Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Great Movies: "Double Indemnity"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Double Indemnity
Billy Wilder, 1944.

There is a lot of film noir on The Great Movies list, and it wasn't too long ago that I checked in on the brilliant The Big Sleep. That movie -- have you seen it? you must! -- was all style and sexuality, with a plot so labyrinthine that it essentially disappeared into the background.

Double Indemnity, another gritty noir, is in some ways the exact opposite of The Big Sleep. This movie is all plot, and most of the pleasure in it is watching the situation evolve, acquire complexities, and spin itself out to an inevitable conclusion. The characters claim to be motivated by their sexual attraction, but the claim isn't very convincing; by the end of the film, the murder that is the central event seems to have been motivated as much by ennui as by lust or greed. As in The Big Sleep, there is a dose of sexy banter between the leads, but it comes off here as more practiced, less witty.

The grittiness in 'Sleep comes from a sleazy, violent underworld milieu into which the fundamentally decent characters are forced to venture. The sleaze and violence in Double Indemnity, by contrast, are inflicted on a peaceful, ordered society by the two protagonists, who are outwardly civil and likable but actually corrupt and malign.

Different direction and different performance could have made, I think, a far different film out of the same script. If the characters made us believe that they believed they were in love, if the murder victim was made to seem malign as opposed to merely crotchety, we would have had a more conventional movie. But, in that it would have been essentially condoning vigilante murder, we also would have had a morally bankrupt movie.

Plot: Insurance man meets woman trapped in stale marriage. They cook a plot to see if they can do away with the husband, score a big claim from the insurance company, and live happily ever after. Complications ensue.

Visuals: Double Indemnity is thought to be one of the films that established the visual vocabulary of film noir, but it did not jump out at me as especially visually distinctive. (Maybe my eyes are still calibrated to the beautiful Days of Heaven.) I did enjoy the interiors of the insurance company offices, which prefigure Wilder's brilliant satirical take on the business environment in The Apartment.

Dialogue: A movie about insurance fraud necessarily relies on a lot of expository dialogue, to set up the caper and to let you know how things are progressing. The writing and performance is good enough in Double Indemnity that you never notice that you are essentially being read long chunks of the story line.

Prognosis: Not bad. Double Indemnity feels a little more like an "old movie" than does The Big Sleep, but it is a well-made and absorbing entertainment. A must for noir fans, but recommended for anyone else out of their teens.


Chance said...

This is one of my all-time favorites. Definitely one of the greats by any standard.

Anonymous said...

I have seen both and you make me want to see them again. Like tonight. I wonder if Netflix has them on their view online roster. I recall The Big Sleep less so I am going to aim for that one.