June 8, 2011

#29: Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity is a 1944 thriller-noir by Billy Wilder, whose cultural impact on cinema cannot be understand thanks to such classics as The Apartment, Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard (all on the list). There is a great economy in his work, and I'll be interested to compare this to the latter two films, which are yet to come on this blog. Honestly though, if you had told me that Hitchcock had directed this, I might have believed you, save the fact that Hitchcock doesn't make a trademark cameo. My last experience with noir was only a few movies ago (The Maltese Falcon) and I was much less taken with that one than I was here, so: a pleasant surprise!

Company: alone, although I had folks express interest, and since it's on instant Netflix I will definitely see it again!

Cuisine: a burger, a few chips and a diet Coke, left over from our Memorial Day barbecue

We open on Walter Neff (a very charming Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who looks like shit at the moment. He's taping a confession of a murder he's committed -- thanks for giving away the ending! -- and the entire film acts as a flashback to explain how he got to this sorry state. Somewhere out there there's a list of movies that do this exact thing (Saving Private Ryan and Forrest Gump come to mind). Anyway, his confession acts as an omniscient narration over top of the events surrounding this murder. At first we're agog: how could this seemingly mild-mannered insurance salesman get mixed up in this? I'll tell you how.

Meet "how."

Enter Phyllis Dietrichson (Oscar nominee and femme fatale to end all Barbara Stanwyck), a trophy wife and would-be merry murderess, whom Walter meets on a routine house call during which he had hoped to renew Mr. Dietrichson's auto insurance policy. She wants her husband dead, and the phenomenal first scene between Walter and Phyllis makes it all too clear how badly they want each other from the first moment. Their flirtation is mouth-watering and electric, but Neff senses that she's bad news and wants no part in her scheme. But he's already doomed: he can think of nothing but her. Supposedly Wilder put Stanwyck in a purposefully awful wig to show that something's not quite right about her, and how right he is.

The plan is simple (ha!): Walter sells Phyllis' husband an accident policy that insures the owner with a 'double indemnity' clause (hey, that's the title!), which basically covers the owner twice over in the event of an unlikely accident, for example, death in a train accident. Then the scheme goes that the pair will stage the husband's death, making it look like an accident, claim the $100,000 and be together forever. What could possibly go wrong? It's a film that constructs, at least in the mind of its anti-heroes, a perfect crime, and both MacMurray and Stanwyck make such believable bad good-doers that the audience can't imagine what could stop them.

Except, of course, for the one factor that they never thought about: the racking guilt of their crime. It's a great thrill to see their plan put into action, knowing exactly how it must happen and biting our nails when something happens that they don't expect. What did they forget? Will that man at the back of the train come back to haunt them? The pace of the thrills never lets up, especially not after the crime has been committed. One of the most chilling elements is the above shot of Phyllis, staring straight ahead as her husband is strangled next to her. So unfeeling, so calculated, so sure that it will work... right?

Unluckily for Neff, he's got a boss who hates when he can't see through a phony claim, and Barton Keyes (a fantastic Edward G. Robinson) is on the case. He's never been stumped by a claim before, and sets his mind to figuring it all out. The great thrills that come from watching those cogs turn as the murderers are right under his nose! How short my nails got as I bit them while Phyllis hid behind the door with Keyes not ten feet away! This is thrilling cinema, friends.

Because it's thrilling and because it's the not knowing that keeps you on the edge of your seat, I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending, but suffice it to say that if I thought I knew where the film was going I was wrong. I think one of the master strokes of the film is how Wilder balances these three characters: whose side are you on? Do you want the plan to work, without any hitches? Are we hoping they'll get caught? Do we root for Keyes to discover their deeds? We're never fully on any one character's side; even though Neff narrates, it really feels like the same story told from three fully-developed angles, and the complexity of the heightened emotion of noir is never lost on Wilder.

Those Venetian blinds!

It's this complex story line, so smart and so involving, that keeps the audience guessing until the last moments. I read that this film was one of the first, if not the first, to really investigate and even justify the intricacies of a homicide, and boy does it ever. Perhaps it's these complexities that drew me in the way The Maltese Falcon just didn't. There, Humphrey Bogart's character was essentially alone in solving a crime of which we the audience were not a part. Here, we're presented with all the details of a crime, and then watch as the trio of detective, the detective-turned-murderer and the murderess play that lethal game of cat and mouse (and mouse), witnessing simultaneous sides of the crime. Genius.

Love it love it! Another wonderful surprise.

Nothing surprising about the next film, however, at least none that I don't remember fondly from the last time I saw it in college: buckle up, it's gonna be a bumpy ride with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's classic All About Eve.

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