Thursday, August 4, 2011

Double Indemnity (1944)

The Walk Of A Dead Man

"Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man."

- One of the pioneers of the film noir genre, Double Indemnity (1944) is a contextually fascinating, visually stunning, and cinematically lovable film noir from Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

On a seemingly routine job, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) becomes infatuated with his client's wife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and helps her turn her unloving husband into "hard cash" via insurance fraud and a little thing called murder. With his insider know-how, Walter believes that he and his sweetheart can get away with murder and live happily ever after. However, the situation becomes increasingly complicated through a roller coaster of twist and turns as Walter's boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) unravels the plan little by little and Phyllis becomes more and more untrustworthy.

If you are looking for a classic film noir story, look no further than Double Indemnity, where good people get eaten up in the dark underworld of film noir. Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler do a wonderful job adapting James M. Cain's novel to the screen. Along with this interesting and classic Cain-inspired film noir story in Double Indemnity is the fabulous smart, funny, and even shocking dialogue that makes it up. The mark of Philip Marlowe author Raymond Chandler on the film's script is very evident and key to the strong impact that the sharp and witty dialogue has on a scene. Perfect examples of this can be found in many different places throughout the film but some of my favorite pieces of dialogue are Keyes' absolutely hilarious speech about the mathematics of suicide and Walter and Phyllis' flirtatious back-and-forths which are humorous and coy while doing much to add a whiff of danger in the air. My favorite line in the movie can be heard when Walter explains how he could not hear the sound of his own footsteps, it being like the walk of a dead man. The line sends a shiver down my spine every time.

Double Indemnity has a great cast, one of the finest principle casts ever assembled. Known primarily as a comedic actor at the time, Fred MacMurray stars as the doomed lead Walter Neff. A large number of Hollywood heavyweights passed on the role but the out-of-type MacMurray proved to be perfect for the character of Walter Neff; intense and paranoid with an unflappable front of countenance and laid-back sarcasm. Also, while Walter may catch the film noir bug and develop greedy, lustful, murderous thoughts, the character because MacMurray creates a relatively normal, stand-up guy out of the character, enabling the audience to relate.

Barbara Stanwyck is also terrific in her Academy Award-nominated role as Phyllis Dietrichson. While most Hollywood actresses would not touch the toxic role of Phyllis Dietrichson, Stanwyck jumped at the opportunity to play such a strong character and, in doing so, embodied the definitive femme fatale: conniving and adulterous, she gives the lead man the impression that he is in charge and calling the shots when the truth of the matter is that he's being played like a cheap violin to do her dark dirty work. Because of Stanwyck's subtle treachery and undeniable attractiveness, we as the audience, just like Walter, fall for her even though we know that she is no good. We want her to get away with the crime while, at the same time, we want her to bite the dust - and this love/hate relationship that both Walter and the audience has for Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson is one of the film's most powerful elements.

Edward G. Robinson also delivers a mighty fine supporting performance, stealing nearly every scene as the detective-like insurance man Barton Keyes. At the time, Robinson thought himself too big a star for a supporting role like Barton Keyes - having defined the gangster genre with his performance in Little Caesar (1931) and many other gangster films. However, Robinson ended up accepting the role because his career was starting to slump - and thank goodness too because Robinson is an unstoppable force in Double Indemnity (not to mention how the performance re-invented his career). With intelligence and humor, Robinson creates a highly entertaining character in Barton Keyes, delivering a spectacular performance about as fast as a sound carries and wiser than any of his previous wise-guy gangster roles.

Director Billy Wilder could not have assembled the film any better. Instead of revealing the violence, sex, and twisted nature of the film's characters through blatancy, everything is dealt with through a very effective power of suggestion by the acting and/or simple presentation of the scene. As with most great films noir, Double Indemnity is excellently photographed. Very dark but very stylish, nearly every scene includes eye-wrangling shots and remarkable imagery. People may walk up to a sun lit house and a dressed up door way, but they soon find themselves in a dark seedy lair with the light trying its best to squeak into the room every chance it gets.

What a cinematic sight to see! Wilder's screen vision, the flawless cast and unforgettable Raymond Chandler/Wilder script make Double Indemnity a brilliant movie and a quintessential film noir. Unmistakably a timeless classic and a standout within the film noir genre, Double Indemnity is a film that simply cannot be missed.

CBC Rating: 10/10

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