Sunday, May 23, 2010

Double Indemnity

James M. Cain’s bitter, melodrama, became a crime masterpiece under the guidance of Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s edgy screenplay. Yet it is Wilder’s brilliant direction that transforms Double Indemnity into a quintessential Noir film. With Fred MacMurray as the loser protagonist, Barbara Stanwyck as the cool femme fatale, and a cigar chewing Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray’s boss and amateur sleuth, all the essential elements of Noir conventions are in place. Double Indemnity would almost be a parody in Film Noir, had it not taken itself so seriously, which it does for there is very little humor to fill the dark shadows.

MacMurray is a cocky, self-assured life insurance sales man, who is first introduced to Stanwyck at her home. As Stanwyck’s feet descend down the stairs, salesman MacMurray is transfixed by her ankle bracelet, which cuts into her skin. She gives mention that she was out sunbathing, yet very little sunlight can be found in this film from here on out, for as her intentions to kill her husband and collect on the freshly written insurance plan, there can be no more sunny days as darkness engulfs the characters. Though Stanwyck represents a sort of spider woman who catches MacMurray in her web, I find it interesting that she refuses to glimpse at her husband when he is being murdered.

Wilder’s direction plays a lot with darkness and shadows, which can be seen as a form closely resembling German expressionism. Throughout the interiors, reflections of Venetian blinds are projected upon the characters, as well as other abstract shadowy patterns. The constant foreboding atmosphere is for-shadowed when MacMurray limps on to the train acting as Stanwyck’s injured husband (who is actually at this time dead). Just as MacMurray steps into the husband’s identity, he also steps into his fate. Not only does he embody a victim, he must ritually go through the motions of the victim’s death. Making conversation with a passenger and then jumping from the train, MacMurray, then places the dead husband on the tracks where he has just jumped. It’s interesting to note that an insurance salesman has not only stolen a man’s wife, but has stolen his very identity right on down to his actual fate.

It should be noted that director John Cassavetes’ last film Big Trouble parodied Double Indemnity in the 80s at around the same time that Lawrence Kasdan was paying serious homage to it with his film Body Heat.

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