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Barbara Stanwyck and tough guy Fred MacMurray in the great film noir, Double Indemnity.

When it comes to leading ladies, I’m apparently a bit of a cad. I have no trouble telling my Alan Ladds from my Errol Flynns, but put headshots of (for example) Merle Oberon and Joan Fontaine in front of me, and, despite decades of intense movie watching, chances are no better than 50:50 that my ingénue identification skills won’t let me down.

There are, happily, exceptions: I have no trouble recognizing women who specialized in strong or assertive roles. Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, or Joan Crawford are among my favorite brassy dames – and then there’s Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Stanwyck garnered four Academy Award nominations during her career, but never won the big prize. Perhaps her best shot came via the greatest film noir of them all, Double Indemnity (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17 as part of the series “Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder”), but it was not to be: Ingrid Bergman took home the gong that year for her performance in Gaslight

Based on James M. Cain’s excellent eponymous novel, Double Indemnity features Babs as Phyllis Dietrichson, a woman desperately trying to escape her loveless marriage. Hubby (Tom Powers) is a crusty old bugger who works in the oil industry, and when insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, excellent if slightly uncomfortable in an out of character tough guy role) drops by to renew Mr. Dietrichson’s auto policy she senses an opportunity.

Sending some extremely obvious signals to the single Neff, Phyllis soon convinces him to “sell” her spouse an accident policy – and then to arrange a mishap that will allow them to take advantage of the policy’s double indemnity clause. Much against his better judgment, Walter falls hook, line and sinker for the dame and her cockamamie scheme.

Despite Walter designing a foolproof murder, however, insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, who delivers an amazing soliloquy about actuarial tables) has his suspicions about Dietrichson’s death. Soon enough, the net starts to tighten around Walter and Phyllis – culminating in a Code-enforced finale distinctly at odds with that of Cain’s novel.

Co-written by Wilder with Raymond Chandler, it’s something of a miracle that the film was passed in its current form. Thick with sexual tension perhaps only equaled in the ‘40s by The Postman Always Rings Twice (another Cain adaptation), Double Indemnity also features a suggestive shot of a bath-robed Stanwyck that apparently evinced much comment from censor Joseph Breen.

Chandler’s work here is excellent – despite their differences, Wilder admitted as much himself – and stands in sharp contrast to Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner’s dense 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s own novel, The Big Sleep. There’s hardboiled dialog and twists and turns aplenty, but the story is easy to follow and – for the most part – remains reasonably logical.

If period detail is your thing, you’ll find plenty to appreciate in Double Indemnity. Scenes where Walter stops at a drive-in restaurant for a beer (!) and meets with Phyllis at Jerry’s Market (in the story, it’s on Los Feliz Boulevard; in real life, it was on Melrose Avenue) are especially redolent of 1940s life. It all adds up to Stanwyck’s finest hour and a half.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...