Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

My introduction to Billy Wilder’s film noir classic was not as a requirement for a film class or an interest in one of the main actors or even an interest in the genre of film noir. It was Gilmore Girls.

(Of course.)

Lorelai has injured her back while making a dress for Rory to wear to her school dance, and when her mother, Emily, arrives the night of the dance to take pictures of Rory, she discovers Lorelai’s injury and insists on spending the evening overseeing her injury. Flipping through the television channels, Emily stumbles upon Double Indemnity.

“Oh, look–Barbara Stanwyck. I just love Barbara Stanwyck,” she says.

“Oh yeah, she’s good,” agrees Lorelai.

“She had that wonderful voice — that husky, deep voice. I just love that voice.”

“You know Mom, you have kind of a Barbara Stanwyck-y voice.”

“Oh, I do not.”

“I mean it. You could have gotten Fred MacMurray to off Dad if you’d really wanted to.”

But like most Gilmore Girls pop culture references, I didn’t recognize or fully understand the reference until I’d seen the episode three or four or three times four times.

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(Are you singing the My Three Sons theme song in your head right now? ‘Cos once you start, you just can’t stop. Just try it. Dare you.)

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of Fred MacMurray, I instantly think of Steve Douglas, widowed father of Mike, Robbie, and Chip (and later Ernie…but I don’t really want to talk about that right now).  Steve Douglas–and by extension, at least in my mind as a child, Fred MacMurray–was a kind, understanding, and fair father.

And when I don’t see MacMurray as Douglas, I see him as Wilson Daniels, a mailman who hates dogs and father to Moochie and Wilby, who happens to turn into a dog–a shaggy one, to be precise.

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Moochie? Moochie! MOOCHIE!

Slightly more erratic than Steve Douglas but still a good and decent man.

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And then I see MacMurray in Alice Adams as Arthur Russell, the kind and wealthy man Katharine Hepburn’s Alice Adams falls in love with.

Always kind. Always decent. Always trustworthy. There was no way he was ever, ever, EVER plotting to kill anybody to get the insurance money.

That, of course, is exactly what he does in Double Indemnity. 

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The film opens with Walter Neff (MacMurray) hobbling to his office to record a “confession” for his fellow employee, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He is obviously in pain. He dictates into the Dictaphone, “I did it for the money. I did it for the girl. I didn’t get the money. I didn’t get the girl. Pretty, isn’t it?”

Somehow, you instantly get the idea that this isn’t going to end too well for Walter. Yet, as the film is told in flashback, you’re (or at least I was) on the edge of your seat, anxious to see how the plot unfolds and whether Walter and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) will actually get away with their devious plan. The suspense of the film is perfectly complemented and augmented by the taut soundtrack, sharp and concise dialogue, the ingenious use of light and shadow, and Fred MacMurray’s dispassionate voice-over narration. (It would be kind of cool if he could narrate my life every day. Just sayin’.)

Neff, like my childhood memories of MacMurray, is at first portrayed (from his perspective, mind) as a respected, honest, and successful insurance salesman. Then, how is he driven to commit murder? Two words: Barbara Stanwyck. And five more: In a (hideous) blonde wig. From the moment Neff sees Phyllis, he is overcome with desire for her, and thus is willing to be roped into her plan to murder her absentee husband to cash in an insurance policy Neff will (not really) sell him. They work together to meticulously plan every detail of how they will carry out the plot…and whether they’re successful, well, you’ll have to watch and see for yourself. It is so worth it.

Double Indemnity

“We’re both rotten.”

“Only you’re a little more rotten.” 

According to Robert Osborne’s introduction to the film, one of the major obstacles to the film being made was in fact the casting. Each of the principal players–MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson–were initially resistant for different reasons. Robinson at first refused because his role was a supporting one, not a lead. MacMurray and Stanwyck (who had previously worked together in Remember the Night, which I was going to write about at Christmastime but admittedly was too lazy to do so) both had concerns about playing cold-hearted murderers. Wilder encouraged both to accept the challenge, and as a result, they produced two of the finest performances of their long and illustrious careers.

It’s a near-perfect film. Actually, it just might be perfect. I can’t think of anything wrong with it–except perhaps for Stanwyck’s truly hideous and often distracting blonde wig, which does suit her character in a way. It is well-written, the performances pull you in from the moment the film starts and don’t let you go until the words “The End” fade onto the screen, and the soundtrack and photography perfectly mirror the dark plot.

Oh, and Emily Gilmore does kind of have a Barbara Stanwyck-y voice. And she totally could have gotten Fred MacMurray to off Richard Gilmore if she had so desired.

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