Wednesday 28 March 2012

Movie Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

A taut film noir, Double Indemnity is a classic tale of lust-fuelled murder. Director Billy Wilder assembles the pieces with slick expertise, and with the help of a terrific cast delivers the story of a deliciously doomed evil plot.

From the moment top insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) lays eyes on Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), he is overcome by a desire to be with her. The trouble is, Phyllis is married to Mr. Dietrichson, an inattentive husband frequently away on business. Phyllis has rich tastes and craves constant emotional attention, and she seduces Walter into cooking up a plot to murder her husband and make a lot of money. They forge a life insurance policy that pays $100,000 if Mr. Dietrichson dies accidentally, and then proceed to kill him and elaborately make it appear as though he did indeed die by tragically falling from a moving train.

Just when it seems that all has gone according to plan, Walter is confronted by the sharp investigative instincts of his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who leaves no stone unturned to ensure that the insurance payment is legitimate. Also causing unexpected complications are Lola (Jean Heather), Phyllis' daughter in law, and her shady boyfriend Nino (Byron Barr). Walter begins to realize that smart as he is, he may have been as much of a victim as Mr. Dietrichson.

With two of the sharpest noir minds in the business behind the story, Double Indemnity was bound to bask in the glory of a nefarious sex-and-money plot gone bad. James M. Cain wrote the book, and Raymond Chandler co-wrote the script with Wilder. The movie crackles with edgy dialogue, sophisticated glances, and high intellects being upstaged by their own uncontrolled libidos.

Wilder directs with an energetic economy that keeps the tension building as the story of greed unfolds. The events are recounted in flashback as a confession by Walter, and Double Indemnity starts with him already shot and bleeding badly. Walter's astounding lack of judgement becomes the central theme of the film, and MacMurray is perfect as the man who had a stellar reputation and the full trust of his employer, and threw it all away. Wilder uses shadows, contrasts and particularly blinds to enhance the downward spiral of Walter's drama, with every frame masterfully assembled.

Crucially, despite his career success Walter does not have a woman in his life, and Phyllis is so sexually overpowering that Walter succumbs with barely a second thought. Wilder extracts from Stanwyck a performance charged with doe-eyed seductiveness, a woman with a dark past who always gets her way, and plans about five moves ahead of her men in the chess game of financial short cuts.

Edward G. Robinson enjoys portraying Barton Keys as the only character with the depth of thinking to match wits with Phyllis. Always craving a cigar but never finding a lighter, Barton relies on instinct and his acute physical reaction to deception to reassemble the truth from the mess of lies that surround him, and gets close enough to the real story to rattle the cage of the co-conspirators and disrupt their road to riches.

Double Indemnity pays out handsomely on a policy of hard-boiled noir entertainment.

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