The Laguna kids are all headed to Los Angeles, and we are too, or at least the LA area. But we’re going back to a time when men were men (complete with all the troubles that entails) and women could only have fun on screen if they paid for it later on. Enter the femme fatale and the most wonderful American genre around, film noir. We’re starting with a doozy, Double Indemnity. Straight out of 1944, this gem from Billy Wilder features Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in a script co-written by Mr. Hard-Boiled himself, Raymond Chandler.
There is so much to say, but before I go and reveal too much, AM, give us your reaction, and as always, what you think the “why” was in this selection.
A: I love the guessing game. I’m usually in the right realm of correctness, and if I had to wager an assumption, I would go with the dialogue in Double Indemnity. It does crackle at times and is as far as my un-educated eye could see, a classic example of film noir during the height of the Code Era. It was a time when men could call women in the office and wives of clients “baby” and “sweetheart” without fear of getting slapped across the face. It was a time when you could buy a mansion in Glendale, CA for $30,000 and change — try $3 million minimum for that same home in 2016 money. And it was a time when the code required no kissing if it wasn’t for love, no blood and no, absolutely NO toilets.
I certainly don’t miss getting the cheek pinches and in-office smoking that apparently was present in the professional world in the ’40s, but I would like to have worked with Barton Keyes, the insurance analyst. His riff on the suicide stats was epic. Keyes is the best character in this movie, by far, even though I know Brooke has a soft spot for some Barb Stanwyck wit. I liked her all right, but Keyes for President.
First of all, I know the general consensus is that our male hero, Fred, was “talked into” this whole insurance scam/husband murder by our femme fatale, but I argue that he walked incredibly willingly into that chainsaw. He may have been seduced, but he was a happy seductee to his blonde seducer. What thoughts have you, Brooke, on what he wanted to do and what he might have been manipulated into doing?
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?
B: Ohmaigawd, is this going to be a thing? Quotes between each of our parts? This is the best!
As always, you are in the realm of correctness. The dialogue in this movie is wonderful. I couldn’t love the way they work around the code any more. And I am such a sucker for voiceover, which brings me to the second half of this equation. I just love film noir as genre — and no genre does voiceover quite so magnificently as noir. And yes, I absolutely adore Barbara Stanwyck, she is one of my absolute favorite golden age figures.
I’m 100% with you AM, in that I’m not sad that I am not a woman living in this time, but praise be to Stanwyck that this genre lets women live a little. Just wait until we get to melodrama and you see what happens to girls who live that hustle when they aren’t “bad to the bone.” And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about morality in this picture. Our man Neff has no qualms about openly hitting on a married woman, whose husband he does business with, no less, but he’s absolutely gobsmacked to learn that he’s not the only man to have turned her head. Moreover, what do we think about the fact that this movie makes a hero of a man who does murder who a woman and leaves her fully in the villainous role? It really takes very little doing to tip Neff to the idea of actually carrying out this plan. And sure, Phyllis was quite a prize for him, but I think we both agree she was bored enough to be pretty willing to get it in without the side of murder, so why up the ante? I think because Neff likes to think of himself as a smart man and he would consider it a point of great pride to be able to put one over on Keyes.
And speaking of Keyes, I knew you would love him. Edward G. Robinson is so great. I need someone I work with to step it up and be as cool as him, so, AM, I guess that’s your job now. If I’m to learn to channel WWKD, you must court your inner Keyes. So be it. Tell me, what did you think of aesthetics in play in Double Indemnity?
So we just sat there, and she started crying softly like the rain on the window. And we didn’t say anything. Maybe she had stopped thinking about it, but I hadn’t. I couldn’t because it was all tied up with something I’d been thinking about for years. Since long before I ever ran into Phyllis Dietrichson.
A: I will do my level best to channel Keyes in every interaction. Mostly, that involves talking faster than I already do. And also dropping knowledge like it’s going out of style. I’ve never investigated actuarial tables myself, but Keyes makes it look f’ing awesome.
Phyllis was bored, and she was also a borderline abused woman, if we can trust her account of how her husband treats her. As the story unfolds, I don’t believe I believe her, though. She more than likely did away with her husband’s first wife and mother of his child, and is obviously directly involved with offing poor Lola’s father as well.
Is Neff an early example of the anti-hero? He’s certainly painted as the protagonist, but he does lots of evil stuff. (i.e. murder, adultery, covering up said murder and lying to Keyes). We root for him to get away with it, but also hope that Keyes figures it out. It creates some delicious tension, for sure. I did enjoy how Phyllis takes hold of the men who waltz into her life, but I ultimately wasn’t hoping she’d get away with it.
Neff’s fatal flaw is pride. He thought he had successfully seduced a woman who was actually working him, and he thought he’d be smart enough to outsmart Keyes. On both accounts, he utterly failed.
As far as aesthetics, it looked pretty shadowy? I am no film expert, but I do get the whole “build tension with angles and lighting and such.” I’ll let Brooke speak to the specifics, as she’s the film expert, not me. I only want to re-read Keyes’ dialogue all day.
Murder’s never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it’s usually sooner.
B: 10 points to Ravenclaw and a gold star for you, Annemarie! One of the hallmarks of film noir is a protagonist who has a moral compass, but what’s North on that compass is entirely at his discretion and doesn’t always line up with what the world expects of them. Most often, this manifests itself as the hard-boiled detective that probably conjures up an image of Humphrey Bogart in your mind — and you’re not wrong about that. In Double Indemnity, Neff’s morality is tested differently, but he still has a link to Keyes who is a good guy through and through so we can compare and contrast them to his detriment. But, we’re still supposed to like this guy on some level, that’s key, and it worked for you.
You know another hallmark of the genre? The femme fatale — and Phyllis Deitrichson is the prototypical femme fatale — she’s ultimately why we started here. Barbara Stanwyck is about as marvelous at playing the audience as Phyllis is at playing Neff. I do recall some audible reactions from you, AM, around the Phyllis reveals. So we’ll go ahead and say the picture is 2/2 on those noir boxes.
Here’s where you really impressed me. Bringing up the fatal flaw. It’s literary, so I’m not surprised you think that way, but I’m reasonably sure that you don’t know that every noir hero has a fatal flaw, and generally, he is made painfully aware of it. His recognition of this, and remorse, is what allows us to forgive him and doom the femme fatale to a terrible fate. (Of course, I like to cheer for the femmes, no matter how fruitless this is). So we’re 3/3 so far.
There’s also the non-linear storytelling (check) and often hard-boiled voiceover (check) and here’s where you earned the extra credit — the shadowy mise-en-scene. That darkness is part of what the genre takes its name from. The other half of the coin refers to the dark material of course, but noir is a genre famous for dealing in shadows and playing tricks with light and darkness. Think of Phyllis skulking behind Neff’s apartment door while Keyes rants about wanting to take her down, or Neff walking down the street and panicking when he can’t here his own footsteps, or the way the light plays on Phyllis’ face when Neff stangles her husband in the moving car. All of it is framed and lit very, very deliberately. And fortunately for you, AM, you’ll get to put all this newfound knowledge to the test when we continue our noir jag on my end of the equation. I hope you took good notes!
It’s straight down the line for both of us, remember?
A: Gold star for me! I may not have gone to film school, but I suppose I did pick up some things from years of book reading and movie watching. One more quick thing to note: Neff’s skill with the matches. That was one the coolest things about his character, even though smoking’s decidedly not cool anymore. I honestly don’t know if it’s supposed to reveal anything deep about him, but visually, very impressive.
We’re staying out in Los Angeles for next week’s Required Viewing, but we’re fast forwarding about 50 years to watch another version of dating in the City of Angels.