Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Double Indemnity

1944's DOUBLE INDEMNITY is considered by many to be the forefather of the mid-twentieth century film noir.  Its classic status is richly deserved, as from its opening moments it reveals a mastery of mood and dialogue, when insurance salesman Walter Neff (Freed MacMurray) struggles into a building late one night on a mission to confess some pretty noirish activity on his part (the story will be in flashback).  But before he reaches the office of his boss, his few words with the elevator man establish that what could have been throwaway dialogue is actually carefully selected by its writers, director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

The dialogue alone makes the film indispensable.  It is startling to hear intelligence crackle with every line when most contemporary films are riddled with endless profanity masquerading as wit.  The script, adapted from James M. Cain's novel, is filled with the usual noirspeak slang and terms of endearment but also sports some razor sharp volleys among its players.  I refer mostly to Barton Keyes, Neff's claims adjuster superior brilliantly played by Edward G. Robinson in what may be one of my all-time favorite performances. There's a scene in which he spars with his boss over suspicions of an insurance claim that involves the death of a man who fell from a train.  The chief thinks it's suicide, but Keyes and the "little man" inside him think not.  The back and forth is a masterpiece of the English language.  There are some quick, amusing digs between them througouht the scene.

The film's title comes into play as Neff becomes involved with femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who convinces him to off her husband for his life insurance policy.  An unusual event like accidentally falling off a train will result in twice the normal payout, Neff explains.  In fact, he's the one who gives her the idea in the first place.  Information to stoke Phyllis' already calculating wiles, a method to escape her loveless marraige.  Neff is smitten from his first meeting and his judgment goes out for a smoke and does not return until it is far too late.  As you would expect, the plot takes a few turns.

But the story is never convoluted.  It follows a logical A to B with only a few garnishes along the way.  There aren't a plethora of red herrings, which often reek of creative desperation, anyway.  This is an exemplary screenplay.  Wilder directs beautifully, too, encouraging superb work from his cast.  MacMurray is so associated with My Three Sons and Disney features that it is always surprising to see him play a heel.  The Everyman just trying to make a living who just can't resist an anklet.

And Robinson all but steals the film with his riveting performance.  A cynical bachelor who loves and loathes his job.  A detective's sense that leads him to a very sad discovery, indeed.

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