Double Indemnity (1944)
Passed. It studied for its final exams all night. It was touch and go there for a while, but then it really hunkered down and passed. The movie has violence. I mean, it is about a murder. The protagonist, as part of the framing narrative, is technically bleeding out for the entirety of the film. There's adultery and cruelty. But it's a film noir. We're meant to delve into the darkest elements of men's minds. That means that housewives feel free to greet guests only wearing a towel and an anklet. Regardless, it passed.
DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder
The Oscars are only days away and here I am, writing about another entry for my film noir class. Don't be mad. It's Double Indemnity. I'll always look for an excuse to gush over Billy Wilder. Do you know how excited I get when I see that Billy Wilder directed something I'm about to watch. In this case, I owned this movie ahead of time. (I'm probably the best audience to take a film noir class when I've already seen or own the majority of the films on the syllabus.) In this case, I also had to read the novel it was based on, so I do have some new takeaways. The only bummer about writing a thing on Double Indemnity is that I've talked about this movie for hours in class. The point of this blog was to talk about movies because people don't really talk to me about movies. This is almost excessive and I'll probably end up stealing other people's insights. Regardless, you have been warned.
A lot of the reason why Double Indemnity works is because of Billy Wilder. (I told you I was going to do this. Why are you shocked that I'm doing this?) Wilder seems to elevate anything he touches. We have had all these discussions in class how there's a lot of elements that make film noir and none of them seem to be rules that must be adhered to. Again, this is a whole discussion point in themselves. But one thing that never really gets discussed is that, as character focused as people claim these movies to be, they are really plot heavy. Part of it is that many of these movies tend to have really intense detective-style mysteries behind them. Sometimes, it's from the perspective of a detective, but in this case it is the criminal. Neff's big mystery is "what do other people know?" I know, I'm really stacking the deck for "mystery" in my favor, but I think a similar part of the brain is being activated.
Double Indemnity really works well as a story in itself. But I want to stress that it would be very easy to just shoot the story and not worry about the details of the imagery. I know a bunch of the techniques used to convey meaning throughout the film, but that's not the point of my writing. I suppose I'm not here to inform, but to analyse and critique. Wilder doesn't allow this to be just another adapted pulp novel. I wrote about Kiss of Death last week. Kiss of Death was a rush job. I know that a lot of the film noirs of this era tended to be the second film of the set to save money. But there's nothing really cheap about Double Indemnity. It feels like the A film on the docket and it really illustrates what can be done with the subgenre that is film noir. The acting is just top notch. My wife wasn't exactly floored by Barbara Stanwyck in the way that she was the first time that she watched this movie. But both MacMurray and Stanwyck are crushing every scene together.
But the real takeaway is Edward G. Robinson. I can't help but make the comparison to Joe Pesci in The Irishman. In my head, Pesci and Robinson are both character actors. They present something very specific in most of their films and they tend to get typecast as one thing. In both Irishman and Double Indemnity, both Pesci and Robinson are recognizable as their performance styles. But there's something important that is added to both of their performances. Robinson is still the same voice that I'm used to hearing in things like Little Caesar, but there's something restrained about it. I'm not used to seeing him on the side of angels (which it can be debated whether or not he actually is on the side of angels for the sake of argument). But seeing this character who is able to do these ups and downs. There's something really vulnerable about the character that I absolutely adore. Every time that I watch Double Indemnity, I see something different in that role.
I want to leave the plot in a separate compartment because the only thing I can really say about it is that it is brilliant. I don't know if I like the book or the movie better, but that's not a bad predicament to be in. Instead, I want to focus on how these characters breathe within a narrative that is so tight. Neff, as a character, kind of confuses me. If the French were obsessed with the moral ambiguity of film noir anti-heroes, Neff might take the cake for many of his choices. Neff is a sleaze, but he's a guy who is all around liked. I mean, if you were going to make a case for male toxicity in the 1940s, Walter Neff might take your number one spot. He is sold to the audience as a good guy turned bad early on, but he instantly puts the moves on a client because she's attractive. I know that I'm sitting pretty in 2020 and commenting on the societal politics of yesteryear, but I do love how the insurance business is teased as being morally bankrupt to a certain extent. Keyes may be halfway decent, but Neff is successful because he embraces the moral dubiousness of his profession.
But even for Neff, the decision to kill a client is a big jump. I'm fighting the script despite the fact that I think it is perfect. There's something otherworldly about the world of film noir and Hollywood and that's what I'm dancing around. Neff is an arrogant jerk. But he's an arrogant jerk because he's a big fish in a little pond. He knows that he's better than everyone but Keyes, but Keyes is a different kind of fish anyway so it doesn't matter. Why would he put everything at stake to prove a theory about a perfect murder correct? Perhaps it is because he is so prideful that he is willing to throw away his old world and adopt the world of crime. I would blame Phyllis, but I hate blaming the femme fatale for the male's choices. I know that the 1940s want me to blame Phyllis. A lot of the movie points fingers at her, but he's a grown man.
The pictures in his room give me the indication that he likes the sport of it all. If insurance sales is his career because he enjoys the sport of it all, perhaps the perfect murder is part of the same game. He treats the entire thing as a very serious game. It's all about planning. Like Hitchcock and his movies, he derives joy from the planning, not the execution. There doesn't seem to be anything really fun for him while he's actually committing these crimes. Rather, those images of '30s style boxers might be an indication that it's about a sense of competition. I don't quite know who he's competing with. One part of me wants to take the cheap way out and claim that he's fighting society. The other easy answer is Keyes.
Keyes is the example of genius in this film. He's the Sherlock Holmes. He always gets his man and it just comes to him. Even though Neff and Keyes are friends, there seems to be this element of "catch me" to the whole plan. While watching thrillers, particularly ones that involve the hunt for the serial killer, there's always that line of "He wants to be caught." This always has to be a subconscious thing, right? If asked every day if he wanted to be caught, I believe that Neff would claim that he's doing everything he can not to be caught. But he also goes into this plan knowing that Keyes would be the biggest problem he would have to beat. He has this whole thing with a huge hitch in the middle. It's such an interesting dynamic for a character to have. Yeah, the movie, like a lot of film noir, embraces this complex plot. But it is through that complex plot that delivers a complex set of characters.
I feel bad for not talking about Phyllis more. If I'm guilty of watching a film with the male gaze, Phyllis has become a non-issue for me. Part of it is that Phyllis isn't as developed as she is in the book. The movie leaves a lot of Phyllis's motivation kind of ambiguous. There is some obligatory information that is passed onto us, but it never really takes time to build character. There are moments that Barbara Stanwyck delivers some amazing performances, but it is all in the service of Phyllis as closed off. Nothing we really see is real, making it very difficult to understand what makes her tick, outside of psychopathy. It's a bummer, but it also works for the film.
I really like this movie and I really like Billy Wilder. Me recommending Double Indemnity isn't really a risk because it is such a classic. But I know that there are people who have never really dipped their toes into the waters of film noir. If you are going to start somewhere, maybe Double Indemnity is the way to go.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.