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Laramie Movie Scope:
Double Indemnity

Want to know about film noir? Watch this.

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 21, 2008 -- Continuing my series on classic film noir movies, I came upon one of the better known examples of the genre, “Double Indemnity,” which garnered seven Academy Award nominations in 1944, including Best Picture. The film was named to the National Film Registry in 1992. Unlike most film noir movies, this one had top talent in front of and behind the camera. The film benefitted from having one of the best directors in Hollywood history, Billy Wilder (“The Apartment” and “Some Like it Hot”) helming the project. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with another legend, mystery writer Raymond Chandler (“The Big Sleep” and “Farewell My Lovely”). The screenplay was adapted from the book of the same name by noir master James M. Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Mildred Pierce” and “Out of the Past”). It also had some Hollywood legends in front of the camera, Edward G. Robinson (“Key Largo”), Barbara Stanwyck (“The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”) and Fred MacMurray (“The Apartment” and “The Caine Mutiny”).

As the film opens we see the main character, Walter Neff (MacMurray) dictating the story into a dictaphone (a sound recording device which was a forerunner of the wire or tape recorder). His narration and subsequent off-screen narration was obviously written by Chandler. It sounds a lot like Chandler's famous tough guy, Philip Marlowe. The film's witty patter spices up the conversations between Walter and femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). According to the extras on the DVD I checked out from the University of Wyoming's library, Chandler was responsible for much of this sharp dialog. Cain's original dialog in the book was not suited to the movie.

When Walter meets Phyllis, he is immediately attracted to her, something she recognizes when she says: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around 90.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter: That tears it...

Walter and Phyllis become an item and cook up a scheme to kill her husband for $100,000 in insurance money. Walter has been in the insurance business for 11 years and he comes up with a clever plan to make Mr. Dietrichson's murder look like an accident, an accident which just happens to qualify for the double indemnity clause in his insurance contract. In Hitchcockian fashion the plan is carried out, but things start to go wrong from the beginning. Clever claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) smells something wrong with the case and begins to investigate. Keyes is an old friend of Walter's and he knows Keyes won't give up on the case. He tells Phyllis to abandon the claim, but she won't. Walter soon finds himself caught in a squeeze.

According to the extras on the DVD it was quite a coup for Wilder to get Robinson for this role because he was used to top billing, but luckily Robinson decided it was time in his storied career to slip into character roles. It was tough getting anyone to play the roles of Walter and Phyllis because both are heavy characters and actors don't want to be typecast as heavies. The move worked out best for MacMurray, who went on to have a long and varied career in movies and TV. Stanwyck also had a long and varied career, but she may have suffered from a bit of typecasting after her electrifying role as the femme fatale in this film. The whole story of this film rests upon the attraction between Walter and Phyllis. I couldn't quite buy into it, but that obviously isn't a problem for fans of this film. For me, it is mostly notable for its perfect cast, great performances, deft direction, great musical score by Miklós Rózsa and sharp cinematography by John F. Seitz and of course that sparkling dialogue. This film rates a B.

In addition to the main film and some extras, including commentary audio tracks, and a documentary on the making of the film and the film noir movement, “Shadows of Suspense,” this Universal Legacy Series DVD includes an introduction by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies. The second disk is the 1973 made-for-TV movie of “Double Indemnity” based on the same screenplay, starring Richard Crenna, Lee J. Cobb and Samantha Eggar. It is nowhere near as good as the original. It highlights the main weakness in the original script, namely how the tricky relationship between Walter and Phyllis is handled. The DVD rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2008 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)