When Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a bright insurance peddler, meets Phyllis, can’t he see that she plans to use his sexual avidity to get him to kill her cranky, unloving husband and then take the rap for the crime? Can’t he sniff out the sulfur under her perfume? Of course not, because the type hardly existed in Hollywood films before. This Billy Wilder–Raymond Chandler adaptation of a James M. Cain novel ushered in the film noir era of duplicitous dames and the dupes who fell for them. Phyllis found her perfect embodiment in Stanwyck, maybe the movies’ all-time smartest actress (street-smart, anyway). This killer doesn’t kid herself; she knows what she is. At the end, just before plugging her accomplice in the chest, she confesses, “I never loved you, Walter, you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart.” Rotten, ripe and irresistible.
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