#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.

#28 All About Eve

“Funny business, a woman’s career – the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.”
Margo Channing

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s superb story of betrayal and ambition lights the screen ablaze with fire and music thanks to its intriguing plot, brilliant performances, and razor sharp dialogue.

When a supposedly naïve Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) gets a golden ticket to meet her stage idol Margo Channing (Bette Davis), her sweet nature and unspeakable good qualities quickly earn her a spot in the actress’ heart.

Eve quickly lands a job as Margo’s personal assistant, and eventually begins to impress Margo with her hard work and attentiveness. It would seem impossible to come up with anything negative to say about Eve.

As their time together grows though, Margo starts to notice certain things about Eve. Eve begins to mimic the characteristics, movements, and clothing of Margo. At this point the “Honeymoon” ends.

Margo’s insecurities about her age (40), and her looks, quickly get transferred onto Eve. Margo, much to the chagrin of her friends, begins to belittle Eve publicly, an act that Eve accepts with great humility.

It is at this point of the story that there is a nearly seamless transition in the mood. This occurs when Eve becomes Margo’s understudy, a choice that would seem obvious due to the fact that she has seen every performance of this play, and Margo misses a performance, giving Eve the opportunity to shine, even if only for one night.

Eve’s performance is met with quite a good reception, and no one feels stronger about it than Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a well-known theatre reviewer.

Dewitt wants to run an article on Eve for his paper, so he convinces her to come to dinner with him. During the interview Eve breaks her sugary sweet character and says something negative about her mentor Margo.

The result of this is a purging of any friendship that had once existed between Eve and Margo, and the destruction of virtually every friendship she has.

It is at this point that Eve suggests that she be given the part in Lloyd Richards’ (Hugh Marlowe), a long time collaborator of Margo’s, new play. When Margo backs out of the project Eve finally has her chance to shine, but her true character is revealed, and it is not a pleasant one.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s (Writer, Director) vision for this film was crystal clear. From the first minute of the film it grabs hold of you and pulls you through the ups-and-downs of its characters lives.

The acting is superb (there were five Oscar nods for acting alone in this flic), and despite the fact that there are arguably five main characters, each actor is able to establish his or herself as a dominant screen presence. For some indication on just how good the acting is in this film one should note that Marilyn Monroe’s performance was overshadowed to the point that she was almost unnoticeable, and that is not a knock on her at all.

Another area in which the film succeeds is its ability to tell a story from women’s perspectives, while still appealing to men, and never once having to resort to sex. Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and Celeste Holm all share the role of lead, and battle for the attention of the viewer, without ever detracting from one another.

The truly great thing about this film though, is its dialogue. Joseph L. Mankiewicz deserves all the credit in the world for his Wilde like word play. Nearly every line in this film is quotable. The characters speak with a profound sense of purpose that makes dinner parties feel like war rooms, and theatre stages feel like presidential podiums.

This is a great movie as a whole. But as a literary work it is a masterpiece that should be experienced by everyone.