Greed, lust, and actuarial tables -- matched with a drum-tight script, terrific performances, and perfect direction -- add up to a classic L. A. film noir that remains as scintillating today as it was in 1944. Directed by the great Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity stars Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman who falls for the wife (Barbara Stanwyck) of one of his clients and becomes entangled in a scheme to bump off her husband. MacMurray may play an insurance salesman, but the dialogue is pure hard-boiled detective, all innuendo and double-entendre, with snappy come-ons and comebacks. It’s no wonder -- the script was based on a novella by James M. Cain and co-written by the godfather of American crime fiction, Raymond Chandler. Sporting a beautifully florid, confessional voice-over worthy of Philip Marlowe himself, the masterfully constructed narrative unfolds entirely in flashback -- a storytelling technique Wilder would reprise to great effect in Sunset Boulevard. The lead actors are unforgettable: MacMurray smug and confident from the get-go, Stanwyck subtly seductive and manipulative. Anchoring the proceedings is the legendary Edward G. Robinson in one of his best performances. Perfectly cast as MacMurray’s boss and father figure, he plays a brusque, cigar-smoking claims manager, with a big heart underneath it all, who ends up unraveling the perfect crime. This is genre filmmaking at its finest, and a definitive noir.
Billy Wilder only made one proper film noir, but it was a doozy: Double Indemnity is one of the most unrelentingly cynical films the genre produced, with a pair of career-changing performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and a script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler every bit as black-hearted as James M. Cain's novel Three of a Kind, on which the film was based. The idiosyncratically attractive Stanwyck, generally thought of as pretty but hardly a bombshell, was rarely as sexy as she was as Phyllis Dietrichson, and never as sleazy; Phyllis knows how to use her allure to twist men around her little finger, and from the moment Walter Neff lays eyes on her, he's taken a sharp turn down the Wrong Path, as Phyllis oozes erotic attraction at its least wholesome. While MacMurray was best known as a "nice guy" leading man (an image that stuck with him to the end of his career), he was capable of much more, and he gave perhaps the finest performance of his life as Walter Neff, a sharp-talking wise guy who loses himself to weak, murderous corruption when he finds his Achilles Heel in the brassy blonde Phyllis. (MacMurray's only role that rivalled it was as the heartless Mr. Sheldrake in The Apartment, also directed by Wilder.) And, while they followed the Hays Code to the letter, Wilder and Chandler packed this story with seething sexual tension; Neff's morbid fascination with Phyllis's ankle bracelet is as brazenly fetishistic as 1940s filmmaking got. Double Indemnity was not a film designed to make evil seem attractive -- but it's sure a lot of fun to watch.