“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Film Noir Cliches: Filmed in black and white. A cynical man who thinks he’s seen it all, dragged into something by a beautiful woman. Double crosses. Double crosses of double crosses. Rat-a-tat dialogue delivered with as little emotion as possible. No real winners, but all sorts of losers. Cliches are bad when they’re utilised for the sake of being there, or out of pure laziness and unoriginality. Cliches are amazing when you see them being invented and understand immediately why they became clichés, irresistible to lazy and unoriginal story tellers. And it’s the masterclass in film noir clichés that makes Double Indemnity one of the absolute best movies ever made.
Walking into an office in the middle of the night, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) turns on a tape recorder and starts to tell his story. An insurance salesman, Neff made a house call several months ago to a wealthy oil tycoon client whose car insurance had lapsed. The tycoon wasn’t home, but his young, trophy wife (Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson) was. The two flirted immediately and Neff left with Phyllis well and truly stuck in his mind.
Later, Phyllis contacts Neff again, and through a series on not so subtle hints, Neff gets the idea. Phyllis wants to take out a life insurance policy on her husband, then kill him and cash in. It’s OK, because her husband beats her. At least, that’s the story she tells Neff. At first, Neff dismisses her advances, letting her know just how many people attempt this crime and that every single one is found out. A lot of them are exposed by Neff’s own colleague, super insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson). But her feminine wiles are too much for Neff, and soon, he’s using his own knowledge of the insurance system to help Phyllis plan her husband’s demise so they can share in the $100,000 insurance policy.
The framing device with Neff’s recording his confession makes it very obvious form the opening moments that his perfect plan is never going to be quite so perfect. It’s obvious everything will fall apart, and that’s the beauty of Double Indemnity. The drama and tension doesn’t come from wondering if Neff and Phyllis will get away with or not. It comes from seeing how their inevitable downfall occurs, and what made it so inevitable from the get go.
Before I saw Double Indemnity years ago, I only knew Fred MacMurray as the perfect dad on My Three Sons. In another team up with director Billy Wilder in The Apartment, he was a sleaze ball and opportunist. But in Double Indemnity, we get a much more interesting character. Walter Neff thinks he’s the opportunist, and he is. He’s also not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. And so much of the pleasure of this movie comes from watching his smarmy, cockiness and confidence get whittled away piece by piece.
Best Picture (nominated, lost to Going My Way)
Best Director (Wilder nominated, lost to Leo McCarey for Going My Way)
Best Actress (Stanwyck nominated, lost to Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight)
Best Screenplay (nominated, lost to Going My Way)