Saturday, January 31, 2015

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and (1973)

Paramount Pictures, 107m 39s

My favorite of all film noirs was based on the 1935 novella by James M. Cain, author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1934) and MILDRED PIERCE (1941). The original Cain material was adapted for the screen by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Co-writer/director Wilder's first film noir undoubtedly was his most important and influential. That is high praise considering Wilder would go on to helm the transcendent noir classics SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and ACE IN THE HOLE (1951). Most of the pertinent themes and motifs associated with film noir can be identified in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, which effectively set the benchmark for every noir film that would follow it. One project observed the blueprint a little too closely:  the Sigmund Neufeld Productions release APOLOGY FOR MURDER (1945) was so similar to DOUBLE INDEMNITY that Paramount sued and won.

Cain's DOUBLE INDEMNITY amounts to a written confession from the main character. Set in California, 34-year-old insurance man Walter Huff makes a routine renewal stop at the residence of oil man H.S. Nirdlinger, only to find the Mr. of the house absent. Instead Huff meets his customer's wife Phyllis, an attractive early-thirtysomething who asks about purchasing accident insurance for her husband. Huff instinctively recognizes this broad is big trouble, but Mrs. Nirdlinger has a burning-hot body. Instead of running the other way, Huff teams with Phyllis to plot her husband's demise, all for a sizeable insurance check and a newly-available Phyllis.

It is made clear Huff entertained thoughts of how to rig the system to his advantage before meeting Phyllis, but it is her situation that provides the opportunity. Huff is determined to hit it big:

"Just pulling off some piker job, that don't interest me. But this, hitting it for the limit, that's what I go for. It's all I go for."

Huff's dream of "hitting it for the limit" is one of the major themes carried over to the film, and indeed a theme that would recur as the film noir genre proliferated. The defining noir films frequently concentrate on flawed individuals and the risks those characters take in the hope of bettering their economic prospects.

An opening image that sets the tone of a genre

The theatrical run of DOUBLE INDEMNITY ushered in the classic noir period (roughly 1944-1950). During that timeframe, a cavalcade of noir exercises appeared that emulated DOUBLE INDEMNITY's narration/flashback structure, including MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE KILLERS (1946), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), CRISS CROSS (1949) and Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD. Narration was a pragmatic convention considering the complexity of some of these plot structures. To set up the narration in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, the story begins at the end. Pacific All Risk Insurance Company's ace salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) narrates his story into a dictating machine for the benefit of both the film audience and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the dogged chief claims investigator and Neff's close friend. Through Neff's "confession," he explains how an ostensibly respectable man could become hopelessly tangled up with the likes of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck beneath platinum blonde wig). Since the outcome of the story is clear from the outset, and Neff is not long for this world, his confession has a therapeutic function. As he addresses Keyes, he seeks redemption from his surrogate father, the man who never doubted Neff's character for a second. Keyes could not have been more wrong.

"I didn't get the money and--I didn't get the woman."

Released in May of 1944 but set in 1938 Los Angeles, DOUBLE INDEMNITY was the first American crime film to really concentrate on killers who are not gangster types. Instead, unremarkable personalities are presented, on the surface not much different from the casual filmgoers who attended DOUBLE INDEMNITY showings. The perfect illustration of this point occurs whenever Neff and Dietrichson meet at the local supermarket, surrounded by patrons who know nothing of the murderers perusing the canned goods aisle. The film's implications are far-reaching; even someone like MacMurray, who normally appeared in benign comedies and melodramas, could stray from the moral path and encounter the ruinous femme fatale portrayed by Stanwyck.

The premeditated murder of Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is conceived following a lovemaking session between Neff and Phyllis. The two lovers never will be so close again. After Mr. Dietrichson is eliminated, there is no suggestion made that Neff and Phyllis will live happily ever after. Instead the two are at each other's throats. Neff unravels the most, and for good reason. Even if Mrs. Dietrichson helped topple the first domino, the remaining ones that fall derive momentum from Neff's arrogance and lack of foresight. In that sense, the film is a cautionary tale about how self-destructive a man can become in pursuit of the wrong woman and ill-gotten money. Neff is done in by his own greed and lust. As the narrative plays out, the compressive force of a moral vice slowly tightens, and both Neff and Dietrichson eventually succumb to the pressure. The palpable sense of doom is best described by Neff when he says, "I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man."

The worst type of backseat driver
After the crime:  a dark romance
Falling apart at the seams

The novella in particular is Huff's tragedy, written in the first person. The film follows the source material fairly closely until the final four chapters, which play out quite differently compared to the film's denouement. Other departures from the original story are slight, but interesting. In the novella, Walter Huff seems less educated than his film counterpart--Huff's grammar is atrocious--but he is more experienced and streetwise. When Phyllis Nirdlinger broaches the subject of accident insurance, Huff reacts as follows:

"But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair."

The film's smooth-talking Walter Neff speaks a lot more eloquently than the book's Huff, but is a little less practiced in insurance sales (11 years experience versus 15). It is not until Neff visits the Dietrichson home for the second time that he realizes the implication of a wife inquiring about accident insurance for her husband. Though a more polished man, Neff is nonetheless more susceptible to Phyllis than the novella's Huff.

The Barton Keyes character is more critical to the film than the original Cain story. As the film's most disciplined insurance professional, chief claims adjuster Keyes is suspicious of Phyllis from the moment he sees her, but never does he get the idea that her partner in crime could be his colleague and close friend Neff. Not even the 26-year man Keyes can explain the contagion of events correctly that revolve around the film's scheming femme fatale. Keyes serves as the film's doggedly determined private eye, though he fails to solve the case. Instead he must face the frustrating conclusion that he does not understand human nature quite as well as he thought. Ironically, Keyes never trusted anyone but Neff. The film's real tragedy is the shattered father/son-type bond between Keyes and Neff. Robinson's portrayal of Keyes is a remarkable achievement in casting that only gets better as time passes. There is nothing quite like seeing Robinson’s character deftly school company prez Edward S. Norton, Jr. (Richard Gaines) regarding the mountain of statistics behind suicides.

With its unsettling implications about female sexuality, DOUBLE INDEMNITY would influence many a misogynistic noir production. That is not to suggest that prior entries in the noir category did not feature decadent, acquisitive females, but few are "rotten enough" to measure up to Phyllis and her long history of wanton wickedness. Especially upon repeat viewings, Stanwyck's portrayal of Phyllis is absolutely chilling. The iciness of her eyes could be mistaken for vacuous by the uninitiated, but notice the emphasis on Phyllis while her husband is murdered; her expression exudes complete heartlessness. Her only display of vulnerability comes at the film's conclusion, when she seems genuinely surprised she cannot fire a second shot to finish Neff. But even this moment could be explained as self-centered; Phyllis seemed the more aware of the two that if one goes down the drain, so does the other. Whatever her true feelings about Neff may be, Phyllis betrays everyone sooner or later, as when Neff learns of her clandestine meetings with Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr). Based on the concatenation of circumstances that unite Neff and Phyllis, it appears fate must have brought them to each other. The phrase "straight down the line" is repeated throughout the film, mostly by Phyllis; there is no going back to however things were prior to the meeting of Neff and Phyllis. They truly deserve each other:  Phyllis brings out the dark flaw in Neff he had kept bottled up before falling for her, and Neff provides the money-making component Phyllis requires to dispose of her unwanted mate. The protracted manner of death that befalls first Mr. Dietrichson and (presumably) Neff only confirms the extent of the evil embodied by Phyllis. Mr. Dietrichson is offed in his own car, but is transported to another location to "die." Similarly, Neff is shot at the Dietrichson home, but travels back to the office where it is inferred he will expire.

Top-flight Paramount cinematographer John F. Seitz contributed mightily to the film noir edifice through his work on THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), SUNSET BOULEVARD, APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951) and DETECTIVE STORY (1951). Most of DOUBLE INDEMNITY's pivotal sequences transpire in dark settings typical of the noir style, either nighttime exteriors or destabilizing interiors rife with shadows. This point is hammered home from the beginning, with Neff's late-night return to the office to tell his story. The ensuing semiotics insistently communicate damage or danger, even in seemingly innocuous environments. The immaculate veneer of suburban tranquility, where area children play stickball in the street, contrasts with the dominant venetian blinds inside the Dietrichson home that suggest a prison-like interior of both physical and psychological confinement. When Neff first meets Phyllis, she is alluringly dressed in only a towel, yet unattainable placement-wise. She occupies a superior position atop the stairway, while Neff stands below. Such positioning would become a much-imitated noir trope.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Unfortunately for Wilder and crew, Paramount backed the Bing Crosby vehicle GOING MY WAY (1944) as the studio's premier offering of that year. It worked--GOING MY WAY won Best Picture and six additional Academy Awards. Wilder would be honored for the following year's THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), a fine film in its own right, but a lesser achievement than DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The most influential of film noirs was inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation in 1992.

The 70th Anniversary Limited Edition Blu-ray version available from Universal Studios Home Entertainment was digitally remastered and restored from high resolution 35mm original film elements, framed at 1.35:1. The excellent results are apparent in the screen captures within this review. The 1080P dual-layered disc includes a 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio track as the primary audio option. Supplements ported over from the dual-disc DVD released by Universal in 2006 include two audio commentary tracks, the first by Richard Schickel, who explains the development of film noir as a Hollywood genre and DOUBLE INDEMNITY's place in it as the first "true" noir film. Schickel notes the film's various detours from the source material, many penned by Chandler, who didn't particularly care for the work of Cain. The second commentary track combines film historian Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs (KAFKA [1991], THE LIMEY [1999]). Dobbs met Wilder in 1971 and believes the "manic energy" Robinson brings to DOUBLE INDEMNITY is the closest emulation of Wilder to be found in one of the director's films. Unlike the anonymous locales of modern films, Dobbs points out, the LA of DOUBLE INDEMNITY is peppered with specific locations that add a sense of verisimilitude to the production. The tribute featurette "Shadows of Suspense" (2006, 37m 56s) boasts an impressive array of noir authorities, including Eddie Muller, Film Noir Foundation founder and president, as well as noted authors Drew Casper, Phil Cousineau, Paul Duncan, James Ellroy, Kim Newman, Richard Schickel, Alain Silver, Vivian Sobchack, James Ursini, and Elizabeth Ward. Filmmakers called upon include Caleb Deschanel, William Friedkin, Paul Kerr and Owen Roizman. The feature presentation is introduced by Robert Osborne (2m 30s), and there is a tattered theatrical trailer (2m 16s).

Another extra that made the trip from DVD to Blu-ray is the made-for-TV DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Universal Studios, 73m 53s) that aired in 1973. A subtle dialogue update provides a hint of what is wrong with this perfunctory remake, long before one notices the fades strategically timed for commercial interruptions. While recording his confession, Walter Neff (Richard Crenna) declares "...I don't want the woman" versus the original version's "...I didn't get the woman." It is not quite the same thing! Even after shooting her, note that MacMurray's Neff cannot resist one last glance at that anklet that so captured his attention—he still desires her. The remake’s change in dialogue dilutes a theme central to the noir cycle:  the futility of the protagonist's obsession with an unattainable woman. But then, this is a color film almost completely devoid of the noir visual style that graced the 1944 film. Despite heavy dependence on the original screenplay, adapted for the small screen by Steven Bochco, the narrative and settings seem rather ordinary without the noir look to compliment the action. Genre filmmaking cannot be half-hearted any more than a woman can be a little bit pregnant.

Phyllis Dietrichson (Samantha Eggar) and Walter Neff (Richard Crenna)

Incredulity of character is another serious issue that plagues the telefilm. Crenna is among the most irritatingly theatrical of all movie actors; I still just cringe when he appears on the scene in the otherwise excellent FIRST BLOOD (1982). In his late 40s at the time of filming, Crenna inspires doubt when he announces his Walter Neff is 36. As portrayed by Lee J. Cobb, Barton Keyes seems in more immediate need of an appointment with a gastrointestinal specialist than Robinson's character. Even more troubling, the father/son dynamic between Keyes and Neff that enhanced the original version is completely lost in the remake. Samantha Eggar as Phyllis Dietrichson is another disappointment. I always have loved Eggar, the stunning beauty of THE COLLECTOR (1965) and the terrifying matriarch of THE BROOD (1979). But she looks positively emaciated here, and fails to create the irresistible sex appeal necessary for the Phyllis character to be convincing. Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan's BODY HEAT (1981) was the far more aesthetically pleasing color interpretation of James M. Cain (uncredited), with Richard Crenna this time in the role of the doomed husband.

Unique to this very collectible Blu-ray edition are UltraViolet & iTunes renditions of the feature 1944 film, along with a little packet that contains a theatrical poster reproduction, three lobby card reproductions, and a still of the film's alternate ending that condemned Neff to the gas chamber.

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