Saturday, October 12, 2013
CANON OF FILM: "DOUBLE INDEMNITY"
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler based on the novel Double Indemnity in Three of a Kind by James M. Cain
The first time I saw “Double Indemnity,” I wasn’t terribly impressed with it and felt that it was just an early Wilder work on his way to “Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like it Hot,” and “The Apartment,” as he was still shaping his film making style. I was completely wrong in that analysis, as the more and more I watch “Double Indemnity,” the better it is as both a masterful film noir as well as it’s undercurrent as a dark comedy that’s actually mocking many film noir characteristics. I would eventually use the film set-up of the narrator confessing the entire crime into a recording device before his eventual death in one of my first early screenplays as homage to “Double Indemnity," I wonder how used some variation on that conceit, not realizing the reference?
The narrator is an insurance agent named Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), two f’s like in Philadelphia. MacMurray is probably more remembered these days now as a TV star of “My Three Sons,” as well as for such lame-brained Disney films like “The Absent-Minded Professor,” but he was a major movie star a long time and in the hands of Billy Wilder, we really get to see how good an actor he is and he’s often in some not-so-good guy parts, in this case being convinced to commit murder for the wife of a client to collect the insurance money. The client's wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), one of the best femme fatales in film history, talks him into it by basically using little more than an anklet, a towel, a staircase, and some wonderful verbal wordplay, particularly the one where she’s a motorcycle cop giving Neff a ticket for driving too fast. (It’s too long to write here, but look it up on imbd.com) Is this the earliest film example of the use of sexual role playing? Hard to say in these old films whether or not the characters had sex and in this film’s case, if so, when? (I’d argue the Lawrence Kasdan film “Body Heat” took the basic story of “Double Indemnity”, and added the sex) That’s not to say that lust hasn’t been used as the basis for a common man to reason out his criminal actions before. (Or for a criminal to do it for that matter.) Hmm, I once saw a TV documentary, one of those “Dateline” or something or another-type shows, about a guy stole millions of dollars and fled to Mexico, without the money, as the girl he worked the night-shift security with, along with her husband spent the money in a small South Carolina town before they were caught. The man in Mexico when caught was asked why he committed the crime said, “You wouldn’t believe me, but she only kissed me once.”
As with all film noirs, there has to be an investigator character, and in this case, it’s Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He tends to pace and flutter around the movie like a knat with his senses and uneasy feelings in his stomach when he thinks he’s being swindled plays the part, and Robinson plays it well. Watch for cigarette lighting as symbolism in the film; Neff always lights Keyes cigarettes, as though he was a father-figure to him. When he is finally caught, falling down in the doorway due to the bullet that’s been bleeding from his chest the whole film, Keyes lights Neff’s cigarettes. Blood, guns, falling down, and one last cigarette being lit for you, what else has those same characteristics? Answer: a firing squad.
Now that’s your Film Symbolism 101 lesson is over, one more thing about the film, how is it that Phyllis Dietrichson seems to immediately come up with the idea from the first moment she finds out Neff is an insurance agent, who’s walked into her home, while she was dressed in a towel and anklets? Was she expecting him, or just waiting for the next attractive sucker of a man to walk in to try and convince to murder her husband? Or is it just that she’s the femme fatale, and that what she’s supposed to do? I told you, this film’s got a little bit of dark comedy in it. The best way to watch the film, I think, is to step back and simply, let it amuse you, the way it amused Neff as he walks in. It seems to have been written to amuse and be smirked at.
It’s based on a great James M. Cain novel Cain was the most hard-boiled of the three great hard-boiled detective authors of the era, along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler that basically the basis of what became the film noir genre. Wilder chose to actually bring in Raymond Chandler, to co-write the screenplay, which was something Chandler had never done before but his work always had that black comedy layer to it, like how his "The Big Sleep"'s mystery is famously full of logical fallacies and plotholes or occasionally would just be a straight up comedy like in the case with his “The Thin Man” series. Those basically are the two types of film noirs, the more gritty and realistic, “Naked City”-types, that are just below “Dragnet” on the take it seriously level, and those that, try to subvert that tone and find the as the detective seems to take a third person perspective in his own story. “Double Indemnity” is probably the best film that seems to combine both of these traits, and can be taken either way, without changing the movie much.
I think that's why it remains such a curious entry in Wilder’s canon, but certainly a masterful and essential one. To me, it doesn't really fit neatly with the rest of Wilder's filmography but somehow it still seems like a natural extension of his ability to show his range. It's almost like he just decided to make one of the very best film noirs of all-time, just on a lark to prove he could, like that scene in "The Other Guys" where Mark Wahlberg's character learned ballet to show how preppy it is to show how unimpressive it is to other ballet dancers. Maybe that's why it's remained so curiously interesting all this time.
Posted by David Baruffi at 12:41 PM