Structure is essential to any masterpiece. To some filmmakers structure is form and dictates the formal qualities of the film – how and when key story information is imparted – depending on how character POV, requirements of tension, suspense and shock manifest from a film’s plot. To take that a step forward perhaps I need to explain the difference between plot and narrative, just to get us started. In a typical crime film the plot can be explained thus – a) a crime is conceived, b) a crime is planned, c) a crime is committed, d) a crime is discovered, e) a crime is investigated and finally f) a crime is solved. So far so good. But that plot wouldn’t have much in the way of tension or excitement if it was presented in such a linear fashion, now would it? No, in a crime film you’d generally start at stage d) then move on to e), the results of the investigation revealing sections of a) to c) on a carefully considered order, before arriving at f) in the finale. So while some filmmakers work closely with their screenwriters to erect structure others concentrate more on mood and tone, as the Coens said in an interview recently ‘it is essential that the first and last shots of your movie maintain these same core ingredients and if they don’t, your picture has failed’. It’s when these two crucial elements are mastered we plunge into masterpiece territory, where the design of the story, how if unfolds in time and across characters perspective melds with the atmosphere, the score and lighting, the editing patterns – where aesthetics meet architecture. Having caught Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece Double Indemnity at a special BFI members screening over the weekend I think we have a winner. The film begins at the end, with fatally wounded insurance salesman Walter Neff feverishly limping into his downtown office at some ungodly hour of the night, when dark spirits and nefarious plans are abroad. Struggling up to his bosses desk he takes a dictaphone and begins to spill his swiftly leaking guts, recanting a tawdry tale of murder and deceit inflicted at the hands at that most deadly of film noir factors – a dame.
And what a dame. Barbara Stanwyck had played the more lascivious and lusty of screen harlots before, but her turn here as the feline eyed Phyllis Dietrichson is one of the iconic highlights of the genre, carefully drawing her prey into dense web of deceit and desire. She carefully convinces her horny henchmen that maybe it was his crazy plan to knock off her old man and pocket the claim money, with a lucrative double fee paid for a death in unusual circumstances – the double indemnity. Fred McMurray as the panting Neff was an unusual casting decision for Wilder (Alan Ladd and George Raft had already passed on the project), as a doyen of mild champagne bubble comedy dramas and dreary Disney material he was something of a Tom Hanks of his day, a genial everyman whom you’d trust to invest your life savings, to stake you for $20 for your tab at the next guys Poker night, to bring your daughter back from Prom unmolested. Even as the studio production machine of the 1940’s was in full traction sometimes the executives were convinced to take risks by the insistence of influential directors, and here he turned in the most memorable and his personal favourite performance of his career. Both main players are locked in a sordid tumble of sexual fury and decadent desire, shielded from lurid exposition by the prurient restrictions of the 1940’s production code. Nevertheless the emphasis and angles are plain to see, cleverly concealed in Wilder’s emphasis on Freudian icons and totems, then polished in the acid drenched voiceover that guides us through the picture.
When questioned about the format of his great film noir he claimed ‘I always preferred to sacrifice surprise for suspense’, a cunning strategic decision as although we know a murder has taken place at the start of the film, we already yearn to connect the dots and establish who has wounded our increasingly repulsive protagonist. This also generates a doomed inevitably, a core essence of true noir, an inescapable destiny that once you begin the journey of transgression against the social norm your body and soul are damned. The voiceover narration serves as exposition and identification, smearing us as culprits complicit in the crime, one part confessional to two parts whispering embrace, pondering what would you do under the thrall of such bewitching physical and fiscal temptation? It’s difficult to think of another film of the period populated by such wretched leads, you can vaguely understand Neff being led to hell by prioritising his behaviour via certain elements of the male anatomy, but Phyllis remains a duplicitous archetype, even if she is granted a few brief dialogue pleas of frantic reprise before her inevitable fate. The flashback structure slowly tightens the noose, it intensifies the choking web closing in as every visit to the Dietrich home is shot with denser plateaus of chiaroscuro textured venetian lighting, drawing Neff deeper to her poisoned bosom and down to his destruction.
For me the film is quietly embezzled by Edward G. Robinson as Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes, the scuttle minded master of investigation whose indigestion belched hunches are never to be second guessed, heck even his name suggests a man whose purpose on this earth is to unlock lies and penetrate mysteries. He smells a rat with the claim and gets to deploy the best of Wilder’s and Raymond Chandlers silver-tongued script, an agent of increasing pressure as he slowly erodes the foundations of Neff’s disintegrating deception. It’s one of those magical movies where by sheer fate the right ingredients were mixed in exactly the correct proportions (see also Casablanca and whom was originally attached to direct and star) with the principals cast against type in a delicious reversal of audience expectation. One lovely little cinephile factoid, although Chandler and Wilder often sparred over the script that friction ignited the final results, and he can be seen in a miniscule cameo around 15 minutes into the picture. – this is the only known footage of Chandler in existence other than a single home movie. Wilder’s next picture, The Lost Weekend, is rumoured to be in part inspired by Wilder’s observation of Chandler alcoholic struggles, that’s another great picture which I’ll get round to one day.
The BFI treated us with a well-preserved print which was just a little ragged around the reel changes, but the sound and grain detail were all first class, as I think to see such a classic on anything other than original nitrate would be a homicidal crime. It’s a wonderful example of the cameramen’s lavish lighting of the leading ladies of the period, Stanwyck’s silky black widow bob sheathed with an ironic halo top light, an angel of death shrouded in the sticky stink of those pungent honeysuckle shrouds. It’s a testament to Wilder’s prestige and the film’s status that this was a packed Sunday afternoon screening even while the sun was streaming down on London outside, who needs a suntan when you’ve got a fifth of bourbon, a case gnawing at you and a crimson lipped dame on your arm?. Indeed, I can’t believe that this is the first Wilder film I’ve covered here apart from a capsule review of Ace In The Hole around a year ago, suffice to say if the BFI ever host a screening of Sunset Boulevard then I will make every effort to prepare for my close-up as that’s top films of all time material. I’ll leave the final word to the great William Friedkin, a long time champion of the film, as we close this case file and look forward to the next murder to maul the Menagerie;