Here’s what I think of when I think of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944): Barbara Stanwyck’s legs, coming down the stairs, wearing that anklet, of course, but more than that it’s the gait, the stride of a woman (or a jungle cat) who knows, somehow, that she’s finally been cued to assume her long-anticipated, destined role; Fred MacMurray’s apartment, where he and Stanwyck luxuriate in barely disguised postcoital bliss; the grocery store where Stanwyck and MacMurray meet, in sunglasses, to discuss their nefarious plan in deadpan tones, not facing each other, surrounded by anonymous canned goods; the cigarette Edward G. Robinson lights for MacMurray while MacMurray lies slumped in the front doors of his insurance company’s headquarters—it is the only moment of genuine affection shared by any two people in the whole film. MacMurray and Stanwyck’s story is one of lust; MacMurray and Robinson’s is the film’s (platonic) love story.
So: an insurance salesman (MacMurray) conspires with the wife (Stanwyck) of a client to have the client die in an ostensible accident and thus collect twice the normal rate on client’s life insurance policy. That’s the story in a nutshell, but what we’re trading in here is philosophy, impulse and, above all, mood. Double Indemnity is the inaugural film to be screened in Metro Cinema’s Film Noir series for a reason: the film encompass myriad elements that, about ten years later, would be declared key motifs of the noir style, ie: voice-over, low-key lighting, hard-boiled banter, lust, crime, fatalism and femme fatale. But, unlike so many other beloved and canonical films noir, it was also classy, very much an A-picture, with stars, production value and the kind of backing that gets you seven Oscar nominations. (Though the film didn’t win a single statue.) Its narrative trajectory and heavily poured-on attitude has become so ingrained into our collective notion of noir that some viewers may regard it as trope-laden kabuki, but the film, which was co-scripted by none other than Raymond Chandler, transmits these elements with such confidence as to feel sui generis, organic, and though it were inventing its own ritual and cosmology as it goes along—which it basically was, even though Chandler had considerable contempt for his source material.
But the source material was absolute gold. James M. Cain wrote novels that practically begged to be filmed—if only they could make it to the screen with all their tawdrier bits intact. There are many things to recommend in Tay Garnett’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but the sunny ending ties itself into increasingly risible knots in its effort to try and redeem Cain’s hell-bound characters. (I remember watching it with a packed house at the Film Forum some years back and getting irritated by all the laughter coming from the audience, though in those final scenes, who can blame them?) Whereas Todd Haynes’ five-part miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce (2011) is as brilliant and transportive as it is in part because it’s so faithful not only to Cain’s narrative but to his dialogue and character conception. Double Indemnity kind of splits the difference, cloaking its less savoury traits in a tasty fusion of Chandler’s romanticism and Wilder’s wickedly cynical humour. The result is smoldering, seductive and unforgettable. No one film defines noir, but this one is as good as any for getting the conversation started.