We may have Billy Wilder and his work on Double Indemnity to thank for the film noir genre. Wilder is never without charm, and even his sloppiest efforts are great bouts of entertainment. Here is one such bit of slop. Delicious, engaging, but loose at times. Much of the loose nature comes from the flashbacks and flashforwards Wilder experiments with. It is better to have a mad creator try something new than an attempt at placating an audience. The happier man is the one who braved the storm of life, not the one secure onshore. Wilder was the former, whose adventures into new and uncharted territory almost always offered up surprising and resolute results. Double Indemnity is one such creation.
A woman and her lover attempt the perfect crime, and it is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who coaxes Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into this campaign of murderous intent. It is not as if either character particularly want blood on their hands, but they are pushed further and further by their burning love and passion for one another. There is a sense that both are wanting to make each other happy, and they do not know when to break it off. But that is a small part of their life, in a way. Wilder wishes to focus on the impact and effect murder has on these two leading characters more so than the act itself. Passion and crime mingle with one another with immediate, horrible effect, one that meddles with the minds of not just the leading lovers, but the rest of the cast too.
Take Mr. Norton (Richard Gaines) for instance. He is convinced there is no foul play, yet refuses to give up the insurance money due to Dietrichson upon the death of her husband. It is not as if Norton is a bad man, had he known the circumstances of this death then he would be in the right to withhold the cash, but that is the beauty of Double Indemnity. These characters are taking the right course of action for the wrong reasons. Wilder toys with these ideas well, arrogant characters take an accidental moral high ground. With a nice tug-of-moral-war between the two leads, Double Indemnity has time to spare on its recurrent characters but does not quite have the mettle to portray them with exceptional conviction.
Wilder and company get the job done, though, and that is more than can be asked for. A standard-setting piece of great entertainment, but that is what Wilder did time and time again. Neff and Dietrichson flirt with their vices and escapisms because death looms overhead. It is the storm they are headed towards, and there is no way to change their course. While their attempts at reaping rewards in the face of immoral actions is a compelling one, their comeuppance feels inevitable. It is a matter of when, not why, for Wilder as he crafts a solid script relying on deceit and self-interested vanity.