Film noir is a genre that is characterized by cynicism, duplicity, and above all moral ambiguity. The genre began as an American post World War II variation on early European expressionist films, which in turn came about as a response to the horrors of World War I. Since its hey-day in the 1940’s and 1950’s film noir has continued to remain a cultural presence, providing influence for modern films, novels, and stage plays. While there are numerous films in the genre worthy of the title ‘classic’, few possess the style, sex appeal, and anarchic spirit of this week’s review, Double Indemnity.
The story begins with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) staggering into his office just after dawn. As Walter takes his place at his desk it becomes evident that he has sustained a serious injury from a gun-shot wound. Rather than call for the police or an ambulance, however, he instead proceeds to calmly begin speaking into his office Dictaphone and confesses to murdering one of his company’s clients. He reports that he killed “for money, and for a woman” and further explains that “I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman”. The film then launches into a flashback that relates the events leading up the murder Walter confessed to and the fallout that has brought Walter himself to death’s doorstep. Through the flashback, it is revealed that several months earlier he became acquainted with sultry housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). While Phyllis has little interest in insurance, she displays an immediate interest in the fast-talking insurance salesman, and insists that he return for a second visit when her husband will be home. When Walter returns to the residence Mr. Dietrichson is still at work, and Phyllis proceeds to grill him with a slew of questions concerning accident insurance. Walter quickly put Phyllis’ questions and seductive charm together and realizes that she intends to kill her husband in an effort to collect on his insurance policy. Disturbed by the incident, Walter storms out of the house with the intention of avoiding Phyllis, only to have her arrive at his apartment late that night. Despite his best intentions, he is unable to resist her and finds himself not only aiding, but planning a plot to murder Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) and run away with Phyllis and the insurance money. All seems to go according to plan until Walter’s firm investigates Dietrichson’s death as a possible suicide and Walter’s boss, Barton Keys (Edward G. Robinson), starts to suspect foul play. The pressure from Keys adds to the distrust that has seeped into Walter and Phyllis’ relationship as the two begin a downward spiral of self-destruction that, as Keys points out, can only end one place; the cemetery.
Although Double Indemnity contains the standard elements of film noir, what sets the film apart is the way that it brings those elements together to tell a story that set the tone for those that followed it. One of those elements is the film’s brazen portrayal of a story that is sordid at worst and subversive at its height. Hollywood had produced numerous films with dark themes and moral ambiguities in the pre-code thirties, but even those early efforts lacked the single-minded ruthlessness that makes Double Indemnity unforgettable. While most movies strive to make their heroes relateable and redeemable, this film stands apart in the way that it not only chronicles, but basks in the nihilism and sleaze that compose Walter and Phyllis. Although both leads are engaging and complex, the script makes no effort to rationalize or gloss over their actions, instead treating their amorality as just one more drop of water in the polluted bucket that is depression-era Los Angeles. Nonchalant treatment of homicidal protagonists would be unsettling enough, but with each scintillating interaction between its leads the film continues to take its approach one disturbing step further until it, and the audience, are left rooting for Phyllis and Walter’s plan to succeed.
|How many times do I have to tell you; plan murder on your own time!|
In addition to the film’s expertly conveyed cynicism and innovative approach to its characters, Double Indemnity contains some of the best dialogue, not just in noir, but in the history of American cinema. With Walter’s first mention of killing “for money and for a woman” the audience is immediately drawn into the film’s world of sex, murder, and intrigue. Each interaction between Phyllis and Walter contains wit so sharp it could cut through the screen and smolders with steamy innuendo. All a viewer needs to do is watch one scene between MacMurray and Stanwyck to understand just how much the tumultuous working relationship between screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler truly paid off. The equal parts cleverness and grittiness of these scenes serve to develop character, propel the plot, and create a truly memorable atmosphere all with just a few lines of crackling dialogue. The scenes between Walter and Keys are equally fascinating in the way that the fatherly affection Keys holds for his protégée conveys a sense of decency that so starkly constrasts Walter and Phyllis’ warped point of view. Similarly, Walter’s friendship with his victim’s sheltered daughter, Lola, adds an excellent juxtaposition to the world weariness exhibited by the other characters. The film’s plot is written with the same finesse as its dialogue, and keeps audiences engaged in and guessing at its tawdry twists, even though its opening frame has already clued viewers in to how it will all end.
The film’s actors turn in uniformly excellent performances that bring the story’s twisted characters to life. As the calculating Phyllis, Barbara Stanwyck is truly the quintessential femme fatale. With just one look or line of rapid fire dialogue Stanwyck conveys a tantalizing combination of sensuality, intelligence, and hardness that sets her homicidal heroine apart from the oversexed, and underwritten femme fatales that populate noir. Fred MacMurray creates a perfect balance between Walter’s genial salesman exterior and darker motives in such a way that ensures that audiences continue to root for him despite his despicable actions. Edward G. Robinson provides excellent support as the no-nonsense Keys and acts as an ideal foil to MacMurray’s everyman gone astray. The combined talents of its stars makes this film an essential view for fans not just of noir, but also of excellent film acting.
World-weary, bleak, and gritty are all words that could aptly describe Double Indemnity. To limit this film to a such a check list of standard noir fare, however, would fail to do justice to this truly innovative piece of Hollywood history. The film’s daring approach to a taboo plot remains shocking even by modern standards and was nothing short of explosive at the time of its debut. Its hard-boiled dialogue and layered performances make the film more than a series of thrills, and instead an unforgettable journey into the darkness lurking within us all. If you’re in search of classic noir, look no further than straight down the line to Double Indemnity.
|One of the few people who can pull of sunglasses indoors|