James M. Cain’s Liberty story, “Double Indemnity,” apparently based on a sensational murder of the 1920s, has become an absorbing melodrama in its Paramount adaptation. It is certain boxoffice insurance. And double indemnity with such marquee names as Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson.
There are unmistakeable similarities between the Paramount pic and the famous Snyder-Gray murder wherein Albert Snyder was sash-weighted to death 17 years ago in his Queens Village, NY, home by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, Judd Gray. Both the fictional and the real murders were for the slain men’s insurance. Both were committed by the murdered men’s wives and their amours.
“Indemnity” is rapidly moving and consistently well developed. It is a story replete with suspense, for which credit must go in a large measure to Billy Wilder’s direction. He was also co-author of the screenplay.
The story’s development revolves mainly around the characterizations of MacMurray, Miss Stanwyck and Robinson, the first two as the lovers and Robinson as an insurance claims agent who balks the pair’s ‘perfect crime’ from becoming just what they had intended it to appear – an accidental death from a moving train, for which there would have been a double indemnity.
Miss Stanwyck plays the wife of an oilman, and when MacMurray, an insurance salesman, becomes her paramour, they sell to the husband, fraudulently, an accidental-death policy. They then kill him and place his body on the railway tracks. Their plans go awry, however, when MacMurray learns that Miss Stanwyck has been using him as a dupe, and he shoots her to death. It is a story told in flashback, film opening with MacMurray confessing voluntarily the entire setup into a dictaphone for use by the claims agent, from which the narrative then unfolds.
MacMurray has seldom given a better performance. It is somewhat different from his usually light roles, but is always plausible and played with considerable restraint. Stanwyck is not as attractive as normally with what is seemingly a blonde wig, but it’s probably part of a makeup to emphasize the brassiness of the character. Her performance, however, is consistent though the character in the final reel would have been stronger had not the scripters sought to reflect some sense of human understanding for her. Robinson, as the infallible insurance executive quick to determine phoney claims, gives a strong performance, too. It is a typically brash Robinson role. Lessers who do well are Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers (the murdered man) and Richard Gaines.
Joseph Sistrom has contributed a grade A production and there’s an enterprising score by Miklos Rozsa.
1944: Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Barbara Stanwyck), Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, Score of a Dramatic Picture, Sound