Monday, November 02, 2009

Pantheon movie of the month - DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Phyllis: I'm a native Californian. Born right here in Los Angeles.

Walter Neff: They say all native Californians come from Iowa.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is a brutal, enigmatic film noir - one of legendary director Billy Wilder's best films (a bold claim seeing as he helmed SUNSET BOULEVARD, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and SOME LIKE IT HOT) - a slippery masterpiece, like all of Raymond Chandler's slippery thrillers - and creepily shot by John Seitz, DP on SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. Watching the film today is to find a film that still feels modern, perhaps because of its cynical approach to relationships, and puzzling, because of the conundrum at its centre.

The film takes the form of a crime thriller. Beautiful Barbara Stanwyck is a ruthless woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate men for money. She does a quick number on an insurance salesman called Neff (Fred McMurray), convincing him to murder her husband but to make it look like an accident so that they can both collect on his life insurance. Under the double indemnity clause, an accidental death pays out double. What's completely bizarre is that there is no heat in the relationship between Phyllis and Neff, and it's not clear why he'd switch from being a successful businessman to a murderer. There is something willfully, arbitrarily self-destructive which is utterly sinister and incredibly compelling to watch. The relationship that's arguably even more compelling is that between Neff and Keyes - the boss sent to investigate the "accident", prove it was suicide or murder and deny the claim. Keyes (Edward G Robinson) is the hero of the piece, if you can have a hero in a noir. He forms a genuinely empathetic relationship with Neff and the real suspense of the film comes not from whether Keyes will track Neff down, but why Neff feels compelled to collude in that process.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY was released in 1944 and is available on DVD. It was nominated for seven Oscars. Barbara Stanwyck lost out to Ingrid Bergman for GASLIGHT; John Seitz lost to Joseph LaShelle for LAURA; Billy Wilder lost to Leo McCarey for GOING MY WAY; Miklos Rozsa lost to Max Steiner for SINCE YOU WENT AWAY; it lost Best Picture and Best Screenplay to the Bing Crosby comedy GOING MY WAY; it lost Best Sound to WILSON.

Eventual tags: barbara stanwyck, billy wilder, black and white, edward g robinson, fred macmurray, james m cain, jean heather, john seitz, miklos rozsa, noir, pantheon, porter hall, raymond chandler, thriller

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