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[whitespace] Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck Murder, Most Sweet: A honey of a murder plan goes awry in 'Double Indemnity,' starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

Shadows of Noir

The Roxie's week of Universal noir is highlighted by Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity"

By Richard von Busack

Over the credits of 1944's Double Indemnity (playing Nov. 28-29 as part of a week-long Universal noir series at the Roxie), we see the image of a shadowy man wobbling toward us with the aid of wrist crutches. This distressing image plays on that ancient prejudice lodged in the back of the brain: avoid the crippled so that his bad luck doesn't rub off on you.

The man on spidery metal legs offers the same signal of weakness that Everett Sloan's villain showed in The Lady From Shanghai, but everyone in Double Indemnity has some sort of piece missing. Even the voice of conscience in the film, insurance investigator Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, has a bad stomach. He delivers a famous speech about the "little man inside" that binds up his guts like concrete. Double Indemnity's director, Billy Wilder, seems to hint that a heavy conscience is a malign trick of the body, like a bad leg or a bad eye.

By contrast, the two leads are different kinds of monsters: two people without a scrap of conscience between them. James M. Cain's famous novel supplies the mechanism of the plot, machinery as nasty and simple as a bear trap. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman, comes to sell a policy to an affluent housewife named Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Sizing her up as an easy lay, he puts the moves on her, but she has something more ambitious in mind. She plans to insure her husband and take the money.

Double Indemnity is a tragedy masquerading as a comedy, in which the epigrams fly like bullets. The film is full of irresistibly quotable wisecracks between a mildly protesting lady and a salesman with his foot in the door. Neff's narration is paradoxically both ripe and tough: "She was playing me with a deck of marked cards and the stakes weren't blue and yellow chips, they were dynamite."

The film represents an unusual collaboration between the moral British-born Raymond Chandler, who scripted the film, and the Berlinese director Billy Wilder, who during a long career insisted on the whorishness of the world. To Chandler, raised in England, L.A. was like any other sweltering colony in which the émigré had to keep up the side and not go native--proper conduct was always a big concern of Chandler's detective, California knight Philip Marlowe.

Chandler, no doubt, was most interested in the Marlowe-like character Keyes, the good, unhappy man. Wilder by contrast must have gotten a morbid laugh out of the cold calculation of the murderous lovers, perfumed by the tropical flowers growing around them. (As Neff says, "Sometimes murder can smell like honeysuckle.")

Chandler is also credited with the script for another entry in the Universal Noir series, The Blue Dahlia (1946), which shows on a double bill with Black Angel (1946) on Nov. 26-27. The Blue Dahlia tells a story of how some of the "Greatest Generation" actually did face their chilly welcome home to the U.S. Especially good is William Bendix as a brain-damaged WWII vet who goes nuts when he hears hot jazz; it's an almost-brave movie with a craven, rewritten ending about a half-inch removed from "the butler did it."

The Killers (1946), double-billed with Double Indemnity, is arguably the best of all Hemingway adaptations. On Nov 30-Dec. 1, Phantom Lady (1944) is paired with Criss Cross (1949), recently remade as The Underneath by Steven Soderbergh. The six-film series shows the beginning of the film noir era, which lasted roughly from the mid-'40s to the election of JFK. In these 15-odd years, the despised of the world--the slickers, the killers, the losers, the cripples--came out of the shadows to hold up a mirror to a superficially calm but inwardly seething America .

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From the November 22, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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