Before he was the perfect TV dad, Fred MacMurray was Billy Wilder’s favorite movie heavy. In this noir classic MacMurray revels in his dark side.
If you laid Double Indemnity and Frenchman’s Creek end to end you might still prefer to spend the evening with Madame Bovary; yet you might find a few things mildly worth examining in these two so different, so similar reflections of current attitudes toward bourgeois adultery. The James Cain story, under Billy Wilder’s control, is to a fair extent soaked in and shot through with money and the coolly intricate amorality of money; you can even supply the idea, without being contradicted by the film, that among these somewhat representative Americans money and sex and a readiness to murder are as inseparably interdependent as the Holy Trinity. Wilder also has a real feeling, on a not-quite-real, smart level, for the streets arid suffocating marriage hatches and calm-lighted Piggly Wigglies and heartlessly resonant offices of his city, and I agree that his casting of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson is perceptive. But not that it is wholly successful.
Indeed, the picture never fully takes hold of its opportunities, such as they are, perhaps because those opportunities are appreciated chiefly as surfaces and atmospheres and as very tellable trash. It is proper enough, for instance, that Barbara Stanwyck should suggest a greatly coarsened Esquire drawing and that her affair with MacMurray should essentially be as sexless as it is loveless. Her icy hair and teeth and dresses are well worked out toward communicating this idea. But in Wilder’s apparent desire to make it clear that nympholepts are cold he has neglected to bring to life the sort of freezing rage of excitations which such a woman presumably inspires in such a fixer as Waiter Neff; this sort of genre love-scene ought to smell like the inside of an overwrought Electrolux. Wilder has not made much, either, of the tensions of the separateness of the lovers after the murder, or of the coldly nauseated despair and nostalgia which the murderer would feel.
In many ways Double Indemnity is really quite a gratifying and even a good movie, essentially cheap I will grant, but smart and crisp and cruel like a whole type of American film which developed softening of the brain after the early thirties. But if at the same time you are watching for all that could have been got out of it, you cannot help being disappointed as well as pleased.