Posted June 13, 2012 by Alex Moss Editor in Films
 
 

Double Indemnity


The quintessential Film Noir and everything that entails.

The quintessential Film Noir
and everything that entails.

Film
Noir is a genre which has sparked much debate over the years. Predominantly what classifies a film as
being Film Noir. You have to have
a certain look, normally characterised by sharp contrasts of black and white
culminating in chiaroscuro lighting, you need something akin to a Femme Fatale
and a ‘Fall Guy’ protagonist and you need a thrilling plot which keeps you
guessing as to who the real villain of the piece is. A Film Noir can still be a Film Noir without one or more of
these elements but at some point it must touch on at least one. Everyone’s tried their hand at Noir,
from John Huston with Key Largo, Orson Welles with A Touch Of
Evil
to the more Neo-Noirs of Roman
Polanski
’s Chinatown and David Lynch’s more offbeat Mulholland Drive. Hell, even Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive
from last year has more than a hint of Noirish undertones to it.

It’s
a genre born out of a style but a genre nonetheless. A Noir is more than a thriller, it’s an ideal with which
cinema has long since had a love affair with. But if you had to pick a Film Noir as a shinning example of
the genre, if a crooked cop and seductive woman had guns to your head and made
you chose one that encapsulates everything the genre should be, you could do
plenty worse than Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.

Walter
Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an
insurance man who isn’t afraid to go the extra mile to make a sale. But when he meets the wife of one of
his clients, the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), he finds himself in hot water. Falling for her charms Neff is lured
into a conspiracy whereby he will sell Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) a life insurance policy before helping Phyllis kill him
and running away with the policy payout.
The only problem is Neff’s boss, and only real friend in the world, Barton
Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) thinks
something is amiss with the Dietrichson papers. Before long a deadly game of cat and mouse has begun with no
one sure who is on whose side.

Looking
at the pedigree Wilder assembled for Double Indemnity it’s no wonder the film
has gained the glowing reputation it has.
Based on a novel by The Postman
Always
Rings Twice writer John M. Cain, widely considered along
with Dashiell Hammett to be one of
the creators of the hard boiled crime fiction upon which Film Noir’s made their
names, Wilder wanted to make sure he captured the book just right. Discovering that Cain was unavailable
to help him write the script he turned instead to another hard-boiled luminary
in the form of Raymond Chandler. To put it bluntly Double Indemnity had
pulpish B-Movie noir engrained in it from the get go.

What
Wilder and Chandler created is a wonderfully dark and dry script. Walter Neff, the cocky as hell
insurance salesman, may have all the moves when it comes to wooing the ladies
but he’s a patsy through and through.
Thanks to a cleverly devised voice over, as Neff confesses into a
Dictaphone, you know from the get go he’s going to cut a tragic character. Add to this Stanwyck as one of the most
iconic femme fatales of all time, dodgy wig and all, and you have an all you
can eat buffet of Noirish delights.
The early dialogue between Neff and Dietrichson sizzles off the screen,
for every flirt he has she’s got a curt response. It’s a battle of the sexes done with Tommy-gun rattling
dialogue but the winner is never quite who you think it is.

Wilder
builds tension in the most wonderful ways. There is no thrill-ride set-piece, no shoot-out on the
streets but instead a cleverly devised plot which sucks you in wondering who,
if anyone, is going to come out of the affair clean. Even the simplest of things in Wilder’s hands have you
chewing the nails to nothing. As
Keyes talks to Neff about his theory of the death, Phyllis, who has come to see
her new lover, hides behind a door, the tension growing to painful levels as
Keyes asks Neff for a match, mere inches from the woman who could unravel the
whole plot.

The
visuals too are spot on for what you expect from a Film Noir. Every room filled with long shadows and
a gathering of smoke to cloud any man’s judgement. The venetian blinds cutting a prison like silhouette over
our protagonist in almost every scene.
If it wasn’t one of the originals you’d almost think Wilder and co had a
list of things they had to produce in order to achieve the label of Film
Noir.

In
the role of Walter Neff, Fred MacMurray soars. Cocksure and cool when dealing with all around, you always
feel his pride will come before a pretty big fall. Edward G. Robinson, made famous in the gangster films of the
30s, is wonderfully gruff as Keyes.
A strict father who is the most sympathetic character on offer,
constantly chewing on a cigar and forever searching for a match he reminds you
of a grumpier, if that’s possible, Columbo. Barbara Stanwyck meanwhile gives an iconic performance as
Phyllis. She may not have the
looks of a Rita Hayworth in Gilda or a Jessica Rabbit, but she’s more manipulative and secretes her sexual
power like a praying mantis, just waiting to bite off her mate’s head.

A
devilishly playful thriller that rattles along thanks to tension you can cut
and dialogue you can chew. Double
Indemnity is the sort of film people tell you to see, the difference between
this and countless other ‘classics’ is this one is a must. “Good bye babe” indeed.


Alex Moss Editor

 
Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com