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.