One of Hollywood’s most prolific and decorated directors, Billy Wilder uses elements of mise-en-scène to astonishing effect in the now-classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944).
Double Indemnity centers on insurance salesman Walter Neff (an indulgent Fred MacMurray) and subjugated housewife (ahem, golddigger) Phyllis Dietrichson (a simple Barbara Stanwyck). Walter Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson contrive to pull off the perfect crime: the murder of Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers). Should Mr. Dietrichson suffer an accidental death, well, the double indemnity clause of his life insurance policy would pay a handsome settlement to his widow.
The first scene of the film paints an ominous picture for Walter. A long shot of an empty office space, save a few custodians picking up debris, transports the audience to a graveyard, with the desks as coffins and the lamps as tombstones. Wilder punctuates the haunting nature of this image with Miklós Rózsa’s strident score and electrician Bill Pillar’s dramatic lighting. Additionally, the high angle position of the camera has Walter looking down at the office floor, as though from Heaven. In so doing, the audience is made aware of Walter’s fate long before he is.
Director Billy Wilder again makes advantageous use of mise-en-scène in a later scene occurring approximately 60 minutes into the film. Walter and claims manager Barton Keyes (a mighty Edward G. Robinson) visit company president Edward S. Norton, Jr.’s (Richard Gaines) office. The men discuss the validity of Mrs. Dietrichson’s claim. (After all, what insurance company is eager to make payment on a claim?) The gentlemen later ask the widow Dietrichson to join the conversation for the purpose of elucidating the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death. The ubiquitous (and also very talented) costume designer, Edith Head, uses a thin black veil to confirm the insidious nature of Mrs. Dietrichson. This is a woman full of secrets, of lies. Simultaneously, cinematographer John F. Seitz asserts Walter’s guilt by allowing the mini-blinds’ shadows to fall on Walter as if they were the bars of a prison cell.
Truly a master of mise-en-scène, writer-director Billy Wilder created a film that is emblematic of a personal creative vision.