Sunday, February 22, 2009

Double Indemnity (1944)

"Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"

  The allure of tabloid scandals and media sensationalism has now become the norm. So-called journalists spend entire days sifting through the refuse of human society trying to find a story that will keep viewers glued to their TVs. This insatiable hunger is fed by a constant flood of celebrity updates and lurid tales of human death and degeneracy.
  For James M. Cain when he was writing his book, Double Indemnity, he looked back towards his previous life as a news reporter to help spark an idea in him. The story he would use would be that of Ruth Snyder, an icy blonde, who had managed to convince her lover, Judd Gray, to bludgeon and strangle her husband to death. She was caught though and put on trial. The press labeled her a "Tiger Woman", a derogatory term used to describe the new type of woman springing up in society that shunned house work and embraced the flapper lifestyle. Cain was fascinated by her story and used it as the basis for his novel.
  In 1943 Billy Wilder was primarily known as a screenwriter. Although he had directed a few films that were considered financially successful he had not yet established his rightful place as one of the preeminent American directors. Wilder's risk to take Cain's sleazy novel and turn it into a film alienated him from many in the movie industry who thought that the story and characters would never pass the censor boards. His gamble paid off though and Wilder accomplished the impossible by turning a trashy cynical story about adultery, corruption, and murder into that rare thing called art.

"It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Maybe you would have known Keyes the minute she mentioned accident insurance, but I didn't. I felt like a million."

  Wilder's penchant need to work with a writing partner may ultimately have contributed to making him such a great director. When it came to making films Billy Wilder always tried to surround himself with the best. During pre-production for Double Indemnity Wilder looked towards Cain to help him adapt the book, but since Cain was already contracted out to another studio Wilder turned elsewhere.
  Raymond Chandler had made his name writing detective fiction and gained a reputation for crafting tough and fast stories about tarnished knight errants. Although Chandler had no experience in screenwriting Wilder was confident that Chandler's way with words would elevate the film's dialogue. Chandler's stylized dialogue moved at machine gun speeds and never shied away from sexual double entendres.

"That was all there was to it. Nothing had slipped, nothing had been overlooked, there was nothing to give us away. And yet, Keyes, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man."

  Because of the unsavory subject matter that the movie deals with, Wilder had a lot of trouble finding actors to be in the film. Wilder was so desperate that he turned to actor George Raft for the part of Walter Neff. During there meeting though Raft refused to read the script and ordered Wilder to tell him the story. As Wilder dictated the story to him, Raft eventually ordered Wilder to "get to the lapel scene." Confused by Raft's request Wilder  asked him what "lapel scene" was he talking about. Raft, apparently believed, that by the end of the story the audience would find out that his character was really a cop and arrests Phyllis Dietrichson. After that meeting Wilder felt completely dejected and believed that the movie would never get made.
  The part of Walter Neff would eventually be played by Fred MacMurray, a sometimes musician and actor who made his name in Disney comedies. MacMurray's non-threatening good looks work to the advantage of the story. Neff is not an inherently evil character, but rather just a bored one. He decides to help Phyllis kill her husband not because he needs the insurance money, but rather because he is tired of the daily grind.
  Phyllis, on the other hand, is a killer. Phyllis ensnares men into her trap and manipulates them to do her bidding. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis is a powerful character. Wilder and Chandler arm her with typical garish female visual signifiers; e.g. anklet, lipstick, angora sweater, wig; but it is Stanwyck who makes it all work and also imbues the character with a strength that most of the male characters in the story lack.
  The only real friendship that Neff has in the story is with the claims manager, Keyes, at the insurance company. Edward G. Robinson plays Keyes as a man who lives and breaths facts and statistics; unlike Neff he does not allow his emotions to make decisions for him. Thus it hurts even more by the end of the story when he finds that Neff, his only friend in the company, is Phyllis's accomplice.

"Just like the first time I came here, isn't it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet."

  John Seitz, the film's director of photography, was integral in establishing the look of the film. He had the idea to mix silver dust with some subtle smoke effects to create dramatic shafts of light that cut through the Dietrichson home. Also with this film Seitz establishes the use of "Venetian blind" lighting giving any room the appearance of bars which seem to trap the characters in their schemes.
  Double Indemnity elevated Billy Wilder's status in the film industry, yet the film is really a product of many artists not just one person. The very casual way in which sex and death are so entwined was quite ahead of most of the film's being made back then. The film doesn't ask you to like any of the characters, instead it challenges you to realize that every person is susceptible to corruption even those with the best intentions.


ADRIAN said...

The historical poetics of FILM NOIR CINEMA isn't complete without a discussion on DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

rex baylon said...

hey adrian,

What do you mean exactly? I believe I did discuss all the ingredients that make Double Indemnity a film noir. I may not have elaborated a great deal on all those tenets, but at the time I was writing the piece I was in a bit of a rush. I don't mean this to be an attack on you or the comment you made, but I would just like you to clarify what you meant exactly.