Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Double Indemnity (1944) - Edward G. Robinson Steals the Show

Film Poster Double Indemnity 1944

"Double Indemnity" (1944), directed by Billy Wilder for Paramount from a script by himself and , is one of the classic romantic dramas of film noir that everybody should see. Fred MacMurray, as ordinary insurance agent Walter Neff, really shows his acting chops, putting on weight for his character and restraining his natural geniality to play an amoral insurance man drawn into an intricate murder plot by his own carnal weakness. MacMurray demonstrates that when he needed to be, he truly was a major acting talent as well as a top Hollywood star. He is all sidelong glances and grimaces, rueful expressions and sudden passion.

MacMurray Stanwyck Robinson Double Indemnity 1944
MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson.

Barbara Stanwyck, playing femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, gives perhaps her finest performance, making us believe that she really could wrap a man around her little finger and then toss him aside like an empty soda can. The scene with her at the top of the stairs, wrapped only in a towel, is quite steamy even today. Rarely in her body of work does Stanwyck come across as a great seductress, but she manages it here. She is another great talent unleashed in a rare opportunity to play against type.

Stanwyck MacMurray Double Indemnity 1944
Stanwyck knew how to use her body to make a point.

The mood is dark, the lighting is all shadows and darkness, and the characters say more with a look than with a page of dialog. This is Raymond Chandler's best piece of writing - and that is saying something right there. Let's face it, anyone can play with light and shadows, that's not too difficult, but making it fit into the story and enhance it, as here, is the mark of genius. Director Billy Wilder was at the top of his game, creating an atmosphere throbbing with passion and innuendo. Despite all the deserved accolades, Wilder has to be the most underrated director ever. The way he could master the film noir, then leave it behind and change with the times, shows phenomenal adaptability.

MacMurray Stanwyck Double Indemnity 1944
MacMurray finding romance - he thinks

But all that aside, this film is stolen by Edward G. Robinson, absolutely nailing his supporting role as Barton Keyes. Keyes is the kind of back-office guy who always solves the hard projects. His job as an insurance investigator is to try and find out who (if anyone) killed the victim, which would avoid a huge indemnity claim. He and Neff are friends, and Keyes' flaw is that he can't suspect his pal of murder. My favorite scene is when he and Neff are called into the office of their boss, and Robinson, completely wrapped up in his job, neglects to bring his suit jacket. Facing a comment about this, he just blows the issue off ("I didn't realize this was a formal occasion"), sits down, and starts talking about the case, getting more and more excited. He gets so agitated that, while taking a drink of water to calm down, he accidentally splashes water on his vest (you can barely see this happen). Rather than demand another take, as a lesser actor might, Robinson instead goes with it, and shortly after stops to brush the water off his clothing, which has a double meaning as he is talking to Neff at the time. Brilliant acting job full of deeper meaning and subtlety!

Barbara Stanwyck Double Indemnity 1944
Barbara Stanwyck also knew how to be sultry.

The plot is the film's weakest point, with a rather straightforward murder at issue and not a lot of mystery surrounding it. But along the way, motivations are questioned, friendships and loyalty are examined and sometimes broken, and all the intricacies of human interaction are put on display and dissected. Watching Neff twist in the wind as he realizes that Keyes is putting two and two together is gripping. The scene of Neff being confronted in front of Keyes by someone who happened to see him at the scene of the crime, and almost (but not quite) being recognized, has tension worthy of the best of master Alfred Hitchcock. MacMurray's narration at times does get a bit heavy-handed, but ultimately everything is wrapped up in just the perfect way.

MacMurray Robinson Double Indemnity 1944
Edward G. Robinson steals every scene.

Well worth a night's viewing. Any fan of the three leads absolutely must see this, they put on a real show.

Below is the trailer for "Double Indemnity."


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