Response to Peary’s Review:
Directed by Billy Wilder, and based on an “explosive, bitter melodrama” by pulp fiction writer James M. Cain, Double Indemnity is considered by many to be “quintessential film noir”, and has long been classified as an indisputable must-see film. Stanwyck — who has “never been cooler, more convincing” — is the archetypal embodiment of an icy femme fatale, while Fred MacMurray gives “his most impressive performance” as her “smart, cocky, aggressive” foil, who is nonetheless “not as clever as he thinks.” Rounding out the core cast is the always-excellent Edward G. Robinson as Neff’s employer and confessor, a claims manager who can sniff a false allegation a mile away (thanks to hints given by a “little man” living in his chest), and ultimately ferrets out the truth of Neff’s crime.
Typical of most noir, Double Indemnity is, Peary writes, “characterized by the interacting traits of greed, lust, murder, betrayal, and a pervading, oppressive darkness”. We’re not meant to relate to the central characters (who lack any heart or soul), but rather to watch in fascination as their foolhardy, arrogant actions doom them; inevitably, “the hero realizes that he deserves his sorry fate [and] the woman acknowledges she’s no good.” As Peary notes, the “film has no [intentional] humor, but it’s tremendous fun to watch a man so secure in himself… fall into a spider woman’s web”; indeed, part of the genius of the script is watching Stanwyck “subtly stroking [Neff's] masculine ego” as she “sits back and lets [him] take over and devise the murder plot” himself — he truly digs his own grave.
So much has already been written on this “bona-fide cinema masterpiece” — which Peary votes as the Best Picture of the year in his Alternate Oscars book — that I’ll keep my own contribution here to a minimum; instead, I refer interested readers to any of the many fine review links below (as well as Peary’s books, naturally). See Tim Dirks’ Greatest Films website for a blow-by-blow run-through of the film, complete with transcripts of much of its famed dialogue.
P.S. It’s impossible to ignore Stanwyck’s undeniably “laughable blond hairstyle” (those bangs!), which immediately evoke images of Carol Burnett’s classic spoof.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Barbara Stanwyck as “rotten to the heart” Phyllis Dietrichson (Peary names her Best Actress of the year in his Alternate Oscars book)
- Fred MacMurray (who Peary nominates as Best Actor of the year in Alternate Oscars) as Walter Neff
- Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes: “You’re not smarter, Walter, you’re just a little taller.”
- Good use of L.A. locales
- John Seitz’s dramatic noir cinematography
- Plenty of “snappy, hard-boiled dialogue”
Naturally; this one’s a no-brainer.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)