Oscar Vault Monday – Double Indemnity, 1944 (dir. Billy Wilder)

Billy Wilder has got to be one of the most masterful and varied directors of all time. He has written and directed some of the greatest films of all time. Although he made films in a variety of genres, two of his greatest achievements were in the film-noir genre: 1950’s Sunset Blvd. and 1944’s Double Indemnity. I watched this film for the first time in November (also known as Noirvember) and I was blown away by how wonderful it was. Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is perhaps the greatest of all femme fatales. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but failed to win a single award: Best Sound, Best Score, Best B&W Cinematography, Best Screenplay. Best Actress Barbra Stanwyck, Best Director and Best Picture. It was up against Gaslight, Since You Went Away, Wilson and winner Going My Way. I think Going My Way‘s win is a testament to its star Bing Crosby’s popularity. It’s a film that, other than Crosby’s performance, has not aged well; whereas the popularity and critical acclaim for Double Indemnity has continued to grow throughout the decades. In fact, the film found its way on to several of the American Film Institute’s 100 years… series: 100 Years…100 Movies #38 (1998), 100 Years…100 Thrills #24 (2001), 100 Years…100 Passions #84 (2002), 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains: Phyllis Dietrichson, villain #8 (2003), 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #29 (2007).

Wilder lost the Best Director award to Leo McCarey, who had already won previously for 1937’s The Awful Truth. Wilder would, however, go on to be nominated for a whopping 21 competitive Oscar nominations, winning six times. Also, the film lost Best Cinematography for another film-noir, Otto Preminger’s Laura. Both films have breathtaking black and white cinematography, with exquisite use of shadows and angles, so I can’t be too upset about that loss.

Like I said earlier, Barbara Stanwyck is mesmerizing as femme fatale Phillis Dietrichson. This performance would mark Stanwyck’s third of four Oscar nominations (the other were for 1937’s Stella Dallas, 1941’s Ball of Fire and 1949’s Sorry, Wrong Number). Although Stanwyck never won a competitive Academy Award, she received an Honorary award in 1982 and was named the 11th greatest female legend by the American Film Institute on their 100 Years…100 Stars list in 1999.

From the minute Stanwyck enters the film to her very last frame she commands the attention of the audience – and her fellow co-stars. She is the perfect combination of sensuality, power and vulnerability; It’s no wonder Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff falls so irrevocably under her spell. While Stanwyck was most known for her comedic chops, she is equally adept in this dark, gritty noir world.

I must admit, for a star whose IMDb page posts nearly 100 titles, I think I’ve only seen MacMurray in this and Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment. But, having seen so many noir films as of late, I must say MacMurray is perfectly cast as misguided insurance salesman Walter Neff. Part of what I love about film-noir is the lack of a traditional “hero.” Neff is in no way a noble man, but at the same time MacMurray imbues him with enough humanity, that by the end of the film you almost want him to make it out of this mess alive.

What can I even say about Edward G. Robinson? He is most definitely one of the most iconic actors to ever grace the silver screen. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, as I used to watch The Ten Commandments ever year at Passover since I was a little girl (actually, I still do). In the last year, however, I’ve watched several of his films and am even more in awe of his talent. In this film he plays sharp claims adjuster Keyes, a man, who, I believe would NEVER have gotten himself in the mess the MacMurray’s Neff does; he’s just too good at what he does.

Broadway actor Tom Powers does a wonderful job playing Stanwyck’s hard as nails older husband. Though he’s not in the film for very long, he makes a great impact with the brief time he’s given.

The same can be said for Jean Heather as Stanwyck’s step-daughter Lola. Heather was only in 8 films during her brief career, but oddly enough one of those films was also Going My Way. It’s a shame she didn’t make more films because I thought she was wonderful in both roles. I can’t find any information as to why she quit acting, though I do know she died at the age of 74 in 1995.

Lastly, I just wanted to talk about the cinematography, done by John F. Seitz, whose career includes nearly 160 films. Some of Seitz’s other films include the Wilder films Five Graves To Cairo, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Blvd., as well as the noir classic The Big Clock (a must-see for those who love noir). Seitz was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but never won. I’m going to post a few more of my favorite shots from the film.

If you’re interested in owning this film, you can purchase it here. Ps. don’t forget to vote for Cinema Fanatic at the 2011 Total Film Movie Blog Awards!


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on January 17, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I think this is the best dumb man + coniving woman movie. Body heat clearly is based on it but here in double indemnity we get it in pun intended black and white. Lonely men and poisonous woman. And other women know it about her. The step daughter is an important character because she knows she just doesn’t know what she knows.

    If someone wanted to learn how to write film noir – I think this is the film to use as a template. Love it. When I think film noir – this is the movie that always comes to mind.

    And then the two stars became big TV stars in my young life – My Three Sons and The Big Valley. He is a nice homey dad and she is stunning as the ranch Matriarch.

    BTW nice review and great photos. I just wish you could see that in that one short she is hiding just on the other side of the door.

  2. Jean Heather and her husband John Stockton are mere ghosts of Hollywood’s past. It seems they both skipped the movie industry genre for obscurity. I haven’t found one single update on her. It’s as if she was of no interest to anyone, not even her children or living relatives, if she had any. Same goes for John Stockton, and he was a very promising producer in 1940’s Hollywood. Is there a mysterious addition to Hollywood news here, or is this just simply a faded memory of Hollywood’s lost, great talents?

    • I was told by another commenter, whose father was Jean’s cousin, that Jean Heather quit acting after a car accident. She died at the age of 74 in 1995. She’s definitely an actress who deserves some research into her life I think.

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