Even with the light on, her face remains initially eaten away by shadows. Groping for a cigarette, he turns on a voice recorder to confess. “Yes, I killed him. For money. And for a wife. I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the wife. Pretty, isn’t it?”
Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, shown below) is the wife, unhappily married in a sunny suburban home in the hills. She enters wearing only a towel, invoking Olympic flirtation (“There’s a speed limit in this state.” “How fast was I?” “I’d say about 90…”). Arriving next as a sweater girl, her lips hung hungrily, Walter needing no second invitation. The insurance she wants on a husband she would rather be dead barely holds the conscience of a man who wants to beat his own system, shooting for the double indemnity jackpot – a double payout for rare accidents. The insufferable Mr. Dietrichson signs his own death warrant when Walter duplicitously hands him insurance papers. Walter’s only concern is his friend and boss, Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, picture below), which cannot be fooled…
Billy Wilder Double Indemnity did not invent dark moviebut defined it early, nailing the postwar American taste for more realistic adult films in 1944, and the tropes of voiceovers, flashbacks, femme fatales and twilight lives, here filed down by the director of photography John Seitz, who had “guts”, Wilder later said, plunging some scenes into the darkest night.
Wilder’s third film as writer-director was his first of many classics (Some like it hot at the top of the list), after excellent screenplay work dating back to Berlin in the 1920s. of its publication in 1936, and co-writer Raymond Chandler, whose harsh wit sparks dialogue and nails voiceover. Cain transforms the scheming trench coat killers of Chandler, the knight-errant Philip Marlowe would hunt into protagonists, in a perfect triangle of complementary talents.
Then there’s the kind Fred MacMurray, a romantic lead and later avuncular Disney regular, with his open apple pie face. Here, he’s a salesman, hard-mouthed and hard-pressed, whose criminal acts lock him into watchful indifference. Stanwyck, then the top female star, is belittled with a blonde wig and seductively lit, pointing up her chest, Wilder playing matador games with the censors. But when they plot in a supermarket between cans of baby food and beans, her head turns after Walter in a cold assessment. We experience her husband’s murder, just off-screen, in her gaze of satisfaction. They are not desperate lovers. Lust just greases greed.
The tape reel spins as Walter lays this out for Robinson’s Keyes, who meanwhile rattles off Chandler’s crackle at breakneck speed. After an improbable sentimental weakening in an ever-invigoratingly cold-blooded film, it’s Robinson who provides a perfect, sadly warm final emotional charge as Walter unravels.
Criterion two-disc Blu-ray extras include film pundit Noah Eisenberg on Austro-Hungarian Jew Wilder’s colorful career in Vienna and Berlin as a jazz PR, taxi dancer, journalist and screenwriter, inclined since his birth to love from the United States in Berlin. Americanism infatuation when his mother named him after Buffalo Bill. His fate was unknown as he filmed Double Indemnitybut she and her grandmother were murdered in the camps.
Film scholars Eddie Muller and Imogen Sara Smith make the case for Double Indemnity like the ultimate black, and remember Chandler and Wilder’s mutual hatred during their few months writing it. William Friedkin and James Ellroy ponder all of this in 2006 doc shadows of suspenseand there are 1945 and 1950 radio adaptations of Double Indemnity with Stanwyck and MacMurray. Better, the second disc has the three-hour Arena 1992 doc Billy, how did you do?in which The tin drumThe director of , Volker Schlöndorff, lets the so-called “Central European asshole” Wilder speak at the age of 85.