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.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

A few weeks ago I resumed my ongoing mission to explore films I haven’t seen before, primarily of the classic genre, with a viewing of Sunset Boulevard. This one, admittedly, threw me a few mental curveballs on its own accord, but with an unexpected bought of pneumonia to go along with those curveballs, the accompanying fever, and the inevitable cold medicine inebriation that followed, it’s taken me awhile to recover enough to feel like writing a review.

I guess I should say, before getting into this, that Sunset Boulevard is an excellent film. It’s listed on IMDb’s ranking of movies as #54 of all time—which is pretty significant. Likewise, it won three Oscars in 1951, while being nominated in just about every category that existed at the time. With that said, this is not a light-hearted film. It does have some wit to it, and a sprinkling of charm here and there, but it’s also deeply introspective of some subjects that are not very pleasant to think about, and whatever humor does exist, I believe it only serves as a bit of sugar to mask the horrible taste of the medicine it offers.

Set in the world of early 1950s Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard opens with the narration of the main character, whose body happens to be floating upside down in a pool. We’re told right from the beginning how the story will end, before being transported back six months to watch as this tragedy slowly unfolds in front of us. It’s not really fair to pin Sunset Boulevard down into any one particular genre; it dabbles in several. However, from my personal point of view, this is most definitely a horror film. Like many of the classic horror films from the 40s and 50s this movie tells the story of a monster, made hideous by circumstances beyond its control, desperately seeking a redemption that is just out of reach, and falling in love with its inevitable victim. From King Kong, to Frankenstein, to the Wolf Man, to the Mummy, to Dracula—all the classic horror films follow the same general pattern. What makes Sunset Boulevard shockingly different is that the horror is real, not pulled from the pages of archetypal fantasy and fairy tales, but instead culled from the bones of early Hollywood, specifically the silent film era of Hollywood and the phantoms it left behind as the shift was made to talking pictures. The Monster is Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), an aging has-been of the silent film era, living secluded in her mansion, running on the fumes of her once profitable stardom that has since faded into the past along with any meaningful relationships she may have once had. She has no family, no connection to reality, and spends her days lounging in opulence surrounded by portraits of herself as a young star. Her only companions are her butler and a pet chimp. Our introduction to Norma finds her in the midst of extravagant funeral preparations for the chimp who is subsequently laid to rest during a midnight ceremony in an ivory coffin in the backyard. Yes, this movie is very strange, and it is very creepy. As I said, the horror is uncomfortably real, though it presents Norma almost like a giant spider, her mansion a black burrow of death and dust, with an insatiable need to feed on the worship of fans who have forgotten she even exists. Into her web stumbles the doomed protagonist, Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who is down on his luck. As mentioned, we know the story isn’t going to end well for him—he’s the corpse floating in the pool at the beginning, narrating the tale of his demise from beyond the grave. Did I mention this is a horror flick? It’s definitely NOT the kind of movie anyone should watch while running a high fever.

While the movie itself has gone down in history as Billy Wilder’s indictment of Hollywood’s dark underbelly, hidden away by all the glamor and lights, I think it holds something much darker in its depths. The questions that are being silently asked of the audience throughout the film, are questions we all must ask ourselves at some point in our lives—what is integrity, and is there a price for which mine can be bought? Joe falls into Norma’s web because she needs a writer to edit her script. She’s produced it for the sole purpose of trying to grab back a piece of the fame and stardom she has lost in the years since she faded from the spotlight. It’s a terrible script, and a terrible waste of time and effort for Joe. We know from hearing his internal narrative dialogue what Joe really thinks, what he really believes, and how he really feels. But we watch haplessly as he deliberately ignores his own thoughts, goes against his own judgment, and allows himself to become Norma’s slave—because doing so means he doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills. Joe has many opportunities to escape Norma’s web, but in the end, he’s willing to give up his freedom, his artistic integrity, and even the love of a woman who is much more suited to him, all for financial security. By the time he realizes his mistake, that it wasn’t worth it—it’s too late, and he pays the cost with his life. The spider doesn’t let him leave the nest without blood being spilled.

The moral of the story is something worth thinking about—however uncomfortable it may be: If you know what the truth is, but you act in such a way that denies that truth, you are, in effect, killing yourself on the inside. There’s nothing more horrific than sacrificing your integrity. I think our society, as a whole, must have had a better grasp on that concept in 1950. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.