I’ve been meaning to see Double Indemnity forever now, but only just finally got around to it after stumbling across a special edition copy in my school library. I’ve reviewed a couple other pieces of classic film noir on this blog and intend to do more. Film Noir is one of my favorite genres of film; it may in fact be my all time favorite, were it not for my love of classic westerns as well. When I think of the very abstract idea of cinema itself the mental picture I get is a smoky, black and white film with a hard boiled story featuring fast talking characters dressed in black trench coats topped with sharp edged fedoras. It’s all just so basic and elemental, but still so striking and effective nonetheless, and goes to show that you don’t need a ton of flash to make a good movie, just a good story, compelling characters and good directing. Here in this movie you have a story written by Raymond Chandler, and directed by Billy Wilder. Chandler may be hands down the best author of noir novels to have ever lived. His novels have been turned into countless classic films of the genre. Wilder, who also directed the classic Sunset Boulevard, also has to be considered in any discussion of the greatest directors of this genre as well. He of course does a top notch job on this.
There are so many great uses of lighting and shadows here, especially in the interior scenes featured in the insurance office and at the Dietrichson household. This is one of the movies that set the standard for that classic hard contrasting noir lighting. It’s a great style that makes very economical use of space, lines, and texture. Bottom line, this movie walks, talks, and looks absolutely perfect. That being said, I found I did not enjoy this movie as much as I have other classic noirs such as The Third Man, or Out of the Past to name but two, although from a technical standpoint this film is the equal, if not the better, in some areas anyway, of either of those two films. For starters the flashback structure used here took me out of the movie early on by basically divulging the end to the story that was to be told, before it had from the audience’s point of view, even began. That was my personal experience mind you. I know the flashback narrative structure is a staple of many pieces of film noir, including Out of the Past, which I mentioned above. I didn’t object to its use so much as to how much information it provided me in the opening moments of the film.
Also, I didn’t find the story to be as gripping as I expected it to be. I never really got invested in the main love angle in the film, so it goes without saying that I thought the extra love interest subplot with Phyllis’s younger sister to be more than a little tacked on. Again, I did indeed enjoy this movie very much, and was won over by many different aspects of it. I just wanted to add a little preface here for those who might be wondering why my praise of this movie isn’t as glowing and flowing as it was for some of the previous reviews I’ve written.
All that out of the way, there was some great acting and even some good suspense here as Edward G. Robinson’s character Barton Keyes begins piecing together what’s actually going on and beginning to tighten the noose around Neff’s neck. Robinson has one of those granite bulldog faces that just feels so at home in a hard boiled film noir movie. They don’t make faces like that anymore, especially ones with so much built in toughness and intelligence. He won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his performance in this movie. I’ve never seen Fred MacMurray in anything substantial enough to remember, but after seeing this movie I will always associate him with this role. I typically prefer my noir to come with a side of Bogart or Mitchum, but he more than held his own in this big starring role here. He had a great but strange chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck who plays the plotting femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson. The two of them of course go in together in a scheme to murder Mrs. Deitrichson’s husband, and have a torrid love affair (which you can tell by the number of times Neff calls her “baby”…) but while their dialogue is crisp, sharp, fast, and stinging in that greatly energetic way that these old movies tend to be, it seems they are much more in love with the idea of being in a nefarious murderous plot than they are with the idea to be together. As many other reviewers have pointed out over the years, they (the characters mind you) just don’t seem to really like each other all that much, which while it plays into the story, still left me feeling a little distant towards both of them as the protagonists of the movie. I should also note here that Stanwyck was an absolute knockout as the femme fatale of this movie though. From the first moment she appears at the top of that staircase she commands everyone’s attention with a combination of dangerous curves and wickedly good banter.
From the direction standpoint, there’s so much visually here to chew on. Start with that tremendous opening scene here with Fred MacMurray’s insurance selling character Walter Neff stumbling, half dead, into this huge insurance company building, that through a combination of lighting and camera angle, seem to be like a huge maximum security prison as much as a place of business. And then you have the scene where Keyes almost catches Neff and Dietrichson at Neff’s apartment, which even though you know from the flashback structure will not play out with their discovery, still oozes with so much tension and suspense. Billy Wilder certainly knew what he was doing to say the absolute least. I know I may be committing a cardinal sin by giving this one only three stars out of four (if our system allowed for half stars, this would probably be at least three and a half though) instead of a perfect score, but as mentioned above, this one didn’t grab me like some of my previous noir adventures have. Still though, this is a perfectly cast and wonderfully acted and directed movie that is certainly worth a watch.
Double Indemnity gets a three out of five: GOOD.