AFI Top 100: Double Indemnity

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Double Indemnity (1944), #29 on the list.

Double Indemnity is synonymous with film noir. It contains (and some argue established, or at least popularized) many aspects key to the genre: hard-boiled crime narrative, dangerous femme fatale, visually dynamic black and white cinematography with a heavy emphasis on shadows, etc. But even beyond just evaluating it within the context of the genre—honestly, a genre I don’t particularly care for—it’s an excellent film on its own right. The film hinges on Wilder’s direction, which is some of the best of his career, and outstanding performances from Fred MacMurray—playing against type—and Barbara Stanwyck, but it’s really the revolutionary storytelling that makes it such a gripping thriller. 

The film opens in medias res with our protagonist wounded—seemingly dying—and narrating the entire story to his partner. Not only that, he immediately lays out the framework of the plot: he murdered a man “for money and for a woman”—neither of which he received—and his fate will clearly end one of two ways: by his confession or his wound. This brilliant storytelling device would seem to remove all suspense by revealing the essentials of the story, but in fact it only strengthens the intrigue: it’s not about what happens but how it happens. Compared to most later film noir, Double Indemnity is narratively straightforward—there isn’t a seedy crime underbelly or tangled web of corruption to navigate—but its streamlined approach is one of its greatest strengths. The story isn’t overcomplicated by needless narrative threads, auxiliary characters, or meandering plot, and the focus on character development helps sell some of the more intricate (some would argue convoluted) plot developments later on. Few films are this well structured and paced. Younger audiences who have been deterred from seeing it for fear of it being antiquated should seek it immediately out if they haven’t already.

Does It Belong on the List?

Without a doubt.

AFI Top 100

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