Billy Wilder was a young, up and coming filmmaker with just three films to his name. The film noir genre was in its infancy too, a film popping up here and there that introduce audiences to things that would later become commonplace within the genre. With one fell swoop, Wilder put his name on the map in a big way and helped blow up the film noir in a huge way (that's a positive). The film? A classic, 1944's Double Indemnity.
An experienced and successful insurance salesman with 11 years under his belt, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is very good at what he does, able to sell policies to people who didn't even want insurance. On one house visit where he's looking to re-up on an auto policy, Walter meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who's married but it's far from a happy marriage. He is magnetically drawn to her and can't stop thinking about her. Getting to know her better, Walter finds out about Phyllis and her background with her husband (Tom Powers). Moral of the story? Phyllis wants out, and Walter is going to help. He intends to get her husband to unknowingly sign a life insurance policy and then kill him. A longtime salesman, he's got a perfect plan to pull it off and have him and Phyllis split the $100,000 payout. Could it actually work?
One of the great films from Hollywood's Golden Era (and Hollywood history in general), 'Indemnity' is one of those movies I just never sought out even though I knew its reputation. It was worth the wait. Watching it on a first viewing, it seems familiar -- if in a good way. Why? Because hundreds of movies have tried to duplicate its success in the 60-plus years since its release. The duped male anti-hero, the brutal femme fatale, the characters in general who are interested in me-first, everyone else....well, never. The entire genre in general was ahead of its time, but this was one of the first examples, and it definitely deserves its classic status.
Based off a 'ripped from the headlines' story, the script from director Wilder and another halfway decent writer, Raymond Chandler, is like much of the movie, far ahead of its time. In its incredible darkness, honest depiction of just how nasty people can be with money on the line, it feels like a movie that would have been right at home in the equally dark/sinister late 1960s and 1970s. The script lays it all out there, setting it up and letting Walter's predicament get the best of...well, everyone. The dialogue seems a little stilted at times, but it's sharp and quick and well-written for the most part (obviously delivered pretty well too).
The cast doesn't call for too many key roles, but on a bigger level, it doesn't need more characters. MacMurray and Stanwyck are perfectly cast, playing off each other so well. In past reviews, I've mentioned my troubles with watching MacMurray in darker roles because I'm used to him as the star of My 3 Sons or any number of Disney movies, but there's a sinister charm that works nicely here. Stanwyck is the equally sinister femme fatale, like a snake waiting to strike. A match made in movie heaven (eh, maybe hell. We know this won't end well). In a scene-stealing part, Edward G. Robinson is Keyes, the inspector at the insurance company tasked with seeking out payouts that aren't on the level. Robinson expressed some concern at the time that he was taking a supporting part, but he needn't have been worried.
The development of Walter's plan is what sets this movie apart from the rest. Wilder and Chandler's script develops flawlessly, the tension building and building with each passing scene. The actual execution of the plan (oh, watch out, murder!) is tough to watch. We're clearly not rooting for them to succeed and murder someone, but at the same time, it's almost unbearable to watch because at the same time, you don't want them to get caught. It's the fallout afterward that is even tougher to watch. Wilder uses another ahead of its time technique, revealing in the opening scene courtesy of Neff that the plan will not succeed. That could be a dealbreaker for a lesser movie. We basically know the ending a minute into the movie, but it adds an interesting layer to the film. Okay, it's not going to work. How then is it going to crumble?
A classic movie from Hollywood's Golden Era for a reason. This would start Wilder on a ridiculously successful path that would help elevate him to one of Hollywood's all-time great directors. The style, the characters, the dark story and script, the score from composer Miklos Rozsa, it all works well, like puzzle pieces fitting together. Any movie that has influenced so many other films in the years following its release is/was clearly doing something right. Too bad I took so long catching up with it, but it is the rare film that was worth the wait.
Double Indemnity (1944): *** 1/2 /****