Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Double Indemnity (1944)
Where’s the love for Billy Wilder? In discussions about the greatest film directors of all time, you’ll hear all the usual suspects – Coppola, Godard, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Spielberg – but I bet you most people will neglect to mention Wilder in their first ten responses, if they even mention him at all. That’s a damn shame. If ever there was an underrated director who deserved lavish praise, it’s Wilder. Spanning a career in which he was active as a writer for five decades and a director for almost four, the Polish-born filmmaker accumulated 6 Oscar wins and 21 nominations. That’s more wins than Coppola (5), Spielberg (3), and Clint Eastwood (4) and more nominations than Coppola (14), Stanley Kubrick (13), Scorsese (8) and both Joel and Ethan Coen combined (16).
But maybe accolades aren’t your cup of tea. Maybe you’re more interested in a film’s staying power. Well, maybe you realize it, maybe you don’t, but some of Wilder’s creations are still being referenced in films and pop culture today. Where do you think the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe futilely trying to hold down her white dress over a steam vent originated? (The Seven Year Itch, 1955). Who do you think wrote the oft-quoted line, “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille?” (Sunset Boulevard, 1950). Personally, I love Billy Wilder because he did whatever the hell he wanted to do, did it well, and did it all while working inside an often oppressive Hollywood system. Wilder utilized both his position in the industry and his skillful craft to hold a mirror up to society and reveal its ills and it was Double Indemnity, his first flirtation with Oscar gold as a director, in which he showed how observant and scathing a social critic he could be.
Double Indemnity follows Walter Neff (Fred McMurray), an insurance salesman at Pacific All Risk, as he falls for disgruntled housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). What begins as a standard sales visit about car insurance renewal, slowly builds piece by piece into a tale of infatuation, intrigue and murder. The consummate expert, Neff devises a scheme in which he can connive Mr. Dietrichson to unknowingly sign a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause that will guarantee $100,000 to his wife upon his death. And at Neff’s hands, die he does. However, no murder is a perfect murder and the fumbles that both conspirators commit don’t escape the attention of Neff’s colleague, Walter Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of insurance claims and a flawless talent at sniffing out fraud. As carefully as the scheme was built, piece by piece it begins to come apart until, as Neff confesses, “I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty isn’t it?”
Though Double Indemnity was his first foray into film noir, Wilder nailed every essential element of the distinctive genre. The plot, based on a novel by James M. Cain, is a hard-boiled thriller that weaves an engaging story with each passing scene. The film boasts the strongest performance of Fred MacMurray‘s career, who emotes lust, treachery, conflict and remorse better with his eyes than most actors do today with their entire bodies. Keep in mind, this is the actor who would later go on to star in such family-friendly films as The Shaggy Dog and The Absent Minded Professor. This casting off type is yet another example of Wilder playing by his own rules; a tactic doubly successful with hot-headed gangster type Robinson (Little Rico) playing the voice of emotionless logic. The film has the stark, contrast lighting (courtesy of 7-time Oscar nominee John F. Seitz) and razor sharp dialog (“She was a tramp from a long line of tramps”) one would expect from noir and, perhaps most importantly, an intoxicating and sadistic femme fetale. Show me a man who doesn’t think Barbara Stanwyck is sexy in every frame of this film and I’ll show you a liar.
It’s apropos that Wilder pulled off a genre with such a socially pessimistic worldview as it’s the perfect vehicle for his commentary on the dehumanizing world he saw around him – specifically, the world of Hollywood, California. To begin with, what better profession could our protagonist work in then insurance where the individuality of people is stripped away and categorized into facts and figures? (Interestingly, it’s rumored that the bland, hive-like look of the Pacific All Risk office was modeled after the interior of Paramount Pictures, the studio that produced the film). The walls of Keyes’s office are covered with charts and graphs and facts and figures and in one revealing scene he goes off on a long rant about the mind-boggling plethora of suicide categories Pacific All Risk has on file: “…Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps…” Further still, while we’re given enough information to know that Mr. Dietrichson was not an admirable fellow, we never even learn his first name. What we do know, and what’s repeated multiple times, is the amount of money his wife will receive upon his death. Dietrichson’s identity, further still, his worth, becomes completely determined by a dollar value.
There’s a lot of talk about anonymity and a removed approach to events within the film. Neff likens his inciting the events to a machine, saying “there was no stopping it now” and “the gears had meshed” and the way Keyes describes murder is as a train that two people take all the way to the end of the line. This implies there are not unique individuals involved, but just pieces of a larger, colder institution. When Dietrichson is killed, the act occurs off camera, with a stationery shot on Phyllis’s face as she stares ahead with a blank, almost robotic expression. Elaborating on this point, there are multiple scenes in the film in which characters go into public places in order to be alone. To collect his thoughts, Neff goes to a bowling alley, probably one of the louder environments one could find oneself in, and when he and Phyllis want to discuss the details of their scheme, they meet in a grocery store – the one place where every citizen of every race, color and creed NEEDS to go to consume. While Neff and Phyllis are concerned about murder and insurance claims, the customers around them are concerned with how high baby food is on the shelf. No people. Just products. Humorous, though, that within that one locale, everyone is concerned about money and what it will get them.
In many ways, it would seem as though the California environment has dehumanized Neff, Phyllis and those around them. As a machine performs one continuous task, Double Indemnity leads us to believe that if it wasn’t Neff, it would be another man, then possibly another and another and on and on for Phyllis Dietrichson. Maybe Neff was just a cog in a machine, a tool, a means to an end. Maybe in Hollywood, that’s what everybody is. Wilder certainly seemed to think so.