Seeing Double Indemnity on the Big Screen

20 Jul

dipst-lgOn Sunday, TCM presented Double Indemnity across the country at select theaters and I promised myself that come rain or shine, sickness or in health, I would be there. And so I was. It was the first time I had seen any classic film on anything other than my puny and unimpressive TV and the experience was exhilarating, even more so because Double Indemnity is one of those films I never grow tired of watching.

I’d like to say that seeing it on the big screen was a revelation, but since I already knew it so well, the affect was less revelatory than it was heightened. The sound was much improved, naturally, so the moment when the gun goes off and Phyllis shoots Walter had more impact, less a pop gun and an actual murder attempt that takes him unawares and even startled me a little. And apart from my initial viewing, the moment when they are in the car and about to make their getaway and Phyllis can’t start the car did not make me feel truly tense, despite my enjoyment and appreciation. But this time, I could feel the tension, palpably.

The theater was not even half full (which seems a pity for such a great film), but it was interesting to watch with a crowd of people and their reactions. I went with six other people, some of whom do not usually watch classic films and it is curious how the knowledge that other people are seeing it for the first time changes how I view it. I always knew that Double Indemnity contains dialogue that no one ever would speak, but this time I really noticed it. It didn’t bother me – I think it’s brilliant – but it did become apparent to me how stylized it is. It’s dialogue that fits together like a mechanical watch, so closely fitted that to remove anything might unwind the whole, each line inevitably leading to the next. There is no casual conversation going on in Double Indemnity.

MV5BMTgxMTI4MDc5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMTUxNjQ2._V1_SX640_SY720_I was once again struck with how brilliant Edward G. Robinson is. Almost every time someone laughed in the theater, it was in response to one of his lines. His energy partly is what propels this film.

I am delighted to say that everyone I went with enjoyed it. But in talking to people, I discovered that I have difficulty expressing why I love this movie so much. Talking about the plot or saying I like the dialogue or actors doesn’t seem to really capture it.

I once read someone describe watching Double Indemnity as listening to a Mozart symphony. That seems to best epitomize why I love the film. It is one of those perfectly plotted films, each scene leading inevitably and smoothly into the next, informing the next scene. I can revisit it the same way I keep listening to my favorite pieces of music. There is so much going on in every scene, characters playing on multiple levels of communication between each other and to the audience.

For example: Walter has just told Phyllis that he is going to kill her husband; he is going to plan everything and do it right without any weakness or sloppiness. He thinks he’s in control, calming an apparently hysterical woman who says she can’t stand living with her husband anymore, doing a good impression of someone who might run out into the night and reckless bump off her husband, come what may. But after Walter tells her what he is going to do, she stands up and there is a look of such supreme satisfaction on her face that you know she has just gotten what she wanted. Barbara Stanwyck is playing two parts, the part Phyllis is playing for Walter’s benefit and the part of Phyllis, the cold-blooded killer.

imagesAnother example: Walter is in Keye’s office and Keyes is telling him how he has figured out the murder was committed. Once again, he is acting on two levels. There is the part he is playing for Keyes, the friend and confident, and the part of the murderer, who knows the man Keyes is hunting for is him. It’s brilliant stuff and most of the scenes are like that.

When Lola goes to Walter to tell him that she suspects that Phyllis killed her father, now Walter has to react on three levels. He is talking to Lola and trying to calm her down, he is afraid that through her the entire plan could bust in his face and he is hearing from Lola a new and decidedly disturbing side to Phyllis’ character that he had not previously comprehended.

I also love watching the characters move and act and speak. The way Phyllis throws away her cigarette and reaches for her gun, expressive of so much control, contempt and determination. The scene where Keyes cites statistics and pretty much shows up his boss as a fool, the charged expressions Phyllis and Walter give each other during that scene, the endless lighting of cigarettes on Walter’s thumb nail and offering it to Keyes, the way Phyllis pointedly drops a piece of lemon into Walter’s tea and says “Fresh.”

Another great scene is when Keyes goes into his spiel about why Walter should become a claims manager, describing it as a combination of surgery, religion, detection, psychology, human drama and even the judicial system. His eloquence and passion flow on, pausing only to answer the phone, and then continues without skipping a beat. But what also makes the scene great is that he is describing his job as a calling, something he believes in, bolstered by his own moral sense. Walter is not interested because of the cut in salary – he does not view his work as a calling – and Keyes’ passion is contrasted with the phone call from Phyllis, who is telling Walter that her husband is taking the train after all, so they can go ahead with their plan to murder him.

double-indemnity-3To me this is the key scene of the film, where Walter could have chosen to back out and gone Keyes’ way, but does not. In fact, he never seriously considers it, but the chance is there.

Finally, what I love about this is film is that despite all the cynicism, violence, manipulation, weakness, and lust there is still warmth to be found in the film, especially between Walter and Keyes. Walter is capable of nobler feelings, for Lola and his friendship with Keyes, and it is these emotions that make you care what happens to the characters and make the ending all the more tragic.


Posted by on July 20, 2015 in Movies


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17 responses to “Seeing Double Indemnity on the Big Screen

  1. The Animation Commendation

    July 20, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    I saw this film in a film class at my university, so it was a pretty big screen since they used a projector. It’s such a great film and I always love Fred MacMurray.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 20, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      Yes, Fred MacMurray is such an under-appreciated actor! When I first saw Double Indemnity, I had only seen him in his Disney films (I grew up on The Absent-Minded Professor) and the more I see his flims the more impressed I am with his range and naturalness.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Animation Commendation

        July 20, 2015 at 2:16 pm

        The only Disney film of his that I’ve reviewed on my blog so far is The Happiest Millionaire.


        • christinawehner

          July 20, 2015 at 2:37 pm

          I grew up on that one, too. My most enduring memory is of the alligators. Loved those alligators. 🙂


          • The Animation Commendation

            July 20, 2015 at 3:52 pm

            I loved the Sherman Brothers’ songs best.

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              July 20, 2015 at 5:51 pm

              I don’t remember the songs as well, but it’s been too long since I’ve seen it. I was recently looking at the cast list and my jaw dropped. When I last saw it I had no idea who Greer Garson, Gladys Cooper and Hermione Baddeley were and now that I’m so familiar with those actors, it makes me want to revisit the movie. I think my first introduction to so many classic actors came through Disney films: Elsa Lanchester, Charles Ruggles, Maureen O’Hara, Fred MacMurray, William Demarest, Dorothy McGuire, John Mills…

              Liked by 1 person

              • The Animation Commendation

                July 20, 2015 at 6:06 pm

                Yeah, so many classic actors acted in Disney films. Gregory Peck always wanted to, but never did.

                It’d be cool if Jimmy Stewart or Fred Astaire did a Disney film.

                Liked by 1 person

                • christinawehner

                  July 20, 2015 at 10:10 pm

                  That would have been pretty incredible, any of those men. It is interesting to try to imagine what sort of a film they might have been in, especially Fred Astaire.


                • Eric Binford

                  July 20, 2015 at 10:25 pm

                  I believe Peck turned down The Shaggy Dog (1959).


                  • The Animation Commendation

                    July 21, 2015 at 9:01 am

                    Really? I didn’t know that.

                    I know that he was assigned to voice the river in ‘Pocahontas’, but turned it down and said that Pocahontas needed a motherly figure and not a fatherly figure, hence the tree became Pocahontas’ mother figure.

                    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gretchen Van Benthuysen

    July 20, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    I’ll never forget seeing “Casablanca” on the big screen, followed by Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam.” Seeing a movie the way the director intended you to is always best. Wish I had known about the TCM event. “Double Indemnity” is a great film.If I remember correctly Fred McMurray regretted making the film because he plays a bad guy. Never did that again.


  3. Eric Binford

    July 20, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    You, lucky lady! I would never forget seeing a great print of Casablanca, Gone With The Wind and Ten Commandments on the big screen, and with an enthusiastic audience. My dream is to see 2001 in a theater!


    • christinawehner

      July 20, 2015 at 6:00 pm

      That would be awesome to see those movies on the big screen…especially with an enthusiastic crowd! Movies are best as a community experience, I think, or with one other person. It’s not quite as fun to watch by myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Silver Screenings

    July 22, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Man, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see this on the big screen. I hope it’s coming to a theatre near us soon!

    Excellent post – beautifully written. It was interesting to read about your reactions to certain scenes, even though you were familiar with them.

    It’s kind of a treat to watch big-screen classic films with people who haven’t seen them before, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      July 22, 2015 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks! It really is! And it was so much fun to have that shared experience and discuss it afterwards. I had shown Double Indemnity to my cousin last year and she liked it, but after seeing it on the big screen, she said she enjoyed it much more. She does lighting for theaters and she was particularly impressed by the lighting in the film, which didn’t come out very well on my TV, but looked great in a theater. I wish we could watch all our classic movies this way!



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