'Double Indemnity' (1994) DVD Review

March 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

Murder is a fascinating subject – one which exposes one of the very darkest facets of humanity. As such, it serves as the core theme for many a film noir story. Double Indemnity carries on the tradition in proud manner, weaving an exhileratingly tense, moody and utterly engrossing yarn. It is a deliciously sordid tale of deception, corruption, conscience, love, hate and betrayal…

***There will be spoilers***

The story follows insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) as he becomes embroiled in a passionate affair of lust and murder. Walter falls madly in love with the wife of a client, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and with her, he plans and executes the murder of the husband, freeing Phyllis from his cruel and neglectful grip, and, at the same time, allowing them to claim on his life insurance. Despite Walter’s repeated insistance on doing everything “straight down the line”, and despite the plan going off, initially, without a hitch, things start to unravel fast, and Walter and Phyllis come face-to-face with the reprecussions of what they’ve done. As Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), Walter’s best friend and business associate aptly puts it, the two murderers are stuck with eachother, on a trolley ride, “and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”

Double Indemnity is a trolley ride – and a thrilling and intriguing one at that. It’s classic film noir: snappy, melodramatic dialogue; a sexy, smart, dangerous femme fatale; a plot that twists and turns right to the end; guns, money, suits, hats, rain-soaked streets. Double Indemnity is hailed as one of the best examples of film noir, and rightly so; it’s quite difficult to think of anything could have been improved upon or changed for the better. It is a fantastically directed and brilliantly written piece of work. The dialogue sparkles, the story shines and the characters are completely believable and very human. The acting, too, is spot on, despite the type of hammy dialogue with which the actors have to manage. I should also add, that the film is superbly cast; everybody fits perfectly into their respective roles.

Sometimes, it’s honestly quite difficult to talk about films when they’re this good, because it is usaully the faults of a film which stick out like splinters, not the elements which are polished and sanded down to a finish. The only thing that you might possibly object to, as a viewer, are the immoral and flawed natures of the two main characters, Walter and Phyllis. They are, frankly, quite dislikable, dispicable characters. Walter, for example, is a pretty unsympathetic character: he is a kind of a sleezy, smarmy kind of guy when you first meet him, the type of guy who doesn’t think twice about chatting up a married woman. It’s hard to feel truly sorry for him when it all starts going wrong.

But the brilliance of the script is that it gives you such strong sense of what it must be like to be in Walter’s position – showing you what he feels, why he did what he did – and it gives such a acute insight into what it takes, for a relatively ordinary person, to commit a murder. In reality, Walter isn’t there to be sympathised with, but to be understood and pitied. Walter, despite his generally good intentions, does wrong and is punished for it. He’s not evil; he’s human, and in the end, we sit alongside Keyes as he mourns his friend’s bad decisions, his faults and his flawed nature.

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