Billy Wilder’s magnum opus opens on one of the most iconic opening credit sequences of all time. A broken man clambers to the fore while Miklós Rózsa’s ominous score builds to a boom. Something is awry, and we’re about to find out just what. Frenetic scenes of an automobilic nature follow, as the man soon revealed to be our protagonist makes his way to the most unlikely of settings for a classic film noir – the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company. Our protagonist, an insurance man named Walter Neff then reveals all that led to that moment in a confession-that-isn’t-really-a-confession to a colleague, via the invisible means of a mechanical office memorandum machine, the tale due to be picked up a later date, when our protagonist is long gone. And thus, 1941’s Double Indemnity begins, not with a whimper but with a bang.
Wilder’s snappy dialogue, from a script co-written by Raymond Chandler and based on the novel by James M. Cain plays like a “how to” guide to writing the perfect script. Thanks also to the remarkable chemistry of his two leads, Fred MacMurray as Neff and Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, the femme fatale that inspires his downward spiral, exchanges such as “How fast was I going officer?” positively sizzle from the screen. Wilder’s trademark wit runs through the film (the “don’t you know how to open a door?” scenario). Interestingly the audience are told of the fate of the three key figures within the first five minutes of the film, yet this serves only to multiply the intensity of any later scenarios.
While the two lead performances are no doubt fantastic, it is perhaps Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, the kindly colleague of Neff, that is responsible for the greatest performance in Double Indemnity. Keyes is the closest Wilder’s film has to a traditional hero, and its notable that the man responsible for the portrayal is something of the original anti-hero thanks to his breakthrough performance in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar. It’s a fantastic piece of stunt casting, and affecting on several layers as a result. That’s not to take away from the rest of the performances though, with every character and turn memorable. From Byron Barr’s fall-guy-in-waiting to Richard Gaines’ overwrought and equally dramatic insurance boss.
Underneath the hood, as with the aforementioned piece of casting of Robinson, Wilder is tinkering with the very mechanisms that make this particular genre tick along. Neff himself is a fascinating protagonist. Note how he wears a ring on his ring finger, with the piece of jewellery making it’s first prominent appearance during the scene in which the grand plan comes together is significant. In this moment the ring takes on a split persona as a signifier to commitment. Interestingly David Thomson theorises in his hypothetical account of the pre-Double Indemnity life of Walter Neff that the man was once married, to an entertainer, and that their relationship fell apart when moderate success became unto the pair (Thomson claims the Neff was once a musician). Thomson goes on to say that, in a tangent based on and informed by the characters portrayal in Double Indemnity, that Neff’s preoccupation or obsession with Phyllis is one that derives from a previous affront for multiple relationships, all of which occurred while the insurance man-to-be was still married to his one-time wife. One can presume that Thomson’s diatribe is spun purely based on the presence of an unexplained ring on the characters ring finger (it may not even be a wedding ring, but one can be certain that Wilder was completely aware of it’s presence, no doubt hoping to stoke the imaginations).
Wilder also does some pretty interesting things with his depiction of the American office space. As Neff looks down on the empty office in the films opening moments, clear of activity but for a few cleaners tackling the night shift, Wilder inverts King Vidor’s The Crowd with its soaring camera from afar that ultimately settles upon a bustling office floor, and which Wilder referenced more directly some 16 years later in his own The Apartment.