Double Indemnity (1944): A Smooth Shiny Girl, Hardboiled and Loaded with Sin

Noir done well is close to unbeatable, in my world (perhaps topped only by good horror). Having just finished reading The Glass Key by my favourite detective fiction author, Dashiell Hammett, I could not be more in the mood for a good seedy story of intrigue. Hammett gave us Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, the Operative, Ned Beaumont… he was tremendously influential in shaping the hardboiled noir tale standards. In the past few years, I have seen two outstanding modern noir films, each of which transplanted these conventions onto unfamiliar and original scenarios. In Brick (2005), Joseph Gordon-Levitt enthrals as our gritty detective, a teenager wise far beyond his years, shrewdly navigating the ugly underbelly of the candy-coated high  school scene as he looks for his ex-girlfriend’s murderer. More recently, Winter’s Bone (2010) applied the conventions to the story of a survivalist family of Hill people, as the eldest daughter searches for her criminal father amidst the dangerous world of justice that exists outside the law, in an attempt to save her mother and siblings from being thrown out of their house. Both cases are immensely successful in invoking the spirit and tone of noir, despite the apparent incongruence of setting (a teeny-bopper high school noir?!). However, Hammett had given me a yen for the old-fashioned, traditional structure. It was about time I got back to basics, with a true classic – a film amongst the best noirs ever produced. Double Indemnity (1944), I’m ready for you.

Synopsis: An insurance salesman is taken in by a beautiful woman in an unhappy marriage, and they conspire to murder her husband and collect the insurance money.

First of all, let’s take a moment to marvel at the pedigree involved in this movie. Double Indemnity is directed by Billy Wilder, a master of the camera and the man behind some of the greatest movies of all time: Sunset Boulevard (1950), Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), The Seven Year Itch (1955)… etc., etc.  Add to that, the dialogue and storytelling of Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the script with Wilder. It is no wonder that the screenplay is so wonderfully snappy and clever. It’s easy to bemoan the lack of wit in dialogue these days (damn kids these days!), but of course, it’s no surprise. The current film industry is one that likes to pretend the success of Inception (2010) was a mere fluke to keep from having to pay quality writers and directors to come up with original and exciting stories. It’s an industry in which Michael Bay hired the writers behind Mission: Impossible III (2006) to “fix” The Island (2005), originally written as a quiet, disturbing and thoughtful examination of human cloning. In its current atmosphere, the movie industry is one that rewards lazy, simple solutions, and punishes creativity for being too risky. The snap-and-crackle banter between Walter and Phyllis is woefully absent from modern cinema, but the optimist in me hopes for a day the pendulum will swing back the other way and witty dialogue will once again become fashionable. Thus, from the start of production, this film was created by two contemporary masters who excelled in their respective fields. And that isn’t even to mention the acting. Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson… this is a recipe for success, as far as I’m concerned.

Double Indemnity perfectly encapsulates what I love so much about the noir genre: its sparse, minimalist nature. In every way, a great noir works through understatement and subtlety while rejecting the grand operatic drama popular in entertainment, and Wilder’s masterpiece is no different. The characters say more with fewer words; the music quietly creates a sense of tension and uncertainty without an emotional symphonic sound; every scene serves a purpose. There is a narrative efficiency that these stories take on, likely because intricate plots of intrigue demand concise storytelling. With so much material to get through, there just isn’t time for the sweet shot of the lovers walking hand in hand, or getting to know each other over coffee. I have no doubt that such scenes are necessary in other genres to develop characters and create drama; perhaps I appreciate how noir cuts through the typical bullshit and gets to it already, much like the prototypical hardboiled hero. Walter, who may be a rube (admitting as much in the opening scene), is still the traditional noir protagonist: composed, clever, unsentimental. His plan for murder is genuinely brilliant, and he has zero tolerance for lies and manipulation. Which would have worked out well for him, had Phyllis not been the prototypical femme fatale: intelligent (hard for Walter to avoid manipulation if he can’t recognize it), ruthless, and sexy as all get-out. Hot damn. Check out those gams.

But this sexiness is not Megan-Fox-bending-over-a-car-hood sexy; it’s not school-girls-licking-lollipops, or bikini-mud-wrestling sexy (if that’s your kind of thing). It’s not boobs-in-your-face-and-thong-peeking-out-from-over-jeans sexy. Of course, back in 1944, such images would have been considered pornographic. Forced by censorship laws to convey sexual attraction in more subtle ways, Double Indemnity is filled with delicious innuendo and double entendres. The sexual tension between the two actors is made palpable through lingering stares, clever wordplay, and the intensity of their body language. Plus a smooch or two, which is as much as we ever see. I am not one for censorship in any fashion; I believe that I can choose for myself what to watch/read/listen to, and if I find something offensive, I just choose to stay away. Nor am I against more overt images of sex. Many of the films I watch contain graphic sex scenes, and I don’t find them distasteful or off-putting. But I rarely find them sexy. The sexiness in these old movies maintains a bit of mystery. Real pornographic films (not soft-core or art-house, but Back Door Sluts 9 level of hard-core) actually bore me; nothing is hidden or suggested, there is no enticement or seduction – it’s just sex. On camera. Repeatedly. In-your-face sex is just not sexy – nothing is left to the imagination. The movies from the era of strict censorship had to seduce the audience; they were forced to find ways to make the audience feel the sex without showing anything of it. Not only does this take more talent, but it also is much more effective, in my mind.

Overall, the story is a tight, well-crafted narrative with no loose ends. It goes in unexpected directions, has dynamite dialogue, and is superbly performed. If you’re a noir junkie too, do not miss this. If you’re not, watch this, and be converted.

Favourite Scene: Der… the murder was so wonderfully plotted.  I also loved Keyes rant on suicide statistics.

Key Quote:

Walter: You’ll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.
Walter: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter: I wonder if you wonder.

Fun Fact: Author James M. Cain later admitted that if he had come up with some of the solutions to the plot that screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did, he would have employed them in his original novel.


~ by K. Harker on April 19, 2011.

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