Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Sixty-eight years ago, when Billy Wilder came from out of nowhere with his third American film, the one about a lustful couple killing a husband and faking a work accident to grab a hefty insurance claim, the one that would lead Hitchcock to declare his name “the two most important words in motion pictures,” he meant to craft a nihilistic nightmare. It seems thusly counterintuitive to talk, then, about what a beautiful piece of art it is, but there we have it. Double Indemnity may be the greatest of all film noirs; it’s one of the most twisted and unforgiving. In and of itself, it’s a movie that spits in the eye of any argument that the studio system left Hollywood films in a homogenized state. It has all the dimension of the highest pieces of cinematic art, crafted with subtlety, intelligence, complexity in amidst all the nastiness. The beauty it finds is in things that are horrible — murder, deception, fear, evil, and blackness. All the horror is in the mundane. The irony is wrenching but never comedic.

The hallmarks of noir are all here, maxed out deliriously. The hard-boiled but, again, arrestingly pretty dialogue, Sam Spade as smoke-drenched poetry; the identification with and sympathy toward an anti-hero of ambiguous moral weight, not just that but a killer, not just that but a weak-willed and malleable scumbag of a killer, who does it all for money and a woman and “didn’t get the money” and “didn’t get the woman” — and the visual nods to Ufa expressionism. Wilder and cinematographer John Seitz (Sunset Blvd., known before this for his amusingly bright work for Preston Sturges) shoot this magical thing like a horror film; on the streets it’s as if we’re always lurking outside of some horrible truth, and inside we’re seeped in it, the shadows falling on these hopeless people and enveloping (implicating) us.

Hitchcock’s compliment is meaningful because this is among the very few films made in his wake that in fact deserves to be labeled “Hitchcockian” and feels, indeed, reflective of the ideas and choices the Master’s likely to have made. But Wilder was a master too, and his film goes farther in certain directions — there’s a real kind of suffocating darkness here that Hitchcock usually tempered with psychological relief, at the very least hanging our sympathies on characters slightly less sociopathic and misguided; the cynicism Wilder exhibits here is, intriguingly, vastly different from that to which he’d give vent throughout the ’50s in classics like Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17. What we’re seeing here is an almost sardonic suspicion of humanity at its most self-serving and insular, hovering around a world as calculatedly bleak but somehow intoxicating as that of Kubrick’s The Killing a decade hence — another film predicated on a scheme going awry.

But Kubrick never meant to make the world of his noir feel so sumptuous, so perversely inviting, and while he could tense you up and give you a stomach ulcer or two, Double Indemnity picks you up and throws you around a bit as it envelops you in its sexual suggestion (masterfully shorthanded with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray)’s fetishistic interest in an anklet Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis is wearing, the arousal that sets the story and its hindered murder plot into motion), and in its vivid illustration of a real Los Angeles that sets itself emphatically apart from movie world. These are the only direct joys it provides. Wilder’s not about glee in storytelling — that was Hitchcock’s game — he’s about turning the oven on, trapping you. It’s exhilarating, all these decades later.

Wilder’s work benefits greatly from its absence of a central auteurist theme, and yet much of it does sit together with the moral hallmark of a great storyteller — the belief that Evil is as omnipresent as Good in just about any human heart, that anyone can lose control, that no one is infallible, that cynicism and humanism go hand in hand. In this case, Wilder’s of course assisted in ways both large and small by his cast. Stanwyck has a field day with her deceptive femme fatale, cooing and winking at the right points to sell her initiation and outside participation both in her crimes. But Fred MacMurray, whose later clean-cut role in My Three Sons can never look the same once you’ve seen this, is saddled with all the tortured material, in real-time and voiceover, as Miklos Rosza’s tense and emotional score swells behind him. He’s a bastard but he’s our vessel, and when he turns around at the finale in that irresistible noir moment of shooting his lover as they embrace, we recognize that Double Indemnity is really about what a character calls the “rotten” people — and how their lone significant act, when the dust clears, is to save the younger: to save their simple loves and their untainted dreams.

Of course, that’s impossible, and that’s Wilder for you — once the truth is known by all the peripheral characters, Jean Heather’s sweet natured young Lola (stepdaughter of our anti-heroine) included, and the best laid plans have all collapsed, we’ll be left with trauma and therapy more than likely. We shake our heads along with our other and in some respects more telling vessel, Edward G. Robinson as the master insurance investigator Barton Keyes, whose “little man” tells him when something’s amiss about a claim. It’s he that unravels Neff and Phyllis’ scam without so much as realizing it, and in some operation of directorial and screenwriting mastery — Wilder cowrote this with Raymond Chandler, and it shows — we are terrified of him and we love him simultaneously, just like the lead character. We don’t want the killers to be caught. But we do. The almost sensual catharsis of the closing moments, when Robinson finally applies symmetry to the many times his most trusted friend lit his cigarette for him and the two exchange warm, hurried, disappointed words, serves to drive home one of the film’s most salient points: the alluring times when movies are just plain wrong, and driving you around and making you think things you just shouldn’t think, are the times when movies feel the most right.

[Contains some material from a review posted in 2005.]

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