Double Indemnity Billy Wilder (Usa 1944)

Double Indemnity Billy Wilder (Usa 1944)

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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.

adrin neatrour

adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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