RogerBW's Blog

Double Indemnity 31 August 2023

1944 noir, dir. Billy Wilder, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck: IMDb / allmovie. He doesn't get the money, and he doesn't get the woman.

And this is noir of the "foreground is rotten" school; it doesn't have the man who is not himself mean (even though Chandler co-wrote the script with Wilder), or if it does he's a background character. Indeed, based on this and The Big Sleep I'm more impressed with Chandler as a writer of cool dialogue, and less so with his ability to write plots.

But I wonder how many people watching this now think, as I did, "oh, Fred MacMurray, he's the lazy but good-hearted guy in all those comedies". And similarly Stanwyck was known for her good-girl heroines; so I tihnk the contemporaneous audience was meant to be quitr shocked when they turn out not to be like that at all.

I couldn't help thinking while watching this that in a modern remake Phyllis would be played by Margot Robbie or Gal Godot, one of those women uniformly presented as so impossibly beautiful and sexy that she could lead any man around by the nose (or other parts). But what Wildier does here is rather more clever: Phyllis is good-looking, but also cheap and trashy. Sure, she's available, but a better man wouldn't fall for her, or would at least manage to extricate himself when the nature of the plot became apparent.

Indeed, this feels like what in accident analysis circles is known as the Swiss Cheese principle: lots of holes have to line up for the thing to happen. It needs the man fed up with years of poorly-rewarded honesty, and his contempt for the incompetent fraudsters he's helped to catch; it needs the woman bored with her husband, and perhaps with a history of getting rid of inconvenient people; it needs them both to be sufficiently blinded with lust that they're prepared to go ahead and actually do the thing.

It's a tragedy, of course, but it's a tragedy that could only be avoided if they were actually different people.

Is Phyllis's final reversion of feeling genuine? Probably. Would it be enough to build an actual relationship on? Certainly not.

It's a very homosocial film, of course; whenever two people of the opposite sex are alone with each other, sex is always in the subtext, even between Walter and Lola to some extent. Genuine friendships are reserved for the men, particularly Walter and Barton Keyes.

Ah, the days of drive-in beer. I wonder what happened to them. Still, betrayal might smell less like honeysuckle if you ever took that cigarette out of your mouth…

I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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