Thursday, December 29, 2016

Noir Reviews: Double Indemnity, April 1944

Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?
After the good but uneven Phantom Lady, we proceed directly to the murky, guilty heart of noir, to Double Indemnity, directed by the great Billy Wilder, whose work we'll be reviewing several times in this series.

If you don't know (and really, you should; if you haven't seen this movie, go watch it right now), Double Indemnity is a murder story told from the point of view of the murderer. He's a likeable insurance salesman named Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, who one day grabs hold of a red-hot poker and isn't able to let go. (Let those who think film noir is all about private detectives take note!) The supporting role of Neff's coworker and mentor, claims manager Barton Keyes, is played by the immortal Edward G. Robinson, who handily steals every scene he's in.
To me, a claims man is a surgeon. That desk is an operating table and those pencils are scalpels and bone-chisels. And those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They're alive. They're packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claims man, Walter, is a, is a doctor and a bloodhound and a – [Phone rings.] Who? Okay, hold on a minute. A claims man is a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor all in one.
He delivers a couple of monologues that make me want to stand up and cheer every time, while his final assessment of the case is grimly, delightfully terse: "Walter, you're all washed up." The tableau he and Walter Neff form in the last shot is an icon of of noir tough love.

The femme fatale, on the other hand, is played by Barbara Stanwyck, who can chill you to the bone with a single look. She wears a hideous George Washington wig, a directing mistake retroactively explained as a deliberate artistic decision, and hilariously spoofed by Steve Martin in drag in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. But what a role!

Walter narrates his story into a dictaphone while nursing a cigarette and a bullet wound. His guilt and doom are predetermined from the first moment we see him. That's typical of film noir. There's no emotional hook, no what's-going-to-happen-to-these-characters-I-care-about??? You know from the outset that everyone is damned. In a strange way, that takes the pressure off, allowing the viewer to be engrossed by the mechanics of how, precisely, this damnation occurs. Wilder, who I think understood this very well, later topped himself in having Sunset Boulevard narrated by a dead guy floating face-down in a swimming pool. Your average melodrama, on the other hand, keeps you interested by making you fret about what's going to happen to the people. Its watchability depends on getting your emotions involved, a game that cloys pretty quickly. No one buys a melodrama to watch over and over again. (At least no one I know.)

Double Indemnity is certainly no melodrama. It's not a cautionary tale, either, despite the fact that it's about a crime that doesn't pay. On the contrary, it compels you to connive at a man's murder. You like Walter Neff. The very real love that exists between him and Keyes only makes this all the more poignant. Horribly, you want his plot to succeed and fear his exposure, even though you know it won't succeed and he will be exposed. When he starts befriending the victim's daughter to keep her quiet, you're acutely conscious of what a heel he is, yet you're anxious to keep her quiet, too. Nevertheless, you're aware at each moment of the impossibility of his position and know that an evasion of justice would be intolerable. A lesser movie would either make Walter an out-and-out bad guy or else try to exculpate him in some manner.

Apart from the wig, everything about Double Indemnity is perfect. Though based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was cowritten by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Chandler's influence is felt at every turn. The dialogue is a delight to listen to, abounding in witty repartee and colorful metaphor.
They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there's a death mixed up in it, you haven't got a prayer. They'll hang you just as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar.
Chandler makes a cameo appearance sitting outside Keyes' office, looking very much the sourpuss he was. The score, composed by the legendary Miklós Rózsa, perfectly captures the feeling of an exciting, relentless drive toward some predetermined destination. It supports the plot, instead of attempting to comment on it or accentuate it, or (worse still) merely providing background noise, as many of the thundering scores of the period do. (Rózsa, incidentally, also scored Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, one of his final films.)

Wilder's direction eschews studio sets in favor of filming on location. There's a wonderful long take right at the beginning, in a midnight elevator ride from a lobby to a big, empty insurance office inhabited by nocturnal workers. Numerous night-for-night scenes make Double Indemnity a true black film, the most memorable being when the body is placed on the tracks, for which each telephone pole had to be individually illuminated by spotlights. The indoor scenes tend to be barred with light falling through half-open blinds.

For me, Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir.

* * *

I give Double Indemnity a grade of A for awesome on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
High points in Double Indemnity include the opening, Walter Neff's practiced "sales pitch," the body-placement scene, and pretty much every scene with Edward G. Robinson, especially the suicide statistics monologue. Takeaway quote:

"How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"


  1. I grew up with the Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons and various Disney movies. Seeing this the first time (in my late teens) blew my mind. He's so terrifically reprehensible.

    Have you seen the Alan Arkin/Peter Falk Big Trouble (1986)? It's very sloppy, but has brilliant bits and is built around the Double Indemnity's murder plot.

    1. I remember reading somewhere that Billy Wilder had a hard time convincing him to take the role because it was so different. But that's what makes him so good in it.

      I haven't seen Big Trouble; I'll have to keep it in mind. I always enjoy Peter Falk, if nothing else.