The last week of August is generally considered one of the worst on the Hollywood release schedule — look no further than the brilliant marquee features lined up for you on Friday (including Christopher Walken’s ping-pong opus, Balls of Fury.) That, coupled with the cerebral atrophy which an interminably long summer blockbuster season has wrought, convinced us here at Pajiba that we should take a few days off and focus our energies on films we actually do like instead of trying to impress you all with our scathing hatred. And so, starting today, we bring our first (of what I hope to be many) Classic Week, during which we’ll offer reviews of a few of our favorites from a particular era. Fittingly, our first Classic Week will focus on films prior to 1960, starting with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.
The 1944 classic, Wilder’s third film, is considered one of the first film noirs, an influential project that combined German Expressionist lighting (dim, moody, and shadowy), voice-over narration, sinister themes and amoral protagonists, specifically the film’s femme fatale, who would inspire a series of bad-girl movies in the ’40s and ’50s. I mean, for its time, Double Indemnity was dark, man. Like, David Fincher’s lighting crossed the Coen Brothers’ cynical view of humanity. The two main characters, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanywick) were perhaps as pure evil as any two characters to inhabit the screen up until that point — the Mickey and Mallory Knox of their time, an adulterous couple driven to their demise because of simple overpowering lust and greed. With the huge commercial and critical success of Indemnity (which garnered seven Oscar nominations), Wilder opened up the door for a series of films dealing with doomed antiheroes and the sleazy underbelly of sexual passion. Moreover, there was no tacked-on Hollywood ending in Double Indemnity; there was nothing thrown in to redeem either Walter or Phyllis. They were just bad goddamn people, and if there were any take-home message in Double Indemnity, it was this: If you’re not careful, the smell of honeysuckle will drive you to an early fucking grave.
The movie concerns Neff, an insurance salesman played against type by Fred MacMurray. I don’t know what the gossip blogs were saying about MacMurray back in 1944, but to modern day viewers more familiar with MacMurray from “My Three Sons,” Indemnity may come as quite a shock, like witnessing Cliff Huxtable sleeping with Denise’s college roommate and putting two in Dwayne Wayne’s temple (“Don’t make Bill Cosby choke a bitch.”). Told largely in flashback from a fatalistic point of view, we already know where Double Indemnity is going to wind up, after a wounded and gasping Neff confesses his crime into a dictaphone for the insurance company’s claims manger and father figure, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), in the opening scene, with this beautifully hard-edged monologue:
You think you’re such a hot potato as claims manager, such a wolf on a phony claim. Maybe you are. But, let’s take a look at the Dietrichson claim, Accident and Double Indemnity. You were pretty good in there for a while, Keyes. You said it wasn’t an accident. Check. You said it wasn’t suicide. Check. You said it was murder. Check. You thought you had it cold, didn’t you? All wrapped up in tissue paper with pink ribbons around it. It was perfect, except it wasn’t — because you made one mistake. Just one little mistake. When it came to picking a killer, you picked the wrong guy. You want to know who killed Dietrichson? Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours, Keyes. I killed Dietrichson - me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars … until a while ago, that is. Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?
From there, Neff recounts his tale of illicit passion, duplicity, unholy love and the almost perfect crime. It began when he rang Phyllis Dietrichson’s doorbell, looking for her husband, who needed his car insurance policy renewed. For reasons I don’t quite understand, except perhaps that it was 1944 and courtships lasted no longer than a conversation, the two have an immediate connection, though I’m not sure there’s a heterosexual woman alive whose panties wouldn’t have melted a little after this exchange, which is sort of the sleazy antithesis to the rapid-fire back and forth between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (which Wilder would remake as a buddy comedy in 1974):
Phyllis: My husband, you were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?
Walter: Yeah, I was. But I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around 90.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take?
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder?
Walter: That tears it (he says as he puts on his hat and walks toward the door).
(Seriously, after that exchange, how close were they to ripping off their clothes and fucking on the floor in front of Nettie, the Dietrichson’s maid?)
Though he’s initially rebuffed, there’s clearly some sort of uncontrollable primal magnetism between these two; Phyllis’ honeysuckle perfume has the same emasculating effect that Jolie pheromones have on Brad — Walter is whipped like a frothy meringue and ready to buy up a Cambodian village or, you know, kill a man in cold blood (and, though I clearly would hate to see Indemnity remade, Angelina Jolie — as much as I am indifferent to her — would make an exceptional Phyllis Dietrichson, perhaps opposite Clooney. Forget I ever mentioned it, Hollywood). At Phyllis’ request, Walter returns the next day, and though he puts up a token effort to resist, the lure of her nether regions and a big cash payoff is too powerful to withstand:
What’d you think I was anyway? A guy that walks into a good looking dame’s front parlor and says ‘Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands. You got one that’s been around too long. One that you’d like to turn into hard cash. Just gimme a smile and I’ll help you collect? Oh, what a dope you must think I am.
And a dope is exactly what he is. Phyllis, clearly a trophy wife, plies Walter with sob stories about her abusive husband, and bemoans how unfair it is that her husband loves his daughter from a previous marriage more than her. Walter folds like an empty wallet. He dives into the plan like passengers at a muff buffet on a Rosie O’Donnell cruise ship, devising the almost perfect means to fraudulently enroll Mr. Dietrichson into a life insurance policy, assign Phyllis as the beneficiary, and brutally murder her husband in such a way that it triggers the policy’s double indemnity clause. And as sure as “ten dimes makes a dollar,” the plan runs amock — but there are a few twists and turns (as well as an exceptional performance from Edward G. Robinson) before Neff stumbles into his office, bleeding from a bullet hole in his shoulder.
The story is based on a James M. Cain serialized novel, which itself was based on a similar 1927 crime, in which a married woman convinced her boyfriend to kill her husband so that she could collect on the double indemnity clause (Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice was also based on the same crime). And while I love Cain’s novel, the screen adaptation — written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler — is even better, a potent combination of Wilder’s gift for pitching woo and the same hard-boiled detective language that Chandler brought to his Phillip Marlowe character (who would later be portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep.). John Seitz’s beautiful black and white cinematography (which takes advantage of a lot of Venetian blinds) perfectly sets the noirish mood of the film, and the performances are unbelievable, though I did find it ironic that Stanwyck’s slightly overwrought performance was the one to elicit an Oscar nomination, while MacMurray and Robinson were criminally overlooked. But, then again, the overwrought was intentional — Staynwyck exuded equal parts pathological and campy better than any femme fatale I’ve seen this side of Clytemnestra — she was the original cinematic bad girl. The ‘90’s Sharon Stone could’ve taken a lesson.
But, what’s most remarkable about Double Indemnity is that — unlike another seminal film of the time period — Billy Wilder’s flick is as fresh and watchable today as it was in 1944. There is more reason to see it than simply to catch a few “Simpson’s” references — it’s a gripping story of adultery and murder with some really edgy fucking dialogue that will open up your pores and puke out your hair follicles. In fact, back in the day, it was a chance viewing of Double Indemnity that finally got me over the aversion to black and white films that those Intro to Film classes had instilled — I had never realized just how dark and wicked a classic could be. Indeed, you won’t just appreciate Double Indemnity for popularizing film noir and bringing the bad girl to the masses; you’ll actually enjoy watching it from the first frame to the last.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.My Plan Was to Kiss Her with Every Lip on My Face.
Film | August 27, 2007 | Comments ()