So an Insurance Guy Walks into a Femme Fatale’s House: Double Indemnity, in review

“Who’d you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good-looking dame’s front parlor and says, “Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands… you got one that’s been around too long?
One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?” – Walter Neff –


In Summary:

Double Indemnity is a film noir about an insurance man, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who falls mistakenly in love with the beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while trying to sell her insurance. The two conspire to remove Phyllis’ ill-tempered husband from the picture, so they can be together. In what is almost the perfect murder and insurance fraud scheme, director Billy Wilder places Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) into the position of the voice of reason. The question is, will Keyes figure out what Walter and Phyllis have done before it’s too late.

Why I watched this one:
As it turns out, I’ve watched very few film noir pieces. I’m not sure why. I wanted and needed to watch more, and Double Indemnity has long been on my list.  Also, I enjoy Fred MacMurray, and was interested to see his performance in this particular film.

So what is a noir? Variety describes the genre this way:

“Between the Great Depression and the start of the
Cold War, Hollywood went noir, reflecting the worldly, weary, wised-up under
current of mid-century America. In classics such as Laura, Sweet Smell of
Success, and Double Indemnity, where the shadows of L.A. and New York
pulse with
killers, corpses, and perilous romance, failure is not only a logical option but a smart-talking seduction.” – Vanity Fair March 2007 –

Who isn’t drawn in by the idea that the shadows of L.A. and New York “pulse” with peril. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. Honestly, though, if I wasn’t reading this quote as a description of film noir, I might mistake it for that of a mobster movie — Dick Tracy, The Godfather, The Sopranos, and The Departed immediately pop to mind. takes a different approach when describing the film noir.

“The great films noir had both popular appeal and artistic merit because their themes address the human condition and the frailty of normal lives, which at any moment can be plunged into the chasm of chaos,
hrough chance or individual action – innocent or otherwise.
How moral ambivalence, lust, love and greed can destroy lives was
explored outside the closed romantic realism of mainstream movies.”

I was always taught to believe they required this formula:

1. A femme fatale (always a femme fatale) — which means never trust the women in these films. Never.
2. Someone with some loose morals
3. A detective, or a crime
4. High contrast cinematography and lighting (big shadows, light vs. dark, black blacks and white whites — you get it)

Double Indemnity meets all of these film noir requirements,  so no wonder it’s marked as one of the greats. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1945, including Best Picture, but lost to the Bing Crosby film Going My Way.

My Review & Verdict — in Claps:

“Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong.
It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me.
I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
– Water Neff –

I enjoyed this film. Why?

Every character with the exception of Barton Keyes was pretty much a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, or a murderer. Of course, by “every character” I simply mean those played by MacMurray and Stanwyck. Perhaps, it was that bit of redemption at the end as Walter Neff comes clean about his crime that makes me like it. Perhaps, it was the intrigue throughout as I wondered how they’d commit their murder, and if dear Phyllis Dietrichson was really in love with Neff or simply playing him for a fool. Even though I know the woman is always deceptive in the noir, I always want to believe it isn’t true. I want a good guy. I want a happy ending. But then, Wilder began with the end and then had Walter tell the story from the beginning. I knew immediately there was no happy ending to be had, but I still enjoyed this film.

For the third time  Billy Wilder has graced this blog, and he’s definitely becoming one of my favorites. Once more he’s created likeable unlikable characters who represent the good and bad in all of us. This time he did it in the acceptable form of film noir. Every director could learn a thing or two about character development and an interesting plot line from Mr. Wilder.

Thus it is, that you may clap in high contrast, with big scary shadow puppet hands, for Double Indemnity.

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman –
and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”
– Water Neff –

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Sabrina, Billy Wilder, and the Happy Ending

In the year that Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature, and that Lord of the Rings was published, the McCarthy hearings were underway, and the first Burger King opened. In this year, M&Ms also debuted peanut M&Ms and the slogan “The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” Elvis made his first record, Bazooka Joe comics were introduced, General Electric unveiled colored kitchen appliances, and the first successful kidney transplant was completed by Harvard Medical School. The year: 1954. The corresponding film: Sabrina.

Sabrina was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, but only won for Best Costume Design. No wonder, though, with dresses like this.

I could dance all night in a dress like that too Audrey, but that’s a movie for another day.

       “There’s a front seat, and a back seat, and a window in between.” – Thomas Fairchild

Enter Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), the daughter of the chauffeur on the Larrabee family estate. The four Larrabees; mother, father, Linus (Humphrey Bogart), and David (William Holden) live in a mansion on the estate. Sabrina, it seems, is madly in love with the former and has been all her life. Sadly, this David fellow is quite the playboy; a real catch if you’re in the market for one night stands at the tennis courts and a trip to divorce court. He barely seems to notice Sabrina, yet she’s smitten. We’ve all been there once or twice, yes? In an effort to better his daughter’s lot in life, her father sends her off to the best cooking school in Paris. I believe he’s hoping the time away will take her sights off of David Larrabee as well. Unfortunately for her father, upon her return as a sophisticated lady, David finally notices her; not even recognizing her at first as the girl he ignored in the gardens. Enter Linus Larrabee, the secret weapon for destroying Sabrina’s affection towards David. Poor Linus, the work-a-holic; driven towards success and success alone. He begins spending time with Sabrina in order to prevent David from screwing up a pre-arranged wedding of financial convenience. Does Linus develop real feelings for Sabrina, or is he leading her on to push forward his business deal that hinges upon David’s cooperation? Oh that I could only tell you. Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today.

       “A woman happily in love, she burns the soufflé. A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn on the oven.” – Baron St. Fontanel

*Though I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, my rambles are bound to allude to them. Read at your own risk if you haven’t seen Sabrina OR The Apartment before.

Billy Wilder once again hits the film strips out of the ballpark with an enchanting heartwrencher that portrays both a real and surreal image of love, suffering, and the high life. Unlike other Hollywood films of the time, Wilder marks his characters with imperfections and a hint of grittiness that other filmmakers wouldn’t dare dirty their hands with – unless, of course, your name is Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, All that Heaven Allows), or film noir was still your area of expertise. While Wilder ventures less into the dark corners of humanity than Sirk, his views on reality are still tainted by harsh truths. His focus on the plights of the washed up, the lovesick, and the ordinary person is what draws me to his films, and makes them relevant and memorable. Sabrina feels hopeless and lost without the love of her life; driven even to extremes. How could it be that he doesn’t notice her? How could it be that he’d choose someone else again and again? In his 1960  film, The Apartment, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture that year (amongst other things), Wilder once again takes the perfectly charming woman, this time Fran (Shirley MacLaine), and pushes her to the edge of reason, only to be rescued by the kinder and supposedly less-charming gent. Ah yes, the unlucky in love bachelors; in Sabrina it’s Linus Larrabee, the one holding up Larrabee Industries seemingly on his own – the one who couldn’t possibly be driven to fall in love. In The Apartment it was C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) the industrious and loveable bachelor who rents out his apartment to co-workers for the evening, oftentimes leaving him nowhere to go himself. Both men beat the odds and find their girl, but of course they both have entirely different reasons and ways of going about it. How handy that the Larrabee’s have a tugboat to save the day. Poor Baxter only had a tennis racket… and spaghetti. I won’t spoil the ending to Sabrina for you, but if you’ve already seen The Apartment, and want to see it’s unexpected twists, enjoy the clip below:

What’s with Wilder and the unlikely romances? The unpredicted happily-ever-afters? He takes seemingly hopeless situations, and turns them into cheery endings in both of these films; giving us a good jaunt and many laughs along the way. Does Wilder really believe that at the end of the day the girl will end up with the best guy after all, or was he simply playing into the demands of the era? Have those demands ever really changed? At the end of the day, everyone wants to see that happy ending; even if it’s unrealistic, even if it seems out of reach. When we don’t get it, we feel cheated somehow. I remember the first time that I ever believed that unlikely happy endings could ever actually be real. I’d just seen Walk the Line; a true love story. It changed my life, at least for a time.

Decide for yourself what to believe in and what not to, but I think in the end we all agree that the best guy should get the girl; and that the girl deserves the best guy, not the slime ball. In real life, most girls truly will choose the guy with that heart of gold who won her over simply by being himself, thus, reminding her of her own self. She really, really will. This much, I will always believe. This much, Wilder conveyed in both Sabrina and The Apartment, whether he believed or not.

Perhaps, the most heartening part of Wilder’s Sabrina, though, is that even the playboy David, has a heart. In fact, it may be that he has more of a heart than anyone ever expected. Perhaps, he learned it along the way, and maybe it was there all along. Either way, it was with his interference that all was set right with the world, but you get to enjoy that moment for yourself when you watch the film. I like that even David had a little depth to his character, even if we can’t quite figure out where it suddenly came from.

       “I have learnt how to live…How to be in the world and of the world, and not just to stand aside and watch. And I will never, never again run away from life. Or from love either…”
                 – Sabrina Fairchild

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack thereof?
I blame both Billy Wilder and Humphrey Bogart for this films deliciousness. Wilder, once again, entrances us with a well-crafted story and characters. Then there’s Bogart. I mean come on…it’s Bogie! He was apparently frustrated with Wilder and Hepburn throughout the film making process and bitter over the role initially being intended for Cary Grant. I can’t imagine Cary Grant doing a better job in the role that belonged to Bogart. He absolutely made the film.

Is it re-watchable?
Films  like this are always re-watchable. It’s a classic with one-liners that zing! They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

David: Where’ve you been all my life?
Sabrina: Right over the garage.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
This is a film that’s been on my list of flicks to watch for a while; ever since I saw a tiny bit of the 1995 remake with Harrison Ford. It was also on my list of Audrey Hepburn films to watch, and recently got bumped up higher on the list after I saw The Apartment, and realized that Billy Wilder is an absolute genius.

If you liked this, you might also like:
You might like other Billy Wilder films like The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, and though I’ve yet to see either, Some Like it Hot or The Seven Year Itch. You also might enjoy other films starring Bogie or Hepburn. I can’t think of a single one that I wouldn’t recommend, though My Fair Lady, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Maltese Falcon, and (of course) Casablanca top the list as films EVERYONE should see.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap, and go …aww when that umbrella twirls at the end (but not before).