“Excellent choice”, my father whispered to me as I began watching Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. He couldn’t have been closer to the truth, as watching this 1944 film was an eyeopening experience that birthed my appreciation of classic Hollywood film noir. Another film that has ranked high on my watchlist, this brilliantly constructed suspense thriller more than quenched my expectations, and has now converted me into a proud film noir addict.
Based on James M. Cain’s novella of the same name, Double Indemnity tracks successful insurance salesman Walter Huff (Fred MacMurray), who meets the mysterious Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while doing a routine house call. It immediately becomes clear that she is enticed by the idea of murdering her husband to collect the insurance money, and that Neff, while initially disgusted by the concept of murder, is attracted to her enigmatic presence. The premise and screenplay is indisputably intriguing and captivating, and retains the novelesque feel from its source material. While I feel the last five minutes could have been better written, the previous 100 minutes are expertly constructed. If you watch Double Indemnity, you’ll see several elements in storytelling that are executed to a level of brilliance that is rarely achieved in films nowadays: character development, suspense, voiceovers and a story that is unpredictable rather than unfollowable.
It’s said that Double Indemnity was the first of many films that established Billy Wilder as the kingpin of film noir. Not only does he (literally) present all the elements a film noir should have, but he has everything a good film, regardless of its genre, should have: script, acting, shots, expertise, etc. Packed with flawless lighting and cinematography, Double Indemnity contains many iconic shots, such as the shot of Phyllis’ emerging on the mezzanine with only a towel around her, the shot of Phyllis and Neff standing together in the supermarket, and many more. Moreover, I love how Wilder is more interested in the behaviour and psychology of flawed and untrustworthy human beings, rather than just the thrill and mystery of a film’s plot.
Speaking of characters, the duo of Neff and Phyllis contains great chemistry with a balanced level of complexity in each character. Neff starts out as fast talking and uptight, but by the end of the second act, these traits are completely gone. Although I won’t spoil anything, I will say that Wilder and MacMurray do a marvellous job of showing how, in film noir, even the average Joe can be corrupted, and no one is to be trusted. Speaking of which, Phyllis is expertly played by Stanwyck as the classic ice-cold manipulative blonde, long before Alfred Hitchcock made that an archetypal character. It’s also interesting how the writers morphed the archetypes of an irritating boss and a nosy detective into one character, the squinty, impeccably dressed, diminutive yet intuitive Barton Keyes.
In short, Double Indemnity is a fantastic film, and one that I will analyse extensively (as nerdy as that may sound). This may possibly be a new addition to my list of Night Cafe experiences* related to film. Why this lost Best Picture to the forgettable Going My Way, I have no idea, but again, should the Oscars really be the benchmark for the best films ever made?
*: Patton Oswalt uses this term in his book Silver Screen Fiend to refer to the most life changing and psychologically profound events in his life. The term is named after Vincent van Gogh’s painting The Night Cafe, which Patton describes as an experience for van Gogh in which “something followed him out, and latched onto him like a virus, and he was never the same.” One example of a Night Cafe for me was watching Star Wars for the first time, which was one of the first moments in which I considered making film the focus of my life.