Fred MacMurray was a big movie star of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s who transitioned into a beloved TV father figure in his long running series My Three Sons. In almost all of that long and popular career he was always the kind, mild-mannered and upstanding American man. There were three exceptions that I can think of. One was a film I’ve previously reviewed here, “The Caine Mutiny” in which MacMurray was a manipulative naval officer who brings about a mutiny for which he escapes blame but others are court-martialed. Another was a movie called “The Apartment where he is a philandering corporate executive. And the third is the present film, Double Indemnity. MacMurray is insurance salesman, Walter Neff. Barbara Stanwyck is Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of one of Neff’s policy holders and Edward G. Robinson is Barton Keyes an insurance investigator and Neff’s good friend. The story revolves around the plot by MacMurray and Stanwyck to murder her husband and collect on a double indemnity life insurance policy. The details of the murder are actually kind of ingenious and the story has plenty of interesting twists and minor characters that enliven the action. All in all, the production is well acted and very well written. In particular, Edward G Robinson’s character steals the show. He is clever, likeable and provides the moral anchor against which we can weigh the evil being perpetrated by MacMurray and Stanwyck.
The only real problem with the movie is that MacMurray’s character is supposed to be a fast talking, wise cracking, hard boiled character. He’s supposed to be the kind of character that George Raft or Humphrey Bogart might have played. But he’s Fred MacMurray. So, every time he calls Barbara Stanwyck, “baby,” which by the way he seems to do about a hundred times, all I can think of is him playing absent minded Prof. Ned Brainard in Disney’s movie the “Son of Flubber.” It just doesn’t work. He’s too nice a guy to believe as a cold-blooded murderer.
The other hiccough in the plot is the scene where MacMurray and Stanwyck fall out. At one point, Stanwyck abandons here cold-blooded behavior with an altruistic explanation that must have been based on a Hayes Code requirement but just doesn’t make any theatrical sense.
These two considerations aside the movie is an entertaining story with an engaging plot and good acting by both the primary and secondary characters. Even with my reservations about MacMurray’s believability as bad guy I can still see this movie over and over and still enjoy it. The secret I believe is Edward G Robinson. His character allows us to side with the forces of rationality when they intervene and subdue the chaotic outbreak that Neff and Dietrichson unleash with their clever plan. And Robinson gets to hammer home his side of the story in the final scene where he confronts his murderous friend and tells him how it all will end. The only accommodation he makes to their old friendship is lighting a match for Neff when he is too weak to light his own cigarette. And in a 1940’s movie, if you can’t even light your own cigarette you know you’re as good as dead.