DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
This Billy Wilder noir classic starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck was groundbreaking on several fronts. Many have called it the quintessential or definitive film noir. Often tossed aside as “just one of those noirs”, many people don’t realize that it was nominated for SEVEN Academy Awards.
View a short clip from that film View a short clip from this film.
One of the reasons DOUBLE INDEMNITY is considered groundbreaking is that we identify with a murderer and his murder plot, a nice guy doing bad things. Wilder’s casting of MacMurray was brilliant in this regard. He brought empathy and intensity to Walter Neff, his insurance salesman character.
Wilder’s introduction of Barbara Stanwyck’s character Phyllis was also groundbreaking, as you see in the clip, she is introduced holding nothing but a towel and standing at the top of a staircase. After changing she heads down the stairs, but at first we only see her legs and anklet. An anklet that she flaunts, and yet hides. She finishes dressing in front of him, someone she’s never met before. Throughout the film she is often dressed in white or light colors. The opposite of what we would expect from a Femme Fatale. Wilder makes sure that Phyllis is oozing with “sleazy phoniness.” Her costuming, body language and demeanor are character significations that like the dialogue are double entendre.
Check out this great film noir that Spencer Shelby writes about in his book, DARK CITY: The Film Noir. “The result is a complex, deterministic attitude toward evil which places a great deal of blame on a hypocritical society that encourages immorality while still harshly punishing criminals.”