Sunday, 30 March 2014

Double Indemnity

I had only been a few months since the last time I saw Double Indemnity but today’s watch of the noir inflected The Lost Weekend made me want to step back a year earlier to revisit Billy Wilder at the height of the genre. Double Indemnity could be described as the archetypical film noir. Although the genre stretches back further than the film’s 1944 release, it was Double Indemnity which provided the blue prints from which later titles took their queues. Famous today for its voice-over, use of venetian blind lighting and provocative femme fatale, at the 17th Academy Awards the picture was nominated for seven Oscars. Although it ultimately left that ceremony empty handed, the movie’s reputation has gone from strength to strength and it currently sits inside the top thirty on the AFI’s poll of 20th Century movies.

The film is told in flashback and voiceover by Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). Neff is a talented insurance salesman who becomes an active participant in a murder plot following a chance meeting with the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Neff is at the Dietrichson household with the hope of persuading Mr. Dietrichson to renew his motor insurance when he’s presented with the beguiling temptress that is the lady of the house. Blinded by love or at the very least passion, Neff agrees to help the lady to murder her husband and share in the insurance pay out. Having constructed an elaborate murder plot, Neff’s firm and in particular the capable Barton Keys (Edward G. Robinson) are charged with working out how the supposed accidental death of Mr. Dietrichson occurred.

Double Indemnity is based on a novella of the same name which was considered unfilmable prior to production. The main reason for this wasn’t logistical or technical but more to do with the immoral nature of the two lead characters. In 1945 the powerful Breen Office held sway over Hollywood and was charged with protecting American sensibilities when it came to film output. The premise of a planned and calculated murder, done for money and love was something that would never get passed the censors so much tinkering with the original story was required. Because of this, and with all films of the era, one is readily aware from the outset that the murderers won’t get away with their crime. This fails to hamper the proceedings however and the journey towards the inevitable conclusion is one full of intrigue and suspense. Co-writers Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler were able to get their film past the censors whilst showing as much deviousness and duplicity as was possible for the time and they’ve left us with a magnificent movie.

The script is taught and drips with dialogue which is rich and full of flair. Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson enjoy early games of verbal cat and mouse while dousing each other in provocative language, abound with double meaning. The flirtatious nature of these early scenes seal Neff’s fait as a murderer while simultaneously giving the effervescent Dietrichson the upper hand in the relationship, not that Neff knows it. The dialogue continues in this vein with wonderfully fruity and fresh speeches and conversations being pounded back and forth like lyrical sex. I’ve been a fan of Wilder’s writing for quite some time but for me this is his most devilishly delicious script. The words drop off the tongue like thick, creamy desert, landing at the feet and maintaining their dense, plump shape. In MacMurray and Stanwyck, Wilder found two actors who appear totally at ease with the language offered to them and spew it with grand delight. The plot is highly entertaining and even exhilarating at times. The murder is beautifully designed and executed with Neff covering all the bases he needs to in order to avoid suspicion. Or so he hopes. There is a great amount of tension throughout the script and even a side plot which could possibly have been elaborated on given the time to do so.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were in 1944 the highest paid actors in Hollywood. They’re joined on screen by A-List mainstay Edward G. Robinson, an actor who was initially unsure about taking a smaller than usual part. Despite the big names and bigger salaries ($270,000 for the trio from an overall budget of under $1million), you never feel their star power. This for me is a good thing. You see the characters, not the actors which is often rare when watching big name actors. MacMurray is fantastic in the movie. Away from his more comedic roles, he looks totally at home as the smart salesman in over his head. He’s got a great way of talking and plays the character as remarkably calm, even in the closing stages. His line after being severely injured is so cool it’s almost comical. Stanwyck is the perfect femme fatale; beautiful, seductive and phony. Her wig, make-up and costume all add to her unnatural, fake personality and the character plays those around her like a puppet-master toying with her wooden marionettes.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Double Indemnity became the blue print for future film noir and it remains as handsome a film as ever. The lighting, with its multiple angle sharp shadows, looks beautiful while the dark and dingy interiors give a sense of something disturbing lurking inside the bright and vibrant exterior filled with Californian sun. John F. Seitz, a frequent Wilder collaborator gained a well deserved Oscar nomination for his cinematography. The dramatic lighting and well furnished sets look as good today as they ever did. An integral part of the movie is its score. Miklós Rózsa creates an edgy and frantic tone with his string heavy music. It’s heavy and ominous, letting the audience know that they’re never far from danger. It’s pitched well and for me is almost as important to the film’s overall success as the wonderful cinematography. 

Double Indemnity feels like the sort of film which will never gather dust on my shelf. I’ve seen it twice in the last six months and I imagine it won’t be too long until it’s out again. It delivers all that’s great about the film noir genre in one tightly scripted, well crafted package. It’s the noir that all others aspired to be and few came close to matching it.

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  1. Great review mate. Always love your reviews, so much thought and fondness comes across in every single one (well, fondness in the positive ones) Keep it up!

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoy reading what I write.

  2. Great review! I might very well link to this under 'Best Reviews' on my own website when I come to reviewing this movie myself.