Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

Director: Billy Wilder

1944

The year is 1944. The world is engulfed in the fires of the Second World War. Some of the most heinous of crimes in military history are being carried out across Europe and the Pacific, while allied forces were massing to overcome them and those behind them.

The darkness and the horrors, and the ways in which the public were forced to accept the reality of them, inevitably made its way into the hearts and minds of writers and directors. It is largely thanks to this darkness and disillusionment that gave rise to what has subsequently become known as film noir. Combining the horrors and evils of the world with the type of story previously provided for in pulp magazines, film noir captured a feeling and attitude unique in cinematic history.

Although it was not necessarily the first film in the noir genre (arguably 1941’s The Maltese Falcon defends that title the most convincingly), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is perhaps the first to truly hone the style and feature all of the classic elements that have now become synonymous with the genre. Dark (really dark) lighting, flashback narratives, the archetypal femme fatale, corruption, lust, it’s all here and all on show. Not only that, but it showed what artistic and commercial heights this style of film cold truly reach.

It was a film of modest backgrounds. Based on a James M. Cain serialised story published in 1936 (and later in 1943 as a full novella), it tells the story of a happy-go-lucky insurance salesman by the name of Walter Neff (updated from Nuff in Cain’s original story), who becomes infatuated by the wife of a client and finds himself lured into a plan to fool the client into getting a life insurance policy, then killing him and making away with the proceeds. To a contemporary audience, it may not seem like the most original of schemes. But the film carries the story so masterfully, it’s impossible not to find yourself also lured into its charms.

Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a role which many actors were reluctant to take on. MacMurray, whilst a well-respected actor, was known for lighter, more comedic roles. Perhaps his relative inexperience in the type of role required by Double Indemnity worked in his favour. MacMurray’s descent into a new, dark kind of role mirrors the change in his character from happy-go-lucky insurance salesman into a man who quickly discovers what dark and terrible things he can pull off. MacMurray plays the role perfectly. His gentle flirtations with Phyllis and friendly sparring with Barton Keyes presents a character who is likeable and almost the kind of person that the audience would like to get to know. It’s the kind of performance that makes the character’s subsequent descent into murder all the more terrible.

Barbara Stanwyck gives a both career-defining and genre-defining performance of Phyllis, the ultimate femme fatale and the woman responsible for instigating the events that take place.  The film is a complex study into the relationship of these two powerful characters and their joint downward spiral. Neff’s character kids himself that he is the true brains. He sells the life insurance policy. He comes up with the idea to take a chance at the double indemnity clause, he plans the murder, he carries out that murder, he plays along with Keyes as best he can. But it’s Dietrichson who is pulling the strings of his heart throughout it all. The story is a fine example of the overpowering effects that lust can have on a person, and the depths to which it can drag them down.

 

 

Meanwhile, Edward G. Robinson stars of Barton Keyes, a claims manager and close friend of Neff, who works hard and fast to uncover the truth about phoney insurance claims. He is probably the closest thing to a moral compass that the film has (even in spite of his monologue about having the woman he once planned to marry thoroughly investigates before deciding she was a tramp and best to cut his losses), in his unrelenting efforts to establish the truth in an environment where, as the ending of the film shows, even your nearest friends can’t be trusted. Robinson’s portrayal is both serious and at times injects a sense of fun into an otherwise moral abyss of a movie. We enjoy his quips and speeches (being a claims handler myself in another life, I find myself beaming with joy every time I see the ‘claims man’ speech), and it is hard not to laugh along with him as he is tearing into the insurance company’s director to dismiss his claims of suicide. But it is never over the top or distracting to the rest of the events, and the final scene with him and Neff clearly shows the anguish being felt by the character as he sees his best friend falling apart in face of what he had done. It is for this reason that this author truly wishes the original ending of the film, where Keyes stands watching as Neff is executed in a gas chamber, still exists. All we have left to go on is extracts from the screenplay (made available in the booklet for the recent UK Blu-Ray re-release in the Masters of Cinema series), along with a few stills showing Neff being prepared in the chamber in front of a visibly distraught Keyes.

It is a haunting image. It is led entirely by body language – neither Neff or Keyes’ eyes can be seen, where only black shadows remain. Keyes’ grip on the bar, Neff’s sunken smile, the inability to see exactly what is in that room with Neff…  (amazingly, that image of Neff was used in the Spanish promotional posters for the film), it is a real shame that the footage of it has been lost, meaning a true comparison with the finished version cannot be made. That said, there are many who believe that the film’s ending is perfect in itself. And it is hard to disagree – the ending in place shows the end of the relationship between the two men, and the ultimate ending for Neff is already inevitably imprinted in the minds of the audience thanks to Keyes’ earlier monologue about the murderers being on a one-way ride to the cemetery.

However, perhaps excising the gas chamber ending was a sensible move when considered in the context of the overall movie. It is a film where a lot of events are implied or occur off-camera. To have visibly shown Neff’s death, rather than imply it in the way it is now with the final cut of the movie, would have perhaps been an inconsistent (if still suitably bleak) way to finish the movie off.

It should also be pointed out that it is those implied events in the movie which make it all the more effective. The film was made during the reign of the Hayes Code, which greatly censored what films could and couldn’t get away with (which, unfortunately, was more often the latter). No sex, restrained violence, and an insistence that the bad guys must always pay the price. It was like the questionable intentions that gave rise to prohibition in America turned their attention to the film industry once their previous project had fallen flat on its face.

But it is within these restrictions that Double Indemnity flourishes. It single-handedly shows that less really can be more. When Neff murders Dietrichson’s husband, many directors might have wanted to go with showing a struggle going on, perhaps some dramatic external shots of the car as it sways back and forth over the road whilst the driver is being slowly strangled to death. Then it stopping shortly before it forces its way over a cliff or some other inconvenient obstacle. Instead, the car is stopped, and we are left with a looming shot over Barbara Stanwyck’s face, staring fixatedly into the camera in front of her as she sits next to her husband being brutally killed off-screen. How brutal that murder is is in fact left entirely up the viewer. But you don’t even have time to think about it, too fixed we are on Stanwyck’s gaze.

Then there is the subtle intricacies of the dialogue, which again managed to circumvent the Hayes Code whilst not losing any of its significance or underlying intent on the audience.  Raymond Chandler’s contribution to the movie in this regard cannot be understated. At the time, he was one of the leading lights in the world of hard boiled fiction. At the same time he was working on the script, Hollywood was taking serious interest in his own particular works. Murder, My Sweet (an adaption of Chandler’s second Philip Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely) was released in the same year as Double Indemnity, and two years later saw the release of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. On paper (no pun intended), it read like a dream set-up. One renowned hard-boiled author adapting the work of another renowned hard-boiled author (James M. Cain’s previous novella, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the crime genre) sounds like a dream ticket. But at first, it didn’t quite go to plan. Chandler himself was new to movies and had a notably different approach to the whole affair than Wilder. The fact that he originally intended to turn around the entire screenplay within a week goes to show what Chandler had in mind. As a result, he had a rather fraught relationship with Billy Wilder (with whom he co-wrote the script). Heated exchanges and walk-outs followed, but the results of this volatile relationship were none the less electric, even if the experience did have the effect of leaving Chandler disillusioned with Hollywood and its treatment of writers. Chandler did persevere however, and went on to write an original screenplay The Blue Dahlia (released in 1946 starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake) and also contributing to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train (although the Chandler’s actual contributions to the final screenplay are not entirely known, owing to the pair’s extreme dislike of each other which, by all accounts, makes the Chandler-Wilder collaboration seem like a summer romance).

Interestingly, both Chandler and Wilder went on to produce works which appear to stem from their experiences together on Double Indemnity. Wilder’s The Lost Weekend chronicles a drunk writer (which Wilder made to ‘explain Chandler to himself’), whilst Chandler’s next Philip Marlowe novel was The Little Sister, which featured a number of shady movie stars and critiques of the studio system.

But all that is secondary. At its core, Double Indemnity is a sinister, unforgiving and completely wonderful film that holds its place firmly as the early pinnacle of the noir format.

 

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Film Review – The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye

1973

Director: Robert Altman

It’s not an easy task to review a movie which is commonly described (at least on the Blu Ray packaging) as ‘misunderstood’.  It’s almost a get out of jail free card for filmmakers and directors who may not have had the reaction they wanted.

In this case, it’s an understandable position to take.

In the canon of pulp fiction, Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye is rightly held in high esteem. Chandler took his famous detective, Philip Marlowe, out of the standard (but comfortable) realms of everyday detective thrillers, and attempted a dive into the realms of higher literature.  Instead of being hired at the outset by a client to investigate a blackmailer or locate a missing wife, the story starts out with Marlowe detailing his loose friendship with an alcohol ex-soldier, Terry Lennox, and his subsequent attempt to assist him get out of a potential murder charge. His reason for doing so is not out of the promise of a quick buck (a key premise of the book, and film, is his rejection of a $5,000 bill he receives in payment for his help) but rather appears to be what could only be descried as loyalty to a friend. Although Lennox later turns up dead and with an alleged confession note by his side, Marlowe’s sense of loyalty to Lennox, combined with (or perhaps arising from) his own certainty of his friend’s innocence, carries its way through the rest of the story, in which Marlowe is assigned to help a struggling, alcoholic writer (one who is widely believed to have been a character Chandler devised to represent himself) to keep himself alive long enough to deliver his next book, helping his lovely yet long-suffering wife out in the process. The two cases become intertwined when it is revealed that Wade’s wife was formerly married to Terry Lennox, back when he was a solider living in England during World War Two, and it was in fact she who murdered Lennox’s wife.

It is a book which is heavy on theme and character development, as opposed to the tales of blackmail, pornography and murder which were features of Chandler’s previous works, most notably The Big Sleep, Chandler’s literary debut. Unlike The Big Sleep however, the story is less easily transposed into cinema. The Long Goodbye was a reflection of Chandler’s personal life at the time. His wife, Cissy, was dying of cancer, and he had recently returned, disillusioned, from a moderately successful career as a writer in Hollywood (which, in its early stages, resulted in perhaps the definitive noir movie of all time, Double Indemnity, which Chandler co-adapted with director Billy Wilder from a James M. Cain novella). It was a far more serious book, the longest Chandler ever wrote, and yet was almost modest in its actual scope, whilst managing to touch upon some strong themes and feelings.

Adapting The Long Goodbye was never going to be an easy feat. It is perhaps telling that it took nearly twenty years for a cinematic adaption to be released, compared with the short time span in which Chandler’s earlier novels had been adapted.

Any film adaption of a Chandler novel will, ultimately, be assessed on the merits of the actor playing Marlowe. As with many people of my generation, my immediate knowledge of Elliot Gould comes from knowing him as Ross and Monica’s father in Friends. However, any concerns that this may raise are quickly dispelled early on in watching The Long Goodbye. His take on Marlow is not the heavy drinking and self-assured version played by Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell, the archetypal Marlowe’s who preceded him in the 1940’s, nor is it the older and world-weary adaption which Robert Mitchum later gave in the 1970’s adaptions of Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep.

 

Escaping the trappings of the 1940s, The Long Goodbye upgrades the era to the 1970s. Gould has the immediate advantage of playing a Marlowe who exists in a world unlike that which we were used to. It works surprisingly well.  As an overall character, Marlowe himself is the same as we know him, wise-cracking and heavy smoking (though his habit for drinking gimlets, acquired in the novel by Marlowe from Lennox himself, is conspicuously absent from the film), but the world around him has changed. Altman made a deliberate choice in this regard, wanting to contrast a character with all the attitudes we came to expect from 1940’s and 1950’s cinema with the changing standards which the late 1960’s and early 1970’s brought. Here, Marlowe is living in an apartment opposite from a group of young, slim (and very desirable) pot-head females, who spend most of their time on screen walking around topless and practising their yoga. In contract, Marlowe’s flat is bare-boned and chaotic. Like a relic of 1940. In leaving his apartment, he’s stepping out of the comfort zone we expect of the character, and walking straight into the 1970s with all its eccentricities. On the way to the store, we willingly obliges the aforementioned ladies by picking up some chocolate brownie mix. He’s even now domesticated to the extent of having a cat.

Marlowe’s relationship with his cat makes for an interesting metaphor in comparing Marlowe’s relationship with Terry Lennox (and indeed, with Roger and Eileen Wade). Marlowe is called upon when he is needed, not when he is wanted. Marlowe’s loyalty to all the characters (cat included) is unquestionable throughout the movie. In this regard, the key essence of the book is left intact.

So far, so good.

However, no review of the film would be complete without comparing ‘that’ ending with the book. In the movie, Lennox (who in fact faked his own death and confession note with the help of the Mexican authorities) admits freely to Marlowe that he murdered his wife due to her relationship with Roger Wade, and that he simply used Marlowe to help get away after the event. In the novel, however, it was in fact Eileen Wade (Lennox’s original wife) who murdered his wife, largely out of jealousy, as well as the depression caused by the soul-sucking life she lived with Roger Wade. Lennox, knowing the truth, ran from the law so as to keep Eileen and Roger out of the matter, as well as trying to come to terms with the life he had built for himself. Later on Eileen, after shooting Wade while Marlowe was standing outside their own house, kills herself whilst leaving a note of her own, confessing to both previous murders. The police attempt to bury it, only for Marlowe to come clean to the press about the whole affair. In the novel, it is Marlowe’s sense of loyalty and honour to his friend which comes out on top. In the film, we find that his loyalty was, from the outset, misplaced. Whilst justice is done and Marlowe punishes the true killer, it would have been more satisfying for greater detail to have been paid to the relationship with Terry, Eileen, Roger and Silvia. But at the same time, Altman wanted to (understandably) focus on Marlowe and Lennox, as that is the crux of the story. Whether some of that relationship is diminished by the revelation that Lennox did kill his wife, Marlowe’s devotion to him is firm until the end, when the truth is ultimately revealed. At that point, Marlowe himself changes, his approach and his beliefs, which underpinned the whole film, are challenged and, ultimately, forced to change. Much like Marlowe is forced to change his position on Lennox, we too, are forced to change our position on Marlowe, and therefore on the film itself. Perhaps it is this reason why the film is, as the marketing people of United Artists have advised, ‘misunderstood’. As an audience, we have to change our take of the two key characters around who the film is based. Arguably, being misunderstood is exactly the result of the story being told. In managing to bring that effect through, the film does a fine job.

Is it the definitive Philip Marlow adaption? Probably not. The Big Sleep is rightfully considered a definitive film noir, and Bogart’s take on the character of Marlowe is as faithful to the written character as one could ever hope for, and keeps the overall plot of the book in place (beyond the changes imposed by the Hayes Code of the time), but Robert Altman and Elliot Gould took the chance on adapting the Marlowe story which was perhaps the least adaptable for screen. It has raised questions and conflicted opinion for over four decades. For a film which is based on the premise of our own unquestioned belief in that of another, it has performed admirably.