Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity ★★★★★

(Double Indemnity is one of my Top 20 Films of All Time)

Cinema’s greatest lust story. I can’t speak for anyone watching in 1944, but even compared to most modern films, Double Indemnity seethes with sex and innuendo and passion— all delivered via nothing but dialogue and smoldering looks. Graphic or even unsimulated sex has become relatively common in independent films these days, but they don’t pack half the heat of Fred McMurry staring at Barbara Stanwyck’s ankle bracelet.

This may be the most purely entertaining of the classic noirs, though this time its grim worldview hit me right in the gut. For my money, Wilder and Chandler’s script is one of the sharpest and most quotable ever written, with the most offhand exchanges often as delightful as the famous moments. (“His name was Jackson. Probably still is.”) It’s also a superb tension-builder, as Walter and Phyllis subtly, methodically dare each other to go further in their scheme, only to unravel with equal inevitability. It leads to delicious sequences like Phyllis hiding just behind the door at Walter’s apartment, or the sudden reappearance of the witness from the train. (Just watch McMurray’s gaze burn a hole in the guy’s head for the whole scene.)

Double Indemnity is a model of shrewd construction, from the framing device to the plot twists to the all-time great ending. But where is the emotional pull? It’s with the three leads, who bring a weight to their turmoil that ends up tragic instead of merely ironic. McMurry and Stanwyck both play against type to give two of the most casually effective performances of the genre: McMurry with his low-key delivery and thousand-yard stare, and Stanwyck revealing a weary sadness beneath her seduction. Their guilt is more paranoid and existential than moral; it’s all part of the couple’s willful surrender to their basest impulses, though their passion and self-preservation end up in a constant, losing war with each other. (For Phyllis, the passion may not even truly come until her final moments.)

Billy Wilder isn’t the showiest of directors, but each scene is precisely staged without drawing much attention to itself. Consider the atmospheric final exchange between Walter and Phyllis, cloaked in darkness and the faint sound of music next door; or the slow push-ins to McMurray’s face as he minutely registers the walls closing in. But most of all, Double Indemnity is just a pleasure to watch, even as those pleasures start to curdle in the heat. Some things you just have to ride all the way to the end of the line.

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