"Film noir," for those not versed in film terminology, refers to a certain kind of crime film that was made in America during and immediately after World War II. These films were known for their dark visual style, a fatalistic philosophical outlook and a sardonic, "hard-boiled" attitude. "Double Indemnity" is one of the first and most acclaimed in the film noir genre. I had seen it before, but not for many years, and went into the screening knowing that American film "classics" have their share of white elephants.
Fortunately, I found that the film still stands up. It depicts a pair of adulterous lovers who between them have hardly a single redeeming quality. The man, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), is an insurance salesman; the woman, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), is a bored suburban housewife. After starting an affair, they decide to murder her husband and collect his life insurance policy, sold to him by none other than Neff. The main obstacle to their plot is not the police but Neff's best friend and co-worker, Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the insurance company's claims investigator.
None of these characters are particularly sympathetic, not even the law-abiding ones. What pulls you into the film and propels you forward to the bloody end is the sheer relish that co-writers Wilder and Raymond Chandler take in their witty, acidic dialogue. Their lines may seem improbable until you realize that this is exactly the point. Despite its violent subject matter, the film is at heart a very dark comedy, interested not in realism but in characters both smarter and more purely wicked than you'd ever find in real life. One of Billy Wilder's most wickedly cynical jokes was to cast Fred MacMurray, an actor better known for playing easy-going everymen. (To put this in context, MacMurray would later star in the original Absent-Minded Professor.)
"Double Indemnity" confounds expectations in other ways, especially in that it tells a story of steamy, torrid passion. Roger Ebert points out in an insightful review that Neff and Dietrichson don't seem to be motivated by either greed or lust. Rather, you could get the sense watching these characters that for them the deed is the reward -- they enjoy planning out the murder more than reaping its intended benefits.
Another interesting subtext concerns the relationship between Neff and the Edward G. Robinson character, which is more affectionate than that between the two lovers. Is there homoerotic tension between the two characters? The film was made at a time when such an issue could not be openly discussed. This may be why people often dismiss older films as bland and colorless, when in fact they tackled adult subjects just as much as modern filmmaking, but under conditions requiring greater subtlety and inventiveness.
Because of this quality, "Double Indemnity" has maintained its reputation as a classic, one that can continually yield up new insights and discoveries.