Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Double Indemnity (1944)

*This is part of The Film Experience's ongoing series, Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

The interesting thing about film noirs is that the best ones tend to not be made by natives of Los Angeles (where so many took place), or even the United States. Think of the most famous noir that wasn't even made in the genre's prime: Chinatown (1974), made by Roman Polanski. He approached Depression-era Los Angeles from the perspective of an outsider, and presented a city - and a society - much seedier than American-made portraits had. Double Indemnity, Nathaniel's pick for Hit Me... this week, was made by the great Billy Wilder, an Austrian immigrant whose outsider-within is visible throughout the film.

As is the case in any film noir, the film takes place in the shadows: visually and morally. I'm not too familiar with insurance policies of the 1930s (maybe someone can enlighten me?), but I find it interesting that the death that drives the main plot - the murder committed by illicit lovers Walter (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) - is investigated not by the police, but by the insurance company that's hoping to not have to pay off the accident insurance claim. I really want to read this as Wilder's observation of money-obsessed America, even in the grips of the greatest financial crisis the country ever faced. I may just be reading too much into it, though.

Politics aside, Wilder did create a visually splendid film, with a terrific leading man in MacMurray as the insurance agent manipulated into committing murder. MacMurray's greatest strength is the way he plays Walter not just as a man consumed with guilt and in way over his head, but also deeply disturbed to have found himself capable of murder (and quite easily so). He's found himself living in the shadows, and it troubles him that it feels like home. Just check out this shot from the film's penultimate scene:

After going through the whole film struggling with his actions, he's now confronting Phyllis for having played him as a fool. Perhaps it's a bit blunt to say he's a shadow of his former self, but he does wear those shadows well.

However, the film would not have the reputation it enjoys today without Stanwyck's fantastic (and Oscar-nominated) performance as the deceptive Phyllis. She's playing the quintessential femme fatale, a woman who's no stranger to husbands "mysteriously" dying and using men to get what she wants - namely, money and (pre-MPAA) sex, mostly in that order. Stanwyck is luminous and devious, a beautiful face that seems innocent enough until she has you tightly in her grip. And she plays the role wonderfully, including the delicious bit of acting that makes up my choice for best shot.

The plan is a little complicated: Phyllis drives her husband to the train station, with Walter hiding in the back seat. Walter will reach over at the signal (three honks of the horn), kill him, then board the train pretending to be Mr. Dietrichson, jumping off and then helping Phyllis dump the body by the tracks. And how appropriate it is that Phyllis is in the driver's seat of the car, being the one who hatched this nefarious scheme by having Walter create and execute it.

Phyllis gives the signal, looking nervous about what's about to happen...

Which then leads to a look of shock as Walter makes his move...

But that shock slowly melts into this, my choice for best shot:

It's an almost-smile of satisfaction; they haven't exactly succeeded yet, but Phyllis knows that no matter what, she has Walter firmly in her grip now, and there's nothing he can do to escape. She's going to have her way, and she's halfway to a $100,000 payday in insurance claims. It's a wonderful piece of acting, and Stanwyck sells it perfectly as the camera lingers in close-up on her face. Murder like honeysuckle, indeed.


Vincent Smetana said...

LOL. I guess we're "Hit Me" twins. :)

It never even occurred to me that the police weren't in on the investigation!

Jason H. said...

"Hit Me" twins forever!

I agree: I'll take the film noir AND the social progress, though they're not quite hand-in-hand.

I love your Oscar Revisionism series, by the way.

Vincent Smetana said...



welcome back to the series!

Anonymous said...

"Chinatown" was written by Robert Towne, a native Angeleno, but I agree that many of the best films about LA seem to be made by outsiders. It's strange that way, since many of the best films about NYC have been created by native New Yorkers. I guess Walter Neff is right: most native Angelenos are from Iowa!

Jason H. said...

I didn't realize Towne was an Angeleno. I do think Polanksi did bring a certain outsider perspective to the film, but perhaps it's because he worked with a native that it turned out to be a stone-cold classic. Thanks!