Whoops, looks like I’m perilously close to falling behind schedule again. Guess I better watch another film noir.
Today’s movie: Double Indemnity. It’s, well. Let’s just say it’s unlikely to snag the top prize this year.
Walter (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman, begins an affair with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). Together, they come up with a plan to murder her husband for the insurance money, but it doesn’t quite go off without a hitch — because, really, that’s just not how stories work.
1. If this plot sounds familiar to you, well, maybe you’ve just seen it before. Or maybe you’ve seen Body Heat, which has a very similar setup and which I reviewed earlier this year. I liked parts of that movie but struggled with others; Double Indemnity, too, is sometimes enjoyable but often incredibly frustrating. Here, I primarily took issue with Walter and Phyllis’s relationship.
I think they spend all of three or four scenes together before one of them drops the ‘L’ word. And while money is, of course, a powerful motivator, planning a murder is a seriously big step in any relationship, like, you thought getting a puppy was a big deal, HA. These two have known each other, what? A whole 48 hours before they wade straight into the technicalities of murder and insurance fraud? I don’t buy it. I feel like maybe I could have bought it, had they approached their relationship in a different way, but as is, I’m just kind of annoyed by all the melodrama. It doesn’t really help, either, that these two have some of the worst stage kissing ever. I mean, I know it’s 1944 and all, but still. Any sexual chemistry that these two managed to build with all their traffic-related banter died a quick and ugly death when they pretended to suck face.
2. Also, if Walter had called Phyllis, “baby,” one more time, I think I might have screamed. I won’t pretend that this objection comes from anything near moral grounds — as a general rule, the language of film noir doesn’t particularly bother me, and in fact, I have used the words “baby,” “doll,” and “sweetheart” to address both men and women. But the word never once sounded natural coming from Fred MacMurray’s lips, and he must have said it at least thirty times. Possibly more like fifty. Drove. Me. CRAZY.
3. I do like Edward G. Robinson a lot, though.
Robinson plays Keyes, Walter’s friend and coworker. And Keyes isn’t just any insurance claims investigator, either; he is a super clever claims investigator, second perhaps only to mastermind Nathan Ford in terms of ridiculous genius. I was pretty sure I knew Robinson’s name from somewhere, but I had to actually look him up to place him as Sol in Soylent Green. He has a whole monologue on the various ways he’s seen people commit suicide that I particularly enjoyed.
Of course, sometimes even your favorite characters have serious and unfortunate Moments of Dickishness. I really liked Keyes throughout the film, all except the troubling scene where he recounts breaking up with his fiancee because he discovered things like she’s been dying her hair since she was sixteen (read: whore?) and, also, has a “manic depressive in the family.” Like, Jesus Christ, those are the signs of not being marriage material in the 1940’s? Keyes, you’re an ass. I mean, I still surprisingly like you and all, but seriously. ASS.)
4. I also really liked the opening credits.
They’re very simple — just a shadowy dude limping on crutches — but they’re also effective. I like that we get to see just this one piece of the puzzle, that we know crutches will somehow be important to the plot of the film, even if we don’t know how or why yet. It’s a very easy, very neat way to generate intrigue in the mystery before the story even really begins.
5. Still, there’s a fair bit about this movie that bothers me, all of which I’ll discuss shortly in more detail. And it’s sad, too, because I’m generally a fan of Billy Wilder’s work (Some Like it Hot, especially, although I also enjoy Sunset Blvd and The Apartment) and I really love Raymond Chandler’s prose (The Big Sleep may be problematic and frustratingly homophobic, but the prose — the prose is crisp perfection) and this! This movie is a mashup of both their talents, and I’m like, Eh. I’m not loving it. Of course, by all accounts, the two absolutely despised working together, so who knows? Maybe some of that bleeds through into the film.
Probably not, though. Per usual, this is one of those beloved films where I’m the asshole who’s like, Look, I get how this, this, and this is cool, but really? You’re calling this the BEST NOIR EVER? I’ve gotta say, I’m not seeing it.
6. Finally, I’d like to mention that Billy Wilder appears to be another great director who, like Alfred Hitchcock, was a complete and utter dick. Apparently, he was so pissy that Double Indemnity didn’t win Best Picture at the Academy Awards that he intentionally TRIPPED the director who did win on his way to the stage. And . . . seriously? Are we adults here? Is professionalism that foreign of a concept in Hollywood? Billy, you immature shit.
Everything else I want to say includes spoilers, so if that doesn’t bother you . . .
So, the movie begins near the end of the story, where Walter — who’s been shot — goes back to his office building and starts recording/narrating a confession for Keyes.
We find out quickly that he did successfully murder Phyllis’s husband, although clearly things have taken a turn for the worse as he’s slowly bleeding out all over the office floor.
We then proceed to Flashback, where we watch Walter and Phyllis meet for the first time. To his credit, Walter doesn’t immediately trust Phyllis, which I like. As soon as she starts asking suspicious questions, he’s out of there, all, what do you take me for, I know what you’re really looking for here, and getting arrested for murder sounds like bullshit, thanks. I like that the guy’s actually smart. I also like that they at least throw in a line about Walter feeling tempted to pull one over on his own insurance company, just because he’s spent countless hours seeing where others have gone wrong in their own various insurance fraud schemes. He has this secret, niggling desire to see if he could commit the perfect murder and succeed where so many others have failed. It’s nice that the movie bothers to at least create a sense that Walter’s considered doing something like this before, even if it’s never been a serious consideration.
Still. I feel like Walter needs a bigger tipping point than Phyllis coming over later that night and flirting for forty seconds before he pulls her into his arms and starts attacking her with his lips. Walter tells us he can’t get Phyllis out of his mind, but I don’t buy it. He’s seen her a mighty two times, spent less than fifteen minutes with her total, and suddenly he’s like, “I’m crazy about you, baby. Let’s go kill your husband like young lovers do?” No. Plus, it seems pretty obvious that she’s playing him all along, and he just seems too smart to go along with it.
For this story to really work for me, I think I need this relationship to play out in one of two ways: one, I need to believe that Walter actually loves Phyllis, which is problematic because that means they either need to spend a lot more time developing their relationship or they’re already having an affair by the time the movie’s started, or two, we take out all this yucky love talk and make it ALL about the money, while still somehow keeping Walter and Phyllis likable enough that you aren’t rooting for them to die the entire time. Also problematic, but not impossible — you basically need them to be fun-loving, charming sociopaths. Like Hannibal Lecter. Or Bonnie and Clyde.
Anyway, Walter and Phyllis kill the husband.
Which was weird at first because it initially looked like Walter was just going to asphyxiate him and then dump his body on the train tracks and pretend he fell to his death. To which I was like, Look, I’m sure forensics were different in the 40’s, but I’m pretty sure even back then the cops could see bruises around the neck and go, “Huh. That seems peculiar.” But then we find out that Walter actually broke his neck, and I’m like, Okay, so this is prior to everyone in Hollywood using this sound to simulate the horrific snapping of bone. Got it.
At first, Walter and Phyllis seem like they’re in the clear, as Keyes appears to accept the accident at face value. But then he has second thoughts and starts investigating further, and eventually, Walter and Phyllis turn on each other. There’s a whole thing with Phyllis’s stepdaughter, too, but I’m just going to ignore most of that because I didn’t like Lola and never found the actress particularly convincing in the role. I get why she’s there, but honestly, I wish Lola hadn’t been in the movie at all. Or at least had a different ending. (More on that in a minute.)
Walter finds out that Phyllis has not only been using him, she’s been using Lola’s surly and hot-tempered boyfriend too. And by using, yes, I totally mean screwing. So Walter goes to kill Phyllis, and she shoots him.
It’s not a fatal shot, but when he gives her the opportunity to try again, she can’t because . . . she loves him? Excuse me? What horseshit is this? Seriously, Phyllis says, “No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot.” And I’m like, “That’s just the dumbest fucking thing I ever heard. That makes no sense of any kind, none. Why do you suddenly need him to hold you? Why?”
Am I honestly supposed to believe this? Am I really supposed to believe that at the eleventh hour — nay, the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute — Phyllis suddenly looked at the man she’s been stringing along for however long, the man she’s manipulated into killing her own husband, the man she just shot four seconds ago, and realized that she was suddenly in love with him and couldn’t actually kill him? And even if I’m not supposed to believe her — because Walter sure doesn’t — I can’t really see what lying gets her here. Maybe she doesn’t think Walter will actually kill her? That seems kind of dumb, but I guess Phyllis might believe she still has her man wrapped up all around her finger . . . except she has to know this isn’t going to end well, right? There is absolutely no reason, none, to shoot this guy and then not finish him off unless she’s had some kind of crisis of the heart because, you know, she’s a woman, and we all know what weak-willed, emotional creatures they are. Ugh.
This is, I suppose, all better than the ending in the original book (which in turn was based on real events) where the two lovers committed double suicide together. Because, yeah. That would have been pretty idiotic. Idiocy wasn’t the primary reason they changed it, though; the Hays Code, per usual, reared up its ugly little head. Suicide was a big no-no, I guess, even by bad guys, but Phyllis and Walter still had to die (or face serious punishment) because they did naughty, naughty things. Man. Whenever I think of whoever created the Hays Code, I remember what President Josiah Bartlett said about President George Washington: “What a tight ass little priss he must have been.”
Anyway, Phyllis (stupidly) doesn’t kill Walter, and Walter (predictably) kills Phyllis. When he leaves, he spies Lola’s dickish boyfriend and advises him to leave Phyllis, who’s been lying to him (not to mention, you know, dead), and go back to Lola. Which sounds nice until you remember that this dude is a possessive, jealous jerk who was being set up to murder Lola — and it didn’t seem like it took much effort on Phyllis’s part to turn him homicidal. But that’s okay, Walter. You just encourage him to start dating that nice young woman you like again. I’m sure those crazy kids will make it. I’m sure Lola will be fine.
Then we circle back to Walter recording his confession, and Keyes listening in. He shows up at the office after the janitor happened to notice the trail of blood Walter helpfully left behind. There is a nice moment where Walter asks for the big lecture, the big, angry speech, and Keyes doesn’t give him one, just a line full of weary, disheartened disappointment.
Actually, the last five minutes are probably my favorite in the whole movie. Walter tries to leave but, as Keyes predicted, is wounded too badly to make it very far. He lights a cigarette for Walter (a nice reversal, as Walter has been lighting cigarettes for Keyes throughout the film) as they wait for the ambulance, and it’s all just very simple and matter of fact. I’m much more interested in Walter’s relationship with Keyes than I am with Phyllis, and this is a pretty stellar ending, maybe even one of my favorites of the year.
I just wished I liked more of what came before, that’s all.
LEAST FAVORITE QUOTE:
“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”
Ugh. You’re killing me, Chandler.
Walter: “Know why you couldn’t figure this one out, Keyes? I’ll tell ya: cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from you.”
Keyes: “Closer than that, Walter.”
Walter: “Love you, too.”
Phyllis: “I think you’re rotten.”
Walter: “I think you’re swell, as long as I’m not your husband.”
Norton: “That witness from the train, what was his name?”
Keyes: “His name was Jackson. Probably still is.”
Keyes: “Have you made up your mind?”
Jackson: “Mr. Keyes, I’m a Medford man. Medford, Oregon, In Medford, we take our time making up our minds.”
Keyes: “Well, we’re not in Medford now. We’re in a hurry.”
Keyes: “Come now, you’ve never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they’ve got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there’s not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We’re sunk, and we’ll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.”
Some good dialogue, good ideas, great ending . . . but once again, my inability to believe or invest in the central romantic relationship becomes a serious hurdle for me.
Edward G. Robinson
Don’t fuck with insurance guys. They know their shit.