Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

I know this was going to happen sooner or later when I decided to do this: film noir. To be clear, I don't hate film noir, I just don't love it, and as a former film student that isn't exactly a popular opinion. It's like telling a literature person that you think Stephenie Meyer could stand toe to toe against William Shakespeare if given the chance, or telling a math person that 19 is your least favorite prime number (at this point it becomes clear I don't know what the big controversial opinions are for math nerds).

I appreciate how film noir developed, though. European audiences were effectively cut off from American cinema during the second world war. After the war was over and they got the chance to see what the American filmmakers were up to during that period, they were basically like, "Holy shit, guys, you let things get dark!"

Hence the name. Film noir.

Anyway, I tend not to be into it. The stylized dialogue, the romantic narration, the frequent storylines revolving around crime and detectives and shady characters...they're just not super relevant to my interests. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by Double Indemnity. Specifically by how much I enjoyed it, but also by Fred MacMurray in the starring role.

To me, Fred MacMurray is this guy.

Smiling, square patriarch from the 50s and early 60s. The dude who raises three sons with wisdom, love, and let's be honest, probably the back of his hand as soon as the cameras are off.

 Not this young fellow, who is charming enough to woo Barbara Stanwyck despite being an insurance salesman, the single most boring profession in history.

So that threw me for a loop. But anyway, MacMurray plays Walter, a highly intelligent insurance salesman who makes a house call to cajole his client into buying more insurance, when he finds his pretty young wife instead. I guess in the 40s it was standard protocol for salesmen to go over to their client's home and immediately start hitting on their wives, otherwise Walter just comes off as super creepy.

It quickly becomes apparent that Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck in a bizarre blonde wig) doesn't think that being an insurance salesman is boring at all. But to be fair, that's mostly because she intends to murder her husband and collect the insurance money, which I can only imagine makes a man with intimate knowledge of insurance fraud pretty sexy.

So why does Walter get involved? Well, the money certainly doesn't hurt. He convinces her that the husband should die on a train, because for some strange reason means that the insurance company pays double. That way they're both clearing $50,000, a tidy sum. And there's clearly meant to be romantic or at the very least sexual attraction between the two. After Walter's had like two ten minute conversations with Phyllis, he tells her that he's crazy about her, which tells me nothing except that he probably needs to chill a little bit and not look so desperate.

But honestly, I think the biggest reason he teams up with Phyllis to kill her apparently dickish husband is that he's bored and wants to see if he can get away with it. In a lot of ways, they're both just using each other.

Their plan is simple but seemingly fool-proof. Walter kills the husband in the car on the ride to the train. He then dresses up as the husband and boards the train, heading towards the back of the train, making sure to be seen by people. Once alone, he jumps off the train, where he meets Phyllis with her husband's dead body to plant on the tracks. Everyone will think that he fell or jumped off, and they can collect that $100,000 insurance policy.

And this sequence is the best part of the film, full of tension about whether or not they'll be able to pull it off. Double Indemnity is one of the very few film noir movies where the voiceover narration doesn't feel wildly out of place to me. It's a little heavy-handed at the beginning, but once Walter gets into the description of the murder and every premeditated step he took that brought him there, it works perfectly as a confession.

Because, you see, there's one problem. And that's Edward G. Robinson in probably the best performance of his career as Walter's boss Barton Keyes, who has a sixth sense about insurance fraud. He never buys the idea that the husband fell off the train, and one of the witnesses creates trouble by saying that the man he saw on the train was much younger than the body that turned up. Although Keyes has complete trust in Walter, Walter doesn't know that, and the stress of having this dead body hanging over his head is really started to get to him. Yeah, Walter, if murder were easy on the conscience, nobody would be alive anymore. He urges Phyllis to consider giving up the insurance claim and they can both walk away, with no hard feelings and no further investigation.

Phyllis is not down for this.

And it doesn't take long before Walter suspects that she may be planning on betraying him, because, you know, women that you've plotted murder with are traditionally not the most trustworthy people.

Since this is a film noir, if you're looking for a happy ending, you're probably in the wrong theater. Walter shoots Phyllis before she has a chance to kill him, but he gets shot in the shoulder in the process. There's this whole big thing where she realizes she loves him and that's why she can't fire a second shot to finish him off, but honestly it's really just an excuse for Walter to end up on top. There's nothing in the film that suggests that Phyllis loves anyone, and all of her actions are motivated purely by self-interest.

Bleeding out, Walter decides to go to his office instead of the hospital like a normal person, and dictates his confession to the one man he thinks deserves an explanation: Keyes. Of course, Keyes shows up and Walter pretty much passes out rather than getting away, so he's definitely going to jail and probably the electric chair at some point. Like I said, no happy endings here.

Honestly, I was surprised by the degree to which I was invested in Walter and Phyllis's murder scheme. Neither of them are particularly easy to like, but they were interesting enough to make their likeability (or lack thereof) rendered moot). Actually, it's not that they're difficult to like, it's that you never really get to know either of them. Their dialogue is slick and polished (and, like the Gilmore Girls, moves at about million miles an hour, making you wonder if it's clever or just spoken quickly), but it doesn't reveal very much about either of them. 

And there is something inherently fascinating about the idea of the perfect crime. This plot of Walter's, it was pretty close to perfect. Really, what hurt them more than anything else was the level of distrust they had for one another -- they sabotaged themselves to the point where they ended up dead and in jail, respectively.

I would definitely consider Double Indemnity to be the gold standard against which you can measure all other film noir movies. Barbara Stanwyck does a slightly less light-hearted version of her Barbara Stanwyck schtick (which is not a bad thing -- she's pretty awesome), Fred MacMurray is solidly believable as a smart insurance guy trying to game the system but slightly less so as a brutish murderer, and Edward G. Robinson cements his position as one of the greatest actors of his generation.

So now I begin to question myself. Do I not like film noir, or do I just not like Humphrey Bogart? I don't know what to believe anymore. Thanks, Double Indemnity. Like I need an existential crisis right now.

Double Indemnity
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Double Indemnity
By James M. Cain


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