Well, yesterday it happened to me again (and I don’t mean another bout of embarrassing public itching). I watched an amazing old movie for the first time and wondered how on earth it is I’d never seen it before. ‘Course, I’d heard of it somewhere, sometime but never felt inclined to watch it. Maybe it’s the film’s title, I don’t know. But having recently read a biography of Raymond Chandler – that wittiest and most influential of all hard-boiled crime writers – and learning that he had, in the 40s, worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood and had in fact co-written Double Indemnity, I sought it out and gave it a viewing.
Chandler is perhaps most famous for creating the character of Phillip Marlowe, the private detective that was made universally famous by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep in 1946. His distinct writing style and in particular, his ability to pen incredible dialogue has been often parodied but never bettered. This “Chandleresque” touch is clearly evident in Double Indemnity as the actors deliver their lines.
The story, based on a novella of the same name by James M. Cain, begins when Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) an insurance salesman for Pacific All Risk makes a routine house call on Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to renew her husband’s car insurance policy. There is an instant attraction between the two and plenty of flirting takes place until she asks about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge. Neff understands immediately that she has murder in mind and does what any sane insurance man would do and gets the hell out of there. But later that evening, she turns up at his apartment and continues to seduce him and before long, his gullibility and lust for her vanquishes his caution and the two agree to kill her old man.
Neff, being a hotshot insurance man, knows all the tricks of the business and comes up with a foolproof plan to get rid of Mr Dietrichson in such an unlikely way that it will trigger the “double indemnity” clause of the policy thereby making Pacific All Risk liable to pay Phyllis twice the policy amount of $50,000. The plan (which I won’t divulge so as not to spoil the film for those of you who haven’t seen it) goes off pretty smoothly and before you know it, the mourning Mrs Dietrichson is preparing to get her blood-stained hands on the dough.
But Neff’s friend and colleague at Pacific All Risk, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, who plays a claims investigator) begins to smell a rat and although the head of the company believes the death to be suicide and is willing to settle the claim, Keyes persuades him otherwise by quoting a bunch of statistics on the probability of suicide. There are further complications for Neff when he becomes friendly with the victims daughter who believes Phyllis is responsible for her father’s death and…under the masterful direction of Billy Wilder the tension grows and grows.
As a film noir, it really is one of the finest American examples and clearly set the standard for those of the genre that would follow. The dialogue is a thing of beauty (typical Chandler), the acting is faultless – particularly Edward G. Robinson who in my opinion steals every scene he’s in – and the black and white cinematography is superb. The way they used light and shadow and silhouettes in those days was simply genius. It was nominated for seven Oscars but bizarrely failed to win any but in recent years it has been recognised in all manner of the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 something or other categories.
Stanwyck plays her femme fatale with controlled coolness and MacMurray is ideally cast as the charming yet somewhat weak willed louse. It’s interesting to note they were both playing against type in these roles and equally interesting that they were also the two highest paid stars in Hollywood around the time of filming. Robinson is always value for money and despite being third on the bill, he received the same pay as the two leads. To watch the scene where he’s spouting statistics is to watch a true pro at work. Sublime stuff. And if you don’t blink, you’ll even see Raymond Chandler in a one-off cameo (and the only known film footage of him in existence), sitting in a chair as Neff walks by on his way from Keyes’ office.
The film noir genre is probably something that I’ll come back to soon because there are a great many movies worth writing about and watching but for now, if you’re in a mind to watch just one, watch this one. You won’t be disappointed.