Monday, September 5, 2011

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity is quite possibly the best film ever made from an insurance term.  You might be justified in arguing that the competition isn't exactly stiff (unless someone made a thriller called "Water Damage: The Movie" and I missed it), but let's not pick nits.  Double Indemnity is a quintessential noir from the start of the film to the very last instant.

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman, and a damn good one, to boot.  When trying to renew an expiring car insurance policy, Walter meets the wife of his insurance holder, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck).  She makes quite the first impression, clad in only a bathrobe.  Why, you can almost see her knees!  Scandalous!
In the words of Yakko Warner, "Hellooooooo, nurse!"
There's really no reason for her to invite a strange man into her home, but that's what Phyllis does.  She and Walter engage in some harmless flirting for a while, until Phyllis finally reveals her motive.  She asks if there is a way to insure her husband's life without him knowing.  Realizing that unwittingly insured men are usually murdered by their benefactors, Walter more or less walks out in a huff, wanting nothing to do with the dirty business.  He's only human, though.  More specifically, he's only male; when Phyllis comes to his apartment and throws herself at him, Walter quickly agrees to mastermind a plot to murder her husband.  With his knowledge of the insurance claim business and exactly does she bring to the table?... her love of murder (maybe?), this should be the perfect crime.
Does this look like MacMurray performing ventriloquism with a Stanwyck puppet?  No?  It's just me, then.

The casting of Fred MacMurray was an unusual choice in 1944; this was the first time he ever played anything other than a typical nice guy character.  For being his first time as a bad guy, I thought MacMurray did a very good job.  He was likable as a salesman, but his passion and naivety were logical extensions of his character.  Barbara Stanwyck was excellent as Double Indemnity's femme fatale.  Her job was to play an evil, manipulative bitch, and boy does she do good work.  I think what I liked best about her performance is how well Stanwyck hinted at Phyllis being...I don't know if "cheap" is the right word, but it's the best I can come up with right now.  Her gaudy wig, ill-fitting anklet, and dramatic gestures made it seem as though Phyllis had assumed a fictional persona in her own life; in her final showdown with Walter, her icy core shines through, and it is a treat.  The only other actor of consequence in the film is the legendary character actor Edward G. Robinson.  I haven't seen much of Robinson's early work, but I like seeing him play wickedly smart characters like he does here.  I think the script focuses too much on his "little man," but he was good as a thick-skinned character that secretly had a big heart.
MacMurray, seriously contemplating a sloppy kiss with Robinson.

I can't believe that this is the only Billy Wilder-directed movie I have seen.  Given his impressive list of credits, I suppose that's a shame on me, but I've seen (and loved) this movie a few times and never thought to look up Wilder's other credits.  Huh.  Wilder's style isn't too fancy --- aside from a few shots with extreme lighting, like the famous "venetian blind" shots --- but he keeps things interesting by maintaining an excellent pace.  It's not that he didn't capture some iconic shots, either; it just wasn't his focus. 
Such a great shot!
Every scene in Double Indemnity works and affects the story at large; while it may not be as stylized as other film noirs, it's hard to argue with a tightly scripted and shot movie.  Wilder got impressive performances from his two leads (who, in an odd coincidence, were Hollywood's highest-paid male and female actors at the time), even though neither was probably very comfortable with the idea of being so unlikable.  Wilder also co-wrote the screenplay with author Raymond Chandler.  The two men adopted James M. Cain's (the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice) novel, but Chandler wound up rewriting most of the dialogue and Wilder had to find ways around Hays Code; in the end, the film is very, very different from the book.  Personally, I prefer the film, especially with Chandler's crackling dialogue.

Double Indemnity is a classic film, and with good reason.  The acting and directing are great, the writing is sharp, and the story draws you in.  There are a few moments when the dialogue gets a little too unbelievable (Walter and Phyllis' car/sex banter, for example) and I'm not a big fan of narrative bookends on principle, but these flaws are so minute that they just add to the charm of this film.  Part of me wants to give it a perfect "10" rating, because it is fantastic, but I'm going to lowball it this time because it is missing something.  I'm not sure what, exactly, but I never rewind the film to re-watch a scene and I never quote the script.  It's damn good, but not quite one of my favorites.


  1. 2 points - what? see more wilder films instantly!

    and edward g robinson IS the little man! on the first noir run, after seeing this we started seeing him in almost everything for a while. i love his style. i'd cast him in any role in a heartbeat. he's so similar to paul giamatti dont you think?

  2. Yeah, I know...I should study up on Wilder. I am intrigued by the idea that The Last Weekend was inspired by his experience with Chandler during this movie. Maybe I'll try that one next.

    As for Robinson, he is always a welcome face in any movie. I see what you're saying about him and Giamatti, but I have a slight aversion to PG. It stems from the ending of The Illusionist, where he reacts to the crushing realization that he has been horribly manipulated and has risked his life with a smile and a rueful head shake, like he was thinking "They sure got ME good, HA!" I do like the man as a character actor, but I don't usually seek him out. Robinson I enjoy as a lead or supporting character.

  3. I was just about to rewatch this movie, largely due to being underwhelmed the first go around. I remember thinking something was missing as well. If you want to do more Wilder noir, try Ace in the Hole or Sunset Blvd., both are great.

  4. The more I think about it, the less I like the bookend monologuing. I'm perfectly fine with having the main character narrate the film, but knowing that he was hurt before we even get into the story annoys me.

  5. Alright, I watched this last night and I really do not care for it. First and foremost is the narration. I am rarely a fan of narration and this is a prime example of it destroying a movie. It just unnecessarily spoon feeds the viewer the entire movie. I assume much of this has to do with Chandler's writing. Yet, with Wilder co-writing and directing, I think he should have made the stronger choice and reduced it (or eliminated it all together). My other big problem is MacMurray. His character's words and his performance do not fit at all. He is too much of a straight man for the snapping Chandler dialogue (also, it seems Chandler mailed in parts of this - as he was sometimes prone to do). An actor with more charisma and personality should have been casted. On the plus side, the story is super tight and I think Stanwyck's and Robinson's performances are great (minus the ridiculous hair - what the hell were they thinking? It makes here head look huge.). And great call with the ventriloquist.

  6. I definitely understand where you're coming from with the narration (although I mistakenly referred to it as "narrative" in my review) and telling the audience rather than showing them things.

    Here's my take on it in Double Indemnity: I think the overly hard-boiled narration is supposed to contrast with MacMurray's character. He may think of himself as a tough guy, but he was foolish enough to get manipulated into doing something very dangerous.

    And don't forget that MacMurray's the narrator. Just because he says that he had all these snappy lines doesn't make it true. I agree that his dialogue doesn't always match up with his character, but I think that may be the result of an unreliable narrator who wants to make himself seem tough.

    As for Chandler's writing...yeah, it's a bit much at times --- the initial car metaphor conversation w/ MacMurray and Stanwyck stands out --- but I found it entertaining, nonetheless.