One of the most compelling film noir dramas of all time, Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder, opened on September 6, 1944 and was an immediate hit with audiences everywhere. The production was budgeted at just under $1,000,000, a somewhat modest figure for that era. This curious parable from one of the most respected and revered film makers of all time went on to take in more than $5,720,000 before 1944 came to a close.
Part of its intrinsic appeal certainly has to do with the story itself. Based on a best-selling novella by James M. Cain, the narrative holding Double Indemnity together deals with the timeless topics of money, greed, lust and what one might call the consequences of our actions.
The film stars Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman and Barbara Stanwyck as a provocative housewife who wishes that her husband were dead. Then there’s Edward G. Robinson, the acclaimed actor who made his mark in gangster pictures from the 1930s. In Double Indemnity, Robinson portrays a claims adjuster whose job it is to ferret out phony claims. The term double indemnity refers to a clause in many life insurance policies that doubles the payout in those rare cases when death is caused accidentally, such as while riding as a passenger in a train.
As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear than MacMurray’s salesman has designs on Stanwyck’s character. He agrees to help her do away with her husband so that they can share the double indemnity payout and begin their ‘happy’ life together. As you might imagine, things get complicated, mistakes are made, and consequences ensue.
The entire story is replete with reversals, revenge and retribution. Often as we sit in the audience taking it all in, we wonder, “Who’s being paid back for what and why?”
One of the key ingredients in a successful film noir drama like Double Indemnity is the appearance of competing goals or objectives. Fred MacMurray’s character is angling on both love and money. Much the same could be said for Stanwyck’s character. The problem, or conflict, if you will, is that neither of them ever see how their actions and motivations play into their downfall. But, that’s noir for ya!