A lot of people laugh at 1944's hard-boiled proto-noir classic Double Indemnity the first time they see it, and it's hard to imagine that director Billy Wilder would've disapproved. Wilder made his reputation with comedy, and though Double Indemnity, his first great film, was based on a James M. Cain crime novella (adapted for the screen by Wilder and detective-fiction master Raymond Chandler), the movie doesn't try to hide its slightly ridiculous nature. After all, it's about tough-talking insurance salesmen, and a sleazy murder plot cooked up in supermarkets and hillside manses. People do get killed, and the movie is suffused with the fatalism that would become noir's predominant theme, but when Fred MacMurray gazes hungrily into Barbara Stanwyck's eyes and coos, "Shut up, baby," surely it's supposed to be funny.
Double Indemnity's dialogue pops by at a hundred miles per hour, and it's laced with double entendres that aren't seductive so much as space-filling. MacMurray and Stanwyck—and Edward G. Robinson, who plays MacMurray's boss, hot on the heels of his wayward employee—base their relationships on conversational one-upmanship, respecting only those who can keep up. When Stanwyck proposes killing her husband and MacMurray comes up with a plan that will produce a maximum payoff, the two of them go through with it mainly to prove to each other how smart they are.
The clockwork "perfect crime" plot is threatened by unreliable car ignitions and unexpected passersby, adding to the nightmarish haze and gallows humor that makes Double Indemnity such a sour treat. In spite of the mundane locations, the movie takes place just outside reality, in a land of stark shadows and snappy talk. It's a world of rotten people, jumping at the chance to lose what soul they have left.
Key features: An instructively lame 1973 TV-movie version, a featurette explaining the original's influence on noir style, a fine historical/analytical commentary by critic Richard Schickel, and an entertainingly conversational commentary by Wilder confidante and neo-noir screenwriter Lem Dobbs.