It nearly slipped our attention.
Thanks to an article by Terry Teachout, theater critic of The Wall Street Journal, it didn’t.
Please join us in which a Happy 75th Birthday to Double Indemnity, which first reached theaters in 1944 — to lukewarm reviews, sad to note — and set a mark of sorts for ensuing film noir dramas. In its time, another underappreciated classic.
The film would later be acknowledged by critics and scholars as the first fully developed example of film noir in which a flawed but basically innocent protagonist is presented with a moral choice, makes the wrong call, and is plunged into a violent after-hours world of passion and crime, writes Teachout.
Noir film scholar Eddie Muller notes that the movie’s first person narration, relating the entire story in flashbacks, became a standard film device (although it was never equalled). Double Indemnity also marked a radical career shift by director Billy Wilder away from the romantic comedies he had been churning out with working partner Charles Brackett, who declined to join Wilder in the crime drama.
As a result, Wilder was forced to work on the script with crime novelist Raymond Chandler, who adapted the script from a 1936 novella written by James M. Cain. Despite the fact that Wilder and Chandler disliked each other, their uneasy collaboration yielded seven Oscar nominations.
Fred MacMurray (later the sitcom dad of tv’s My Three Sons) plays Walter Neff, a glib insurance salesman who falls hard for Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, a been-around-the-block-several times dame who lures Neff into a scheme to murder her husband and pocket the insurance money.
MacMurray and Stanwyck make for a smoldering couple, whose sexual sparks are suggested but, given the time, never spelled out. Phyllis: We’re both rotten. Walter: Only you’re a little more rotten.
Edward G. Robinson give a typically impressive performance as the insurance company honcho, who never sees that the young man man (Walter) he mentors is the actual killer. Walter’s dying words are that he was always “too close, right across the desk.” Responds the heartbroken insurance exec — Closer than that, Walter.
Wilder would sometimes describe his film as a love story between two men.
We’ll give Teachout the final word: ‘Double Indemnity’ (is) a pop-culture masterpiece exemplary of the very best that golden-age Hollywood had to offer.