Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Double the Indemnity, double the fun

Sometimes, the second time's the charm.

I didn't much care for Double Indemnity, directed by the great Billy Wilder, when I first saw it about 15 years ago. No one else thinks that about Double Indemnity, so for years now I've been wondering what I didn't get about it.

Having recently resolved to re-watch more older films, especially classics that didn't totally do it for me, I picked Double Indemnity out at the library yesterday and was watching it just a short couple hours later.

And enjoying it quite a bit.

I think I figured out what my problem was 15 years ago: I didn't like how much this movie despaired about human nature.

Maybe I hadn't seen a lot of film noirs at the time, or maybe I hadn't seen enough movies that were as bleak as this. But I remember wishing that Fred MacMurray could have been a good guy, a righteous hero who makes the right decisions, rather than a cold-blooded murderer.

Today, apparently, I am okay with cold-blooded murderers.

It really is masterful, which shouldn't surprise me given Wilder's body of work. I'm seeing this after giving five-star reviews to Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole within the past two years, and perhaps really only realizing in those two years just how great Wilder is. Sure, I'd seen Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and others before, but I don't think it was until these past two that I really recognized Wilder's genius.

Double Indemnity is especially interesting in the wake of Sunset Boulevard, a film that came six years later but is probably more similar to Double Indemnity than any other film on the director's CV. Apparently, being narrated by a man who was dying wasn't enough for Wilder -- in Boulevard, he raised the stakes to a man who was already dead.

I'm also getting double the appreciation of Double Indemnity in the wake of seeing one of the most inert noirs I've ever seen, the critically lauded The Big Sleep from 1946. That was indeed a snoozefest, and when I saw it in December, I wondered if maybe I just don't like film noirs. After all, here was one of the supposed greats of all time, and I found it as dull as dishwater. Sure, Humphrey Bogart is not one of my favorite larger-than-life icons, but he alone can't explain why I couldn't stand Howard Hawks' film.

So I kind of viewed Double Indemnity as my film noir litmus test. If I hadn't liked that 15 years ago, and then didn't like The Big Sleep now, and maybe hadn't seen a lot of the cornerstones of the genre in between ... is it possible that I just didn't like one of the most beloved of film genres?

Well, I'm pleased to say that the noir is alive and viable inside me. I'm okay with the basic tropes of the genre, as long as you can give me a tight and fast-moving script, which Double Indemnity does, and The Big Sleep most certainly does not.

One other probable factor in my renewed appreciation of Double Indemnity is an increased familiarity with the works of Barbara Stanwyck. Since my first Indemnity viewing I've seen Stanwyck in ... well, in only two other movies, I guess, in The Purchase Price and The Lady Eve. Well, it made the difference.

So maybe I'll come back to The Big Sleep in 2029, and like it a lot more then.


1001: A Film Odyssey is produced, directed and written by Chris, a librarian. said...

Glad you have seen the light with Double Indemnity. Two of the things you have to overlook is the plot device of MacMurray jumping off the moving train after several delays at exactly the spot where Stanwyck is waiting with the getaway car. The other is Stanwyck's wig, which noone seemed to like. Other than that, it's a true classic.

Jandy said...

This is precisely why whenever I don't like a highly-regarded movie, it goes straight on my rewatch list and I try to revisit it five or ten years later. A lot of times I suddenly get it at that point, either because I have more of a basis in cinema, or because I've had life experiences that play into appreciating the film. I've had this happen enough times that I can't adopt the mantra of the fully-subjective-opinion supporters who say screw the canon if you don't like a canonical film. Sometimes it's true, I just never get into a certain film. But plenty of times the problem is with me and not with the film (or everybody else who praises it).

In that vein...yes, you should revisit The Big Sleep. :) It's in my Top 50 of all time.

Vancetastic said...


I didn't consider that as a negative at the time of watching, getting off the train at the right spot despite unanticipated delays. It's a bit like (to use a slightly more modern reference) Marty McFly starting the Delorean at least 30 seconds later than he was supposed to and still hitting the requisite MPH at the exact right moment.


Yeah, good policy regarding highly regarded movies that don't do it for you. However, let me ask you -- what do you love about The Big Sleep? I found it to be just a bunch of talking heads. By that I mean there was no dynamism in the filmmaking -- no interesting shots or camera movements, not even any interesting locations. Also, the plot doesn't make a lick of sense. I'd love to be convinced otherwise ... care to try?