Thursday, June 10, 2010

Screening: Double Indemnity at the Samuel Goldwyn

As part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Oscar Noir Screening Series, the classic Double Indemnity was presented on the big screen Monday night.

Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944)
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson
Directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (based on the novel by James M. Cain)
Nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, Musical Score and Sound Recording

Double Indemnity is the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and sexy Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of a client of Neff's, and their seemingly airtight plot to kill Phyllis's husband and collect on the life insurance the pair has taken out on him without his knowledge.  They pull it off, but are eventually foiled by Neff's insurance company cohort and friend, dedicated Claims Manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).

Double Indemnity is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of American film noir.  It takes sunny Los Angeles and plunges it into a shadowy, paranoid darkness as Neff and Phyllis go from attractive - and attracted - strangers to partners in a death penalty crime.  

Early on in the writing process, Wilder and Chandler realized that the dialogue from Cain's novel read badly when spoken aloud.  Their Oscar-nominated screenplay gave the characters clever and entertaining rapid-fire dialogue that veers into double entrendre when Neff and Phyllis first meet, both of which are staples of film noir.

Some Double Indemnity trivia:
  • Novelist James M. Cain had two other classic noir films made from his books: Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice.
  • Earlier attempts to turn Cain's story into a film were squashed by the Hays Office, partly because the protagonists were murderers and partly because the murder of Mr. Dietrichson could be easily recreated in real life.
  • Raymond Chandler makes a cameo early in the film, sitting outside an office at the insurance company and glancing up as MacMurray passes by.  His appearance prompted applause from the audience.
  • Double Indemnity is one of the classic films George Raft famously turned down (he also rejected The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca).
  • Although his character is unmarried, MacMurray's wedding ring makes several appearances throughout the film (oops!)
  • As a huge star, Edward G. Robinson was initially reluctant to accept a supporting role, but was persuaded that he had reached an age where he needed to start considering character roles.  He didn't regret it.
  • An alternate ending that showed Neff going to the gas chamber while Keyes looked on was filmed but discarded.
  • AFI put Double Indemnity at #38 on its list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.
Besides the novelty of seeing a classic film in a theater and on the big screen, the addition of seeing it with a large, enthusiastic audience really enhances the viewing experience.  A lot of lines of dialogue that would prompt a snort or smirk when viewed alone at home produced huge laughs from the crowd.  I had noticed this a few months ago when I saw Psycho at the Alex.  This is making me look forward to the rest of the series even more than I already was, which was plenty.

Each presentation in the noir screening program includes an animated short.  In honor of the feature, there was the Oscar nominated Trouble Indemnity, a Mr. Magoo cartoon in which the myopic old man was scammed into buying an insurance policy so large that the agent who foisted it on Magoo goes bonkers trying to protect him when the Jim Backus voiced character inevitably bumbles into a life threatening situation. 

Also part of the program is the classic Republic serial Adventures of Captain Marvel.  I had missed the first two chapters, but it wasn't hard to catch up.  The Scorpion, a mysterious, hooded baddie is trying to obtain a lens that will unleash his evil scorpion powers upon an unsuspecting world.  Standing in his way is Captain Marvel, by day Billy Batson, an unimposing type whose entire persona (including his wardrobe) changes into superhero mode in a flash when he says the magic word, "Shazam!"  In an audience pleasing scene, Captain Marvel is knocked out cold and seems to be headed toward beheading by guillotine (what is it with bad guys and their elaborate executions? Just shoot the guy!).  When the blade finally drops, it shatters on impact with Captain Marvel's person.  Awesome.



Images from the screening program.

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