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 –

doubleIndemnityGrocery

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.  Filmnoir.net 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,
t
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 –

Image
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 –

Related Articles:

What a lovely day for a banter match. His Girl Friday, screwball comedy, and the news biz.

“It all happened in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game – when to a reporter ‘getting that story’ justifies anything short of murder. Incidentally, you will see in the picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today. Ready? Well, once upon a time ___ ___”

This is the opening title slate for His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In Howard Hawks‘ well-crafted slap-happy comedy, newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) is faced with the re-appearance of his ex-wife and ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell). Pretending nothing has changed, Burns jumps right into their usual banter war, only to find that Hildy is not only leaving the paper, but also getting re-married. Unable to cope, Burns does all that he can to prevent either from happening. He makes an effort to befriend Hildy’s fiance, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), and convinces Hildy to stay on for one “last” big story; the execution of a potentially innocent man, Earl Williams. As comedies go, it’s not shocking to find that Burns’ efforts quickly spiral into the ridiculous, but in the best kind of 1940’s way. Adapted from the Broadway play, The Front Page, this depiction of journalism and it’s impact on lives, relationships, and politics claims to be a farce, yet dances right on the edge of truth. It makes light of life, death, and the pursuit of happiness in the screwiest kind of screwball way, but decades later still makes several valid social remarks. All in good fun, of course.

Check out the trailer here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHVvnEWez1M

        “A journalist? Hell, what does that mean? Peeking through keyholes? Chasing after fire engines? Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if Hitler’s gonna start another war?Stealing pictures off old ladies? I know all about reporters, Walter. A lot of daffy buttinskis running around without a nickel in their pockets and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on. Why…Golly, what’s the use? Walter, you-you wouldn’t know what it means to want to be respectable and live a half-way normal life. The point is, I-I’m through.”
– Hildy Johnson –

I thought long and hard (okay not that long or even that hard) about which direction I wanted to go with the critical part of this review. There was the obvious feminism approach. What’s a “Girl Friday” anyway? According to several dictionary references, it’s a term for someone’s all-around helper or assistant, and references a character in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It can also mean a female employee who has a wide range of duties, including secretarial or clerical work. How bizarre then, that the film is titled His Girl Friday when it’s obvious that Hildy is far more than an assistant or secretary. She does what she wants, is respected by the male reporters she encounters, and seems to be regarded by Walter Burns as his best writer. There’s obviously a lot to be said about this, but we all know that toting any kind of feminist agenda just isn’t my style.

The next obvious direction to go when analyzing a film like this is to take the political route, or the direction that analyzes the prejudices of the period; albinos, people out on the street talking about “production of use,” crooked mayors, governors, and sheriffs — oh my! I could also go the safe route and just talk about the comic value of the film; of which there is plenty! This route, however, seems completely obvious. You couldn’t possibly watch this film without dawning a smile and a few outward chuckles; no it’s comedic value is already apparent.

Thus, having the unique perspective as a former newsie, I’ve decided to take a look at how journalism is portrayed in the film. Was it accurate? Was it overblown? Is journalism still like this?

       Molly: They aren’t human.
Hildy: I know; they’re newspaper men.


Oh Molly, you’re the one who calls the news station to tell everyone we got it wrong. You’re the one posting to websites maintaining that your boyfriend could never have fired a gun, or robbed that bank. You’re the girl no one believes, but might take a minute to listen to anyway. Hildy, you’re the bitter reporter. No, you’re not the bitter reporter; you’ve every reporter that ever was. But let’s backup, and talk not about modern journalism, but rather journalism during the time the film was made.

The important thing to note about the film is that, though it was made in 1940, the original Broadway play was first produced in 1928. Written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur it was, no doubt, based at least slightly on their impressions of journalism at the time. Something else important to note is that in the original play Hildy was a male character, and though he was trying to leave the news business and was held in place by his Editor Walter Burns to cover the hanging of Earl Williams; there was obviously no love triangle. Incidentally, coincidentally, and completely unintentionally on my part, the director from my last review, Billy Wilder, actually made a film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthieu with the same name as the Broadway play and followed the play more closely. But wait there’s another happy coincidence from my last review…

Oh you thought I’d tell you now? Nah…we’re talking about newspapers at the moment.

       “No, no, nevermind the Chinese earthquake for heaven’s sake…Look, I don’ care if there’s a million dead…No, no, junk the Polish Corridor…Take all these Miss America pictures off Page Sex…Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page…No, no, leave the rooster story alone — that’s human interest.” – Walter Burns –

According to Michael Schudson‘s, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, “The pessimism about the institutions of democracy and capitalism in the 1930’s had roots in the doubts of the 1920’s about the public and human nature, traditional values and received knowledge. The spirit of business in the twenties was buoyant, and there was a feeling of liberation in the social science, the arts, and the social life of the urban Bohemians. But the liberation into a new culture marked the rapid disintegration of the old, and many serious thinkers began to fear that the new edifices of the arts and sciences were being raised without foundations.” (p. 126) Schudson says, the “public” in this case was the “urban masses who liked banner headlines, large drawings and photographs, snappy and spicy writing.” This “public” had replaced a more educated middle class rising against the upper-class with informed opinions. It as during this early part of the 20th century that the field of public relations arose in order to help shape the opinions of this newly established, “public.”

Schudson goes on to discuss how around this time newspapers began publishing the equivalent of propaganda, or articles that could be construed as advertisements for whoever’s public relations officer got to the paper first. Not all newspaper editors were happy with the situation, though, Stanley Walker of the New York Herald Tribune wrote an essay in which he notes that the number of public relations agents in New York outnumbered the number of journalists, and that half or more of the news articles in the daily papers originated from public relations work. He was certain that newspaper men and public relations officers were bound to be enemies. It was during this time that the idea of interpretive reporting came into play; in which the opinion of a reporter, or the general public could become part of a regular news story. Eventually, this led to opinion columns, political columns, and opinionated magazines like Time.

All of this said, how does this play into the way that His Girl Friday depicts newspaper reporters? It claims in the opening title not to reflect the press of today, yet who can’t help but question something that tells you right away that it’s not accurately portraying something. To me, this is like the disclaimers at the end of movies, which state that any resemblance to actual people is purely coincidence. Anyone who writes knows that we write from what we know. In this script, then, can it not be assumed that the two former journalists who wrote the play wrote at least somewhat from what they knew?

In the film, the political undertones are obvious; the mayor who’ll do anything to get votes; the governor who’s trying to pardon a murderer, and the sheriff who seems to be in cahoots with the press to make sure his version of the story is the one who goes to print. Then there are the newspaper men themselves who seem to have little concern for facts, but rather telling a compelling story. Were the writers poking fun at the “public” who looked for big headlines and spiced-up writing? Or were they poking at journalists who did the spicing. My favorite instance of this sensationalistic reporting happens near the end of the film when everyone starts calling in a different version of what just happened to their editors, even though we’ve all seen what really happened for ourselves. It’s refreshing, however, that though they will do anything to get a good story our main characters, Hildy and Walter, are the only ones reporting the story correctly. If you’ve already seen the film, you can enjoy the chaos I just described in the clip below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HU4g2bKybM&feature=related

Was the film depicting journalists in 1940 or in 1928, though? That’s a good question that I’d need to do more research to understand. As much as I wanted to keep reading about the history of journalism, this is but one review and my goal was just to touch on some of the undertones of the time, rather than go into full-on research mode. If I did that every time, you’d never have a weekly review, and you’d probably be lucky to get a monthly one.

Now the greater question: Is journalism still like this? Sure we all like to believe that reporters strive for accuracy these days, and won’t overglorify a story of death and destruction, or grab innocent bystanders like Molly and turn her into yet another victim of the crime. Sadly, I’ve witnessed many a reporter grabbing onto one person’s version of the story, and spinning it into fact or into a new story that may or may not actually represent what actually happened. These cases are actually rare, though, and I think most journalists just want to get the story. Do they still try to get the story at all costs, sometimes disregarding personal relationships? Yes, it’s a disease. I worry for many of them; knowing that they are actually good people. Others I will forever remember as that girl who shoved me out of the doorway to bust uninvited into the home of potential interview. Those “journalists” are what bring disrespect to the profession. But, let’s get back to Hildy and Walter — is it so wrong for them to be completely happy with their particular passion for journalism and getting the story? If that’s really what ties them to one another; I suppose not. If their constant back-and-forth battles of banter and constant races for the story suit them then more power to them, and a huge thanks for the ridiculous ride. If more journalists were that amusing, I think we might look on them with a rosier light. Don’t you?

        Walter: You always carry an umbrellla, Bruce?
        Bruce: Well, It looked a little cloudy this morning.
        Walter: Rubbers too, I hope. Atta boy!
A man ought to be prepared for any emergency.

And now for a random observation: In His Girl Friday, Grant’s character, Walter Burns, picks on poor Bruce for carrying an umbrella. It seems completely random. I mean who cares if he has an umbrella. Lots of people have umbrellas, I’d assume. The only reason it stood out for me is that coincidentally in Sabrina Humphrey Bogart’s character, Linus, is also often seen with an umbrella. Though I could find no evidence of umbrellas being a symbol of dullness, weakness, or overall stodginess amongst men in the 1930’s – 50’s, this is no doubt what His Girl Friday was implying. Later in the film a messenger from the governor, also of seemingly weak countenance is carrying an umbrella. I suppose Howard Hawks had strong opinions about umbrellas. It’s easy to see how Bogart’s character in Sabrina could fit that mold as well. Umbrellas? Who knew?

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
No doubt, I blame the script for this film’s excellence. That, and the flawless comedic execution of the quick, overlapping dialogue that Grant and Russell spit out as if this is their natural mode of conversation. According to Rosalind Russell in her autobiography (according to Wikipedia) she thought her role didn’t have as many great lines as Cary Grant’s role, so she hired a writer to give her more zing. Because Hawks encouraged the cast to improvise on set, Russell was able to slip in her new lines without Hawks’ knowledge. Grant was apparently privy to her tactic, however, and would ask her each morning, “What have you got today?”


Regardless of how the realistic raillery came about, Grant and Russell were naturals. Even the bumbling Bruce has his moments near the end of the film when all three are talking at once; all on different topics. I recognize this banter as believable, because believe me I’ve been there. While others protest at such antics, I revel in the rivalry of words; as long as it’s in good fun, mind you. Perhaps, the grandest moments in the film were the times when Hildy and Burns were insulting each other with such fantastic remarks as, “You’ve got the brain of a pancake,” or, “You double-crossing chimpanzee,” or “You great big bubble-headed baboon.” Though I suppose I would protest to being told I had the brain of a pancake, I find it necessary at some point in life to use the bubble-headed baboon comment in jest. Two more of my favorite lines are as follows:

        Hildy: He treats me like a woman.
       Walter Burns: Oh he does, does he? Mmm hmm…how did I treat you? Like a water buffalo?

      Walter: We’ve been in worse jams than this, haven’t we, Hildy?
Hildy: Nope.

The simplicity of Hildy’s response, delivered so precisely by Russell, nearly rolled me from the couch. Well played; well played indeed. The list of priceless moments like these goes on-and-on-and-on…

Is it re-watchable?
Are you sick of hearing about this movie yet? If not, I say go ahead and watch and re-watch. Let’s just say that I couldn’t write the funny dialogue down fast enough, which is how quickly they flew at me. I think you have to re-watch this film at least once just to catch everything; plus what fun!

Why I watched this film in the first place?
I could tell you that I watched this film because it’s a Howard Hawks film starring Cary Grant. Though this is ultimately true; I watched it because I found it on the shelf at the library and seeing that it starred Cary Grant and was directed by Hawks, who also directed one of my all-time favorite films, Bringing up Baby, I decided to give it a watch. I was both drawn and put-off by it’s news business storyline — like a moth to a flame, I suppose.

If you liked this, you might also like:
You will absolutely like Bringing up Baby; another Hawks film with Cary Grant, this time co-starring Katherine Hepburn. It’s the same type of screwball comedy, but with leopards. You might also dig other Cary Grant comedies such as Arsenic and Old Lace or The Philadelphia Story, or why not take a look at another classic screwball comedy,  My Man Godfrey. I haven’t seen any other Rosalind Russell films, so I’m up for suggestions. I heard this film was her best performance, and the one she’s known for, however. I’m all for checking out Wilder’s version of The Front Page now as well. I’m also up for some more news comedies if anyone has ’em.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap loudly while everyone else is trying to talk, or while your friend is making a phone call. It would make Cary Grant very happy to see that you’re carrying on his chaotic humor

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7mzrrL1ifI

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kIcHsbeobY

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).