Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Noir-a-Thon Double Feature Part 2: Double Indemnity (1944)

Sadly the DVD of Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt we bought from eBay would not play so we had to scratch it off of the list, this means we jump straight through to 1944 and Billy Wilders classic, Double Indemnity. If you missed the first part of this weeks double feature you'll find it here and all the Noir-a-thon reviews here.

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Year: 1944
Country of origin: USA
Language: English

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.

Not in our comfortable world of baby food and tinned beans, no sir. This American dream is enough for all of us… or is it?

Blahblahblahtoby review

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


  1. I absolutely love how Wilder put the "I love you too" line in at the end of this movie. I have to applaud him for having balls like that.

  2. @tyler - considering he wasn't billy wilder at that point, merely some young film maker with 2 credits to his name it was a bold move indeed.

  3. I had fun reading both reviews. This is ICONIC film noir, with clear archetypes and film noir situations. In that sense, it's one of the best examples of film noir, if you're going to show someone for the first time what it is. But, it's just plain fun too. I mean that dialogue and sexual chemistry! Yes, Stanwyck was sexy! I admit it.

  4. @JON - i'm sensing a pattern to your appreciation of these old movies. something to do with attractive women perhaps? :D

    i really don't understand peoples problems with the chandler dialogue, it might be unrealistic but as you said it sure is fun!

  5. I am in love with this movie. It was a brillant casting choice to have Fred MacMurray as the lead. It's a shame he isn't more well known. This is my favorite Billy Wilder film.

  6. The more I watch this - and I've watched it lots of times over the years - the more convinced I am that EGR's character is the best part of it all. While technically the antagonist of the story, his tenacity and personality and his relationship with MacMurray bring an extra dimension to this movie that makes it even more intriguing to watch.

  7. Umm yeah just a little bit. Especially for noirs though. I draw the line with Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. though.

  8. Robinson is such an ass kicker in this flick. Love it. Also, love the cameos at the card table. Great write up, my friend.

  9. Yeah, I'm pretty sure Edward G. Robinson ALWAYS wins. He rocks this shit, pardon my French...

  10. @MAX - i'm unsure how you can claim it as your favourite wilder movie, i just keep drifting from day to day picking whichever one suits my mood as there's so many good ones to choose from.

    @RICH - I love watching him. The last run through of noirs he was in 4 in a row i think, some of them forgettable other than the fact he was given the lead.

    @JON - they had a better class of dame back in the golden period you're correct

    @ALEX W - cameos at the card table? is this something i missed? give me more info!

    @WILDE.DASH - i believe the term is merde.... thanks for stopping by, it means a lot to me.

  11. One of my favourite films by one of my favourite directors. It is interesting how Wilder could happily create a film where the beginning tells the audience all they need to know about how it will end (often with downbeat circumstances). He of course did it most famously with Sunset Boulevard. Nice write up!

  12. @DAN - i know it's been done so many times before and since but i too can't help but marvel at the way this film is constructed. such supreme talent. our revisit to sunset boulevard is so far off, there were so many films noir between 1944 and 1950. i'm sure it will be worth the wait though.

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  14. Big fat fail on my part, I meant Sunset Boulevard.

  15. @alex w - aha! i've possibly seen sunset boulevard more than i have double indemnity and i still don't know what you're talking about. i'll have to keep an eye out when it's time to watch it again.

  16. As someone who had only seen MacMurray is goofier roles, his performance in this film was a real eye opener.

    I'm being shallow, but Stanwyck just never struck me as being beautiful enough to have been able to lead him astray. I feel the same way with Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, too. (Expecially when compared to Anne Archer.)

  17. CHIP - i don't recall seeing MacMurray in anything else to be honest, if his other roles were a bit goofy i may well have been surprised by that.

    I know what you mean about Stanwyck but i also don't think Neff was the kinda guy it happened to all that often. needs must! i've not seen FATAL ATTRACTION but GLENN CLOSE never struck me as an attractive woman.

  18. @Toby re: MacMurray in goofy roles:

    My earliest memories of him are on the television show My Three Sons. As a child I also used to see his movies The Shaggy Dog, The Absent Minded Professor and Son of Flubber on the Saturday Disney movie. Those were the roles I was referring to.

  19. This thoroughly deserves all the praise and titles it has received. I think it's a near perfect film :)

    1. I fully agree Ben. I remember vividly how impressed I was the first time I saw it.