Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Double Indemnity has all of the ingredients you expect from a quintessential film noir - a smouldering femme fatale, the classic antihero, hardboiled voiceover, shadows in spades and fast, snappy dialogue - but it's so much more than the sum of its parts.

With this film, Billy Wilder created something very special. From the moment it opens, with Walter Neff entering his office well after hours to record an impassioned confession on his Dictaphone, to the moment he staggers out again with vain hopes of crossing the border into Mexico ("you'll never make the elevator", Keyes' matter-of-fact prediction), I was spellbound again. It's always a treat to revisit this film, never more so than on the big screen, which was a first time for me.

It's a pretty straightforward story about an insurance salesman led astray by the bewitching wife of his client, roped into his murder, staged to look like an accident, for a huge payout made all the more enticing by a double indemnity clause (double the money in the case of a train accident). What brings it to life is Raymond Chandler's sizzling screenplay, adapted from James M. Cain's novel of the same name, and a couple of stellar central performances by Fred MacMurray as dapper, smooth-talking Neff and Barbara Stanwyck as the irresistibly stylish Phyllis Dietrichson, the fiery dame with a heart of ice ("I'm rotten to the heart"); she only has to dangle her anklet at Neff on their first meeting to reel him in like a fish on the line. The real show stealer though, is Edward G. Robinson as Neff's boss, Barton Keyes. His haphazard manner belies a razor-sharp mind, alert to all the little details of the case, which ultimately prove Neff's undoing. He gets all the zingers in this and finishes on top, though takes no pleasure in it - there's clearly a lot of affection between the two, right to the end. As so often in film noir, the shift in power is signified by the ritual of the cigarette lighting - throughout the film, Neff is always the one with a match at the ready to light Keyes's cigar, but in the final scene, the limp cigarette in Neff's mouth is lit by a resigned and weary Keyes.

But it's as much about the world the characters inhabit as the characters themselves - Joseph Seitz's cinematography is so on point. It might not have the deepest contrast of all noirs, but the way the light filters into the dark interior spaces is brilliantly done, the shadows of Venetian blinds and palm leaves angle around the room like knives and echo the shadows gathering in Neff's head, the deeper in he gets. The sets are fantastic too - from the straight lines, glass doors and open architecture of the insurance office in downtown LA to the Dietrichsons' dreamy palm-fringed colonial villa in Beachwood Canyon, the picture is soaked in old Hollywood glamour.

I love it all. For my money, film noir doesn't get any better than this. A stone cold classic.

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