Sunday, 10 October 2010

Stanwyck in noir III: Double Indemnity (1944)

"Double Indemnity" was Billy Wilder's third American film and perhaps his most ambitious project of the 1940s. It's among his best and has endured critical and public acclaim since its release. It was adapted by Wilder himself and Raymond Chandler (rather than Wilder's usual collaborator Charles Brackett who decided he didn't like the subject matter) from James M. Cain's novella of the same title. It is also one of key film noir titles, from before the term was coined.

It tells the tale of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) insurance salesman, who involved sexually (more than romantically) with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), is manipulated by her into murdering her husband so she claim an accident insurance on his death. Interestingly, I don't consider this a spoiler, as less than five minutes into the film we know that Neff has "killed a man for money - and a woman - and [he] didn't get the money and [he] didn't get the woman." The suspense comes from the "how did he end there", not from the ending itself. From the opening shot when you realise something is not quite right with Neff, to a car that doesn't start at a key point, all tension is very Hitchcockian - although I am not sure how much of an influence Hitchcock himself was, as this is still ahead of his great American films of the mid-1940s and 1950s. On the other hand, the film's voice over is decidedly not Hitchcockian and links very well to Wilder's own "Sunset Blvd." and anticipates a trademark feature of film noir.

The film is full of Wilder's touch - witty, quick dialogue; very close male relationships; and one of my favourites, pulling one on the censors. The film contains one of most obvious post-coital scenes produced under the Hays Code (MacMurray smoking, Stanwyck composing her lipstick). I have wondered how it passed, and the only thing I can think of is that the voice over reassures us that all they did was embrace (yeah, right...)

As Phyllis, Barbara Stanwyck gives the screen one of the most poisonous characters it has ever seen. She's absolutely ruthless and manipulative, using sex to get what she wants (Neff, and later on I suspect another character was also seduced). Stanwyck's ability to pull it off is uncanny - she's a cheap and yet desirable black widow who hardly ever shows any emotion. Look at her eyes. The moment MacMurray turns away they harden. It's one of two true emotions we ever get from her - contempt. The other is the almost smile during the amazing murder scene (happening off stage) when Wilder has his camera stuck on her stony face.

Fred MacMurray was an interesting casting decision. A seriously underrated actor, as he occasionally showed us, up to that point he had only been a leading ladies' leading man, supporting the likes of Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich or even Stanwyck herself as required. Here Wilder gave him a character with few redeeming features that still charms the hell out of you. It's also one of MacMurray's best performances, along with "There's Always Tomorrow" (again with Stanwyck) and "The Apartment" (again with Wilder). He shines through the film - from his original lust (their first scene together is amazing), through the planning, till the final confrontation. Interestingly, Wilder would do a similar casting against type with Ray Milland, Paramount's other leading ladies' leading man, the following year which got him an Oscar.

The third character in this dark triangle is Edward G. Robinson's Keyes as Neff's office mentor and father figure who ends being the reason of their downfall. Robinson was undoubtably one of the most versatile actors at WB in the 1930s, a full leading man who was more of a character actor. Like MacMurray and Stanwyck he seems so at ease in his (almost supporting) part that you forget he's acting.

The film got seven Oscar nominations: best film, best director, best screenplay, best actress, best sound, best soundtrack (Miklós Rózsa) and John F. Seitz's highly influential cinematography (I think it's in Cameron Crowe's interview book with Wilder where he describes how Seitz would spread something to give that dust through venetian blinds look). It lost them all. Ingrid Bergman beat Stanwyck and Seitz lost to Joseph LaShelle's exquisite work in "Laura" ( who later became Wilder's collaborator). In one of those mysteries the Academy is so good at, "Going My Way" got all the important ones. And to add insult to injury, MacMurray, Robinson and the excellent art direction were completely ignored.


Judy said...

I saw this a few weeks ago - great review, Miguel. I especially like your description of Stanwyck's lack of emotion in this - she is such a warm actress in some of her earlier roles, but in this she turns off all that warmth and seems icy cold. I also love Edward G Robinson in this - not so sure about Fred MacMurray, though I realise it is part of the point that he seems rather colourless.

Miguel said...

Thanks. I think Fred MacMurray's lust is the driving force behind the film, if you don't believe he really wants her, then all collapses. And he really pulls it off, IMO.