Sunday, October 20, 2013

Double Indemnity - the film that started it all

I've mentioned on not a few occasions that Billy Wilder is my favourite movie-maker of all time. Quentin Tarantino is up there, as is Spike Lee, David Mamet, David Fincher, John Hughes, and other honourable mentions. However, insofar as I've been able to recognize, Wilder was not limited to any single genre - whatever style he approached, he nailed it.

The first Wilder movie I ever saw was not chosen because it was Wilder. I knew nothing of plot, didn't go looking particularly for it; I was at the video store (back when one went to video stores to rent videos), and decided to start getting through some classics. I saw the case, it had some award mentions on it, so I said "Okay, let's watch this tonight."

That movie was Double Indemnity, it had me from the opening to the close, and was the beginning of a journey of movie-making discovery I'm still travelling.

Lucaboror, digital relief

One of the first nifty features of this movie is, it almost tells us how it's going to end. As film noir, it's expected it's going to end badly for the protagonist and, as viewers, we go along for the ride to see how it goes bad. Wilder would employ this approach at least one more time, in Sunset Blvd., (and I haven't seen all his movies – but I'm getting ahead of myself...).

Wilder is a master of dialog. Whether quick wit, or delicious play between two actors, there's a whole lot going on in each scene, in every movie he does. There are infrequently any car chases or explosions, just dramatic story-telling.

Fred MacMurray is Walter Neff, the insurance salesman moth who can't help but be caught in the flame of femme fatale Barbara Stanwick's Phyllis Dietrichson. A routine sales call to renew an insurance policy for her husband is the top of a slippery slope. And down will go Neff. Then there's Eddie G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, Neff's boss. He's a hard-boiled, brilliant claim investigator who smells a rat and is intent upon figuring it out. He comes close...but...oh, I can't spoil it.

Some may question how Neff could get caught up in...such a crazy scheme. But he does. The thing about tragedy, especially one that comes through character flaw, is that we are challenged to think, not about whether "we would do the same thing if we were in the situation" or not; but, why do people do stupid things? Why have I done the stupid things I've done?

As a parent, I've asked my kids, "Why did you do that?" And I got the same "I don't know" that Bill Cosby has used in his stand-up routine; the same "I don't know" that I gave my parents when I was a kid. Film noir doesn't always (if ever) answer that nagging question, whether in the movie or for us in our real lives. We are left to ponder it and, for the sake of the movie, we are left to deal with the unanswered question while we follow the story of what they did anyway.

The femme fatale, Mrs. Dietrichson, is indeed an enigma, which is part of what captures Neff. Her story is never fully understood, but as it unfolded, it got darker and darker, until we come to understand, as does Neff, that (ooh, wait, I don't want to spoil it).

The chemistry among all the lead actors is excellent. The pace moves along, I never looked at a clock wondering how long this movie is. The story moves along with the right amount of mounting tension, there's a ton of classic, memorable quotes...right to the end of the line.

Once I'd seen this movie, I went looking for other Wilder titles. And, upon each viewing, I could only smile and affirm that it was no fluke - the guy was a genius.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?!