Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

I’m back into the Lunsford Educational Classic Film Series for my movie review this week on Double Indemnity (1944) starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, and directed by Billy Wilder. This was my second Wilder film, after seeing Sunset Boulevard a couple of months ago. The term “dark” would be a good adjective to describe the general feel of these two films by Wilder, but if we were looking for more specific descriptors, then Sunset Boulevard would be “cloudy with a chance of rain,” while Double Indemnity would be “pitch black at midnight during a new moon.” I’m not sure what happened to this guy, or what his life was actually like – although I did find out that he was a Jew who escaped Germany when Hitler came to power in the 1930s… but whatever the case may be, Wilder was obviously well acquainted with the darkness and depravity that humans are capable of inflicting on one another, and he wasn’t afraid to express it in his chosen art form—even when faced with the threat of censorship—which was much more strict back in those days. I appreciate the fact that he stuck to his guns and made this film the way he wanted to, even though it probably wasn’t easy at the time. Never the less, by today’s standards, this movie is extremely tame. What might have been considered nearly too violent or graphic in 1943, wouldn’t even get a PG13 rating in 2018. Actually, the genius of the movie, is how uncomfortable, anxious, and on edge it can make you feel just by using extremely intelligent dialogue and creating mystery without showing or explaining every little detail.

If you’re like me, before watching this movie, then you most likely have no idea what the phrase “double indemnity” means, so… it’s basically a term used in the insurance industry to denote a particular kind of life insurance policy that deals with accidental death. Indemnity means that the insurance company is responsible for compensating the grieved party, and double indemnity means they have to pay out twice as much—if specific, highly unlikely, circumstances are what results in the accidental death. The plot of the movie involves a woman named Phyllis Dietrichson who wants to get rid of her husband, and an insurance agent named Walter Neff who wants the husband out of the way—working together to devise a plan in which they can both get what they want, through murder, while tricking the insurance system into paying them for their efforts. In other words, they figure out a way to whack this guy and make the insurance company think it was a freak accident so they can get rich. The only thing standing in their way is Barton Keyes, the veteran investigator who has a sixth sense (which he refers to as “the little man living in his chest,” giving him heartburn) that won’t let him rest, telling him something isn’t right, and creating an insatiable need in him to dig until he gets to the truth. It’s this character, and Robinson’s performance that really kept me locked into the story, despite a few spots where I was beginning to nod off. But that wasn’t really the fault of the film—my stomach was full of Indian curry, and my air conditioner was having trouble keeping up with the 90 degree heat. But even when I felt like succumbing to my haze of weariness, Keyes would appear on screen and instantly bring me back to life with his intensity and determination. That’s good movie making right there – when the story, or the characters are so compelling that they can reach out to you through a black and white screen from 74 years in the past, tap you on the shoulder, and say, “wake up you idiot!” I really can’t say enough about these characters. I like new movies just as much as most people, and I’m not someone who thinks everything from the past is superior or better—but most movies are just made differently now, and it’s very rare nowadays to find characters, especially like Keyes, who are this well constructed, and that use dialogue this effectively.

Now, I actually watched this movie a couple of weeks ago with my girlfriend Anna, and we had a nice chat about it afterwards, but it has been difficult to take some time and get my thoughts about this film into the keyboard. I think one of the reasons for this, other than it just being kind of depressing and sad, is that it flips the hero and villain motif on its head – and that kind of threw me a bit of a cinematic, storytelling curveball. The protagonist in this story is the criminal, committing murder, and trying to cover it up, while the antagonist is the good guy trying to figure out what happened. By flipping the storytelling devices around it leaves you with a sense of not knowing exactly who to identify with or root for—your brain is telling you to connect with Keyes who is an extremely adept investigator trying to piece together this puzzle and see justice done. But the film is designed in such a way that it causes you to create an emotional connection with Walter the murderer—and you’re sort of hoping deep down that he gets away with it somehow. You know he doesn’t, because in the opening scene he’s sitting in a chair with a bullet wound in his shoulder, confessing everything into a tape recorder—but you still kind of want him to find some sort of redemption in the end. And I suppose he does find a little bit of redemption, realizing that he’s been horribly manipulated by his own evil desires, attempting to set the record straight before he is arrested, and scrambling at the end to keep some of the innocent people involved from becoming collateral damage… but even so, it made me kind of sad to watch this guy take his life and, to quote Biff Tannen, “flush it completely down the toilet.”

I’m not sure I would watch this movie again, but I can’t deny that it is extremely intelligent and well crafted–a classic in every sense of the word–film noir at its finest.

Clear and Present Danger

Clear and Present Danger

I’ve been getting a little backed up on my movie watching lately. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a problem, and it’s really not—I’m just making a general observation, not a complaint. There are, of course, more serious things to be all backed up about; like actual work, or a busy schedule, or like that time in college when a guy in our dorm was dared to eat an entire block of Velveeta in one sitting—he was so backed up he had to go to the emergency room. I’m very fortunate to only be backed up on my movie watching time.

I only bring this up to explain why I’m now reviewing a movie that I didn’t even intend to watch this week. I actually intended to write something about a movie I watched last week, called Double Indemnity—and I’ll get back to it eventually, but a couple of nights ago I found myself randomly selecting a film that I haven’t seen since I was in high school: Clear and Present Danger. I’m still not sure what drew me into watching it again after so many years. As previously alluded to, I literally have a stack of movies and shows sitting on my desk that I’m intending to watch and eventually write about; Clear and Present Danger was not in this stack. Maybe I just needed a night of random spontaneity and this is what passes for living on the edge at age 39… or maybe it’s because I’ve been missing my mom recently, and this was one of her favorite movies—that probably has something to do with it.

Actually, this film was a favorite for both of my parents. They took my sister Emilie and I to see it in the theater when it came out, and it’s one of the movies that occupied a place of importance in their VHS collection. I never asked them why, but I was thinking about that when I watched it this time. I know they were both interested in the Jack Ryan films, and Harrison Ford was one of their favorite actors… but I couldn’t help thinking that there must be something more to why they loved this movie so much.

There are, as far as I know, five movies that center around the character of Jack Ryan, all of which are based on the books by Tom Clancy. In these five movies, the role of Jack Ryan has been played by four different actors: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Captain James T. Kirk… I mean, Chris Pine. In the first movie with Alec Baldwin, The Hunt for Red October (1990), Ryan is more of a side character, but in the other four movies he’s the main dude. These movies are, in order of release: Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Sum of All Fears (2002), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). It can all be a little confusing due to the fact that in each movie Ryan gets younger and younger, while the technology and political arenas get more up to date. There’s a sort of adaptable mythology surrounding this character, which means he’s the kind of hero that can be updated and modified to fit with current events. He’s kind of like a Batman or Superman in the sense that different filmmakers can choose to emphasize different aspects of his story based on their own perspective, while keeping the general guidelines of the character intact from one iteration to the next. In all of these films, Ryan is basically, as best I can sum him up, an honest ‘boy scout’ working in the CIA. That pretty much makes him completely fictional as far as I can tell.

In the two Harrison Ford films Jack Ryan is older, in his early 50s, and well established in his career with the CIA. In Clear and Present Danger he’s the Deputy Director of Intelligence, reporting directly to the President. The plot of the movie is very well constructed. It’s essentially a spy movie, a political drama, a murder mystery, and an action flick, all well balanced and baked together just right to form the perfect casserole of 90s flavor. I think when I first saw it as a teenager I was disappointed that there wasn’t as much action, but when I watched it now, I had a much deeper appreciation for the various elements being woven together.

Just to give you the highlights— The President, the National Security Advisor, and the CIA Director of Operations—or as I like to think of them, George W., Don Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—all decide to conduct a secret, covert war against the Columbian drug cartels. When things start to get out of hand, they decide to cut communications and support to their troops on the ground and give away their positions to the enemy — all to cover up what they’ve been doing. Jack Ryan is inadvertently thrown into the middle of this mess when his boss is overcome by cancer. The process of him picking up the pieces, gathering evidence, figuring out what’s been going on behind his back, and taking action is a slow build up to him eventually finding Willem Defoe (reprising his Oscar nominated role as Elias from Platoon) and flying into the Columbian jungle to rescue the abandoned troops. But the real icing on the cake, and the thing that gave me the chills this time around, is when Harrison Ford marches into the oval office at the very end, looks the President directly in the face and tells him he’s a bastard. This all may seem a bit overdramatic and passé to younger audiences today, but in the 1990s covert wars were still illegal… nowadays they’re a dime a dozen, and the President doesn’t have to cover them up—he can brag about them on Twitter—and a hundred thousand people cuss him out before he eats breakfast. But back in good ‘ol 1994, this was really something special that didn’t happen in real life.

Anyway, this all brings me back to surmising on what my parents found so interesting about this film. I guess I’ll have to ask my dad the next time I talk to him to get some more insight. Whatever the case may be, one thing’s for sure—It’s a great movie, there’s no doubt about that, and it has some important points to make about government, politics, and power. The overall impression that this story leaves me with—whether it was designed to do so or not—is the idea that the truth is a higher authority than the highest office in our land. And for the record, I don’t think this has changed. The truth is still the higher authority—and everyone still appeals to the truth, and people still demand honesty—the problem, however, is that no one really knows what the truth is anymore. And Jack Ryan doesn’t exist.

And the clearest and most present danger is not a Columbian drug cartel.