Stanwick and MacMurray in Double Indemnity

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Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity is a 1944 film noir. It stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. The movie was adapted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler from the novella Three of a Kind by James M. more...

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Cain that first appeared in 1935 in abridged, 8-part serial form in Liberty Magazine. It was directed by Wilder. The story was based on a 1927 crime perpetrated by a married Queens woman and her lover. Ruth (Brown) Snyder persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband, after having her spouse take out a big insurance policy - with a double-indemnity clause. The murderers were quickly identified and arrested. 1


The main characters include:

  • Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) - an insurance salesman.
  • Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) - an unhappily married wife who seduces Neff.
  • Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) - a statistician that works in Neff's insurance company.


The film tells the story of an insurance salesman (MacMurray) who finds himself entwined in a plot to kill a woman's husband. A tenacious investigator (Robinson) thinks it's foul play and may suspect his co-worker and the recently widowed femme fatale.

The title of the film is a reference to a frequently-found provision in many life insurance policies in which an amount twice the amount which would normally be paid to the beneficiary becomes payable in the event of the accidental death of the insured. An alternate ending was shot for the film (to appease censors) featuring killer MacMurray going to the gas chamber. This footage is lost but stills of the scene still exist.

Critical response

Today, the film is considered a classic. Film critic Roger Ebert in his review of the film praise the director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz: "The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings." A review of the film in the New York Times September 7, 1944 gave the film a negative review. Reviewer Bosley Crowther found Edward G. Robinson's supporting role excellent but also stated "Such folks as delight in murder stories for their academic elegance alone should find this one steadily diverting, despite its monotonous pace and length. Indeed, the fans of James M. Cain's tough fiction might gloat over it with gleaming joy."

Elements of Film Noir

Double Indemnity is an excellent (and some say the first) example of a genre of films called film noir. Its plot and style contains almost all the elements that make up classic film noir:

  • Characters commit brutal, vengeful, and often psychopathic acts of violence.
  • The plot is about how a crime is committed and the story is told from the point of view of the criminal. In the case of Double Indemnity, the plot is literally told from the point of view of the criminal. The entire plot (except the very first scenes and the very last scenes) is told in flashback by Walter Neff, who commits murder and very nearly gets away with it.
  • Double Indemnity, like many other films noir, takes a naturalistic view of human nature. This is due in part to the flashback structure of the film. As everything in Double Indemnity described by Neff into the dictating machine clearly happened in the past, and there is no way in the present or future to alter events that occurred in the past, it is evident that the events leading up to the eventual execution of Neff were inevitable and were due mostly to Neff’s nature as a weak-willed man in the hands of a femme fatale.
  • Themes about how sexuality and psychology are interwoven emerge.
  • Moody lighting including Venetian blind effects on the walls and on characters’ faces in some scenes look like bars on a jail and make the characters of Double Indemnity seem as though they are trapped by their human weaknesses and doomed to failure. The cinematographic compositions and the art direction are particularly claustrophobic as well. Characters are often backed into corner where mobility is impossible (such as in cars or telephone booths).


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