Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Double Indemnity (1944)

Last January I made a list of 10 classic films I've not yet seen, with the goal of trying to catch them in 2011. So far I've just crossed one title off the list, SHANE (1953), but there's still plenty of time to check off a few more titles! Tonight I made further progress, checking Unseen Classic No. 2 off my list.

It happens that three of the films on my list star Barbara Stanwyck, and two were directed by Billy Wilder. They teamed up for DOUBLE INDEMNITY, which I watched for the first time this evening.

Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote the DOUBLE INDEMNITY script based on the novel by James M. Cain, who seems to have favored stories of bad marriages and murder, inasmuch as he also wrote THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and MILDRED PIERCE.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is the tawdry tale of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who falls hard for Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) and her ankle bracelet. Almost before the viewer can blink, Walter is carrying out Phyllis's fondest wishes, bumping off her husband (Tom Powers) so she can rake in a bunch of insurance money. Of course, Walter envisions his own future will be spent enjoying both Phyllis and her small fortune.

The course of true love -- or at least powerful attraction -- never did run smooth, and Walter quickly finds that his "perfect murder" is falling apart, particularly with his claims examiner colleague, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), edging closer and closer to solving the crime.

Needless to say, DOUBLE INDEMNITY was a really interesting movie with much to recommend it. My initial reaction was that I admired the film but didn't love it; it's simultaneously bleak and beautiful, and on a first viewing the sheer darkness of the unsavory characters threatened to overwhelm at times.

I have the feeling, however, that this film might grow on me on repeat viewings. I really liked the way the story was framed, with Neff confessing to the murder in the first minutes of the film, as that helped to diffuse some of the tension so I could pay more attention to the story. (I'm one of those "always read the ending first" people who enjoys a book or film more when I know where it's going and can relax and take in the details.) Even with that clever framing device, it was a very tense film -- isn't it crazy that the viewer feels nervous for the lead characters when they are in the car after carrying out the crime? -- and I think I'll find it more enjoyable seeing it the second time.

Indeed, I find the film is growing on me after the fact, as I've enjoyed thinking back on it for this post. Although I wasn't completely sold on the film due to the dark plot, it's a rich, superbly made film with much to analyze and explore. It's impossible not to admire the sheer artistry of the studio system operating on all cylinders, with every element of the film perfectly executed. (I feel as though there's an unintentional pun in there, but I'll leave it alone!)

The aspect of the film I enjoyed the most wasn't the clever dialogue or even the spot-on performances -- what I really loved was the glorious black and white cinematography by John Seitz. I was very much caught up in the story, but I actually rewound once or twice just to take another look at the amazing shadows on the walls! Although this was an "A" picture and its dark scenes weren't due to budget constraints, as was the case with some noir titles, it's an exquisite example of the film noir "look." Shadows, fedoras, rainy streets, a seductive femme fatale, Los Angeles location shooting -- it's all there on the screen in gleaming black and white. The film is a visual work of art.

I was surprised that the Oscar-nominated Seitz didn't win the Best Black and White Cinematography award for DOUBLE INDEMNITY -- until I saw that year's winner was Joseph LaShelle for LAURA! The other nominees for black and white cinematography included Charles Lang for THE UNINVITED and Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes for SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. Any one of those titles would have been a worthy winner. Those were the days.

I found MacMurray's Walter Neff a particularly interesting character. He's a cocky type who is a good salesman, yet if one digs deeper, where has that gotten him, at the age of 35? Sure, he's not one of the worker bees in the cavernous insurance office -- what a fabulous set! -- but he doesn't have his own office, either. In fact, his best option, if he takes up Keyes' offer to move to examining claims, will require a salary cut. Walter lives in a so-so apartment (with a noticeably strange front door), and aside from Keyes, he doesn't seem to have any valued personal relationships, let alone a girlfriend, wife, or kids. He's thus a believable sitting duck when a woman wrapped in a towel comes on to him. (And as an aside, this film certainly proves that filmmakers don't need to show anything explicit to create a steamy mood.) I'd be fascinated to know more about how Wilder and MacMurray approached Neff's back story and motivations.

Stanwyck, of course, was also excellent, wearing a tacky blonde wig. The gradual reveal of her true character is extremely well done. Both MacMurray and Stanwyck took career risks playing such unsavory types, but it definitely paid off; Stanwyck, in fact, received one of the film's several Oscar nominations, while MacMurray and Robinson were unfortunately ignored by the Academy.

MacMurray and Stanwyck previously costarred in REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), a Christmas film which has been rediscovered by film fans in recent years thanks in large part to Turner Classic Movies. In the '50s they teamed again in THE MOONLIGHTER (1953) and THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956).

Robinson was wonderful as Keyes, and I especially liked the ultimate payoff with the "lighting the match" routine Keyes shares with Neff. Keyes himself has never married, and Neff seems to be something of a son figure for the older man. The final scene between Keyes and Neff was downright touching. Charles Tranberg's biography includes a photo of a scene with Robinson watching MacMurray go to the gas chamber, and I'm very glad that wasn't included in the film. The ending that was used is much more effective.

I'd like to know more about Jean Heather, who plays Stanwyck's stepdaughter Lola. Heather appeared in eight films between 1944 and 1949, then vanished from the screen. One of her films, the wacky comedy MURDER, HE SAYS (1945), also starred MacMurray. I especially liked MacMurray and Heather's scene on the hill with the Hollywood Bowl back projected in the distance.

Lola's relationship with hotheaded, unpleasant Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) was curious. They seem to be a future domestic violence situation just waiting to happen! Was Lola unconsciously choosing to pair up with someone as unpleasant as her dear old dad?

One of the film's strong points is its use of Los Angeles locations. A couple years ago the Los Angeles Times ran an interesting article on the home featured in the film, which includes a photo gallery. And over at Dear Old Hollywood, Robby has a photo-filled post on the film's locations. He includes the address of the "Dietrichson" house; it's tempting to drive past it on a future trip to the L.A. area.

The supporting cast included Porter Hall and Fortunio Bonanova. Watch for Hollywood's most famous bit player and extra, Bess Flowers, as a secretary; this was one of over 800 credits Flowers accumulated in a career which spanned half a century.

Miklos Rozsa composed the effective score, which received another of the film's Oscar nominations. DOUBLE INDEMNITY was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.

The film runs an hour and 47 minutes.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY has been released in a beautiful two-disc DVD set, which also includes a 1973 TV remake and two separate commentary tracks.

It's previously been released on VHS.

Finally, the film has been shown on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available on the TCM website.

2022 Update: DOUBLE INDEMNITY has been released on Blu-ray by the Critetion Collection.  


Blogger barrylane said...

No murder takes place in the Cain novel Mildred Pierce. That is an invention of WB. The film's story is pretty good. The novel much, much stronger. And without the murder.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for sharing that info! One never knows what Hollywood will add or subtract. :) When I'm in the mood for some dark reading, I'll have to catch up with Mr. Cain! It's always interesting to compare books to the film versions.

Best wishes,

11:57 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

When it comes to film noir I live by the dictum that if "Double Indemnity" doesn't work, then none of them do. "Double Indemnity" works. Happy list chopping!

1:05 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's a great philosophy, Caftan Woman, and thanks for the good wishes on chopping my list!

During lunch I watched the Special Edition DVD featurette, which is fantastic, particularly as there are extensive comments by two of my favorite film historians, Eddie Muller and Drew Casper. Muller's almost gleeful description of the perfection of certain elements of the film makes me appreciate it even more. :)

Best wishes,

1:09 PM  
Blogger Kelli Marshall said...

"I admired the film but didn't love it." Oh dear! I hope it does grow on you with another screening or two. As I wrote to you on Twitter, it is without a doubt my favorite film noir. =) And you're right: the cinematography is fantastic. Thanks for your write-up!

PS. Have you seen Body Heat (1984)? If so, perhaps you'll appreciate my post on it and Double Indemnity. You'll never guess which one I find sexier -- okay, maybe you will:

1:33 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Kelli!

I did see BODY HEAT, a long-ago Blockbuster rental. :) I'll be sure to check out your post, many thanks for the link!

Thanks much for reading my post and leaving your thoughts -- it's great hearing from the film's many enthusiastic fans!

Best wishes,

1:36 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

Glad you finally got to see this one, Laura. I think its a corker and holds up beautifully today.

Fred MacMurray was never better than he was being directed by Wilder, be it here or in "The Apartment."

I always get a kick out of the scene where Robinson explains how it couldn't be suicide, but a tragic a accident.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Great review and background. Bess Flowers slipped by me.

I love that quality Fred MacMurray has of being a little creepy and underhanded, but sympathetic at the same time. He walks that line of having a conscience and disregarding it when it serves him. I love Stanwyck, but we pretty much have her figured out in this movie, even if Fred doesn't. It's Fred's downward spiral that is more fascinating, especially when we hear his narration.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Kevin and Jacqueline! I so agree about MacMurray. I'm going to have to see THE APARTMENT now. Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD is on my current "Unseen Classics" list -- I seem to have delayed seeing some of the more cynical movies he made, LOL.

I always get a kick out of seeing Bess Flowers' face pop up, in this case as a secretary opening a door -- I wonder how many nightclub and party scenes she appeared in? Those alone must constitute a few hundred entries on her filmography.

Best wishes,

3:14 PM  
Blogger DorianTB said...

Laura, I loved your spellbinding, lovingly detailed review of one of my favorite movies of all time, DOUBLE INDEMNITY! I especially appreciated your musings about Dietrichson's daughter Lola, and her relationship with that jerk Nino Zachetti. I absolutely agree that, as you put it so well, their relationship "seem(ed) to be a future domestic violence situation just waiting to happen!" I'd say Nino and Lola were both sitting on some pretty major issues!

As a matter of fact, if you don't mind my tooting my own horn for just a moment, my own blog post with my own take on DOUBLE INDEMNITY was nominated for a CiMBA Award! :-) But your take on it was truly impressive. BRAVA, Laura!

5:01 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much for your extremely kind words, Dorian! I'm glad you enjoyed my post. I really wanted to know more about Lola and Nino -- what on earth was going on there! (Grin)

I'm so glad you mentioned your post on DOUBLE INDEMNITY, the more posts the merrier! I'm sure others will want to read it too, so I hope readers will head here to check it out. I'm looking forward to reading it myself -- congratulations on your nomination!!!

Best wishes,

5:08 PM  
Blogger DorianTB said...

Laura, I'm delighted and grateful for the link you kindly provided for my DOUBLE INDEMNITY blog post! I hope you'll enjoy it. Thanks ever so much!

5:10 AM  

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