Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Double Indemnity


Double Indemnity (Universal Legacy Series)

#38 (1998) and #29 (2007) on the AFI 100 Greatest Films List

Double Indemnity is a 1944 American film noir, directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and produced by Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom. The script was based on James M. Cain's 1935 novella of the same title which originally appeared as an eight-part serial in Liberty magazine.

The film stars Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman, Barbara Stanwyck as a provocative housewife who wishes her husband were dead, and Edward G. Robinson as a claims adjuster whose job is to find phony claims. The term double indemnity refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies that doubles the payout in cases when death is caused by accidental means.

Praised by many critics when first released, Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards but did not win any. Widely regarded as a classic, it is often cited as a paradigmatic film noir and as having set the standard for the films that followed in that genre.

Deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1992, Double Indemnity was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1998, it was ranked #38 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century, and in 2007 it was 29th on their 10th Anniversary list.

* Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff
* Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson
* Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes
* Porter Hall as Mr Jackson
* Jean Heather as Lola Dietrichson
* Tom Powers as Mr Dietrichson
* Byron Barr as Nino Zachetti
* Richard Gaines as Edward S. Norton, Jr.
* Fortunio Bonanova as Sam Garlopis
* John Philliber as Joe Peters
* Raymond Chandler as man reading book (cameo)

Double Indemnity opened on September 6, 1944 and was an immediate hit with audiences — despite a campaign by singer Kate Smith imploring the public to stay away on moral grounds. As James M. Cain recalled, “…there was a little trouble caused by this fat girl, Kate Smith, who carried on a propaganda asking people to stay away from the picture. Her advertisement probably put a million dollars on its gross.”

Reviews from the critics were largely positive, though the content of the story made some uncomfortable. While some reviewers found the story implausible and disturbing, others praised it as an original thriller. In his mixed review of the film in The New York Times, film critic Bosley Crowther called the picture "...Steadily diverting, despite its monotonous pace and length." He complained that the two lead characters "...lack the attractiveness to render their fate of emotional consequence," but also felt the movie possessed a "...realism reminiscent of the bite of past French films."

Howard Barnes at the New York Herald Tribune was much more enthusiastic, calling Double Indemnity "...one of the most vital and arresting films of the year," and praising Wilder's "...magnificent direction and a whale of a script." The trade paper Variety, meanwhile, said the film "...sets a new standard for screen treatment in its category."

Influential radio host and Hearst paper columnist Louella Parsons would go even further, saying, "Double Indemnity is the finest picture of its kind ever made, and I make that flat statement without any fear of getting indigestion later from eating my words."

Philip K. Scheur, the Los Angeles Times movie critic, ranked it with The Human Comedy, The Maltese Falcon, and Citizen Kane as Hollywood trailblazers, while Alfred Hitchcock himself wrote Wilder that "Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are 'Billy' and 'Wilder'".

The film's critical reputation has only grown over the years. In 1977, notably terse critic-historian Leslie Halliwell gave it an unusual 4-star (top) rating, and wrote: "Brilliantly filmed and incisively written, perfectly capturing the decayed Los Angeles atmosphere of a Chandler novel, but using a simpler story and more substantial characters." In his 1998 review, film critic Roger Ebert praised director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz. He wrote, "The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings."

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