Wednesday, July 29, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Double Indemnity

I think, if I were called upon to explain the term film noir to someone who had no understanding of cinema, I would simply sit them down and show them 'Double Indemnity'. I wanted to avoid starting this review with a big fat piece of opinionism - something I do too often as it is - along the lines of " 'Double Indemnity' is the ultimate film noir". Particularly when film noir boasts some many great examples of itself. But I really do believe that 'Double Indemnity' ticks all of the boxes.

To this end, and without mentioning the movie I was going to be writing about, I asked a number of friends and colleagues: "What does film noir mean to you?" There's a pretty good catch-all definition in an article on GreenCine: "Film noir is the flipside of the all-American success story ... It's about what people want, how badly they want it and how far they'll go to get it." I expected a checklist of genre tropes, stock characters and visual motifs. I expected femmes fatale, hapless dupes, tenacious investigators, rain-slicked streets, blinking neon, shadowy cinematography; lust, lies, greed, corruption; blackmail, theft, betrayal, murder. Random twists of fate. Carefully planned crimes unravelling. Webs of deceit tying in-too-deep anti-heroes in knots. Points of no return long passed. Redemption just out of reach. Abject cynicism vis-a-vis the human condition.

I expected, in other words, a list I could easily check 'Double Indemnity' off against. It's got the quinessential film noir plot to begin with: disillusioned protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is persuaded by sultry siren Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to bump off her husband (Tom Powers), all the better to pocket the proceeds of the titular insurance policy. It's got a dogged investigator: claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a man who can sniff out a lie at thirty paces and even if he can't, figures it for a big fat fib anyway and goes after the truth like a bloodhound.

Neff knows that it's Keyes he's got to outwit if he's going to get away with it. The murder has to look like an accident. And definitely not like suicide. Insurance company boss Norton (Richard Gaines), aghast at the potential payout, tries to browbeat the fiesty Phyllis by suggesting that her husband topped himself, therefore invalidating the policy. It doesn't work, and Keyes roundly mocks him after Phyllis storms out:

Keyes: You know, you ought to take a look at the statistics on suicide some time. You might learn something about the insurance business.
Norton: Mr Keyes, I was raised in the insurance business.
Keyes: Yeah, in the front office. Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life have you? Why, they've got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by colour, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day; suicide, how committed: by poision, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps; suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poision, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, alkaloid, protein and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But Mr Norton, of all the cases of record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train.

As acutely as he proves Norton wrong, Keyes determines to uncover the truth of Dietrichson's death. He's not the only one who wants answers. Lola (Jean Heather), Dietrichson's daughter from a previous marriage, isn't buying the official line either. Particularly since she has it in mind that Phyllis was instrumental in her mother's death. Neff's problems pile up: not only is Keyes edging closer to the truth, but Neff himself is having to get close to Lola just to make sure she doesn't go running her mouth off to the wrong people. Then Phyllis gets wind that Neff and Lola are getting cosy and draws the wrong conclusion.

Here's another tenet of the genre I was expecting my impromptu survey to reveal: the old "hell hath no fury" scenario.

Yes, I was sure that 'Double Indemnity' ticked all the boxes. In fact, the only departure I anticipated would be the milieu that many noirs operate in - the criminal underworld - but even then 'Double Indemnity' replaces this with the everyday crimes of regular joes telling the occasional porky on their claims form. If anything, I thought, 'Double Indemnity' emerges as more cynical for playing out against a backdrop of the insurance business than against a world of casinos, speakeasys and houses of ill-repute.

So I was surprised (and delighted) that when I asked my friends and colleagues about film noir, they avoided the obvious and talked instead about the atmosphere of the films; the mood; the emotional response. They talked about an all-pervading sense of inevitability, of characters caught up in situations they can no longer control, rushing headlong towards a bad end. They talked about believability, about characters who do the wrong thing or get ensnared by the wrong people because of weakness or vulnerability or one bad decision (usually made because they see it as a short cut to money or sexual fulfillment). They talked about characters trying to escape from the things they've done, hurtling past the point at which they might have been able to reverse their actions, having to construct ever more elaborate lies and/or alibis, all the time making it worse for themselves.

They talked about how film noir lingers in the mind: images and narratives and characters that stay with you for days, weeks, months. How the key scenes often hinge on a one-in-a-million, unplanned-for, never-saw-it-coming bit of bad luck - something that even the canniest criminal mind could never plan for because the only thing you can never pre-suppose is the cosmic coin toss of whether your luck turns out good or bad in any given situation. How film noir, with all the illusions and desires and primal urges that drive its anti-heroes to the wrong decisions, only to be undone by that one forgotten detail, that one unexpected twist, is kind of like life.

So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe 'Double Indemnity' isn't the ultimate film noir. With so many great examples from the 40s and 50s - when the best of American story-driven genre cinema was married to the chiaroscuro expressionism of a melange of European filmmakers who had fled to the States to escape rise of Naziism - maybe it's more a case of any film noir being the ultimate film noir. It's those just-like-life moments of almost poetic defeatism, of hopes being dashed and a world-weary understanding bleeding into gap that's left, that sum up film noir. Moments so resonant that you don't even have to name the film; they almost exist autonomously.

Moments like Alida Valli walking past Joseph Cotten in the graveyard. John Garfield looking up from a dropped tube of lipstick rolling along the floor to the hourglass figure of the girl he'll kill for. Humphrey Bogart ironically describing an artefact that's inspired murder and deceit as "the stuff that dreams are made of". Robert Mitchum setting eyes on Jane Greer and knowing that he's in for a world of trouble but unable to help himself.

And Fred MacMurray, gut shot and painfully recording his confession - his Calvary the bland interiors of his office - coming out with a line that pretty much sums up film noir: "I killed him. I killed him for money. And for a woman. I didn't get the money. I didn't get the woman."

Such is life.

1 comment:

J.D. said...

"I think, if I were called upon to explain the term film noir to someone who had no understanding of cinema, I would simply sit them down and show them 'Double Indemnity'."

Well said! To me this film is the quintessential film noir. They just don't come any better (well, TOUCH OF EVIL comes reaaal close).

Excellent write-up!