Monday, July 11, 2011

Stubs - Double Indemnity

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Based on the novel by James M. Cain. Produced by Joseph Sistrom. Run Time: 107 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Film Noir, Crime

For anyone who remembers the TV series MY THREE SONS or the original Disney movies about Flubber, seeing Fred MacMurray playing a cunning killer and adulterer is a bit of a shock. But it is the latter work that goes against type, not the other way around. MacMurray does not get credit today for being a good actor and movie star. He had a diverse career, spanning almost 50 years. He appeared in such films as REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940) with Barbara Stanwyck; THE EGG AND I (1947) with Claudette Colbert; THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) and THE APARTMENT (1960). In DOUBLE INDEMINITY, MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a too clever for himself insurance salesman, who unfortunately knows all the angles. It’s the type of knowledge he can keep to himself, that is until he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), a ruthless femme fatale, who has been keeping time as the neglected and possibly abused wife of Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers).

While Barbara Stanwyck should need no introduction, she is, like MacMurray, best known to many for television roles that came late in her career; most notably on the western-themed THE BIG VALLEY as matriarch Victoria Barkley. With a career that went back to the very beginnings of sound, Stanwyck starred in such films as NIGHT NURSE (1931); BABY FACE (1933); ANNIE OAKLEY (1935); STELLA DALLAS (1937); THE LADY EVE (1941); MEET JOHN DOE (1941); BALL OF FIRE (1941); THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947); SORRY WRONG NUMBER (1948); the highly under-rated WITNESS TO MURDER (1954) and CRIME OF PASSION (1957). In most of them, Stanwyck gets by on a combination of wit and sex appeal. It is the same with her turn as Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMINITY.

Rounding out the cast is one of the all time great actors, Edward G. Robinson. One of the original movie gangsters, LITTLE CAESAR (1931), Robinson was able, like Cagney and Bogart, to rise above that stereotype. While he definitely played gangsters throughout his career, THE LAST GANGSTER (1937); BROTHER ORCHID (1940); and KEY LARGO (1947); he also starred in a variety of other films: CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939); THE SEA WOLF (1941); THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1945); THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956); and SOYLENT GREEN (1973). In DOUBLE INDEMNITY he plays Barton Keyes, an insurance investigator at Pacific All-Risk, the same firm where Neff works. Keyes likes Neff and wants him to give up sales and work with him. Keyes works on not only facts, but also feelings. There is a little man inside him that helps him figure out if someone is trying to scam Pacific All-Risk or not.

Told through flashback as Neff leaves a Dictaphone message for Keyes, the film tells the story of Walter Neff a successful, though perhaps lackadaisical, insurance salesman. He does all-right for the effort he puts in, but he doesn’t seem to have grand ambition. His life is perhaps a little aimless, when he meets Phyllis, the lonely wife with a heart of coal. Walter is attracted to Phyllis and she plays along. The dialogue they have at this point of the film is some of the best ever written during the production code. They may be talking about motorcycle cops and speeding drivers, but everyone really knows what the subtext is.

Neff knows to get out of there, but Phyllis pursues him to his apartment and lays out the plan. Neff may know better, but his libido does the talking and he’s in. Not only will they kill her husband, but they’re going to go all the way and collect double indemnity, by making it look like an accident.

Little does Mr. Dietrichson know it, but the copy of the policy he’s signing, when Neff comes back to the house, is really his death warrant. The wheels are in motion and there is no stopping it now. The murder is set up to appear that Dietrichson has fallen off a train as it pulls out of the station, with Neff subbing for the deceased.

While the insurance company is ready to pay off, Mr. Keyes little man knows that there is something wrong. Keyes comes to the conclusion that Phyllis and someone else have murdered her husband. Little does he know or suspect that the”someone else” is his friend and colleague Neff.

Neff’s life is further complicated when Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) comes to him, concerned that Phyllis has killed her father. She tells Neff that her mother died suspiciously when Phyllis was her nurse. Neff takes to spending time with Lola, keeping an eye on her and keeping her from going to the police.

When Neff finds out that Phyllis is seeing Lola’s boyfriend, Nino, he sees his chance to get out of the dire situation he finds himself in. Going to Phyllis’s house to kill her, Neff is shot by her before he does. Waiting outside the house, he intercepts Nino on his way in and convinces him to leave and go to Lola. Nino wisely agrees.

Then Neff goes to his office and puts his confession down on a dictaphone. Just as he finishes, Keyes walks in. He has heard enough to understand what has been going on. Neff is too wounded to escape and Keyes calls the police.

There are two things this film shows. First, what a great director Billy Wilder was (more on that later) and secondly, what a fool George Raft must have been when it came to picking parts. Not only did he turn down the role of Rick in CASABLANCA, he also turned down the role of Walter Neff, unless major changes were made that would have ruined the story. Can Raft not pick ‘em? Maybe if he had been in CASABLANCA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, they wouldn’t be on this or any one else’s top ten list.

James M. Cain must also get some mention, as the writer of the book from which the movie is based. Like all his famous books turned into movies, including MILDRED PIERCE and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, there are differences between the source and the movie. Most of the time the changes made in adaptation has made them better movies. If you need proof of this, watch the HBO miniseries MILDRED PIERCE, which is very faithful to the book and takes hours to tell a not as compelling story as the 90 minute movie starring Joan Crawford did. But you can’t deny that Cain was a great source of material for Hollywood.

Another great novelist, Raymond Chandler, served as a co-writer on the screenplay with Billy Wilder. Chandler the author of such classics as THE BIG SLEEP; FAREWELL, MY LOVELY; and THE LADY IN THE LAKE, created one of the great private detective characters of all time, Phillip Marlowe. He also saw many of this own books turned into classic cinema. In addition, Chandler like many novelists of his day wrote screenplays in Hollywood. Besides DOUBLE INDEMINITY, he worked on screenplays for THE BLUE DAHLIA, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the classic Hitchcock film starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker.

But film is ultimately a director’s medium and this film had one of the best. It is hard to think of a bad Billy Wilder film. Besides this one, he directed such classic films as STALOG 17 (1953), SABRINA (1954); THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955); WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957); SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959); THE APARTMENT (1960); ONE, TWO, THREE (1961) and THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1967). The Polish born Wilder, began work in films in Europe as a writer in the 1930’s, before emigrating to the Hollywood. He worked in a variety of genres, but appeared to be most comfortable in comedy. But a film like DOUBLE INDEMNITY shows that he was more than capable of working with darker material with the same success.

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