Double Indemnity is mostly a character study. There’s the noir framing device–wounded insurance salesman Fred MacMurray stumbling into his office and recording his confession on a dictaphone. Turns out he met a woman and things didn’t work out.
MacMurray narrates the entire film. Occasionally the action returns to him sitting in the office, bleeding out. He’s always present. And he’s the only one always present. His confession is for Edward G. Robinson, who plays the insurance company claims manager and the closest thing MacMurray has to a friend. Both Robinson and MacMurray stay with it for the puzzles. Robinson in catching fraudulent claims, MacMurray in idling his time. He’s a character in stasis. Until he meets Barbara Stanwyck.
The chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray has waves. Their demeanor develops in real time. With director Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler’s double entendre barbs tangoing and Doane Harrison getting just the right cut. And Miklós Rózsa’s ostentatious yet perfectly so score coming in. The scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray, especially the first couple, radiate.
But the film isn’t about Stanwyck’s fed-up wife and boyfriend MacMurray plotting to kill her husband (Tom Powers). For a while it seems like it might be–with MacMurray’s narration implying it too. But it’s not. Not the plotting, anyway. The plotting is all done offscreen while MacMurray’s dealing with work stuff. Powers is barely in the movie. Wilder’s ability to get good impressions from the supporting cast is outstanding; it’s also essential to Double Indemnity’s success. MacMurray’s narrating so he always gets the focus. Making sure the supporting cast is familiar when they have to return is big deal. Wilder (and Harrison) do some awesome character establishing in this film.
After the murder, there are complications. Sometimes there are resolutions, sometimes not. The connotations of each play out on MacMurray’s sometimes strained, sometimes ashen (presumably) face. Robinson and Stanwyck get the film’s flashier roles, but MacMurray’s the one who has to sell it. Not just in his performance but, for the film to work, in how his narration jibes with his own onscreen action.
And Double Indemnity does it. The filmmaking is impeccable.
The flashback takes place over a considerable amount of time–a few months–but the present action of the film is the hundred minutes of the runtime. MacMurray’s narration has an urgency to it. He skims the boring parts, or the parts it turns out he doesn’t want to examine, which is where the character study comes in. Both for Stanwyck, which is expected, and MacMurray, the film has some third act revelations. Double Indemnity being great, some of these revelations come out in scene so Stanwyck and MacMurray get to do their reactions. Others are in MacMurray’s narration. And those revelations are coming while the tension–both in the present and flashback–is getting more and more taut.
Double Indemnity is awesome.
Wilder has the three stars–MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson–and he’s always trying to figure out how to place them. The characters talk like they’re fencing–even when it’s pals MacMurray and Robinson. The physical movements are important. Especially when they’re moving during the talking heads. Robinson’s got this nervous energy as he works out schemes, making his behavior itself agitating to MacMurray.
Then there are are the silent facial expressions. They’re real important. Stanywck’s got one particularly great one. And Wilder makes them do some heavy character development lifting too. It’s great.
All three leads are great. Again, Stanwyck and–especially–Robinson get to be flashy. MacMurray has to keep it cool. Even so, Robinson’s probably the best. Then Stanwyck. The flashy is excellent flashy and the actors nail it.
Porter Hall’s got a fun scene, Richard Gaines has an awesome scene–most of the supporting cast just show up for a single scene. Established then out. Until they might need to come back, like Jean Heather as Stanwyck’s step-daughter. She shows up, implies one arc, comes back with something completely different. And far more important than originally implied.
Double Indemnity is a fast, busy film; Wilder and the crew–John F. Seitz’s photography, Harrison’s editing, the score, Edith Head’s costumes–make it graceful fast and busy. Like I said, it’s impeccable, masterful, awesome. Double Indemnity’s great.
Directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Miklós Rózsa; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), and Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton, Jr.).