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 . . .

  1. 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.

    Stanwyck sizzled like bacon on a hot skillet.

  2. 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 credit sequence, like the rest of the film, is riveting.

  3. 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.
  4. 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.

    Love this hat.

  5. 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!)

    He can't keep his eyes off that anklet.

  6. 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.

    Stanwyck's face was like a mask.

  7. 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.

    Warning: This scene can cause heart palpitations.

  8. 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.
  9. 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.

    This scene crackles with tension, from start to finish.

  10. 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!)

~ by shadowsandsatin on February 22, 2012.

16 Responses to “Top 10 Reasons Why I Love Double Indemnity”

  1. Great write-up! I had forgotten about the opening credits, but now I’m ashamed for doing so because they were brilliant.

  2. Something different between us, Karen: This was the first noir I saw AFTER I knew what noir was. But after this experience I was quite confused, and this lasts until today (after watching about 70 of these movies): It seems to me that I am one of the few people who thinks that DI is more of a parody than a serious minded noir. Because you didn’t mention something like this in your article, it seems to me, that you’re not on my side. Well, maybe I understood this movie completely wrong. I’m looking forward to the blu-ray from EUREKA. Maybe my opinion will change, but I have this kind of feeling….hmmmmm. We’ll see.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the reason DI is without argument (at least none that could be won) the greatest film noir of all time. One other thing I love about the film is that it contains Fred MacMurray’s best acting, and his only real shot at being a cad (well, apart from The Apartment a few decade or so later), a role definitely against type, but played perfectly by an actor known for comedy and lightweight romances. i never tire of turning younger friends onto this film and telling them its history. If you want to know what film noir is, watch Double Indemnity. It’s the Bible.

  4. Those are 10 great reasons to love Double Indemnity. One of my favorite noirs, too! I’ve really never thought about Stanwyck’s wardrobe–mainly because she always wore clothes so well–but you’re right, Phyllis’ outfits were also props. Nice post.

  5. Hmm, where have I seen this DOUBLE INDEMNITY review before?😉 All kidding aside, I enjoyed reading and revisiting your truly awesome TOP 10 REASONS WHY I LOVE DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Need I say I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said? I never get tired of DI; it’s note-perfect from start to finish, with the stars and the script on all cylinders!

    With all due respect to writer Jorn, I’m wondering how old writer he is. Perhaps he views DI as a parody because he’s quite young and therefore unaware that the film is filled with what are now considered classic tropes? These elements may seem ripe for parody to some (admittedly, THE CAROL BURNETT show had a wickedly funny yet affectionate spoof of it back in the 1970s), but in 1944, DI was fresh and new. Anyway, he’s entitled to his opinion.

    In any case, Karen, your post is brilliant (as always), and I consider it required reading for anyone who loves DI and film noir!

  6. Well Dorian, I feel way younger than I am.🙂 – As I mentioned before, I’ve been watching about 70 noirs til now, so I have some knowledge to compare, but nearly none of these movies has used some elements in this way like DI does (f.e. the never-ending ultra-cool use of a matchstick). Well, I had this feeling, that Wilder presented the noir-style in a slightly inflated way, that took DI to another level. And not in a bad way, but I really had some laughs throughout the movie. I hope it’s clear what I wanted to (English is not my native language).

  7. Beautiful write-up, Karen. While I wouldn’t personally name “Double Indemnity” as my favorite noir, I still think it might be the greatest noir of all time on a purely objective level (I just have other personal favorites). I first saw it on VHS in high school, and liked it, but it didn’t really come alive for me until I saw a new print on the big screen maybe five or ten years later. It’s just such a beautifully shot film, totally engrossing and endlessly rewarding.

  8. […] what turns out to be a very timely coincidence, she just published a list of the top 10 reasons she loves the movie Double Indemnity, and it is a great […]

  9. EG Robinson is a giant. The matter of fact confidence he displays delivering his lines is pure genius. He is calm and cool throughout. Right up until the ending offering a cigarette to the dying Neff.

    • That final scene between Neff and Keyes is pure genius on the part of writers Ray Chandler and Billy Wilder. After having spent much of the film, flippantly (and probably affectionately) lighting Keye’s cigs for him, Neff becomes the recipient of Keye’s kindness and handy way with a match. Genius!

  10. Just saw this film last night at Loew’s in Jersey City, NJ. It was on a 50 foot screen so several of your points were very evident. The opening credits were towering on the big screen. In addition, the close up Barbara Stanwyck while her husband is being murdered is very powerful. Seeing this one on the big screen makes your 10 reasons even more significant.

  11. A great list. Double Indemnity is not only one of my favorite film noirs, but one of my favorite films period, and you deftly showcased what’s so great about it. There is one thing that I would have added though, because it’s a personal favorite of mine: the final shot. That last shot at the very end as Walter crumples to the ground and is given a cigarette by Keyes, as he slowly dies, with the music reaching a crescendo… I really do feel that that is the singular best shot in any film I have ever seen. I know they almost didn’t have it, and considered showing Walter die in the gas chamber. I’m glad they didn’t, because there’s simply no way they could have topped that.

    • Thank you, Zach! I share your fondness for Double Indemnity — I can’t get enough of it. And you’re so right about the last shot. It’s first-rate, and so much more powerful than the scene in the gas chamber would have been, I’m sure. I really appreciate your comments — and I hope you’ll be back!

  12. Good job on one of all time fave movies and all time favorite actress. You were limited to ten so let me add the scene at the grocery store.

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