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USA 1944
Directed by
Billy Wilder
103 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Double Indemnity

Billy Wilder’s tale of murder and deception was a controversial film in its day . Released the same year in which the comfortingly wholesome Going My Way stormed the Oscars, it was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and won none. Based on a short story by pulp fiction writer James M. Cain (also responsible for the thematically-related The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) it tells of an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) who falls for the charms of a bored married woman (Barbara Stanwyck) and arranges to have her husband die so that they can collect the money.

The story of adultery and murder was considered strong stuff at the time when films were still very much beholden to the Production Code (it took eight years to get a script that satisfied the censors. Retrospectively the film is now widely recognized as a pioneering and paradigmatic example of the film noir style.

Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote the script with the latter’s hard-boiled style standing out and Wilder keeping his usual tight focus on the unfolding drama. Commanding performances from Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson as the tenacious claims investigator who brings the scam undone add to the value whilst MacMurray is surprisingly serviceable. A Paramount contract player who was called in after both Alan Ladd and George Raft turned down the part, feeling that it was too nasty, MacMurray had previously made his name in romantic comedies and with his characteristic genial bemusement and little boy smile makes for an unlikely desperate lover, let alone cold-blooded murderer. The even bigger issue is Stanwyck. Whilst, like Bette Davis, she was a first-class actress she was no oil painting and it is difficult to accept that on the strength of one meeting and a bit of loaded repartee he would fall so hard.

Nevertheless this a film that stylistically at least deserves its place in the Hollywood Pantheon.




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