originally published February 25, 2012
It was a little surreal this morning to click on ‘Random Article’ and see a familiar film pop onto the Wiki-screen, let alone one I saw only six days ago. Today’s article is brought to you in part by my film noir class, the reason I spent my afternoon at the Garneau Theatre last weekend: Double Indemnity.
If you haven’t seen this film, you are missing a treat. It’s considered one of the seminal noir classics with good reason: it features everything great about noir cinema: a flawed hero, a story told in flashback, lighting and shadows that almost dare you to not be disturbed, and Edward G. Robinson.
For those who aren’t familiar with noir cinema, the term refers to a genre of crime films, partly inspired by the hard-boiled detective stories of Daschiell Hammett, Mickey Spillaine, etc, and partly motivated by the cultural headspace of post-WW2 America and the film industry at the time. Noir films – and they weren’t called ‘noir’ until some French film historian guy came up with the term in the early 70s – are all black and white, almost always feature heroes whose flaws bring them down, usually include a femme fatale (literally translated as ‘a chick who’ll crush your nuts, metaphorically speaking), and range from about 1944 to 1958, give or take.
I took this noir class for two reasons: I need the credits for my degree, and this is one of my favorite genre of film, along with great comedies and films involving Wookiees.
Double Indemnity is credited, along with other films like Laura and Murder My Sweet, as being among the first to spark the cycle of noir movies. It was kind of like that brief period in the 80s when every other movie seemed to be about people switching bodies with one another. Except that noir films didn’t suck (usually), they were cheap to make, and Judge Reinhold hadn’t been invented yet, so he wasn’t involved.
The movie was directed by Billy Wilder, one of the greatest directors of the mid-20th century (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, at least a dozen other great movies). He co-wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, one of the masters of the gritty detective story. Rumor has it the two of them got along so well, it drove Chandler to alcoholism.
The hero of Double Indemnity is not a private detective or a cop. He’s an insurance salesman. In the 1940s, you could get away with asking people to root for an insurance salesman. Times have changed.
The gist of the story is this: Fred MacMurray drops in to renew a client’s insurance, and meets the client’s wife, Barbara Stanwyck. He flirts with her (and calls her ‘baby’ about 350 times throughout the film), and together they wind up plotting her husband’s death in order to scam some insurance money. They want to cash in on the ‘Double Indemnity’ clause, which states that if the person dies because of some rare and weird fluke, like falling off the back of a train, the insurance company pays double to the widow. Edward G. Robinson is Fred MacMurray’s co-worker, an investigator who is better at his job than our protagonists would have liked.
A quick word about Edward G. Robinson. He was a brilliant actor, one of the most enjoyable, albeit quirky faces to watch on screen, either as a gangster (Little Caesar), a pathetic putz (Scarlet Street), or as a guy that dies in front of Charles Heston (Soylent Green). He took a cut in prestige (though not pay) for this film, as he was used to being the leading man.
Back to Double Indemnity. James M. Cain wrote the original novella based on an actual 1927 crime. It was published in 1935 and shopped around to every major studio, but there was a problem: The Hays Code.
The Hays Office was, to sum it up, a group of moralistic creeps who tried to keep society ‘safe’ from ‘corruption’ from ‘dangerous’ movies that might be ‘awesome’. If movies still followed the Hays Code, almost none of today’s pictures would make the cut. The Hays Code is why you seldom saw infidelity, steamy sex scenes, and bad guys getting away with anything before the 1960s. There was no MPAA back then, and no rating system to warn people what they were in for – a movie just had to follow the Hays Code or else it wouldn’t be exhibited. I could do an entire thousand words on how much these guys sucked.
The point here, is that the Hays Office didn’t like the idea of such meticulous attention to murder in Double Indemnity. Also, the original ending of a double-suicide was not going to happen. It took almost a decade for the novella to be made into a picture, and then James Cain’s movie-money was reduced from $25,000 to $15,000. He didn’t make much.
The cast is superb and Wilder and Chandler re-wrote nearly all the dialog to make it sound biting, but the real hero of this movie is cinematographer and lighting director John F. Seitz. This guy painted a gritty urban nightmare out of shadow and light. The venetian blinds slice the light into prison bars, and the opening shots of the empty insurance office suggest a black hole of despair.
I’m not kidding, this movie is just visually beautiful. Seitz makes use of chiaroscuro lighting – a low-key illumination that casts wild shadows, and only allows light to shine where it needs to, leaving the rest of the cinemascape in inky blackness. It’s an old trick from the German Expressionist silent films of the 1920s, where Billy Wilder had worked. Wilder and Seitz would dirty up the set, overturn ashtrays, mess up desks, just try to tweak the mise-en-scène into something more ominous. They sprinkled aluminum particles into the air to appear like dust – probably doing wonders for the stars’ breathing tracts.
The film was one of the biggest hits of 1944, nominated for seven Oscars (winning zero, but so what? It launched an entire genre). It sat at #29 on AFI’s 2007 list of the best American Films ever, and as of this writing it’s #54 on the IMDb top 250.
It’s just a great film. While I’m sure a lot of people will be racing to see this year’s Oscar nominees before Sunday’s telecast (and a lot more really don’t care), it’s worth the effort to step back into the past, to check out some of the brilliance that earlier generations got to root for on Oscar night (unless they didn’t care).