Flawless Film Making, Baby!
If there is a keyword I would describe Double Indemnity, its dialogue. Exposition is a very tricky line to cross; when done poorly it can come off as immensely frustrating but when done right it can be music to the ears, leaving me dying to hear more like I’m watching an engrossing documentary. Throughout Double Indemnity with the use of narration, Fred MacMurray will explain what’s clearly appearing in the frame but as nobody does narration quite like Billy Wilder. Instead of making Double Indemnity coming off as a movie which feels the need to dumb down and explain everything to the viewer, this expositional narration comes off a poetry, enhancing any scene in the film. Even with hearing noir dialogue parodied countless times, it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie.
I’ve generally never thought much of Fred MacMurray as an actor; he strikes me as serviceable but never an enigmatic screen presence. His role as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is the one major exception in his career. This casting against type may be my favourite one-hit wonder performance ever; his uttering of the words “Baby” and “Hello Keyes” never gets old. When I first watched Double Indemnity I assumed MacMurray must have been an icon of film noir, turns out he was anything but. Barbara Stanwyck was a sexual siren in a number of her films, I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs where but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There is her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the postcode era, she appeared in the code breakers Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve and yes, Double Indemnity. In her introduction scene as Phyllis Dietrichson, she is dressed in a titillating manner with her legs crossed while wearing a skirt, almost expecting her to pull off a Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Culminating this trio of actors at some of their greatest work is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, the claims expert. When watching his performance I don’t feel like I’m watching someone playing a claims expert, I feel like I’m watching an actual claims expert. Double Indemnity offers an intriguing insight into the profession of the insurance salesman but like being a lawyer, I’m sure this is one job which Hollywood makes out to be more exciting than it actually is.
Like a number of films in the noir genre, the ending is revealed at the beginning of the movie, leaving me not wanting to know how the film ends but rather how the story and characters got to that point and boy, am I dying to know. For an example of one of the film’s suspenseful scenes, take the moment in which Phyllis arrives at Walter’s apartment to discover Keyes is also there. All within a single frame Phyllis is hiding behind the door with Walter trying to prop it open and Keyes in the background. When Keyes walks towards the door and there is a bump in the music score, it’s moments like these which get the blood rushing, yet they look so deceptively simple.
Why do Phyllis and Walter agree that honking a car horn three times a signal when that would easily draw attention? When a plot hole or nonsensical moment (Or Barbara Stanwyck’s wig) doesn’t bother me in the slightest, it’s a testament to how great a movie is: not affecting the movie’s heart racing, tearing the leather of the sofa’s armrest levels of suspense from start to finish. Why are so many people dismissive of old movies? Because they are corny and cheesy? Few other movies pose such an aurora of cool as Double Indemnity, baby!