I've been watching a lot of film noir on Netflix recently. Mostly movies I've never seen before. Mixed results.
The Asphalt Jungle had its moments. The Killing was early Kubrick, and he got a lot better later.
Kiss Me Deadly flat out stunk. Seriously, avoid this film at all costs.
So I decided to go back to a movie I'd seen before that is definitely film noir, Double Indemnity. Was it as good as I remembered? Was it really a classic?
Yes and yes.
People like to say no movie is as good as the book. Double Indemnity the movie is better than Double Indemnity the book. James M. Cain wrote the book as a serialized story in Liberty magazine. Cain was good at plot, but dialog, not so much. The movie is written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. They kept most of his plot, except where they improved it, and they wrote some of the best dialog in movie history. People say they hated each other, but on the printed page, it was a match made in heaven.
And then there's the cast. Nobody wanted to be in this movie. There was fear of being typecast as a villain. Think about it. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck plays murderous adulterers and we are supposed to be pulling for them. Billy Wilder always wanted Stanwyck to play Phyllis, but MacMurray had to be persuaded after several other actors turned the role down. That he could be so damned good at playing a heel was a complete surprise. Except for this, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment, both of which come later, most of his career is in light comedies with B movie budgets.
MacMurray gets the lion's share of the screen time and he's brilliant. I was listening to the commentary tracks on the DVD and some of the people said Double Indemnity is the first film noir. I'm not so sure, because there are some Bogart private eye movies and Hitchcock thrillers that precede this that I say would qualify as noir. But one thing is for sure. There's one line in MacMurray's narration that sums up film noir pretty well.
"I did it for the money. I did it for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman."
And then there's the third lead, Edward G. Robinson as the insurance company investigator who works at the same company as McMurray, who plays a salesman. Robinson was one of the great stars of the gangster films, so he had no qualms about playing villains. In fact, his character is the hero. His problem was he was third bill. He made a tough choice to take smaller roles in good films rather than starring in films with smaller and smaller budgets. It was the right choice. Some of his best remembered films today are roles like this on Double Indemnity, or opposite Orson Welles in The Stranger or Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid. His earlier work is in a broader style of acting, but when a film called for subtlety, Robinson could under play like nobody's business.
If you've never seen Double Indemnity, see it. Yes, he doesn't get the money and he doesn't get the woman, but I promise you, this is hardly a spoiler. The interesting thing is how he doesn't get what he wants.
If you've seen it before, ask yourself how long it's been. If it's been more than five years or you can't exactly remember, give it another try. Movies don't get a lot better than this.