Film Noir Manifesto: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) – Blu-ray review
Double the risk, double the reward. Wilder gambled on darkness, but made it so clean and crisp that “noir” has never been so enticing.
(Billy Wilder, 1944)
The term “film noir” was coined after Paris critic Nino Frank suddenly got to see, en masse, all of those early 1940s American crime thrillers whose passage across the Atlantic had been delayed by the war. To be honest, though, Frank really only needed to see one movie, Double Indemnity, to get the gist of a sea-change in the mood and menace of Hollywood drama.
There were film noirs that are more entertaining (The Big Sleep), twistier (Out Of The Past) or more brutal (The Big Heat) – but Double Indemnity stands above the rest as the purest of the form, practically a manifesto for how these things should be done. It is both intensely simple in outline and immaculately constructed to tease out subtle, provocative statements on sex, violence, greed and the American way. Unusually, we’re told the entire plot in the first scene – “I killed him for money and a woman. I didn’t get the money or the woman” – and yet the film’s suspense uncoils stealthily, its twists strike savagely.
Double Indemnity is based on a gift of a premise: Phyllis Dietrichson, a sexy-but-devious housewife with murder on her mind, meets weak-willed insurance man Walter Neff, who just happens to have worked out the perfect “accidental” murder in order to hit the jackpot on a claim. Not only was the source novel written by a heavyweight of crime literature in James M. Cain, so another, Raymond Chandler, brought his baroque gutter poetry to the film’s dialogue. Throughout, Billy Wilder – already a master of screenplay construction but still a novice director – kept a fine balance, pushing the cruelty to the limits of the Hays Code but still having us root for Neff, a dumb fuck out of his depth, by casting comedy star Fred MacMurray against type.
The film’s greatness starts with the dialogue by that Cain-Chandler-Wilder dream team, which maps out a whole world beyond the confines of this specific crime – and, indeed, the Paramount studio lot. While Double Indemnity is a relatively lavish Hollywood production (and so nowhere near as cheap as many bargain-basement noirs, where the chiaroscuro lighting obscured the fact that there barely any set design) it still relies on claustrophobic interiors and dark nights to achieve its impact. The exception is the bright, banal grocery store where Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson meet to fix up their homicidal plan – an ironic skewering of normality.
What is normal, anyway? Via Neff’s weary narration, and his brittle, cynical badinage with Phyllis, we get a sense of frustrated hopes and dreams. These are men and women for whom foreplay is the only source of entertainment, because life has passed them by; too ambitious for conformity but too weak, selfish and lazy to put in the hours. It’s all there in that voiceover, not so much doomed as despondent. Wilder sketches in Neff’s psychology with candour and clarity; the guy goes from upright citizen to wannabe killer in the course of a monologue, but it’s so skilfully counterpointed with a montage of humdrum inactivity that we buy it totally. Meanwhile, Wilder ensures that the narration also conjures up mood (Neff lured to his doom via the scent of honeysuckle) and plugs story with imaginative brio (the mental image of Neff hiding his guilt behind dark glasses, only to hastily remove them in case people suspect, is deliciously tangible).
With brisk, lightly-sketched symmetry, both hero (Edward G. Robinson’s insurance investigator Barton Keyes) and villain (Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson) are driven by the same thing: money. One won’t give it away without a fight; the other can only access it via foul means. The film rests on the delicious irony that there’s always somebody who wants it more badly… but here, unlike just about every other gangster or crime film in existence, it’s the guy with the law on his side who wants to win most badly. Superficially, this is the same, timeless tale of good vs evil, hard work vs hubris – but Wilder never lets you stop remembering that it’s also a thoroughly modern tussle over a piece of paperwork.
The screenplay is such a model of efficiency that it makes things look effortless. Forget film school – you could everywhere you ever needed to know about narrative construction from this film. The only plot holes are there deliberately in order to give Keyes something to grab onto; it’s one of the few Golden Age films that arguably works better in the age of IMDb, because the hero is (let’s be honest) a pedant and a nerd. Remarkably, though, the writing process wasn’t plain sailing, with Wilder and Chandler arguing every step of the way and the director shooting an entire final scene in the gas chamber that was removed and later lost, either due to studio jitters over such downbeat, real-life horror or because Wilder’s infallible instincts realised it was superfluous.
And yet – cinema isn’t words, and it’s here Wilder comes into his own as a director. When auteur theory came along in the 1960s, the critics had trouble pigeonholing Wilder’s style because he was so old-school, keeping the camera unobtrusive and trusting to the screenplay. But don’t doubt that there’s a style and intelligence to Wilder’s approach. Double Indemnity is a film to remind you that film direction isn’t about spectacle or flashy camerawork, but rhythm and gesture.
Listen to the way that words are wielded – the contrast between Robinson’s passionate motormouth monologues and the slow, heavy baritone of Fred MacMurray, each syllable sounding like a funeral bell. Or watch for those tiny flickers of passion and panic in the half-light, where the smallest movements register like mountains. Here’s a film which realises that murder is altogether more chilling and memorable if the camera stays on the face of the femme fatale, eyes glinting with greed in the inky darkness; or which trusts to tie everything together with the simple, lovely motif of a man lighting his friend’s smoke.