Sunday, February 21, 2010

1944: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)

1944: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
What don't I like about this film?  It's one where everything seems to be  in exactly the right place for me.  

If I were making a film noir and putting together a checklist of some of the elements usually associated with this type of film, here's how I would break down Double Indemnity:

1.  Femme fatale: Barbara Stanwyck, perhaps my favorite femme fatale in the history of film.  

2. Voice-over narration:  Like a few of my other favorite voice-overs (Shoot the Piano Player being at the very top of the list), Fred MacMurray's helps tell the story, but even more important, it allows us at times to get into the head of our protagonist.  

3.  Non-linear script:  The movie begins with the end and then tells the entire film in flashback.  Along with Carlito's Way (I've read that Wilder's film was a major influence on De Palma), this is my favorite use of the device in the history of film.

4.  Moody score: Miklos Rozsa immediately thrusts us into this dark world and and then periodically reminds us of the inevitable with one of my favorite scores in the history of this type of film.

5.  Fatalistic ending (SPOILER!): The story, so well-written by the way, takes us where we don't want to go but know we can't avoid.  This movie accomplishes the task as well as any I've ever seen in the history of this type of film.

Other contenders for 1944: It's nice to be back on a year where I don't have quite as many gaps.  The major films from this year I still need to see are: Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale, Raoul Walsh's Uncertain Glory, Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis, Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, and Laurence Olivier's Henry V.  I love Double Indemnity so much that I can't really say any other film is a close runner-up.  However, there are a few other films from this year that I also really like: the two zany Preston Sturges films Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Fritz Lang's wonderful noir The Woman in the Window, one of my favorite films ever dealing with marital paranoia George Cukor's Gaslightand yet another excellent Howard Hawks entry To Have and Have Not.

9/29/10 I watched Laurence Olivier's Henry V.  No doubt very impressive and ambitious storytelling by Olivier.  But some of the artifice and a movie driven by words are always a little difficult for me so I did not connect entirely with this one.  

10/2/10 I watched Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis.  Incredibly well-made, ambitious, epic storytelling.  A bit impersonal and tidy for my tastes but a white tablecloth restaurant of the highest order.  

10/3/10 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.  It's tremendous what Hitch is able to accomplish on one location, and the camerawork is subtly and brilliantly employed to emulate a boat adrift at sea.  But a fairly dry affair with only a few moments that really held me.  

10/5/10 I watched Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale.  A rather bizarre concoction.  Powell's style is lyrical and poetic, neorealist and baroque, deep and whimsical.  Some extraordinary moments, such as when the organ player finally has his moment at church, but somewhat meandering too, in a way that can be off-putting at times.  

6/23/11 I watched Leo McCarey's Going My Way.  Likable enough, but a humanistic trudge that's more cloying than affecting.  

9/15/19 I watched Raoul Walsh's Uncertain Glory.  The ending is fairly interesting but the rest of it just felt like Walsh and Flynn going through the motions.

12/15/21 I watched Jean Gremillon's The ciel est a vous.  More than any film I can recall, it explores the settled and normal every day person's desire to chase fame, even at the risk of losing everything in the process.  Gremillion has a keen eye and feel for French provincial which gives the arc of the story real feeling and depth.  

6/9/24 I watched Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet.  A very interesting noir that has the twisty, almost dreamlike, plot typical of Chandler's work.  I'm not all that familiar with Dmytryk but this is a noir that deserves to be talked about in any conversation about the early, important noirs.  


  1. One of my favorite films of all- time and without a doubt my favorite of 1944. I love the dialogue in this film, it just crackles, a dark tale of sex and murder without a redeeming character in the group. Stanwyck, one of my favorites is sexy and evil in that white sweater. And as you mention Rozsa's score! Just about a perfect moive.

    #1 Double Indemnity

    Runner-ups in no order are...

    The Uninvited
    The Scarlet Claw
    To Have and Have Not
    The Woman in the Window
    Arsenic and Old Lace

  2. No doubt about this year - Double Indemnity. It's a movie that I liked the first time I saw it, but that has only gotten better over time. It's not quite my favorite Wilder, but it's top-tier for sure. Other favorites:

    To Have and Have Not (Hawks)
    Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges)
    Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk)
    Laura (Preminger)

  3. John, I'm fully on board with you on this one! I particularly love what you say here:

    "I love the dialogue in this film, it just crackles, a dark tale of sex and murder without a redeeming character in the group."

    I couldn't agree more, all around! Thanks, John.

  4. Dave, we're totally on the same page with this one!

    LAURA, for some reason, is a noir I've always struggled with a little bit. But I'll definitely have to revisit it at some point.

    Thanks for the great comments!

  5. My Own #1 Film of 1944:

    Henry V (Olivier)


    Double Indemnity (Wilder)
    Torment (Sjoberg)
    Meet Me in St. Louis (Minelli)
    Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (Eisenstein)
    A Canterbury Tale (Powell/Pressburger)
    Laura (Preminger)
    Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra)
    The Scarlet Claw (O'Neil)
    Woman in the Window (Lang)
    Since You Went Away (Cromwell)
    To Have or Have Not (Hawks)
    Miracle at Morgan's Creek (Sturges)

    DOUBLE INDEMNITY, an American masterpiece as you rightly note (and indeed, there is not a single likeable character in the film) pushes precariously close to the top spot. It challenges as greatest film noir ever with perennial choices like OUT OF THE PAST and THE MALTESE FALCON, but for me it narrowly falls short of Olivier's film, which ranks with the actor/director's RICHARD III as the greatest Shakespeare adaptation. The opening, showcasing the overhead of the Glove Theatre is one of cinema's most breathtaking sequences. Minelli's seminal musical, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is also a very strong contender for the top spot. As is the Russian epic by Eisenstein and Sjoberg's TORMENT. THE SCARLET CLAW is the greatest oof the Sherlock Holmes/Basil Rathbone films. The other runners-up all speak for themselves. I didn't add any other Sturges films, as I think I covered his best works in previous years, but the ones you broach here are fine enough, as are the other noirs you bring up.

    Another superlative review that gives DOUBLE INDEMNITY the regal treatment it so rightly deserves. I like you're posing that it's a "model" which it certainly is. It really is one of the most perfect of all films, and for me a very close second to SUNSET BOULEVARD in the Wilder pantheon, although ACE IN THE HOLE is really with both.

    Jeffrey: I have CHILDREN OF PARADISE as a 1945 film, and will consider it such for this coundown.

  6. I'm sticking with A Canterbury Tale, but there are a lot of great American films this year. I love Hawks' superior kind-of remake of Casablanca, and unlike you and Dave I'd put Laura ahead of Double Indemnity. That's not to knock Wilder's film though, I think it's a great film and Stanwyck is just incredible.

  7. Sam, thanks so much for all the excellent words! I really need to see the Olivier film and have already put it on the queue. It sounds great. Some of your other top pick I still need to see, too.

    It's tough for me to pinpoint years on some of these things so I apologize if I'm off a year or so here and there with placement.

    Thanks, as always, Sam, for the awesome perspective!

  8. Doniphon, I can't wait to see the Powell film, and many of his that I still haven't seen. He's one of these guys I've always loved but for some reason with whom I still have some major gaps.

    Thanks as always for the excellent comments!

  9. This is a great film indeed, especially because of Stanwyck's performance. It's not one I have a strong personal connection to, but I like it well enough.

    But this is a fine year with some other very strong contenders. Cukor's Gaslight boasts a fine performance from Ingrid Bergman, and it's a strong, atmospheric chamber noir though not without some problems. There's also Preminger's great Laura, and To Have and Have Not, which isn't a personal favorite of mine despite all the great Bogie/Bacall interplay, and Ulmer's minimalist B-movie slasher Bluebeard, and Alexander Hammid's charming doc The Private Life of a Cat.

    And I'm sure you're getting sick of me always citing Lewton, but Curse of the Cat People is utterly wonderful, and very distinct from the rest of this producer's horror outings. It's more a childhood drama than a horror flick of any sort.

  10. Ed, thanks so much for the excellent comments! I hate that I forgot to put GASLIGHT on my runners-up list. I will add it (in red) now. It's actually a film I really love.

    I've never seen a few of the others you mention: BLUEBEARD, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF A CAT, and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. But I will work on tracking them down.

    No worries at all, I'm never sick of anything you have to say. I thought I knew movies, but you and a few others put me to shame. It's always helpful and great hearing your perspective.

    Thanks again, Ed!

  11. For me, this film is the quintessential noir for the reasons you stated so eloquently in your post. The snappy dialogue just crackles with intensity, like that great scene where Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray's characters meet for the first time. Talk about your sexual tension!

  12. JD, always great to hear from you! And I couldn't agree more. Great banter, great dialogue, great innuendos, just a super solid movie all around. Glad to see so many others place this one as highly as I do.

    Thanks again for the excellent comments!