Friday, November 14, 2014

Expiration Watch: DOUBLE INDEMNITY

It wouldn't be surprising if the first thing that came to mind upon hearing the words "classic movie" was 1944's Double Indemnity. After all, it's black-and-white, it features major movie stars from the 1930s and 1940s (Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck), and one minor star (Fred MacMurray) who would go on to greater fame in the 1960s (in family films and on TV's My Three Sons). It also happens to be fairly seminal, considered by many to be the first true film noir. But probably the most important factor in Double Indemnity's status as an all-time classic is that it was directed by the incomparable Billy Wilder.

A lot has been written about Wilder (including on this blog, here and here), but as classic film buffs know, it's with good reason. Wilder's consistency, wit, and dry-eyed romanticism made him a giant among audiences, peers, and generations of aspiring screenwriters (his most famous contemporary torch-bearer being Cameron Crowe, writer-director of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous). An Austrian Jew smart enough to see the Nazi writing on the wall in 1933, Wilder left Europe for Hollywood and soon carved out a career as a highly successful screenwriter, co-writing Midnight, Ninotchka, and Ball of Fire before becoming one of the sound era's original crop of writer-directors (joining Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, and John Huston).

Double Indemnity was only Wilder's third Hollywood picture as a director, following the diverting Ginger Rogers vehicle, The Major and the Minor (1942), and the underrated WWII thriller, Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Turns out the third time was the charm, as Double Indemnity became the first of a string of indisputably great classic movies that would include Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, to name only a few. Like those other films, Double Indemnity represents a kind of cinematic perfection that most filmmakers rarely achieve once, much less the half dozen or so times Wilder and his collaborators managed.

All the elements came together here. There was that gem-polished script, hammered out by Wilder and a grumpy, confrontational Raymond Chandler, creating some of cinema's most enduring lines of dialogue ("That's a honey of an anklet." "I wonder if you wonder." "She was a tramp from a long line of tramps."). There was MacMurray, previously confined to lightweight roles, who Wilder, after much pestering, convinced to explore his darker side (and then some). There was Stanwyck, an unconventional beauty whose sheer acting talent is often overlooked, and who in that crazy blond wig permanently wedded femme to fatale. And lastly there was Robinson, long past his gangster glory days, chewing up the scenery with a mix of subtlety, fire, and conviction that at one theatrical screening I attended evoked a spontaneous round of applause.

The story, based on a James M. Cain novel (and inspired by an actual crime), is a tawdry one, familiar to anyone who spent any time watching the many shades of noir through the decades—from the hardened classics of the '40s and '50s through Chinatown and Body Heat (a direct homage) and the endless straight-to-video erotic thrillers that found their way to Cinemax in the '80s and '90s (and to Netflix today).

It's formula #1 in the film noir playbook: Add two unscrupulous lovers fueled more by lust than romance, an inconvenient husband, and a large sum of money to be had upon the husband's death, and you've got the perfect setup for some poor schnook being led by his nose to the nether reaches of a woman's (ahem) soul. The final element is the trusting friend—and moral barometer—who slowly but surely gets wind of said schnook's intentions and finds himself in the uncomfortable spot of having to thwart them.

Despite the familiar elements, Double Indemnity has the distinction of not only being the first of its kind, but being so well crafted on every level that even while watching it for a third or fourth time there's always something to admire. With dialogue that seems designed to memorize and quote, iconic performances that crackle with brio, mounting tension laced with dark humor, and one of the most genuinely pure friendships between two men ever portrayed on film, it's heartbreaker, crowd-pleaser, and stomach-churner all in one.

Add to that John Seitz's expressive, mouth-watering black-and-white photography—with all those dark corners and shimmering highlights and slats of light that would define noir for decades to come—and Miklos Rosza's brooding, dissonant score, and really, how much more perfect could a movie experience get? As Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel would say: none. None more perfect.

See this one before it expires on the 30th. And while you're at it, think about catching some of the other dwindling classic titles on Instant. They're vanishing rapidly—as evidenced by the fact that none of the above pre-1970 titles are available to stream. And as Will McKinley points out, only by watching these on a regular basis can we let Netflix know they're worth keeping around. Otherwise, don't come crying to me when all you can find are new TV shows and Adam Sandler movies!

NOTE: This title expired on 11/30/14. If you're considering purchasing the DVD, please support this site by using the link below. Thanks.


Achernar said...

Thanks for the update. I watched it the other night and really enjoyed it. Double Indemnity had been on my list for a while and I even started to watch just a few minutes of it some time back. BTW, for a little while Double Indemnity was listed in the Popular on Netflix list. Perhaps you can take the credit.

The expiration watch in your blog, has been very helpful with prioritizing titles before then are gone and in finding things I might have missed otherwise, e.g. Tetro, Ocean Heaven.

As far as classics, it is a shame that they seem to be going away but there are still quite a few. Also since, Netflix added Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and they just brought back The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which I missed before it expired some months ago) it seems like they have not totally given up on the classics.

David Speranza said...

Glad you enjoyed Double Indemnity, and that you're finding the blog useful. Yes, Netflix does regularly add classic titles, but they seem to take away more than they add. It makes sense, given their stated preference for TV shows and the fact that only a third of all Netflix streaming is movies, but it's unfortunate nonetheless. At some point we may all need to sign up for Warner Archive Instant if we want to watch the old stuff (which I'm still resisting, but only because there are just so many viewing hours in a day!).

Anyway, thanks for your comments. I'm always happy to hear when a reader watches--and more importantly, enjoys--one of these recommendations. I hope you'll find more good titles here in the future.