Wednesday 14 April 2010

Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G Robinson
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

When I caught up with Double Indemnity in 2004, I'd been gorging on classic film noir, from old favourites like The Third Man, DOA and The Maltese Falcon to new favourites like Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai and The Big Heat. There's something about the genre that appeals to me, probably because it looks at the world as it is rather than as it should be. It takes a dark and gritty look at what lies inside the collective heart of humanity and sees that it is not good. In an era when all blockbusters seem to be sequels designed to sell happy meals, action figures and soundtrack CDs, film noir is the antidote. The catch is that it just doesn't carry the same punch when shot in colour, automatically shutting the lid on the genre and lessening all those many inevitable remakes and modern interpretations. Film noir effectively ceased to exist sometime in the sixties when colour took over, films like Chinatown and LA Confidential successful in everything else but association.

I'd often read that Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is the pinnacle of film noir, the best and most defining of them all, but I'd never had the chance to see it, outside of clips cleverly used in the finale of Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery and others used within Steve Martin's even more clever noir spoof, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. I had gradually got to know the principal names involved though. There's Fred MacMurray as the lead, Edward G Robinson as the investigator and Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale. The director was Billy Wilder, who made a scary amount of classics, many of which are also known as genre defining films. He co-wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, creator of Philip Marlowe and scriptwriter of Strangers on a Train, and it was based on the novel by hardboiled writer James M Cain whose books also led to the films Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

It feels like a classic from the outset. A dynamic Miklos Rosza score immediately underpins sinister, darkly lit, expressionistic sets. We see Fred MacMurray's character, Walter Neff, but always in shadow, dimly lit or from behind. He turns up to work at the main office of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company at night when everything's closed up; moving past company desks that are lined up just like in The Apartment, merely smaller and closer together. We see suits, hats, cigarettes, all that classic film noir imagery. Only when Neff finally sits down at his desk so we can see him in the light and from the front, do we realise that he's been shot and he's about to confess to his boss, Edward Keyes. He killed a man named Dietrichson, 'for money,' he says, 'and a woman, and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman.' His confession, though he doesn't like the word, provides our story, dictated into his office machine and shown to us in flashback.

It began the previous May when he first visited Dietrichson to talk to him about renewing some lapsed car insurance, only to find him out and his seductive blonde wife talking to him from the balcony, clad only in a towel. He's smitten and the way she talks to him in the living room hardly calms him down. This was 1944, a time when the Production Code ruled the roost, but Barbara Stanwyck remembered the wild roles she'd played in the precodes in films like Ladies of Leisure, Forbidden and The Miracle Woman, and channelled that precode feel into her role here, at least as much of it as she could sneak in. So she sits on the arm of her chair and proceeds to intrigue him even more than he was already, using all the tools at hand: her eyes, her blonde wig and her anklet, not to mention her seductive voice. This was what Stanwyck did best: behave impeccably while giving the impression that she misbehaved even better.

She floats the concept of accident insurance, given that her husband has a dangerous job in the oil fields of Long Beach. She makes another appointment with Neff too, one for a suspiciously convenient time one afternoon when the maid has the day off and her husband is unexpectedly absent again. She talks about accident insurance then too, the sort perhaps she could sign up in his name without him knowing about it. She's more than a little suspicious and Neff knows immediately what she's really talking about: murder. To his credit, he leaves, then and there, making his thoughts about such a thing known in no uncertain terms. After all, his unashamed flirting with a married woman notwithstanding, he's apparently a pretty decent guy, so our sympathies are with him, at least for a while. Next thing we know she's tracked him down at home, returning a blatantly non existent hat, and she seduces him into it through sheer blatancy and charisma.
Double Indemnity did what film noir did best, to explore the dark side of human nature. It was far from the first in the genre, not that it was even regarded as a genre at the time and the term itself wasn't coined until 1946 by French critic Nino Frank. However it helped to define some of the quintessential elements, not least the femme fatale who Barbara Stanwyck epitomises here. She's not just selfish, calculating and ruthless, she's the textbook on manipulation. She floats the murder for Neff to pick up on, but lets him come up with the method. He's the perfect candidate, after all, a clever insurance man who knows all the scams and why they fail. If anyone knows a loophole that can be exploited, it's Neff, and sure enough he does and they use it and it works. Yet when the cracks start to appear, she slaps him in the face with his responsibility. 'You planned the whole thing,' she tells him. 'I only wanted him dead.'

Another quintessential element of film noir is the dialogue. It always had the sharpest dialogue of any cinematic genre, partly because the plots were often driven by dialogue, bolstered by narration and written by the great hardboiled authors who promptly became the great hardboiled scriptwriters. Here it's razor sharp, especially between MacMurray and Stanwyck and between MacMurray and Robinson, with blistering lines countering blistering lines all the way through the movie. We grin in admiration at the early double entendre laden dialogue between Neff and Phyllis, but it just builds and builds until Chandler epitomises it all at the finale when Keyes turns up for the end of the confession. 'Now I suppose I get the big speech, the one with all the two dollar words in it,' Neff says. 'Let's have it, Keyes.' What he gets is simple. 'Walter, you're all washed up,' comes the reply. Chandler never needed two dollar words, just the right ones in all the right places, like curves.

Unsurprisingly Chandler and Wilder were nominated for an Oscar for their script. At one point Keyes unfolds his latest theory to Neff, who casts doubt. 'I tell you it all fits together like a watch!' he exclaims, and at once he's describing his theory and the entire script, as well as slipping his co-worker yet another notch along the scale to breakdown by reminding him of inevitability. It's a line of genius, yet of the ten words only one has more than one syllable. Chandler and Wilder didn't win the Oscar and neither did the film, which won precisely nothing, even though it had garnered seven nominations. Going My Way, which garnered seven wins, including most of the big ones, just isn't in the same league, though it was a great film and I wouldn't begrudge Barry Fitzgerald's statuette for that picture. In fact he was so good that he became the first and only actor to ever be nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role. He won for the latter.

Stanwyck did get a nomination and rightly so, her third of four, but she never won. Amazingly enough she had the only acting nomination and in fact, neither Fred MacMurray nor Edward G Robinson were ever nominated at any point during their long careers. Admittedly MacMurray, who was playing against type here, usually appeared in fluffier comedies, hardly the sort of thing the Academy would pay much attention to, regardless of the quality of the work, but Robinson is the most obvious of all the Academy's many obvious omissions. As one of the most natural and most dominant actors in the history of Hollywood, he could easily have been nominated a dozen times and he should have racked up a few wins too. 'To last you need to be real,' he once said, and he always was, whatever role he was playing, from the ruthless gangster Rico Bandello in Little Caesar to the henpecked husband who enlists to get away from his wife in Mr Winkle Goes to War.
He's truly great as Barton Keyes, even though for the first time he could remember he wasn't playing the lead. However it wasn't really a supporting part either. 'It was, in fact, the third lead,' he said and he debated accepting it. I'm very thankful he did and so was he. 'It remains one of my favorites,' he remembered later. Robinson was 5'5" tall, nearly ten inches shorter than MacMurray, yet he dominates the scenes they share, even though MacMurray had forty films behind him and something of a talent for dominating scenes himself. When I first saw Double Indemnity, it was only the second time I'd seen him, the first being as the sleazy executive cheating on his wife in The Apartment. I'd conclude that he was being typecast but these were actually highly atypical roles and when I caught up with some of his other movies I found it surprising to finally see him in the sort of role he usually played.

MacMurray was certainly capable in early Carole Lombard comedies like Hands Across the Table, The Princess Comes Across and Swing High, Swing Low or later family favourites like The Shaggy Dog, The AbsentMinded Professor and Son of Flubber, but I couldn't help but see the dark side in the lightest material. Most of his audience saw the opposite, the conditioning they had from his lighter films helping to reinforce a sense of innocence in his characters as he delved beyond. I have the same problem with Tom Hanks: conditioned to laugh my ass off at his slightest movement, I had great difficulty not doing precisely that throughout Philadelphia. In comparison Edward G Robinson was so diverse in his roles that I'm not sure anyone really ever saw him as just a gangster. Even back in his heyday at Warners in the thirties he played many thoroughly varied parts just as well as gangsters. Perhaps that's just too easy an epithet to apply.

The film comes in two halves. As we know whodunit from the very beginning, there's no suspense in finding out; but we are increasingly motivated to discover how and why Neff did it. That's the first half, where Phyllis Dietrichson seduces Neff and they cook up and then execute their plans. The second half begins when the husband is dead and the claim goes in. It may seem the perfect crime but Keyes just won't let go. Now we're motivated by the thrill of the chase: the mistakes being discovered, the betrayals made and the tense guessing game of just how close Keyes is going to get. It gets very tense indeed, not least when Phyllis turns up at Neff's apartment to find Keyes leaving and has to hide behind the door during a corridor conversation, or when Neff discovers that Phyllis has been seeing her daughter's boyfriend every night, or during the iconic scenes at Jerry's Market where Neff and Phyllis meet to talk incognito.

All this must have been even more of a thrill to the audiences of 1944, as Double Indemnity went totally against the grain for films of the time. Hollywood was interested as far back as the serialised version of Cain's novella in 1935 but it wasn't something they saw a way to film under the constrictions of the Production Code. Even in 1944, the Hays Office was incensed by what they saw as the 'blueprint for a perfect murder', not realising that it was actually based on a real life crime in 1927 that was far from perfect. Ruth Snyder, a housewife from New York, persuaded her lover, a corset salesman named Judd Gray, to kill her husband Albert, after having him take out a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause. It was discovered and solved so quickly that Snyder and Grey were electrocuted a mere ten months later at Sing Sing.

So is this the greatest noir of them all? That's one of those subjective questions that nobody can ever definitively answer because of different tastes and times. This one belongs as much in its time as the fact that Neff stops at one point at a drive in for a bottle of beer. As to taste, it's pretty much a given that if you're into film noir, you'll be into this one. Its ideas, its style, its dialogue, even many of its scenes are perennial favourites for the genre, but while that can often make an innovator seem like a cliche over time, this one still feels definitive. And I know it's not a phony because my little man isn't telling me so. 'What little man?' you might ask, just as someone asks Barton Keyes in this film whenever he brings up the concept. To steal one reply verbatim, 'The little man in here. Every time one of these phonies comes along, it ties knots in my stomach. I can't eat.' Yet I stuffed myself throughout Double Indemnity. That's proof, right?

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