Saturday, May 1, 2010

Film #25: Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 3 (most recently about 2 years ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers)

Insurance salesman and black widow gold digger plot murder of husband; hope to get rich off insurance policy.

The Full Treatment (A complete summary, spoilers included. Fair warning):

In 1940s Los Angeles, clever insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) stops by the opulent home of rich client Mr. Dietrichson to get some signatures on an auto insurance policy. Instead, he meets Dietrichson's sultry younger wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). After some flirtatious fast-talk, Phyllis slyly inquires about getting a life insurance policy for her husband, but without his knowing it. The quick-witted Neff immediately smells something fishy and clears out, warning Phyllis that any plot she may have to off her husband and collect insurance money is bound to fail.

And yet, after leaving, Neff can't get Phyllis or her scheme out of his mind. Sure enough, she shows at his apartment later, and they fall into each other's arms. Then and there, Walter agrees to help Phyllis with her nefarious plot. He's sure that, with his knowledge of botched murders through the insurance claims business, they can commit the crime, avoid leaving any evidence, and spend the rest of their lives together off of a $100,000 "double indemnity" insurance policy.


Walter & Phyllis: future lovers and accomplices.

Neff carefully plots the murder and coaches Phyllis in assisting him. With calculated precision, the two get Mr. Dietrichson's unwitting signature on the life insurance policy, then lure him to his own murder, making it seem like an accidental fall from the observation car of a moving train.

At first, it seems as if they will get off scott free. Then, one person starts to smell a rat. Barton Keyes, the eagle-eyed, obsessive claims manager at Neff's office, senses something amiss. Following his instincts, which he refers to as his "little man," the long-time insurance man starts to become ever surer that Dietrichson's death was not accidental. Even more, he feels that Phyllis is the culprit. The only thing he doesn't see is Neff's involvement in the whole thing, but Neff senses Keyes getting closer to the truth.

As the pressure ratchets up, Neff discovers several unsavory things about his co-conspirator, Phyllis. She was, according to Dietrichson's daughter Lola, responsible for the death of the first Mrs. Dietrichson. On top of this, Phyllis has been secretly seeing Lola's boyfriend, Nino, at night for unknown reasons. Neff realizes that he's been played for a sucker.

When Walter goes to Phyllis's house to confront her with his revelations, he throws her deceptions in her face and explains how he plans to see that she will get locked up for the murder of Dietrichson. As a kicker, he plans to absolve himself by killing Nino, who Walter will claim was her accomplice. Phyllis, cornered, pulls a gun and shoots Neff in the arm. Neff clutches her tightly and shoots her dead, the two sharing one final, warped moment of attraction for each other. Nino shows up shortly after, but Neff abandons his plan to frame and kill him, rather telling him to leave and find Lola.

The wounded Neff manages to stagger back to Keyes's office and begins to record his own confession. Just as he reaches the end, Keyes shows up and looks on with sadness and disappointment as his former employee, and perhaps friend, lies bleeding on the floor. As they await the police, Keyes does Walter one final favor - he assists his now one-armed, former friend to light one last cigarette. Sure to be his last.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after the most recent viewing, before any research):

Now we get down an dirty.

After watching several artful cinematic master works and wading through the sophomoric humor of the screwball comedies on this list, I was ready for the downright nastiness of Double Indemnity. This film is a standard just as much as Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but for completely different reasons.

There are no heroes. You have to face this fact - the two main characters are murderers, one merely cold-blooded; the other ice-blooded. Rather than love being the force that attracts one to the other and gives the audience some semblance of a human connection, it's base lust. Walter is entranced by Phyllis' looks and attitude. It's almost like he refuses to realize that he's drawn to her based on the thing that makes her most dangerous - her viper-like magnetism and the promise of sensual delights, even if they're followed by his own destruction. It's this fatalism that's a hallmark characteristic of nearly all film noir protagonists (most notably in the classic Out of the Past - film #31 on the TIME list.)


"She didn't fool me this time." Oh, but she had you all along, Walt. She had you all along...

And yet, at one point, I was hoping that the killer Neff would succeed. This is not because his victim was an evil, or even a bad person. In fact, we don't know much about Dietrichson at all. He's just a pawn with a fat bank account as far as Neff, Phyllis and we viewers are concerned. I think it speaks to the movie writers' skill that there was a moment when, after the murder occurs, I actually wanted Neff to get away with it. How the hell did I become a cheerleader for a murderer?!

I chalk it up to a certain aspect of human nature, one that A-Team leader Hannibal put well: "I love it when a plan comes together." Whatever the plan is, we love to see if someone can pull it off. How else do you explain the appeal of crime movies? Well, Double Indemnity went all the way with it. Instead of giving you something slightly more palatable like bank robbers or a prison escape, you get two people who are going to kill someone for nothing more than greed and lust. Still, Walter's plan is so well-conceived and precise that you can't wait to see if it works, regardless of the motives. There was actually a moment when, as a monkey wrench is thrown into the plan and the risk of discovery increases, I felt nervous for Walter. I was actually sympathizing with a killer!

But more than this is that there is actually some form of redemption in the end. While his veins pump with 33-degree water throughout most of the movie, Walter's senses do return by the end, if only just barely. He sees Phyllis for the black widow that she is and even frees Nino from the frame job that was in place for the oblivious young man. This is what makes Neff more than just an unconscious killer.

Any viewer of this movie is getting treated to pure, unadulterated film noir. The rapid dialogue, the touch of '30s slang, the dark themes, and the deadly femme fatale are all in place. Someone who hasn't seen films in this genre may find them a bit ridiculous at first glance: no one really talks like that. No one could or would really pull these things off. No one place could have so many dynamic characters. All of these things are true. None of these things could or would exist, except for one place - the world of fiction. Whether it was books or film, the realm of noir fiction was a cohesive world all its own. This is why it was such a powerful force in American storytelling for at least two decades. Those broads, booze, and bullets tales had such a great appeal and impact that even as recently as Sin City, noir yet lives, albeit in a small corner of the cinema world.

To pull off such a twisted tale of deceit, you need good performances, and Double Indemnity has them. Fred MacMurray becomes a seminal noir man with his intense, slick talking dead pan. The amazing thing is that he's able to modulate his stoicism by the slightest of degrees, so that you can actually tell when his nerves are eating away at him, as opposed to when he's confident and relaxed. Billy Bob Thornton did this exceptionally well in the outlandish Coen brothers noir film The Man Who Wasn't There, and I suspect he may have studied MacMurray's turn as Neff in Double Indemnity.

I've made my feeling about Barbara Stanwyck pretty clear before. Her role as Phyllis Dietrichson is maybe her best-known role, but I actually prefer her roles in Baby Face and The Lady Eve. I suppose it's that, in Double Indemnity, her character is truly an irredeemable asp whose sex appeal thinly veils the venom stored in her fangs. I think I prefer when she played roles that have a heart, however tiny it might have been.

Edward G. Robinson is also incredible as the claims manager, Barton Keyes. He injects such passion into the character that you almost want to get into the insurance business, as laughable as that is; his enthusiasm is that intense.

Robinson injects so much pinched, focused energy in his role as Keyes that he nearly steals every scene in which he appears. The cantankerous, walking actuarial table does his best to keep Walt in line throughout the tale. Alas, it is to no avail.

All of these ingredients: a pitch-black plot (though a thoroughly entertaining one), engaging characters, and fantastic performances, create perhaps the first classic noir film. It helps to know what you're in for, but if you're ready for it, you'll most likely love Double Indemnity.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after further research):

"With Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder took that idea of Americans being a bunch of fast-buck motherfuckers and turned it into art." - Elmore Leonard

And with this statement, I think Leonard sums up a lot. Like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, Double Indemnity has been food for film critic analysis for almost 70 years now. The reason being that this was the first film that artfully told a completely sordid tale that cut right to a very palpable element of the American condition: underneath the attractive exterior lurks a murderous demon.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it took a foreigner to put this idea to film, skillfully. Billy Wilder, a German immigrant who had fled during the early days of the rise of the Reich, was a student of American culture. Apparently, he was riveted by the notion that, in the States, even the most seemingly pleasant and innocuous of people had a murderer slumbering deep inside. All it took was the right trigger to wake it up. In the case of Double Indemnity, the insurance salesman Walter Neff's trigger is the trashy seductiveness of Phyllis Dietrichson.

Hollywood was terrified of this film. The salaciousness. The lack of a hero. These things seemed like poison to major studios, despite the massive popularity of dark themes in the written stories of James M. Cain and Dashiel Hammett. Once Wilder convinced the studio to make it, it was hell to cast. Too many actors and actresses saw it as career suicide. It wasn't until Wilder essentially dared Barbara Stanwyck (with the line, "Are you an actress or a mouse?!"), verbally massaged former nice-guy actor Fred MacMurray, and soothed the pride of usual-top-billed Edward G. Robinson that he had the players he needed.

Once released, Double Indemnity was not dismissed as trash, as one may suspect. Quite the contrary - it was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning 1, and is today considered the movie that gave birth to film noir. Never before had such a sinister tale been told with such strong acting, stylishly dark cinematography (in a time when color was growing ever-more common), and with such indelible dialogue. This movie was the parent of many later classics: Out of the Past, The Killers, Wilder's own Sunset Boulevard, and a host of others, both American and foreign.

An interesting note about the writing: the film was co-written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novella by James M. Cain. Chandler adapting a Cain novella?! That's pulp fiction madness! The really curious thing is that Chandler, Cain, and fellow pulp master Dashiell Hammett all apparently thought the others' works were garbage. I guess there's more than one plumber to dig into the dark pipes of the human psyche, and those different plumbers do not like the looks of each other.

So, why did this film resonate with Americans at this point in time? Some theorize that the time of release, with the U.S. then being familiar to the darkness of man thanks to three years at war, was more receptive to a midnight-black, adult-themed movie. No longer did every movie have to be family friendly, a hero didn't always have to win, you didn't need a song or dance number, and there didn't need to be an overt moral. Double Indemnity was created at the right time and by the right people, released in the right place, and viewed by the right audience.

The descendants of Double Indemnity are many, a few of which were previously mentioned. Along with a host of others, ones of note would be the '80s remake, Body Heat, and of course, Chinatown, which echoes the tone and even some of the exact settings in Double Indemnity. There have been more recent filmmakers who have redone noir films, but not many have the brass to make the attempt, as there is virtually no chance for blockbuster commercial success. A shame, really, as film noir is another example of the kind of world that could only exist on the silver screen. When done right, as with Double Indemnity, it's as good as anything that's ever been put on celluloid.

In parting, it must be pointed out that the Coen brothers, in addition to the more direct homage to noir, The Man Who Wasn't There, based the ultimate cult film, The Big Lebowski on the entire pulp fiction & film noir genres. If you, like I, are a devoted Little Lebowski Urban Achiever, and have ever wondered why exactly the Coens made bowling such an integral part of the film, allow me to illuminate. Here's a still from a really brief scene in which Neff mulls over the possibility of killing for money:

F***ing Neff...that creep can roll, man.

That's a wrap. 25 shows down, 80 to go.

Coming Soon: Meet Me In St. Louis (1944):


I'm really not much of a musical guy. So much so that I'm calling in reinforcements for this one - my lady friend is going to be my copilot during this viewing, making it the first film that I won't be watching alone, like some film-obsessed hermit. We'll see if she can help me confront Judy Garland and...color!!!

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.