There are great films and there are classics. Double Indemnity, which plays this Thursday at the Heights Theater as part of their series “Death Wore Lipstick: The Women of Film Noir,” is easily one of the latter. Even if you haven’t seen it, you know its trademarks: the harsh shadows, jagged edges, quick patter, melodramatic voiceover. It features lines like, “I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she looked at me, and I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us.” It’s such a pure example of that old forties dime novel style that many consider it the first true film noir.
Released in 1944 and frequently listed among the greatest films of all time, the movie has carved a legacy far larger than any single criticism. Director Billy Wilder, screenwriter Raymond Chandler, and author James M. Cain (upon whose story the film was based) were all masters in their fields, and there isn’t a moment lacking for tension or a decision that can’t be accounted for. It’s the kind of efficient, purposeful golden age filmmaking that comes as close to timelessness as anything can. But there’s also a danger in being too reverent to the classics. Double Indemnity is still best enjoyed as a surprise; as something fresh that is allowed to fail, so that we’re pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t. It’s not the most complicated or profound film of its era, but its depths of feeling and strength of craft would be obvious even if it were released for the first time tomorrow.
Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who falls for one of his clients’ wives. Phyllis Dietrichson, played at peak sensuality by Barbara Stanwyck, hints to him that she wants to take out a large life insurance policy on her husband, in case, you know, something should happen to him, sooner rather than later. Walter doesn’t take much convincing. Yes, there’s the sex, but you also get the idea that after a life in the insurance game, he’s looking to find a way to make good on his specialized knowledge. One man’s actuarial expertise is another’s perfect murder plot, and soon Walter has every detail lined up to frame Mr. Dietrichson’s accidental death and abscond with his widow and a hundred grand.
Of course the first scene of the film features a bloodstained Walter after it all went south, confessing via recorder to his colleague and chief intellectual rival Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson); that puts something of a damper on the plot’s potential success — also, if you honestly believe this couple has a happy future awaiting them, you probably haven’t seen a movie in the last seventy years. Mrs. Dietrichson is the kind of calculating, cold-hearted fury that can only exist in forties detective stories, and Neff is just arrogant enough to think he can handle her.
As with much of film noir, the gender politics are tough to parse out by a modern standard. There is something admirable about Phyllis Dietrichson. She’s bored, with good reason, by an unfulfilling life as a housewife. She’s resourceful and quick on her feet, which in the morally neutral world of Chandler and Cain means she holds all the power. Stanwyck has charisma to spare, though her range (best showcased in the masterful role-reversal comedy The Lady Eve) is limited here to extremes of sex kitten and ice queen.
Walter, meanwhile, is rarely the paragon of masculinity he wants to appear. He repeats every step of his plan to Phyllis, afraid she’ll forget, yet he’s the first to crumble under pressure. He too seems bored with the role society has chosen for him. It’s worth noting that the film was released as most men of a certain age were fighting in Europe and Japan during WWII. That desire to escape the niceties of suburban life permeates every detail. Yes, there’s the matter of a hundred thousand dollars in life insurance, but the adventure of pulling off a murder seems far more appealing.
Film noir remains one of the most popular classic film genres. Its reliance on wit and tension, the charisma of stars and the atmosphere created by master architects, cameramen, and craftspeople whose work has long outlived their names, have all translated to audiences for generations. What is more difficult to parse out is the role of satire. There’s a tendency for modern audiences to either excuse or outright reject the antiquated shooting style and theatrical performances in films like Double Indemnity, rather than engage them directly on their own level. The line, “I loved you Walter and I hated him, but I wasn’t going to do anything about it! Not until I met you!” is a bit too direct and stylized for modern tastes. One might shrug it off as “just the way movies sounded back then,” which is noble enough when you’re just trying to enjoy the movie you’re watching.
The trouble with Double Indemnity is that it’s secretly a pitch black satire. Every turn of the camera, every line delivery is sincere only up to a point, and that distinction is important. The aforementioned line completely changes when Phyllis is delivering it in a supermarket while oblivious shoppers try to work their way between her and Walter to grab their cereal. These two lovers are having their own private catastrophe, but meanwhile the rest of the world is going about its business.
“Those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They’re alive! They’re packed with drama! With twisted hopes and crooked dreams!” Keyes tells Walter. This could easily serve as a thesis statement for the whole film noir movement. On the surface are men and women, fulfilling their roles in an organized, polite society. Yet just beneath the surface lies a history of chaos, where all that dull grey is sharpened to black and white and foolproof plans are forgotten amid the faerie power of unreflecting love. What is perhaps most compelling about Double Indemnity is its inconsistency. Every filmgoer knows the “perfect murder” is a doomed enterprise. The way it falls though; that’s compelling. What about humans makes walking a straight line so difficult? “Don’t think about it,” Walter tells Phyllis, and then they both stare at opposite walls, unable to think about anything else. “You want me to leave?” Phyllis asks, and Walter nods, just as we know they’re about to kiss. “I wonder if I know what you’re talking about,” Phyllis says to rebuff Walter’s early advances.
His response, as he walks out the door: “I wonder if you wonder.”
Double Indemnity is showing at 7:30 pm on Thursday, January 29 at the Heights Theater.
Photos courtesy of: Universal Studios