|"I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man."|
Dir. Billy Wilder
Scr. Raymond Chandler & Wilder
Src. Novella by James M. Cain
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred McMurray, Edward G. Robinson, Tom Powers, Jean Heather, Byron Barr, Porter Hall, Richard Gaines
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This is one of the creepiest, most chilling film noir thrillers of all time. That after 70+ years Double Indemnity still manages to pummel us with the force of a raging bull is a testament to the genius of director-and-co-writer Billy Wilder, his dark-matter-infused screenwriting partner Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, the original author of the novella upon which the film is based.
No matter when I've seen it, the movie never lets me down and continues to raise my goose-fleshy hackles with the same force Barbara Stanwyck's performance pumps streams of blood to engorge my, uh, appendage.
The movie begins with a car's mad dash through the streets of Los Angeles until its driver, one seemingly distraught Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) stops, slowly exits his vehicle, stumbles into an office tower, then into the domain of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. In the pitch black of night, not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse; though, it seems, a few weary cleaners work quietly as they sweep, vacuum, mop and wax the floors, occasionally emptying the contents of wastepaper baskets near the desks that now sit empty and silently in the vast workspace. Neff, still unsteady, carries himself along the hallways until he lunges into a dark room, slumps into a chair and flips on the dictaphone.
|"You said it wasn't an accident, check.|
You said it wasn't suicide, check.
You said it was murder…check."
A routine visit to remind a client (Tom Powers) that his automobile insurance is about to expire is the thing that turns Neff's life completely upside down. The client isn't home, but his wife, the shapely Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) most certainly is.
Being a man obsessed with keeping his standing as Pacific Assurance's top-flight salesman, he's had little time for love.
Lust, maybe, but Cupid's Arrow has always eluded him.
Phyllis, much younger than her hard-working oil man hubby, is trapped in a loveless marriage which she thought would yield riches, but has instead, served up an all-you-can-eat buffet of unhappiness, abuse and the most modest financial stability.
These two are primed, so to speak, for a good pump.
|Phyllis: Do you make your own breakfast, Mr. Neff?|
Neff: Well, I squeeze a grapefruit now and again.
Nothing's ever perfect, though. Neff's best friend, mentor and bonafide father figure is the crafty, dogged insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Neff is more than aware that Keyes will be a tough nut to crack, but he's ultimately convinced that his dark premeditated enterprise will succeed.
His patter to sell insurance is sprinkled with seemingly caring advice; counsel which indeed might have the potential to interfere (albeit positively) upon the lives of others, but is ultimately self-serving. It boosts his ego, his pride in selling more successfully than anyone, but most of all, Neff, as a human being seems to share the psychological portrait of a corporate entity. In the official synopsis of Mark Achbar, Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott's 2003 documentary The Corporation, a corporation. which is a legally constructed individual, or if you will, a "person", is defined thusly:
"The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social 'personality': it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism."This seems to describe Neff to a "T" and yet, we like the guy. Why shouldn't we? He's a charming, oddly handsome and wryly funny human being. He sees something he wants - Phyllis - and he's willing and able to do what he needs to do to get it/her. All this said, though, the Wilder/Chandler/Cain Holy Trinity have carefully inserted enough shadings to Walter's character, which gradually reveal a man who honours friendship, wants love and is also imbued with a sense of sacrifice. It's true that he's painted himself into a kind of "the jig is up" corner, but it's a sense of both mortality and morality which work upon the un-oiled hinges of that tiny door nestled deep in his heart and sacrifice, he will, and does.
|Phyllis: We're both rotten.|
Neff: Only you're a little more rotten.
As filmmaker/critic Paul Schrader notes in his terrific essay "Notes on Film Noir", the film "… provided a bridge to the post-war phase of film noir. The unflinching noir vision of Double Indemnity came as a shock in 1944", but I'd go further and suggest it's as shocking now as it once was. We all want to believe in man's inherent goodness and though, as Schrader notes, "Double Indemnity was the first film which played film noir for what it essentially was: small-time, unredeemed, unheroic", I'd again go a step further and suggest that Neff's final act of sacrifice goes beyond all that.
There are two deep loves in the film. Firstly, there's the love between friends - Neff and Keyes. The body language between the two men and even the way they look at each other subtly betrays the notion that Neff is a true psychopath. Secondly, there's the love between old man Dietrichson's daughter Lola (Jean Heather) and her hot-headed-with-jealousy boyfriend Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr). It's a love thwarted by Lola's Dad, Phyllis and through his nefarious actions, Neff himself.
"Who'd you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good looking dame's front parlour and says, 'Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands. You got one that's been around too long? One you'd like to turn into a little hard cash?'"
Neff's narration of the tale has the same impact as Wilder's use of narration much later in Sunset Boulevard. Schrader defines the narration of film noir as being imbued with "an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate and an all-enveloping hopelessness." The sad and salient difference is that Sunset Boulevard is brilliantly narrated by a literal dead man, but the earlier and equally powerful Double Indemnity is narrated by a dying man, or rather, a man facing the inevitability of death, a life wasted save for his sacrifice for a love between two people that might only have been achieved by his acts of deception and murder.
And this, maybe more than anything, is why Double Indemnity is truly and virtually unequivocal in its greatness. The immoral actions of one man lead to sacrifice, which in turn leads to love. If this isn't as cynical as it is profoundly and deeply moving, nothing is.
The Film Corner Rating: ***** 5-Stars
Double Indemnity plays Saturday, February 21 at 3:30 p.m. at TIFF BELL LIGHTBOX in James Quandt's amazing series "Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck". The film is presented in a BRAND NEW DIGITAL RESTORATION. For further info, visit the TIFF website HERE. The film is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray via Universal Pictures replete with a phenomenal set of extra features. As well, there are many other Stanwyck films from this TIFF series which can be ordered directly below and, if so, you'll be contributing to the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.
|"YES, I KILLED HIM. I KILLED HIM FOR MONEY AND A WOMAN.|
I DIDN'T GET THE MONEY AND I DIDN'T GET THE WOMAN.
Pretty, isn't it?"
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