"Double Indemnity" Movie Review: ReFocus

4/21/2010 Posted by Admin

ReFocus: Movie Review

"Double Indemnity"

By our guest blogger, John Shannon

Editor's Note: With new movies coming out every Friday, new DVDs every Tuesday, and nearly 100 years worth of film history to draw from, it’s easy for some titles to get lost in the shuffle. With this in mind, we present “ReFocus,” a weekly column detailing a film that for one reason or another deserves revisiting. Whether it’s simply providing further context or taking a second look at a misplaced classic, we’re here to continue the conversation and give films their proper view.

This week…

"Double Indemnity"

There are many genres and sub-genres when it comes to the classic era of filmmaking. Some are clear-cut and safe, such as the adventure film or the romantic comedy. Some are a little darker yet still fall in the “good guy prevails” scenario. Only one genre is as dark and as oppressive as film noir. The term translates to “black film,” and it is rightfully named. Noir explore the deep and dark spaces where most happy-go-lucky films don’t dare to go. The pictures include moral ambiguity and a sense of desperation, and there are rarely any happy endings. While a list of classic noirs may include such titles as “The Maltese Falcon,” “Blade Runner,” “Chinatown,” “The Big Sleep” and “Memento,” it would most certainly include Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.”

Noir to its very bones, “Double Indemnity” practically defines the genre.

The film tells the tale of a corrupt insurance salesman, Neff (played against type by Fred McMurray), who aids Mrs. Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in killing her husband and exploiting the double indemnity clause in his life insurance policy. While they succeed at the job, getting the money becomes difficult when Neff’s partner, Keyes (Edward G Robinson), looks deeper into the details of Mr. Dietrichson’s death.

The film has all the classic elements of a film noir. A morally ambiguous protagonist, a femme fatale, corruption, fraud, murder and a muddled ending that, while morally satisfying, isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser. Based upon a book by James M Cain and written by Wilder himself, the screenplay breaks nearly every rule in the book. Voiceovers. Flashbacks. Wilder did what he had to in order for the story to work properly and adhere to the strict regulations of the Hayes code, and the finished product makes it seem as though the rules should be broken more often.

The character of Neff is a classic noir protagonist--his moral ambiguity is perfectly tailored to the story. He enjoys his job, but feels he is smarter than everyone else in the office. Part of the reason he commits the fraud is to run away with the sexy Mrs. Dietrichson, but one could argue that a larger part of it is to show off his own cunning and to prove to Keyes that he is the smarter man. Why else would he sit back and record a confession in Keyes’ office once the jig is up? He wants Keyes to know that he did the deed and that he had it all planned from the beginning.

In any other genre, Keyes would be the main character, the protagonist who is searching to get to the bottom of things, and we would discover the clues and events and piece the puzzle together in the order that he does, slowly unraveling the mystery. But this is a noir, so instead, we see all the cards right from the beginning, and can only watch as Keyes comes closer and closer to discovering the truth. And as he comes closer, we almost wish he wouldn’t find out. We almost want the murderous couple to get away with it.

And speaking of the couple, here we come to the most crucial part of any film noir--the femme fatale. Barbara Stanwyck assays Mrs. Dietrichson as the ultimate femme fatale, a beautiful, sexy and dangerous woman who always had it in her head the notion to kill her husband, but couldn’t see the proper way of doing it until Neff walked through her door. It is heavily implied that she has been planning to take down Dietrichson for all he’s got for some time--her stepdaughter believes she killed the former Mrs. Dietrichson by leaving the window open and contributing to her illness. The relationship between her and Neff also is a bit fishy. While we see them flirt heavily upon the first encounter--with some of the greatest double entendres ever written--once they have had their first night together, they seem to care less and less for each other. It doesn’t help that once the deed is done, they are forced to spend less and less time together to avoid suspicion. But one can’t help feeling that she is just using Neff and his inside knowledge of the way insurance works as a means to an end.

The story and characters are beautifully brought to the screen by cinematographer John Seitz. Seitz uses crisp black and white photography and plenty of shadows to keep the characters and the audience in a muddled sense of whereabouts. A frequent theme of characters entering the frame from lit areas and moving toward darkness is used, and continuing that motif, Keyes is the only character seen to move from the dark toward the light. The lighting of each scene is designed to conceal as much as it is to reveal. Seitz also employs deep focus photography when appropriate, creating some truly great compositions. One stand out example of this technique’s execution is a tense moment when Keyes is leaving Neff’s apartment while Mrs. Dietrichson hides behind the opened door. Neff is aware of her presence, and stands in the way, holding the door open just enough so that Keyes doesn’t see a thing. It’s an incredible, white-knuckle scene, and it is played out in one literally breathtaking shot.

With top notch performances and cinematography, and a screenplay crafted exactly to his liking, Billy Wilder almost makes it look easy as he crafts together his film. His influence on the writing, acting, shooting and editing pushes the film to the top of the pile of film noir greats, and even beyond that to earn it a place among some of the greatest films of all time. It’s a beautifully crafted work, but it isn’t too stuffy as to become inaccessible to the casual viewer. There is no reason for a remake or reimagining of any kind. Any attempt to revamp it would be as foolhardy as a remake of “The Godfather” or “Casablanca.” For each and every subsequent viewing, the film endures and appears to be more and more layered. “Double Indemnity” is, without question, a masterpiece.

Next Week on ReFocus: “The Dark Crystal”

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  1. Anonymous said...

    Great review! I plan on getting the movie this weekend. I remember seeing it a long time ago. Loved it then. Thanks for reminding me about it. I look forward to reading your next review.

  2. marion said...

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.