Double Indemnity (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder
Written By: Raymond Chandler, Billy Wildlre
Fred MacMurray … Walter Neff
Barbara Stanwyck … Phyllis Dietrichson
Edward G. Robinson … Barton Keyes
I approached this film with Alain Silver and James Ursini, writers of Film Noir (2004), analysis of Double Indemnity in mind. They include it in their chapter on one of the main themes of film noir, “The Perfect Crime”, or though “would-be perfect” is more accurate. “...as Double Indemnity's protagonist, Walter Neff, puts it when he begins his narration: “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.” (Silver & Ursini, 2004:25).
I'm looking to Double Indemnity as a quintessential noir film, from which to then begin to explore its future descendants, neo-noir, tech-noir etc. Asking such questions as: what makes it noir? What archetypes does it develop? Does it intend to create an authentic verisimilitude?
I enjoyed the film immensely, and remained distracted by its age. The striking resemblance of Fred MacMurray to Pierce Brosnan was slightly off putting, but not disastrous!
As Roger Ebert points out, to outline the rather linear and simple plot is “to miss the nuances that make it tantalizing.” (Ebert, 1998) Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and bored housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) collide and “strut through the routine of a noir murder plot... but they never seem to really like each other all that much, and they don't seem that crazy about the money, either.” However early Double Indemnity comes in the film noir genre, in hindsight it can almost seem self-reflexive, in comparison to future noir films. Walter Neff is an all-american smart, handsome man; with a sharp mind and a sharper tongue. He's a ballsy salesman always looking for opportunity. Phyllis is the frustrated wife of an older man; her shallow motive for marriage having resulted in a caged life and an abusive husband. It all seems typical enough, and their meeting is of course the catalyst for the rest of the film; but perhaps unusually, not for a whirlwind romance, rather for passionate mutual escape that leaves them both estranged floundering in unknown waters.
Infact, the distancing of Phyllis, Walter and the other characters becomes objective, they become “just neatly carved pieces in a variably intriguing crime game.” (Crowther, 1944) as New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther rather disparagingly puts it. But it is this very fatalistic spiral that gives the film its tension, the knowledge that this 'perfect crime' will inevitable self-destruct at some point.
However, the film cannot escape convention, and we are drawn in a centripetal fashion toward Walter's closure. Yes, he is arrested and bound to be hung for his crimes, but he finds a sense of redemption and satisfaction. Perhaps in a post-modern telling of the story, the perpetrators may escape capture, leaving the supposed dream of riches and freedom. How ever, their shallowness, objectivity and self-doubt would leave them fragmented and lost, exposing the transparency of their dreams.
Silver, A & Ursini, J (2004) Film Noir, TASCHEN: Italy
Ebert, R (1998) Double Indemnity From: RogerEbert.com (Online) http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19981220/REVIEWS08/401010313/1023 [Accessed on: 03/10/2011]
Crowther, B (1944) 'Double Indemnity,' a Tough Melodrama From: NYTimes.com (Online) http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/27/specials/wilder-indemnity.html?_r=2 [Accessed on: 03/10/2011]