Scratching a landmark cinematic classic off my “to review” list today. I first saw Double Indemnity around 6 years ago when I was doing an evening course for Film Studies. You know that course people take to get an easy grade? Yeah, that one. Although I actually took it to pass time in the evening and see if my knowledge was up to scratch. It was, but really anyone who does those courses will likely find that to be true. Annnnnnyway, part of the course focused on Noir thrillers and the Hayes Production Code era, both of which Double Indemnity falls right into. This film opened my mind to just what it was that made these 40s thrillers so good and it set me on my way to falling in love with the genre and discovering a few of my favourite films of all time. Hopefully in reading this review I will help persuade some of you to look through the Venetian blinds into the world of Film Noir. Click the link to take a peek.
Double Indemnity is about an insurance salesman named Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who meets a disgruntled housewife in the form of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwick). After a few flirtatious conversations he discovers that Phyllis may have a few unsavoury ideas in mind for her husband. Phyllis manages to talk Walter into setting up an accident insurance policy on her husband so they might conspire together to kill him, making it look like an accident, and claim the $100,000 at stake. The plan begins to be set into motion and all seems well until Walter’s co-worker Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson) begins to get one of his hunches that all is not what it seems.
Now I won’t be spoiling anything to tell you that this plan does not succeed in the end. This is because, like a lot of Film Noir, the story starts at the end as we see an injured Walter begin recording his confession of just how he came to be slumped in an office chair bleeding from the shoulder. This method of story telling allows the film to be framed in a narrative device that tells you from the start that the story is a bleak one. Back in 1944 this would have been quite unlike the vast majority of Hollywood produced films that leant towards romanticism and happy endings. It’s a framing device that’s been used many times since and is a great method of hooking the viewer in with a mystery from the start. You see an injured man ready to tell a tale and you want to know how he came to be injured and what sordid goings on occurred along the way.
For a Hayes Code era film Double Indemnity pushes a few boundaries. There’s extra martial relationships, cleverly disguised off screen sex and even the general dark tone was something the censor would usually have rallied against. Back then film scripts had to be vetoed for taste and decency. One thing the canny viewer will notice with this film is that what is shown isn’t always what is mentioned. For example, Phyllis visits Walter at his apartment, they hatch a plan, she cries on his shoulder and the scene dissolves back to Walter recording his confession. He says they sat and talked a while. When we come back he is lounged back on his sofa with Phyllis reapplying make-up. What happened between the dissolve is very obvious to the viewers but the script makes no mention of it and the people behind the code were oddly not too smart at reading between the lines. This is a skill that’s been lost in cinema these days. Directors like to tell too much rather than infer and show. Modern films can be too easy to read at times.
The entire film oozes with style and cool. Dialogue has the sort of snappiness to it that Tarantino would love to achieve whilst the sets are lit and shot in a way that utilises light and dark to create texture and mood. I mentioned the use of Venetian blinds for lighting in, I believe, my review of LA Confidential. This is the film that started that trend. By passing the light through a set of bars you get a layered light effect that adds lines of light and dark to pass over the props and the actors as they move about the scene. As the film moves on the lighting gets darker and darker as the blinds begin to close and Walter Neff falls deeper and deeper into the hole he has allowed himself to be dug into. It’s a simple technique of conveying the changes in tone in a film that’s still used a lot today. In fact the last film I reviewed, The Fountain, did the opposite by bringing more light into the shots to gradually represent the main characters passage towards acceptance of his wife’s death. Another key scene where Phyllis is stood behind Walter’s apartment door (Which opens the wrong way it might be noted) as he talks to Keyes about the unravelling case it shot in a manner that suggests a barrier between the two leads with her hand rested on the door handle inches from his suggesting an attempt to reach to him so they can’t be apart.
Performances are what you’d expect from films of this era, especially when it comes to screen legend Edward G Robinson taking control of each scene he is in as Walter’s friend and potential greatest foe. Fred MacMurray was generally cast as the nice guy in his films, you may have seen him in Disney’s The Absent Minded Professor for example. This meant he was a great choice to play Walter Neff. Picking an actor known for playing the good guy makes his gradual decline hit a lot harder. Think about how Bryan Cranston was cast as Walter in Breaking Bad and think about the last role you remember him in before that. It’ll likely be as Malcolm’s Dad in Malcolm In The Middle. That inference that he is a good guy is what makes both of these Walter’s declines work so well. These days, of course, many people wouldn’t know MacMurray’s other works but that doesn’t stop his fall from grace from working at all. As for Barbara Stanwick she plays Phyllis Dietrichson in a way that makes you know from the start that she isn’t all good. You can see how she is working Walter from not long after meeting him. As if the idea comes to her in their first meeting and she’s got the cogs spinning in her mind as to how to go about her plan. She flirts a little and arranges a second chance to meet making sure he’s a little hooked so she can call on him when needed. Towards the end of the film you begin to learn how far her evil can spread and she shifts a little in tone towards becoming an adversary for Walter to overcome. But even in her final scenes she tries laying on the charm, or maybe she’s telling the truth.
Double Indemnity is a multilayered smartly written piece of Noir thriller fun. It laid the groundwork for some many films to follow such as Touch Of Evil, Chinatown and even Blade Runner. Director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, who actually makes his only on film appearance in this flick, weave a story that will hook you and make you wish the finality of the story presented at the films open was somehow a bluff. It’s shot in a highly stylised fashion that influenced not just other film makers but future comic book artists such as Frank Miller. Double Indemnity is one of the most important films in the history of film making and deserves to be required viewing for all.