Tag: Raymond Chandler

Film Review: Double Indemnity

 

In the opening scene Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaks into a Dictaphone, his chin dewy with sweat. He is recording a confession, though he doesn’t “like the word ‘confession.’” This monologue will serve as the narration for the movie. He tells us that he killed a man for a woman and money, and in the end, received neither. With those facts already on the table, the film is still compelling with moments of nail-biting suspense. That’s because the individual scenes are expertly constructed, and because the movie realizes what makes the story compelling isn’t the murder, but what drives the characters to commit it and the consequences that follow.

Walter is an insurance salesman. He visits Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) because her husband’s car insurance is about to expire. We get our first good look at Phyllis from Walter’s POV on the ground floor. She is at the top of the stairs, wrapped in a bath towel, and glowing. After she gets dressed, we see her feet coming down the steps, the camera panning with the curve of the staircase until she reaches the bottom and it pulls back to get a full view. He sits on the arm of a sofa while she huddles on a chair. He’s about a foot taller than her anyway, but their position and the angle of the camera exaggerate the difference in size. She gets up and paces, her head down while the camera follows her back and forth. Every movement of the camera and characters is motivated. All these details are relevant in some way and they are all executed subtly and with precision.

This isn’t the last time the two meet. Phyllis talks Walter into opening a life insurance policy for her husband, then killing him and staging it as an accident. There’s instant chemistry. He makes a pass first, but she’s the one in control. She’s always in control. Their dynamic is one of a trio of sharply drawn relationships Walter has in the film. There’s him and Phyllis’ step-daughter Lola (Jean Heather). He feels protective of her even while conspiring to kill her father. Lola is not naive, but her suspicions don’t extend as far as they should. Then there’s Walter and his co-worker Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the insurance analyst. The two have a mutual respect for each other, and what’s more an affection. This colors their relationship as Keyes’ investigation into the “accident” leads him unknowingly toward Walter.

ACF Critic Series #10: Double Indemnity

 

Terry Teachout and I have worked our way to the pluperfect noir, Double Indemnity, written and directed by the great immigrant observer of America Billy Wilder, with the help of the most famous writer of crime fiction–Raymond Chandler! Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, Hollywood stars, play great roles as fallen lovers and Ed G. Robinson, usually a gangster, plays as well against type, as a hard-nosed, but also honorable insurance investigator. This is one of the great stories about the temptations of America–quick success and insurance! You will see tragedy in everyday life here: Love vs. law, friendship vs. eros, and happiness vs. justice!

Member Post

 

On this lovely Saturday evening of a holiday weekend, I reflect on some random things gone by.  How many of us remember elevator operators?  How many of us remember that today’s elevators used to be called “self-service elevators” because they no longer required a person to operate them.   I am reminded of this because […]

Join Ricochet!

This is a members-only post on Ricochet's Member Feed. Want to read it? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

Double indemnity

 

This is the first in a series on Billy Wilder movies; believe it or not, it’s by popular demand & I suppose the noir does fit in some obscure way with the strange, passionate, dangerous times we’re living in… You can read my post celebrating the anniversary of The Maltese falcon to get a sense of where this started, or if you like old movies & what they had to say about America.

Double indemnity was the big movie of 1944. It was accordingly strange. The actors did not want to act, because it’s such a sordid story, but they were persuaded to do it. The writers didn’t want to write it–Hollywood’s most brilliant writer, Billy Wilder, a German Jewish émigré, who had already started on the road to about two-dozen nominations & an half-dozen Oscars, really wanted it done, but his first partner, Charlie Brackett, nixed it for moral concerns. His second partner, who had none such, was none other than Raymond Chandler, the most celebrated American crime writer, then already a successful novelist, his famous stories as yet unfilmed. He did not want to write the movie either, partly because he hated Wilder, who seems to have loved him none too much either, & partly because he hated the novelist he was supposed to be adapting, the aptly named James Cain. Why, you ask? Because Chandler thought highly of his own work & thought the other guy a sleaze, whereas many people did not see the difference… There you go, public & professional concerns of a moral character almost prevented the movie being made. But it did get made & earned seven Oscar nominations, though it was beat soundly by a very moral movie, Leo McCarey’s lovely Bing Crosby picture, Going my way.