When a successful insurance salesman visits a client’s house to discuss the renewal of some expired car policies, the last thing he expected was to become embroiled in a plot involving murder and deception, yet that is exactly what happens when he meets his client’s beautiful yet scheming wife.
The career of an insurance salesman has become something of a punchline on film. When The Incredibles needed to show protagonist Bob Parr being unhappy in life, he has become an insurance salesman. In Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms’ naive small town bumbler works for an insurance firm, and who can forget the world’s most annoying former classmate, Needle-nosed Ned-the-Head Ryerson? Even The Apartment – also written and directed by Billy Wilder – sees Jack Lemmon’s Bud stuck in a dead-end job at an insurance firm. It’s not difficult to see why, as insurance salesmen don’t tend to be the most exciting people to talk to about their work (and indeed, who am I to talk, unless you enjoy spending your evenings comparing grades of aluminium or the tensile strength of injection moulded glass-reinforced polycarbonate). Yes, it would seem that if you want to make a character seem feeble or insignificant in some way, you make them an insurance salesman. I believe it began here, in Double Indemnity, with Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff a regular guy just out doing the rounds on his expired policies, who winds up caught in someone else’s plans for murder. However, MacMurray’s tall, well-built figure cuts a domineering silhouette, making him far from an every-man character, along with those mischievous eyes and phonebook chin. Neff may have an everyman job, but he is far from a passive hero.
Admittedly, early on, he is victim to the towel-clad feminine wiles of Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, the second wife of a wealthy oil executive, for whom Neff is renewing his insurance. And indeed initially Neff is opposed to Mrs. Dietrichson’s plans to take out an accident insurance policy on her husband before offing him and collecting the claim, but after she’s lured him into her honeysuckle-scented arms he becomes the more pragmatic of the pair, and comes up with the plan’s methodology himself, even taking the predominant roles within it.
The word “Baby” doesn’t sit well in MacMurray’s mouth, which is a shame given how often he spits it out, each time jarring a little with the otherwise smooth script, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with Stanwyck here either, as she didn’t light up the screen for me in the way that she should. She wasn’t terrible, but I never really saw whatever it was that caught Neff’s eye (other than the bizarre fetish that is his obsession with her ankle bracelet), and the two of them never sparked off one another in the way that I’d hoped. She and MacMurray had some nice sparring conversations, with the initial speeding ticket metaphor being a highlight, but I feel this was more down to how comically forward Neff was behaving towards a good-looking dame (and one married to his client, at that) whom he’d only just met. In fact, I was never entirely on board with the idea that he’d be willing to kill a client for a woman he’d only met a total of three times prior, and each of those times was hardly a lasting visit.
This is all made up for with the inclusion of two men, both superiors of Neff. First, his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a diminutive yet ruthlessly tenacious claims investigator who really sinks his teeth into the Dietrichson claim. Secondly, there’s Keyes’ boss, Edward S. Norton Jr. (Richard Gaines), a fairly incompetent man who refuses to believe this fact, even in the face of exacerbating a situation he was attempting to resolve with Mrs. Dietrichson. Gaines overacts his role terrifically, making good use of over-dramatising and emphasising what could otherwise be a fairly flat role. The one scene shared by these two, as well as the two leads, is fantastic, from Keyes’ dismissal of Norton’s suicide theory, to Norton’s embarrassing display in front of Mrs. Dietrichson, with Neff all the while fretting away in the background that something is bound to go wrong.
Obviously, Neff is correct, and this being a film noir very little goes as intended. The fact that the film begins with Neff recounting the tale through a bullethole in his shoulder should give you some idea as to how badly things have differed from the original plan. The plot never feels contrived or relying upon unbelievable coincidences as is occasionally the case with noirs, with only the insurance policy’s eponymous double indemnity clause – which pays out double for a specifically rare event – causing any eyebrow raising in terms of the story’s conceivability. Wikipedia states this to be a real thing, but it still sounds a bit silly to me.
There are great moments peppered throughout the film – when a character is killed, we do not see the death itself, merely the slow, satisfied smile of someone else in the vicinity – and some truly touching moments, including a final shot and moment so full of betrayal and heartbreak that it is truly gut-wrenching. It’s just a shame that the chemistry wasn’t there enough for me between the two leads, but that cannot be said for the many interactions between Neff and Keyes, which all flow perfectly.
Choose Film 8/10