Double Indemnity Billy Wilder (USA 1944) Barabara Stanwyck, Fred McMurray, Edward G Robinson
Viewed DVD Boxing Day 2013
Mythic Surprise Party
One thing that struck me about Double indemnity was that it was on the whole in terms of its images highly abstract. Its actual concerns were located in the realm of ideas and myth and the film was the more the powerful for this bias.
Most commentators or at least the ones I have read, pick out Wilder's Double Indemnity as a prime exemplar of the film noir genre. Reviewers agree that all the film's constituent elements were superbly crafted and delivered to produce a very fine movie.
Let's start with the structure of the film. Double indemnity is structured as a back story told in the course of Frank's confession into Keyes' dictaphone. This appliance is a sort of confession machine; a mythical hole in the rock into which you whisper your sins. It's an automated depersonalised confessional that intensifies and triggers the truth telling reflex in an immoral irreligious age that responds to technology but not to authority. In Wilder's hands it's a device which is never strained or stretched and in the final scene the machine is cleverly but not artificially, integrated into the film's climax.
The script from a James Cain story has a relentless narrative drive boned and honed by Raymond Chandler and Wilder, spiced with sour dark dialogue for Phylis and Frank, and variant wiseacring from Keyes.
The acting; high energy performances from Stanwyck (the allure of the fake and brittle, in a wig) McMurray and Robinson.
The cinematography: John Seitz's high key noir mood lighting rigs reflect the protagonists states of mind. And the camera movement: Wilder's direction makes use of tracking shots to shift perspective and heighten psychological affect. We see a scene that starts with a CLOSE SHOT of the conspiring couple about to make love on the sofa in Frank's apartment. The camera suddenly tracks back pulling Phylis and Frank into a WIDE PERSPECTIVE. The effect of the movement is to strip back the naked raw desire driving their intention; but at the same time also reveals them as vulnerable and alone together, pre-doomed by the crime that lies before them.
But Double Indemnity is more than the sum of all its qualities because it's caste in a mythic form, which gives the film a psychic authenticity that connects its action to a grounded meaning. I don't think that any one myth underlies Double Indemnity, rather that the script suggests a number of mythic sources, some Biblical and some Classical.
The core of the film's mythic grounding lies in the relationship between the two male protagonists. At the end of the film Frank lies bleeding to death on the floor at the door of the Company with Keyes beside him. He tells Keyes that Keyes was too close to him to see what he was doing. Keyes replies: “Closer than that…” Frank looks up at him and says: “Love you too.” Extraordinary final dialogue! At once we understand that the theme of the film is betrayal. This dialogue might construe a homoerotic relationship between the men, the love that dare not speak its name. More plausibly in relation to what we have seen, it might indicate the love that develops in the relationship between master and apprentice, master and disciple. A love characterised by an immense fondness: The love of Moses for Aaron, of Jesus for Judas, the love of Laius for Oedipus. The mythic theme underlying Double Indemnity is the epic of betrayal, the leaving of the true and righteous path of virtue for the gratification of desire. The forsaking of the love of the master and his teachings for the blandishments of the flesh
The Pacific Insurance Company (shot as a modern Temple of Commerce) is represented as a good and decent place. It is the repository of a belief system that serves the decency of the American way of life. Keyes is a high priest and Frank his acolyte and successor. Both men symbolise in their roles the forces of truth which have to stand firm against the destabilising forces of putrescence and deception that seek to undermine the Temple. Seduced by the flesh Frank betrays his love for the Master, leaves the Temple and takes up residence in the Brothel. In so doing, like Judas, he also determines the course of his own destruction. Psychically castrated Frank cannot survive without the sustaining love of his master.
Interestingly it is perhaps this very love between the two men that overburdons Frank. As if Frank is overwhelmed by the expectation of Keyes' too great a love, and can only respond to the inner tensions that it causes by betrayal, a course of action that will destroy himself and perhaps Keyes. A true love story.
There is a wonderfully scripted leitmotif that defines the relationship between the two male protagonists: the Promethian spark. Throughout the movie Keyes asks Frank for a light for his cigar. Frank always obliges. He takes a match and flicking the nail of his thumb against its head, ignites it. It's a cheap trick, but as an image it effectively suggests the idea of an energised cathartic relationship bonding the two men. The spark that passes from the the younger man to the older: sexual energy, the spark of knowledge, the fire of life. A metaphor for a Promethean pact, a pact that is expertly reversed in the final scene when Keyes demonstrates that he too is a consummate fire master and lights Frank\s final cigarette with a match lit by a flick of his own thumb.
The film works and retains its power because working through a mythological casting of images, fire, sacrifice, betrayal castration love it links the audience to a series of primal archetypal elements that engage and link psychic states of mind to action.
One final thought. Wilder when he made Double Indemnity still seems to retain a belief in the moral solidity of American capitalism. There is a certain collective commitment that morally sustained the system. Wilder (and Chandler presumably) saw that it was under threat from the new and increasingly intensified forces of individuated desire. But in this movie, the moral collective, the Temple holds its ground; it sees off the brothel and the raging forces and the chaos of the id. Decency represented by high priest Keyes wins, even if it is sorely wounded as there are still enough good men left standing. By the time Wilder makes Ace in the Hole in 1951, he has lost belief in the ability of the American system to be decent. He sees the organisation of big business irremediably corrupted by individual desire. The good no longer can withstand the bad. On the outside the Temple might still look like it is standing but inside it has turned into a brothel. The era of an unashamed and unrestrained individualism is beginning.