Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity ★★★★★

"Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money, and for a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman. Funny, isn't it?"

This is my 5,000th film. Thank you for helping me choose it, friends.

(It's also my 1,888th film review. But who's counting?)

Billy Wilder's classic film noir, the crime thriller that turned 75 last year, Double Indemnity remained until today one of the most glaring omissions in my list of watched movies, one of those "how did you miss this?" pictures.

But never has an insurance salesman been so interesting. Never has a housewife been so seductive. Never has a claims adjuster been so… well, no, claims adjusters are always shysters.

The film noir that effectively established the genre and made it an accessible one to audiences, that took a seedy story and gave it the combination of gritty and flashy, that made a cast of troublemakers and broken people all worth watching, and that helped usher in the age of failed fellas in fedoras and the femmes fatales who filet them. The movie that gave us Raymond Chandler as a screenwriter, Billy Wilder's first Oscar nomination for Best Director, venetian blinds lighting before it was cliché, and veiled shots at the Production Code which Wilder would shatter within a decade.

And smoking. Lots and lots of smoking.

It's 1938, and Los Angeles insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) stumbles into his office at night wounded by a gunshot, soon dictating a confession for friend and claims manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). From this moment, we learn of the story in flashback.

During a housecall for her husband in Glendale, Neff meets the gorgeous housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and they chat and flirt until the awkward moment when Phyllis inquires about a life insurance plan on her spouse, but without his knowing about it. Neff is no dummy and knows what this means: she's planning murder, and after at first feeling repulsed after a time hearing about the drunken abuse he wants in, with his tricky explanation of the "double indemnity" clause whereby the payout is twice. But he's also fallen into her spell, and the $50,000 is just a convenient way to stay close to this temptress. Indeed, the pair kill Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) as Neff hides in the back seat of a car and breaks his neck, then poses as the man on a train as he and Phyllis dispose of the body on the tracks. As the insurance investigates, adjuster Keyes is skeptical of the suicide which is suggested, and refuses to allow a payment as he accuses Phyllis of murder with an unknown accomplice. He tells this all to his friend Walter Neff! Not only is Keyes suspicious, so is the deceased's daughter Lola (Jean Heather), and soon a twisted game of clever backstabbing, shadowy motives, and shifty double-crosses commences.

My favorite thing about the very best noirs -- The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, at least American ones of this era -- is the cadence of the dialogue, the pace of conversations that snap back and forth, the rhythm of emotions and double entendres spinning right into deadly misgivings. Here it's crafted by Wilder and Chandler from James M. Cain's similarly titled novella, the first Hollywood screenplay from the brilliant crime novelist but nearly the fortieth by Wilder in his fourth directorial effort. And indeed it's an untouchable script, full of cynicism and provocation which would be key themes in nearly all Wilder's films for the rest of his career, even the comedies and lighter fare.

But here it's dark as midnight, like the shadows and shades of John Seitz's black-and-white cinematography. Practically inventing the noir techniques of using the point-of-view of the criminal (or, one of them), boiling sexual tension and dooming vice, and as film scholar Robert Sklar wrote a "dark and claustrophobic framing, with key lighting from sources within the mise-en-scène casting strong shadows that both conceal and project characters' feelings." That point-of-view is a narrator, MacMurray himself as Neff, not a dead man like the narrator in Sunset Boulevard but a doomed one. And though the film had a lengthy script for less than two hours, it's never talky but consistently arresting and urgent, barreling from one tension-filled moment to another. The dangerous flirtation, the murder plot, the suspicion of Keyes, all heightened by the rousing crescendos of Miklós Rózsa's Academy Award-nominated score.

And though this is a deadly noir, something in me sympathized with Mr. Neff, a man who is in so deep and digging further down that he doesn't know that the only way not to be buried further is to stop digging. I've been there -- ha, no, not murder -- in the sense of feeling caught in lies and deception that only cascade into tragedy, all from your own stupid mistakes and greed. It's exhausting and impossible. And hearing his confession sporadically in Double Indemnity only builds the tension as you decide to empathize with this fallen man or not. "It's straight down the line for both of us," Walter remembers. So do I.

This Wilder guy is something else huh. Hot damn. Thank you all for picking this one. I'll see you at 10,000.

Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Films from Every Year I've Seen Them.
Added to Billy Wilder ranked.
Added to My Best Reviews of 2020.

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