Saturday, September 06, 2014

A Trail-Blazing Film Noir

"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 (Fred MacMurray)

Most people probably associate Billy Wilder with outrageous comedies like "Some Like It Hot," but he worked on some of the great dramas in film history as well — like film noir "Double Indemnity," which premiered on this day in 1944.

Film noir became something of a refuge for movie people who had been pigeonholed. Take Dick Powell, for example, who found a whole new career, thanks to "Murder, My Sweet," which premiered a few months after "Double Indemnity."

Rightly or wrongly, many film historians have said "Double Indemnity" was the first film noir. There were others that were made around the same time but, like "Murder, My Sweet," premiered later. It cannot be said that those films were influenced by "Double Indemnity," only that they came along later — by a few weeks or months.

But because of its chronological prominence, I suppose, "Double Indemnity" is perceived as the first and, therefore, the one that established the rules for film noir. That was true to an extent, I suppose. But film noir has always been reinventing itself, rewriting its rules.

On the surface, "Double Indemnity" was a story of two people who used each other to commit murder and collect the insurance money — all the while insisting they loved each other. But they didn't act the way I would expect two people in love to behave. They didn't have to be bumping into the furniture, but they could have been more convincing.

I thought I knew what motivated Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis. The victim was her husband. Through Walter (MacMurray), she got a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause if her husband died accidentally. The $50,000 payoff seems like chump change in the 21st century, but it was a small fortune in the '40s. Phyllis was clearly a phony, with her obvious wig, and she oozed sleaziness with that anklet she wore. Shouldn't an insurance salesman like Walter Neff, who dealt with all kinds of people every day, be able to see through her?

What was it that motivated Walter? Did he lust for Phyllis the way he said he did? Or did he want his share of the money? Or both? Maybe even he didn't know.

I guess most critics interpret Walter as being overcome with lust and greed. Walter was a weak man, and he was easily manipulated by Phyllis, who was much stronger psychologically. Perhaps Phyllis was driven entirely by profit — the audience knew her husband had been losing money so it was easy to accept that as both her motivation and the source of her sense of urgency — and she used Walter to accomplish her goal.

The first time I saw "Double Indemnity," I had no problem believing that Walter and Phyllis worked together to kill Phyllis' husband for the insurance money. I just never really felt they were as into each other as they claimed to be.

And the more I thought about it, the more I doubted that either one was in it for lust or greed. Money was the surface motivation; I think it was more primal than that. They were in it for the thrill of the kill — one of those cases you hear about from time to time, like the killers of that family in Kansas that Truman Capote immortalized in "In Cold Blood." Alone, they were capable of primarily petty crimes, might even hurt someone now and then but could never kill anyone. Paired with a complementary personality, they could.

They became like one.

If you watch the movie, pay particularly close attention to how Phyllis reacts to Walter's first visit to her home. It is as if a light bulb suddenly has come on in her head and a plan to kill her husband begins to take shape. Was Walter its inspiration? Did Phyllis really love him, or was he merely a convenient element of the plan?

By the time the movie was over, I just didn't think they were behaving like two people helplessly in love. I guess that goes without saying, though; I mean, they did shoot each other in the end.

I really liked Edward G. Robinson's character, the veteran claims adjuster. Even after repeated viewings, though, I still can't figure him out. Not entirely.

Was he wise to Walter all along? Or did he only learn the truth when he overheard Walter recording his confession?

The thing I can figure out is that his character was good at his work.

"This Dietrichson business," he said. "It's murder, and murders don't come any neater. As fancy a piece of homicide as anybody ever ran into. Smart, tricky, almost perfect — but I think Papa has it all figured out. It's beginning to come apart at the seams already. Murder is never perfect. It always comes apart sooner or later. When two people are involved, it's usually sooner."

I guess the folks who vote on the Oscars didn't really know what to make of "Double Indemnity," either. It got seven Oscar nominations — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Writing — but didn't win any.