Friday, February 19, 2010

“We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet.”

Okay, last film noir for a little while, and it’s a humdinger. Murder, My Sweet and The Maltese Falcon are great movies, fine examples of the genre and I love them, but they’re relatively... upbeat compared to 1944’s Double Indemnity, which is about as noir as film can get. Directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by Raymond Chandler himself, this film gets dark.

So there’s a cocky insurance salesman who pays a house call to a wealthy L.A. businessman about his auto insurance. He’s not there, but his bombshell wife is, and the sexual tension between them leads first to flirty innuendo, then to an affair where they plot the intricate murder of her husband where they would make a fortune on a life insurance plan they tricked him into signing. And then it all goes to hell.

Walter Neff: Fred Mac Murray (another Hollywood nice guy acting against type here) is outstanding as our protagonist. A decent enough fella at the beginning, if a bit cocky, he gets seduced pretty hard by femme fatale and ends up doing some pretty bad stuff. Despite becoming a villain protagonist, he’s still pretty damn badass throughout, consistently lighting a match with his fingernails before putting it to a cigarette.

Phyllis Dietrichson: Barbara Stanwyck (yet another actress playing against type) is just so damn evil in this movie. Sexy evil. When Neff meets her, she gives off the vibe of a bored housewife looking for some excitement in her life, but as the movie goes on, you get a peek at the layers underneath the character, and my God is Phyllis a disturbing character. Stanwyck acts the hell out of her too, putting in probably the best performance in the film. Some of the looks she gets in her eyes are the stuff of nightmare.

Barton Keyes: Edward G. Robinson (who was a veteran of tough guy crime movies) is the Hero, Neff’s supervisor and mentor at work, and one of the best claim investigators at the company. Keyes is the kind of guy who puts up a gruff exterior, but deep down he’s a softie who tries to look out for his friends. Too bad one of them is a murderer.

Mr. Dietrichson: Tom Powers is the unfortunate businessman who gets bumped off in the name of lust. Not much to say about him other than while he’s kind of a codger, he doesn’t deserve what’s coming to him.

Lola Dietrichson: Jean Heather is the good and innocent daughter of Dietrichson from a previous marriage. She looks up to Neff after they meet, and he tries to look out for her as the movie goes on.

Nino Zachetti: Byron Barr is Lola’s boyfriend, a kid studying medicine who’s also a wannabe tough guy that’s important to some of the subplots that develop.

Prolific writer-director Billy Wilder handles this film with steady hand. Shots are great, the pacing is great and the whole visual mood of the movie just brings the tension to the fore. Probably the real standout stuff is how he works with close ups of the actors to get maximum non-verbal cues to imply what they’re thinking.

James M. Cain wrote the novel about a 1920’s murderess (Double Indemnity in Three of a Kind) and Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay. Apparently Wilder & Chandler hated each other, but that doesn’t matter, since the end result is probably one of the most riveting of the noir screenplays looked at here. I’ve got a bias toward Chandler’s quality, and Wilder is another solid writer, and here, they’re not working with established characters that have “franchise potential.” What that means is anything can happen to the characters in the film.

Miklós Rózsa’s score fits the dark and oppressive mood of the movie. Its good.

Double Indemnity is another one of those awesome classics where all the ingredients work. Its definite required material for viewing film noir, and its outstanding. However, I’m not kidding about how grimdark and bleak this movie is. There is exactly one bright spot by the end of the film.

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