Because the genre which became known as Film Noir was very much a retrofitted label -- first invented by French film critics in the ‘40s and then more generally adopted by them in the 1970s when discussing a certain type of stylish Hollywood crime drama which flourished from the mid-forties to the late-fifties – it has always had a somewhat amorphous application when it comes to actually deciding which films belong under its umbrella and which don’t. Generally associated in the public mind with a certain style of high contrast cinematography that was greatly influenced by German Expressionism (many Hollywood directors and technicians of the period during which these films were at their height of production were German-Jewish émigrés, for obvious reasons) and subject matter taken from or influenced by the ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction that flourished in popular American ‘pulp’ magazines of the day, the genre nevertheless embraced quite a wide selection of themes and approaches which make it impossible to pin down precisely -- yet if ever there was one early work that went about (inadvertently) setting in place the vast majority of the tropes which are still routinely associated with classic era ‘Films Noir’, even today, then that work is surely Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”.
Unlike the many budget feature poverty row noirs that followed it, this film was a major studio mounting by Paramount Pictures, produced by Joseph Sistrom: nominated seven times for an Academy Award (although it won nothing) in 1945, it featured one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses, Barbara Stanwyck, in a lead role which became the paradigmatic representation of the ‘femme fatale’ in cinema. In fact, “Double Indemnity” finds a space for almost every element one now unthinkingly associates with the genre, and has them featured in ample abundance: stylish shadow play cinematography; smart, cynical dialogue (co-scripted by Wilder and crime writer specialist Raymond Chandler) and a malleable antihero who’s gulled into crime by a manipulative dame who’s inevitably revealed to be ‘rotten to the core’. The only thing it didn’t have was a private eye protagonist or a detective at the centre of the plot; instead, the film went about creating what has become the blueprint for classic noir by plunging the viewer into the tawdry, morally cynical world of insurance claim adjusting.
In extracting from novelist James M. Cain’s gritty novella a methodical, marble-hard and darkened tale about bad people strangely doomed by their own flaws to fix their fates for the worse, Viennese-born Jewish filmmaker Billy Wilder was probably more concerned about competing with Hitchcock in the suspense stakes and emulating the smoky, proto-realist starkness of Fritz Lang’s “M” (an initial influence on the visual style of the film) than he was in forging a new genre, but by focusing his sights on material deemed bottom-of-the-barrel trash (at least that’s what Wilder’s regular screenwriting collaborator Charles Brackett thought, which was why he refused to work on the project after having previously helped pen the original treatment), he was in fact doing just that – challenging the tough strictures of the ubiquitous Hays Code in agreeing to adapting such work, but somehow creating in the process an even more acute piece of art out of his very need to avoid the censures of Joseph Breen’s infamous department. The changes Billy Wilder and Chandler had to make in order to satisfy the Hayes Office (stripping out the novella’s unallowable double suicide ending, for instance) ended up elevating a simple journalistic true-crime tale -- influenced by Cain’s time working as a court reporter -- into a subtle, almost existential dissertation on the ineffable nature of human motivation, which depicts how chance and desire pull hidden levers in the mind and heart which set two seemingly ordinary characters on a most unlikely course of mutual destruction. The film’s cocktail of sex and death is even more apparent through being immersed in a prison bar lattice of shadow, its central murder occurring off screen -- we hear it instead, being carried out beside Barbara Stanwyck, in the passenger seat of her husband’s motorcar, her chilling look of impassivity broken only by a brief shiver of satisfaction which tells us all we need to know about her. Before the murder, Stanwyck’s character visits her co-conspirator at his darkened apartment and has sex with him as part of the process of persuading him to go through with the plan he himself has devised. We don’t technically see anything that violates the Hayes Code of course, but Wilder suggests it in a way which is impossible to ignore using a simple fade to black which denotes the passing of time, after which we see the two sitting in different positions on the same apartment sofa, with Stanwyck re-applying lipstick and her lover smoking a cigarette before her leaving.
This was only Billy Wilder’s third ever film as both writer and director after his big move from Berlin’s UFA Studios to Hollywood, where he came to work originally as a screenwriter on the films of Ernst Lubitsch (just before a wave of film technicians from Germany followed him in gravitating towards the states after the rise of the Nazi party), who was also the head of Paramount Studios at the time. But the confidence with which Wilder goes about dispensing with any notion of suspense in the conventional sense during the first few minutes of the film, at least regarding the outcome of the tale we are about to witness, still seems to mark a most incredible narrative audaciousness: the whole story is told in flashback, from the point of view of an insurance salesman called Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who staggers into the building of Pacific-All-Risk-Insurance on a foggy Californian evening in downtown Los Angeles and recounts into the office Dictaphone of his chief claims-adjuster colleague (and best friend) Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) the story of how he came to murder a man: ‘Yes, I killed him,’ he admits; ‘I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?'
What’s more, we learn upfront that Neff’s partner and friend fingered the wrong man for the crime. So this is one film in which we don’t have to worry too much about plot spoilers: Wilder starts by telling us exactly what is going to happen and how it is going to turn out (which is not well) in the very first few minutes of the movie, but still we are going to be riveted for the next one hundred and forty minutes, and still we are going to be surprised -- even though variations on this same story have since been played out again innumerable times -- although admittedly never with such perfectly honed verbal poetry as Wilder and Chandler were able to concoct. For “Double Indemnity” is a film which sounds just as stylish and plays as easy on the ear as its visuals work upon the eye: voiceover narration has become something of a cliché in recent years, its presence often to be taken as being indicative of ineptness, for to resort to such a device can often be thought a sign of a failing script which has had to be rescued from incoherence in the post-production process. Here though, we are given the number one lesson in how to do it right: it becomes a poetic method that brings further depth and meaning to what occurs on the screen, rather than simply a means of implementing clunky exposition to plaster over narrative inadequacies. Although Chandler is often credited with the memorable lines and zinging repartee with which the film is spring-loaded, Wilder allegedly quickly found the rhythm of his collaborator’s writing style and came up with many of the film’s best known ‘Chandlerisms’ himself. Although their partnership was by all accounts fraught, the two quickly discovered that they would have to change much of Cain’s original dialogue as it existed in the novel. The flashback structure initiated by the injured Neff addressing his account to his friend via the Dictaphone was also an addition which the story’s original writer later admitted he’d wished he’d thought of himself.
“Double Indemnity”, much like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, is a classic example of a type of film where the simple elements from which it has been constructed magically seem to add up to more than the sum of its parts. What motivates the sunny, apparently happy-go-lucky all-American bachelor insurance salesman Walter Neff to advance an initial sexual attraction towards unhappy ex-nurse turned housewife Phyllis Dietrichson to a stage where he willingly allows himself to become a cold-blooded murderer in order to be with her? The casting of Neff constitutes a deliberate play against expected type: instead of a hard or tough guy actor, Wilder cast Fred MacMurray, a pleasant enough-looking performer, apparently more suited to light comic roles (indeed this was the most substantial role MacMurray ever played) than to that of a murderer. Neff meets Phyllis Dietrichson by accident in her and her husband’s lavish but ill-kept Spanish villa after calling on his client -- Mr Dietrichson -- at his Glendale home, for the purpose of persuading him to renew a previously drawn automobile insurance plan which is due to lapse. Instead he finds the woman of the house in his stead, and becomes instantly attracted to her after she appears fresh out of the bath at the upstairs balcony wearing only a towel. The couple’s good natured flirtation develops into a form of verbal foreplay with the apparently responsive blonde (who emerges down the staircase wearing pom-pom slippers and an alluring anklet that immediately catches the eye as it glints in the venetian blind-filtered afternoon sunlight) of a type which escalates until it is Neff who first jokingly raises the prospect of murdering Mrs Dietrichson’s husband and the two of them living off of his life insurance payout.
But Phyllis takes the idea seriously, since Neff would know exactly how to go about defeating any subsequent investigation, and although he leaves apparently in disgust when he realises this, something has nevertheless shifted irrevocably in his psyche. The wife follows him to his apartment and the two finally do cement their attraction into a promise to concoct a plot to con Mr Dietrichson into signing a life insurance contract with a double indemnity clause – a clause added to facilitate double the payout should the signee meet with an unlikely end such as, say, falling from the smoking carriage of a moving train.
Neff’s sudden willingness to take on such a ruthless, cold-blooded scheme, involves him having to go to extraordinary lengths to invent an alibi, then to impersonate Mr Dietrichson himself (in order for the victim to be seen in public at the train station on crutches, Neff has to mimic the victim’s broken leg) and to then appear to fall to his death from a carriage by accident on the train to Palo Alto. Next he must meet up with Phyllis to place the body of the real victim -- already throttled to death earlier by Neff on the way to the train station -- on the tracks in his stead. All of this seems completely at odds with Walter Neff’s easy-going manner and uncomplicated demeanour, but the gap in psychological explanation seems to add layers of complexity to the character rather than implausibility: Neff has worked day by day alongside Edward G. Robinson’s avuncular yet dogged insurance-claims adjuster Barton Keyes, and is well aware of his best friend’s formidable reputation as someone who can sniff out a false claim or a foul plot to defraud the company with his apparently incontestable instinct for corruption. The friendship between the two men makes up two corners of a triangle with Mrs Dietrichson at the apex of the disruptive third angle. Wilder finds an ingenious visual short cut to illustrate both Keyes’ obsessive nature and the touching friendship between him and Neff by having Keyes constantly puffing away on cheap cigars but forgetting to pick up matches which Neff has to supply for him in seemingly relentless flow. Robinson’s energetic performance (the actor’s very presence signalling the influence on Noir of 1930s gangster films), is characterised in both physical and verbal form (the toughest, wittiest, most cynical dialogue is put into Keyes’ mouth) and emphasises the simultaneously warm yet unforgivingly relentless nature of his personality. He almost instantly twigs that Dietrichson is a murderess, and then sets about trapping her while his guilty colleague all the while has to sit right across the desk from him, sweating and watching the net gradually closing around his own apparently fool proof plan.
Neff can’t risk being seen with Phyllis while she’s under Keyes’ unrelenting investigation, so the whole point of the murder in the first place -- for the two of them to be together -- is soon undermined. They can only meet briefly and furtively in the baby food aisle of a supermarket (with Phyllis in trademark dark glasses) where Neff updates her on Keyes’ latest advance upon them inside the labyrinth they are now irrevocably caught in like rats. It’s Neff’s relationship with both these people -- the hunter and the hunted (although it is Neff who suffers while Phyllis seems always unflinchingly calm about the matter), which becomes the focus of the film’s study of freedom and fate. It has been said that, like many of the European émigrés who followed him to Hollywood, Wilder was both enthralled by the exuberance, glitz and the freedoms of ‘30s/‘40s America while simultaneously disturbed and appalled by its excesses and its shameless worship of money. Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson is the very personification of such an ambivalence: an irresistible, blindingly alluring dame with a trashy line in imitation sophistication, all cheap perfume topped off with a glaringly false platinum blonde wig; a woman whose shrewd ability to manipulate corrupts the simple dreams of a regular guy -- she is the post-war American dream made flesh, drawing all to her by her radiance but leaving them fatally burned or worse. Stanwyck was at first unwilling to play a murderess but relented after Wilder persisted, demanding of her ‘are you an actor or a mouse?’ She’s electric in the role: there were many greater beauties during the heyday of Noir who played more conventionally attractive Femme Fatale roles, but only Stanwyck brings quite the same combination of tough, lacquered indomitability and magnetic sexual allure to the type; the effect of her performance is made all the more striking through being entrenched in Wilder and his brilliant cinematographer John F. Seitz’s distinctive mise-en-scène, which performs an elaborate dance between the cracks of stark documentary realism in its gritty location exteriors (many of which still exist in Los Angeles today little changed) and the highly stylised play of light and shadow which defines Seitz’s beautiful deep focus sound stage photography, which is of a type that defined the look of Noir in many films to come.
It created the film’s uniquely grim yet theatrically heightened look, and seemingly hints at submerged levels of psychological intensity in Walter Neff and the hidden spark of cold ice in the core of Phyllis Dietrichson that’s only revealed to the former when Lola (Jean Heather) the pretty daughter by Mr Dietrichson’s first wife, reveals some information about Phyllis which changes the whole dynamic of her relationship with Neff for good. Amid the verbal banter and the precision-tooled cavalcade of quotable lines, a certain image keeps reoccurring: Walter and Phyllis often try to strengthen each other’s resolve throughout their plot, to see this thing through together ‘straight down the line’ -- but Barton Keyes, who by now has worked out that Phyllis must have had an accomplice in her crime, sees their fates as being tied together in a much deeper and darker sense: Neff reveals it to Phyllis in the film’s climactic confrontation between the two in Phyllis’s darkened moonlit villa: ‘A friend of mine's got a funny theory. He says when two people commit a murder, it's sorta like they're riding on a trolley car together: one can't get off without the other. They're stuck with each other. They have to go on riding together clear to the end of the line … And the last stop is the cemetery. Walter Neff has tried to change the cheerful, orderly track his life seemed set to run along forever, but finds himself instead scripted to follow a much shorter but far more rigid path, which takes him down the route determined by the pull of illicit sex and the thrill of collaborating in a scheme designed to defeat the job he’s been assiduously carrying out for most of his life. He is stuck with his collaborator, no longer all that interested in either the money or the woman after he discovers she’s not who he imagined she was; yet now their fates will take them to the moment when Walter, sitting in his friend’s office, confesses all in his final moments, as dawn rises over the city.
“Double Indemnity” comes to Blu-ray in mostly excellent condition boasting an exquisite HD transfer which is at its best in scenes such as the one when Walter first enters the shaded Dietrichson villa, with its barred shadows created by venetian blinds and shards of light reflecting the dust in the air. This Master of Cinema special edition features an excellent audio commentary with film historian Nick Redman and screenwriter (“The Limey”, “Kafka”, “Dark City”) Len Dobbs who discuss the conditions which gave rise to the Film Noir style and Dobbs’ recollections of meeting Wilder in his later years at the twilight of his career in Hollywood. There’s a fascinating attempt to analyse what makes the film one of the greatest of Film Noirs also continued in an accompanying 38 minute documentary from 2006, “Shadows of Surprise”, which includes a diverse roll call of authors and critics discussing every aspect of the making of the film, including among their number the likes of Kim Newman, James Elroy and director William Friedkin. We also get the 1945 Screen Guild Theatre radio adaptation of the story, also starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray reprising their film roles. We have the original theatrical trailer and, finally, a 36-page booklet featuring extracts from writings by James M. Cain on the brilliance of Wilder’s adaptation, Raymond Chandler on screenwriting in Hollywood and John Allyn’s 1976 interview with Billy Wilder in which he discusses the film and his collaboration and difficult relationship with Chandler. The booklet also includes an extract from the original screenplay detailing the film’s original Gas Chamber execution ending, which Wilder eventually cut (even though it was filmed) because it simply repeated information already imparted.
The film tells a story that has now been made so familiar to most people from being so often copied that it feels in outline like a cliché. But Wilder shows that even the most apparently hackneyed material will continue to shine and seem timeless when it is handled with assurance, flair, wit and style. “Double Indemnity” is the quintessential expression of all such qualities and will continue to entrance anyone who comes freshly across it, just as it did the audiences who flocked to it in the wartime America of the ‘40s. A true American masterpiece has received excellent treatment here, and anyone who appreciates the glories of the development of cinematic craft should see it.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!