Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Double Indemnity

"Double Indemnity" is a 1944 film starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and the incomparable Edward G. Robinson. The film was co-written and directed by Billy Wilder, with the script based on a James Cain novel of the same name.

The film tells the story of Walter Neff (MacMurray), an insurance salesman who becomes smitten with and falls under the wiles of Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), a seductive and scheming housewife whose greatest wish is that Mr. Dietrichson dropped off the face of the earth, and the sooner the better. As the movie begins, a car careens through Los Angeles streets and then stops at an office building. A night watchmen opens the door for Walter who's arrived at the empty offices of Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. As he makes his way to a dark empty office and sits at a desk, lighting a cigarette, it becomes apparent that Walter is injured for he's not using one arm and has a blood stain on his jacket. Walter turns on a dictating machine and begins recording a message for Barton Keyes (Robinson), a friend and colleague who happens to be the claims manager at Pacific All Risk. As Walter dictates into the machine, the story of love, betrayal, and murder plays out as a flashback on the screen.

This film was a great movie classic which I really loved. I only knew Fred MacMurray as the dad in "My Three Sons," so it was interesting seeing him in this darker role. I always found that there was an integral kindness and decency in the man which shined through in his face. He could've been a jerk in real life for all I know, but he just had that kind of face. It's why he was so likable as Mr. Douglas in "My Three Sons", and why despite his actions as Walter in this movie, I still found myself excusing him and blaming Phyllis as the femme fatale responsible for ensnaring him in her web. A decent man brought down by a woman and greed, who ultimately finds his way again, though too late. Ms. Stanwyck was very good as well, but I thought Edward G. Robinson stole the movie. This is only the second movie I've seen with him, "Key Largo" being the first, and I must say that I loved him. It was a perfect trifecta. Great character, great performance and the kind of witty and sharp dialogue you don't get in movies nowadays.

The DVD I watched was a remastered special edition which had a great introduction by Robert Osborne, the host of Turner Classic Movies. Osborne offered a bunch of interesting little tidbits which made the movie even more interesting. As noted above, the film was based on a novel from James Cain. The story of two adulterers conspiring a murder for an insurance claim really pushed the envelope at that time. The first script was submitted to the Hollywood Production Code Office which ruled film content back in 1935, and it took eight years to get a script they would finally approve. Once the script was finalized, it was time to find a willing cast of actors. After a number of other stars declined, Billy Wilder convinced Fred MacMurray to take the role despite the fact that at that time he was best known for romantic comedies. Edward G. Robinson supposedly considered passing on the role, not because of an issue with his character, but because of the fact that it was a supporting role and until then he was used to receiving top billing. Despite all the initial obstacles, the movie went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, though it didn't win any.