMurray and Stanwyck in their first scene together is aided by their chemistry (an idea, by the way, I don’t believe in while talking about basketball, but its existence here is irrefutable). Only a few scenes later, they’re kissing in his apartment.

Mrs. Dietrichson and Mr. Neff come up with a plot to kill Mr. Dietrichson and collect the insurance money. And then they follow through on it. The scene in which the Dietrichsons leave the house, not giving too much away, is very dark, just like the opening shot. After the deed is done, the getaway car doesn’t start for awhile. Neff panics. Dietrichson panics. I paniced along with them.

I really enjoyed these characters. Edward G. Robinson was right when he said, in the middle of the movie, that all these insurance claims have a story, a “drama.” This “accident” has an impact on everyone of them, but in different ways. Neff is portrayed incredibly well during the narration. His whole face is sweaty, he breathes heavily, and he’s shaking a little (I don’t think all of that was from the bullet). Phyllis is cool, but somehow passionate all the same, and I would never trust her entirely. If Neff had a choice, he shouldn’t have either.

The movie is genius. I can’t say more than that. The performances are so nuanced that there wasn’t a character I didn’t like. They were all deserving of my sympathy. The shots themselves are noir (French for black, if you didn’t know) and moody. And the humor has a bitter aftertaste that only Billy Wilder can pull off.

(Double Indemnity is available now on Netflix Instant. If you see and enjoy it, you might also want to check out Sunset Boulevard and Casablanca.)

Stray notes:

  • “Now get out of here before I throw my desk at you.” “I love you too.”
  • “We gotta have some of that pink wine that goes with it. The kind that bubbles.”
  • “What was his name?” “Jackson, probably still is.”