Holy cats, do the two main characters in this movie do terrible things. That’s actually what makes it so fascinating — this is a film noir that’s actually more Fargo than The Maltese Falcon. The main character isn’t a hard-boiled detective on the case of some twisty mystery; he’s a smooth-talking insurance salesman who gets up with the wrong bored housewife. Even though the stakes feel a bit lower, it’s still engrossing thanks to wonderful writing of Wilder and Chandler and the great performances of the leads.
MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a man who falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Phyllis is lonely, tired of being ignored and mistreated by her husband. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that she’s sick enough of him to want him out of the picture, and from there it’s off to the races. To Neff’s credit, he rejects her advances at first. He wants no part of murdering someone just to collect the insurance money. But then he starts to think about it. What would be the perfect way of committing a murder, making it look like an accident, and collect the most money from your insurance policy? Intrigued by the possibility and spurred by his attraction for her, he decides to go for it.
He decides that Mr. Dietrichson should die by accident on the train, activating a double indemnity clause that pays double on the policy. With the money, Neff and Phyllis will be rich and together. It’s a great idea, of course, but the great hand of karma comes down to make sure nothing breaks their way after a certain point. That’s how these things go, after all. And the pressures of holding a crumbling plan together take their toll on the fledgling couple, causing mistrust and dissention. Once that trust goes, things fall apart quickly. Long story short, it doesn’t end well for our two lovebirds.
What’s impressive about the downfall is how inevitable it seems even while Neff and Phyllis take every precaution to make their getaway clean. While they’re obviously not good people, they’re reasonably intelligent and actually cool under pressure. What makes them crack, eventually, is Neff’s best friend and claims adjuster, Barton Keyes (Robertson).
Robertson steals every frame he’s in, chewing the scenery with the best character actors out there. He’s also incredibly smart and intuitive, stubborn and moral, and that’s what proves to be Neff’s undoing. When a false claim is made, Keyes has what he calls a “little man” in his gut that keeps him up at night. It goes sour on him with this case, and he suspects Phyllis of foul play. He trusts Neff as his best friend, while working as hard as he can to uncover the scheme he’s cooked up.
MacMurray and Stanwyck have a great, twisted chemistry together. and even when Neff and Phyllis turn on each other they’re arresting to watch. Phyllis is a hell of a femme fatale, completely sociopathic even though she’s in a bad situation; she’s not a woman caught in the balance of good and evil, she’s just evil with enough charisma to fool people.
Neff is a good guy, though. His libido and ego are fatal flaws, to be sure, but he seems to be a nice enough person who’s unfortunately caught up in a gravity well of crazy that he learns too late there’s no escape from. Even while you’re watching him deceive his friends and coworkers, you’re caught between two impulses — the desire to see him caught for what he’s already done, and the desire to see him squirm out of his predicament a better man for the experience. Unlike Phyllis, he begins to show remorse once he learns the extent of what he’s done and who he’s hitched his wagon to. That goes a long way in my book.
But alas, it’s not to be. Keyes is too dogged, Phyllis is too crazy, and the noose around Neff’s neck grows far too tight. The end result is an enjoyable ride down the ruins of a man’s life, tightly-plotted and filled with rich, complicated characters that the actors bring to life quite well. Wilder and Chandler do a great job working from James Cain’s novella, incorporating classic noir elements to a situation that doesn’t seem to be what we think of at all when it comes to the genre. What we get is something that’s at once classic and unique, in a realm all its own.