Cinematic Century

1944 – Double Indemnity

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I’ve mentioned this a whole lot here on the site, but one of my all-time favorite genres of storytelling is noir. It’s a fairly broad genre that generally gets used to describe most types of crime stories, but it’s also one that can become very granular, describing a type of story that is incredibly specific. So far during my Cinematic Century project I’ve come across a couple films that fit under the broader umbrella of noir, but not necessarily the more narrow one. The Thin Man is a detective story about a couple solving a murder that’s based off a novel written by one of noir’s seminal authors, Dashiel Hammett. But, it’s also more or less a comedy, and doesn’t really get into the more specific details of film noir. Last week’s film, Shadow of a Doubt, got damn close too, but there’s still something about it that feels like it doesn’t quite fit. But, that’s going to change today. Because there’s no other film from 1944 that I felt I could possibly pick other than Billy Wilder’s spectacular film, Double Indemnity. It’s a quintessential film noir, and represents everything I love about the genre. Which isn’t to say that 1944 was a weak year for film. It’s a year that churned out quite a few amazing films, just none that reached the personal peak of Double Indemnity for me. Speaking of noirs, we could have gone with Otto Preminger’s twisted love story Laura, which is a film that still blows me away each time I see it. We also had an adaptation of my personal favorite Raymond Chandler novel, Farrwell, My Lovely, with Murder, My Sweet, which remains one of the best Phillip Marlowe films I’ve ever seen. Gaslight is an amazing psychological thriller, and if you only know it from the term that it inspired I highly recommend checking out the actual movie. Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is a fascinating work of cinema, becoming an ethical dilemma unlike any other I’ve ever seen. But I think the film that had the best chance at dethroning Double Indemnity was oddly enough the incredibly goofy and bizarre Frank Capra film Arsenic and Old Lace. I don’t think any description of that insane film could give it justice, but if you’re into macabre humor, especially something along the lines of the Addams Family, I can’t recommend checking it out enough. But, none of those films can match the white hot insurance action of Double Indemnity. 

Double Indemnity has a seriously impressive pedigree. It’s based off a novella from towering figure in the hard-boiled mystery genre, James M Cain. He based the central crime of the novel off an actual case he covered as a journalist, and it became one of his most famous and celebrated stories. And, as has always been the case, when Hollywood sees a popular novel they start planning to adapt it to the silver screen. There was just one problem. The novel is a very dark tale about two criminals planning a murder, going into their plan in great detail, and Hollywood was currently in the clutches of the Hayes Code. Now, the Hayes Code has a fascinating role in this era of Hollywood, and I could love to write a whole article about the way that it affected the noir genre, if I found the time to do the research necessary, but as for now you just need to know that it specifically forbade the glorification of crime. This put the adaptation in a bit of a bind, but that didn’t stop Paramount Pictures from passing the project to up and coming director Billy Wilder. Wilder became fascinated with the project, and worked hard to bring the novel to life in a way that could pass the Hayes Code’s standards. And to do that he brought on a very odd writing partner. The aforementioned noir novelist Raymond Chandler. I love Raymond Chandler, he’s my personal favorite hard-boiled author, and this was the first screenplay he’d ever worked on. He and Wilder ended up butting heads quite a bit during the process of creating this film, but it somehow worked wonderfully. They complimented each other in just the right way to get this film made. They took out some of the more problematic elements of the novella, like the fact it originally ended with a double suicide, and flooded in dialogue that matched Chandler’s more sardonic style. And it paid off. Double Indemnity was a massive hit, earning several Academy Awards nominations, and receiving a legacy as one of the finest film noirs in history. And it makes sense. This is a fantastic film, and quite possibly the most emblematic film in the entire genre.

 

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Double Indemnity tells the story of an insurance salesman named Walter Neff, and begins on the night of his death. He stumbles into his office, late at night, nursing a gunshot wound. He collapses into the desk of his friend and mentor Barton Keyes and begins leaving a message for Keyes on his Dictaphone, laying out the events of the last couple of weeks, and how they destroyed his life. It all began when he went on a seemingly routine trip over to a mansion in Los Angeles to speak to a man named Dietrichson to get him to renew his auto policy. But, when Neff gets to the mansion he finds Dietrichson gone, but his alluring trophy wife Phyllis home. Neff and Phyllis almost immediately begin flirting, but things quickly get awkward when Phyllis asks Neff about the possibility of getting an accident policy on her husband without his knowledge. This is obviously suspicious, and Neff says he wants no part of it. But, over the coming days he finds he can’t stop thinking about Phyllis, and when she ends up visiting him at his apartment he decides to go with it. He knows that Phyllis is only asking for this policy in order to murder her husband and get the money, but he decides that his obsession with Phyllis makes it okay, and the two begin plotting. Neff decides that they should get Dietrichson to unwittingly sign an accident policy that includes a double indemnity clause, which will pay double if he dies in an uncommon way. Such as during a train accident. So, Neff comes over one night when Dietrichson’s daughter Lola is home as a witness, and gets him to sign the policy, thinking that he was just renewing his auto policy.

Neff and Phyllis then plot Dietrichson’s death. And, as luck would have it, he’s planning on taking a train ride to attend a college reunion, and they find their perfect chance. The night that Phyllis is supposed to drive Dietrichson to the train station, because he broke his leg and it’s in a cast, Neff strangles the man, and takes his place. He board the train, makes small-talk with a man at the back of the train, and after getting the man to go inside he leaps from the train, where Phyllis is waiting to play the already dead body of her husband. An inquest then begins at the insurance company, and Neff is briefly concerned when his boss assumes that it was a suicide, which would invalidate the claim. But, Keyes wholeheartedly believes that it was an accident, since Neff has organized it so perfectly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long, because Keyes quickly starts to get suspicious, and becomes convinced that there was foul play involved. He eventually starts to think that Dietrichson didn’t even know about the policy, and that Phyllis killed him with an unknown accomplice. Neff begins to panic, and things aren’t helped when he’s visited by Dietrichson’s daughter Lola, who has a pretty outrageous accusation. She thinks that Phyllis killed her father, and not only that, killed her mother to marry him in the first place when Phyllis acted as her mother’s nurse. And, she thinks that Phyllis has been sleeping with her hotheaded boyfriend Nino, making Neff realize that he’s been conned by a woman who has potentially be involved in two murderers, and shows no sign of stopping.

And, on top of all of that, Keyes is closing in. He somehow locates that man who spoke to Neff on the train, and confirms that the man who was on the train couldn’t have actually been on the train. So, now Neff realizes that things aren’t going well, and he’s going to have to find a way out of this situation. By this point he realizes Phyllis doesn’t actually love him, and had just been using him to get the insurance money and get an accomplice. But, with the knowledge that Nino is involved, he comes up with a plan to get himself free and clear. So, Neff calls Phyllis and arranges a meeting at her mansion where he reveals everything he know. He tells her that he thinks she’s planning on having Nino kill him and remove him from the equation, and that he’s going to kill her and frame Nino for it. But, Phyllis isn’t afraid to get blood on her own hands, and reveals a hidden revolver that she uses to shoot Neff in the side. But, she claims she’s unable to shoot him again, because she actually does love him. Neff embraces Phyllis, only to shoot her twice, killing her. He then flees from the house, and heads into his office to reveal the truth to Keyees before heading to the border and freedom. But, before Neff can finish the tale Keyes himself arrives, and figures out what’s going on. The two have a heart to heart, and Keyes even allows Neff to make his best run for the border, but Neff succumbs to his wounds before even leaving the office.

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This film really is a perfect storm of things that check off my boxes. It’s made by Billy Wilder, one of my favorite directors whose going to show up a bunch in this project, it’s a foundational noir, and it’s full of dialogue written by Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite hardboiled writers of all time. And it all comes together to create one of the most perfect movies I’ve ever seen. It’s positively dripping with mood and style, covering everything in menacing shadows, clouds of smoke, and alluring music all surrounded by that whiskey-soaked narration that I love so much. Walter Neff is far from an innocent, but his seduction to the dark side of the criminal world is so wonderfully done, pushing him over the edge into the all-consuming life of violence and murder. Wilder was incredibly talented at creating a mystery, playing around with non-linear storytelling and creating a story that was tense by easy to understand and follow, something that noirs often have a problem accomplishing. Fred MacMurray is terrific as Walter Neff, providing us a perfect and quintessential hardboiled leading man, all fast-talking quips and high pants, and his performance really became the one that all other noir leading men were measured against. Likewise, Barbara Stanwyck plays what is quite possibly my favorite femme fatale in all of film noir history. She’s so great as the manipulative and diabolical Phyllis Dietrichson, using Walter Neff as her own personal weapon. But, oddly enough, the real standout for be becomes Edward G Robinson, an actor who I’ve never quite clicked with. I’ve seen Robinson in his campy pre-Code musicals and I’ve seen him in his cigar-chewing gangster roles, but it wasn’t until he became a kindly, straight-shooting, eccentric weirdo who just loved insurance so goddamn much that I finally appreciated him. He’s fantastic in this film, and is a special ingredient that ends up adding quite a bit to this film, helping make it the perfect noir that it is.

Double Indemnity is a film that really shows just how wonderful the entire noir aesthetic really is. It’s a story about insurance fraud, and its one of the most well-made and tense mysteries ever put to film. Yeah, a part of me feels that a real film noir should involve some sort of private eye investigating the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, but this film takes all of the tropes and trappings of the genre and does something slightly different with it. It’s a story about a bored man who thinks that he can just commit some minor adultery and then move along with his life, only to fall down the slippery slope of crime to the point where he commits two murders and ends up dying in the arms of his mentor. It’s a pretty tragic story, and is another film that shows how easy it is to fall into a situation that’s completely out of your control. You don’t need to be a private eye to get involved in a deadly sequence of events that pushes your life off the cliff of crime, sometimes you can just be a guy trying to renew an auto-policy.

 

Double Indemnity was written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, directed by Billy Wilder, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1944.

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