Friday, June 25, 2010

Double Indemnity

What do you get when you throw Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler on the same film? You get lines like “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” and one of the most compelling film noirs ever to grace the screen.

Set in Los Angeles, Walter Neff is a niaeve insurance sales man who calls on the wrong house. When he makes his call to the Dietrichson residence to try to talk Mr. Dietrichson into renewing his auto policy he encounters Mrs. Dietrichson and becomes enamored, soon the two create a lovers plot to murder Mr. Dietrichson and scam Walter’s company, by taking out accident insurance and utilizing the double indemnity clause on it, getting paid twice the normal policy amount after Dietrichson’s death. However, murder is no easy game and before long the coconspirators find themselves embroiled in a plot they can’t see an escape from and begin to do anything to keep from ending up in a gas chamber for their crime.

Double Indemnity is one of the finest films Billy Wilder, or anyone in the cast ever made. This film is pitch perfect from the ghostly opening credits to the very end and delivers every twist, turn and foul move with the deft and confidence only a premiere director like Wilder could deliver.

This film speaks to Wilder’s skill because no single major character in this film is remotely sympathetic, and yet you end up caring about their fate. Walter Neff is a good guy gone bad for a dame, a sin he can’t be forgiven for, and from the moment you see Phyllis Dietrichson walk into frame you know that she is Eve’s sin wrapped up with a bow. No one is innocent in this film.

I believe I’ve said it before, but part of where the magic of a Billy Wilder film lies is the timelessness of his stories. Even though this film is set in post-war Los Angles, the script could be taken, set in any major city in a contemporary setting and could work nearly verbatim as a modern picture. Wilder made stories whose plots didn’t revolve on technology, politics or personalities specific to his era; he made stories that were based in universal human emotions – love, greed, lust, wealth and relationships – the rest was incidental.

It’s said by Wilder himself that Chandler had problems adapting to screenplay writing. However, I cannot emphasize enough that the dialogue in this screenplay drips of the tongues of the actors in a way only the writing of Raymond Chandler could. It is lush, fast and complicated forcing the viewer to pay as much attention to the nuances of what the characters are saying as they are to the actions the characters are performing.

Double Indemnity stands high on the list of films I want to aspire to. If I could capture the artistic verve that Wilder & Chandler put into this film, I could put a story on screen that audiences wouldn’t be able to rip their eyes away from. That my friends is a lofty directorial goal.

Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
Walter Neff: Fred MacMurray
Phyllis Dietrichson: Barbara Stanwyck
Barton Keyes: Edward G. Robinson
Lola Dietrichson: Jean Heather
Mr. Dietrichson: Tom Powers

Walter Neff: That was all there was to it.Nothing had slipped, nothing had been overlooked.There was nothing to give us away. And yet, Keyes, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, 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.

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