1944, Billy Wilder
Film noir has always been one of my very favorite genres, and they don’t come much better than Billy Wilder’s seminal classic Double Indemnity. A dark and brooding thriller, co-written by the great Raymond Chandler, this is a film whose influence can still be felt today and even without its legacy still stands on its own as a truly phenomenal work of cinema. Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a talented and cunning insurance salesman who becomes entangled with the alluring Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) when he shows up to make a sale to her husband.
Stanwyck delivers a knockout performance here as the ultimate femme fatale, the woman who sinks her claws into the men that surround her and bends them to her every will. She uses her abilities to entrance in order to get Neff into thinking it’s his idea to off her husband, using the insurance that Neff will sell them in order to make their getaway to a life of love and luxury together. Of course, things never go so smoothly when murder is involved, and after their elaborate plan is pulled off, the walls start to close in on them and they start to turn on one another.
As Neff’s boss, an explosive scene-stealing performance from Edward G. Robinson, begins to put the pieces together and the male Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) brings her suspicions of Phyllis to Walter, the claws come out from all sides and in their desperation these people begin to look for the truth and for a way out. Opening with a truly phenomenal sequence as Neff sits down at the desk of Robinson’s character and tells the whole story as a confession into a Dictaphone, we know right away that everything goes wrong for this man and the film is shown as his retelling of the tale.
It’s an ingenious structure that has been emulated countless times, but the way that Wilder constructs it is so vibrant and morbid it immediately hooked me and had me roped with suspense waiting for the bricks to crumble. Wilder builds suspense tremendously, with more reserved sequences like Neff describing to his superior the ways that he ensured his alibi would be airtight for the evening of the murder, that make the more elaborate scenes even more intense as a result.
I’ve never been one for narration in films, but Wilder can pull it off in a way that makes me feel that every film should have it, and it’s utilized here in a way that clues us right into this tale of woe. Double Indemnity is a grim tale of caution for those susceptible to the charms of the siren behind the luxurious door, a brooding and hard-boiled noir that starts off dark and only gets darker as it builds to its memorable finale.
Film #234 of The 365 Film Challenge.