A lot has been written about Wilder (including on this blog, here and here), but as classic film buffs know, it's with good reason. Wilder's consistency, wit, and dry-eyed romanticism made him a giant among audiences, peers, and generations of aspiring screenwriters (his most famous contemporary torch-bearer being Cameron Crowe, writer-director of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous). An Austrian Jew smart enough to see the Nazi writing on the wall in 1933, Wilder left Europe for Hollywood and soon carved out a career as a highly successful screenwriter, co-writing Midnight, Ninotchka, and Ball of Fire before becoming one of the sound era's original crop of writer-directors (joining Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, and John Huston).
Double Indemnity was only Wilder's third Hollywood picture as a director, following the diverting Ginger Rogers vehicle, The Major and the Minor (1942), and the underrated WWII thriller, Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Turns out the third time was the charm, as Double Indemnity became the first of a string of indisputably great classic movies that would include Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, to name only a few. Like those other films, Double Indemnity represents a kind of cinematic perfection that most filmmakers rarely achieve once, much less the half dozen or so times Wilder and his collaborators managed.
The story, based on a James M. Cain novel (and inspired by an actual crime), is a tawdry one, familiar to anyone who spent any time watching the many shades of noir through the decades—from the hardened classics of the '40s and '50s through Chinatown and Body Heat (a direct homage) and the endless straight-to-video erotic thrillers that found their way to Cinemax in the '80s and '90s (and to Netflix today).
Despite the familiar elements, Double Indemnity has the distinction of not only being the first of its kind, but being so well crafted on every level that even while watching it for a third or fourth time there's always something to admire. With dialogue that seems designed to memorize and quote, iconic performances that crackle with brio, mounting tension laced with dark humor, and one of the most genuinely pure friendships between two men ever portrayed on film, it's heartbreaker, crowd-pleaser, and stomach-churner all in one.
Add to that John Seitz's expressive, mouth-watering black-and-white photography—with all those dark corners and shimmering highlights and slats of light that would define noir for decades to come—and Miklos Rosza's brooding, dissonant score, and really, how much more perfect could a movie experience get? As Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel would say: none. None more perfect.
See this one before it expires on the 30th. And while you're at it, think about catching some of the other dwindling classic titles on Instant. They're vanishing rapidly—as evidenced by the fact that none of the above pre-1970 titles are available to stream. And as Will McKinley points out, only by watching these on a regular basis can we let Netflix know they're worth keeping around. Otherwise, don't come crying to me when all you can find are new TV shows and Adam Sandler movies!
NOTE: This title expired on 11/30/14. If you're considering purchasing the DVD, please support this site by using the link below. Thanks.