Saturday, March 28, 2009

Double Indemnity (1944)

These essays are intended for people that have already seen the films being discussed. This entry will DEFINITELY spoil parts of the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is the story of Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who becomes enamored with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while seeking a policy renewal, and plots her husband's demise. What's nice about this film is the self-determination inherent in Walter's downfall. Yes, Phyllis puts all her sexuality on the line, and maybe she asks leading questions, but she never actually asks Walter to murder her husband. Walter sees the woman, wants her, wants the money, and secretly believes he has devised a way to skirt the insurance system, by working within it, while gaining the maximum benefit. But Walter soon realizes that you can't account for everything, or everyone.

This is the first film in the series that is truly from the criminal's point of view, and thus also the first with a truly fatalistic world view. It is again told in flashback, Walter suffering from a bullet wound while dictating the details to his boss (Edward G. Robinson). It is left for the audence to wonder whether Neff dies or is arrested for murder, but either way, life as he knew it is over. Walter begins the movie as a straight, law-abiding citizen, and it could only be through the events of the film that he ends up as a bloody, beaten criminal. Yet even as there is self-determination in the sexual desire and hubris that makes him a criminal, there is also self-determination in his downfall, as nerves get the better of him, and he decides to end it all, before Phyllis drags him down with her.

The film is shot through with dramatic low-key lighting, especially with light coming through blinds into darkened rooms. Often, portions of a character's face will be highlighted, the eyes or the mouth, or the face will be split, half in light, half in dark. And while the images in the first half of the film are about bringing Walter and Phyllis together, the second half is about keeping them apart, either showing them in separate shots, or by putting something in between them within the frame.

There is again the dream-like quality of memory, and certainly enough eroticism. But the strangeness is lacking, as is the cruelty, aside from the off-screen murder. There is a degree of ambivalence, as the audience wants to root for Walter, to see if he can get away with it, while being reassured that justice will be done in the end.

Next time: The Woman in the Window

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