Top 10 Reasons Why I Love Double Indemnity
Double Indemnity is my favorite film noir. There. I’ve said it. Aside from its superb writing, awesome acting, and gorgeous cinematography, this film holds a very special place in my heart because it was the first film noir I ever saw – long before I knew what film noir was. I’ve seen it literally dozens of times since, and my affection for this film has increased with every viewing. No matter how many times I see it, I’m floored by its sheer brilliance, from beginning to end. Here are my top 10 reasons why . . .
- The music. From the second the film opens, and the first strain of that great Miklós Rózsa score strikes your eardrums, you know that you are in for a treat. The music is absolutely perfect throughout – frightening and suspenseful, quiet and eerie, all-consuming and subtle. It’s like another character in the film. Simply put, it’s flawless.
- Barbara Stanwyck. Along with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, she completes the triumvirate of my favorite classic film actresses. And her performance in Double Indemnity is a model example of why I hold her in such high esteem. Her depiction of Phyllis is superb – she plays her like an empty shell, with no real feelings beyond the basic emotions of greed and hatred, but with the shrewd ability to adopt whatever persona is appropriate for the occasion – seductive, indignant, victimized, self-righteous, fearless. I can’t think of any other actress who could have pulled it off. Small wonder that she was the first and only choice for the role.
- The opening credits sequence, which features that silhouetted, behatted gent, slowly hobbling toward the camera on crutches until his body blocks out almost every trace of light. There’s nothing like it in all of film noir.
- Edward G. Robinson. The way he played the part of Barton Keyes was a thing of sheer beauty. His line delivery was a marvel and he was like a dancer with his movements – all gesticulating and accenting and punctuating. He was at once sharp-witted, lovable, indomitable, compassionate, and uncompromising.
- Stanwyck’s wardrobe. There are two outfits in particular that I adore – the first is the floor-length, black and white, balloon-sleeve, double slit number that she wears for Walter’s second visit to her house. Gorgeous. The second is the suit that she wears during her second visit to Walter’s apartment – it’s a beautifully tailored, form-fitting suit that I could easily don and wear to work tomorrow. If I had Stanwyck’s body. (Honorable mention to that black veiled hat she wore to her visit to the insurance company!)
- The first scene between Walter and Phyllis: The flirty, almost juvenile remarks by Walter (“I’d hate to think of you having a smashed fender or something when you’re not . . . fully covered.”) The gobsmacked look on Walter’s face as he gazes up at Phyllis’s towel-clad body. Phyllis’s complete disregard of Walter’s lame crack about the Philadelphia Story. Walter’s ongoing distraction from his insurance pitch by Phyllis’s “honey of an anklet.” And, of course, that extended, rapid-fire exchange about the speeding ticket and the motorcycle cop that’s brimming with double-entendre and sexual innuendo.
- The close-up on Phyllis’s face as Walter murders her husband. It’s almost as if she’s wearing a mask – she’s that cold and implacable. Her soulless eyes are like marbles, shining in the streetlight. She only shows the slightest hint of gratification when the deed is done – if you look closely, with a discerning eye, you can detect a faint curve of her lips. I also love the way the way you see her body pulled slightly backward – twice – with the force of . . . whatever it is that Walter is doing to Mr. Dietrichson.
- The scene where Phyllis shows up at Walter’s apartment and discovers that Keyes is there. I remember how I felt the first time I saw it – like I’d been visited by Keyes’s little man, all twisty and knotted up inside, holding my breath, wondering what was going to happen next.
- The getaway scene where Phyllis can’t start the car. Not a word is spoken. In fact, for the first few seconds, Walter isn’t even aware that there is a problem – he’s too busy unwrapping his faux bandage to realize that the motor isn’t turning over. Then the sound seems to filter through to his brain and he freezes, the only movement his eyes darting back and forth in suppressed terror and disbelief. Then slowly, deliberately, he leans over and starts it. You can practically hear them both exhale.
- The showdown between Walter and Phyllis. What a difference a couple of months makes – one day you’re drooling over a dame’s anklet, and the next thing you know, you’re jamming a rod in her ribs. This scene is packed with breathtaking moments, starting with Walter’s phone call to Phyllis and the resolute finality in the way he says, “Goodbye, baby.” You can’t tear your eyes away from all that goes on. There’s the view from up above Phyllis as she unlocks the front door. The languid manner in which she settles into her chair to wait for Walter’s arrival. The way we see Walter’s shadow before he walks through the door. The mutual contempt that accompanies every word Phyllis and Walter speak to each other. Phyllis’s casual but decisive toss of her cigarette, just before she shoots Walter – and Walter’s reaction when the bullet hits its mark: “You can do better than that, can’t you, baby?” The way Phyllis stands there, motionless, head slightly tilted, holding the gun and looking for all the world like a statue as she watches Walter approach. And finally, by failing to finish Walter off when she had the chance, Phyllis’s revelation that she might be human, after all – and the look in her eyes when she realizes that it’s too little, too late.
There are many (many!) films noirs that I love – films that I watch every time they appear on television, even though I’ve had them in my collection for years, films where I can quote the dialogue along with the characters, films whose sheer audaciousness makes me smile with appreciation and admiration. But none of them can hold a candle to Double Indemnity. It’s the most. That’s all. Just the most.
(A version of this post appeared in the special “GIANT” Double Indemnity issue of The Dark Pages newsletter. For more on this shadowy publication, click here!)