Double Indemnity was a Paramount production, and Powell was under contract to RKO at the time, so he had to wait until Murder, My Sweet to repurpose himself as a big-screen tough guy (and one of the best actors to play Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe, in my opinion). It was Fred MacMurray, then best known for his breezy light comedy roles, who finally had the guts to take the role of insurance salesman-turned-murderer Walter Neff — but even MacMurray needed convincing at first. None of the other in-demand male stars of the period wanted Barbara Stanwyck’s conniving, money-loving, hubby-offing temptress Phyllis Dietrichson to make a chump out of him on screen. Their loss! It was quite a revelation to me when I saw DI for the first time, watching it on TV in my teens. I’d first seen MacMurray’s work back when he was best known to my generation as a wholesome Disney movie star and the lovable dad of TV’s My Three Sons. When I saw him playing underhanded types in DI, The Caine Mutiny, and another Wilder classic, The Apartment, I was both gobsmacked and impressed with MacMurray’s range. As a result, I was all the more disappointed that MacMurray was never even nominated for an Oscar for any of his stellar performances.
MacMurray and Stanwyck are dynamite in this, one of the most gleefully, unapologetically black-hearted noirs ever made. Their dialogue, especially in the first half of the movie, contains many of my favorite movie lines of all time — and of course, if I start quoting them all, I’ll pretty much be transcribing most of the script! The chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray blazes like the Chicago Fire as the wily, spellbinding Phyllis draws Walter into her web. As Richard Schickel points out in one of the two-disc DVD set’s pair of excellent audio commentaries, Stanwyck’s Phyllis is always reacting in the moment; as a result, you’re never sure whether she means a word she says, making her all the more fascinating. (To paraphrase a line from one of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books: “I wouldn’t believe her if she swore she was lying!”) The words of Dashiell Hammett’s cynical Sam Spade to the equally slippery Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon could also apply to the quicksilver Phyllis: she’s good, awful good! Miklós Rózsa’s brassy yet brooding score accents the suspense perfectly. Edith Head’s costumes strike the right notes, too, despite Phyllis’s tacky fashion sense — but it works because Phyllis has a touch of trash about her that Walter seems to be drawn to, and Stanwyck is always mesmerizing no matter what.
Edward G. Robinson is DI’s crabby yet kind-hearted Voice of Reason in his portrayal of Barton Keyes, the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company’s ace Claims Manager. As Keyes, Robinson is irresistible, with his zeal for detail, the “little man” in his gut giving him indigestion every time an insurance claim seems fishy, and his gruff affection for Walter. Heck, there’s almost more tenderness between Walter and Keyes than there is between Walter and Phyllis! If you ask me, the biggest crime in DI was the failure to nominate either of the male leads for an Oscar, especially scene-stealing Robinson, though at least the Academy was smart enough not to overlook the mesmerizing Stanwyck. For that matter, Robinson was never nominated for an Oscar for any of his superb performances. He was eventually given one of those special career Oscars, or as we like to call them here at Team Bartilucci H.Q., the “Yikes, He’s So Old He Could Croak Any Minute and He Still Hasn’t Gotten An Oscar? *D-OH!*” award.
|Keyes, Keyes, he's our man! If he can't nail 'em, no one can!|
|Femme fatale Phyllis is so crooked, |
even doors open the wrong way when she's around!
|"Those dirty double-crossers are stealing our schtick!"|
|Samantha Eggar & Richard Crenna in the 1973 version.|
2. It don’t mean a thing if the leads ain’t got that zing. That brings me to Eggar’s delivery; she always sounds vaguely bored and/or annoyed with Richard Crenna’s Walter Neff. In the original, even when Stanwyck was scolding or angry, somehow she seemed all the more fascinating. Her sultry voice, with just a trace of her native Brooklyn accent (from her lips, it sounded good!), was just as seductive as the rest of her. DI2 might be remembered as more than just a cinematic footnote if Eggar and Crenna had even a fraction of the chemistry that sizzles between Stanwyck and MacMurray; the latter was brilliant as a cynical smart-aleck whose street-smarts go out the window under this devious dame’s influence. It just goes to show that in a story like this, the best acting in the world won’t help if the leads don’t have chemistry and charisma.
3. A little moody atmosphere goes a long way in crime movies. Despite the remake’s attractive locations, especially the Spanish-style accents in the opulent Dietrichson home (though I’d forgotten how prevalent the colors beige, harvest gold, and avocado green were back in the 1970s, not to mention blocky impressionistic artwork), DI2’s L.A. seems like a duller, less exciting place than DI’s original Los Angeles. The remake’s flat 1970s TV lighting and uninspired camera angles can’t hold a candle to the original’s menacing lighting effects and the great John Seitz’s photography, which looked almost like painting with shadows. Ironically, the 1973 update somehow feels more dated than the 1944 original — and if you listen carefully early on, you’ll realize the first film was actually set in 1938! DI2 does try for a bit of startling imagery here and there, though it’s made of cruder stuff than the sleek imagery of the original. For instance, the scene in which wounded, bleeding Walter tapes a confession for Keyes now opens on a close-up of Walter’s blood-stained cigarettes. Billy Goldenberg’s piano-and-strings music is somber enough, though it certainly won’t make you forget Miklós Rózsa’s powerful, brassy yet tender score for the original.
|Kick the habit: Don't smoke bloodstained cigarettes!|
|James M. Cain by Rick Geary|
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