IN 1944 America, things were like the television and (most of) the movies: very black and white. The United States was with China and the others Allies fighting the Axis Powers; the suburbs were just about to burgeon, creating urbane but safe areas for families; and the so-called Hays Code strictly policed movies, making sure they didn’t just restrict language and sexuality, but also moral issues as well.
Then came “Double Indemnity” and the advent of film noir to make things murky.
Film noir is the Hollywood style of gray morality, with fast-talking detectives, fast-thinking criminals and fast women. It offers a clear rejection of the trends at hand, offering up the immortal question, “What do we value, and why?”
For “Double Indemnity,” the questions are asked to Fred MacMurray’s insurance salesman. He begins the film a wounded mess, hurriedly dictating the narration into an old-fashioned recorder. He flashbacks to his former life, where he seems to be drifting through it as an insurance salesman.
That is until he meets a stylish and alluring dame played by Barbara Stanwyck. She tells of her abusive husband, and not-so-slyly asks if he can get accident insurance without her hubby knowing (meaning she could collect if anything was to happen to him).
At first, MacMurray is appalled by this suggestion. But, seemingly out of curiosity and sympathy, he agrees to not only secretly help her get the insurance for her husband, but also to murder him so she can collect the maximum amount, that is double indemnity.
Questions of worth come up frequently in a way that still apply 70 years later since the film’s release. The indelible Edward G. Robinson asks MacMurray to take a pay cut from his sales job in order to take on the challenging work of insurance-fraud detective. They debate the merits of a challenging job “tied to a desk” rather than MacMurray’s ability to move about. MacMurray agonizes over a moral transgression for money. He and Stanwyck consider the worth of not getting caught for the crime but having to live completely separately to stay safe.
“Double Indemnity” is filmed in stark colors, but the beauty of it is its muddled character.