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Double Indemnity

03 Jun

Double Indemnity—directed by Billy Wilder. Crime Drama. 107minutes Black and White 1944.
★★★★
The Story: How dares the wife of a man who detests her collect twice the amount of his insurance when she and his insurance agent kill him?
~
The odd thing about Double Indemnity and the stalling point is that an inquest would have revealed at once that Stanwyck’s husband died from strangulation and not by a fall from a moving train. What were the writers, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder thinking of!

So in other ways also is the rug pulled out from under this much praised and revived picture, for you never believe for a minute in the sexual attraction of Stanwyck and MacMurray. Perhaps that’s what’s so perverse about it. You are told to believe it, so you set the matter aside as understood and move on. This is perhaps intended—a sexual absence participating in a list of uncertainties to throw the viewer subtly off-balance at the same time as seizing attention as to their outcome.

A glimpse at the 1974 color version of this, based on the 1944 screenplay, reveals one basic certainty about the film, which is that its watching depends upon its being in black and white not color. And that Edward G. Robinson possesses a command of a cigar that Lee J. Cobb could never even dream of.

What this also leads one to realize is that black and white is probably necessary for all noir, for black and white is always grey, and color never is. So the true star of the picture is the cinemaphotographer John F. Seitz. For it is he who lit and filmed it such that we as audience enter into the mind-set of the material’s shadows, risks, lusts, greed, and duplicity, all in grey in many shades and stripes. As audience you are inside the body of a deviant mood. Even the sunshine on the street shows a boy pitching a ball to a girl batter. How bright, how innocent, and how free from ulterior motive. And yet how inverted. For in the movie, the male is also not batting the ball, the female is. Walter Neff enters the house and imagines that he is hitting homers, whereas the lady on the landing with the towel and the sunglasses in her hand and the gold anklet actually chooses his pitches.

Likewise, both MacMurray and Stanwyck wear wedding rings, MacMurray’s band perhaps to be useful to repel overly ambitious bed-partners, and Stanwyck’s laden with a jewel the size of a Buick and big enough to drown her in her own pool. Wedding rings: strange courtesy between these two in their hardboiled courtship.

MacMurray is called upon to play the tough-mouthed lothario, Stanwyck the fast-talking dame—both voices of the great Raymond Chandler who co-wrote the script with Wilder. But the idea of MacMurray being a tough-tongued lothario is absurd. Lying behind it and lying every inch of the way in him is the biggest sexual sap of all Hollywood leading men. Inside himself, McMurray doesn’t know the first thing about sex. it’s part of his charm. It’s what he was always cast for.

Chandler’s voice on their tongues confuses the film even more with its sardonic edge. The audience never knows where to settle itself as it watches, and this remains true of the picture no matter how many times one has seen it, and I saw it when it first came out, so I have a lead on everyone.

Another confusion for the audience is that Stanwyck plays her part scene by scene, with no overriding arc. Her acting leaves no traces. This means that the actor can invest as truth fully in every lie her character tells. So the audience never knows what the real truth is. The only truth she reveals is her shock just before the trigger is pulled that kills her. She never imagined not living forever.

MacMurray, on the other hand, has a different task, which unlike Stanwyck, is to carry the film, for he is never off camera, and the story of this picture is his. You also believe everything he does, but in a different way. And why? Because he’s just a big handsome galoot with broad shoulders who, because there is a pot of gold at the end, mistakes Stanwyck for a rainbow.

MacMurray is a man who doesn’t know his place. Colbert and Lombard, who were his usual co-stars, were out of his class. meaning above it. Stanwyck is also out of his class because she is beneath it. MacMurray reads their sexual connection as an equality, and it is not. MacMurray and Stanwyck made other films together, before and after, for which they were better suited. But here their ill-matching adds a confused and perverse interest to their so-called passion for one another. As you watch, you never know where you stand. Or sit. Or walk, as you try to draw a conclusion.

The conclusion of the film clarifies one strand, which is the relations between MacMurray and his immediate boss in the office, played with unerring alacrity by Edward G. Robinson.

Is their affection for one another honest or dishonest? Much play has been given to the idea that it is homosexual. This, of course, is impossible. It is honest, not homosexual, but it operates at an off-angle. It is rather the affinity of team players, one an ace athlete, the other the coach. Or it is the fondness of natural male friends but of different generations? Anyhow, the idea that a genital ambition lies behind this is unwarranted, misleading, and spiteful. Humans come to love those they go to school with, go to church with, volunteer with, live near, or work with, and this is the latter. It must be remembered that in this film the word “love” is written by Raymond Chandler, and therefore it includes in its spelling the reverse.

The subordinate, MacMurray, has it over Robinson because Robinson is too passionate a workaholic to light his own cigars. So instead of suggesting you drool over a gay subtext, let’s point you in the direction of those cigars. Robinson seems never without one, and what an adjunct they are to his genius. They keep him in actorly motion. They provide power and point. They conduct whole scenes like a wand. They lend triumphant confidence to his orations. He is a master with a Dutch Master.

Stanwyck and Robinson and MacMurray were the highest salaried people in the world. At the peak of WWII, the scathing truth of the war was that Rosie The Riveter dismissed females’ supposed lack of the ruthless acumen, mind and finesse needed to win a war. But momism refused to die—to this day Disney keeps it embalmed.

The mental conditioning that gave rise to film noir was that, post WWII (The War is never mentioned in this film.) the American imagination withdrew women from the home-front and put them back in the home, and any divergence from home is to be considered perilous to democracy and to the world as a whole.

Because World War II had flatly disproved the notion of female frailty, woman were now willing to kill in order to denounce the lie of the limit of their power. To embody this outrage, the tiger-woman in the anklet of film noir came into being.

Euripides put women on the stage as not to be underestimated.

Film noir put women right back on that same stage—Medeas, dangerous when wet. Dry Stanwyck’s character off with the bath towel she first appears in, Phyllis Dietrichson is a woman who would never desire to have children. There’s no mom in her. And as to her place in the kitchen, spurn anything she cooks up for you there. She lives at the other end of the spectrum of survival which is Death. As an emblem, Phyllis Dietrichson (Son Of Marlene Dietrich who never had a son) is not the psychology, but the righteous zeitgeist of women, then and now.

Double Indemnity is a perfect example of move-as-machine. You get caught up in the uneven gears of plot, casting, and performance into which the brilliant photography sidles you. Which is to say, it is a movie driven by the trance of its photographic appearance. Whether we know it or not, and we do not know it, any more than Neff and Dietrichson do not know anything they do not know, its photography is the chief, true and overbearing entertainment of Double Indemnity. Its photography swallows us whole. It is wonderful to be so lost. Such film photography is with us still, and I hope always will be.

 
 
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