Monday, October 24, 2016

Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder


Filmmaker Billy Wilder brings the genre film noir front and center in Hollywood with a daringly dark, censor-challenging motion picture Double Indemnity. In 1944 “film noir” was yet to be coined as a term for a dark, gritty drama, and yet this film would become an all-time classic of the genre, helping to inspire an entire style within mainstream Hollywood. This thriller brings a blacker edge to the usual dramas at the time, pushing the boundaries of provocative natures and murderous intent in a business bound by a phony moral code. Its legacy would one of Wilder’s finest features and a favorite amongst film historians.

Double Indemnity is a film noir of an insurance salesman who plots with a housewife to murder her husband with intent to collect on a hefty insurance policy. Told in flashback, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) recalls how he met the provocative housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who led him down the path to his demise. Beginning an affair the two concoct a scheme to take out a life insurance in her husband’s (Tom Powers) name before murdering him and staging his death as an accident for the sake of collecting on insurance’s immense payout. The biggest hurdle comes in the form of Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the bright claims adjuster and friend to Walter, whose gut instinct tells him something was not right about the death of Mr. Dietrichson. Neff discovers he was only part of a deceiving love triangle which leads to a deadly outcome for Phyllis. Wounded and guilt stricken Neff returns to his insurance office to dictate his confession, which Keyes overhears. With Neff found and weakened, the two friends share their final moments together as they await the eventual arrival of the approaching sirens coming to take Neff away.

It is a beautifully suspense picture, with wonderful dark cinematography and a story consisting of flawed characters leading to a rueful results. Only the third directorial feature film by Billy Wilder, his mastery of the pen has translated perfectly to his control of the motion picture frame as this film is a trailblazer of a new style in American cinema. He grasps ahold of this gloomy story and takes the audience on a ride as we await what will happen to this man whose lust has led him down a dark path of lies and death. Without knowing Wilder would set standards in the genre that would later become known as film noir with his stylistic choices of lighting the creative voiceover narrative of the main character throughout the picture. This style and practices proved successful and would be copied for years to come.

The genesis of Double Indemnity originates from a James M. Crain novella published in 1943 that immediately became a much admired story in Hollywood curcles, but was balked at by all the major studios due to the story’s dark nature. Initially the studios believed the tale to be unfilmmable, because of the strict morals applied to American motion pictures by the Production Code. Paramount Pictures however took the chance at the story’s rights and handed it to Billy Wilder, who collaborated with newcomer Raymond Chandler on the screenplay. The writing process was tumultuous as the two with very different views on story and storytelling  did not get along, but ultimately led to the script, by which the picture adhered to.

Featured in the starring roles were Brabara Stanwyck, one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses, and Fred MacMurray playing vastly against his usual character persona. Stanwyck from the beginning was the first choice for the provocative lead. Do to the nature of the character Stanwyck hesitated at the role, but gave in to Wilder as she was dress in a bad blonde wig to help aid in the phoniness of her character’s persona.

Fred MacMurray was far from the first choice to play Walter Neff. Accustomed to squeaky-clean types, usually in light-hearted comedies, MacMurray was only considered for the role after many of Hollywood’s leading men passed on the opportunity. Wilder saw something in MacMurray with his strong, tall build, that he could play the man that was both stern, yet incredibly vulnerable.  Never before had MacMurray been so serious on screen, yet his delivery with the character is one of his finest and most unique performances of his career. His future would continue to land him in primarily clean cut roles, but Wilder seemed to bring out more in him as they worked together. This would be seen again in the 1960 comedy/drama The Apartment where MacMurray plays a sleazy business executive under the direction of Wilder.

Edward G. Robinson takes a turn in his career as he portrays the claims adjuster Barton Keyes. Accustomed to being the star on the marquee since 1930, Robinson appears to understand it is his time to step into more character roles, forfeiting the idea he may no longer be a leading man in major Hollywood pictures. As Keyes, Robinson is the most straight-laced character in the picture; a far cry from his days best remembered as one of Hollywood’s tough men. In a way he is the heart and soul of the picture. When he discovers a weak and bleeding Neff dictating his confession he is the one that best expresses the sadness, anger, and disappointment that his friend can sink so low. He is hurt and saddened, but understands his duty and he turns his friend in to the authorities at the film’s conclusion, making for one of the picture’s most emotional scenes.

Through production officials form the Production Code office kept a close eye over the film. Ethics imposed by this appointed office of morality within Hollywood pictures attempted to keep sex, violence, and immoral characters from the screen, and this picture had very little outside of immortality as its focus. From the size of the towel Stanwyck is wearing when we first see her, to the justice received by Neff, the Production Code had plenty to watch over. In the end it is clear that every evil deed goes punished, but still many thought the subject of conspiring to murder one’s own significant other to be too much an immoral subject matter.

However, Wilder does a marvelous job at fitting into the Production Code rules enough to produce, but lurid enough to make interesting to the viewers. Stanwyck is plenty provocative. The murder is gripping with its evil intent. In the end no one wins, but the audience is more than satisfied. In fact, Wilder changed the ending form the original material, perhaps to fit within the Production Code, but also perhaps to make the story more interesting. The source material has the two main characters committing suicide, a major frowning point of Hollywood. Ultimately Wilder’s conclusion was much more highly praised, with even the author Cain giving this new penned ending acclaim as being much better than his idea.
The film would open April of 1944 to brilliant reviews, becoming one the year’s highest praised pictures. That year saw the film nominated for seven Academy Awards, but Hollywood politics saw Paramount Pictures make a major push for the Leo McCarey more straight-laced feature Going My Way. This resulted in losses in each category for Double Indemnity, including Best Actress for Stanwyck, Best Score, Best Director, and Best Picture, much to Billy Wilder’s frustration.

Billy Wilder would long consider this feature his finest work, and though itself inspired by European dramatic styling it was this picture that would go on to influence many filmmakers and an entire genre. Although the term film noir was yet to be coined for a couple of more years it was this picture by Wilder that would set the tone of what this genre was to become known for. His use of shadows, especially through venetian blinds which evoked symbolism of prison bars, lent to the dark tones for the stories. Also his use of the main character narrating the feature would become a mainstay of many like-minded movies.

Almost immediately other studios and filmmakers would begin to copy this film’s very style. In some cases Paramount had to create cease and desist orders for other studios literally copying the plot for upcoming B-pictures. Despite the style to continue to grow for years into the future Double Indemnity remains a proper classic that receives praise up to this day. A Billy Wilder all-time great feature Double Indemnity stands as one of the finest films in American cinematic history as seen with its many contemporary accolades that rank it as such by both the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress.

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