Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Double Indemnity (1944)

Fig 1 - Double Indemnity Poster
Based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is the story of an insurance salesman who becomes entangled in a plot with a married woman to claim the vast payout over her husband's "accidental" death. The salesman, Neff (Fred MacMurray), meets Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) during an appointment to renew her husband's insurance. Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is nowhere to be found upon arrival, allowing Phyllis to coyly charm the salesman in his absence. She subtly dabbles with the idea of her husband's death and discusses the terms that would invalidate any financial reward, which Neff sees through instantly. Soon enough, the two meet again and eventually Phyllis convinces Neff to help her murder her husband in a carefully devised plot that the insurance company would not be able to fault. However, just as everything is going according to plan, suspicions arise that begin to unravel their devilish scheme...

The film was nominated for seven Oscars (Best Picture, Actress, Director, Writing, Cinematography, Sound and Music) but ultimately left the 17th Academy Awards empty-handed.

I was pleasantly surprised by the film since I tend to have some inherent problem with the 'noir' genre. Even more-so, I was surprised that Alfred Hitchcock hadn't snatched up the screenplay since it fits with the timeline of his career and felt completely accustomed to his taste - a midway murder plot, a fiendish femme-fatale and so on. But incidentally, Wilder manages to reconstruct the original novel into an incredibly watchable picture which, on paper, didn't have me intrigued at all. In fact, the synopsis had me quite ready to dislike the film and I'm happy to say it won me over almost instantly. I think it does this by not getting bogged-down in the technicalities of legal clauses or establishing Neff interacting with unnecessary clients, but by simply following the matter at hand. The structure reminded me of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), in which the three acts coincide very similarly by first establishing the plan, then enacting the plan, and finally dealing with it's consequences. It's a tried and tested formula for sure, but it only works with a great tension at it's core - and boy, is that what you get.

Fig 2 - Double Indemnity - Phyllis, Neff and Keyes
One of my favourite scenes of the film, indicative of the overall tone, happens when Neff calls Phyllis over for a drink one night after the inciting incident. Meanwhile, Neff's superior Keyes (Edward G. Robinson - who is terrific) drops by to rattle off a few theories regarding Dietrichson's death, leaving the audience transfixed on the way in which Neff will deal with Phyllis' impending arrival. It is ultimately down to the viewer here whether or not the tension lies with the fear of Phyllis' arrival, and thus their undoing, or that Keyes might leave before she arrives, allowing Neff to continue as a guilty man. Either way, Phyllis arrives and shows that she is smart enough not to knock, but listen into the fact that multiple voices are coming from inside. She then hides behind the door as Keyes makes his way out, giving us a shot that indicates just how fragile the mystery of their relationship is becoming. Despite that her character is primarily the result of excellent writing, Phyllis is portrayed perfectly by Barbara Stanwyck in her every move and tops off her delivery with a haunting stare that exudes desperation and a lust to survive.

Overall, I thought Double Indemnity was pretty good for a noir. It manages not to exploit it's use of narration as a shorthand for needless exposition, but uses it in a way that works alongside the visuals. Though it doesn't do anything overtly experimental, the film is captivating in it's own right and allows the telling of a simple story to run it's course effortlessly in a way that many noirs fail to do.


Fig. 1 Double Indemnity Poster (1944) From: Double Indemnity (1944) - Directed by: Billy Wilder


Fig. 2 Double Indemnity Screenshot (1944) From: Double Indemnity (1944) - Directed by: Billy Wilder


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