Ten Second Movie Review: Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)Director: Billy Wilder Writers: Wilder and Raymond Chandler Stars: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

In the late 1990s, the American Film Institute released a list they called "100 Years...100 Movies." Ostensibly, it ranked the top 100 feature-length American movies, and at the time, I thought it would be a fun project to watch all 100.

Here we are, fifteen years later, and I'm still working on that. (At some point, I'll figure out how many I have remaining, but it can't be very many.) Recently, I was able to mark Double Indemnity -- AFI #38* -- off my personal checklist. In one word: masterful.

The plotline actually seems pedestrian: "An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator's suspicions." Fred MacMurray (of My Three Sons fame) stars as Walter Neff, a successful insurance agent who runs into Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, in an Oscar-nominated performance) in the ordinary course of business. Dietrichson is married to a less-than-successful oil executive, one thing leads to another and -- this always happens, doesn't it? -- murder and insurance fraud are committed. Dietrichson and Neff conspire to murder her husband and cover up their deed.

The actual criminal act occurs somewhat early in the film, and most of the film consists of the tension created when Neff's boss, an insurance analyst played by the always-entertaining Edward G. Robinson, becomes suspicious and launches an investigation. No, that doesn't sound high-concept, does it? You'll be surprised. For instance, the viewer can never really be sure why these two team up to commit this act. Passion? I don't know; at times, we aren't even sure Dietrichson and Neff like each other (and, in fact, Dietrichson admits as much later in the movie). For the money? They don't show much interest in it.

I have some theories, but I've already exceeded my allotted ten seconds. Suffice to say that many questions remain unanswered after my first viewing, but the film still worked brilliantly.

Double Indemnity is classic film noir, from the stylish cinematography, the superb use of black and white, and the snappy dialogue penned mostly by detective novelist Raymond Chandler. Oh, the dialogue. Chandler had me with the opening line of the film:

I killed him for money -- and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.

I love it.

Billy Wilder has always been one of my favorite directors. (I love Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Seven Year Itch, and Sabrina, in particular.) Double Indemnity, one of his earliest works, is unlike anything he did after. Add it to the pantheon. It's good.

I'm really kicking myself for not making time to watch Double Indemnity before now. Rest assured, however: I will watch this one again. Five stars out of five.

*In 2007, AFI released an updated list. Double Indemnity must have aged well; a decade after the original list, AFI ranked it nine spots higher at #29.