#29 Double Indemnity

“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”
Walter Neff

Billy Wilder displays his versatility as a director in his noir tale of love, insurance, and murder.

Walter Neff (Fred Macmurray) is an intelligent, hard working insurance salesman. His life seems to be going well, that is until he travels to the Dietrichson house to re-sell Mr. Dietrichson auto insurance. But when he arrives Mr. Dietrichson is not home, So Walter is forced to deal with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman that he is instantly attracted to.

Walter and Phyllis banter for a while, and soon, Phyllis is the only thing on Walter’s mind. So when Phyllis asks Walter to meet with her, he is all too willing to blow off his previous engagements in order to oblige.

At this meeting Phyllis expresses her uneasiness regarding the safety of her husband. She claims that his job is dangerous yet, due to superstition, he refuses to get accident insurance. Phyllis proceeds to ask Walter if there is a way to insure her husband without him knowing it. Despite her pout, and Walter’s attraction to her, Walter quickly sees that Phyllis’s request is actually a murder plot.

Instead of reporting her though, Walter decides to help Phyllis in her plot to take out an insurance policy and kill her husband.

The task is not as simple as it would seem though. Working at Walter’s company is Barton Keyes (Edward Robinson), a manager that has developed a sixth sense for dealing with insurance fraud.

Still Walter is confident that he can pull of the perfect murder. His bravado is so great in fact that he attempts to walk away with double the maximum payout by capitalizing on the double indemnity clause in the insurance policy.

The murder, and the claim, goes off with out a hitch. But when Walter’s boss starts to get a hunch that Mr. Dietrichson’s death was no accident, Walter quickly feels the walls of his freedom closing in around him.

He quickly engages in a struggle against Phyllis, his boss, and even his own morality if he hopes to escape the long arm of the law.

This film depends heavily on how well the viewer receives Fred Macmurray. There are very few shots that do not include him, and most of the dialogue is either delivered by him, or plays of something he has said.

This can be troubling. MacMurray holds the screen well enough, but something about his demeanor can be off-putting in this film. This works a little on some levels, but does not on others. In scenes that Walter portrays himself as a romantic interest for Phyllis, or a close friend to Keyes, his “side mouth smile” and piercing eyes undermine the character. In scenes that Walter is a killer, adulterer, and insurance con man, his demeanor is perfect.

The rest of the cast just sort of fall into place around MacMurray. Every other actor serves solely to put the spotlight on the lead, and these understated performances were exactly what the film needed.

The film’s strongest asset though is not its performances, it is its narration. MacMurray is at his best, as is the film, when he is narrating. His strong, melodic, voice sets the mood for the film perfectly. And despite any of the other shortcomings he may have had, his voice made him perfect for this role.

The film is an enjoyable watch. It is dark, but it’s still enjoyable. This is no doubt the subtle touch of Billy Wilder, the expert director behind Some Like It Hot and Sunset Blvd. With this film Wilder expands his already impressive resume. Like a chameleon behind the scenes Wilder is able to adapt his style to suit whatever the film needs, and the result is a taut, well told story of murder, deception, and the stupidity of infatuation.

#22 Some Like It Hot

“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Osgood Fielding III

Back before White Chicks, Sorority Boys, Juwanna Man, To Wong Foo, Mrs. Doubtfire and every teen sit-com from the 90’s, there was Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder’s gender-bending rom-com starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe.

When Joe and Jerry (Curtis and Lemmon respectively) witness a mob hit they know they have to leave town, the only problem is, they are flat broke. So when the opportunity arises to take a job playing for a band in Florida they are all to happy to take the free ticket out of town. There’s just one problem, the band is for girls only. Not to be held down by such trivial matters Joe and Jerry don wigs and become Josephine and Daphny.

Shortly after joining the band, both Joe and Jerry discover the enchanting Sugar (Monroe), the band’s singer and ukelele player. Jerry immediately finds it difficult to hide his attraction to Sugar, and has to be reminded several times by Joe that he is a girl. But the tables are quickly turned when Sugar reveals that she has always had a thing for guys who play the saxophone, she just “dumb that way.” This just happens to be Joe’s instrument, and the affect that this knowledge has on him is drastic. At this point the film almost instantly switches from focusing on Jerry, to focusing on Joe.

When the band finally arrives in Florida, Sugar is suddenly best friends with Joe’s alter-ego, Josephine. This is not good enough for Joe though. Joe wants more than friendship from Sugar so he creates yet another alter-ego, a young millionaire who is air to the Shell oil fortune. Immediately the connection he builds with Sugar is strong. Using the intimate details that he learned through intimate feminine discussions, Joe is able to create a perfect love interest for Sugar.

Meanwhile Jerry, who adapts to life as a woman better than Jerry, gets duped into escorting a young millionaire who is head-over-heals in love with Daphne.

Life goes quite well for Joe and Jerry. Getting paid to play their instruments while recieving free room and board is exactly what they expected out of their trip to Florida. But when the mobsters that forced them to flee Chicago show up in Florida, Joe and Jerry’s romantic, financial, and physical well being all come under fire.

Everything about this film is well done. Billy Wilder, making his second appearance on this list, was like the conductor of a well-tuned orchestra. The mood of this film changes effortlessly to suit each act and the result is a film that is multi-dimensional without being emotionally taxing.

This film is a perfect example of what good actors can do when they are given a good director. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon could have easily over played their roles, but they didn’t. Their performances were tactful, and, unlike most actors who go drag for a role, never opted for the ridiculous in search of a laugh.

Not to be out done was the one and only Marilyn Monroe. Monroe is positively delightful in this film. Any one who does not understand why she was the “it” girl must watch this movie. She easily wins over the heart of the audience, and I dare you not to fall in love with her.

This film works because it blends comedy, drama, and even action effortlessly. It virtually created a genre (if you ignore the fact that it was based on a German film), and best of all, it was pure entertainment. It completely defies while remaining an example of what a movie that doesn’t want to settle for being a comedy, romance, or drama, can be.

#16 Sunset Blvd.

“The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”
John Gilles

Strong performances, sharp dialogue, and brilliant narration drive Billy Wilder’s story of love, imprisonment, rejection, and murder.

Sunset Blvd. focuses on John Gillis (William Holden) a washed-up screenwriter who, while on the run from some very tenacious debt collectors, blows a tire and seeks refuge in a seemingly abandoned house. Once it becomes clear that his pursuers have moved on, John investigates the Sunset Boulevard mansion and quickly finds out that it is not as abandoned as he had thought.

The resident of this house is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who, twenty years after her film career has effectively died, has become a recluse. With only her butler, and a recently departed chimpanzee, for company, Norma is all too excited at the prospect of having a young writer for company.

Norma quickly puts John’s skills as a writer to use editing a script she has written that she is quite confident will be her return to the spotlight. John, who is not impressed with any aspect of the script at all, sees this as an opportunity to ease his financial woes. So, naturally, he agrees to ghostwrite for her.

John begins to regret this decision almost immediately though when he realizes that it is not his skills as a writer that Norma is after. Rather, Norma seeks John’s love, his youth, even his freedom. This becomes particularly problematic for John when a romance begins to bloom between himself, and Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a script reader for Paramount Pictures.

Ultimately Norma’s obsession with John leads to both John’s murder (don’t worry that’s not a spoiler), and one last moment in front of the cameras for Norma.

This film does so much right. The most obvious and impacting aspect of this film is the narration. Right form the start the powerful voice, and moving words, of William Holden draw the viewer in to the story while creating an atmosphere that accurately reflects the mood of the film.

Also adding to the mood of this film is the impeccable job that is done by the four leading actors. William Holden’s performance could most easily be compared to Humphrey Bogart’s in Casablanca. Every second that he is on the screen he demands the complete and undivided attention of the viewer.

Gloria Swanson is like nails on a chalkboard. As the aging film star, every word that comes out of her mouth causes the viewer to grind their teeth, and this is exactly what was needed of her, and her character.

Much the opposite of Swanson, relative newcomer Nancy Olson was an absolute delight as Betty, the love interest to John. It is hard to see how any one would be able to resist falling in love with this script reader with a knack for inspiring washed up writers. What she does best of all though is provide some sense of hope to this story, which is otherwise quite bleak.

Together these three actors are a force that grab the plot by the reigns, and allow director Billy Wilder to accomplish exactly what he intended to with this film. This is no easy task considering what he intended to accomplish was not a simple murder/love story.

There are many themes that Wilder explores in this film. The various shots of decaying landscapes, as well as the death of Norma’s pet chimpanzee, eerily reflect the mortality of every earthly thing. It also reflects the impact that time inevitably has on each of these mortal things. This sentiment is further illustrated in both the life, and the actions, of Norma throughout the movie.

The second major theme that Wilder explores is imprisonment. Everything in this film, from the barred front door of Norma’s mansion, to the way that characters hold each other (a pool side scene in which Norma tightly wraps a towel around John’s neck comes to mind), demonstrates captivity. Everything in this film, even words in films, holds the characters in a state of imprisonment. More specifically, these subtle images show just how much of a strangle hold the trappings of wealth hold over humanity

The journey out of captivity for these characters is not a hopeless one though. Both John and Norma are able to achieve a sense of freedom through love. This is demonstrated in John’s ability to leave the barred mansion for his late night script writing sessions with the woman he loves, Betty. More subtly this sentiment is displayed when Norma carelessly tosses her tiara to the floor so she can rest her head on John’s shoulder. Sadly the two characters’ love is ultimately not for each other.

Love being an escape from imprisonment is certainly not a new idea. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of modernist literature, and, while this film was made just slightly after that era, the influence of modernist writers is clear in this film. What is special about this film is the way that it presents this theme. It is not the actions of this film that are important. What is important is how these actions affect the characters that inhabit the film (another influence of the modernist movement).

Because of this subtle difference the film is able to use a variety of powerful visuals, dialogue, and narration that creates a work of art that is complete in nearly every aspect of the word.

It is funny how a seemingly simple story of love and murder can carry with it so much else. That is the power that love has over people. For John, Love was late night writing with Betty. For Norma, love was a bit more confusing. She thought she wanted John, but all she really wanted was one last moment in the spotlight. And the world had a funny way of granting her one final close-up.

“I am big, it’s the pictures that have become small”
Norma Desmond