Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Seeing Double (Indemnity)

The Best Picture Oscar for 1945 went to a sentimental 1944 confection called Going My Way, full of lovable priests, scrappy orphan kids, and Bing Crosby crooning “Swinging on a Star.” (I just learned Going My Way was largely filmed not far from me, in Santa Monica’s own venerable St. Monica’s Catholic Church.) The film won eight Oscars, including a Best Actor statuette for Crosby at his laid-back best. Ireland’s Barry Fitzgerald copped an Oscar too: remarkably he was nominated both in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories, prompting a key rule change.

 I suspect that in early 1945, with World War II finally drawing to a close, both critics and audiences (not to mention Academy voters) were eager to reward movies that always  looked on the bright side. In competition with Going My Way for its various Oscar honors were soppy tearjerkers (Since You Went Away) and some of Hollywood’s grandest, darkest takes on crime and punishment. This was the year of Gaslight, Laura, and a noir classic, Double Indemnity. None of these, surely, was designed to cheer the war-weary, but they still appeal to all of us who like our entertainment with a frisson of danger.

 Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars, but nabbed nary a one. It essentially launched Billy Wilder’s brilliant directing career: he was nominated for his direction of the film, and also for the screenplay on which he collaborated with none other than Raymond Chandler, adapting a novel by James M. Cain.  His leading lady, the dangerously sultry Barbara Stanwyck, was a Best Actress nominee for Double Indemnity, but lost as she had before and would again. The film’s two key males, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, gave brilliant performances but were entirely overlooked by members of the Academy. In later years, MacMurray would find his greatest success in Disney comedies and as a fumbling father in My Three Sons. I would never have guessed, when watching him be avuncular in Son of Flubber, that he’d make such a memorable heel.

 Filmmakers used to love casting Stanwyck as a smart, conniving dame falling for an innocent, good-hearted guy. (See, for instance, her pairing with Gary Cooper in Wilder’s Ball of Fire.)  In Double Indemnity she’s still smart and conniving, but her leading man, MacMurray, is no innocent.  As insurance salesman Walter Neff, he’s clearly proud of his conquests, actuarial and otherwise. He’s making time with Stanwyck’s unhappy housewife from the get-go, and he’s quick to come up with a “double indemnity” scheme that will help all of her marital problems go away, while leaving the two of them rolling in dough. The trouble with Walter: he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. The plot goes off without a hitch . . . until it doesn’t. And I don’t feel required to add a spoiler alert, because – through the film’s classic use of voiceover narration -- we know from the start who did what to whom. There is, of course, a sly final wrinkle we probably didn’t see coming.

 Wilder’s touch can be found in the film’s crackling dialogue, and also in some effective directorial flourishes. My favorite involves the connection between MacMurray and Robinson as his crusty but tender-hearted boss. Throughout the film, MacMurray has been quick to strike a match, lighting Robinson’s ever-present stogie. Then, as all hope fades for our hero, it’s Robinson’s Barton Keyes who supplies the flame for the cigarette of his failed protégée. If only Neff had had his mentor’s clear-eyed vision . . . but then we’d be without this great film.  

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