"Double Indemnity"

Barbara Stanwyck plays a sensual death dealer in Billy Wilder's darkly shaded masterpiece.

Published September 22, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Double Indemnity"
Directed by Billy Wilder
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson
Image Entertainment; full screen (1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: None

When Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote their extraordinarily taut, sardonic screenplay of James M. Cain's famous novel, they removed the extravagant lines in which the femme fatale describes herself "as Death." This 1944 film noir has no room for explanations. And it doesn't need them. As you watch a bored housewife (Barbara Stanwyck) and a lust-struck insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) plot and carry out her husband's murder, arousing the suspicion of the agent's best work pal (Edward G. Robinson), everything you have to understand about the characters comes through.

Part of that's a tribute to director Wilder's handling of the actors -- especially Stanwyck. She turns herself into a sensual death dealer. There's something uncanny and eternal about the way she snares MacMurray's eager-to-please agent. Her voice is both harsh and seductive -- a steel purr -- and her movements toe the line between lewdness and propriety. She knows how to use an anklet to show off the curve of her leg.

Stanwyck's performance peaks when, in a masterpiece of duplicity, she tearfully tells off the insurance company president for suggesting that her husband committed suicide. "Double Indemnity" is full of tense, gritty pleasures, including one of Robinson's strongest bulldog-style turns. But Stanwyck holds the brassy key to its success. She was that Hollywood rarity -- a thoroughly unsentimental big star.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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