Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity ★★★★½

One of the great self-serving myths of the prime noir wave is that it was an evisceration of American capitalism. And while this was sometimes tangentially true, up until the 1960’s, Noir was actually a champion of the white middle class and corporate control with near total disregard for the real victims of American capitalism. This movie is as much a trojan horse for the status quo posing half-heartedly as an anti-capitalist screed as any noir from its time.

Los Angeles’ history is brimming with some of the most brutal race-violence, labor-oppression, police corruption, and capitalist exploitation of any city in the United States, and so the Western world. It’s from this darkness that the idea of an always sunny paradise that casts pitch black, murderous, knife-edged shadows emerged in the first place.

But other than some lip service here and there, occasionally making wealthy people and greed the prime engines for despicable behavior, but more often just placing the world’s evil squarely on the shoulders of women - which admittedly created some fantastic villain roles for actresses in the first half of the twentieth century - noir refused to turn its gaze towards the real problems. Eventually this would change, as black authors, unionists, and ultimately, counter-culture creatives, sunk their teeth into the genre.

If you want pre-1960 noir that is actually anti-capitalist, you have to look to Dassin and other anti-fascist European intellectuals who were practicing the form (but who themselves certainly had their own cultural and racial blinders - they viewed L.A. as a wasteland yet never ventured into the historically vibrant parts of the city that were non-white).

And that’s, in a nutshell, Double Indemnity’s sin. It side-eyes anti-capitalist sentiment, but is actually about immoral upper middle class white people plotting murder while the moral center of the film is the very embodiment of the insurance company’s war on the lower class (Keyes) who more than once suggests that poor people, especially those with some kind of preexisting condition, should be denied coverage and is portrayed as “always right” when it comes to false claims. (But damn it’s good to see Edward G. Robinson act. It’s always such a pleasure to watch him.)

Double Indemnity underscores a lot of the problems with Cain’s (and Chandler’s) take on the squalid American nightmare, as well as the built in problematics of a work trying to damn a culture of greed while being built inside the studio system, which was the primary driver of L.A.'s massive racist, anti-labor, corruption machine at the time this movie was made.

Don’t get me wrong, this is as nasty as any WWII era noir can be, but it’s practically aimed at nothing. It’s a projection, not an illumination.

Where Double Indemnity wildly succeeds, why it's still a classic, overcoming its silly set-up; unbelievable tough talking, wife-stalking, asshole insurance salesman; and utterly empty thematic soul, is in the completely satisfying squeeze it puts on Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck’s characters throughout the second half of the film.

This is the real goods and joy of the flick. The noose tightens and the despicable nature of our protagonists emerge. It just drips with darkness. Watching MacMurray clinch-jaw his way through conversation after conversation about an “unknown” killer which he knows to be himself, watching an actor pretend to pretend that he’s not the very thing everyone around him is looking for, is just pure gold.

Double Indemnity is not the social evisceration I was led to believe. Though it's reportedly Billy Wilder’s favorite of his own films, I don’t think it’s nearly as morally complex and truthful as Sunset Boulevard, but it’s still an absolutely genre defining, grimy-ass noir good time.

PS: Here is the photo of Ruth Snyder mid-execution by electric chair in Sing Sing prison in 1928. It was taken by reporter Tom Howard with a secret camera tied to his ankle and published the next day in the New York Daily News. It has been called the most famous photograph taken in the 1920's. Ruth was Cain's real life inspiration for the femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck plays in this film.

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