Sunday, April 18, 2010

#7: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Released: September 6, 1944 (U.S.)

Director: Billy Wilder; Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler based on the novel by James M. Cain; Cinematography: John F. Seitz; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producers: Buddy G. DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom

Cast: Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), Fortunio Bonanova (Sam Garlopis), John Philliber (Joe Peters), Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton, Jr.)

As is the case with other films that I have already written extensively about (or at least what I consider to be extensive, meaning in terms of blog posts), I don’t feel it necessary to write completely new takes on such movies. I easily chose Double Indemnity as my #1 for 1944 and it is a no-brainer to place it comfortably within the Top 10 for the noir countdown. Still, I think that there needs to be something additional added onto these pieces, at the very least to show that I’m not piggybacking on past work at this point. And so I made a point to re-watch each of the movies in the Top 10, to bring some new thoughts to each entry.

Watching Double Indemnity for the umpteenth time, there is one thing that drew all of my attention: the work of John Seitz. Since seeing Double Indemnity for the first time, I have never been able to look at venetian blinds the same again. I’m not kidding – anytime I see shadows or light slithering through the slits in such blinds I am reminded of this movie. I have praised Seitz’s work throughout the countdown, particularly in regard to his work in yesterday’s Billy Wilder entry Sunset Boulevard, and all of it is more than deserved. His photography is distinctive. It doesn’t have the grittiness of the work of John Alton. Instead, Seitz’s work is what I like to call stylishly dark. It has smoothness to it, yet never sacrifices the darkness. My realization of just how great Seitz was remains one of the biggest eye-openers of this whole series. I knew he was great, but I didn't fully appreciated the consistent excellence of his work until recently.

My other thoughts on the film are well captured in the piece below. I’ll just add that I go back and forth concerning my favorite Billy Wilder noir. Sometimes it is Double Indemnity, sometimes it is Sunset Boulevard. The fact that they ended up back-to-back in the countdown was not planned, and in fact they only ended up in those positions very late in the process. For now, Double Indemnity wears the crown, but it’s a tough call between such classics.

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- "I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"

Just looking at the notables involved in every facet of this legendary film is enough to make a classic movie fan or noir buff salivate. The cast is superb, combining diverse on-screen personalities that result in maximum tension. With Barbara Stanwyck having already perfected the role of a manipulative, ambitious vixen in earlier pre-Code films, she is the ideal fit as the calculating Phyllis Dietrichson. Fred MacMurray, who until this point had played mostly wholesome, friendly characters, is cast against type as the man who is drawn into Mrs. Dietrichson’s machinations. It is a brilliant casting decision, as although Walter Neff takes an active role in the planning, the persona of MacMurray manages to convey the sneaking suspicion that the insurance agent is in over his head and is being maneuvered. Edward G. Robinson plays Barton Keyes, a claims adjuster who is hell-bent on uncovering any fraudulent claims submitted to the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Co. While not as ruthless as the gangster characters that made Robinson a star, Keyes is every bit as resolute and determined toward his job. The script is based on a novel by one of the godfathers of pulp fiction, James M. Cain. It is adapted for the screen in part by another of the titans of the hardboiled genre, Raymond Chandler, who infuses his trademark snappy dialogue with the dark themes of Cain’s story. The soundtrack is handled by the celebrated Miklós Rózsa. The photography of John Seitz is appropriately dark and shadowy. And the entire affair is overseen by arguably the most versatile director of his era, Billy Wilder.

On paper, it is a can’t-miss experience. On-screen, it manages to be the equal of such impressive credentials.


It is the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who finds himself in the middle of a murderous love triangle after doing something as simple as attempting to renew an automobile insurance policy. While on a call to renew of the policy of Mr. Dietrichson, Neff meets his gorgeous wife Phyllis and immediate chemistry is developed between the two. The sexual tension at this first meeting is palpable. As the two begin an affair, Phyllis sheepishly proposes the idea of purchasing life insurance for her husband, then later progresses to planning to kill him in order to collect on the policy. While he at first resists such an evil idea, Walter eventually comes on board, but decides that if they are to go through with it they are going to go for the gusto. If they can make Mr. Dietrichson’s death appear to be an accident, they will collect twice as much through the double indemnity clause.

When Mr. Dietrichon is found dead on railroad tracks, apparently having fallen off the back of a slow-moving train, police are quick to conclude his death the result of an accident. Unfortunately for the plotting couple, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) and Pacific All-Risk are not as easily convinced. Keyes senses something strange and quickly begins to suspect that Mrs. Dietrichson likely plotted with another man to kill her husband. The relationship between Phyllis and Walter is strained as they try to maintain secrecy and keep Keyes from the truth. Meanwhile, as relations between the couple begin to deteriorate, Walter comes to suspect Phyllis of plotting more than just the murder of her husband.

It may not be my favorite film noir, but Double Indemnity remains one that I would put forth as the quintessential expression of the genre. As I have said previously on this blog, couple this one with Tourneur’s Out of the Past and even a complete neophyte will have a perfect introduction to the elements that have become noir staples. The flashbacks, the shadows, the dark lighting, the femme fatale, the unforgiving determinism – all of these components are on display here. But with Chandler involved in the screenplay and Wilder involved in both the screenplay and direction, there is the unmistakable quality of everything being a bit tongue-in-cheek. This is a story dealing with deadly serious issues, and yet nobody in this film – with the possible exception of the never-tiring Keyes – seems to be taking themselves seriously until it is far too late.

This feeling is due in large part to the sarcastic banter between characters. It is biting, cynical, and at times can feel a bit awkward. Lines like Neff telling Phyllis, “Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket” or “They say all native Californians come from Iowa” at first left me scratching my head wondering where in the heck they came from. I may be in the minority, but I truly do feel like some of the dialogue can be unwieldy. But it does fit with the sarcastic nature of the proceedings for most of the film – at least through the planning stages of the murder – as if there is a joke behind everything.


It is also amazing how tense this film at times can be, when considering that from the opening scenes the audience basically knows the conclusion. Early on we see a wounded Walter Neff stumbling into the insurance office and declaring into Keyes’ Dictaphone that his plan did not work out. Within the opening minutes, the plot that he and Phyllis hatched is outlined and he confesses to committing murder, declaring that he now plans to reveal all to his friend and coworker. Even with all of these details, there are moments in the film that are incredibly suspenseful. Just witness the scene when Keyes unexpectedly barges into Neff’s apartment to discuss the Dietrichson case. Unaware of the visitor, Phyllis pays a visit at the same time. Realizing the potential problem, Neff works to keep the two out of each other’s sight. Because of the opening of the film, we know that Keyes is not going to see Phyllis, and yet there is great tension as Walter tries everything to usher Keyes to an exit. Praise must go directly to Billy Wilder for this, as the direction of scenes such as this reinforces how masterful he could be. He is able to take something as simple as a woman hiding behind an open door and make it thrilling.

The other aspect that I did not initially realize, but that on subsequent viewings came to understand, is the fact that this is a rare example of a film that does not have a single likable character. Phyllis is as devious a character as has ever been committed to celluloid. Although it at times seems as if Walter is being manipulated by Phyllis, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Walter is a willing participant and contributes significantly to the planning of the murder. Even Keyes, the incorruptible claims adjuster, can be irritating. After all, who likes overbearing insurance employees who will do anything to see to it that no money is ever paid out? The only character I ever remotely felt for was Lola (Jean Heather), Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, but she is primarily on the periphery. It is this dearth of heroes or likable personalities that makes Double Indemnity such a grim film. No matter how much sarcasm or snappy dialogue is rattled off throughout, it is never enough to overcome the fact that these are unpleasant people all the way around.

15 comments:

  1. A masterpiece. 'Nuff said. And I really, really like to watch E.G.R. as a good guy.

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  2. Dave,
    As you would expect, no argument from me, a brilliant film (with the exception of Stanwyck's blonde wig, lol), perfectly constructed, great cinematography and a superlative screenplay by Wilder and Chandler. A film I can watch over and over again and never get tired of.

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  3. One of the towering masterpieces of film noir and of film in general,and one that I honestly was thinking would vie for your #1 position with a certain 'model' of the form that I will leave anonymous at this point, though you do offer a subtle clue here that corroborates my suspicions. Still, in the Top 10 is fair enough for this Wilder masterpiece, which immediately follows another by the same director. I greatly appreciated your additions here discussing the work of John Seitz. And from the body of the review this passage holds up magnificently as does the entire essay:

    "The flashbacks, the shadows, the dark lighting, the femme fatale, the unforgiving determinism – all of these components are on display here. But with Chandler involved in the screenplay and Wilder involved in both the screenplay and direction, there is the unmistakable quality of everything being a bit tongue-in-cheek."

    This of course is one of the noirs where nobody is any good. Ha!

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  4. Mr. Juliano, why do you say "nobody is any good"? Surely, Edward G. Robinson's character is irreproachable, no?

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  5. I waited to see in which place you will put it. :)
    This is my favourite noir. I adore the Chandler's script, Stanwyck's part and almost everything in it. It will be interesting to see next position.

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  6. I have fond memories of the first time I saw this movie. I was attending Brooklyn College and I took a course on The History Of Film. My professor was Forster Hirsch who has written a few books on noir. He spent one class dedicated to the above genre and the picture we viewed was Double Indemnity. It was right after I had seen Murder My Sweet so noir was still something totally new to me. I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed the film. It started my love for older movies that I had previously considered dated or unworthy of my attention. A Wilder masterpiece that I can watch over and over.........M.Roca

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  7. Dave, great stuff here.

    I'd read your review of Double Indemnity when you were doing your yearly countdown, and hence it comes as no surprise that it rates so high in your noir list - and rightly so. Personally, I'd rate Sunset Blvd as Wilder's greatest film, but Double Indemnity might just have been his most classic noir, i.e. where following and edifying the classic noir template goes.

    This also happens to be one of those rare movies that ranks as good as the source material, the fantastic roman noir by James M. Cain. Nearly everything is perfect here, and in Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson we have one of the most iconic femme fatale characters in noir history.

    Ok, the next 6 in your list will hopefully have these movies as you haven't already covered them - The Killers, Out of the Past, In A Lonely Place & Night of the Hunter; but in what order? If you consider Casablanca, too, as a noir, as I do, it should also be somewhere up there. Further, since you have included a couple of movies outside the classic noir era, how about Breathless & Shoot the Piano Player? :)

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  8. Quirky Character - Agreed.

    John - Yes, I know of your love for this film. I think reasonable arguments can be made for at least five different films being Wilder's best. I give the nod to The Apartment, but think Double Indemnity is is best noir.

    Sam - This was certainly a valid contender for #1, but the ones ahead of it are classics as well.

    Quirky Character - I would say Keyes is "good character" but he can also be read as something reviled in U.S. today - the insurance agent who will do anything to keep from paying out money! (LOL)

    Nostromo - The final six should be fun.

    M.Roca - Great story and I agree, I could watch this film any time.

    Shubhajit - I won't spoil anything for you! When all is said and done I'll address some films and why they might not have been included. Your thoughts on Double Indemnity, though, are spot on. Dietrichson really might be the ultimate femme fatale in this one.

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  9. "I was attending Brooklyn College and I took a course on The History Of Film. My professor was Forster Hirsch who has written a few books on noir."

    Wow, Maurizio!! I envy you there as Hirsch has indeed written a seminal volume on noir, and he's made appearances at the Jersey City Loewes over the past few years, speaking at several noir screenings. He is a most engaging guy, but I'm sure you know that well!!!

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  10. Shubhajit: I do not myself consider CASABLANCA as a noir, and really don't expect Dave to include it here. But you've now intrigued me!!! Ha!!!

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  11. Dave, I've never been a huge fan of MacMurray but I've been doing some reading on Melville for my upcoming series, and I came across this part of an interview. It's very interesting...

    Interviewer: You obtain a quality of underplaying from your actors which is particularly evident in Le Doulos.

    Melville: It was an American actor, of course, who invented underplaying: Fred MacMurray. The uncharitable say that this came about because he couldn't act, but it isn't true. Even today, when you see Fred MacMurray's early films, you can't help being astonished by the economy of means with which he achieves his effects. Looking at the films of that period, one can see that it was only after he had shown the way that other actors, Bogart, for instance, tuned to the same pitch. In the American cinema today, James Garner might be considered the great champion of underplaying.

    Interviewer: But he's very bad in Wyler's The Loudest Whisper.

    Melville: Nothing's bad in that film. It's a masterpiece. Your lack of taste appalls me!

    (Apparently they're referring to The Children's Hour, which was released as The Loudest Whisper in parts of Europe.)

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  12. Sam I remember him being very intelligent and a really good professor. Back then I was more into partying and chasing girls then schoolwork or film history. I don't think I ever contributed to any discussions or even truly paid attention. Obviously it had some effect since I did acquire a love for film. I just wish I would of been more involved and been more attentive lol........M.Roca

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  13. Dave, another wonderful pick! This statement reminds me of CARLITO'S WAY:

    "It is also amazing how tense this film at times can be, when considering that from the opening scenes the audience basically knows the conclusion."

    I know that De Palma was heavily influenced by DOUBLE INDEMNITY for his film. And they both achieve this amazing feat of making the audience forget about the ending even though they've already seen it once.

    Great stuff, Dave!

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  14. "Back then I was more into partying and chasing girls then schoolwork or film history."

    LOL Maurizio!!! Didn't we all? Ha!

    Thanks for sharing!

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