In “Double Indemnity” (1944), Barbara Stanwyck takes a chance in her career by playing a character without any redeeming values. She had played her share of fallen women before, but Phyllis Dietrichson was cold, and manipulative. Stanwyck, being Stanwyck, plays her not with the one-dimensional evil person who must and will get hers in the end, but adds that irresistible layering of complexity so that her Phyllis is compelling, and she seduces her audience as much as she does Fred MacMurray.
Fred MacMurray is masterful in his role as the insurance agent who gets sucked into planning an insurance scam involving murder. He is the epitome of the average Joe, a regular guy in a regular job, but not so upstanding that he’s above flirting with a married woman. It would be easy to play him simply as a hapless stooge ensnared in the web spun by Miss Stanwyck. Instead, he also, like Stanwyck, adds dimension to his character. His insurance agent is not just a patsy, or even merely complicit. He gets to be the mastermind of the plot. He weighs his conscience, and comes up wanting.
Mr. MacMurray had the ability to play nice guys, and louses, but he was also able to do something a lot of Hollywood actors in this period either never thought to do or were not allowed to do, and that is to play a guy so convincingly on the fence that he makes integrity seem not like a moral quality, but like a chance game one can pick up or decline, depending on the player’s next move. (He does this equally well in “The Caine Mutiny”, but that’s for another time.)
His father/son relationship with his boss, played by Edward G. Robinson, one of the greats, is fascinating and a very important linchpin to the story. Like many film noir movies, this one has a flashback. The entire film, in fact, is a flashback. It begins with MacMurray recounting the events to follow in his Dictaphone. The movies ends with Robinson, and police, putting two and two together without MacMurray’s taped confession. Robinson is MacMurray’s confessor, the one he turns to for chastisement and for forgiveness. He could have easily run after the crime, but instead he heads to his office to leave a confession to the man he respects most.
Directed by Billy Wilder, the script is by Mr. Wilder and Raymond Chandler. It is lean and muscular, not lyric. The cinematography provides the poetry, the murky Los Angeles night which opens the film, and the shots of the city streets.
The insurance company Fred MacMurray works for has its name printed on the office door, “Pacific All Risk Insurance.” The name is like a morbid joke, All Risk. We see how that rings true for MacMurray’s character.
The film was made during World War II, but is set in 1938, so we need no wartime influences to distract us from the story, which is all toughness, ruthlessness, and remorse at the same time. The only anachronism, which is perhaps forgivable, is Stanwyck’s sweater-wearing scene. The sweater girls of the 1940s (again, a topic for another time) was a provocative fad that became a fashion statement, but was not around in 1938).
MacMurray drives to Miss Stanwyck’s Los Feliz Drive Spanish-style home which he ruminates, “must have cost about $30,000, that is if he ever finished paying for it.” He is there to renew a car insurance policy for Stanwyck’s husband. Miss Stanwyck makes her first entrance wrapped in a towel, and after a bit of sexy banter, we sense that Fred is in some kind of danger the minute he leers in the direction of her anklet. He is there to reinsure the LaSalle and the Plymouth, but she drops a hint that he could make a bigger sale. Her, not just the commission on the accident insurance policy she wants to buy for her husband.
At first this regular guy with the regular job hightails it away from the vixen, as he suspects she wants to murder her husband for the insurance. “How could I know that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.” What a great line.
We think, like Fred, that we know what Miss Stanwyck is all about, that we have her number. What surprises us, and Fred, is him. After only his first meeting with her, he cannot stop thinking about her, and especially about the idea of possibly knocking off her husband for the insurance. Though he is appalled and disgusted by the very thought, he cannot make himself stop thinking about it. He broods over it, and to his discomfort, finds himself compelled to wonder how such a thing could be accomplished.
When she arrives at his apartment later on, to clear up any misunderstanding on his part so she says, we see that she has him hooked. The scene in MacMurray’s apartment is intriguing. At first they skirt the uncomfortable subject, but soon, without speaking of it directly, they are encircling the problem and encircling each other. Studying each other. Studying the problem, making it not her problem of the overbearing husband from whom she wishes she could be free, but their problem.
We are informed that her husband is occasionally abusive. This sets up a little sympathy for Miss Stanwyck’s character, and how she makes herself vulnerable to him and to us, and keeping it genuine, is nothing short of marvelous.
Mr. MacMurray is not only seduced by her, he is seduced by her problem, and finds it tragically irresistible, a puzzle to master. Like a Rubik’s Cube. Perhaps like some detectives who might themselves, in some recreational mind game, think how to plan the perfect crime, so MacMurray, an insurance salesman, has already begun to plan how to pull off the perfect insurance scam. The double indemnity clause of the title is his idea. It is a $50,000 policy they mean to sell to her husband, and if he dies in a freak accident, the benefit automatically doubles to $100,000.
Committed to the plan, they meet infrequently thereafter, most famously at the Los Feliz grocery, which must have been one of the first self-service markets in the country. He smokes a cigarette in the store as they discuss their plot in whispers behind the canned goods. Unfortunately, it is at this point in the film I am always reminded of Steve Martin in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982). Dang, that was funny. It forever ruined the seriousness of the grocery store scene for me, but Martin in the sweater and the wig was funny.
All right, back to work. As MacMurray later puts together his alibi, we are taken along to see his intricate preparations, and we’re in the back seat with him when he tags along behind Stanwyck driving her husband to the train station. The murder, as MacMurray emerges from the back seat to strangle her husband, is done off camera. We only see Miss Stanwyck’s eyes, and her layers of emotion, as she stares right at us, not at the act of murder going on in the passenger’s seat next to her. She is sickened, and triumphant, and even possibly aroused by this violence which she has hoped for, but has not committed and has not even orchestrated. MacMurray, regular guy with a regular job, has done it all. When she tells Mr. MacMurray meekly that she will leave everything in his hands, she wasn’t kidding.
After the crime, MacMurray is no longer the man of action, senses heightened, alive with decision. He is sickened, perhaps not so much by what he has done, as being found out.
“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
His voice over narration throughout the film lets us know what Mr. MacMurray is thinking, so the film flows intimately, confidential, and personal. MacMurray is not really the stooge of an evil woman, but a decent guy who has succumbed not just to her charms, but to his own pride and greed. He makes it feel that it could happen to anybody. Barbara Stanwyck is, rather like MacMurray, an opportunist more than an evil mastermind. She sees a chance, she takes it. So does he. They are foiled, not just by the Code which demands evil be punished, but because if they were successful it wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing. They really would be evil masterminds. They wouldn’t be human. The doom of the Greek tragedy, that’s what makes the film great.