Derek Winnert

Double Indemnity ***** (1944, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G Robinson) – Classic Movie Review 164

Double Indemnity 2

Co-writer-director Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir thriller milestone still plays beautifully whether on late-night TV or on cinema revivals. Hugely admired and much imitated, it’s a sizzling movie masterpiece.

Boldly playing against type, Fred MacMurray trades in his regular Hollywood nice guy image and triumphs in his unexpected casting as the wily Walter Neff, a clever but shifty insurance salesman lured into an insurance-killing scam by the wife of one of his clients, slutty femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The two embark on a torrid affair. But she has money on her mind. She wants him to murder her husband for the indemnity money, though it turns out that this can be doubled if he falls from a moving train.


Soon, Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is found dead on the tracks, the cops believe that it’s the accident it seems to be, and it looks like the duo have got away with it.

With Stanwyck a brilliant femme fatale, blonde, bold, brassy and brittle, giving a masterclass (mistressclass?) in duplicity and shallowness, there’s superb acting from the two well-matched stars at their peak. Edward G Robinson is on great form too, showing the importance of being quietly earnest in his role as Barton Keyes, MacMurray’s suspicious boss and friend, the insurance claims investigator who is doggedly looking into the case.


This is ideal material for Wilder. On his best cynical form, he directs atmospherically and corkscrew tautly, working with a razor-sharp, darkly witty screenplay that he and legendary thriller author Raymond Chandler adapted from the James M Cain novel Three of a Kind, (inspired by the real-life 1927 Snyder-Gray story). With a top-notch score by Miklos Rozsa and luminous film noir cinematography by John Seitz, it’s many ways the quintessential 40s thriller and one of the finest suspense mysteries ever made.


There were seven Oscar nominations but absolutely no wins. The New York film critics unwittingly insulted Stanwyck and Wilder by placing them third as best actress and director. Still, hindsight is 20/20 vision.

Remade for TV in 1954 and 1973, it provided the spark that kindled 1981’s similarly themed and minded Body Heat.


Wilder seemed to relish casting MacMurray as a sleaze ball. He plays that role here and in The Apartment and Wilder wanted him for the William Holden role in Sunset Boulevard, though that time he refused to play a gigolo.

© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 164

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