'Double Indemnity' Is 75, But Anklets (And Film Noir) Are Forever Double Indemnity is classic film noir: Men in fedoras walk mean streets shrouded in shadow and women are sometimes the sirens to beckon them to their doom. It's a film — and a genre — that endures.
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'Double Indemnity' Is 75, But Anklets (And Film Noir) Are Forever

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'Double Indemnity' Is 75, But Anklets (And Film Noir) Are Forever

'Double Indemnity' Is 75, But Anklets (And Film Noir) Are Forever

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/746391982/746855387" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A surprisingly influential film turns 75 years old this month. The black and white movie is called "Double Indemnity." Billy Wilder directed it. This movie helped inspire a lot of other film noir classics featuring wounded men in fedoras and sultry femme fatales. And here is the surprising part - "Double Indemnity" also influenced a lot of what we are watching today. The fedoras didn't last, but much else did.

Here's NPR's Marc Rivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES SEDARES'S "DOUBLE INDEMNITY: I. PRELUDE")

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Let's just get right to the point.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")

FRED MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. And I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman.

RIVERS: That's insurance salesman Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) It all began last May...

RIVERS: His confession comes at the start of the film, so I didn't spoil anything. The woman is Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck. She's a seductive housewife who would be much happier without her husband around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")

BARBARA STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) The other night, we drove home from a party. He was drunk again. When we drove into the garage, he just sat there with his head on the steering wheel with the motor still running. And I thought what it would be like if I didn't switch it off - just closed the garage doors and left him there.

RIVERS: Together, they had to scheme to kill the husband and make it look like an accident. But in "Double Indemnity," it's also a given that the protagonists are doomed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Suddenly, it came over me that everything would go wrong. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.

EDDIE MULLER: There's no doubt in my mind that it was not only the artistic, but the commercial success of this film - is what really triggered the film noir movement in Hollywood.

RIVERS: That's Eddie Muller, the czar of noir, as he likes to call himself. He's the host of Turner Classic Movies' Noir Alley.

MULLER: And I think that what makes it so special is that the protagonists are the villains.

RIVERS: Seventy-five years ago, that was a big deal. Hollywood was heavily policed by production codes, and it was bold for director Billy Wilder to take his popular stars and turn them into killers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) We're both rotten.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Only you're a little more rotten. You got me to take care of your husband for you.

RIVERS: Film noir - stories that exposed the dark underbelly of the American dream, rich black and white with heavy shadows and witty double entendre that skirted the censors.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff - 45 miles an hour.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) How fast was I going, officer?

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) I'd say around 90.

MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

RIVERS: And the smoking - so much smoking. After all, they were as good as dead anyway. Film noir came from the hard-boiled fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. It took off in Hollywood during and after World War II, when Eddie Muller says you couldn't sell people just on happily ever after anymore.

MULLER: And so finally, here were stories on a big screen at the movie house that reflected that pessimism.

RIVERS: That strain of pessimism and the visual style have never gone away. It's mostly on TV now, from "The Sopranos" to Walter White in "Breaking Bad"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.

RIVERS: ...Or "Jessica Jones," with its tortured female protagonist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESSICA JONES")

KRYSTEN RITTER: (As Jessica Jones) A big part of the job is looking for the worst in people. Turns out, I excel at that.

MELISSA ROSENBERG: Jessica Jones is sort of in the role of the - what would be, typically, the male hero - you know, the Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray - where she's the - you know, the antihero.

RIVERS: That's "Jessica Jones'" creator and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg. She says she could draw a line between Jessica Jones and "Double Indemnity's" femme fatale.

ROSENBERG: She's driving the story. She's the smart, ambitious one who does what she has to to get what she wants.

RIVERS: Today's audiences are no longer shocked by this kind of story. In fact, Eddie Muller says now people watch old movies like "Double Indemnity" because they're a little like comfort food.

MULLER: Like, wow, that's great. Look. Here's a murder story from a more innocent time.

RIVERS: Just don't go looking for innocence down the mean streets of "Double Indemnity." You won't find any.

Marc Rivers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S "MRS. DIETRICHSON/THE CONSPIRACY")

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