Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Noir Watch: Double Indemnity (1944)
I've talked about Double Indemnity (1944) before, but I finally purchased the movie on BluRay thanks to a recent release that had a lot of participation from TCM and a short doc with Eddie Muller, James Ellroy and others all talking about the film. And, it cost less than what it would have cost to go to the theater to see the movie when Fathom Events played it when I was in Chicago and couldn't go.
As the commentary on the BluRay sort of barks at you, Double Indemnity set the standard for noir, a form I think of as really cementing maybe 3-5 years later. The form has its origins in both pulp magazines and adaptations of those stories on the big screen like The Maltese Falcon from 1941, but in comparison to even the crime movies of the 1930's and pre-Hays Code, it's just... different. Just as comics had to adapt with the Comics Code Authority in place, and that took them down whole new avenues, I tend to think of a lot of the subtlety of noir stemming from the constrictions of the Hays Code era trying to make sense of post-Depression/ post-WWII life.
The British Film Institute recently had a nice little infographic which made the rounds on social media asking "What Makes a Film Noir?". A fair question. They weighed the pieces as they saw them, and Double Indemnity came out on top in both inclusion of select criteria and critics' scores.
It's not really a surprise.
The movie was based on a book by James M. Cain, who also wrote Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice and other classics. Director Billy Wilder (who also brought us one of my favorites, Sunset Boulevard) partnered with none other than Raymond (The Big Sleep) Chandler to get his script. And it's a hell of a script. Some of the best patter and banter in film.
But, damn, is the movie dark. The two leads, played by Stanwyck at her best, and Fred MacMurray in a career-changing (but not defining) role, are both rotten. Maybe Stanwyck is worse. Maybe MacMurray. It depends on who you want to blame for setting things in motion, because, much like Gun Crazy or other films, it's the lethal combination of the two that leads to all the trouble. MacMurray, despite his ability to dream up a murderous plot, is amazingly likable. It's a puzzle to him, maybe, one that he's been turning over in the back of his head for a decade - especially as he watches his buddy (Robinson) shake the rafters with his insistence on the stupidity of those who try to get away with a crime.
Stanwyck, someone oddly only really remembered by movie nerds more than the general public, was a real actress in an era of personalities playing the same part over and over (see: Clark Gable). I've not really seen her play the same character twice, and as Phyllis Dietrichson, she embodies what people should mean when they say "femme fatale". She offers sexual temptation, leads on a subject to get him to do as she wants, is smarter than everyone in the room, and isn't afraid to pull a gun or throw everyone at the cop to get away with it. So, please, internet... stop saying "femme fatale" until you've really got your head around Stanwyck's cold-eyed performance.
The movie manages to come down on the side of law and order without it feeling either cheap or an inevitability. Perhaps because of the narrative structure, of this playing out as the doomed history of MacMurray's Walter Neff from the first scenes. Or, because there's zero comfort in knowing the law did anything to get us to the resolution. It's just the dark pathway of two people who shouldn't have gotten tangled up together that produces the inevitable trolley car ride that ends at the cemetery.
Anyway, you've either seen it or you haven't. It's a fantastic movie, and one to add to the queue.