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75th Anniversary: Double Indemnity

by Eric Blume

This week marked the 75th anniversary of Billy Wilder’s seven-times Oscar nominated noir classic Double Indemnity (1944).  If you haven’t seen this movie -- and I surprisingly never had, despite not one but two film noir courses in college -- rush post haste to view it:  it’s a classic noir that holds up powerfully.

Fred MacMurray is the patsy, an insurance guy who is convinced by Barbara Stanwyck to murder her husband and cash in on the double indemnity clause in the policy they conspire to have him secretly sign.  The performances by MacMurray, Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson (as the insurance boss) have incredible force.  Yes, this style of acting went out less than ten years later, but the raw power of their acting is undeniable...

While they stay in the confines of these now-archetypal roles, you can see how these actors laid the rules for so many other films to come. What’s surprising is that the leads aren’t “playing tough” in any way …they keep all their motivations straightforward and human.  



Wilder wrote the script with Raymond Chandler, and it’s filled with the kind of 1940s movie talk that still stings and feels crisp today.  How can you not smile at voiceover lines like MacMurray’s:

“So we just sat there…she started crying softly like the rain on the window”? 

This script is full of gems like that, and you can see all the elements fall into place that Wilder repeated to even greater levels of artistry years later in the masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950).   

And his work with cinematographer John Seitz still plays beautifully:  the blacks are very black, the whites very white, and the shadows are everywhere.  You can clearly see the German Expressionism influence that Wilder carried from his years as a native European.  The lighting seems to inform the characters, the action, and the location all at the same time.  It’s extraordinarily sophisticated filmmaking for its time.

Have you seen this indelible classic?  What’s your favorite film noir? 

Sign off in the comments!

Related Posts
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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Double Indemnity (1944) 


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Reader Comments (21)

Stanwyck is so blazing hot in this performance!!! Damn she is good here

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

“Sophisticated filming for its time?” WTH?

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

MacMurray should have been nominated here.

Someone on TCM (don't remember who) said that MacMurray was doing this not because of STankwyck, but because he wanted to show up Robinson- commit a crime no one could know about or prove even happened.

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

The writer definitely doesn't appreciate the movie...

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSe_bas_tian

Stanwyck is SENSATIONAl!! I love Ingrid Bergman, but w/o a doubt, Stanwych shld've won the Oscar tt yr!!!

Its a shame tt MacMurray din even garner a nom for his career best performance.

As a matter of matter, despite numerous nom, it went home empty handed tt night! Going My Way swept tt nite!

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

One of the great actresses of all time gives the performance of her career in an undisputed classic made during the period that delivered Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Big Sleep and Notorious. And this writer says:

"It’s extraordinarily sophisticated filmmaking FOR ITS TIME."

Ugh. Just ugh.

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commentervigo

Good write up! Double Indemnity is such a great movie that it inspired me to read the original novel by James M. Cain - and the book is so good (and - spoiler alert - Phyllis is actually far more diabolical in it) that I had to read a bunch of other books by Cain, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, also terrific. Noir is a fabulous genre and Cain may well be its King.

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

A jewel of a movie. Barbara Stanwick is in my opinion the best american actress in movies of all times - yes, better than the queens Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. She never disappoints! Drama, melodrama, noir, western, thriller, comedy, etc... She is always superlative. And Fred MacMurray is not praised enough, a wonderful and versatile actor.
I also think the Academy gave Wilder the Oscar in the next year for The Lost Weekend because they did it not for Double Indemnity. The same with Some Like It Hot - The Apartment. What doesn't mean The Lost Weekend and The Apartment aren' t wonderful and groundbreaking movies.

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoodie

Whenever I think about this film, Barbara Stanwyck in sunglasses jumps first to mind.

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

It's good to mark the anniversary of this classic. I'm not sure it's right to say that this style of acting went out less than ten years later: sure, the Method came along at the end of the decade, but MacMurray and Stanwyck's leading performances don't date, and Robinson is timeless in support. As you say, raw power!

I feel like watching it again... Such a tough tale but one thst knows how sorry life can be.

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I consider this Billy Wilder's all-time masterpiece and one of the very best films, not only of the Hollywood Golden Age, but of all time.

I'll also bet that it was Fred MacMurray who was denied a nomination due to Barry Fitzgerald's double nomination. He's a possible, if kind of forgettable light comedian. But he's surprisingly good when he plays heels, like here or The Caine Mutiny or The Apartment.

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s

A great and hugely influential noir with that lead trio of performances that just couldn't be better and yet its not one I would say is among my favorites.

That's not to say that I don't admire and enjoy the film but there are just many noirs that I like more.

My favorite noir? Impossible to narrow down to only one!! Film noir is one of my very favorite genres and the best I can do is a top ten, with an accompanying 20 that are thisclose to being included in the first list.

Top 10:

The Big Heat
Criss Cross
Deadline at Dawn
In a Lonely Place
The Man I Love
Mildred Pierce
Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Out of the Past
Sunset Blvd
They Won’t Believe Me

Next 20:

Ace in the Hole
Alias Nick Beal
Born to Kill
The Damned Don’t Cry
Dark Passage
Flamingo Road
Hangover Square
Nightmare Alley
Nobody Lives Forever
Pickup on South Street
Scarlet Street
The Set-Up
The Spiral Staircase
The Strange Case of Uncle Harry
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
This is My Love
Too Late for Tears
The Velvet Touch
The Web

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Maybe the noir-est dialogue ever committed to screen.

My favorite exchange:

Stanwyck: You'll have to come back tomorrow.
MacMurray: Same time, same anklet?
Stanwyck: I wonder if I know what you mean.
MacMurray: I wonder if you wonder.

July 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom Q

There are some movies that you just couldn't change a single shot in, not a single line of dialogue or casting decision to improve it. Double Indemnity is one of those movies. And I could say the same about quite a few more Billy Wilder movies (The Apartment, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Blvd.) Double Indemnity is the high standard every movie should strive for. From its ominous yet whimsical opening credits to its suberbly cynical denouement: this movie is perfect in every way.

July 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDieter

OK - before we all gripe that this sensational film noir masterpiece didn't win any oscars cos the schmaltzy Going My Way scooped the pool - lets remember the era that this happened. Nowadays we would never reward a schmaltzy film like Going My Way. We awarded the Oscar to Green Book which is not a schmaltzy film......Oh wait.....

July 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

That first paragraph is offensive Eric! You should’ve got no more than a D in those two courses. /s

July 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Mother

Double Indemnity came in the same year of another masterpiece/standard movie of the gender: Otto Preminger's Laura, that, in a common AMPAS gesture, was nominated in five categories, including direction, winning cinematography black-and-white, but excluded for best movie. Probably a sample of the gender was enough for them. Easy to imagine the characters of both movies coexisting in the same environment and dialoguing.

July 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel

I have seen this.
But I've also seen Dead Men don't wear Plaids and honestly…. the latter did (actually still does) stick in my head way more.
I know, I know… can't help it! It's just hilarious.

July 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Billy Wilder surely the master of double/triple sense dialogue and lines that become taglines, but he doesn't neglect the visual concept of his movies. He loved black and white movies specially after a disastrous experience working with color in a musical, The Emperor Waltz. And he, like Hitchcock and other filmmakers of the big studios age, had a special way of shooting the actresses in his movies making them the center of the story or scene even when they weren't the protagonists. Interesting also to compare his scripts directed by other directors like Howard Hawks(Ball of Fire) and Mitchell Leisen(Midnight) to those he directed. I always think, "how would Billy Wilder have directed this?"

July 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMelchiades

Stanwyck is always hot just look at "Baby Face"-favorite noir "Out of the Past"

July 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Billy Wilder and Barbara Stanwick are special creatures and artists, aren' t they ?
About Wilder I can't decide if he's a writer who directs his own scripts or a director who writes his own stories.
About Barbara, charming and versatile actress/star who was a champion of success and popularity during the star system days, unlikely other actresses who could only exist in those years, it's possible imagine her having a successful career in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and in our modern days in roles played by modern actresses like Cate Blanchett(Carol, 2015), Kate Winslet(The Dressmaker, 2015), Julianne Moore(Far From Heaven, 2002), Catherine Zera-Jones(Intolerable Cruelty, 2003), Laura Linney(The Savages, 2007), Nicole Kidman(To Die For, 1995), Jane Fonda(The Electric Horseman, 1979), Faye Dunaway(Network, 1976), Sigourney Weaver(Gorillas in The Mist, 1988), Glenn Close(Jagged Edge, 1985), Michelle Pfeiffer(The Deep Enf of The Ocean, 1999), Jessica Lange(Country, 1984), Charlize Theron(North Country, 2005), Diane Keaton(Reds, 1981) and etc, etc, etc...

July 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

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