Monday 11 April 2011

Double Indemnity (1944)

As I grew up reading my Dad's film encyclopedias I became aware of a small number of films that enjoyed unanimous critical acclaim.  Generally speaking they were films that, as a kid, I didn't have much interest in so while I was aware of them and the regard in which they were held I made no special effort to see them.  As I've got older I've started to make time to watch these movies because I think it's important to see the landmark moments in cinema.  It's important because they are often used as reference points by film scholars and indeed other film-makers.  So while I don't want to say it's my duty to watch these movies, I do think that if you purport to have a serious interest in cinema you ought to be familiar with the classics.  What surprises me when I sit down to watch a film as renowned as Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY is how great these films actually are, even now.  Such films have stood the test of time not because they were the first to do this that or the other but simply because they are brilliantly made.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is of course a film noir and in some respects can be considered the model for the genre, in terms of its content, style and personnel.  The story is one of lust, greed and cynicism - of a man who is drawn into a world of crime by a femme fatale.  In terms of style, the lighting is expressionistic, the setting is Los Angeles and the story is told almost entirely through flashback.  The personnel includes director Billy Wilder, crime novelists James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, and cinematographer John Seitz.

Impeccable noir credentials
The film presents a recognisable world of offices, train stations, supermarkets but it is a heightened realism: for example, the central characters talk in a wise-cracking and sexually-charged manner, and the locations are lit to make them appear shadowy and mysterious.  But what really makes this outwardly 'normal' world seem alien is the almost total lack of empathy in any of the characters.  I read one crit of the film which says it is utterly devoid of love or pity, which is a great way of putting it.

It's not easy for modern audiences to appreciate but the casting of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck would have added to this sense of dislocation for contemporary audiences.  MacMurray was known for his affable performances in light comedies while Stanwyck was a hugely popular star of melodramas in which she played strong, heroic women.  So they were both playing against type in DOUBLE INDEMNITY.  Walter Neff is an intelligent but weak-willed man who, given the right incentive, is prepared to kill to get what he wants.  Phyllis Dietrichson is a manipulative schemer who cares for no-one except herself and who will quite happily let others take the blame for her crimes.  Both are great in their respective roles.  It can't have been easy in 1940s Hollywood, still hampered by the puritanical Hays Code of decency, to convincingly portray a relationship based on lust and violence, but they manage it.

Fred MacMurray admires Barbara Stanwyck's anklet
The original novel was written by James M. Cain, who also wrote "The Postman Always Rings Twice", a similar story that has been filmed many times.  It was adapted for the screen by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, who did not enjoy a harmonious working partnership.  As I understand it, Chandler was instrumental in writing much of the dialogue, insisting that Cain's original dialogue was unsuitable for the screen.  Wilder was more responsible for shaping the script into something workable as a screenplay.  I believe Chandler can be spotted as an extra in the film but must confess I didn't spot him when I watched it.  He's listed on imdb as 'man reading book'.  Keep your eyes peeled for him and let me know if you spot him.

Anti-hero?  Check.  Femme fatale?  Check.  Cigarette?  Check.  Expressionist lighting?  Check.

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