Monday, February 22, 2016

Noir Time! #1: Double Indemnity (1944)


Now that I've fully expressed my love for Noir, it's time to introduce the first film of this series. It's an important one, seeing as this is the first I write about. It better be the best go-to noir film. I have so much love for this genre (not a genre) that it was really hard to choose which would be the first to write about and potentially expose some of you to this wonderful world. I didn't choose the first Noir ever made (The Maltese Falcon {not the first Noir by any means but the first to become popular and the first for many to realize there was a movement happening}), I didn't choose the most popular one (The Big Sleep), and I had to choose one that was made in the hay day of Noir so no neo-noir (Chinatown, a movie in my top 10 all time favorite films). //By the way Neo Noir is any movie made with noir style after Orson Wells' Touch of Evil. I even didn't choose my favorite noir from 1940s-50s (That's a tough one but my go-to has always been Detour). I chose what I personally believe to be the most perfect film noir movie ever made: Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity.

Why do I think this is the most perfect Noir? It's not even about a rough around the edges Detective who stumbled upon a case that was bigger than he could imagine. It's about an insurance salesman. Huh. Nothing screams interesting and memorable like watching a man try and sell earthquake insurance (that does happen by the way). Yet Wilder makes it happen. No but seriously, the way this movie is shot, the time period, the characters ,and all the noir stereotypes are amongst the best in all of Noir. Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) is equally flawed as he is sympathetic. Phyllis Dietrichson (a character nailed by Barbara Stanwyck) is one of the nastiest femme fatals you'll ever come across. Barton Keyes (played by Noir veteran Edward G. Robinson) provides much needed comedic relief without taking away from the tone of the film, as well as being the foil to our protagonist Walter.

The film is about how Walter comes across the mysterious Phyllis in an attempt to sell her husband insurance. She is resentful of her husband and convinces [ ;-) ] Walter to sell him life insurance so that the both of them can stage his death in order to run off together with the money. They wish to use the "Double Indemnity" clause which allows them to be paid double the life insurance if Mr. Dietrichson died in an accident. Things don't go as planned. Right away when the film opens, we see a wounded Walter leaving a voice memo to his boss Keys about how he committed murder and insurance fraud. Rest of the film (up until the end) is a flashback of his account of what happened to get him to this point. The film is immediately stressing that there is no twist to look out for, there is no build up to a particular moment. We know what is going to happen to Walter right at the very beginning. So what is important than? The journey, the downfall, the spiral, and the exposure of character flaws are what is being emphasized here. The cautionary tale of not to trust a women you just met to kill her husband and run away with her in the name of "love." Walter is pulling off a pipe dream, and we as the audience want to pull for him and want him to get away despite him being a blatant criminal. Because in a way, we all want to live vicariously though Walter's risks. If I could borrow a line from the ladies of TLC, Wilder is essentially telling us not to go chasing waterfalls. You can't force your way to happiness (ie killing someone and staging his death). It's a very pessimistic way of warding off those who covet a better lifestyle.

The locations of this film are some of the most subtle yet perfect fit in all of Noir. I for one love seeing a real 1940's LA on film, a time where traffic was less busy and corruption was rampant. This film does a nice job of using the city as a character. There are plenty of memorable set pieces from a local (not-so) mundane grocery store, to the prestigious Hollywood Bowl. The Dietrichson house is a beautiful terra cotta Spanish style house that was common amongst the wealthy and upper middle class of the time. The house still remains as it was in the film to this day in the Hollywood Hills, on the outside at least. I feel like Wilder was inspired by the use of this house, and incorporated what he learned into his future 1950 magnum opus Sunset Boulevard (don't worry we'll get to that one) which also used a house as a character, even more so. The weather and lighting are some of the best examples of mood and foreshadowing through visuals in any noir. All Noirs are great have have their own way of expressing these traits, but Double Indemnity does it amongst the best because it's so clear to the audience what Wilder was intending to convey. I could spend hours just listing all the visual motifs of entrapment and light vs. dark but that would take up a lot of text, and sometimes it's more fun to spot them for yourself!

I'll spend a little time talking about Phyllis. She is one of the most conniving femme fatals in any movie. I mean you can tell she's up to something the second she appears on screen. What makes her awful is how she ruins this man's life in order to benefit her own. She doesn't feel too much remorse disposing of her husband. That extreme close up of her face as Walter is doing the deed in the car is one of the earliest examples of a powerful facial expression that says more than words can. What makes her worse than most femme fatals is that a lot of other femmes are attached to a case, or are revealed to be the main culprit behind a crime a detective is solving. Her best interests are to making sure the detective she's seducing doesn't connect the case back to her. But Phyllis instigated everything for Walter. He would have payed no mind if she hadn't dragged him along this wild ride. She only needs him for the explicit reason of the crime she wants to commit and nothing else. That to me is worse than trying to cover up a crime. Barbara Stanwyck knocks it out of the park, and she is most definitely in my pantheon of Femme Fatals. I'll spend a little time each week brining up the femmes if there are any and describing their personalities a little, but seeing as this is the first noir time, I would like to talk about the cultural significance of Phyllis as a character which can be applied to many other femmes in other films. Even though it's crazy to think that there was such a powerful part for a women at a time like this, I still think the part is a little demoralizing towards women. She is exaggerated to the point of evil to stress the fact that chasing women without rationality is something you should avoid. In order to properly convey that, these femmes have to appear as nasty and as apathetic towards men as possible. So while it is a breakthrough portrayal of a female, it's a shame that it takes the worst presentation of them to caution men from looking beyond them as an object.

What else is there to say about this film other than to see it? It is slap dab in the middle of the golden age of the Film Noir movement and does the best job at representing said movement to all of it's traits. The story is perfect, it'll keep you on your toes the whole time even though you know exactly what's going to happen the whole time. The acting is superb, Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck command each scene they're in. The cinematography is top notch, a grade above other movies before this one. Wilder is clearly a master at his craft, he's made so many timeless classics and is my favorite director of Noir films. I cannot recommend this movie enough, even to those not interested in Noir. But for the sake of this series, I can't think of a better first Noir to start off with!