Billy Wilder’s startling 1944 breakthrough picture Double Indemnity (adapted from James M. Cain’s novel) certainly ticks off the cliché list in (Sam) spades. It might not have been the first ‘proper’ noir – the jury’s still out on that one – but it set the tone for those that followed.
There’s a man in a hat: oily insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray); and there’s a femme fatale – deadly bombshell Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who seduces Walter, then talks him into murdering her husband so they can collect on his insurance policy (which pays out the ‘double indemnity’ of the title if he dies of anything other than natural causes).
Through no fault of its own, it has inevitably become something of a cliché of itself, but its seamless pressure-cooker construction – Wilder considered it his greatest film – allows the temperature to ratchet slowly to boiling point. And all in flashback, Neff’s regretful voiceover narrating the cat-and-mouse deception as his ‘perfect murder’ unravels under the relentless scrutiny of Edward G. Robinson’s claims adjuster Barton Keyes.
It’s credit to the leads’ chemistry that it keeps you on tenterhooks until the very end – even though the two main characters are, in Phyllis’ words, “rotten to the heart,” you’re still rooting for their greedy scheme to come off.
Even though you already know it isn’t going to end well, it’s suffused with a clammy-handed anxiety that belies its age. The dialogue, too, is classic Wilder – almost poetic in its snappy, purple lyricism. “I tell you, it all fits together like a watch!” declares Keyes to Neff after nailing the plot but not knowing who the ‘third man’ is
And indeed it does: on the one hand, it’s an expression of the desire to break out of the buttoneddown, antlike conformity of the era; on the other, it shows how doing so can literally be a death sentence.