When it’s on: Tuesday, 20 January (12.55 pm)
Many moons ago, I had a job that didn’t involve a lot of work and allowed much time for meaningless surfing of the web, which at the time was a fairly recent novelty. Whilst AltaVista-ing for movie sites, I came across a page that promised to explain the tropes of Film Noir. Innovatively, you could read the comments by clicking on certain items held within a single shot; the still was naturally from Double Indemnity, and if you clicked, say, on Barbara Stanwyck, you would then open a new page entitled Molls, and there were further descriptions on lighting, smoking, suits, and so on. The point is that Double Indemnity was the obvious choice for the site’s portal. If not the first Film Noir, it’s almost certainly its ultimate expression, the quintessential Noir picture. It’s a happy collision of talents who would go on to be names synonymous with the Noir style, and in my eyes it’s about as close to perfection as cinema gets.
The list of credits alone is a roll-call of the great and good. Director Billy Wilder was an Austrian emigré, leaving Vienna when Hitler came to power and realising his Jewish ancestry would cause him problems as the Nazi influence spread. Better known in the German speaking world as a screenwriter, Wilder directed one feature in France before moving to America; Double Indemnity was his third directorial effort in the States, and whilst he had a hand in the script he found his grip on English would be an impediment and hired Raymond Chandler to work alongside him on it. The two men hated each other, but Wilder encouraged the working relationship, thinking the antipathy would make for a screenplay crackling in tension. For Chandler, already a noted crime writer with The Big Sleep bringing him to Wilder’s notice, there was little love for the source material, the short novel written by James M Cain in 1936, and he updated much of the dialogue to his own, whiplash exchanges between the characters.
Wilder hired Hungarian composer, Miklos Rozsa, for the soundtrack. Better known later in his career for scoring some of epic cinema’s biggest hits, this was an early credit in his Hollywood body of work (his first was for Wilder’s previous film, Five Graves to Cairo) and for it, he was Oscar nominated. Rozsa claimed he wrote the score as though for a love story, increasing the mood of doomed melodrama that soaks the film, whilst the trembling strings that accompany the flashbacks ramp up the tension.
Just as important to the production was regular Wilder collaborator, cinematographer John Seitz, who for Double Indemnity helped to establish the atmospheric lighting that would become a hallmark of Film Noir. For a film of such dark subject matter, the screen is often suffused in darkness, using night-for-night filming to marvellous effect. Even more iconic is the ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting, star Fred MacMurray often filmed against blinds to give the impression he’s already behind bars whilst plotting ‘the perfect crime’.
Lead actress Stanwyck was the first and only choice for Phyllis Dietrichson, the scheming wife who arranges a double indemnity insurance policy on her husband’s life that will net her a windfall if he dies. The best known female actor in Hollywood at the time, Stanwyck was unsure about taking the role initially as she normally portrayed heroines, which this part most certainly was not. However she accepted, and was duly given a blonde wig and anklet to wear throughout the film, heightening her character’s essential trashiness. Opposite her was MacMurray as the doomed insurance broker, Walter Neff. MacMurray was cast at the end of a long list of auditions and considerations, and like Stanwyck was playing against type whilst similarly putting in a brilliant performance. The film is framed by Neff’s lengthy confession to his manager, Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson). Speaking into a dictaphone, Neff’s story leads to a series of flashbacks, his description of meeting Phyllis, arranging the policy and simultaneously falling for her, helping to concoct a plan that takes in the murder of her husband before claiming the money and riding off into the sunset together. Or so he believes that’s what’s going to happen. In reality, he learns that Phyllis isn’t as devoted a partner as she made out, and that there’s a strong possibility he’s been played all along. Worse still, as Neff begins telling his tale it’s clear he’s in pain, possibly terminally, which means the ‘perfect crime’ he’s describing will, at some point, go horribly wrong.
The biggest hitch in the lovers’ plan is none other than Keyes himself. A bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out cases of insurance fraud, Keyes is assiduous and Neff knows he will need their scheme to run perfectly in order for them to get away with it. It’s possible all will go well, but only if the execution is meticulous. Neff knows the key is to give Barton no hint that anything is awry, and he very nearly manages it, and apart from the issue of the money there’s his friendship with Keyes to consider. The two men are on fine terms and Neff sees this as vital in minimising the sense of suspicion. Then again, Keyes is the Sherlock Holmes of the insurance world; as he at first seems to see the death of Phyllis’s husband as a fluke, one of those things that will end in a big payout, his ‘little man’ is troubling him, and the slow realisation that something’s rotten and the uncovering of Neff and Phyllis’s plot is deliciously suspenseful, really agonising and inevitable. Robinson was also taking on a unusual role for himself, but his is a smart and measured turn, and it’s heartbreaking to see the complete lack of pleasure he takes in exposing Neff, such is his affection for the younger man.
Double Indemnity is an exercise in tightening tension, wonderfully realised, from the wounded Neff relating his story through to the almost completely successful crime being steadily unpicked. It’s one of those few titles that I dust off on a fairly regular basis for another viewing, and each time I’m gripped by something new. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Double Indemnity: *****