Double MacMurray

One of the surprises in Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment was seeing Fred MacMurray playing an out and out heel.

Up till then I had only known MacMurray from light comedy parts, such as Disney’s The Shaggy Dog, so seeing him play an unsympathetic role was somewhat jarring. As a matter of fact, MacMurray didn’t want to play that part but Wilder coaxed him into it. In his entire career, MacMurray only played light comedy and romantic roles with only two or three exceptions.

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Fred MacMurray in Double IndemnityFred MacMurray in Double Indemnity

Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity

The first of those exceptions was Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity, which is usually credited as being the first film noir, the only truly American genre to emerge from Hollywood.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say that I just re-viewed Double Indemnity, and like most of Wilder’s work, it still holds up amazingly well.

MacMurray didn’t want to take the part of Walter Neff, the insurance salesman who, upon falling for femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (played superbly by Barbara Stanwyck), devises a plot for the two of them to murder her husband so she can collect on an insurance policy her husband doesn’t even know she’s taken out on him.

But somehow Wilder convinced him, and it’s hard to see how the film could have worked as well with someone else in the role (Wilder apparently initially asked George Raft). Since the entire film centers around Neff, it’s important that the audience finds him likeable, even as he’s plotting and executing his heinous deed.

Although MacMurray’s performance was acclaimed, he felt uncomfortable playing the part of a murderer (maybe it was that old Catholic guilt), so he went right back to romantic and light comedy roles. One that I particularly like is Murder, He Says.

Double Indemnity did well at the box office, and it was rewarded with a slew of Oscar nominations. Alas, it lost out to another popular film of that year. But whereas people still watch and love Wilder’s Double Indemnity, does anybody still remember Going My Way?

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