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EMPIRE ESSAY: Double Indemnity Review

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An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator's suspicions.

★★★★★

In 1927, in Queens, New York, Ruth Snyder and her loverJuddGrey murdered her husband Albert to collect his insurance benefits. They didn't get away with it. Inspired by this sordid affair, James M. Cain wrote Double Indemnity, a brief novel in which insurance salesman Walter Huff and femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger knock off her old man, but fall out and wind up as shark-food. The book fell into the hands of writer-director Billy Wilder, who called in hard-boiled novelist Raymond Chandler to help him whip it into a screenplay, turning Huff and Nirdlinger into Neff and Dietrichson and wrapping up the story with a narration in Chandler's hard-to-mistake style.

Double Indemnity is the archetypal film noir, the tale of a desperate dame and a greedy man, of murder for sordid profit and sudden, violent betrayal. Yet, courtesy of Chandler, it has a weird, evocative romanticism ("How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle ?") and pays off, extraordinarily for 1944, with a confession not only of murder but of love between two men. The last line, addressed by dying Walter Neff to heartbroken Barton Keyes is, "Hove you too".

In the great title sequence, a man in a fedora advances on crutches towards the camera while Miklos Rosza's unforgettable
theme, a march of impending doom, thunders out. Then, a wounded man staggers by night into the Los Angeles offices of the Pacific All Risk Insurance company, exchanges bitter words with a lift operator the firm has refused to insure, and settles down at his desk to dictate confessional notes on "The Dietrichson Claim" into a recording machine. He introduces himself as "Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars... until a while ago, that is."

Fred MacMurray spent his whole career, first at Paramount then at Disney and finally in sitcoms, as a genial nice guy, always smiling (he was the model for the cartoon character Captain Marvel), always folksy. Just twice (his other change-of-pace, also for Wilder, was the The Apartment (I960)) he crawled behind his smile and played a complete heel, his cleft chin sweaty and in need of a shave, his smooth salesman's talk a cover for lechery, larceny and murderous intent.

The bait that tempts this average nobody off the straight and narrow comes fresh from a sun-bathe, barely wrapped in a towel, flashing an ankle bracelet. Calling at a fake Spanish mansion on Los Feliz Boulevard about an auto policy renewal, Neff encounters the divine Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) and, fatally, can't resist putting verbal moves on her. The exchange is pure Chandler.
Phyllis: "There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour." Neff: "How fast was I going, Officer?" Phyllis: "I'd say around 90" Neff backs off when she innocently asks if it's possible to insure her older husband (Tom Powers) against accidental death without him knowing about it. Neff mulls it over and, after a clinch in his apartment, agrees to pitch in with the murder plan.

The couple trick Mr. D into signing up for a policy that pays off double if death occurs on a train, then arrange it so his broken-necked corpse is found on railroad tracks. Enter Barton Keyes (Robinson), a claims-investigator of Columbo-like tenacity whose only blind spot is his devotion to Neff. Keyes fusses around the case, ruling out suicide in a brilliant speech about the unlikeliness of suicide-by-jumping-from-a-train (Robinson is so terrific it doesn't matter that he muffs a few phrases in the take used in the film) but homing in on the gamey blonde as a murderess and rooting around for her partner-in-crime. Keyes doesn't even have to do much work, since post-killing pressures are already splitting Neff and Phyllis apart, as they try not to panic during meets in a local supermarket and come to suspect each other of further double-crosses. In that stifling, shadowed mansion, with honeysuckle in the air, the lovers riddle each other with bullets, and Neff staggers away to confess-Keyes joins him in the office and sadly catches the end of the story. Neff asks for four hours so he can head for Mexico, but Keyes knows, "You'll never make the border... You'll never even make the elevator."

Wilder shot a scene of Neff going to the gas chamber, but didn't use it. Instead, the film ends with quiet devastation. Throughout, in a neat running gag, Keyes has been too preoccupied with his hunches to light his own cigars, waving them around until Neff supplies the match. Now, as Neff breathes his last, he sticks a cigarette in his mouth and Keyes, not as matchless as he thought, sadly provides a light.

Superlative crime yarn adapted with precision and skill from the classic James M. Cain novel.