Friday, June 12, 2009

Double Indemnity (1944)

To truly appreciate this movie, we have to take it in context. This movie came out 3 months to the day after the US invasion of Normandy. Two and a half years after Pearl Harbor, World War II was in full effect with the US now in Europe going for Hitler. During the war, Americans were having to make sacrifices. They needed entertainment to escape more than any generation up to that point. 1944 was big band music. Sinatra was big, although some saw him as a draft-dodger. It was the era of the Hollywood studio films. Nowadays most movies are filmed on location, but that change was a few decades away at this point. Casablanca had come out the year before and cleaned up at the Oscars....

IMDB lists this as the plot to Double Indemnity: 'An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator's suspicions.' That's a pretty bare bones description of this movie, but it's a good starting point.This film is in a genre of films they call 'film noir'. Think of a lady walking into a private detective's office with a voice over saying something like 'She walked into my office on a Wednesday. She was quite a dame'. That is film noir. While this wasn't the first or last movie in the genre, it may be the best. The American Film Institute lists this film at #38 on the list of 100 greatest movies. Accolades aside, this movie is eminently watchable. From the beginning, I was sucked in.

The story starts with a man stumbling into an office and beginning to record an intriguing message for his boss about the murder of a client. Cut to an earlier time, and our insurance rep hero is visiting the home of one of his clients to warn him that his car insurance has lapsed. (I couldn't even imagine that happening nowadays. You'll get a notice in the mail, but you're lucky if you get an automated phone message let alone your sales rep showing up at your home...) While waiting for his client, he sees a scantily clad beauty at the top of the stairs. He is instantly smitten and notices her bracelet. They start up a dialogue and then our beauty disappears to finish getting dressed. After some flirting and inquisitive questions as to the nature of our hero's job, they arrange for the main character to come back another day to meet with the client. When he does come back, the client is nowhere to be found and his beauty of a wife starts asking questions that make it more and more obvious she is looking to start an insurance policy on her husband without him knowing. Right around this point our hero realizes why she's asking and shuts down. He takes the moral high ground and opts not to help her get paid in case her husband dies of an 'accident'. He leaves, but eventually runs into our beauty again and changes his mind.

The title of the movie comes from a clause in the insurance policy that would allow for the beneficiary to be paid twice the amount if the insured were to die in an unusual way - say, a train accident. My favorite line in the movie is after our hero agrees to help Beauty kill her husband. He explains the clause and tells her they have to kill her husband and make it look like an accident. She asks him why and he says 'We're taking it for the limit, baby!' That line may come off as laughable today, but he pulled it off like a champ in 1944. Having insider information will help them commit the crime, but they have to make sure the hero's claims adjuster boss doesn't get wise to what's going on. I'm not going to get into anything else that happens in case someone out there wants to watch this. I'll just say that it's very suspenseful and held my attention the whole time. Despite the movie starting near the end chronologically, there are still a few surprises.

This movie was directed by Billy Wilder, who was to go on to direct Best Picture Winner 'The Lost Weekend' and comedy classic 'Some Like It Hot'. The main characters are played by Fred MacMurry and Barbara Stanwyck. Edward G Robinson - famous for playing a gangster in earlier films - does a fantastic job as the claims examiner boss of the hero. Seriously - this guy is to claims examiners as Patrick Swayze is to bouncers in the movie 'Roadhouse'. They ought to hang his picture in insurance offices everywhere. This movie has a surprising amount of innuendo with no actual blatant sexuality. Go 1940's. If I wanted softcore porn, I'd watch softcore porn. If I want a kick ass crime movie, I'll watch Double Indemnity.


elbie said...

have you seen dial m for murder? i'd be curious to see what you have to say about that.

LT said...

I'll review that one next.