So after a screwball comedy and a WW II film, Wilder moved away from both in 1944 to make the film-noir classic Double Indemnity. When I chose Billy Wilder as my director to analyze this was one of the film’s that I was very excited to see. I love film noir and Double Indemnity was one of the classics that established some of the standards for the noir films that followed. Double Indemnity also was the first film that Wilder co-wrote without Charles Brackett, choosing instead to write with famous crime novelist Raymond Chandler. This is important because this was one of the factors that led to the split between Wilder and Brackett, which is an important issue when analyzing his collective works. This film also continues upon the work Wilder did in his first two films and it effectively combines the strong dialogue from The Major and the Minor with the shadowy lighting and harsh angles used in Five Graves to Cairo. The result is a film that wasn’t the best film noir I’ve ever seen, but one whose visual and thematic techniques had an immense impact on the genre.
Double Indemnity revolves around the interactions between Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, Phyllis Dietrichson, the femme fatale who lures him into a plot to kill her husband, and Barton Keyes, the insurance claims manager investigating the mysterious death of Mr. Dietrichson. However, the film is presented as a series of flashbacks, with first person narration from Neff. This means that we know early in the film that Neff did in fact kill Dietrichson, and is going to get caught, but overall that matters less than the interactions between the main characters. Double Indemnity isn’t a murder mystery, but an examination on guilt, greed, and manipulation. This wasn’t the first film to use flashbacks to tell the story, but by giving away most of the ending early on the movie ensured that the interactions between the people involved in the act was more important than the end result.
It helps that Double Indemnity features excellent performances by all three leads (Fred MacMurray as Neff, Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Edward G. Robinson as Keyes). Stanwyck’s performance is thought to have helped create the femme fatale trope and she is excellent at switching between conniving and innocent, while all the way plotting to come out on top. Her and MacMurray work well together and their power struggle and moral choices keep the film and characters fresh even when the outcome is certain. However, the star of the film is Robinson as Keyes. He never fails to steal the scenes he is in, and the pseudo father/son/mentor relationship he has with Neff continuously provides emotional weight to the story.
Still where Double Indemnity shines is in the innovations that Wilder included. He already showed an excellent grasp of dramatic lighting in his previous films, but he takes it to the next level here. Throughout the film uses the shadows from windows and doors to create tension and the feeling of being watched. For instance he constantly uses the shadows of Venetian blinds to this effect. Take a look at the picture below.
Clearly if you look at Neff, positioned on the left side of the frame you can see the emphasis on shadows and light. While this tactic does not provide anything substantial to the plot it ratchets up the tension of watching and being watched. The whole film is about trying to commit the perfect crime, and this attention to avoiding being seen works well. Wilder also continued to use excellent angles and shot lengths to show the lack or presence of trust between the main characters. Ultimately this visual queues may not seem important, but they reinforce all of the film’s themes and the general mood.
It’s tough to compare Double Indemnity to either of Wilder’s previous works because they are so different, but I will say this film definitely had the best combination of story and visuals. It is a well crafted film that engages from the first frame to the last. It’s not my favorite film noir that I have seen, for example I think Hitchcok’s Shadow of a Doubt from 1943 is better, but it’s easy to see the influence it had on later movies in the genre. It also is the beginning of a stretch of critically acclaimed films, from now to The Apartment in 1960, that mirrors the best of any other director. With Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder began to hit his stride and it leaves me excited to see what is next.
Up Next: For Billy Wilder his next film is the Oscar winning tale of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend. Overall, I continue with a classic Western featuring two of the genre’s best actors, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.