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Double Indemnity: Rivalry and Shakespeare

Edward-G-Robinson-%26-Fred-MacMurray-in-Double-Indemnity-1944-Premium-Photograph-and-Poster-1019454__96948.1432423378.220.290Last week I watched Double Indemnity with my good friend, Andrea. Double Indemnity might actually be my favorite film of all time, so I am always burbling away happily about the film and referencing it, but Andrea does not generally watch murderous stories. But I spoke of it so often, she was curious and after I sent her a few clips from the film, she was even more curious, so finally we decided to watch it. In turn, I was exceedingly curious to know what she would think. She has kindly given me permission to quote her extensively (or paraphrase, somewhat).

Her reaction? She liked the dialogue, which she found poetic (a word that would not have occurred to me to use in reference to a film noir, but she’s right about it – there is a cadence and rhythm and poetry to it). She also didn’t mind at all about the murder, because, she observed, the movie isn’t really about the murder. Instead, she compared Double Indemnity to a Shakespeare tragedy and “Macbeth,” (I once read someone describe “Macbeth” as the film noir of Shakespeare) with a frail man striving to achieve something great and failing spectacularly.

But what is it that Walter Neff is trying to achieve? I put it down to “money and…for a woman,” but Andrea has a unique perspective that changes the dynamics of how one views the film.

She sees the story as essentially a rivalry between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. As she observed, Keyes often belittles Neff’s job as an insurance salesman as a “peddler” and a “backslapper” and wants Neff to work with him as a claim’s manager, where it takes “brains.” And Keyes is the acknowledged brains, almost a colossus, a titan of brilliance and human insight. But, as Andrea points out, Walter already considers himself a smart man, quick on his feet, good at his work. He admires Keyes, he is a friend of Keyes, but he also subconsciously wants to best him and to work with Keyes in claims management would not only be a cut in salary, but would also make him subordinate to Keyes.

In that respect, he was ripe for a Phyllis Dietrichson to come along and give him a reason to match wits with Keyes. He tells Keyes in his memorandum voice-over that it was something he’d already been thinking about; how he could con the insurance agency because he’s inside the system and knows how it works. It’s basically a game to him, which is why he gets so uncomfortable every time he’s around Lola. She reminds him that murder is not a game. But this mentality of trying to pit wits against Keyes also causes him to underestimate Phyllis. She’s not playing a game, either.

Annex - Robinson, Edward G. (Double Indemnity)_NRFPT_01Andrea also noticed that after Keyes figures everything out (he can’t prove it yet, but he’s figured out how it was worked) Walter suddenly wants to pull out and tells Phyllis so. The money and lust for Phyllis isn’t really enough to keep him going. It was the rivalry with Keyes. But of course Phyllis has no intention of pulling out and threatens to take him down if he doesn’t go through with it. I used to assume it was fright that made Walter suddenly lose his nerve; he doesn’t have the psychopathic nerves of steel that Phyllis has. But Andrea has another theory. Walter loses his nerve because he’s lost the game. He’s lost his main reason for committing a murder. It is now clear that Keyes is smarter than Walter, he has figured it all out. The game is over and Walter is now stuck in a very awkward situation that could get him executed. But Phyllis has no intention of letting him out so easily.

Ironically enough, Walter fails because he is weak, both too moral and not moral enough. He can kill a man, but goes soft concerning Lola. He is caught between two titans of strength, who are strong because of their extremes of good and evil. In contrast, Walter is just a man, with the usual mix of good and bad impulses. If he’d been like Phyllis, then they might have been able to wait Keyes out, who didn’t really have any proof. But, as Andrea says, he’s just playing a game and when the game is over, he no longer has the will to try to outlast Keyes.

I still wonder – assuming Walter had been more hardcore – if Keyes could have exposed Phyllis. I’m not sure that he could. She would never crack under police pressure or under pressure from a lawyer and I’m sure would make a very good impression on the witness stand. Walter is the weak link for her. The poor guy is just too human.

I want to thank Andrea for giving me leave to write about her ideas and for giving me a whole new perspective on the film!

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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Seeing Double Indemnity on the Big Screen

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.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2015 in Movies

 

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Pushover (1954)

downloadIf Phyllis Dietrichson had really loved Walter Neff, you might have a movie somewhat like Pushover, with a dash of Rear Window just for good measure. Pushover is more than just an imitation, but it is impossible to watch without making comparisons. Pushover is a B film noir. It’s not great, not perfect, but interesting in its own way.

The movie also marks the official debut of Kim Novak. It wasn’t her first movie, but as the credits say, it was “introducing Kim Novak.” The film also stars Fred MacMurray ten years after a similar role in Double Indemnity.

After a bank robbery that ends with the murder of one of the bank guards, the police know the identity of one of the two robbers, Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards). Their only lead on him, however, is a woman they believe is his girlfriend, Lona McLane (Kim Novak). To make sure she really is Wheeler’s girlfriend, though, they have cop Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) get to know her and afterwards the police, including Sheridan, set up a stakeout on Lona’s apartment, waiting for Wheeler to show up. They tap her phone, follow her everywhere she goes and rent the apartment across from hers so that they can spy on her movements.

This is where the Rear Window elements come into play. The police are basically hanging around the apartment, watching her through a pair of binoculars. But of course, not only can they see Lona, but the other people who live in the apartments next to Lona, including a pretty nurse, Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone). The police are watching Lona in shifts, two in the day and two at night. They expect Wheeler to show up at night so they put their best cops on the job during that time: Paul Sheridan and his partner, Rick McAllister (Philip Carey). Paul and Rick are very different guys, however. They both come from a poor background, but while Rick’s parents loved each other despite the lack of money, Paul says his parents fought all the time about money. His conclusion is that though money alone wouldn’t make you happy, it is still necessary. He is also strongly attracted to Lona. Rick, on the other hand, thinks she’s just another broad and finds himself drawn to the pretty nurse in the room next to Lona, who he keeps watching instead of Lona.

Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak and Philip Carey

Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak and Philip Carey

But Lona is not an idiot. She figures out that Paul was a cop all along and one night, while Paul is tailing her, she drives to his house. He gets out of the car and she asks him for an explanation. He admits being a cop and she admits that Wheeler is her boyfriend, though she maintains that she did not know he was a crook. She then suggests that since Wheeler is a murderer, it wouldn’t really matter too much in the long run if Paul were to somehow get the money. When he accuses her of being willing to use Wheeler’s dirty money she replies, “Money isn’t dirty, just people.” Of course Paul says no, but just as in Double Indemnity, you know he’s going to kick the idea around and eventually do exactly as she asks. And just as in Double Indemnity, he’ll do all the planning (Fred MacMurray really should keep away from scheming blondes).

Where Pushover is different from Double Indemnity is that while Phyllis Dietrichson (as played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a murderous psychopath who, despite claims to the contrary, never really cared for Walter Neff, Kim Novak’s Lona does care for Paul. It’s not entirely clear until the end, but there are enough clues to make the ending make sense. After all, although Paul meant to pick up Lona at the beginning of the film, Lona practically picked him up instead. She saw something in him she liked. Many people have commented that it is not believable that she would have fallen for craggy Fred MacMurray, but I disagree.

She said she noticed him in the movie theater and wondered why he was alone. I think she saw something in him, something that resonated with her. They’re both alike, lonely, dissatisfied and bitter with life, wanting things they don’t have. They understand each other. They fill a hole in each other’s lives; they need each other. They just think they need money, too. It’s rather tragic when, after everything’s fallen apart and Paul finds that Lona did not leave him, he realizes, “We didn’t really need that money, did we?”

images (2)One problem with Pushover is that it loses steam after Paul has committed the crime (he shoots Wheeler). Unlike Double Indemnity, which derives all its tension from watching how the crime is committed and how the two criminals subsequently self-destruct, there is not much tension after the murder. Everything starts to go wrong for him instantly and you know he is toast the moment the nurse sees him in Lona’s apartment. MacMurray does an admirable job playing a desperate man whose plans are going increasingly more awry and who finds himself resorting to crimes beyond his original intention, but the tension in the script is just not there anymore.

Fred MacMurray is a very fine actor with an under-appreciated range. He is today best remembered for his Disney films like The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog and also for being the foil in many a screwball comedy with Carol Lombard and Claudette Colbert; but he could also play weak, smarmy or un-principled men. I’d always heard of MacMurray’s three heel roles – Double IndemnityThe Caine Mutiny and The Apartment – but I think we could add Pushover to the list, although it is his most sympathetic heel. You almost wish he and Kim Novak could make a new life together (without the money), but alas his principles are not strong enough.

Pushover can currently be viewed here on youtube.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2015 in Film Noir

 

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