The Woody Allen joke about insurance salesmen has to start somewhere, here’s the Los Angeles Trauerspiel ridden "straight down the line" like a trolley. The city at the crack of dawn has its infernal intimations (sparks and flares at an intersection), in limps the wounded agent (Fred MacMurray) who gives the tale its shape, slumped before the Dictaphone and hemorrhaging a confession. A house call at the colonial bungalow occasions the meeting between the breezy policy peddler and the insinuating femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck), matched in boredom and mated in hardness. (Her gaudy anklet all but winks at him from the top of the staircase.) She was once a questionable nurse, her husband’s oil business leaves little money for hats, an "accidental" death is the scheme for the amoral lovers. The company bloodhound (Edward G. Robinson) is on the case, a voice of conscience who can’t see under his nose. "How could I've known that murder sometimes can smell like honeysuckle?" The venerable American dream of fucking the trophy wife and fucking over the boss, James M. Cain visualized by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler in other words. Stanwyck’s platinum vulturette is Circe in suburbia and then some, so wicked that she stares straight ahead with the faintest of smiles while her husband is strangled by her side. (Posed between pyramids of cans and boxes in a grocery store, her gaze burns right through a pair of sunglasses and into the lantern-jawed chump who's losing his nerve.) MacMurray and Robinson meanwhile share the solitary emotional beat in the story’s black heart, a matchstick lit with all the venal, rueful weight of the world. The "walk of a dead man" ("I couldn’t hear my own footsteps") points to Sunset Blvd., the nettlesome blabbermouth on the train’s observation deck is a feint taken up by Robbe-Grillet. "Do I laugh now or wait 'til it gets funny?" Variations and tributes left and right (Cronaca di un Amore, The Prowler, Body Heat, The Man Who Wasn't There) can't blunt the sting of Wilder's acidic noir benchmark. Cinematography by John Seitz. With Tom Powers, Jean Heather, Porter Hall, Byron Barr, and Fortunio Bonanova. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce