Dictating Machine

Double Indemnity (film)

Double Indemnity (1944) is an Academy Award nominated film noir starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. The movie was directed by Billy Wilder and adapted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler from the novella of the same title by James M. Cain that first appeared in 1935 as an abridged 8-part serial in Liberty Magazine.

The story was based on a 1927 crime perpetrated by a married Queens woman and her lover. Ruth (Brown) Snyder persuaded her boyfriend, Judd Gray, to kill her husband Albert after having her spouse take out a big insurance policy—with a double-indemnity clause. The murderers were quickly identified and arrested.

Title

"Double indemnity" refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies where the insuring company agrees to pay twice the standard amount in cases of accidental death.

Plot

Walter Neff (MacMurray) is a successful insurance salesman for Pacific All-Risk returning to his office building in downtown Los Angeles late one night. Neff, clearly in pain, sits down at his desk and tells the whole story into a Dictaphone for his colleague Barton Keyes (Robinson), a claims adjuster.

It is the story of how he meets the sultry Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) during a routine house call to renew an automobile insurance policy for her husband. A flirtation develops, at least until Neff hears Phyllis wonder how she could take out a policy on her husband's life without him knowing it. Neff knows she means murder and wants no part of it.

Phyllis pursues Neff to his own home, and persuades him that the two of them, together, should kill her husband. Neff knows all the tricks of his trade and comes up with a plan in which Phyllis's husband will die an unlikely death, in this case being thrown from a train. Pacific All-Risk will therefore be required, by the "double indemnity" clause in the insurance policy, to pay the widow twice the normal amount.

Keyes, a tenacious investigator, does not suspect foul play at first, but eventually concludes that the Dietrichson woman and an unknown accomplice must be behind the husband's death. He has no reason to be suspicious of Neff, someone he has worked with for quite some time and admires.

Neff is not only worried about Keyes. The victim's daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), comes to him convinced that her stepmother Phyllis is behind her father's death because Lola's mother also died under suspicious circumstances when Phyllis was her nurse. Neff begins to care about what might happen to Lola, both of whose parents have been murdered.

Then he learns Phyllis is seeing Lola's boyfriend behind his back. Trying to save himself and no longer caring about the money, Neff believes the only way out is to make the police think Phyllis and Lola's boyfriend did the murder, which is what Keyes now believes anyway. However, when Neff and Phyllis meet, she tells him she has been seeing Lola's boyfriend only to provoke him into killing the suspicious Lola in a jealous rage. Neff, now wholly disgusted, is about to kill Phyllis when she shoots him first. Neff is badly wounded but still standing and walks towards her, telling her to shoot again. Phyllis does not shoot and he takes the gun from her. She says she never loved him or anyone else and had been using him all along, "until a minute ago, when I couldn't fire that second shot." Neff coldly says he does not believe this new ploy. Phyllis hugs him tightly but then pulls away and looks up at him, startled that he has not responded. Neff says "Goodbye, baby," then shoots and kills her.

Neff drives to his office where he dictates his full confession to Keyes, who arrives and hears enough of the confession to understand everything. Neff tells Keyes he is going to Mexico rather than face a death sentence but collapses to the floor before he can reach the elevator.

Alternate ending

Wilder shot an alternate ending to the film (to appease censors), featuring Neff paying for his crime by going to the gas chamber. This footage is lost, but stills of the scene still exist.

Cast

The main characters include:

Other cast

Critical response

In his 1998 review, film critic Roger Ebert praised director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz. He wrote, "The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings.

A contemporary (1944) review of the film in The New York Times was not positive. Film critic Bosley Crowther found Edward G. Robinson's supporting role excellent but also wrote, "Such folks as delight in murder stories for their academic elegance alone should find this one steadily diverting, despite its monotonous pace and length. Indeed, the fans of James M. Cain's tough fiction might gloat over it with gleaming joy.

Elements of film noir

Double Indemnity is an excellent example of a genre of films called film noir. Its plot and style contains almost all the elements that make up classic film noir:

  • Characters commit brutal, vengeful, and often psychopathic acts of violence.
  • The plot is about how a crime is committed and the story is told from the point of view of the criminal. In the case of Double Indemnity, the plot is literally told by the criminal. The entire plot (except the very first and very last scenes) is told in flashback with a voice-over by Walter Neff, who commits murder and very nearly gets away with it.
  • Double Indemnity, like many other film noirs, takes a naturalistic view of human nature. This is due in part to the flashback structure of the film. As everything in Double Indemnity described by Neff into the dictating machine clearly happened in the past, and there is no way in the present or future to alter events that occurred in the past, it is evident that the events leading up to the eventual execution of Neff were inevitable and were due mostly to Neff's nature as a weak-willed man in the hands of a femme fatale.
  • Themes illustrating how sexuality and psychology are interwoven emerge.
  • Moody lighting including Venetian blind effects on the walls and on characters' faces in some scenes look like bars on a jail and make the characters of Double Indemnity seem as though they are trapped by their human weaknesses and doomed to failure. The cinematographic compositions and the art direction are particularly claustrophobic as well. Characters are often backed into a corner where mobility is impossible (such as in cars or telephone booths).
  • The main female is used as a love interest and manipulation of the male lead. She is sexually independent and exploits her own sexuality for personal gain: the femme fatale.
  • Adapted from novels. Usually described as "hardboiled" detective stories, in which the lead is a usually innocent male led into corruption by the femme fatale and used by her to carry out her wishes in belief that it will secure their love. Eventually the lead figures out the femme fatale's true motives.

Adaptation

Other films inspired by the Snyder-Gray murder include The Postman Always Rings Twice (also based on a Cain novel) and Body Heat. Both Postman and Double Indemnity were remade, with Double Indemnity being a "made-for-TV" movie in 1973 starring Richard Crenna, Lee J. Cobb, and Samantha Eggar. The TV-movie is included in the DVD release with the original film.

An Indian film, Jism, was also inspired by the film.

Double Indemnity is one of the films parodied in the 1993 movie Fatal Instinct; the hero's wife conspires to have him shot on a moving train and fall into a lake so that she can collect on his insurance, which has a "triple indemnity" rider.

Awards

In 1992, Double Indemnity was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Academy Award Nominations

American Film Institute recognition

Notable quotations

  • Walter (MacMurray): It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Maybe you would have known, Keyes, the minute she mentioned accident insurance, but I didn't. I felt like a million.

The following exchange was one of 400 nominated quotes in the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes list of the best film quotes in American film history:

  • Phyllis (Stanwyck): There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles an hour.

Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around 90.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter: That tears it...

References

Notes

External links

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