In yesterday's "Quick Thoughts" column, I shared my glowing reaction to My Man Godfrey, and today, I have nothing but similar praise for Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Along with The Maltese Falcon, this is one Hollywood's original film noirs, although I don't believe it's necessarily a template for the genre within itself. It is certainly built upon noir characteristics, most notably with the attractive, deceiving, and empowering female that is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), but in my opinion, Wilder's story is far too sophisticated and brilliant to be considered a noir-like plot.

Most film noirs choose to prioritize the atmospheric element over the fundamental story that's on the page, and while that certainly isn't a bad thing considering the elements of the genre, it makes a film like Double Indemnity stand out even more. Just as aesthetically impressive as The Maltese Falcon, but also centering around a much more fascinating storyline, Double Indemnity is a complete motion picture in every sense of the phrase. It has romance, comedy, and drama, not to mention moments of unbearable suspense.

 Released back in 1944, the film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards at the 1945 Oscars, including Best Picture, as well as a Lead Actress nomination for the previously mentioned Stanwyck. Wilder, along with his Best Director nod, shared a screenplay nomination with Raymond Chandler, and the film also picked up recognition for its black-and-white cinematography, music, and sound recording. It still troubles me that Fred MacMurray didn't receive Oscar recognition of his own for playing Walter Neff, but perhaps I shouldn't be so greedy.

In its most basic form, the story for Double Indemnity is very familiar. Phyllis is an unhappy housewife, and she enlists the help of another man, in this case, an insurance salesman named Walter Neff, to help her pull of a scheme that will not only get rid of her husband, but also provide her with a six-figure paycheck. Walter, undeniably attracted to Phyllis, finally gives in, and this sets the stage for one of the most intriguing screen romances I've seen. This isn't a case of a man utterly smitten with a woman, as it is in Wilder's The Apartment, but rather this is a relationship in which the feelings don't seem real. The sharp dialogue has its place among Wilder's best work, and it assuredly has romantic vibes, but Walter and Phyllis aren't honest with each other. They become different people when they're around one another. Walter becomes the charming, free-wheeling romantic, while Phyllis takes on the role of the depressed housewife searching for a man to sweep her off of her feet.

Much like a noir I recently reviewed, the Coen brothers' Blood Simple, all of the action in this film is based on logical decisions. Walter and Phyllis have specific things in mind that they want out of this arrangement, and they try to make the best decisions to ensure that they don't get caught. Yet their logic takes them to strange places, and Walter's co-worker, the steadfast Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), constantly keeps Walter looking over his shoulder.

As a piece of suspenseful storytelling, Double Indemnity is a first-rate achievement. Add in the surrounding noir elements, as well as the stirring performances, and you truly get a film for the ages. I'm sure many people have seen this film, so be sure to chime in with your opinions in the comments section. Below, I have embedded the scene in which Walter and Phyllis meet. It takes place within five minutes of the starting time, so if you haven't seen the film, you needn't worry about spoilers. There are some lines in this sequence that just make you long for the days of old-school Hollywood romance.


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