Sunday, March 7, 2010

1944: And My Winner Is ...

The Kid in the Front Row just left a comment on my last post about how nothing is better than "Double Indemnity." When it comes to 1944, I must agree.

Taken from James Cain's book of the same name and directed by Billy Wilder, "Double Indemnity" tells the lurid tale of insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) taking up with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and plotting to kill her husband for the insurance money. Insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is one roadblock that could keep this plan from working.

For Wilder, one of my all-time favorites, this is only his third directing effort! And yet his vision of a film noir set up that genre for the rest of the decade. One reason this film works so well is the clarity with which the tale is told. There are no extraneous plot elements, while the characters are fully created and presented. Wilder collaborated with Raymond Chandler on the screenplay, and the dialogue has that famous Chandler touch -- tough, funny, rapid-fire repartee. And the dialogue is set up with precision.

Consider the scene when Walter visits the Dietrichson home, hoping to speak with Mr. Dietrichson but meeting Phyllis instead. Walter first sees her at the top of her staircase, where she's wrapped in nothing but a towel, having been out sunbathing. After changing, Phyllis walks down the stairs, and the camera focuses on her ankle and ankle bracelet, which clearly attracts Walter. Then comes the charged exchanges between them, concluding with this gem:

PHYLLIS: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
PHYLLIS: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
WALTER: Sure, only I'm getting over it a little. If you know what I mean.
PHYLLIS: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
WALTER: How fast was I going, officer?
PHYLLIS: I'd say about ninety.
WALTER: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
PHYLLIS: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
WALTER: Suppose it doesn't take.
PHYLLIS: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
WALTER: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
PHYLLIS: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
WALTER: That tears it.

But no one's fooled into thinking Phyllis isn't loving the attention. If Walter too easily conveys his thoughts, Phyllis is the opposite, carefully revealing just enough to get what she wants. The dialogue throughout is this good.

There's also a brilliant framing device on the film. At the beginning, Walter staggers into his empty office at night, pulls out his Dictaphone and begins telling his tale in flashback. We hear his thoughts throughout, and he explains why he fell for this women when she clearly is up to no good. He stopped thinking with his brain, yet his thoughts on getting tangled up with her helps us understand his motives.

Their relationship is built on lust and then greed, clearly two ingredients that will lead to failure. Yet it's a complex relationship. He may be making the plans, but she has a will of iron. At first you may think she's out of his league but it turns out to be the opposite.

Equally important to the story is Barton Keyes, a moral compass in this story, whose job is to keep people from making false claims.

This great story needed great actors to make it work, and the three leads are inspired. Wilder wasn't afraid to take changes. For Phyllis, why not choose a blond actress rather than give Stanwyck a wig? Because of what she brings to the film. That first shot of Stanwyck at the top of the stairs, blond and wearing only a towel, establishes her as the femme fatale. But because it's Stanwyck, you know this character isn't going to be a dumb blond. Stanwyck plays smart, tough, independent-minded women who aren't always liked by the audience, and Wilder wanted people to instinctively pick up on these traits from the beginning. He was right and got a great actress to deliver brilliance.

Wilder could see beyond MacMurray's leading man looks and seems to be the only director to effective tap into his dark side, both here and in "The Apartment." How ironic that these are MacMurray's two best roles. Audiences at the time may have been shocked by this change, but hopefully they were equally impressed. Robinson get to play the good guy here and needed to be as equally tough as his co-stars, which he is.

I hate getting too specific about the plot elements in "Double Indemnity." I want people who have not seen the film or who haven't watched it in some time to rent it and be surprised by it. Because, after nearly 70 years, it's still brilliant.

And choosing this as the top film of 1944 is saying something, considering the number of other fine films made during this year. While "Double Indemnity" was up for best picture, actress, director, screenplay, cinematography, sound and score, it didn't win a thing. Perhaps it was too dark for war-weary audiences who wanted pleasant diversions, and that's reflected in the winner, which I'll discuss later this week when I review the actually winners from 1944.


  1. I remember when I saw this, I was an adult. I had grown up watching MacMurray in "My Three Sons", where he was not at all like the dark character he played in "Double Indemnity." I wonder if audiences then were as surprised by the bad guy he was capable of playing as I was when I saw it many years after seeing him in the tv show. Sort of like looking through a telescope backwards. Q.