Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Country of origin: USA
Synopsis: Star insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) narrates his fall from grace as he encounters a dame he can't resist (Barbara Stanwyck) with an offer he can't refuse.
What Indie Nights? review
Greetings once more, BBBG readers, long time no see.
Following on from yesterday's This Gun For Hire post we're bowing at the pedestal of the noir classic Double Indemnity.
As a total film neophyte before I met Toby, I had to admit that I had never heard of the film, or of Billy Wilder (Sacrilege! Disgust! Fainting and general astonishment ensue!), but in much the same way that one watches Casablanca or Gone With The Wind for the first time having had them built up within popular culture all one's life, the inevitable starting point will be 'It can't be as good as all that - it's so old!'. The amount of sour grapes I've had to eat with that sentiment in mind, faithful readers, I don't even want to talk about...
This is an intensely dark film, perhaps the first that truly earns the title of noir in every sense. Many of the scenes are so visually dark that screenshots are infeasible - night-for-night outside shots, night-time inside shots where the curtains get closed and the lights turned off; sometimes the only reference points are the glitter of an actor's eye or the streetlights outside the windows. And the story is certainly the darkest we have seen thus far on our noir travels - where cold-blooded murder can be committed for nothing more than money and the hallmarks of love can be manufactured and thrown aside as easily as a ten-cent tin of beans.
Barbara Stanwyck is a femme fatale formidable, the coldest and most focused yet. Her plans as exposed by Neff in the penultimate scene (in a room with all lights off and all curtains drawn) are the image of Brigid O'Shaugnessy's litany of murders and crimes done in the name of the Maltese Falcon as exposed by Sam Spade. But Phyllis Dietrichson's cold, calculating actions are infinitely more chilling than O'Shaugnessy's wildly opposing, emotional reactions to obstacle and accusation - Spade laughs at Brigid and never lets himself get taken in by her act, whereas Neff has been caught from the first in Phyllis's subtle web of desire and temptation. Where Brigid weeps and throws herself on the mercy of the men around her, Phyllis coolly manipulates them into positions that will be of most benefit to her. As femmes fatale go, Phyllis Dietrichson leaves all the others eating her dust.
Much has been said about the supermarket setting, and I dare say much of it might be true - the brightly-lit can-stacked aisles provide about as much contrast to the pitch-black Old-Hollywood mansions and insurance offices as is possible on celluloid. Placing his noir characters in a public, family space, in broad daylight, Wilder highlights their absurdity compared to the everyday world - do things like this really happen? he seems to be asking the viewer, almost reassuring them.
The first time I saw Double Indemnity I was stunned by the sheer weight of its ending, a thoroughly downbeat way to finish a film despite knowing right from the start that what we are watching is one man's dying confession.
Directed by Billy Wilder, this is one of the master's early efforts, six years before Sunset Boulevard opened an incredible decade of films from him and with a screenplay written by pulp fiction great Raymond Chandler based on fellow legendary pulp writer James M. Cain's novel this film has so much going for it on paper that it's no surprise that it has become known as one of THE great films of Hollywoods golden era. Currenty ranked #54 on imdb's Top 250 its reputation precedes it and as such some are disappointed when viewing for the first time.
But in so many ways this is a perfect example of the films noir cycle. The perfect murder for money and a woman that inevitably goes wrong, the cunning and conniving Barbara Stanwyck who leads MacMurray astray, location shooting at night, a knowing narration from the hard boiled protagonist, subtle homoeroticism, the inevitable betrayal and death of the protagonist, a fatalistic tone throughout and snappy dialogue all contributing to this film being rightly lauded as such.
Aside from the atmospheric lighting and camera positioning that Wilder and his Director of Photography John F. Seitz worked hard to produce, providing the fatalistic tone of the piece; my favourite part of the film is the performance of Edward G. Robinson. His character of chief claims investigator Barton Keyes is a wonderful creation, filled with personality that only someone as talented as Robinson could do justice to. His “little man” inside him could quite easily have become something silly and campy in the wrong hands but this great actor steals the film from third billing as Neff describes the actions of his boss to us in flashback. The fact that the flashback scenes are from the point of view of Neff highlights the homoerotic nature of his relationship with the romanticised figure of Keyes and makes the explicit “I Love You” ending acceptable to the viewer in the Hays Code era of Hollywood production, they’re very close friends after all.
As far as motifs go there is a clear use of the Middle Class Murder and Sexual Pathology signifiers with Stanwyck as arch black widow chasing the money and not caring how many men she ruins along the way and MacMurray opening the film with “Yeah I killed him, I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty isn’t it?”
There’s some interesting sub-plots including a relationship with the young daughter of his victim, Lola Dietrichson (obviously an homage to The Blue Angel’s Lola Lola played by Marlene Dietrich) and some extremely tense moments that if this were any other film I might feel the need to way lyrical about but Double Indemnity should need no further praise; it’s a classic, enjoy it for what it is and take great pleasure in the Chandler dialogue and double entendres in the first part of the film.
How do you feel about this movie? Are you in agreement with the classic tag? Has it been wrongly praised and sat on too high a pedestal? Leave some blah below, let us know how you feel and don't forget to come back next week for more from the Noir-a-Thon.
And now for some coming attractions