The sun shines through the cheap plastic blinds highlighting my face like the spotlights in a police interrogation room. My mind races to find the right words before the sun rises further in its fatalistic elliptical around this floating chunk of rock we call home and my suspect brain loses the details of the lurid tale I witnessed the evening before. Who am I kidding? No passing of the sun will erase the blood-soaked memories of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Like a gunshot in the dark or a fatal fall off a moving train, there are some things you just don’t forget. It’s been years since the shady Mr. Wilder and I crossed paths. Last time around, he was peddling his story of Hollywood depravity and faded glory days, Sunset Boulevard. I was just a young gumshoe then, still learning the ins and outs of this crazy world of movies, and I didn’t appreciate the eerie eye Wilder had for capturing the essence ofnoir. I’ve worked a few cases, seen hundreds of crimes since then though, and maybe it was fate, maybe it was destiny, but the time was finally ripe for Billy Wilder and I to meet again as he and Raymond Chandler constructed a tale of murder, infidelity, and betrayal.
Imagine a middle-aged insurance salesman. We’ll call him Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). He’s one of the best in the game. He could sell automobile insurance to the Amish. Everybody in the office loves him, even the wily and hard-nosed claims inspector Barton Keyes (Little Caesar‘s Edward G. Robinson) who can spot a phony insurance claim a mile away. Take a second to also imagine a the most gorgeous but dangerous woman you’ve ever met. She’s the type of dame that could bring down kings or presidents. Let’s call her Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and maybe it’s the months old scotch I just downed, but it’s safe to say the word “femme fatale” was created to describe her. Now imagine that the fates bring these two souls together. Walter shows up at the Dietrichson home to sell Phyllis’ husband insurance but gets drawn into a scheme that could put him and Phyllis on a one-way trip to the electric chair. The simmering sexuality that Phyllis radiates is more than Walter can overcome, and he agrees to help Phyllis kill her husband so they can collect the claim on his accident insurance which will pay off double indemnity if he dies in a train accident. Walter and Phyllis plan and pull off what they believe to be the perfect crime, but it’s not too long before Barton Keyes smells a rat in their nest of rats and their plan starts to fall apart.
If you couldn’t tell, I was trying to write my review of this excellent film as if it were the inner monologue of a film noir protagonist which is to say full of intentionally cheesy and melodramatic pulp fiction (as in the genre not the Tarantino film) dialogue. However, that was fine for the opening paragraph and my plot description. I’m not sure I could have accomplished that while trying to discuss the technical aspects of the film like acting and writing. Well, a better writer probably could but I still need to review the final disc of the first season of Angel so I don’t have the time to put that much thought into it. Fred MacMurray wasn’t particularly impressive. His whole performance just felt very restrained and I had trouble believing the paranoia and guilt that he was supposed to be succumbing too. I would have also had trouble buying his “seduction” of Phyllis but she only wanted him to think she seduced him since it was actually her seducing him. However, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson were great in their roles. While I’d never seen this film before, I knew it was one of the archetypal film noir films that set the standards for a lot of the genre pictures to follow. And if Barbara Stanwyck’s performance wasn’t the standard for all of the femme fatales to follow, I don’t know what was. She oozed a darker sexuality. She could simultaneously play the vulnerable damsel than switch to the scheming Lady MacBeth at the flip of a hat. Similarly, as the fast talking and quick thinking Barton Keyes, Edward G. Robinson channeled the intelligence and single-minded determination that made Barton such an effective claims inspector.
This was film noir before film noir even existed as a discrete genre of film. I might not be willing to say that this film is as great as The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca (which the former is certainly noir while the latter vaguely fits in the genre), but it’s one of those rare classic dramas that I think is deserving of the title “classic.” This film spent eight years gestating at the script phase before the Hollywood censor office would let it be made. The Hays Code (which determined very specific rules about what type of content could be released in a Hollywood film [and their standards were unbelievably strict]) rejected countless versions of this film as being too “disgusting” and “offensive” to all contemporary senses of moral decency. So, it’s a miracle that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler were still able to fit so many double entendres and implications of violence and sexuality into the film. I’m really curious what the original script could have looked like (I imagine it more closely resembled James M. Cain’s original novel). A lot of films that help to create entire genres of film often seem dated and cliched when you see them after watching plenty of other genre films, but Double Indemnity managed to seem as fresh and exciting in 2012 as it did when it was first released 68 years ago.
I could go on at length about the gorgeous black and white cinematography (and how the film’s use of shadow set the standard for all film noir films to come) but I’m hungry, and I want to eat lunch. So, let me close this review out by saying that while I might not quite consider this to be an “A+” film, it’s still one of the best film noir that I’ve ever seen. For all fans of classic dramas and film noir, this is about as easy a sell as you can get. Anyone reading my blog that is capable of appreciating classic cinema should watch this. It might not be perfect (mostly because of Fred MacMurray) but it comes pretty damn close. I’m now able to get excited about the rest of the Billy Wilder films that are on my list for this blog. Considering he’s one of the most celebrated and beloved Hollywood directors of all time, there are going to be a lot of his films before I’m done here.
Final Score: A