Chameleon master craftsman Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend) staked a name for himself and elevated low-budget film noir to new levels of respectability with his Hitchcockian suspense yarn Double Indemnity. The film, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, stars Fred MacMurray as an L.A. insurance salesman who conspires with an unhappy housewife, played by Barbara Stanwyck, to collect a massive insurance payout by killing her husband.
John Seitz’s dark, hazy, venetian-blind-riddled photography and Miklós Rózsa’s foreboding score helped define film noir aesthetics forever. But what distinguishes Double Indemnity even more is the brilliant casting. Instead of filling the roster with character actors playing exaggerated stereotypes, Wilder casts the unassuming MacMurray in the lead role. The actor’s warm, inviting personality makes his descent into moral corruption all the more dramatic. Stanwyck’s casting as the femme fatale may feel on-the-nose given her bad-girl reputation in the movies, but her performance is anything but predictable. It’s one of the actor’s most subtle and ambiguous performances, bringing layers of complexity to a role that keeps us guessing about her true feelings and motivations. And perhaps the most brilliant casting of all is Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray’s boss. Robinson name was synonymous with film noir at the time, but Wilder subverts our expectations by having Robinson play the most straight-laced, humorous, and moral character of the bunch. His commanding monologue about suicide statistics is one of my favorite scenes.
I know a film about insurance fraud may not sound exciting, but Wilder keeps Double Indemnity moving fast with twists and revelations. Once the wicked deed is done, MacMurray and Stanwyck’s characters never have a moment’s rest as suspicion and paranoia mount all around them. Film noir was always famous for its stark portrayal of good and evil, but Double Indemnity burrows into our memory by presenting likeable characters who make terrible choices — underlining the duality and dark possibilities that rest in us all.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Stanwyck), Screenplay, Black & White Cinematography, Score, Sound Recording