Directed by Billy Wilder
Back in the days before late night television was devoured by infomercials, some channels used to feature an enticing range of vintage black and white films. Among this treasure trove of monochrome was the definitive film noir classic, Double Indemnity. More atmosphere than substance,it's one those films that hangs around in your unconscious...you never quite erase it. Recently released on DVD, I received a copy last Christmas and I must say, I had to be careful when I slipped it out of it's cover, because after over half a century, this film is still hot.
The plot is straightforward enough and loaded with moral ambiguity--deadly temptress in the form of peroxide victim Phyllis Dietrichson [ Barbara Stanwyck] corrupts highly corruptible cynical insurance salesman Walter Neff [Fred Macmurray] with the twin baubles of sex and money--a dynamic combination for a man stuck in a rut. A murder plot is hatched, a husband disposed of and all that remains is some hefty insurance to collect. It all ends badly of course. We know this from the opening scenes, as Macmurray confesses all to a tape recorder intended for Barton Keyes [the always terrific Edward G Robinson], an investigator who lives, breathes and eats insurance fraud.
That the story is told by Walter in flashback is no detriment to the tension and suspense and it's mesmerizing to watch Neff's life unravel. The flashback format gives the story a hazy,dreamy feel and the viewer feels carried along with the drama at all times. Fred Macmurray is perfect as a man sweating on the edge of self-destruction. As one reviewer put it, "you almost have to wipe the perspiration of the screen".
Barbara Stanwyk too, is eminently watchable as Phyllis Dietrichson. Stanwyk is the only actress I can think of who can manage to sneer without perceptibly moving a facial muscle. She's as tough and brittle as her platinum hair and so is the dialogue. It blisters with bold sexual frisson. Yet in spite of the rapport between the characters, there's a loneliness about Neff which pervades the narrative and reminds us of our inescapable solitude. Walter is very human and thus very flawed. At one point Barton Keyes tells him:
I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You're not smarter, Walter... you're just a little taller.
Double Indemnity has mood...dark and compelling. In classic film noir tradition, the director has made full use of light and dark contrasts. The atmosphere is both claustrophobic and languid, especially in Stanwyk's hacienda style California bungalow, on a tree-lined street where "murder smells like honeysuckle". Wilder has paid attention to detail, from the sun streaking through the venetian blinds to Stanwyk's flirtatious ankle bracelet dangling in the light.
Why do I like this film so much? Maybe because I recognized in myself both a fascination and a repulsion with life's darker underbelly and saw in it something of the absurdity of human existence. That may sound grandiose for a forties suspense flick and it's not Dostoevsky by any stretch, but it does have all the elements of a good tragedy--desire, greed, betrayal, conflict, frailty,guilt and finally annihilation.
Also, I have to confess to a faint desire to one day lean against a mantlepiece with a cigarette smoldering in my hand and say to some poor miscellaneous man, "Dont get involved with me baby. I'm rotten to the core..."
What can I say? I'm a romantic...