Double Indemnity

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



18 April


Miklós Rózsa born, 1907

On this day in 1907, the celebrated and prolific film composer Miklós Rózsa was born, in Budapest, Hungary. His mother was a pianist and his father was a wealthy industrialist. Young Miklós was performing in public and composing at the age of eight. After studying in Leipzig, Germany, he moved to London, where fellow Hungarian, the producer Alexander Korda gave him his first film to score, 1937’s Knight without Armour. Rózsa went to Hollywood with Korda to work on The Thief of Bagdad, then went on to work on several Billy Wilder films, including Five Graves to Cairo and Double Indemnity. In 1945 three of his scores (for Spellbound, The Lost Weekend and A Song to Remember) were nominated for an Oscar (Spellbound won). Among the films that Rózsa then went on to score were The Killers, The Naked City and Ben-Hur, the last winning him his third Oscar. He continued working on film scores into the 1980s – Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was his last – his tally of completed works by then standing at over 90. He was also a prolific writer of concert works.




Double Indemnity (1944, dir: Billy Wilder)

No matter how resistant you are to old films, films in black and white, the arch histrionics of Barbara Stanwyck or Fred MacMurray’s big chump persona, within five minutes of the beginning of Double Indemnity you will be hooked. It is close to being the perfect film, devastating in its logic, with a script that is as hard-boiled as it is playful. The key scene comes immediately after the opening credits, when insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) tries to sell a policy to feisty bright dame Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Immediately we know where we are and what’s going on – though he doesn’t know it, Neff is the anti Philip Marlowe, a wiseguy who isn’t quite wise enough. He’s got the hat and the patter and he’s very sure of himself. He’s his company’s top salesman and has earned the right to swagger. And as we sit back and watch, there he is being absolutely and exquisitely worked over by a woman he can’t believe is trading flirtations with him, a hot babe who wears an ankle chain – woo hoo.
By the end of the scene Walter – how that name sounds when Stanwyck purrs it – is trussed up tighter than a capon, and is on the way to agreeing to sell Mrs Dietrichson’s husband an expensive life policy before murdering him. After that they’ll cash in and start a new life together. This last bit doesn’t seem even faintly likely to happen, given the slipperiness of her and the over-eagerness of him – and the cinema code of the time would never let such a thing happen either – so what Neff and Dietrichson are doing and what we’re watching are two entirely different things. We know it, Wilder knows, we know Wilder knows we know it. And so on. Only Neff and Dietrichson seem oblivious. It’s a slo-mo car crash of a film noir – one of the first of the genre – with director Billy Wilder constantly teasing, holding off the awful moment of reckoning. Enter Edward G Robinson as Walter Neff’s boss Barton Keyes, a cigar-smoking pernickety investigator who, from his slightly stagey delivery and bookish persona, seems to be operating in a different film. He’s the one whose simple questions, adherence to protocol and actuarial tables starts to uncover their scheme – what potential suicide, he asks, jumps off a train travelling at 15 miles per hour to kill himself? Or was he perhaps helped to jump?
And from that observation onwards Walter and Phyllis are done for. The film is about process – how Neff and Dietrichson first tie each other into murderous knots, and then how Keyes unpicks them. Raymond Chandler rewrote James M Cain’s pitiless story, adding all the juicy to and fro between Neff and Dietrichson (Phyllis: “I think you’re rotten”. Walter: “I think you’re swell – as long as I’m not your husband”.) and even if it wasn’t at all satisfying in terms of cast and plot, the dialogue alone would make it double-worth it.



Why Watch?


  • One of the first and best film noirs
  • Raymond Chandler’s dialogue
  • Miklós Rózsa’s score
  • Cinematography by John F Seitz (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard)


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Double Indemnity – at Amazon





Murder, My Sweet

Original cinema poster for Murder, My Sweet


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



14 November



Dick Powell born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Dick Powell was born. A remarkably adaptable man, Powell started his career as a singer in the 1920s, then became a movie star in the 1930s. In the 1940s he switched from light comedy and musical films to weightier, tough-guy roles. In the 1950s he was one of the founders of a TV company, Four Star Television, who made The Big Valley and Burke’s Law, among other hits shows, and gave an early leg up to talent such as Steve McQueen, Mary Tyler Moore and Sam Peckinpah. Powell also became a producer and director in the 1950s, with the submarine drama The Enemy Below and the Korean war actioner The Hunters among his credits. He’d made his directorial debut with 1952’s Split Second, a thriller that pitched three escaped convicts unawares into the middle of a nuclear testing site in Nevada. Powell himself had been unaware that he’d been downwind of a nuclear testing site when he was shooting exteriors in Utah for The Conqueror, which starred John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Of the cast and crew of 220, 91 developed cancer by 1981 and of the 46 who eventually died one was Wayne himself, though Powell too had succumbed – to lymphoma in 1963, aged 58.



Murder, My Sweet (1944, dir: Edward Dmytryk)

This adaptation of a Raymond Chandler thriller was originally called Farewell My Lovely, as was the book, but the studio changed it immediately after one screening because it turned out that audiences had arrived expecting a musical. The reason for that was because its star, Dick Powell, was known as a crooner and light comedian. So, in went “Murder” in titular pole position and out went any lingering doubts as to what was on offer. Powell had been pestering studio bosses to let him play heavier roles for years. And he turns out to have been exactly right – he makes a great Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s hard-bitten white knight who never lets on what a good guy he is. Humphrey Bogart has become identified with the role but it’s said that Chandler himself preferred Powell (where he actually said this, I don’t know). If he did say it, it’s easy to see why – Powell is vulnerable, looks like he’s a not particularly tough guy playing tough because that way he gets to stay alive. The plot: Marlowe is investigating two cases. In one he’s been hired by a poor deadbeat hulk called Moose Molloy to find a disappeared woman; in the other by wealthy sexbomb Mrs Grayle to recover her disappeared necklace. It turns out the two cases are related, though, in true Chandler style, the further in to the plot we go, the more confusing things become. It’s complicated, like life, Chandler having built a career on his rejection of the cosy, easy British whodunnit in which Miss Marple arrives, fingers the villain, and exits humming on a bicycle. Giving “murder back to the people who really committed it” as Chandler had written approvingly about Dashiell Hammett, one of the creators of the hard-boiled genre. Murder, My Sweet does that, but it does more – it sets the mood for most of the film noir movies to follow, all those dark shadows, that fog, the night-time scenes, the wiseguy narration, the femmes fatales. It’s not only a great film of its time, it stands up as lean, propulsive entertainment all these decades later.



Why Watch?


  • Harry Wild’s great monochrome cinematography
  • Former wrestler Mike Mazurki as Moose Molloy
  • Claire Trevor in one of her many “rotten to the core” femme fatale roles
  • Raymond Chandler’s endlessly quotable dialogue, left almost untouched by adapter John Paxton


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Murder, My Sweet aka Farewell My Lovely – at Amazon