Tuesday, May 31, 2016

AFI Top 100: #29 "Double Indemnity"

Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)

Even though I've gotten farther behind on these reviews than I'm willing to admit in print, it still isn't lost on me that we're within reach of the Top 20 on our AFI Top 100 quest. That means that in the past [almost] two years, this blog has published over 70 classic reviews for beloved movies. And this gem is no different. A continued exploration of the film noir genre, this time veering into the world of murder for love—and, of course, for riches. Who are we kidding? In the spectacularly rich Double Indemnity, coming in at #29 on our countdown, we're treated to the most fully-realized noir of all time, perfected long before this was a studied genre.

The top salesman at the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), has a new client. Hired by the man's glamorous and flirtatious young wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Neff realizes there's more than meets the eye with this transaction when Phyllis pursues an affair with him—an affair he does nothing to discourage. When Phyllis suggests that her husband's death could free them to be together, Neff's intimate knowledge of Mr. Dietrichson's accident insurance policy leads him to devise a complicated scheme in order to activate its double indemnity clause. It appears that the unrequited lovers are primed to get away with their plot, that is until Neff's friend and boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), begins to investigate Phyllis—with suspicions that she's in cahoots with another man.

This movie is full of spectacular subtleties. These are smart people. They're not hapless criminals. This is the planning of a crime that you can't help but admire, because they consider all the angles. Not getting caught is key, and they never miss a beat. In the scene where Neff and Keyes chat in the hallway outside Neff's apartment, all while Phyllis stands behind his front door... When she grabs hold of the doorknob and shifts the door on its hinges ever so slightly, just to let Neff—whose hand rests on the other side—know she's there... Sheer. Brilliance. Neff and Phyllis are comparable personalities, neither purely good or evil, but both certainly capable of inhuman deeds. Watching their relationship ebb and flow as a result of these realities is what provides the film with its devilish sensuality.

Barbara Stanwyck as an actress benefited from her ability to play the sex and play the innocence. It's why her casting in this role was a triumph of perfection. To anyone watching, she was the obvious choice. She wasn't the coy kitten that may have leaned too far into the sex, nor is she so doe-eyed and dim that you'd never notice to glint of opportunity in her eyes. She rides the middle, and Phyllis does the same—it's how she reels in Walter, not only to help her plan this murder, but inevitably to do it for her.

MacMurray's casting was less obvious. He's a golden boy, perhaps best known to most modern audiences for his later role in Disney's 1961 The Absent-Minded Professor, soft, uncomplicated, and non-controversial—to say playing Walter Neff was against type would be an understatement. But to watch him at work in this film, you'd never know it. Again, like Stanwyck, he's capable of manipulating his moral compass. On the surface, he's a bright-eyed, dimple-chinned Boy Scout, and that makes his ability to commit and get away with this crime all the more believable. As the narrator (in classic noir fashion), MacMurray speaks of the dame that got the better of him, laying out the events just as they happened, of course with the added element of filtered suspense and romance.

Walter and Phyllis flirt with abandon, and their double entendres are enough to bring a blush to your cheek, and that's all thanks to the writing. Like The Maltese Falcon, the greatest noir inspiration came straight from the novels of Raymond Chandler, but it was Billy Wilder that made the film so high-brow. He brought his vision for the story into everything from the editing to the lighting direction (fun fact: gold dust was mixed into the dust in the air so that the sunlight shining into the dark rooms would glitter—wow!), and as a result, we're treated to a plethora of texture amidst every side glance and forbidden rendezvous.

Wilder knew how to bring out the weasel in MacMurray (see: #80 on the AFI Top 100, The Apartment), but by putting us in his head, we can't help but root for him, and hope that he'll come out on top—whether that means ending up with Phyllis or beating her at her own twisted game. The care that Walter takes to cover their tracks, the risks he's willing to take for this unknown woman is fascinating. It's even more incredible when you realize that she never even had to ask. She's just that good at manipulating men.

Considering there are so few noir representations on this countdown, it's hard not to compare this to The Maltese Falcon. Where Falcon is shadowed and violent, Double Indemnity is all sophistication and melodrama. The bullets firing and gun smoke wafting through the air isn't overly theatrical; it's dark and foreboding, and usually paired with the scent of fresh blood, perfume, and the taste of bourbon on the rocks. It is lurid rather than suspenseful, perhaps attributed to the fact that Walter is narrating it with a gunshot wound in his belly. We know something has gone terribly wrong, and now it's Billy Wilder's job to show us exactly how it happened.

The beauty of this film is bound to sneak up on you; the intricacies of the dialogue prompting an unexpected laugh or flutter in your gut... the details of the crime leaving you more than a little impressed, and your own mental cogs turning with the tickling question: If it were you, how would you pull off this murder? J'adore!

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Paramount Pictures]

Check back next time for #28 on the list, All About Eve — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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