Essential: DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

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This month I’m looking at films where crooks almost get away with their crimes. Most of the main characters are motivated by greed, or at least the chance to get their hands on money, so they can improve their lot in life. Nobody really knows how long Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) was hatching her plan to kill an older unsuspecting husband in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. But when insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) showed up on her doorstep one afternoon, she saw a chance and embraced it.

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The movie is based on a James Cain novel, and its screenplay was co-written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. As the story begins Mrs. Dietrichson wants to get rid of her husband, and if she can somehow make it look like an accident, she will be able to cash in on a double indemnity clause. For those who don’t know– an indemnity is a security or protection against a loss. If there is a certain type of accidental death, the payout will be twice as great.

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Of course, the loss of Phyllis Dietrichson’s husband isn’t something that will cause her any real pain or remorse. In order to carry out the diabolical plan, she needs help from that handsome insurance man. At first Neff balks at the idea; he insists he is no murderer. But this changes when he gets drawn into her web of deception. Soon they’ve decided her husband’s death should occur during a train trip he is scheduled to take.

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At the station Neff poses as an injured Mr. Dietrichson, whom they’ve already killed and stashed in the trunk of a car. Mrs. Dietrichson lovingly sees Neff off in front of witnesses, then drives away with the dead body. In the next part Neff heads to the back of the train, and jumps off, making it seem as if Dietrichson took an accidental tumble off the moving locomotive.  At the same time Mrs. Dietrichson brings the car around with the dead body, which they place along the track with the crutches. It all goes according to plan until Neff’s boss, a man named Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), gets involved.

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Keyes doesn’t think it really was an accident. Of course, if he didn’t, the couple would get away with their crime and live happily ever after. In production code Hollywood, this simply can’t be allowed. So we have scenes where Keyes starts investigating– poking around to find out what really happened the night Dietrichson died. Some of the Neff-Keyes interaction is interesting to watch, because there’s a warm father-son type bond shared between them. Keyes probably doesn’t want Neff to be guilty, but it is his duty to uncover the facts.

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To the writers’ credit we don’t actually see Neff full of regret, until near the end. After he regains his conscience, he goes to the Dietrichson home to set things right. There’s a quarrel, and Mrs. Dietrichson shoots Neff, who also shoots her. Realizing he’s killed Mrs. Dietrichson and knowing he has been shot himself, Neff makes his way back to the office to record a full confession into a dictaphone machine. He is critically injured in the film’s final moments, after the confession has been completed and Keyes has arrived.

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This was the second of four pairings for MacMurray and Stanwyck. In their films together, the characters they portray don’t usually enjoy a happy ending. Robinson would work with Stanwyck again in a Columbia western– that time she was his unsympathetic wife. The three stars had long, distinguished screen careers. But DOUBLE INDEMNITY is a high point for all of them. It functions like a policy they took out to insure their legacy against any flops.

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY is directed by Billy Wilder and airs occasionally on TCM. 

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