Double Indemnity

  • Title:  Double Indemnity
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date:  1944
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Film Noir, Drama, Suspense, Classic
  • Cast:  Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • Format:  R1, NTSC, Two-disc Legacy Edition

“I killed him for the money and for a woman.  I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”  Walter Neff

Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies — because it is such a classic noir film.  And Wilder is a brilliant, brilliant director, especially when he directs dark film noir movies in black and white.  The film has it all – a cold, calculating, manipulative femme fatale, an innocent drawn into a web of crime that destroys him, snappy dialogue, brilliant black and white photography, and an intriguing crime that, in the end, falls apart taking it’s participants down with it.

Part of the brilliance of Double Indemnity is it’s choice of lead actor in Fred MacMurray.  Yep — the guy from Disney flicks like The Absent-Minded Professor, and Flubber, and the dad in My Three Sons (OK, yes, it’s true, all those roles were from the 1960s, or after this movie, but still) actually plays the bad guy in this film.  But, that’s part of  brilliance of the film — MacMurray looks like an average guy, he sounds like an average guy, and we can believe he’s an insurance salesman.  I don’t think the film would have been as successful with standard villian type or “baddie” in the role of  Walter Neff.

But MacMurray isn’t the only piece of reverse casting:  Edward G. Robinson was famous for playing gangsters, tough guys, and baddies.  Yet, in Double Indemnity, he’s practically the good guy.  He’s Neff’s boss Keyes, who ends up investigating the husband’s “accident”.  There’s also a very close friendship between Neff and Keyes.

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As with Wilder’s other brilliant Film Noir picture, Sunset Blvd, Double Indemnity is told back to front, and thus it’s the tale of a man’s slide into destruction and death.  The film begins with Neff returning to his office at Pacific All Risk Insurance, and using a dictating machine to record his confession (the line quoted at the beginning of this review is practically the first line he speaks).  The film then cuts to scenes showing us what’s happening and winding back to the start.  And somehow, the audience almost forgets that Neff is a dying man as they are completely entranced by the story.

Interestingly enough, the actual murder goes off almost perfectly.  But as the second half of the film develops, the characters’ own guilt (especially Neff’s) and Keyes own intuition and experience at spotting insurance fraud leads, Tell-a-Tale-Heart-like to the downfall of both Neff and Phyllis.

The filming and cinematography are brilliant — the use of  light and shadow to highlight and conceal detail, and the suggestion, as the film moves along, of characters trapped by their own actions, is highlighted by the black and white photography.  It’s a dark film, and only black and white really captures that, especially at the time the film was made.   It’s really only been rather recently that very dark, yet color, films have been possible, previously the amount of light required for the film to properly develop, especially for Technicolor films, made filming in color with the amount of darks in this film, impossible.

There’s also a lot of very fast, very snappy dialogue.  The double entendres fly fast and furious, but even the cut and parry of the dialogue between Neff and Phyllis (Stanwyck) works to emphasize their hot and steamy relationship without actually ever showing you anything.  (Likewise, one thing that makes the murder in this particular film so effective is that it is off-screen, letting your imagination fill in the blanks).

Overall, if  you want to know what film noir is all about — this film, more so than even The Maltese Falcon, is the one to see.

Recommendation:  See It
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Dracula (1931)

The Apartment

  • Title:  The Apartment
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date:  1960
  • Genre:  Drama, Romantic Comedy, Classic
  • Studio:  United Artists / MGM
  • Cast:  Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, David White
  • Format:  Black/White, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  NTSC, R1

The Apartment is a genre-stretching, masterwork directed by Billy Wilder.  Though billed as a comedy, and having a strong romantic comedy sub-plot, the main body of the film is very dramatic and almost depressing.  In a sense, rather than a Romantic Comedy — this film is Romantic Film Noir.

The film also puts paid to the idea that only women can be taken advantage of by their bosses in corporate society.  CC Baxter, “Bud”, to his friends, is a good guy — but in order to rise in the corporate world, he’s found a little secret — he lends out the use of his apartment to the advantaged jerks who happen to be over him in the corporate hierarchy, so they can fool around without their wives getting suspicious.  Whenever he tries to assert himself – the carrot of a promotion is held out, and Bud hands over his apartment key.  ‘Til one day he gets the call upstairs for what he thinks is a promotion – he gets the promotion, but only if he also allows the head boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), in on the use of his apartment.

Meanwhile, Bud has started to fall for the elevator girl, Ms. Fran Kubelik (MacLaine).  However, she confesses to him that she’s in love with the married man she’s been having an affair with.  On Christmas Eve, she and the Married Man, who turns out to be Bud’s boss (Sheldrake), have a fight – and she takes an overdose of sleeping pills in Bud’s apartment.  Bud comes home, finds her, gets his neighbor the doctor over, and rescues her.  What looks like the start of a promising relationship ends when her brother-in-law shows up and takes her home to her sister, after decking Bud.  Later, Bud decides to tell Sheldrake he wants to marry Ms. Kubelik, but before he can, Sheldrake announces his wife has left him after finding out about his affairs, so he’s going to take Fran.  He offers Bud an position as his assistant, deputy director.

Later, Fran and Bud run into each other in the lobby and Bud remarks, “Well, we both got what we wanted.  I have a corner office, and he left his wife for you.” (or words to that effect).  At New Year’s, Fran figures it all out, goes to find Bud who’s quit his job and may be thinking about quitting his life.  And they end-up together.

But unlike many fluffy romantic comedies, there’s more tragedy and drama in this movie than comedy or even romance.  And Wilder’s beautiful direction adds to the sense of urban isolation.  That is, how a person can be surrounded by people but be completely alone — as Bud, Fran, and even Sheldrake all are.  Scenes like Bud being alone in the office – with the white lights on the ceiling, and the endless identical desks, all stretching out into the unseen distance emphasize how alone Bud is.  Or the play of light on Fran’s face in the bar on New Year’s as she figures out just what a louse Skeldrake is.  Even the various infidelities referred to seem to emphasize the isolation of the characters.  And what can I say?  The film is written, produced, and directed by Billy Wilder – one of my favorite directors, ever.

The-Apartment_office_small

The cast is excellent.  Jack Lemmon really pulls off the character of a complete nebbish perfectly, and we cheer for him when he stands up to Skeldrake.  Fred MacMurray  is a complete slimeball (surprisingly for the guy later known for My Three Sons and tons of Disney flicks), though he’s not as traditionally bad (yet strangely sympathetic) as in Double Indemnity.  Shirley MacLaine, extremely young and a burnette, does a brilliant job playing an incredibly deep character – the movie is as much about her as it is about Bud.  Overall, a film that very much needs to be seen.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 Stars
Next Film:  Austin Powers:  International Man of  Mystery