Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity ★★★★½

The world of film noir is indebted to many writers with an itch to let out a truly hardboiled crime novel, but none feel as important to making it the legendary cinema genre it is than James M. Cain. His works have a wide, respected audience through their adaptations, as films like Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Out of the Past all bare his authorial "based on" credit and share their ranks as the best of the best in noir films. Before those seminal works, though, was Double Indemnity, expanded on from Cain's novella and brought to life thanks to Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. My experiences with the novella are sour even if I respect the craft (mainly because my reading of it was in college, in the form of "let's analyze and dissect every single page after you've read two chapters a week before you know you enjoy it as a whole"), but I can affirmatively say that the film version is as engrossing, fine-tuned, and sharply-written as one would hope, and truly is in the running for the best noir film I've seen.

From the moment Walter Neff, insurance salesman, deduces that Phyllis Dietrichson, wife of a potential client, wants her husband dead, the stage is set up for sizzling tension as a plan for the perfect murder is formed, detailed, and executed in pinpoint precision. The witty banter between Neff and Phyliss convinces us that they are capable of being methodically ruthless, as well as precise in their intentions and restlessness over ensuring nothing will go wrong. It's a devious little plot, smoothly advancing towards the murder while naturally blending in a relationship that takes the form of seductive love before succumbing into greed, ambition, and fear over being caught. With the perfect mold for the "femme fatale" archetype by way of Phyllis' subtly manipulative ways, as well as Neff's acuity in untangling the holes of their crime even when Phyllis' allure gets in the way (special attention given to her ankle bracelet in his narration in certain parts as a way of him conveying sexual tension), the two prove to be the most flawlessly-dangerous couple to commit a crime, both for others and between themselves.

From there a web of developments and speculation on the case form, never too hard to follow yet always having the beloved complexity such an attempt at a perfect murder could lead to. One investigator, a claims adjusted and friend of Neff named Barton Keyes, proves just as enriching and enigmatic as our two main leads. Constantly obsessed over figuring our the fishiness of Mr. Dietrichson's so-called accident, thanks to his hunches brought on by the "little man" inside him, Keyes is just as ambitious as Phyllis in his role as a make-shift detective and will do whatever he can to prove his hunch right, even when his trails lead him off the right track. The insight in seeing how an attempt at murder can lead someone like Neff into a paranoid state off trying to cut his losses never wavers in being compelling, as it builds on not only the complex relationship between Phyllis, but also the complex respect and determination Neff and Keyes seems to spy in the other over time.

Double indemnity is not only a champion of its kind thanks to its seamless twists that still have the ability to surprise 75 years later and the sharp comebacks everyone has for each other that ensures not a single line of dialogue is a waste, but for also being one of the first to utilize its tricks and doing so with finesse. I've mentioned how Phyllis has become the model for femme fatales to follow and aspire to, but the usage of Venetian blinds to reflect the mystique and incomplete unraveling of the murder became commonplace for years to come, and strong, cold narration of a man who's realized the jig is up is not terribly unique here, but strong enough to fit the weary, cynical world of noir that everyone identifies as an essential ingredient. Just as its incredibly difficult to achieve the perfect murder, so too is it difficult to create the perfect noir, but for all intensive purposes, this one's as close as you can get.

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