by Brad Nelson
I love old black-and-white movies, especially the genre of film noir. Many yutes dismiss out of hand any movie that is not in color, but I love the look and feel of them. They just don’t make them like this anymore. And “Double Indemnity” is one of the greats of film noir.
But this one in particular can cause a neck-snapping double-take. Fred MacMurray as a bad guy? The guy from “Son of Flubber”? It can confabulate the mind. I loved this scene from “Double Indemnity”:
MacMurray: “Now, Chip, I don’t think it’s a good idea that you and Ernie break into that bank tonight.”
“No, I want you to take Robbie with you…and leave those brass knuckles at home. I’ll be working late at the office tonight. I’ve got to plan a man’s murder. But Uncle Charley will have some beers and hookers waiting for you when you get home.”
Or maybe I was just hearing that in my mind. It takes a second or two to make the transition to Fred MacMurray as the ruthless criminal instead of the gentle and good father of “My Three Sons.” But you quickly do.
And it may also be difficult to imagine Barbara Stanwyck as anything softer or prettier than the tough-as-nails, ballsy, and downright mannish Victoria Barkley from “The Big Valley” TV show of the mid-60’s. But she wasn’t half bad looking in her youth and played many splendid parts. Edward G. is always Edward G. and there’s no need to adjust to his fine performance in this.
With Billy Wilder as director that means you’re not going to get subtle or understated characters or storylines. But he doesn’t go crazy with his typical styling, and the melodrama that he does present seems like good, old-fashioned movie making. A few times the film was approaching eyeroll-ability, but the drama was so good, the dialogue so film noir, that you just go with it – and love it. You’ll see what I mean if you watch this, but I can’t say any more without giving major plot points away.
“Double Indemnity” was so entertaining it put me on a film noir binge for at least two years. But I didn’t go into this movie expecting much out of MacMurray and Stanwyck. But they both delivered. This is a smart movie with subtlety and charm as well as a nice mix of old-fashioned melodrama. I found nothing about the plot or characters to be predictable. No eyerolls in this regard, and that’s always a pleasure for me. I had no idea how this movie would turn out and never did it take the easy or predictable path.
I wonder if they still know how to make movies such as “Double Indemnity”? Granted, you would expect today’s larger budgets to give you better sets, better costumes, better effects, etc. But I don’t think they can give you better drama. Today’s tendency is to junk up a film with various bells and whistles, eye candy, special effects, camera gimmickry, and a plethora of throw-away oddball characters. “Double Indemnity” instead edges toward the less-is-more side of the scales and is the better for it.
I suppose if I had done anything differently I would have taken a closer look at MacMurray’s character and shown why he so willingly got mixed up in what he got mixed up in. That’s my one quibble. But we do eventually come to understand Stanwyck’s character. She becomes believable as a criminal, the classic femme fatale, a staple in many good film noirs. The first and ultimate <i>biatch</i>. But it’s no quibble at all to give this movie 3.9 fingernail-struck matches out of 5. Ever tried that? It’s easy to burn underneath the fingernail. I’d put this movie near the top of the list for anyone wanting a good example of film noir – or who just wants to watch an excellent movie.