Reviews Aug 03 2008 @ 06:00 am
Directed By: Billy Wilder
Written By: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler from a novella by James M. Cain
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Running Time: 107 minutes
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity takes us back to a time with which most of us aren’t familiar; a time when long conversations were recorded over a Dictaphone, and when stressed-out businessmen could go to drive-in bars and order a beer on a sticky summer evening. Lost in its dark atmosphere and snappy (yet organic) repartee, these strange little details of a culture gone by pass under our modern radar as we’re pulled in by this dark piece of 40s moviemaking. Not only is it quick on its feet and very entertaining, but Double Indemnity sparked an ideological shift for American film audiences: it introduced them to the dark, the uncertain, and the unthought-of fact that murder sometimes does smell like honeysuckle.
It’s a dry evening in Los Angeles when a dark figure wearing a trench darkens the door of The Pacific All Life Insurance Company, proceeds up the elevator, and into his office. Behind the closed door, we’re introduced to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) an insurance salesman finding himself caught in a web of murderous jealousy at the hands of a conniving femme fatale — a story we’re all too interested to hear as he confesses to his boss over the Dictaphone.
The whole affair started one day during one of Neff’s routine house calls. Hoping for a meeting with the master of the house, Neff crosses paths with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of his client, and is immediately wooed. But listen closely when she says, “Could I get an insurance policy for [my husband] without bothering him at all?” The murderous gears of her mind are whirring and Neff knows it.
But he’s still taken with her even after it becomes clear she wants to murder her husband after purchasing accident insurance behind his back. Neff’s prurient passion gets the best of him as he goes along with Ms. Dietrichson’s every whim. Barbara Stanwyck’s role in Double Indemnity defines what would be the future of the femme fatale. She’s the ultimate schemer … the tried and true conniving hellcat who all kinds of men fall for against their better judgment. Many times we have to wonder when the sexual tension between her and Neff will erupt into something likely to make The Hays Office blush. For example:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.
Not only is this exchange quick, impeccably delivered, and loaded with innuendo, but it crackles with a wanton angst present all through Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s script. Chandler was no stranger to the crime genre and, along with Dashiell Hammett, honed what is now our perception of the private detective. For an author who very much worked a redemptive element into his storylines (see the last two paragraphs of his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” for proof), Double Indemnity seems like a strange shoe for Chandler to wear, but one that fits perfectly in this framework.
In a different scenario, MacMurray’s Neff would seem like the quintessential straight man with his handsome (yet slightly wary) face and quick voice. But all through the narration and as the film progresses, his matter-of-fact way of speaking gives way to the tremulous anxiety boiling beneath the surface. Eventually he becomes just as calculating as the femme fatale when his libidinous intentions evolve into jealousy and rage after discovering he’s been played like a piano. Phyllis Dietrichson never really did have affection for him and has gone through every word she’s ever said to Neff in her head before saying it. The prospect of murdering her husband in order to collect his fortune certainly wasn’t a whim that came to mind on an afternoon when the air smelled of honeysuckle.
Having been raised on squeaky clean 60s Disney “classics” like The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor, seeing Fred MacMurray as a lustful insurance salesman with murder on his mind was a bit unsettling at first. After viewing the finished cut of Double Indemnity, MacMurray joined Paramount and The Hays Office in trying to block the film from being distributed. It begs a question: was Double Indemnity tweaked in the editing room into a darker film than the script suggested? No wonder audiences were taken aback because even the publicity photos make Wilder’s film look like a happy comedy. Is it any wonder MacMurray’s career would move on to “safe” dramas and Disney comedies?
In 1944, introducing the perpetrator of a movie’s major crime during the first 5 minutes of a film was unheard of. Hearing him narrate the whole affair with a tone of voice almost ringing with pride probably came as an even bigger shock … but not for long.
After Double Indemnity, film noir would no longer be ruled by the cheerless gumshoe or the crime-fighting lone wolf of films like The Maltese Falcon, but by thugs, murderers, bad cops, and corrupt politicians. The same studios that produced those iconic, life-affirming musical comedies of the 30s would start turning out dark dramas like a snack factory, giving way to a climate of artists focusing their work on the depraved darkness of a corrupt society. Although dark periods of cinematic culture come and go in spurts, our current cinema owes an awful lot to Billy Wilder and his groundbreaking noir masterpiece.