Saturday, May 7, 2011

May Noir of the Month: Double Indemnity (1944)

IMDb Synopsis: An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator's suspicions.

This month, I'm going to be writing about one of the most popular film noirs of all time: Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Released by Paramount Pictures in 1944, it stars Barbara Stanwyck as sultry femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, the insurance salesman that gets caught in her web.

This film was based on a novella of the same name written by James Cain (one of his other novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was also adapted as a film noir in 1946 and starred Lana Turner and John Garfield). After it's publication in 1935, Cain sent copies of Double Indemnity to the major studios in Hollywood.  Shortly after, Warner Brothers, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Paramount were all fighting to buy film rights. All the studios canceled their bids, however, after Joseph Breen from the Hays Office sent out a letter in which he warned:

"The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater. I am sure you will agree that it is most important…to avoid what the code calls "the hardening of audiences," especially those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and fact of crime"- (taken from Wikipedia)

This was not unusual for Hollywood at the time, as the Hays Code had just been enforced the year before. Cain's original novel dealt with several elements, such as sensuality, adultery, and murder- things than had been almost taboo in motion pictures at the time. Eight years later in 1943, the script was edited and the rights were bought for $15,000 as a picture for director Billy Wider.

Double Indemnity was Wilder's third film as a director, and one of his best. He directed many film noirs including Sunset Blvd (my favorite noir of all time), Ace In the Hole, and Witness for the ProsecutionSome of his other triumphs include The Major and the Minor (his directing debut), The Seven Year Itch, Sabrina, and The Lost Weekend, the film that received Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Ray Milland. 

I once heard someone say that Barbara Stanwyck seems almost "miscast as the femme fatale". This was because Stanwyck had never come close to a role like that of Phyllis Dietrichson. In fact, when Wilder offered her the role, she confessed to him that she was a bit frightened of playing a killer, to which he replied, "Are you an actress or a mouse?". He convinced her to play the part, and she later said in 1972 she had "been grateful to him since". I've seen several of Stanwyck's films, as she is one of my favorite actresses, and I think this was the best performance of her career. 

Other standout performances are from Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. MacMurray plays the man  seduced by Stanwyck into killing her husband, and Robinson is the one who discovers the secret behind their devious scheme. I haven't viewed many films starring either of these actors, but Double Indemnity is considered their best by many.

If I had to choose the one scene that stands out the most in the film, I'd probably say  the scene in which MacMurray murders Stanwyck's husband, played by actor Tom Powers. The murder is not shown, but the feel that Wilder and the actors give make it all the more real and suspenseful. (Unfortunately, I couldn't find it on YouTube, as I would have provided a link here.)

Double Indemnity is without a doubt an ultimate must-see for any classic film fan, and one of the best film noirs to come out of Hollywood in the 1940s. If you have not done so already, I highly recommend checking out this suspenseful masterpiece from Billy Wilder.

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