Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Billy Wilder's breakthrough Hollywood hit features a lot of things I am prepared to like no questions asked: Wilder himself, one of my favorite directors; a literary property from James M. Cain, my favorite hard-boiled crime fiction writer; and Barbara Stanwyck, one of my favorite actors of the period. It doesn't hurt that Fred MacMurray and Raymond Chandler, both of whom had to be talked into their participation and hand-held through it, are on board this project as well.
A lot of movies from Body Heat to Blade Runner to Breathless get characterized as "film noir," a slippery term for something that doesn't even appear to aspire to genre status, but is rather more like a stylistic overlay. People can be fanatical about it. It typically involves elements such as a stark, expressionistic use of black and white, heavy on the angled shadows; characters who are lost in their own depraved greed and/or lust; a black widow femme fatale that is sure to be the end of everything; and the good old unfeeling universe. Double Indemnity: Check, check, check, and check.
The most interesting thing to me about it is how dependent it is on an endless amount of jawing. Oh sure, there's an elaborate murder and insurance fraud scheme, but it doesn't involve much of anything like set pieces, let alone action. There's visual storytelling going on here, but to carry the burden of narrative momentum it's mostly just MacMurray's jaded voiceover and his snappy dialogue with Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, and others (much of that thanks to Chandler). There's a classic exchange between MacMurray and Stanwyck in the clip at the link.
Nonetheless, somehow I am always figuratively at the edge of my seat and sweating bullets by the time the finish rolls around. The suspense builds inexorably and winds ever tighter as this taut little clockwork moves to its conclusion, which as it happens may be even viscerally darker than in Cain's original novel (which is well worth seeking out). Photographer John F. Seitz is as important as anyone else involved, lending the production a moody and brooding air that is nearly over the top, as in the frequent use of venetian blind shadows to suggest imprisonment and doom, but also a lot of fun to just revel in.
"Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket."
Phil #33: Tirez sur le pianist (Francois Truffaut, 1960) (scroll down)
Steven #33: Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
With these picks I preempted Phil and Steven preempted me—my Do the Right Thing would show up a few places ahead, Phil's Double Indemnity never did. We probably should have expected more duplications, except Steven and I had never heard of one another until a few weeks before this countdown started, when Phil mentioned Steven's name to me and I started going by Steven's blog and yapping away in the comments. So it was all a little bit of a crapshoot anyway. Phil was the one who knew both of us. Maybe that was the reason he withdrew any pick already made by someone else (with, I think, only one exception).
For those prone to view things in such a way (hockey fans, perhaps) this marks approximately the one-third point of the countdown. The best two-thirds is still ahead! Also, I love Double Indemnity like mad and more every time I see it. Did I remember to say that? It should be higher.