Noirvember: Double Indemnity (1944) - Reviewed

"I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she had looked at me, and I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us." - Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) 

What, exactly, is "film noir," you ask? Even if you can't quite define it, film noir (or "black film," from the French) probably conjures a series of images for you. Private detectives with drinking problems, kicked off the force for too many insubordination write-ups. A femme fatale with a blonde bob and a martini. A devilish dame with a Derringer, ready to double- and then triple-cross you as the patsy in her murderous scheme. Corrupt cops, mobsters, and Tommy guns, shooting it out over drug money, or maybe a jealous love triangle with a movie star caught somewhere in the middle. Blood spatters like broken dreams on Sunset Boulevard, the lights of Los Angeles receding out of reach from the vantage point on Mulholland Drive. I killed him for money. And for a woman. And I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman. Something along those lines.

You have seen Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder's 1944 genre-defining film noir classic, even if you think you haven't. If not in actuality, you have seen its legacy imitated time and time again in nearly every crime thriller, detective story, or murder mystery you've ever seen. It's universally defined as the gold standard for the genre and one of the greatest films in American history (most recently, 29th on AFI's seminal list of 100 Years....100 (Best) Movies)--yet it was almost never made. (The subject matter of the novella on which it was based was viewed as too lurid, immoral, and offensive, lacking any redeeming qualities). To save its chances, Wilder brought in the big guns to co-write the screenplay: the one and only Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely), who needs no introduction as the greatest mystery author of all time. Not only does it go without saying that it's not to be missed under any circumstances, but I'll go so far as to say that if you watch this and don't love it, it's very unlikely that you'll enjoy anything else in the genre. 

Expertly edited and briskly paced, the plot unfolds in the dark shadows of claustrophobic smoke-filled rooms where a murder is plotted, carried out, and subsequently unravels. Much like in Wilder's better-known 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, the film begins at the end, with our morally bankrupt "protagonist" limping into his office the middle of the night. Perhaps fatally wounded from an unidentified injury, sweating profusely and barely able to sit upright, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) records his confession to a murder--the perfect murder, in fact. 

You see, it all started with an ordinary house call on an ordinary day. Wealthy oil baron Mr. Dietrichson was simply supposed to sign his papers to renew his auto insurance. Only Mr. Dietrichson wasn't in that day, you see? But Mrs. Dietrichson was (Barbara Stanwyck, as the prototypical femme fatale)--and she had murder on her mind. The way her perfume wafted down that marble staircase? The way her anklet shimmered in the fading L.A. sunlight? Boy, it really did a job on poor Walter Neff. And he bought that babe-of-the-woods routine, too, didn't he? Hook, line, and sinker. But he's got it all figured out, baby. A way we can knock off old Mr. Dietrichson and get the money on that accident insurance. Just you and me, baby. Nothing could go wrong--I've got it all figured out. 

Only everything goes wrong. Almost right from the beginning, their perfect murder begins to unravel. Claims adjuster Barton Keyes (the legendary Edward G. Robinson, perhaps the greatest character actor in American history), Neff's mentor and erstwhile father figure, suspects something fishy about the whole thing. Wilder expertly builds tension at exactly the right moments, and barely a brilliantly framed and edited scene goes by where you don't expect them to get caught right then and there. (I've seen this film a half dozen times, and still I exhaled palpably whenever Neff walked out of the room after damn near getting caught for his scheme.)

While it's certainly Stanwyck's icily understated performance that sets the plot in motion and anchors the camera's attention, this film ultimately belongs to MacMurray. He was viewed almost as the Matthew McConaughey of his day--tall, handsome, respected as an actor, but not so much for his roles (mostly romantic comedies and other fluff). Paramount was extremely hesitant to cast him against type, but he knocks this one out of the park. Cocksure, charming, and hopelessly naive from the beginning, he's too damn full of himself to realize that he's been played like a fool and set up for murder from the beginning. MacMurray's quick descent into paranoia, revenge, and despair keeps the viewer absolutely riveted. 

So pour yourself a stiff bourbon on the rocks, light up a cigar, and watch this in your diamonds or pearls. Murder's on the menu tonight. 

--Eugene Kelly