Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Three

3 double

#3 — Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Double Indemnity is the film that convinced me of Billy Wilder’s ability to full off just about anything within the borders of a movie screen. Admittedly, this represented, in part, my own personal shortsightedness, a unlearned tendency to always categorize directors in terms of the genre in which they were most prolific, of at least crafted their best known triumphs. If Alfred Hitchcock struggled somewhat artistically the further he strayed from the splendid spectacles of suspense that made his fame, surely it was worth marveling at Wilder’s ability to make a film far darker and more morally twisty than the shrewd comedies that were more commonly highlighted by those celebrating his artistry. Or so I reasoned, not fully accounting that Wilder had plenty of rough contemporaries — Howard Hawks, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Cukor among them — who were equally adept at filmmaking without genre borders. In my feeble defense, I was still fairly young when I landed on this conclusion, at the very beginning of the long arc of my film education. The following is maybe more convincing: Double Indemnity is so fantastic it inspires the search for effusively exuberant proclamations of greatness.

Based on a slender novel by James M. Cain, the film’s title references a stipulation in a life insurance policy that will lead to a claim yielding double the payout. In this instance, the policy in question lists Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) as the beneficiary if her husband (Tom Powers) meets his demise, and the deposit into her bank account goes up dramatically if that end happens to occur because he’s fallen from a train. It is the duplicitous handiwork of Phyllis that this protection for her longtime livelihood is even in place, thanks to her conspiring with insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a pliable fellow who literally showed up on her doorstep one day. The film traces the mechanics of how Phyllis and Walter approach their scheme, but it’s ultimately more interested in the fallout, specifically all the ways that complicity itself can lead to irredeemable rot.

Wilder wrote the adapted screenplay with no less than Raymond Chandler. The fractious nature of their partnership — Wilder thought discord was more productive than happy synchronicity when it came to the writing process — comes through in the thrilling tension of the film. Line of dialogue snap like leather belts being presented as possible weapons, especially when they’re laced with wry comedy. Double Indemnity seems always ready to buckle under the pressure of its own plot. Wilder’s careful direction, quietly intruding on the mounting concerns of the characters, further charges the film. He impishly traffics in the shadowy gloom of film noir trappings without fully succumbing to the sometimes bludgeoning tropes. That extends to the femme fatale. At first glance, Stanwyck seems to be playing the same sort of cunning, troublesome dame that can be found in any number of films from the era, but she’s too crafty an actress to stick with that one pounding note. Without ever letting up on the obvious villainy of the character, Stanwyck shows how her motivation and intent have complications greater than those that are needed to drive the narrative. Movies can afford to be simple and straightforward, especially when spinning morality tales. Part of the great achievement of Double Indemnity is that creators like Wilder and Stanwyck refuse to settle for the suitably pat methods sitting right before them.

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