Friday, June 21, 2013

Movies I Like: Double Indemnity

 “The two most important words in motion pictures are Billy and Wilder” – Alfred Hitchcock

“It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” – Walter Neff in Double Indemnity

I could have done an entire post by now on how cool Billy Wilder is, instead of just doing one film at a time, but since I have already done posts for The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, and Stalag 17, I’ll just continue to do his films one at a time. That way I will have something to write about for some time to come.

One of Wilder’s greats is his third feature, Double Indemnity. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Picture.

People have been trying to recreate the look, witty patter, and insightful narration of this classic film noir since its release in 1944. Just about all film students at some point try their hand at a black-and-white, moody piece with the feel of John Seitz’s brilliant photography. It is almost a rite of passage – even for those who have not seen the original film they are trying to imitate.

A shot from Double Indemnity showing Seitz's lighting
In fact, it’s not just amateurs who try to recreate the feel of Double Indemnity, but seasoned pros. In 1981, Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark remade the film and called it Body Heat.

The original screenplay, co-written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, is based on a book by James M. Cain, about an insurance salesman, Walter Neff. Played by Fred Mac Murray in the movie, Neff plans, along with a woman with whom he is having an affair (played to perfection by Barbara Stanwyck), to kill her husband for the insurance money. It doesn’t go well.

Wilder knows how to start a film. He does what he can to pull the audience in as quickly as possible. In Sunset Boulevard he starts with a dead man in a pool narrating the film, so the audience isn’t watching to see what happens, but just how it happened. How did this guy end up dead in a pool?

 Double Indemnity starts with a car careening, nearly out of control, down the night street, running red lights and narrowly missing accidents. This car is in one big hurry. Already we are asking questions – who’s in that car and why are they in such a hurry?

The car stops at a building, and a man, seen only from the back at first, is let in by someone who works there. The building is closed, it’s after hours. The night worker tries to make small-talk with the man, who he recognizes as Mister Neff, but gets little more than grunts in response.

Sweaty and not feeling well, Walter Neff makes it into his insurance office, sits down, and pops a cigarette into his mouth. We see that he only has the use of one arm, the other is injured, and there is a bullet hole in his suit just above his injured left arm.

Fred MacMurray, as Neff, records his confession
He speaks into his dictaphone (an old-fashioned voice recorder). As he speaks, he addresses someone named Keys. He confesses to Keys that he murdered someone named Dietrichson. It seems Keys suspected murder in this case, but he did not suspect Neff. Shortly it becomes clear that Keys is an investigator for the same insurance company that Neff works for.

So…the film kicks off with a confession of murder. In typical Wilder fashion, he sucks us in quickly and efficiently. Now he has us asking questions, and, as in his later film Sunset Boulevard, we are not watching to see what happens, but how it happens.

Neff’s confession to Keys bleeds into the narration for the rest of the film, as Neff explains what happened. He remembers the first day he went to Phyllis Dietrichson’s door: “It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson
Again, Wilder reminds us that a murder is coming, so we watch with interest. Neff goes on to explain  how he began his affair with Phyllis Dietrichson and how eventually they plotted to kill Mr. Dietrichson in such a way that it would pay off double – thus, Double Indemnity.

Neff and Keys
This brings me to the character of Keys, played by the legendary Edward G. Robinson.  Robinson does an amazing job in this well-written part. Keys is a crack investigator. For Neff, it’s like trying to get away with murder while working in the same office as Sherlock Holmes—if Sherlock Holmes was a bulldog. Keys is scary-smart and is the source of much of the film’s suspense as he threatens Neff’s chances at getting away with his crime.


 In fact, one of the amazing things in this film, and all Wilder films, is that no one is stupid. None of the major characters becomes conveniently stupid so that they can get into trouble to make the story happen. Wilder is never lazy that way; he makes everyone smart – as smart or smarter than the audience. It creates great tension when smart people in a story are trying to outsmart one another.

I don’t want to say too much about the film after this because I don’t want to spoil the fun for those of you who haven’t seen it. I will just say that there is a reason that Wilder is considered one of the best storytellers in the history of film. And when you watch, it will be clear to you why Double Indemnity is a classic.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

Ah Billy Wilder, a visionary director that is certainly worthy of the same annuals as names like Alfred Hitchcock.

This was the first movie I saw that used the "this is the story of how I died" trope were it didn't feel like a tired cliche and I've been trying to put my finger on why for the longest time. Sounds like its high time for another viewing to see if I can find out.

imyjimmy said...

I'm interested to know what Raymond Chandler's contribution to the story is. Billy Wilder gets a lot of credit, and deservedly so, but it's great to have another screenwriter backing you up.

IAL Diamond also seems to be a very important player in Wilder's career. Collaborating with other storytellers seems to be key.

It's also great that Wilder and Chandler adapted the screenplay from James Cain. It's refreshing to see that in a time when everyone wants to come up with their own story.

Brian McD said...


Thanks for writing. Most writers and filmmakers use particular techniques not out of need, but out of want. You can hear it when they talk about what they've done. They will say, "I really like when..." Or, "I always want to..." They almost never say, "I used this technique to solve a storytelling issue."

If a technique is organic it will feel that way, but if it is being shoehorned into a story because that's just something the storyteller felt like doing that can be felt too.

The old master filmmakers talked a great deal about how the techniques they used were only there to help the story. It's a matter of using the right tool for the job, not about grabbing a hammer when you need a wrench because you happen to like hammers better.

Wilder used the say with pride that there was not a phony shot in any of his pictures. He meant he did not do anything inorganic. He was not doing cool shots because he liked them. He was saying that the story and the needs of the story dictated the techniques used.

Thanks again for writing.

Brian McD said...

Hello Jimmy,

Billy Wilder only spoke a few words of English went he arrived in America and was teamed, by Paramount, with writer Charles Bracket. The two were a very good team, but Bracket began to feel that Wilder's films where getting too dark and they stopped working together after Sunset Blvd, I believe.

Wilder was never very confident with his English and always worked with a partner when writing.

Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did not get along at all. They hated working together. One reason was Chandler's drinking. He was drunk a lot. Wilder was so impacted by his time with Raymond Chandler that the next film he made was The Lost Weekend -- the story of an alcoholic writer.

I think Wilder did like working with other writers, but the reason he gave for this was his lack of English skills. But if you ever hear him talk he seems to have a pretty good grasp of language.

Clint said...

Brian, as you've mentioned, you don't have a post dedicated to Billy Wilder, so I'll just post this here. It's an outstanding interview with Wilder in the Paris Review from 1996:

Christine said...

Thanks for another great post Brian! I confess I haven't watched this film yet but after reading this I'm putting it at the top of my "to watch" list ;o) I very much enjoyed Sunset well as your previous post on it!