Movie Review: Double Idemnity (1944)


double idemnity

by Alan F. Zundel

You better be sure you have a good relationship with your spouse before you sit down with her to watch “Double Idemnity,” the classic 1944 film noir about a woman plotting to have her husband killed.

The Cinemark Theater chain in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies has been showing a series of “classic” movies over the summer, some of which are not classic in any sense I recognize but I suppose someone may enjoy seeing them again. (“Gremlins”?)

“Double Indemnity,” though, qualifies as a true classic. The title refers to the clause in an insurance policy that pays double the benefit if the covered person dies in a specified unusual manner, in this case falling off a train.

Fred MacMurray, an actor best remembered now as the genial father on the 1960s TV show, “My Three Sons,” plays a smart-aleck insurance agent who meets the femme fatale, played by Barbara Stanwyck, when he drops by her home to remind her husband his car policy needs to be renewed.

The husband is not home, but she is—the lonely and neglected younger wife. She first appears standing on a balcony dressed in nothing but a bath towel. After she dresses and returns to talk insurance he begins turning their conversation toward flirty banter, but her demeanor is harder to read. When she asks about getting a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge, he catches on and gets out of there.

But he can’t let go of the thought of her, and more especially the thought of how he’d go about outwitting his insurance company. Not that he seems to have anything against the company, just that he thinks he’s smarter than other people.

But as the claims investigator at work tells him at one point, “You’re not smarter than the other guys, you’re just taller.” Edward G. Robinson, as usual, crackles in the role of the investigator. A middle-aged bachelor married to his job, he is the wrong guy to try to outwit.

The agent devises a careful plot and executes it and the husband. The first sign of trouble is when their car stalls as he and the new widow are about to leave the crime scene. They glance at each other in guilty silence as beads of sweat appear on his forehead. Finally they get it started, but the theme is clear—the best laid plans are about to go awry.

The movie evoked in me the doomed feeling I would get when I was a kid and had done something I wanted to hide, the gut certainty that it was bound to come to light no matter how good of a liar I was or how well I covered my tracks. Fortunately I haven’t done anything horrible enough to merit that feeling as an adult, but I remember clearly the toll of a guilty conscience. The pacing of the film, with its continual ratcheting up of dramatic suspense, is flawless.

All three key performances are fine, but Robinson is the one that really makes the movie come to life. He has a “little man” inside his chest that troubles him when something is wrong, a parallel to MacMurray’s inner turmoil as his colleague persists in poking into what seems to be the perfect crime. They are perfect foils for each other.

Billy Wilder directed the movie and co-wrote it with Raymond Chandler, a writer of detective novels which were often turned into movies, including another noir classic, “The Big Sleep.” This was only Wilder’s fourth film as director but already he shows the assurance that would later produce several classics, among them “The Lost Weekend,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like It Hot,” and “The Apartment.” The latter was another movie in which MacMurray took the role of a sleazy character and nailed it.

“Double Indemnity” is a classic in the film noir genre, a combination of the dramatic use of shadows from German Expressionist films and the themes of base human motives from American crime fiction. It was not the first in the genre, but it’s A-level stars and commercial success helped kick off the regular release of such features over the next decade and the eventual destruction of the movie censorship code.

With its themes of adultery and murder, it is not the kind of movie my wife would ordinarily attend. But she agreed to see it with me and seemed genuinely engrossed by it.

I do trust her, but in case I die under mysterious circumstances I just wanted everyone to know about her unusual behavior.

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