I'll be honest with you, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity was underwhelming. I'm not sure what that says about my reviewing credentials, because back in the 1940s it was up for no less than seven Academy Awards. The plot revolves around Walter Neff
(Fred MacMurray), insurance sales guy, and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), disenchanted housewife. They kill her husband for the insurance money, get away with it for a while, but eventually Neff's colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) figures it out and is going to get them sooner or later. Don't worry - I didn't give you any spoilers. We learn all this in the first five minutes as Neff confesses into an office dictation machine. We launch head first into a flashback, narrated by Neff, who is slowly bleeding to death from a mysterious gunshot wound.
It sounds melodramatic, but somehow the sense of drama is lost. We know what's going to happen; we even know that Neff doesn't get the money or the girl. The idea is that we want to know how it happened, what specifically went wrong, who shot Neff? But as I watched, I had to keep reminding myself why I was watching, but then I found the real reason was that I had to review it. I'm aware I am speaking from a modern perspective: during production and at its release, there were fears that Double Indemnity would harden audiences towards onscreen immorality because it dealt with murder so openly. Today, it's a murder mystery without the violence and without the mystery.
This wasn't an entirely wasted opportunity though. This week's gatecrashed undergraduate film lecture was on continuity editing, so I was furiously identifying the classical Hollywood styles present. (It's so like me to turn everything into work.) That is, I was until the film suddenly got interesting, at the point where Stanwyck blossoms into a fantastic Femme Fatale. Cue dark sunglasses and wry smiles. Her performance is easily the most engaging and probably the most memorable aspect of the film as a whole.
I see this film as simply adding to my stock of film knowledge, especially as it's sometimes hailed as one of the first film noirs. I've been comparing it in my head to Wilder's The Apartment , which features MacMurray and a similar office building, although it's a very different film, and more usefully with his Sunset Boulevard , which is coming up on the list at #33. In and of itself, though? Well, if you're a passionate cinephile then you probably ought to watch it, just so the next time The Maltese Falcon comes up in conversation you can reel off an impressive list of comparisons. If not, then you probably want to give it a miss.