Blog Directory CineVerse: Straight down the line: Analyzing "Double Indemnity"

Straight down the line: Analyzing "Double Indemnity"

Thursday, November 7, 2019

"They don't make 'em like that anymore" is an overused phrase used to view many films through the biased prism of nostalgia--a cliche that can be as nonconstructive as it is unoriginal. Yet, though an overstatement, it can be an accurate one. And it certainly applies to Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," a stylized noir masterwork that gave rise to a host of imitators in the years after its 1944 release. CineVerse honored this movie's 75th birthday yesterday with a lengthy discussion that covered the following points:

Why is Double Indemnity worth celebrating 75 years later? How has it stood the test of time, and why does it still matter?

  • It’s worth celebrating because it’s arguably the finest example of noir ever made, with an unsurpassed pedigree when you consider the collaborators—James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Billy Wilder, two of the finest scribes of pulp and the hardboiled school and quite possibly the best noir director, combined with an unimpeachable cast, including Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, both of whom have rarely been better.
  • It’s earned its diamond anniversary accolades by virtue of being so classically representational of the classic noir period between 1941 and 1958; it wasn’t the first noir, but it established and perfected the genre, creating a template for so many others to follow.
  • It’s also worthy of our attention and praise 75 years later because, although we know how it’s going to end right from the start, it’s the journey of these two doomed souls that proves so captivating. Yes, this is a gripping and virtually airtight yarn that proves decidedly satiating, with fascinating twists and turns along the way; but the payoff is more in the behaviors and tension felt between Neff and Dietrichson.
  • Plus, this is chock full of crackling hardboiled dialogue that is so savory and satisfying.

In what ways was this picture was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • The research suggests that this was one of the first examples of a crime film told in overarching flashback form—wherein we begin at the end and are shown how we arrive there. Couple that with the decision to use voiceover narration and you’ve got a great storytelling structure that many subsequent films noir would copy, including Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard a few years later.
  • Double Indemnity also made noir a more accepted and respected genre by virtue of it earning strong box office, high critical acclaim, and several Academy Award nominations.
  • Possibly more than any other film before it, Double Indemnity demonstrated how avarice, lust, deceit, sin, and the thrill of attempting the perfect crime could entertain audiences and keep them coming back for more. It helped make salacious subject matter more popular to moviegoers—depicting criminal, cold-blooded and immoral acts with such forthrightness, including murder for profit, infidelity, insurance swindling, the perfect crime, and rotten duplicitous behavior. Somehow, Wilder and company got these ideas past the censors, and then the dam seemed to have burst, with many similar “get away with murder” films to follow, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, Scarlett Street, The Lady From Shanghai, Out of the Past, etcetera.
  • This could be the first instance of a noir that uses Venetian blinds and the suggestive shadows they create, too.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes, messages, and motifs are explored in Double Indemnity?

  • The fallibility and corruptibility of human beings. This picture serves as a cautionary tale, depicting the ease with which any person can be quickly tempted and tainted under the right circumstances. Consider how quickly Neff—your average everyday insurance salesman, not some two-bit hood, con man, or gangster—agrees to collaborate with Phyllis on this murder scheme—after only three conversations.
  • The inability to escape one’s doomed nature. Neff and Dietrichson seem predestined to conspire and to fail—literally because the movie starts at the end after their plans backfire.
  • The spider woman who preys on weak men easily ensnared in her web. Phyllis Dietrichson is quite possible the queen of femme fatales. She may not be a ravishing siren like some others, and femme fatales in other movies may best her in body count; but she’s portrayed with nuance and icy credibility by one of the best actresses of her generation, given lines of impeccable quality by master wordsmiths, and possessed of an unsurpassed heartlessness and conniving quality that keeps us riveted to her character every time she’s onscreen.
  • The cancer of mistrust. We see how doubt starts to creep into Neff’s eyes and influence his actions. It’s interesting that the murder happens about the film’s midway point, which means that much of the film focuses on growing suspicions and fears—Walter’s apprehension and uncertainties about Phyllis as well as Keys’ skepticism about the insurance claim.
  • The hubris of pride and arrogance. The smug Neff believes his plan is foolproof, and that his insider cleverness demonstrates a superiority over lesser criminals who didn’t get away with their supposedly perfect crimes. But he is undone in the end by what Keyes predicts: that he can’t get off the trolley ride and leave Phyllis behind. Yet even at the very end, he maintains a smug self-satisfaction that he kept Keyes from figuring out that it was his office mate who actually did it.
  • The dangers of veering from the straight and narrow path. It can be assumed that Neff was supposedly a relatively honest salesperson before he is tempted by Phyllis. But he gets off that path and chooses the twisted route of crime, hand in hand with Dietrichson. Ironically, she keeps telling him “it’s you and me, straight down the line.” Only their new course is leading them, as Keyes predicts, straight to the cemetery.
  • The dual natures of men and women. The filmmakers cleverly use chiaroscuro low-key lighting to manifest shadows, including Neff’s shadow and silhouette that seems capable of overtaking him, of pushing him out of the frame—insinuating an irreversible turn to the dark side of his nature. We also get plenty of doppelgangers and twinning in Double Indemnity—like the undefined man on crutches we see at the opening credits who could be Phyllis’ husband or Walter; the contrasting characters of the first and second Mrs. Dietrichson; the two male saps in Walter and Nino Zachetti; and the pairing of Keys and Neff, who exhibit camaraderie and chemistry.

What elements from Double Indemnity have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • If you want to get unfairly picky, sure—ankle bracelets, angora sweaters, smoking in public buildings and at work, Dictaphones, Chinese checkers, the word “swell,” and perfumed hair, are all ancient relics.
  • Pushing a bit harder, it’s a bit hard to swallow that Mr. Dietrichson’s cause of death is determined to be a broken neck; although we don’t see Walter murder him in the car, it’s assumed that he strangles him to death. How he hid this fact and made it look like death by a broken neck seems far-fetched, something that a savvy detective and insurance investigator would uncover.
  • One the other hand, infidelity, taboo eroticism, murder, and fraud haven’t gone out of style and still make for fine movie fodder.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Its ability to tell such a compelling story with relatively simple elements. This is a winding, twisty story, although not as convoluted a plot like The Big Sleep. We aren’t shown a sexy, torrid illicit affair with a lot of smoldering kisses and oozing sexual chemistry. Walter doesn’t talk about needing the money to get out of a jam, and he doesn’t’ fantasize about what he’s going to do with the money or the life he and Phyllis will supposedly live together once they’re in the clear. So that begs the question: What is Walter in this for if it’s not for love, sex, or money? Roger Ebert wrote that “both are attracted not so much by the crime as by the thrill of committing it with the other person. Love and money are pretenses.” So instead of being primarily a film about the allure of temptation, it’s arguably more a picture about the three Ds: doom, dread, and deceit. Watching how rapidly Walter and Phyllis’ relationship starts to disintegrate, the brooding paranoia and fear that Neff is engulfed by, the tightening knot twisting around his neck, the ever-encroaching presence of Keys sniffing closer—that’s what makes Double Indemnity special. Watching it, I can’t help but ask myself, “what would I have done in that situation if I were Neff? How could I keep Keys and the police off my back?” I put myself in Walter’s shoes and shudder because I know this guy is screwed, yet I can’t help but sympathize with him and experience his fear and doubt.
  • Making the central emotional relationship not be between Walter and Phyllis but between Walter and Keyes—two men who admire one another professionally and personally. Edward G. Robinson is absolutely dynamite in this supporting role, with fantastic lines and delivery of them, and he’s very convincing as a man who’s impossible to outwit.
  • The visual template it created for noir, with masterful cinematography provided by John Seitz, who creates expressively textured interiors painted with layered shadows and canted beams of light filtered through Venetian blinds. The deliciously dark misc en scene perfectly mirrors the moral darkness that our conniving lovers inhabit.

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