Wednesday 22 May 2013

Double Indemnity (1944)

Neff hides in the back of the car
I was left rather worried for the fate of the talking picture after last week's 'The Lives of a Bengal Lancer' (1935), which made spoken dialogue seem so static, so much an interruption to the real business of incident and character and running around.  I'm glad to say my faith in non-silent movies has been restored by 'Double Indemnity', an excellent noir thriller, and a tremendously fraught and satisfying work of drama.

The film is bookended by insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), narrating a confession of sorts into a dictaphone, for his colleague Keyes to find.  He has committed a murder, and intends to get the story straight.  The body of the film, then, is told in flashback.  Despite the fact that we already know the murder will be committed successfully, the film is incredibly tense, the characters' plotting constantly frustrated or threatened with discovery.  We know the murder will happen, and we want it to happen, and fear for the two conspirators.

Phyllis and Neff, after the event.
So, Walter Neff falls into a plan to murder the husband of Phyllis Diedrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and reap the reward of a life-insurance policy.  Initially he wants nothing to do with it, but he's too clever to resist - he knows he could get away with it - and Phyllis is a truly beautiful woman, a femme fatale (is there such a thing as an homme fatale?), too beautiful to ignore.

The murder itself isn't shown.  The shot cuts away to Phyllis's reaction, and the death is left to the viewer's imagination.  Indeed, we never even see the body, though Phyllis and Neff manhandle it into position for discovery.  At the point of death, Mr Diedrichson disappears entirely from the film's pictures, and what could be schlocky or grizzly is allowed to be functional, tense and dramatic, the emphasis on the murderers, not on the body.

The magnificent Edward G. Robinson
The highlight of movie is the Edward G. Robinson's brilliant performance as Keyes, the head of Neff's office, with a legendary instinct for bogus claims and deceit of any sort.  If you watch as many Charlton Heston films as I do (though it seems unlikely) you'll know Robinson from 'The Ten Commandments' (1956) and 'Soylent Green' (1973).  If not, you'll likely know an impersonation of him, the basis for Police Chief Clancy Wiggum in 'The Simpsons' (1989-2089), whose look and vocal performance were based on the actor.

Robinson gives an excellent character performance - charismatic, energetic and contemplative, his whole body serving his dialogue.  The whole film is worth watching for his performance (though even without it the film would be worth watching, its direction exquisite, its dialogue fast, witty, American poetry).  Keyes is a very close friend to Neff, and matches or exceeds his intelligence, so the question soon becomes, not 'will they get away with the murder', but 'how can they hide the truth from Keyes'.  Eventually, of course, the question is why Neff ends up confessing into a dictaphone.

I think you should give this film your time and attention, so I've been careful not to spoil anything that isn't established in the first five minutes.  This was one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences of the project so far (which, by the way, is roughly half-way through), and I hope you find it as exciting as I did.

P.S. Since I'm currently going through decade by decade, I knew the next update had to be from the fifties.  It was nearly 'Touch of Evil' (1958), but that would give us two films noir in a row, so I instead went with something entirely different, 'The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad' (also 1958).

It's a very good film.  You should watch it some time.

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