Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

This 1944 film is one that - despite having heard of it on many an occasion - I knew little about going in (I seem to use this intro A LOT). What I did know was that it is held in high regard, was directed by Billy Wilder and written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and is a noir thriller of some sort. Now that I've finally seen it, I can attest to its classic status; despite telling a story that is at face value fairly straightforward, the film weaves the sordid tale in a complex and engaging manner.

Walter Neff (Fred Mac Murray) is an insurance salesman, and the film starts with him recording a confession. He lays out the circumstances of his crime from top to bottom, and it's all revealed in a voice-over accompanied flashback told from his point of view. During a routine visit to a client's home to renew an insurance contract, Neff meets the client's wife, Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and is immediately smitten. Phyllis takes an interest in him as well, and during a subsequent visit inquires about the possibility of secretly getting insurance for her husband (Tom Powers). Neff is suspicious of her motives and rebuffs her, but the idea plays on his mind. When Phyllis later visits him and pleads her case - her husband is uncaring and domineering - he decides to help her murder him for the insurance money, and concocts and executes a complex plan using his knowledge of the inner workings of the insurance business. Unfortunately for Neff, a colleague of his, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), is an expert at sniffing out suspicious insurance claims, and immediately gets on the case and starts asking questions. Neff's woes are compounded when he becomes acquainted with Mr. Dietrichson's daughter (Phyllis's step-daughter) and begins to learn that Phyllis may not be what she appears.

While there aren't any real surprises in the story, it's brilliantly executed and enthralling from start to finish. The plot is meticulous and seems to cover every conceivable angle. The writing and dialogue are fantastic; it's a dialogue-rich film, and the banter between the characters is always entertaining and full of wit. The characters are, in film-noir fashion, cynical, cold, and generally unemotional, and are all obsessed with personal gain one way or the other; they're hardly sympathetic (with the exception of the daughter Lola), but are fascinating to watch. The atmosphere is in tune with the characters - dark and moody, with black and white imagery full of shadows and stark lighting. There is an overwhelming sense of inevitability to the story given that it's told in a flashback, but it is still gripping from scene to scene nonetheless.

The most memorable performance was, for me, Edward Robinson as the tenacious Keyes - his turn as the grouchy friend and shrewd investigator determined to get to the bottom of things is excellent and lends some levity to counterbalance the inherent dourness of the story. Also fantastic is Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrich - she's clearly manipulative and scheming, but is absolutely convincing in her seduction of the hapless Neff. Fred Mac Murray's Neff is in many ways a man who just can't help himself; he's a bit smug and arrogant, but is not entirely without conscience despite his greed, and Mac Murray portrays that conflict quite well. He's also convincing as a man in a tight spot, being ultra careful and trying to hide his guilt when under pressure. I didn't really like the guy in the role - he's not particularly charismatic - but have to admit he did a pretty good job. When brought together Stanwyck and Mac Murray play their lines off each other perfectly and are a perfectly duplicitous couple. The rest of the cast don't leave much of an impression, but do a sufficient job in their respective minor roles.

In short, it's an excellent thriller that is still eminently watchable today, a good 60 plus years after it was made. The lack of any real 'action' compared to modern thrillers doesn't hurt the film one bit because the writing, directing and central performances are so strong that you barely notice. A classic, and yet another film to add to the growing list of great noir films that I've seen recently.

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