Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Now this is why I keep a movie journal – so I have to take the time to consider and remember what I’ve seen, so next year I’m not confusing Manoel on the Isle of Marvels with City of Pirates with Robinson Crusoe. I know I’ve seen Double Indemnity before, but last time shouldn’t even count, since I’d swear it was a Humphrey Bogart movie that involves some fictional law about not being able to prosecute someone twice for the same crime. Whoops, that was Double Jeopardy with Ashley Judd. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it again, as they say, for the first time.

It’s really a perfect noir plot. Fred MacMurray is an upright insurance salesman, very close with his boss Edward G. Robinson (the year before he’d take center stage in Lang-noir Scarlet Street). They’re on the same side – Fred sells policies and Ed sniffs out fraudulent claims. But Fred’s head is turned by Barbara Stanwyck (also his costar in Remember the Night), trapped in a loveless marriage with a rich man. When she suggests taking out life insurance on her husband, Fred is immediately on to her. But instead of reporting her spouse-murdering desires, his own desire for her sucks him into the plot. Why not use his inside knowledge of life insurance mechanics to help her, gaining himself a rich and beautiful wife in the process?

Problems: first, Fred is spotted on the train pretending to be her husband (who was already killed a few minutes earlier, strangled in his car). Fred has a brief uncomfortable chat with Sturges regular Porter Hall, who turns out to have a great memory when he’s later interviewed by Robinson. Second, Fred underestimated Barbara, who is now trying to seduce the boyfriend of her dead husband’s daughter so that he’ll kill the daughter and tie up any loose ends. Confrontation: Fred and Barbara shoot each other, and Fred stumbles back to the office to tell the whole story into Robinson’s dictaphone, providing us with a narrator/framing device.

Nominated for every oscar but lost all to Going My Way, Gaslight and Laura. Shot by Preston Sturges’s cinematographer John Seitz. Based on an acclaimed novel by James Cain (Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice) and adapted by Wilder with the great Raymond Chandler (The Blue Dahlia).

R. Armstrong for Senses:

Subverting Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray’s audience-friendly personae, Double Indemnity used genre to comment upon a changing America. Revolving around the combative mating ritual of a larcenous insurance salesman and a bored brassy claimant, the exchanges are tough, vernacular and eventually brutal, echoing a war entering its final bloody stages and a burgeoning crisis in American sexual relations. Featuring a manipulative, sexual woman, and shot on LA locations employing chiaroscuro lighting, this archetypal film noir remains a masterpiece of fleet narrative and sociocultural resonance.

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