Thursday, January 5, 2017

Double Indemnity Debate

Ginger Rogers. Did not appear
in Double Indemnity.
American Thinker has a good piece on the classic movie Double Indemnity, where shady life insurance salesman Fred MacMurray, and treacherous wife Barbara Stanwyck, plot the "perfect" murder (in other words, something one of my old clients would have dreamt up) to score big on a policy. Edward G. Robinson turns in a great performance as the company's investigator. This being a Hayes Code movie, it probably shouldn't be a surprise that the two murderers do not happily drive off into the sunset in their new Cadillac.

While the film is obviously handicapped by the absence of Ginger, the Bear feels there's something else. It's risky to criticize others' favorite classic movies and actors and actresses, because feelings run strong.

It's not the camera work, which is stunning, or the direction. The Bear is reading Ginger's autobiography, and she writes she preferred black and white, and thought it could be more creatively used than color. She's not alone. She also said it took just as much time and care to set up scenes. (Did you know the makeup for early b&w films was a yellow ochre?)

Double Indemnity's story is good, too. The murder scheme is ridiculously complex, with a million things that could go wrong. It's the well-planned-out murders that are quickly solved, for the most part. The people who think they're clever enough to pursue an elaborate scheme get caught. It's the mope who beats a stranger to death with her own shoes that gets away with it.

Raymond Chandler made a similar observation, so the Bear will give him credit, but he certainly endorses it.

It's the dialogue that just sounds off to the Bear's sensitive ears. How can the Bear possibly criticize an Oscar-winning classic written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler? Easy! He's a Bear, and has 1300 years experience in show business (if you count Bear baiting).

Few writers had more fun with the English language than Chandler. (Do yourself a favor and read his short essay on mystery novels, "The Simple Art of Murder.") Even as it calls attention to itself, the reader forgives Chandler's unique voice, because you can't help but join in the fun. Nice-guy Fred MacMurray was off-casted as the easily manipulated insurance agent maneuvered into murder by Barbara Stanwyck in an ankle bracelet and a bad wig. It was a huge success for MacMurray, and all involved.

Wilder and Chandler also wrote Sunset Boulevard, which is one of the Bear's favorites. There, also, you have a voice-over. But, that was a much quirkier movie, which the Bear thinks is the point.

In Double Indemnity, the Bear finds the combination of Chandler's dialogue and MacMurray's smirking, one-note performance distracting. In other words, he keeps being reminded that, "Hey, this is Fred MacMurray reciting Raymond Chandler's distinctive dialogue." It pulls him out of the movie. For some reason, other noir films don't have this effect. Humphrey Bogart sold it, for example. The Bear will stipulate that the dialogue would have challenged any actor.

MacMurray was infinitely better in The Cain Mutiny, as the bad guy. In Double Indemnity - a much different genre, of course - he sounds the same taping his confession (while, for all we know, bleeding to death) as he does when he thinks he's putting the moves on Stanwyck. (The confession in the Dictaphone was very clever writing, by the way.)

"Yeah, see, I'm a smart guy, but I wasn't as smart as I thought I was, see, because I fell for a dame, see, a dame with an ankle bracelet and an inconvenient husband, see, and we killed him for the insurance money, see, me and the dame. Like I said, I'm not such a smart guy, see? Ow, this  bullet wound hurts like a hippo with a toothache, see?"

"But what about silly Fred and Ginger movies?" you ask. "Or screwball comedies, which I assume you like, too, even if they have Katherine Hepburn in them?"

Yes. The Bear likes all of that. But Fred and Ginger aren't plotting a murder while dancing in front of some frosted Van Nest Polglase Art Deco background. Cary Grant isn't planning to kill Ralph Bellamy to get Rosiland Russell back in His Girl Friday. You know you're not watching a story from real life. You know real people's lives don't consist of a case of mistaken identity strung together with six dance numbers. You know people don't machinegun snappy dialogue at each other like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.

The Bear admits to being in the minority, if not, indeed, all by himself on this. But here he stands; he can do no other. Perhaps he's missing the joke. Double Indemnity isn't meant to be taken seriously, either, but is a gem of the genre, to be admired and enjoyed on its own, almost tongue-in-cheek, level.

Maybe. But a film that shot a $150,000 gas chamber scene that the Hayes office thought too gruesome is a pretty dark joke.

1 comment:

  1. MacMurray never appealed to me much as a leading man either, not sure why he was cast here. Much better as the pipe-smoking dad in My Three Sons or absent-minded Flubber professor, at least that's how I grew up seeing him. Stanwyck was a legend of course, a close second to Ginger. Both were staunch conservatives, what's not to like. Interesting observations, thanks Bear.

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