It’s a classic film noir story line: A beautiful dame talks a gullible guy into killing her husband with the promise that they will run off together. Of course, it never quite works out that way.
Wednesday’s Summer Classic at the Kentucky Theatre is essentially a blueprint for this story, the 1944 Billy Wilder classic Double Indemnity. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) goes to talk to a man about a policy and is immediately wowed by the man’s wife, Phyllis, (Barbara Stanwyck), standing atop the stairs in a towel.
On his follow-up visit, she asks about buying a life insurance policy for her husband, making it clear she wants to kill him. He initially begs off the deal but eventually ends up selling her the policy and planning the murder, specially designed to cash in on a “double indemnity” clause that pays twice as much if the death occurs under specific circumstances.
The majority of the movie is told as a flashback, Walter dictating a confession to his colleague, an insurance investigator brilliantly played by Edward G. Robinson. And it’s shot in high-contrast black-and-white by John F. Seitz, making even a sunny Southern California day seem ominous, with deep shadows lurking in plain sight.
The roots of the story are in a 1927 New York murder in which a woman and her lover killed her husband and attempted to cash in on a lucrative insurance policy. That case has become the inspiration for a variety of films and stories, although it took nearly a decade for the story to make it to the screen. In the mid-1930s, the Hays Office, which policed the content of movies, objected to Double Indemnity becoming a movie because, “The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater.”
Indeed, there are moments that feel a bit envelope-pushing for the 1940s. But the film did get made and has grown in reputation into a bona fide classic.
It shows at 1:30 and 7:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Kentucky Theatre.