Barbara Stanwyck and the Billy Wilder 1944 classic, “Double Indemnity,” are forever linked. Barbara Stanwyck is the ultra-sexy little spitfire that gives this noir masterpiece its heat. Talk about femme fatales. Stanwyck was the queen of them all. Fred McMurray seems to be the only man who can handle her..or can he? This movie is the beginning of noir where doomed characters get on a track that stays “straight on the line” all the way to “the last stop, the cemetery.”
Ernest Hemingway. Dashiell Hammet. Raymond Chandler. James M. Cain. These writers ushered in what was to become noir. Hemingway with his austere style. Hammet with his gentleman’s elegance. Chandler with his refined style. Cain with his grit. Billy Wilder, the young brash director, took the Cain novel and, with Raymond Chandler, brought to life a whole new tradition in film of the hard-boiled plot, viewed in low light and shadows, with characters of questionable morals. No judgement was made on how these characters chose to live. But, as luck would have it, there was a price to pay for such sinful behavior. If nothing else, the Hays Code, the Hollywood morality police of the time, would see to that. Some even think that the morality restraints helped, in their own clumsy way, to make art. It seems to have worked out that way for this film.
The noir world is both strange and familiar. It is not supposed to mirror the good citizen and yet it reveals his or her darker side. Back when “Double Indemnity” was still struggling to be cast, few in Hollywood wished to be associated with such characters. Fred MacMurray was reluctant even though it led to his greatest performance. Even the more daring Barbara Stanwyck was unsure about it. Now, it is hard to imagine the movie without her. She exudes a strange sexuality in this film that ranks up there with other great dark sirens, like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, or Bette Davis.
The chemistry between MacMurray and Stanwyck is rather surreal. They never seem like a good match. It’s not that you couldn’t imagine them in bed together. The film convinces you of that. But, even for 1944, you can sense how wrong it is for those two to have ever gotten involved, aside from the fact Stanwyck’s character, Phyllis, is already married and she and MacMurray’s character, Walter, are plotting to kill her husband. It feels more tawdry than in a Hitchcock film. And maybe more real, more intense. That’s certainly what Billy Wilder hoped to acheive in order to put his rival, Hitchcock, in his place.
Rounding out the picture is a dazzling performance by Edward G. Robinson, as Barton Keyes, who it is believed was a character patterned after Billy Wilder himself. He’s a fast talking little guy who always gets his way. Wilder did a similar thing when he cast Jimmy Cagney in 1961’s “One, Two, Three.” Keyes is an insurance man through and through and has taken Walter under his wing for many years, too many years. Walter is good at selling insurance but is basically drifting through life. In the best twist of all, it is the love between Keyes, the mentor, and Walter, his reluctant pupil, that is the only true sign of humanity to be found in this film
Delicious strangeness. That’s what noir is about. Unlikable characters behaving badly, very badly, that we root for in the end. And why? That’s the strangest thing of all: because they are us.
Be sure to check out Fred McMurray in another role where he gets to play a baddie that rivals his role in this film. That would be another Billy Wilder classic, 1960’s “The Apartment.” As Jeff D. Sheldrake, MacMurray appears to have lost all his morals and placed the burden upon the weak shoulders of Jack Lemmon.
And you may have heard that Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder did not get along at all during their time together as co-writers to the script for “Double Indemnity.” But you’ll be happy to know that, while Billy Wilder got his revenge on Chandler by depicting him as the troubled alcoholic in his next film, 1945’s “The Lost Weekend,” Chandler went on to write another iconic noir film, 1946’s “The Blue Dahlia.”