Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity ★★★★★

This review contains mild spoilers (which are basically revealed at the beginning of the movie).

Everybody talks about the shot in Billy Wilder's The Apartment where we see Jack Lemmon in his office, the rigid symmetry of which provides a certain dehumanizing, soul crushing quality. But I think it's worth bringing up for comparison the way this movie presents its protagonist's office. When we see it during the day, this insurance office is lively, bustling with activity, and the energy of the work is palpable. This is a movie where one of the central characters is a crack insurance claims investigator played by Edward G. Robinson, and as a result is maybe the only movie I can think of that makes the insurance business look cool or makes an insurance man a good guy. But you see this office at night, once at the beginning and once at the end, and the environment is less invigorating in this context. If you look closely at how the tables are lined up, it perhaps even resembles the way the crosses and tombstones might be arranged in a cemetery, and as a result casts a funereal pall over the proceedings sandwiched in between. Which is appropriate as when we first meet our protagonist, an insurance salesman played by Fred MacMurray, he's bleeding to death from a gunshot wound and offering a confession, which can be alternately seen as self-serving and totally unflattering, depending on the scene.

This sense of geometry carries over to other key scenes, like the ones in the supermarket, first where MacMurray plans the murder with iconic femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck, and later where they figure out how to play it cool in the aftermath. The environment at first seems perfectly banal, the relative activity allowing a discreet meeting in plain sight. But then you see how that banality manifests in the geometry, with the aisles squeezed a little too closely, to the point that MacMurray and Stanwyck have to move apart every time someone comes by to pick up a can of baby food. And you grasp the deadening, suffocating quality of the environment, and you understand why Stanwyck might want to kill her husband, as an escape not just from a marriage to an unkind husband, but an entirely unfulfilling existence. And you grasp why it's difficult to keep cool in the aftermath of the murder, as this existence is so deadening and so suffocating that being freed from it takes on a certain urgency. This won't make sense to anyone outside of a select few who used to post on a certain defunct internet forum, but I remember a wildly hyperbolic comparison a poster once made about how awful it was to live in the suburbs, and I have to wonder if they'd ever seen this movie.

Actually, a clear understanding of geometry carries over to the dialogue scenes, of which there are many, as this is a fast talking classic starring some of the best fast talkers in the history of cinema. It's tempting to say this movie would work as a radio play given how good the dialogue is, but that would undersell Wilder's keen visual direction. You can see how precisely the actors are blocked in scenes like the one where a witness to the crime comes to Robinson's office, and how the arrangement of their bodies draws our attention to MacMurray's expression as the witness helps Robinson uncover inconsistencies in what were previously understood to be the events that transpired. Going for a close-up might seem redundant at this point, but it's not without impact, as MacMurray's face makes him uniquely suitable to this role. He has a kind, almost swollen face, which serves him well in jovial roles like The Absent-Minded Professor, which is how I'd known him before seeing this movie. But it also highlights that he's very much not a strong, alpha male type, and in fact might be the type whose moral fiber is weak enough to be persuaded into committing a murder for insurance money. MacMurray's rounded edges are a strong contrast with Stanwyck's sharp edges, and the eerie effect of the sunglasses she puts on, and the daggers of ice one can feel from her eyes when she takes them off. And of course, the absolute king of the fast talkers is Robinson, whose affection and love for MacMurray are a warm counterpoint to the sexual tension and sinister scheming between MacMurray and Stanwyck. When he arrives at the end and sees MacMurray bleeding out, he seems disappointed, almost wounded.

"Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. 'Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya."

"Closer than that, Walter."

"I love you, too."

When the king of the fast talkers slows down, it means something.

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