A car speeds through the mostly deserted Los Angeles streets at night until it reaches the offices of an important insurance agency, and the driver gets out and gets the janitor to let him in so he can go up to his premises. He is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), and he has quite the story to tell, so has left this to relate to his colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) via Dictaphone - Neff has all night to tell his tale, so sweating profusely, he proceeds to describe how he got into the mess he is in, the gunshot in his upper chest spreading blood all the time. It all began when Neff met Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)...
Perhaps the definitive film noir, this one had it all, almost to the point of self-parody even before the genre was able to be sent up. The central couple have so few qualms about joining one another on the road to Hell that they appear to have a death wish, throwing caution to the win to put it mildly, to work out a way of getting a phoney insurance claim to pay out. To do this, they must murder Phyllis’s husband (Tom Powers) and make it look like an accident, which they manage at the halfway point of the film, leaving their grand plan to unravel for the rest of it. But is it enjoyable to watch two people give in to the Dark Side?
With dialogue this snappy, the answer has to be yes, and with Raymond Chandler helping director Billy Wilder out on scripting duties (they hated each other) even original author James M. Cain was impressed at the methods they used to improve his source material. It's a real movie movie, the template for the rash of erotic thrillers that erupted across the nineteen-eighties and nineties, though they never get as explicit here as they did - but we are left in no doubt that Neff is being led around by Phyllis like a dog on a leash. That he cannot see that could be a point of frustration, yet in a curious manner it's strangely entertaining.
Perhaps it's the pleasure of seeing a line of dominos set up and tapped to knock them all over, or seeing someone heading for a cliff and not realising the mistake they’re making - wait, is that pleasurable? Certainly you do not feel the jeopardy so much in Double Indemnity since we know from the beginning that Neff is doomed, and that fatalism is suffused throughout the movie; you could even call it a cynicism, and Wilder was assuredly a director who has a cynical streak a mile wide. When you know his background escaping from the Nazis, you would not be surprised he took a dim view of human nature, and the dimmest one possible was on display here - anyone with morals could see this was a terrible idea.
But Neff and Phyllis have no morals, they seem to goad each other on in admittedly subtle ways, endlessly flirting yet also arranging furtive meetings in supermarkets or calling each other up from phone booths so as to cover their tracks and not allow anyone to suspect the insurance man has been messing around professionally and privately. Maybe the most weirdly touching aspect is that while there is no real romance between Neff and Phyllis, there is real love and respect between Neff and Keyes, and the fact that Neff lets him down so badly is the most emotional element - he knows he's doing wrong, he knows he has to outsmart the smartest guy in the room, and when he fails the disappointment for Keyes is palpable. However, probably what you'll remember is the ice-cold chill of Stanwyck's performance: when she stares straight ahead with a smile playing around her lips as her husband is murdered next to her, she could be the very Devil itself. Music by Miklos Rosza.
[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with these special features:
New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
In the 4K UHD edition: One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and two Blu-rays with the film and special features
Audio commentary featuring film critic Richard Schickel
New interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, editor of Billy Wilder on Assignment
New conversation between film historians Eddie Muller and Imogen Sara Smith
Billy, How Did You Do It?, a 1992 film by Volker Schlöndorff and Gisela Grischow featuring interviews with director Billy Wilder
Shadows of Suspense, a 2006 documentary on the making of Double Indemnity
Radio adaptations from 1945 and 1950
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién]