Friday, March 08, 2019

Double Indemnity (1944)

USA, 107 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain
Photography: John F. Seitz
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Editors: Doane Harrison, Lee Hall
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Tom Powers, Jean Heather, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Porter Hall, Raymond Chandler

Because the influence of Double Indemnity was instantly and enduringly so pervasive—it's tempting to make the case that it's ground zero for all film noir, The Maltese Falcon notwithstanding—I'm always surprised to learn how hard it was to get made. But we must remember that Double Indemnity is, after all, the tale of an adulteress and a fornicator plotting foul murder. It's downbeat to blackest hell, which makes it an unusual wartime project. And cowriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler couldn't stand each other. Chandler didn't understand screenplay writing (the more seasoned Howard Hawks knew all that mattered was getting Chandler's name in the credits, ditto for that matter William Faulkner) and Wilder couldn't write without a partner. In the fray, according to legend, Chandler sent the studio heads an indignant letter complaining that Wilder wore Chandler's hat without permission in writing sessions. Chandler thought he had licked drinking but now he started again. Wilder took his revenge by making his next picture, The Lost Weekend, transparently about Chandler.

Double Indemnity is where we see how Billy Wilder knew how to put together a picture: holding his nose to work with Chandler in order to get those sparkling wonderful weird overblown dialogue interludes ("There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour." "How fast was I going, officer?" "I'd say around ninety." "Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket." "Suppose I let you off with a warning this time." "Suppose it doesn't take." "Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles." "Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder." "Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder." "That tears it"), laboring to build a perfect cast our of nervous all-American pros headed by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, with Edward G. Robinson in a supporting role, letting DP John F. Seitz loose to shoot as dark as he wanted and no stinting on the venetian blind shadows putting the guilty behind bars (which we must also remember were relatively new and are still spectacular in Double Indemnity), picking out the wig and sunglasses for Stanwyck, glad-handing censors on all sides and slipping in the juice with astonishing subtlety, resorting to Hitchcock-like grinding suspense techniques in numerous places (what? the car won't start?!), stripping it all down to essentials so it ends on a knockout punch of an image. Even Miklos Rosza's musical theme is perfect, noble, tragic, used frugally yet nagging like grief.

For me, the great revelation of Double Indemnity tends to be Fred MacMurray as insurance salesman Walter Neff. He's not only playing against type—obviously MacMurray's ridiculous instincts proved out in the direction of Flubber movies and My Three Sons—he's not only playing against type but doing so perfectly. In the frame story for the picture, which provides the voiceover narration (another point where Double Indemnity can claim a certain level of influence, for better or worse), Walter Neff is dying, bleeding out from gunshot wounds. That's another innovation—no twist endings here, he's done for from the first. The guilty must pay and they do and right away (see also Wilder's Sunset Blvd.). Neff is delivering his confession into an office recording device, and MacMurray's voice and visage are like granite, barely animated, as he lays out the time-shifted moral of all film noir to insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson): "I killed him for money ... and for a woman. And I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman."

Speaking of Keyes, another aspect of Double Indemnity I like better all the time is the love story. That is, between Keyes and Neff, who toil side by side in the insurance vineyards. Nearly everyone else is a rotten self-serving rat. But Keyes and Neff have a genuinely good thing. It's not a gay thing at all (yes, you have to ask the question in a movie from 1944 this full of censor-dodging signifiers), but more like what we call now a bro or buddy thing. These two like and respect each other, a bit warily of course. Keyes is not old enough for it to have father and son dynamics, but he's too old for it to be like brothers. It's just in that awkward place where a lot of friendships can paradoxically flourish. Keyes is brilliant at what he does—Robinson makes sure of that in the performance, where he gets many small and surprisingly entertaining soliloquies about insurance statistics—and Neff is obviously no slouch at learning from him. Neff feels terrible about his betrayal of Keyes. One of the most effective recurring lines between them is, "I love you too."

It's another outstanding performance from Stanwyck, who drives the wig, sunglasses, and an anklet like limousines. I'll know better as I go along with my Movie of the Year project, but at the moment Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis are my #1 and #2 of all Hollywood performers in the '30s and '40s (all performers, not just women ... I'm not even sure at the moment who my #1 man would be). They are good in nearly everything I've seen with them, they are prolific, and they have incredible range. Stanwyck's performance here is one of the purest distillations of the femme fatale that there is. Stanwyck's Mrs. Dietrichson—as she is most often addressed in the movie—is bad to the molecule. Unlike Neff, there is not one shred of her that isn't bad. Or, as they put it themselves: "We're both rotten," she says. "Only you're a little more rotten," he says. It may be that 1944 was generally a weak year for the movies (the entire country evidently busy with something else), but Double Indemnity remains one of the greatest ever made.

Top 10 of 1944
1. Double Indemnity
2. This Happy Breed
3. The Woman in the Window
4. A Canterbury Tale
5. Mr. Skeffington
6. The Children Are Watching Us
7. Meet Me in St. Louis
8. The Curse of the Cat People
9. Gaslight
10. Arsenic and Old Lace


  1. I'd never seen "Double Indemnity" until recent years, but it's rapidly become one of my very favorite movies, for all the qualities you've identified so incisively. My initial acquaintance with Fred MacMurray was watching "My Three Sons" when I was in high school, and I'd thought, "God, this father-knows-beige MacMurray plays makes Ward Cleaver look like a bohemian!" So I've been bowled over in my mature life with amazement at how perfectly Fred had earlier essayed the 90%-corrupted heavies in both "Double Indemnity" and Wilder's later "The Apartment". Your note of Edward G. Robinson's "many small and surprisingly entertaining soliloquies about insurance statistics" in his role as Barton Keyes hits peak double identity for me, I love those declamations, especially when he reveals that he has statistics on all the methods of suicide, including "under the feet of horses"(!) -- I doubt if that version was still in vogue at the time, but Keyes was ready for it in any event.

    Regarding your impression that "Double Indemnity" is so downbeat it's amazing it got made right in the middle of the American war effort, it's actually a "period" film, mysteriously set in only-yesterday 1938, even to the point of having Walter Neff drive a '38 Dodge and Phyllis Dietrichson a similar-vintage LaSalle, so that no newer-model cars might betray the chronology. I'm not sure why a 1938 setting was chosen -- James M. Cain's source novel was published in 1943, but had earlier been serialized, in the late '30s, so maybe that creation myth was kept intact. But I think you may be on to something, in that the movie's plot couldn't have been so darkly intense if it had to admit there was a bigger war going on elsewhere; note that the train Walter hops on and off isn't filled with soldiers as those in so many other movies made in the '40s. However it was spun, a great movie happened.

    -- Richard Riegel

  2. I thought Robinson kind of stole the show a bit in this one. Also liked him in Scarlet Street. I know he played leads too but he sort of defines for me the idea of a character actor. I only know for sure one other title on your list, Arsenic & Old Lace, so I'm slacking on 1944. Thanks for the list.