Double Indemnity

double indemnityWhen a signature means you’re a dead pigeon and murder smells of honeysuckle you know you’re watching classic film noir!

Released in 1944, Double Indemnity is based on the book of the same name by James M Cain, it’s directed by Billy Wilder and the screenplay is by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder.

Set in 1938, the story is told in a series of flashbacks by Walter Neff, (Fred MacMurray)as he speaks into a dictaphone. An insurance salesman, Neff pays a routine call on Mr. Dietrichson to let him know his policy is due for renewal. But instead of meeting Mr. Dietrichson he meets his wife Phyllis.  Barbara Stanwyck plays the quintessential femme fatale, desirable but dangerous she uses her feminine wiles to manipulate everybody, but mostly Walter Neff.

An ordinary housewife, Phyllis glides around her Californian home in costumes designed by Edith Head.   First she appears in just a towel, so we know she’s no shrinking violet, then we get billowing sleeves and power shoulder pads, enormous jewellery and an ankle bracelet.But her outfits are about more than straightforward seduction. Sometimes it’s tweed and trousers or a classic skirt and sweater, she’s choosing her clothes with great care and keeping us guessing. At 3.30 in the afternoon her gown is more champagne cocktail than ice tea, but just then, as arranged, Walter arrives and she remembers it’s her maid’s day off and her husband isn’t home after all! –  this is a dame in control, but who is she and what does she have in mind?

DOUBLE-INDEMNITY_IN-TEXT1520But whilst conveying a very American way of life, film noir presents us with a pessimistic view of humanity, there is a constant air of menace. All the characters are to some extent shady and the cinematography mirrors this. The high contrast between light and dark casts long shadows everywhere, from hats, blinds, corners, obscuring the characters from us and increasing the dramatic tension, so that we can never really see what they mean.  The contrast of the sunny exteriors of California to gloomy interiors gives a sense of what lies beneath the facade. The use of mirrors, high angles and deep focus shots (pioneered in Citizen Kane), that gives the background equal significance all helps to create a feeling of instability. It works like a physical representation of the plot twists, so that we are never quite sure who (if anyone) we can trust.

Double Indemnity is seen by many as the noirist of all the noirs! It ticks all the boxes for chiaroscuro lighting techniques; sharp dialogue, convoluted plot twists and a fabulously dangerous femme fatale. I’m interested that so many of the techniques associated with film noir were used by Fritz Lang in M (1931) and I see that that film is considered proto-noir! But it shows how revolutionary it was and the influence of German Expressionism on film.

“I hope I’ve got my face on straight”


4 thoughts on “Double Indemnity

  1. I love this film! In fact, this is my favourite era in film-making – it’s never been the same since they introduced colour. šŸ˜‰ Have you read the book it’s taken from? I’ve been meaning to for ages but still haven’t got around to it. I always enjoy seeing what the director has added or subtracted. I was intrigued about the deep focus – I read a book on the making of Citizen Kane a year or two ago and that was the first time I’d heard of it. You’ve made me want to watch this one again now! šŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you want to watch it again – I can’t believe I had never seen it! I’m certainly going to have a look at that book on CK, not so much for CK as for the film techniques, it really adds to the enjoyment doesn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It does! I’ve just finished an excellent one on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey and am going to treat myself to a rewatch of it now I’m so super-knowledgeable about it… šŸ˜‰

        Liked by 1 person

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