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From Under A Rock: Double Indemnity

January 23, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
Double Indemnity
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From Under A Rock: Double Indemnity  


I suppose you’ll call this a review when you read it. I don’t like the word review. I just want you to tell you about an amazing movie that you probably should have seen by now. You think you’re hot shakes as a film viewer, but let’s take a look at this movie. A doomed romance? Check. Sharp dialogue? Check. Femme Fatales and murder? Check and double check. You thought you’d seen them all, but you hadn’t…

Okay, I’m all out of lines to rip off. Let’s just cut to the chase.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show (determined at the discretion of my writing partner, Aaron Hubbard and I in alternation). This column is a companion piece to my podcast of the same premise, which you can check out here.

Last week Michael showed Aaron the pinnacle in the “buddy cop” movie genre with Lethal Weapon. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock by trying to cash in on a Double Indemnity clause.

Double Indemnity
Released: April 24th, 1944
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff
Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson
Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes

Aaron Hubbard: It feels a bit too dramatic to say that a movie changed your life. But I can safely say this movie changed me as a movie viewer. As a nineteen year-old college student, I took an Intro to Film class on a whim, and this was one of the first movies we studied and analyzed. I walked into the class enjoying movies occasionally, and walked out of it well on the road to becoming the cinephile that I am today. And this classic – perhaps the definitive – Film Noir, remains a personal favorite.

Michael Ornelas: And yet despite the fact that I went through an entire film school program, I had not seen this before. My only experience with noir is The Maltese Falcon, but even that I don’t remember very well. It’s a very dated genre largely because of the performance style, but I can appreciate anything, and Double Indemnity, while not the type of movie I would typically throw on, proved that for me.

Love and Murder
Aaron: I think what sticks out to me most on my third viewing of this movie is that the story itself is not one I can recall hearing repeated. Sure, love and murder and betrayal are staples of Film Noir, but it’s the specifics. Walter Neff is an insurance salesman and works with a man, Keyes, who knows the ins and outs of fraudulent claims. It makes him the perfect “regular guy” to commit a crime like this. It isn’t just a reckless crime of passion that leads to a game of cat and mouse. There’s a carefully planned strategy by Neff, but he’s also getting played by Phyllis. I enjoy seeing this story play out every time I see this movie. The dynamics at play between passion and logic, greed and morality…it’s subject matter that has helped to define my film interests and my personal life to some level.

Michael: The themes are certainly fun, and I completely agree that the plot is still fresh some 72 years later. The intricacies of the plot to kill Phyllis’ husband aren’t “simple” like I would expect from an older film. The plan has its flaws, which are immediately brought to light through Keyes (such as questioning how one would die falling from a train moving so slowly), but it’s still smart. I address it in the next talking point, but everything about the plan was meticulously thought out. I’m a fan of crime drama, and it’s always interesting to see plans that do their best to account for gaps in logic or planning. This would work just as well in a movie today (with the exception that no one really casually travels by train anymore), and for that, this movie gets a lot of credit from me.

Aaron: There’s other elements to this story that I’ve always really enjoyed. There are many euphemisms and phrases sprinkled out throughout the script that hints that Walter is taking the road to his death. Obviously we know this from the start thanks to the framing device of his confession, but it all works to make a cohesive narrative thread throughout.

The Perfect Scene
Michael: There was one scene in this film that I was so impressed by because of how smartly written it was. It was the scene at the insurance office where Phyllis is brought in and told by Norton, Keyes, and Neff that she is owed money. There’s a concept in improv comedy (which I’ve been studying at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater) called “playing at the top of your intelligence,” where the theory is that the audience will respond more if you’re playing things as intelligently as your character is capable of being. Your character could be the dumbest character in history, but as long as they’re trying their hardest, it will ring true. Well that scene shows just how smart Phyllis is. She has all of her bases covered and her responses are perfect. She doesn’t budge in her stance that she doesn’t know what’s going on, and all of her responses show that. She sums it up best at the end of the scene: “Don’t bother, Mr. Norton. When I came in here I had no idea you owed me any money. You told me you did. Then you told me you didn’t. Now you tell me you want to pay me a part of it, whatever it is. You want to bargain with me, at a time like this. I don’t like your insinuations about my husband, Mr. Norton, and I don’t like your methods. In fact I don’t like you, Mr. Norton. Goodbye, gentlemen.” Everything about that gives her plausible deniability. I understand that she was counseled by Neff beforehand, but even still, most characters in movies nowadays would be written to make a few oversights and show their hand, and I appreciated the presence in a film of a character who bluffs to perfection. It’s such a small part of the film, but defined Phyllis’ character to me and will be what I most remember about the film, even with the excellent original plot that still holds up today.

Aaron: Phyllis Dietrichson is probably the most famous character from this movie and is considered to be an all-time great antagonist. I think she’s a smartly written character because we learn about her at the same rate that Walter learns about her. It’s really easy to get taken in by her sob story about an emotionally abusive husband and think that maybe she is justified in her feelings on some level. But as the plot moves along and we start to realize that Phyllis is just using Walter to get what she wants and is already making plans with another man to cut him out of the picture, and how she arranged the death of her husband’s first wife, we realize just what a master manipulator this woman is. On a sidenote that I always found humorous; those involved with the movie were always concerned that the wig she wears would be too obvious and take viewers out of the movie experience. I find that the detail works as a wink and a nod to her true character; she’s a fraud. An attractive, even sympathetic one, but she and every narrative she conjures is fictional.

Michael: You know I’m a sucker for a good female character because it’s an artform that Hollywood is still trying to get right (or more often than not, they’re not trying), and I think this movie is a perfect example of a powerful female (despite the fact that making her “bad” and manipulative isn’t exactly a shining quality). I just appreciate that her brain is the driving force behind all the events that take place in the movie.

The Keyes to this Movie
Aaron: The more I watch this film, the more I realize that the reason I keep coming back is Edward G. Robinson’s performance. Barton Keyes is one of my favorite characters in film, and that’s entirely because of the energy and gravitas that Robinson brought to the role. He’s phenomenal throughout, going on these long rants about his job, and we get the sense that man is very intelligent and cares about discovering the truth. There’s also an undercurrent of warmth and affection between him and Neff that ties the whole movie together. The scene that always sticks out to me most is when he dismisses the Dietrichson’s case as being a suicide. He goes on this very long, very fast-paced explanation, describing to us how he knows with absolute certainty that it was not a suicide. Watch that scene independently from the rest of the movie. Try to remember that this is an actor who has memorized this dialogue but is so good that he can make it sound that it’s completely spontaneous and that he knows exactly what he’s talking about. It’s a scene that makes me want to stand up and cheer and try to take acting classes so I can tap into even a little of that ability.

Michael: And to think he did it all with the fictional Transatlantic accent, which is goofy and put-on in and of itself. Edward G. Robinson already had my attention coming into this movie because the actor is a big part of the plot of the movie Trumbo from this past year, and so I was genuinely curious to get to know more about him as a performer. Well you’re absolutely right because he was on-point as Barton Keyes. Walter Neff, I feel, was poorly cast as Fred MacMurray didn’t do much to breathe life into the role. It was a flat performance that was only made worse by its genre (the “classic” delivery that we’ve come to expect from Film Noir may actually just be an imitation of MacMurray). Robinson and Stanwyck absolutely stole this show and I can’t help but wonder how this movie would have gone if Robinson and MacMurray swapped places.

Aaron: I’ve been thinking about that, and I do have to admit that MacMurray can come across as lifeless and empty. But… the more I think about it, I think that’s by design and not a lack of effort. Phyllis is this subtle force of intelligence, pulling strings. Keyes is bombastic and also very intelligent, and he ends up cracking the case that was nearly perfect. Walter? Walter’s just a sad, lonely man who’s easily manipulated. Keyes seems to think that he could be more, that he’s smarter than everyone else, but as he says; he’s just taller. Neff is hollow.

Aaron: Double Indemnity‘s influence on film noir is almost impossible to overstate, and it has two outstanding performances. I also want to emphasize that the screenplay is really sharp and full of dialogue that just rolls right off the tongue and plays well from one line to the next. It always keeps me engaged despite mostly being a movie where people just stand around talking. But the way the film looks, the way the story progresses and finally ties up, and my personal attachment to a film that helped open my eyes to the effort and artistry that goes into making a great film are a perfect storm for me. It’s one of my all-time favorites and if I gave this any other grade, I’d be lying to myself.


Michael: This is a movie that holds up well, and survives through its still-captivating plot and some solid performances by Robinson and Stanwyck. I haven’t seen much in the Film Noir genre, so it’s hard for me to compare this to others, but overall I enjoyed it, and I can see why it’s a classic. It’s not exactly what I tend to gravitate toward, but I took plenty away from this. Visual storytelling was just as important as verbal storytelling, the script was sound, and I’ve already mentioned the story. Good stuff.


Aaron: Michael. You’re all washed up.

Michael: At least you didn’t call me “baby.”

What are your favorite Film Noirs or crime dramas?

Next week:

Michael: Next week’s column will come out four days before an oft-overlooked holiday, and I wanted to pick one of my favorite comedies every to commemorate the occasion.


Aaron: I know next to nothing about this movie, aside from knowing Bill Murray is in it. And people keep saying they should release the exact same movie as a sequel to the original. It’ll be nice to finally understand that, I hope.

Michael: You will. It’s great — knowing you, I actually think the comedy will be right up your alley.

What would you do if you were forced to relive the same day over and over again?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity


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The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Double Indemnity is a genre-defining classic film. Featuring memorable characters and great actors, it tells a thrilling crime drama that still feels fresh 72 years after it released. It's definitely a film to see at least once in your lifetime.