Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Double Indemnity

Year: 1944
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 29
Writer: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler
Director: Raymond Chandler
Star: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson

The dame. The dialogue. The gun. The descent. The Venetian blinds.

If I had to choose one movie that defines the film noir genre, it would be “Double Indemnity.” The film breathes bleakness. It has the best femme fatale (sorry Kathleen Turner) ever to grace a staircase. The script is the most literate, quotable noir ever (sorry Robert Towne) and the movie’s direction is beautiful in its shadows and specters.

This was Billy Wilder’s gift. Over his long career, he worked within almost every major film genre (even ones, like noir, which had yet to be defined as such) and in doing so brought those genres to their pinnacle. He completely understood his subject matter, and his work rarely judged, reinvented or deconstructed—instead he just polished the conventions until they gleamed. “Double Indemnity.” “Sabrina.” “Sunset Blvd.” “The Seven Year Itch.” “Witness for the Prosecution.” “The Apartment.” “Love in the Afternoon.” In fact, his few missteps were when he did deconstruct the genres he was working within, as with “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” or “Fedora.”

Wilder wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe novels are masterpieces of style over substance. I’m guessing Wilder brought the structure and morals (okay, lack of morals) to the table while Chandler focused on dialogue and characterization. The result is just about perfect.

The story focuses on an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) named Walter Neff (“with two f’s, just like Philadelphia”). Neff seems like a normal Joe who knows how to light matches in a really, really cool way. The moment he sets eyes on Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) wrapped in a towel on top of a staircase, he’s doomed. There’s a lot of foreplay, the kind that makes you all sweaty without any physical contact, and soon Neff is Phyllis’ willing toy. She wants to murder her husband and collect his accident insurance, and Neff is more than willing to help. Complicating matters is Neff’s best (only?) friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who is his boss at work but also his moral compass. Keyes smells something wrong with the murder, but just can’t put his finger on it, and Neff is right when he concludes that Keyes was just too close to the case.

Neff and Phyllis circle each other beautifully as they wait for the perfect moment to finally be together. There’s no sex in the relationship—instead they make love to one another through beautifully constructed phrases and small gestures. They say they love each other, but you have to wonder if either of them really believe it. To me, they could care less about one another, but the idea of working together and getting away with being very, very bad people is the major turn on. They need one another in that way, and without the other all that is left is an empty shell. Look at a small moment in a grocery store, where Neff leaves and Wilder linger his camera on Phyllis for a few seconds at the end of the scene. While Neff was there her eyes were filled with fire and passion, but the moment he steps out of frame Phyllis’ eyes go completely dead. It’s unnerving.

Though MacMurray is billed first in the credits, this is Stanwyck’s movie. MacMurray is very good in the role, but can afford to be a bit wooden (the role calls for this so it’s not a shortcoming) because of the voice-over narration throughout. Stanwyck must use every line, every gesture, to get her allure and venomous nature across. She uses all those glorious inches of her beautifully curvy body as she approaches MacMurray after fixing him a drink. After three or four lines, it’s easy to understand exactly why Neff would break a man’s neck for her. She’s the ultimate femme fatale. Her later performance in Fritz Lang’s underrated noir masterpiece “Clash By Night” is a beautiful companion piece to “Double Indemnity.” In “Clash By Night,” she is a femme fatale desperately trying to go straight in a world filled with oily men trying to bring out her wicked side.

Keyes is one of the best of all Noir foils because of his friendship with Neff. He never wavers and never questions Neff’s honesty—he simply believes his friend is a good person and nothing will sway that, even though the evidence keeps stacking up against Neff. What makes the role even juicier is that Keyes is such a swift, perfect judge of character. At one point Keyes overhears Neff’s half of a phone call between him and Phyllis. Neff chooses his words wisely so as not to incriminate himself and yet, as soon as he gets off the phone, Keyes already understands the caller’s character: “I bet she drinks from the bottle.” This is one of Robinson’s best performances in a career of “best performances,” and it’s because he has such a gift for showing humanity in the characters he plays even though his exterior seems to contradict this.

The three characters play their life-and-death game of chess in drawing rooms and offices overflowing with shadows, reflections and unease. The Italian-style home Phyllis lives in only seems beautiful upon first glance in the full sunlight. Once inside it seems imposing, almost sinister. And the dread-filled insurance office we see in the opening moments of the film still seems creepy during daylight hours because we know the blood trails will be there sooner rather than later.

Wilder shoots these locations in lingering, long takes. He doesn’t throw in too many close-ups, instead letting the dialogue flow through the rooms and scenes. He works hard to not show off too much, though he starts us off with a doozy of a long take that introduces us to a lobby, elevator and then a two-story office. Wilder knows that the stars here are not the spaces and atmosphere (though they add a lot), but the words and the people.

It would seem upon first glance that “Double Indemnity” is one of the bleakest film noirs. The anti-heroes succeed in the murder they plotted. The “hero” is caught and will be hanged. The “heroine” is brutally shot by the “hero” after declaring her love for him. And yet it doesn’t feel depressing. The exchanges between MacMurray and Robinson in those final moments manage to redeem Neff’s character in a way seeing him die never could. Thanks for that, Edward G. Robinson. I love you too.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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