Aug 9, 2014
Cinema Classics: Double Indemnity
The best movie showing in town right now is 70 years old and sharper, fresher and nastier than anything out there. Double Indemnity, the fantastic film noir based on a novel by James M. Cain, with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (just mull this over for a moment), is a jewel: a kind of mashup of classic hardboiled noir sprinkled with Billy Wilder's jaundiced sense of humor.
This movie is a delicious, bitter joy.
Fred MacMurray, a lug, but whom Wilder used well (see The Apartment), plays Walter Neff, an insurance salesman that gets ensnared by femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck, a very alluring anklet-wearing dame. Poor Phyllis is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Feigning innocence, she suggests taking out an accident policy for her husband. Like any insurance agent worth his salt, Neff can smell a rat, but the twist here is that he knowingly bites. It's not that he doesn't know trouble when he sees it, is that he sees trouble and he joins it. He makes it worse. Nobody is innocent.
Chandler and Wilder are interested in ambiguity and grey areas. Phyllis (not the sexiest name for a femme fatale) tells a tale of marital woe. She claims she is married to a horrid man who stifles her and humiliates her. She may be lying, we think, to butter Neff up. But later we see the husband in action, and indeed, he reeks. She was telling the truth. Like all good sociopaths, she bends and arranges the truth to suit her purposes.
Best thing in the movie, in my view, is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, an insurance claims adjuster who distrusts everything and everybody. Robinson is one of those actors in old movies who seems to be more natural, more modern than everyone else (Spencer Tracy was another one). He completely inhabits this fastidious, suspicious man with a moral certitude and a verve that no one around has. It is a beautifully written character and Robinson fills him in. He is given one of the funniest monologues ever written. It's about death. Absolute greatness.
One of the heartbreaking ironies of the film is that Keyes leaves no stone unturned in his quest for human corruption, but he is naive about his colleague Neff, whom he never suspects. This seems like a trifle, but it is killer stuff. Do we really know people? When even the most punctilious skeptic about human nature can be fooled, we are all in trouble.
The movie is beautifully shot with hard angles and shadows. La Stanwyck glows from the inside out, but the most sparkling gems are the words that flow out of the characters like diamonds, a mile a minute.