There are innumerable reasons to value Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944): it’s not only one of the great works of cinema but possibly the ur-text of what started off as a cycle of films and eventually became a genre: film noir. It’s got dialogue that still snaps, a structure so tight nothing’s extraneous, lighting so expressive it’s led critics like Richard Schickel to see the film as, ‘a drama about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the shadows’. I love the actors, the badinage between Edward G. Robinson and Fred Macmurray, the tough-guy voiceover, the way the film evokes a combination of cool cynicism and overheated desire. Its influence continues to be felt. As we can see in the cabezudos scene in Almodóvar’s La mala educación/Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2004), Double Indemnity’s images are instantly recognisable, regularly re-deployed, still very evident in the culture and still wielding power (see clip below).
My own favourite moment (see clip at the very top) is a close-up of Barbara Stanwyck in the scene where Phyllis (Stanwyck) is driving her husband to the station whilst Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is hiding in the back seat waiting to off him. Her husband’s been haranguing her, ‘why do you turn here!’ She honks the horn. ‘What are you doing that for!’ Then, as if to answer him, the camera cuts to Walter crouched in the back and rising for the kill. The film then cuts back to a close-up of Stanwyck. ‘Why are you honking the horn!’ as we hear a thud. The camera remains on her face as her husband gets killed and it’s this moment that remains indelible to me.
What do we see on Stanwyck’s face? She bounces with apprehension at the blow that kills her husband, mouth a little open. Then, as lights ricochet past her face, what does Stanwyck convey about Phyllis’ thinking and feeling in that last close-up before the scene dissolves? Disquiet, a hardness, efficiency, a vengeful ‘he only got what he deserved’ look, the slightest glimmer of a smile; could it be glee? And could it be sexual? One feels it’s so without knowing quite why. It’s in that evocation of the precise and the evanescent, the material and that which reverberates just out of reach – it has so many associations it can’t quite be pinned down – that Stanwyck’s great artistry makes itself manifest. It’s a glorious moment, one of many, and part of the reason why, to quote Woody Allen, Double Indemnity is ‘Billy Wilder’s greatest film, practically anybody’s greatest film’.
PS In a wonderful conference on noir at the University of Warwick on 19th of May 2017 — Hardboiled History: A Noir Lens on America’s Past — Kulraj Pullar speaking on ‘Veronica Lake and L.A. Confidential: Nostalgia, anachronism and film history’ iterated a fascinating redeployment of Baldwin’s notion that the ‘negro’ is a white invention in relation to the femme fatale. I don’t identify, I didn’t create, I don’t need the negro says Baldwin: so how, when and why do white people need this term? Thus how, when and why do men need femme fatales like Stanwyck’s Phyllis?