Double Indemnity

City Paper

Playing Aug 30, Sept. 1, and Sept. 4 at the Charles Theater 

Film noir, especially as practiced by Billy Wilder, asks us to imagine a universe in which a man bleeding to death would spend his final 107 minutes monologuing a hardboiled confession into a dictaphone. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” the dying man asks. 

Just go with it. In this world, the only thing worth living (and killing) for is words. Saying the perfect thing at the perfect time. Landing phrases like hooks and finding that partner in talk who becomes a partner in crime. Everything else, including medical attention, can wait.

“Double Indemnity” is about insurance—not at first glance a thrilling subject, but for this reason, good fodder for blarney virtuosos Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who adapt James M. Cain’s 1943 novel. They delight in turning the most mundane situations (peddling policies, shopping for groceries) into hives of intrigue. It’s nearly a Walter Mitty fantasy—or a uniquely sophisticated porno. 

It begins with a fatal meeting. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, clean-cut lechery personified) drives up to the house of Phyllis Dietrichson (the always superb Barbara Stanwyck) to renew her husband’s auto coverage. After a few flawless bouts of banter they’ve hatched a plan to sell her rotten husband accident insurance and bump him off. Walter knows the business almost well enough to juke it. He makes arrangements so that the “accident” brings twice the ordinary payout: double indemnity. 

After the murder, Walter and Phyllis are extremely careful. Still, their case draws the attention of Walter’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the insurance company’s scrupulous investigator. Fishy claims give the “little man” in Keyes’ chest indigestion—and the Dietrichson case soon has him double-fisting carbonated sodas. Robinson’s performance is extraordinary; he has a particularly adroit way of suggesting Keyes’ love for Walter is probably an “unspeakable” love for men in general while burying this hint beneath two thick coats of gruffness. Keyes certainly jives with Walter better than Walter does with Phyllis. Walter keeps muttering “baby” (or rather “buh-buh”), trying to convince both Phyllis and himself that the reward redeems the risk, but they need murder as a third. They don’t find their spark again until the end of the film, when death takes a curtain call. 

Wilder made movies before they passed around the memo about showing, not telling. This is a good thing. He builds a gorgeous cathedral of talk. MacMurray spits sentences so deftly they land like cats. Stanwyck, beneath a frightful blond wig almost as big as her torso, compresses vulnerability, indifference, and quiet psychosis into syllables. The stylistic veneer of the film is plain fun. But beneath this, as in other Wilder films (including “The Apartment,” also about insurance), there’s a deep cynicism flirting with nihilism. Insurance offers Wilder a perfect vehicle for exposing the predictability of the mass of life, and the futility of our attempts to escape boredom.

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