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Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a smooth talking insurance salesman. When he calls to renew the Dietrichsons' motor vehicle insurances, he falls for the beautiful Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and pretty soon the two of them cook up a scheme to murder her husband (Tom Powers) for his life insurance - with its double indemnity clause in the event of unexpected death. But Neff's office smells a scam and begins investigating.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
On an otherwise typical July 1938 night in Los Angeles, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) staggers into his office after hours to dictate his confession for the insurance company's claims manager, Barton Keys (Edward G. Robinson). We know within minutes he murdered Dietrichson (Tom Powers) in collusion with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). We even know the motive. Billy Wilder shows his remarkable filmmaking talents by nevertheless keeping us in suspense throughout the movie, often cited as the most impressive film noir ever made.

It is such a dark script it took Wilde a while to find his cast; the characters are not very likeable and their moral compass has jammed at 'bad'. In 1944, these things mattered to actors; their image was at stake, in a West that took morality seriously. So it is ironic that he got two of the best actors around, at the height of their prowess. (The height lasted years for both, though ...)

Ironically enough, it's cigar chomping Edward G. Robisnon, who always does grizzly baddies really well, who gets the part of the claims manager.

Lovers of screen music will also revel in the score by the accomplished Miklós Rózsa, who can subtly accent an emotion as it comes out of a word of dialogue like none else. As for the cinematography, even on DVD (terrific transfer of remastered print) every scene is all soaked in atmos, thanks to the inspired lighting.

The screenplay is a collaboration between Wilder and the master of hard boiled crime fiction, Raymond Chandler, and it shows. Some lines of dialogue are curvy and coloured but most cut the air like a knife cuts through soft butter. Stanwyck and MacMurray make the most of this material with performances that distil their characters into economical yet complete summaries. Small gestures, inflections and body language all accumulate to deliver a fascinating scenario that we can't help but watch as it winds relentlessly towards its majestically shadowy conclusion and terrific ending.

Published: April 3, 2008

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(US, 1944)

CAST: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers

DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder

SCRIPT: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler (novel by James M. Cain)


MUSIC: Miklós Rózsa

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Hans Dreier, Hal Pereier

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

PRESENTATION: 4:3 Black & White

SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc 1: Introduction by film historian Robert Osborne; Disc 2: commentary by Geoff Mayer, LaTrobe University; commentary by Lem Dobbs & Nick Redman; A Chronology of Film Noir; Hollywood Remembers: Barbara Stanwyck / Fred MacMurray / Edward G. Robinson


DVD RELEASE: November 10, 2006

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