Jul 29 2009

Double Indemnity

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each other’s reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week we take on the cinema classic Double Indemnity. We’ve viewed a lot of noir films so far, so it’s only fitting that we take a look at one of the classics. This is a film that ranks 38th in AFI’s top 100 films of all time, and 47th on the IMDB top 250. So it’s both a critic pleaser and a crowd pleaser.

Double Indemnity
Year: 1944
Dir.: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wider and Raymond Chandler
Based on: Novel by James M. Cain
Starring: Fred MacMurry, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Genre: Drama (Noir)

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

Double Indemnity isn’t just an example of the film noir genre, it’s the example of the film noir genre. It’s one of, if not the best film of its time and type, and it perfectly captures every one of the tropes associated with noir. Double Indemnity carries with it the weight of an entire line of movies that followed and emulated it, and therefore, once again, Benn and I have chosen a movie that is hard to look at from a truly critical perspective.

As with most noir films, the mystery of the thing is both important and simultaneously not the key aspect of the story. Ostensibly it’s about a man and a woman who try to capitalize on her husband’s life insurance clause, but it ends up being much more about the characters that surround the crime, their reaction to it, and a general mood and tone that comes along with it. Here we see laid out the keys of the noir genre in terms of plot: a smart and slick protagonist who ends up being a bit gullible, a femme fatale, etc. I’ll stay away from the specifics because there are some chilling twists and turns, but the movie generally tells you where it’s going to go and then goes there, forcing you to focus on the characters, emotions, and interactions instead of the tricks it has up its sleeve.

Given this, the characters have to be well executed. The protagonist, Neff, is likable, almost too kind to belong in film noir, but then again his actions stray much worse than most noir protagonists by the end of the film. This contradiction makes him far more interesting than the actor playing him would initially lead on at the start of the film. Neff also provides the required film noir voice-over, and does so in spectacular fashion. Barbara Stanwyck plays one of the most memorable femme fatales to grace the screen in Phyllis, and she manages it while wearing possibly the worst wig to grace the screen. But of course this wig only adds to the mystique of her character. She has a stunning entrance scene and she and Walter Neff share a moment of verbal sparring early on that is also one of the sharpest pieces of dialogue you can find. But the real highlight of the film may be Edward G. Robinson as Keys, pulling off a charming and fun performance as the insurance boss with a hunch.

One of the keys to traditional film noir is the cinematography, and this is certainly one of the films to set the bar. Its high contrast black and white creates an eerie mood in a world that certainly is made up of many shades of grey. Shadows are used brilliantly, especially with regard to the constant stream of light coming through shades, trapping the characters in jail cells of striped shadows. This works particularly well with the Crime and Punishment-like exploration of guilt that runs throughout the latter half of the film. The black and white also helps to keep things dark, giving us no relief from the intensity of what’s happening to the characters, and allowing us to focus on their emotions more. The tones are beautifully arrayed to really show off the world that’s been set forth.

Finally the music. Film noir music is often bare, and this is no exception. While there are certainly a few queues to accentuate emotional moments, we are left primarily to sit with our own thoughts. The silence is what works best in this film, often there is no more effective music than silence. I feel that silence can really bring out the tension, and it certainly does it effectively here. But when the music is there, it is effective, particularly in its hectic drum rolling that I recently heard emulated in the scoring of L.A. Confidential.

We’ve been doing a lot of coverage on film noir lately, so its only fitting that we go back and look at its roots. If you want to understand what film noir is, simply watch this film. It really does have all the tropes of the genre, and it does them all well. And this is before it was cliché, so you don’t have to worry about the fact that someone is just copycatting someone else. It’s certainly not the first of its kind, but it is one of the best executed. Billy Wilder shows here his amazing ability to reach across genres and tell an excellent story, no matter the subject matter.

Benn says:

Every genre of any medium has a format and runs the risk of becoming a cliché; action films have the inevitable shoot out, the guy always gets the girl in the romance movie, and the mystery of who killed whom where and why is always discovered at the end of any film noir. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, however, gives you all the answers to the mystery before the audience has a chance to discover just what that mystery is.

The film opens with Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) speeding to his office in the middle of the night. While nursing a bullet wound in his shoulder, he records his confession concerning a deadly insurance scam for his boss and friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) and reveals the following: He killed a man named Dietrichson and staged it to look like a suicide or an accident for the man’s life insurance claim and his wife. With this kind of intro, it may lead one to ask: “If I know how this will end, why should I keep watching?” My advice: Keep watching.

The term “double indemnity” refers to a clause found on life insurance claims, which states that a claim will pay double if a client dies under a particularly unlikely or rare circumstance. Double Indemnity plays out in a similar fashion in that while audience members may expect to know what’s going to happen in the film, they end up watching a series of events that they did not anticipate and, as a result, getting double what they paid for.

Neff’s confession begins with him going to the Dietrichson household to discuss automobile insurance the Mr. Dietrichson, but ends up meeting the man’s wife instead. While launching into his salesman shtick, Mrs. Dietrichson questions him about signing her husband up for accident insurance without his knowledge. Although he initially rejects the idea, the morally ambiguous Neff finds himself inexplicably drawn to Mrs. Dietrichson’s charm and beauty and, like a moth to the flame, engages in the murderous plot.

Of course, we all know the basics of what is going to happen; the nefarious lovers will initially succeed in their plot, evade the police for a short time inevitably turn on each other, leading to the wounded Neff to his office to make his confession. However, the draw of Double Indemnity doesn’t lie in the who or the what, as most whodunit murder mysteries do, but on the how and why. Ultimately, discovering how and why Neff orchestrates the fraud and becomes overwrought by guilt after the murder becomes the sole motivating device that keeps the film moving the audience watching. Obviously, this forces the film to emphasize the development of its characters rather than its plot, which proves to be far more interesting, as few noir films focus on the emotional aspects of its characters.

Ultimately, the film ends with Neff concluding his confession, yet the film’s conclusion itself is, as the title promises, unexpected, and the details of how Neff has gotten to his office turns out to be unexpected. The details of the conclusion turn out to be the film’s greatest trick, as the details, events and fates of the characters defy tradition and convention within the film noir genre. It’s no doubt that this film is often commonly referred to as the quintessential film noir, since Double Indemnity opts to ignore the crime in favor of exploring the temptations and character of its criminals.

Ben’s rebuttal:

I’m pretty much in agreement with James on this one, as usual; Billy Wilder sure can write a script. The only noir film I can think of that compares to Double Indemnity is The Maltese Falcon, but that’s another discussion altogether. My only real argument with James’ review is his idea that Neff was likable. Yes, he was charming, but I found him to be very sleazy; he was way too easy to be convinced of the murder plot and showed no real signs of guilt until the the near-end of the film. However, his narration and relationship with his victim’s daughter is earnest and heartfelt, which may have acted as a kind of redemption.

James’ rebuttal:

Interesting that you bring up the way the story starts at the end, catches up, and then extends from there. This trope has become such a cliche lately. There’s so many films that do that, even recent comedies such as The Hangover have used it to their advantage (quite well in fact). This had to be early on in this tool’s use so it’s definitely notable to see it here. I worry though that it could get really tired soon.

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