A quintessential film noir

by Robert Pagán

As far as film noir goes, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is up there with the likes of The Maltese Falcon and Scarlet Street. Wilder employs all the stylistic and aesthetic qualities known for the genre. With a story about insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who gets mixed up with the wife of one of his clients, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). They have an affair which leads to the elaborate plans to murder Mr. Dietrchson. Posed as an accident, soon an investigation begins headed by insurance analyst and Walter’s friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) who doesn’t buy it. Mystery and conspiracy ensues.

The characteristics typically associated with film noir are clearly present in the film. From a visual standpoint, expressionistic lighting, deep-focus or depth of field camera work is used as an effective mood setting. Sinister and treacherous moods are created as a result. Most of the film is shot in interiors with low-key (or single-source) lighting, venetian-blinded windows and rooms, and dark, claustrophobic, gloomy appearances. Mrs. Dietrchson’s house is starkly lit even in the daytime. The blinds create horizontal lines of light that contrast with the vertical lines in the house such as the banister on the stairs. Such crossing of perpendicular lines is well-known in the genre.

Double Indemnity
Directed by
Billy Wilder
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Re-Release Date
July 2015
Robert’s Grade: A

Femme fatales are often in film noir including Double Indemnity. Femme fatales are mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, gorgeous, manipulative and desperate women. Phyllis is clearly one. She feels like a caged animal in her husband’s home and is driven to murder him largely because he shows no affection for her. Femme fatale’s violent behavior is at least partially due to women’s lack of status and fulfillment in conventional marriage. This is why she seeks out Walter because he shows her the affection she doesn’t receive from her husband. However, as the description suggests she has an ulterior motive and not what she appears to be.

The way story is told in film noir is also distinct characteristic. Double Indemnity uses flashbacks as other film noirs do as one of the narrative storytelling techniques. We see Neff walk into his office when the film begins. Sitting down in his office Neff starts to tell the story in retrospect through a recording device. The story plays out and occasionally comes back to Neff telling the story back in his office. It is an interesting take on how to tell the story because we don’t know where chronologically this scene takes place until the near end of the film. Voice-narration recurs throughout the story as a result. We are given insight to what Neff was thinking at the time, but what can we really believe him?

The writing of film noir is essential for a great film. Double Indemnity doesn’t disappoint and does one better. The wordplay is where the film excels. The banter between Walter and Phyllis is impeccable. Sexual tensions, innuendos, and puns are prominent throughout most of the conversations including one involving a speeding ticket. Edward G. Robinson does an incredible job with the way his character is written as well. Keyes speaks more like a salesman than even Neff does. Speaking with speed and clarity Keyes stands out among the other characters. He reels off an unforgettable, statistical speech about different kinds of suicidal deaths partway through the story that is hard not to point out.

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir among other greats. Using the conventional tropes of film noir is what makes the film great. However, what makes it truly extraordinary is the writing. The building of each character really adds to the emotional engagement of a viewer. The wordplay used in character interactions creates a certain charm that is not always associated with film noir. The film is one you cannot pass up when it comes to film noir.

Read Randy Krinsky‘s Double Indemnity scene analysis here.