Thursday, December 3, 2009

1944 - Double Indemnity

In a city of over eight million people, one certainly doesn't expect to randomly bump into anybody one knows on the street, let alone someone from one's home town 16,000 kilometres away (that's 10,000 miles in American). And yet, that's precisely what happened yesterday as I strolled up 5th Avenue. Upon passing a young man on his mobile phone (that's 'cell phone' in American), I silently pondered how similar he looked to a friend I knew from Sydney. Five metres further down the street (that's about 16 feet in American), I heard my name and turned around to discover that the reason the phone-wielding man looked so similar to my friend was that it was my friend. Small world, indeed. (That's Planet Earth in American.)

Today, I viewed one more Best Picture contender from 1944...

Double Indemnity
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
(based on the novella by James M. Cain)
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

One of the, if not, the most classic entry in the film noir genre, Double Indemnity is told in confession by Walter Neff (MacMurray), an insurance salesman who gets himself involved in a messy situation. After meeting the sultry and unhappily married Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), he quickly falls for her beguiling ways and agrees to help her knock off her husband for the insurance money. The plan is elaborately conceived in order to fool Neff's work colleague, the clever and determined claims investigator Barton Keyes (Robinson). Once the plan is set into motion, however, several twists and turns must be dealt with for the two lovers to literally get away with murder.

It's easy to understand why Double Indemnity is often cited as the cornerstone to which all other films of the genre are compared. It is about as noir as it gets. The perfect lesson in how to create a stylish, moody, gripping story. Voice over narration, a femme fatale, a clever murder plot, with lashings of mystery and intrigue and breath-holding tension, all created with such subtlety and intelligence. The subtext is almost a character of its own. It's all in the eyes, you see. A simple look can reveal so much. There's no need to hit the audience over the head with expository dialogue. We understand it all with the slightest of indicators.

And speaking of the dialogue. You could drown underneath the wonderfully colourful metaphors and double entendres. Each line is wittier than the last. For example, when Neff first meets Phyllis, she is wearing only a towel. He talks to her about not being "fully covered" but, of course, he's referring to her husband's insurance policy... or is he? When he is offered a glass of iced tea, he responds with the gem, "Yeah, unless you got a bottle of beer that's not working."

The music is the perfect complement and the cinematography is simply sublime. The shadows and the shafts of hazy light create the ideal mood. The three lead actors could hardly go wrong with this material. Just speak fast and nonchalantly and the words will do the rest. Still, Fred MacMurray as the average guy with the bad boy streak seems a little too wholesome to really pull it off. Perhaps it is just hindsight after a 12-year stint in a wholesome sitcom that prevents him from being truly convincing when he demands, "Shutup, baby" and then forcefully plants a kiss on Barbara Stanwyck.


  1. Film historians look to 1940's "Stranger on the Third Floor" as the first example of a film noir, with 1941's "The Maltese Falcon" the first notable noir. However, it wasn't until "Double Indemnity" arrived in 1944 that the elements of film noir were on full display. There are forums dedicated to the film noir cycle, and they contain some of the most devoted film fans around. I saved a list of criteria that one such fan came up with that he labeled Noirmetrics. It's a handy check list of what to look for in a film noir:

    Femme fatale or an homme fatale-
    Morally ambiguous protagonist(s)
    Alienated protagonist(s)
    A fall guy (gal)
    Violence relative to character development/interaction

    Black and white cinematography
    Low-angle shooting/expressionistic techniques
    A sense of fatalism (either spoken or visual)
    Use of mise-en-scene to portray alienation
    Odd camera angles or visual effects/sequences
    An urban setting
    Exotic/remote/barren location setting
    Night club and/or gambling setting

    A convoluted story line
    Use of flashbacks
    A murder or heist at the center of the story
    A spoken narrative
    A betrayal or a double-cross
    Story told from the perspective of the criminals
    False accusation (or fear of same)
    Sexual relationships vs. plot development
    Hard-boiled dialogue/repartee
    A Noir vs. gris denouement

    It's easy to see why Double Indemnity is considered one of the definitive examples.

    That said, as far as the Academy is concerned, very few film noirs have been nominated for their top award. There was no way Double Indemnity was going to win Best Picture. As nice as seven nominations were, it didn't take home any awards.

    As far as I'm concerned, it should have also received nominations for Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in the lead and supporting actor categories. Wilder first offered the lead role to George Raft, who said he'd only do it if his character pulled out a badge at the end. He obviously had no concept of noir.

    I don't know who Wilder could have picked that would have bettered MacMurray. In fact, the highlights of his career were those roles where he showed a sleazy or cowardly streak - Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment. Wilder also convinced Robinson to take a supporting role, which led to many superior character performances. Finally, he convinced Barbara Stanwyck to play the femme fatale (her best performance in my opinion)

    I did find that the whole Zachette sub-plot to me almost an afterthought. I think it was there just to give MacMurray a bit more motivation for his actions.

    It's interesting to contrast this film with Body Heat, which is a reworking of the plot. No sexual innuendo needed by 1981 and no film codes requiring that bad guys and gals must not get away with it.

  2. Thanks for that check list. Makes me want to just watch only noirs for a month.

    And yes, I've often thought that the Hays Code probably made way for a whole lot of inventiveness on the part of the film makers, giving us gems that may have looked a lot different if they weren't forced to be subtle.

  3. One of the more famous innuendo exchanges: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart from "The Big Sleep:"

    Vivian: Tell me: What do you usually do when you're not working?

    Marlowe: Oh, play the horses, fool around.

    Vivian: No women?

    Marlowe: I'm generally working on something most of the time.

    Vivian: Could that be stretched to include me?

    Marlowe: Well I like you. I've told you that before.

    Vivian: I like hearing you say it. But you didn't do much about it.

    Marlowe: Well, neither did you.

    Vivian: Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.

    Marlowe: Find out mine?

    Vivian: I think so.

    Marlowe: Go ahead.

    Vivian: I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

    Marlowe: You don't like to be rated yourself.

    Vivian: I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

    Marlowe: Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but, uh...I don't know how - how far you can go.

    Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle. Go ahead Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don't know it, you're doing all right.

    Marlowe: There's one thing I can't figure out.

    Vivian: What makes me run?

    Marlowe: Uh-huh.

    Vivian: I'll give you a little hint. Sugar won't work. It's been tried.