Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Double Indemnity (1944)

Still plugging away at those Best Picture nominees and I'm over halfway through now!  Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Today's subject is one of the classic films noir (is that how you pluralize it?), Billy Wilder's iconic crime thriller Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwick and Edward G. Robinson.  Based on a novella by James M. Cain and adapted by Wilder and famed detective fiction novelist Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity is the sordid tale of an insurance salesman who falls for a married woman and together they cook up a scheme to get rid of her husband and collect on his accidental death policy.  The film is hailed as one of the most influential of the genre, popularizing the trope of the fast-talking, morally compromised male protagonist and the scheming, manipulative femme fatale.  
MacMurray as Walter Neff is the quintessential noir everyman, lonely, hardened, always with a cigarette in his mouth.  But then he encounters seductive trophy wife Phyllis Dietrichson, in a loveless marriage with a wealthy oil man who is also a miserable drunk.  Her stepdaughter despises her (probably with good reason as we later learn) and her husband keeps her mostly housebound with a small allowance.  Phyllis plants the idea in Walter's head of taking out life insurance without her husband's knowledge, and Walter sees right through her but at the same time can't resist the opportunity to game the system he works for.  The duplicitous would-be couple concoct a plan to murder the husband and make it look like he fell off the back of a train, but Walter's boss and only friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in a rare good guy role) can sniff out a scam a mile away.  True to the noir genre, things take a turn for the worse, as Walter and Phyllis now have to scramble to cover their asses, but have very different ideas on how to accomplish that.

The stylized performances are all very effective; MacMurray remains relatable even as he masterminds a murder, Stanwyck is the prototypical fatale, able to turn on the tender charms that mask her heinous ulterior motive, and Robinson is the smartest one in the room with the tenacity of a pitbull.  The film's dialogue carries all the hallmarks of classic noir, with mentions of "dames" and "suppose I..." and "here's what's gonna happen..."  It feels dated now but it's got a lot of charm once you're ensconced in the genre.

The story builds a good amount of suspense, like a "heist gone wrong" film; Walter's plan seems airtight but he doesn't count on little things, like not having the train's observation platform to himself, or his boss realizing how improbable it would be for a man to fall to his death from a vehicle only moving at 15 mph.  Despite Walter having committed a horrible crime we find ourselves oddly hoping he gets out of this increasingly tightening trap; the poor sap thought he was being gallant and saving the wife from a bad marriage when she was in fact playing him the whole time.  We're kept guessing what will happen until the final ten minutes, even though the film begins with him confessing everything to his boss via a dictaphone recording.  The structure of the protagonist narrating his story through flashbacks was imitated so many times, including in Billy Wilder's own Sunset Boulevard, Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai, and even Stanley Kubrick's early film Killer's Kiss.

Double Indemnity is an essential example from a genre that still influences crime films today, with moody visuals full of intense shadows and hazy, smoke-filled rooms where unscrupulous people get together to make devlish deals, and yet we can't help sorta rooting for them to get away with it.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.


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