Tag Archives: double indemnity

Straight Down the Line

Inviting me to select my favorite image from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), as The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series has done this week, is a little like asking that I single out my favorite limb. I’ll make the choice eventually, sure, but it’ll be a reluctant one and involve lots of nervous glances from hand to foot and back again. What I’m trying to say is that Double Indemnity is an unusually beautiful film noir, shot by cinematographer John Seitz as a tapestry of shadows and key lights—a lustrous labyrinth of insurance offices and Venetian blinds leading “straight down the line,” as Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale repeatedly puts it.

But, well, the challenge is to pick one shot, so I picked one, and it’s at least pretty emblematic of Wilder and Seitz’s technique throughout the whole of the film. See, for example, the inventive patterns in which they’ve scattered light across the frame, drawing our eyes straight to the space between Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. The lighting supplements the actors’ already white-hot chemistry, suggesting a downward sloping line from his face to hers and a region of the screen that’s buzzing with sexual magnetism. Mere seconds before this, MacMurray was pacing the room, going on and on in voiceover about how “the hook” (read: his own cock) was pulling him toward her,

so at 8 o’ clock the bell would ring and I’d know who it was without even having to think, as if it was the most natural thing in the world…

And there she is, lit up like a vision from heaven (or elsewhere). The curls of her blond wig are shimmering and her body assumes an irresistible pose beneath that heavy trench coat. This is her about to cross the threshold into his dark bachelor pad, about to make the relationship between them more than just one of flirtatious salesman and client. It’s the seed of her anklet blossoming into adultery, and murder.

I suppose that’s why this shot—which, incidentally, lasts a full minute and fifteen seconds, this image emerging roughly in the middle—calls out to me: it’s so tentative, so teeming with potential. Double Indemnity is like the tale of the scorpion and the frog if it were about two scorpions trying to ferry one another across a river, and this is a shot of those deadly predators, each sizing the other up, separated only by a doorway. A couple other details I enjoy here: the shadow of the rain outside, barely visible on the seat of MacMurray’s pants; and that picture of a bare-knuckle boxer just to the right of the door.

Three more similarly framed prints grace the wall above his couch, and while I’ve never been able to fully integrate them into my reading of the film, they suggest to me an antiquated notion of brawny masculinity. Perhaps they hint at a kind of visceral thrill that MacMurray’s Walter Neff, this bundle of machismo and libido stuffed into a white-collar job, is pursuing whether through his relationship with a married woman or his attempt to “crook the house.” Those boxers, always lurking in the background, could signify the primal man lurking inside the skin of a mild-mannered insurance salesman.

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Five Reasons to Donate, for the Love of Film (Noir)

Over at Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon rages on, raising money for the Film Noir Foundation and the preservation of our dark cinematic heritage. However, despite all the gorgeous, noir-loving prose being churned out by the blogathon’s dozens of contributors, they’re still behind on donations. And not enough donations means they can’t save Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury. But all is not lost. You can help. Do you love film noir? Do you have any excess income whatsoever? Then donate. Please. I’m a poor, beleaguered college student and I still managed to scrounge up $5.

But I won’t waste your time just begging. I’ll prove to you why you should donate your hard-earned $$$ to this most worthy of charitable causes. So, properly illustrated with high-contrast images pulled from some of the best noirs that Netflix Instant has to offer, here they are: The Top Five Reasons You Should Donate to the Film Noir Foundation.

5) For the way Rita Hayworth’s curls bounce when she raises her head

And, by extension, for all the fiery, erotic moments tucked inside great film noirs. (By the way, did anyone ever resolve that pluralization problem?) This may just be a tiny, half-second-long gesture on Hayworth’s part, but it’s still one of those indelible introductions, as she vertically enters the frame (and our hearts) with an unmistakable mix of coyness and confidence. Regardless of the movie’s garbled sexual politics, we can all concur that Gilda is more than decent.

4) For narrow stairways and back alleys around the world

When the soon-to-be-blacklisted Endfield was making The Sound of Fury in America, Jules Dassin had already emigrated to England and made the grimy, beautiful Night and the City, starring Richard Widmark as cheap hustler Harry Fabian. Although it has some great demonstrations of betrayal and desperation, the film’s most memorable images are of Fabian racing across London like a trapped rat. We know he’s going to end up dead; it’s just a matter of when. Film noir has a way of taking the claustrophobia we feel on a day-to-day basis and distilling it into deliciously anxious cinema. Doesn’t that deserve your support?

3) For the eight million stories in the naked city

Noir may tend toward the pessimistic and the criminal, but it’s still a decidedly populist genre. By poking into the seedy underbelly of postwar society, noir filmmakers told stories about the have-nots who still desire, about how good people turn bad, and about what life is really like in dives and cramped apartments—albeit often through a distorted lens. It’s no coincidence that one of the first Italian neo-realist masterpieces was also a European variation on film noir, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione. To varying degrees, film noir was about dismantling glossy Hollywood fictions and telling it straight.

(Also, I think the inclusion of two Jules Dassin movies on this list proves that Dassin is the man when it comes to noir. If Night and the City and The Naked City pique your interest, you should look into Brute Force and Thieves’ Highway as well!)

2) For future generations, so they can remember a long-gone era when men wore hats

The thugs, hoodlums, and crooked cops who populate John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle may be stuck in a cycle of violence and crime, but at least they have snazzy wardrobes! This is one of film noir’s big appeals: no matter miserable the characters are, they still make fantastic fashion choices. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity might be riding that trolley to the end of the line (and have to wear that ugly wig), but that can’t stop her from donning angora sweaters and revealing nightgowns. Who doesn’t envy all those trench coats and fedoras? They might not be very comfy, but they look awesome.

1) For the expression on Orson Welles’s face after he realizes he’s been spotted

OK, I might be biased because The Third Man is easily amongst my three-or-so favorite films of all time. But just look at that face! Welles is so intensely charming, and that caught-with-his-hands-in-the-cookie-jar expression is the icing on the cake. (Whoops, just mixed some dessert-related metaphors there.) Add in Anton Karas strumming on the zither and a perplexed Joseph Cotten, and you’ve got a scene that single-handedly justifies donating money to the Film Noir Foundation.

So do it! Click on the Maltese falcon below and give your spare ducats to a needy cause! For the sex appeal, the rain-soaked streets, the untold stories, the 1940s apparel, and Orson Welles’s roguish grin… for the love of film noir, donate.


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