“I wonder if you wonder.” Every time I hear Walter Neff say those words to Phyllis Dietrichson as their intial encounter concludes, I smile and settle in for another round of Double Indemnity (1944). Chris Vognar, Film Critic for the Dallas Morning News kicked off his Fall Film Noir Series (co-sponsored by Dallas Film Society) with one of my all-time favorites. Though I have seen it many times over the years, this was my first time on the big screen … and from a 35mm print! So much of the subtle filmmaking becomes apparent – the variance of lighting, the intensity of shadows, and the vividness of close-ups. This reinforces my belief that we should never miss an opportunity to view good films in a theatre setting … just as the director intended.
Since this film was released 67 years ago, I won’t bother about noting “SPOILERS“. If you haven’t seen it and plan to, you might stop reading here. If you would like a little insight, then let’s keep going. Billy Wilder (left) directed the film and his place as a Hollywood legend is quite secure. He was nominated for 21 Oscars (Director, Writer, Producer) and had 3 wins. Some of his classics are: The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, The Front Page. Many think of Wilder as a comedic filmmaker and he certainly had success in that genre, but if you watch closely, even his comedies have a dark element to them.
Double Indemnity is based on the novella by James M Cain, who also wrote Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Wilder was a fan of Cain’s book, but knew the dialogue wouldn’t work well on screen. So together with Raymond Chandler they wrote a screenplay filled with crackling lines and a constant feeling of dread and pending doom. As great as the script is, it is heightened by a wonderful cast that includes Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Richard Gaines and Byron Barr.
For me, MacMurray’s performance is what brings the words to life and jumps the film to the “must see” category. He is playing against two Hollywood heavyweights in Stanwyck and Robinson, but we are somehow sympathetic to this not-so-bright guy who gets played like a fiddle by the villainous, wily woman he lusts after. Even as he is recording his confession, a part of us understands how he got drawn into MURDER! Not just any murder, but one for money and love … only there is no money, and there is no love.
Ms. Stanwyck is perfectly cast as the femme fatale who weaves her web of deceit and destruction. She quickly spots the vulnerability of MacMurray’s character and uses her assets just enough to hold the leash tight. It is a testament to her screen presence that she can pull off the sultry siren while sporting a less-than-desirable blonde wig. At the time, the wig was so controversial that the producers compared it to George Washington and wanted it trashed. However, filming was too far along and now it’s impossible to imagine her looking any other way. Besides, MacMurray only seems to notice her anklet!
Edward G Robinson made a name for himself as a tough-guy actor … cop and mobster all rolled into one. Here he plays the insurance investigator with a sixth-sense for fraudulent claims. He is a hard-nosed, dedicated employee who takes his responsibility very seriously and has no sympathy for those who cheat his cherished system. He has a soft spot for co-worker MacMurray, even though he is one of the back-slapping salesmen he so loathes. Their relationship in the film is one of respect and about as close as two professional men could be, given the era. When Robinson goes off on his rant about suicide research, he is a joy to behold. This guy could flat chew scenery.
In addition to the infamous wig, you might also notice that MacMurray is wearing a wedding band throughout the film, even though his character is clearly a single man. Wilder and MacMurray stated many times over the years that was simply a mistake and not “caught” until post-production. Expect a chuckle when MacMurray, as the narrator, enviously describes a Spanish style Los Angeles home as costing $30,000 … probably less than the property taxes would be on that house today. The film originally was to end with MacMurray in the Gas Chamber and Robinson looking on (inset), but this was deemed inappropriate. One last little nugget: early in the film, MacMurray walks out of Robinson’s office and past a man sitting on a hallway chair reading a paperback book. That man? Raymond Chandler, in his only on screen appearance.
The film is often described as quintessential Film Noir. Another prime example of Film Noir would be The Big Sleep (1946), based on a Raymond Chandler novel, directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. While Film Noir might not be an easily definable term, there are certain elements that must be present. Lighting is key. Shadows must be prevalent. Some type of detective story is usually at the center, and we typically get some poor schlub of a guy being yanked around by the femme fatale. The right “mood” is essential … as a viewer we know things are headed down the wrong path, but we just can’t save the characters from their own poor choices. But neither can we look away. That helpless feeling is a strong indicator that you just watched a terrific Film Noir.
watch the original trailer: