Billy Wilder | 108 mins | download | PG
Double Indemnity is perhaps the archetypal film noir — unsurprising, really, when you have Raymond Chandler co-adapting a novel by James M. Cain. Present and correct are the femme fatale, dry-witted lead man, voice-over narration, shadowy photography, murder, cover-ups, investigations, twists… The difference to films such as The Big Sleep is that the hero is the villain: our narrator, insurance salesman Walter Neff, conspires with Phyllis Dietrichson to murder her wealthy husband for the payout from an accident insurance policy — the double indemnity clause of the title. Neff even has the perfect plan… but, perhaps, too perfect…
Once again I’m viewing this in the context of its source novel (see previous such reviews), and it makes for a very faithful retelling of Cain’s novel. Some of the subplots are sadly lost, not only for time but probably for reasons of taste (Wilder struggled to get the film made in the first place, as the ostensible heroes are both murders and adulterers), some of the names are changed (maybe there was something objectionable about “Huff” and “Nirdlinger”?), and the ending is modified, perhaps with an eye to partially redeeming Neff. In some ways the film’s variant finale is more in keeping, especially for the character of Keyes, but I expect the merits of both versions could be debated. Chandler’s influence as screenwriter is clear in the dialogue. Many lines and exchanges ring with his unmistakable style, which is generally much wittier than that found in the novel.
The real feat of Double Indemnity The Film is that none of these changes jar too much, leaving us with that rare thing: a film that changes the original, but leaves both as excellent pieces of work.