What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this is a grim, downbeat "film noir" narrative. Evil doesn't triumph, but the main character makes bad choices and is pretty much doomed from the inception. He falls for another man's wife and tries to help her kill her husband (the woman also turns out to embody the worst sort of wicked-stepmother image, late in the story). There is nothing explicitly sensual in this narrative, even as much later "steamy erotic thrillers" copied the vibe and used it as an excuse for graphic sex and nudity. This one would merit just a PG today.
What's the story?
Told in flashback, this classic film noir centers on insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who pays a call to the home of Phyllis Dietrich (Barbara Stanwyck) and is immediately smitten with her. Glamorous Phyllis makes no secret about her unhappy marriage to an older man, and how much she'd like to see her husband get insured heavily -- and then die. Lovestruck Walter tells Phyllis that since he knows the business inside and out, he can stage a foolproof murder that will pay double. When Phyllis' husband "accidentally" breaks his neck, even Walter's sharp-eyed partner seems fooled -- temporarily. As the screws tighten on Walter, he starts to realize just how devious Phyllis can be.
Is it any good?
DOUBLE INDEMNITY has all the hallmarks of film noir – it's a moody, pessimistic crime story with strong overtones of spiritual bankruptcy and moral cynicism. The best of film noir sizzles with crackling, sardonic dialogue, veiled lust, terrific black-and-white photography, and overtones of impending doom. This is one of the best, all right, even if, like Casablanca, it's practically all talk.
Even today, these characters' jaded attitudes toward taking a life is bracingly sinister; as if right and wrong don't matter in this milieu, only getting caught or getting away with it. Add to this lack of remorse themes of obsession and betrayal and the power of great film noir is revealed.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about Walter Neff, and why a smart, successful insurance salesman would throw away his life for a scheming woman. Are his motivations realistic, or more of a crossover from "film noir," the wave of pessimistic detective movies and moody crime thrillers that suddenly came out of 1940s Hollywood? What modern movies have you seen that remind you of the classic film noir style? You might get history-minded kids to look into the life and work of writers James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler who inspired this film, and even further back to the real-life 1927 Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray murder case that inspired this movie.