Updated: Mar 25, 2020
It’s an odd thing. In this best-known scene still from Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray is the one making with the eyes, while what goes on behind Barbara Stanwyck’s shades can only be guessed at. Then again, perhaps it’s not so odd after all. At the time of the movie’s release in 1944, audiences had been watching this particular screen goddess for most of two decades, parading a brand of tough, seen-it-all self-assurance that was all her own work. In that D-Day year her star was so high she had become the best-paid actress in Hollywood. Which in turn made her the best-paid woman in America!
So as you sat through that scene from Double Indemnity, you really didn’t need to guess at what was going on behind the glasses, because by then more than forty of her movies had already told you what. She was the broad who knew her way around, and whether you were Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Fred MacMurray or a host of other leading men, getting the eye from her was always a power play, whatever guise she was in. She might have had doubts about the wisdom of playing the manipulative, straight-out murderous Phyllis Dietrichson for her screen image, but in reality it wasn’t so much of a stretch. What I always think of as her cocktail look had been honed in countless movies, and it was perfection for the role of Walter Neff’s nemesis: one part You’re Sold Already; one part It Shouldn’t Be This Easy; one part The Possibilities Are Endless. The eyewear in the photo doesn’t conceal a thing. It simply ups the ante.
For Fred MacMurray it was a much bigger stretch. Like his co-star he was in his late thirties. He also was a veteran of more than forty movies. Likewise he had reservations of his own about playing Walter Neff, and it so happened he was Hollywood’s highest-paid actor in that same year. But he’d got there in a career made from winning characters, in romances, light comedies and melodramas. He knew he hadn’t even remotely registered on the poisonous complicity scale that the role demanded.
And yet the two stars conspired in creating the menace and magic of Double Indemnity. It didn’t harm at all, of course, that their fellow conspirators included director Billy Wilder and cinematographer John Seitz. Or that Wilder pulled in Raymond Chandler (caught between bouts of alcohol) to work with him on the screenplay - and especially to craft its corrosive dialogue. Put all that talent together and you’re left watching a dark, deep-shadowed masterpiece of downward spiral that struck a powerful chord with audiences then as now. And set them up for a decade and more of the film noir era.