Once a week on Monday, Uncle Bardie shares a movie with his Readers he gives a big two thumbs up. It will simply be a short excerpt or a trailer. Uncle Bardie might even throw in a reflection on the movie. If so, it will make an appearance below the video. So pop some popcorn and give yourself a treat. This week’s movie is “Double Indemnity” (1944).
James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler wrote pulp fiction that stamped American literature with an edge. These guys were no Hemingways but their influence was just as powerful. Film makers turned their novels into the black and white movies that the French labelled film noir features. Film-noir-ism explored the underside of American society. They featured murder, but not just any murder. It was murder in that twilight zone of lust and greed and passion and failed ambition.
The movement began with Billy Wilder and the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity” It is the story of a pair who cross over to the dark side into the film-noir-zone. Fred MacMurray plays Neff, an insurance salesman on the prowl for new customers. Since he’s in the vicinity of a client who needs to renew his auto insurance, he figures why not stop in and collect the renewal fee.
Neff shoves his way past the maid who answers the door, demanding to see the man of the house. Of course, the man isn’t home. His wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), is. As Neff stands in the living room, she appears on the second floor. She has nothing on but a towel. She tells the maid, “I’ll be right down.” When a woman that looks like Barbara Stanwyck tells an insurance salesman she’ll be right down, it is a pretty good idea that the insurance salesman should run like hell. Because there is a good chance she is up to no good. Of course, that is exactly what Phyllis is up to.
She suggests Neff come back the next evening. Her husband will be home then. Then she changes her mind. She calls and suggests Thursday afternoon would be better. When Neff shows up, the husband is nowhere in the house. And it’s the maid’s day off. Some coincidence, huh?
Phyllis wants to purchase accident insurance for the hubby. Just in case he loses his life working the oil rigs. And she doesn’t want the husband to know.
Neff tells her no and leaves. But this is not a woman who takes no for an answer. She puts on the persuasion and pretty soon the insurance salesman has gone patsy. Phyllis is out for murder and she’s found a patsy. Did I say murder? Yes, there is a murder. And the motive smells like honeysuckle.
Neff has a plan. To get the husband on a train. If he dies on the train, the policy pays double indemnity. So it’s murder on a train. Agatha Christie did it. Alfred Hitchcock did it. So why not Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.
After they’ve pulled off the murder, Phyllis returns home. Neff sneaks back into his apartment, so he’ll have an alibi. He wasn’t seen leaving it. He goes downstairs and says hello to the garageman. More alibi. From there, Neff goes for a walk and has a realization. “That was all there was to it,” Neff narrates.”Nothing had slipped. Nothing had been overlooked. There was nothing to give us away. And yet, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, suddenly it came to me that everything would go wrong.” These are the words of a doomed man, words written by a master of dialogue, Raymond Chandler.
Edward G. Robinson is Barton Keys, Neff’s friend and the insurance investigator who probes the if, ands and buts of the victim’s death. When the insurance company president claims the husband committed suicide, it is Keys who says it couldn’t be suicide. Jumping off a train that slow wouldn’t kill a fly. Just as Neff thinks they got away with the murder, Keys shows up at Neff’s apartment. He’s got a hunch. When he gets a hunch, he’s like a hound dog on the trail of a prey. He don’t let up.
The perfect murder isn’t perfect anymore. And somebody is about to find out he’s been a patsy.
With “Double Indemnity”, Billy Wilder put the noir in film noir. Only his fourth film, this was his first masterpiece. It was the one that put him on the road to becoming one of the most important film directors of the twentieth century. Over the next twenty years, he would give American audiences some of the best movies ever made. Movies like “The Lost Weekend”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Ace in the Hole”, “Some Like It Hot” and “Sabrina”.
For a screenwriter, he chose Raymond Chandler to be his co-writer. It was Chandler’s first screenplay. Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson were hesitant to come down off their pedestals to do what they thought would be a B-movie. Somehow Billy Wilder convinced them. And all three’s careers were enhanced because of it.
In addition to the seven Academy Award nominations, “Double Indemnity” showed that Fred MacMurray could step out of his safe zone and give one of the best performances of his career. It provided a transition for Edward G. Robinson from leading man to character actor.
So, if you are looking for a movie to see on a dark and stormy night, or any other night for that matter, think “Double Indemnity”. You’ll be treating yourself to a humdinger.