It is one of my great movie-watching regrets that I seem to be immune to classic Hollywood film noir. I can appreciate the stark black & white photography, the sharp dialog, and the bounty of attitude, but above all I love movies that make me empathize, and that's a rare commodity in noir. Double Indemnity comes fairly close to a breakthrough, but ultimately just isn't interested in anything but fine-tuning the mechanics of the genre — and it purrs.
Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a slick but unambitious insurance salesman who pays a house call to a client and becomes enamored with his client's wife's ankle. It's Barbara Stanwyck's ankle, and, after a few scenes of coy banter, she confides to Neff that she is trapped in a miserable marriage. Anyone who's watched a noir before can guess the broad outline of what follows: a schmuck and a dame engage in witty, sexy banter, commit a crime together, and one or both of them die or go to jail.
Double Indemnity is one of the most widely loved film noirs, and its overall excellence is not in doubt. the dialog is first-rate with a generous supply of quotable, laugh-out-loud lines (the movie's most romantic scene climaxes with Neff's brand of sweet talk: "Shut up, baby!"). the story is a compelling crime yarn, almost impeccably directed by Billy Wilder, so why don't I care when everything goes sideways?
In Double Indemnity, Neff's motivation for heading down the wrong track is simple and superficial. He has no compelling needs, he is simply amoral. He likes an ankle bracelet and sees an angle. That's all it takes for him to commit murder, so it's hard to feel for him when the expected complications arise. His flaw is that he's shallow, but it's not a tragic flaw, it's just pathetic. Neff does eventually come to regret his actions, but where one of the reasons for his change of heart might have been used as an emotional anchor, Wilder quickly shuffles past it like it's the least compelling part of an elaborate card trick. It's a neat card trick, lots of fun to watch, but they're ultimately just cards, and I'm not moved by a scattered deck.
I like Double Indemnity, a lot, and I'm hard-pressed to come up with a moment in the movie that rings false or doesn't succeed at its goal. I just wish I cared about Neff so that the movie would resonate with me emotionally as well as it does as a techincal success.