Pros: Great cast, superb art direction and cinematography, perfectly directed...
Cons: ... okay, one or too slightly implausible bits if you're really picky...
Double Indemnity is a superb 1944 thriller starring Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, a fast-talking insurance salesman, attempting to pull the perfect fraud job. Of course he didnt start out with that idea - it all stated when he met, and immediately fell for, Phyllis Dietrich son (Barbara Stanwyck). From there the tale she spins of her unhappy marriage, complicated by a tempestuous relationship with stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather) takes him on the slippery slope to crime. With his extensive knowledge of the insurance business, nothing can stop Walter from covering his tracks ingeniously
except, perhaps, the analytical skills of his friend, the even faster talking fraud investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).
Frequently told in flashbacks, this movie is utterly compelling from the word go, and any small misgivings caused by some bits that seem to push plausibility a little too far are easily overcome with the amazingly tense atmosphere the film creates. Its interesting to ponder whether this film could have had the same impact if it had been shot in colour - but I dont think so. The filming is spot on - the camera angles, use of shadow, and perspectives on the actors all add to the tension of the film. (Art Direction by Hans Drier and Hal Pereira.) John Seitzs cinematography is honestly near-perfect. The screen does sometimes get so dark as to be impossible to tell whats going on in a couple of scenes, but this is done deliberately so as to add to the suspense. The music score (by Milkos Rozsa) also builds up suspense, and never becomes obtrusive.
The film is very wordy, as so many films of the era were, and the dialogue is often brilliant. Fred MacMurrays performance as the man always on the edge of turning back from the treacherous course hes plotted for himself is excellent, while Barbara Stanwick is beguiling as the femme fatale who feels no shame, but while its easy to dislike her, we can understand why shes cast such a spell on poor Walter. For me though the star of the show was Edward G. Robinson - his juggernaut performance was so powerful that it virtually pulls you out of your seat. Hes so quick-witted and smooth-talking, you always wonder whether he knows more than hes letting on, and without anything to the effect being said, you get the impression at the end that he had it basically figured out right from the start. The ending though is not necessarily unexpected but its superbly handled nonetheless. You feel involved with the characters from the word go, and even the ones you dont like very much you desperately want to know what happens to them.
Billy Wilders direction is another part of the key to this films being in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of All Time list - at the time of writing this, #58 - there are moments of humour to lighten the mood and scenes of compelling drama / intrigue / emotion. With the excellent acting, awesome script and breathtaking art direction / cinematography it makes one of the best films of all time in a lot of peoples books - including mine.
In case you didnt know (I didnt), the term Double Indemnity refers to an insurance clause where a double payment is handed out if someone whose life is insured dies in an unusual manner. Theoretically of course the chances of this happening are remote, meaning little danger of them ever having to pay it out and cases when someone has died in this manner shortly after taking out a life insurance policy would automatically be viewed as suspicious. The way Walter covers his tracks, and the way Barton uncovers them, are quite brilliant and show (to a layman at least) a deep knowledge of the insurance business. (The movie was based on a novel by James M. Cain [who also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice] called Double Indemnity in Three of a Kind. This was adapted to a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.)
Double Indemnity was nominated for no less that seven Oscars; sadly it didnt win a single one. The Bing Crosby film Going My Way won most of the ones this was nominated for - as I havent seen that film, I cant comment on whether this was an injustice or not!
If theres a better example of film noir than Double Indemnity, it has to be The Maltese Falcon. But my advice would be to watch them both! :-D