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Double Indemnity

The city was hot and muggy, like a dame who just went on her first picnic and discovered what true love meant. The corner coffee shops were full of the late night denizens. Sure, they could go home. But at home the coffee tasted only of regret and unicorn tears. There I was. Out in the middle of it all. Driving around the city streets with a head full of two dollar words and five dollar ideas. I was in a hurry, because my head wasn't the only thing full of something. There was the constant reminder of that piece of lead stuck between my ribs. I had been shot, and I was fading. Fast.

This week Andy's Film Club watched Billy Wilder's 1944 Noir classic Double Indemnity, and hence I felt a particular desire to open this week's column about that film with some Noir flare of my own. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity is one of two Noir masterpieces that Billy Wilder made. The other being Sunset Blvd. Double Indemnity is the story of an insurance salesmen, Walter Neff (MacMurray). Neff makes a routine house call, and meets the wife of the client he was sent there to talk to, Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck).

Neff is immediately attracted to Phyllis, who we learn isn't as happily married as one might think. Neff attempts to make a move, and that leads to a great exchange in a film with amazing dialogue from beginning to end. The moment happens when Phyllis tells Walter that her husband isn't home, and to come back tomorrow.

Neff: You'll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.
Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Neff: I wonder if you wonder.

The movie is full of exchanges like that, and it'll make you want to go around calling everyone “dame” or “baby”. So what happens beyond that? This is a Film Noir after all. Neff and Phyllis cook up a scheme to murder her husband, and make it look like an accident. Tricking her husband into singing a double indemnity clause, for double payment on his life insurance. But Walter's boss, claims adjuster Barton Keys (Robinson), thinks something is up with the death. I must stop there, for spoilers abound beyond that.

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors. I'm amazed by how diverse a career Wilder had. Gritty noir films, like this one. Films full of social commentary, such as 1951's Ace In The Hole, a film about media manipulation that's eerily more relevant now. To bonafide comedy classics such as Some Like It Hot, and the delightful The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. If he only had a few hits under his belt, it wouldn't anything to celebrate. But any glance around the filmography of Billy Wilder reveals a number of genuine all time great movies.

So what did the film club think? One aspect in the film is that MacMurray's character lights matches for his cigarettes only with his thumb. It seems that each and every one of us tried to do it at least a few times, and failed. Most of the group liked it, one didn't care for it as they had a hard time identifying with any of the characters. Which is understandable, there's maybe only one likeable character in the entire movie. If anything, I'm glad people are enjoying this little media experiment, and that no one has said any film sucks--yet.

 Join us for next week, as we look at the only movie on the list that I've actually never ever seen. 1971's “They Might Be Giants”.  


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