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On April 24, 1944, Billy Wilder’s thriller Double Indemnity, eventually nominated for seven Oscars at the 17th Academy Awards ceremony, was reviewed in The Hollywood Reporter. The original headline was “Double Indemnity Drama of Knockout Proportions.”
With his Double Indemnity for Paramount, Billy Wilder has broken open a door hitherto locked to all those connected with the creation of motion pictures. He has made the hero and heroine of his stark drama a pair of murderers. There is no gloss to their wrong-doing, no sugar frosting to make palatable their misdeeds. It is a drama the like of which no other picture in recent memory brings to mind, more than a little reminiscent of the late lamented, excellent French technique.
This is not to say that it is “arty,” for the business Double Indemnity is certain to do will prove that Wilder has indeed broken down the door in which the taboos of this industry have been too long stored away. For giving his director his head to ride his splendid talent to the winner’s circle, the picture is therefore an even more excellent production credit for Joseph Sistrom. And there is a salute to the wisdom of Buddy De Sylva in okaying the project at the start.
Taking a little-known James M. Cain story for subject matter, Wilder and that admirable writer of top-notch detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, collaborated on a screenplay that makes Cain literate. The dialogue has a business-like crispness to it that reminds you of people you know. Indeed it is the down-to-earth characters, small talk and intriguing, incidental bits of business that make Double Indemnity the showmanly piece of merchandise exhibitors will only have to sell before opening, letting word of mouth take over from there to pile up its grosses.
Laid in Los Angeles, the drama’s principal characters are right out of the front page murder stories of the Los Angeles Examiner or the American Weekly. Fred MacMurray has never previously topped on the screen the great thing he makes of the insurance salesman who was a nice guy until he first saw the girl Barbara Stanwyck magnificently enacts with only a Turkish towel draped around her. Knowing her men, it was a pushover for the girl to use her sex to inveigle him into getting her husband’s name on a blank form that could later be written into an accident policy that would pay double indemnity if the perfect crime they contemplated could take place on a train.
It is in the clandestine scheming of the sex-hungry man and the cunning woman, in the methodical method of their plotting the husband’s murder that Wilder builds the suspense that pounds and drives to a staggering climax. There are at least three instances of suspense so great that the heart almost stops beating. The highest praise one can give the Sistrom production is to say that it is like a masterpiece of mystery fiction coming vividly to life on the screen. As you cannot lay down such a book until it has been read through, neither then can you shake off the witchery exerted over you by this film from its very opening scene.
To the capital performing of MacMurray and the gorgeously blonde hussy depicted by Miss Stanwyck can be added the name of Edward G. Robinson, who superbly underplays the law and order assignment to give the picture three star performances, any one of which would grace a lesser film. Robinson gives even more to the role than was written into it. Jean Heather comes into her own in this, her second appearance, and the lovely girl should be with us for many pictures to come.
There is the expected excellent acting by Porter Hall and a surprisingly good debut by Byron Barr. Of interesting talents and arrestingly good looks, the Barr boy stands out in his small role. Whether it is natural or pretended is hard to know, but the hamminess given his assignment by Richard Gaines makes it count.
This picture, his third, is head and shoulders over Wilder’s critically acclaimed and heavy-grossing Major and the Minor and Five Graves to Cairo. He has superlative cooperation in the almost human camera piloted by John Seitz, the lifelike settings by Hans Dreier and Hal Pereira and music score by Miklos Rozsa. — unbylined staff review
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