Today, I viewed one more Best Picture contender from 1944...
Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
(based on the novella by James M. Cain)
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
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.