DOUBLE INDEMNITY holds a special resonance for me; it is the very first movie my father took me to at the drive-in theater.
In 1940s and ’50s America, gender roles were firmly defined and divided; in families, girls kept company with their mothers, learning how to cook, to sew, to dress up pretty; boys stayed mostly with their fathers learning how to spackle a window, swagger, ice fish and spit. So it was that Friday nights in the summer, I found myself in our overlarge, green Plymouth, next to my handsome dad — a big, brown paper bag between us, peckered all over with buttery grease stains, filled to the very top with homemade popcorn. This is where I learned to love the movies.
Happy as I was to be with my father, I wanted more to be with my mother; she I could relate to better, and as I grew, and realized I had little or no desire to swagger (and couldn’t if I tried!), I longed to be near her, or to BE her; she was sweet, wore clothes that made a swishing sound around her, and high heels that clicked on the pavement in the most delightful way. Yet — one thing bothered me; she was totally submissive to my father’s wishes and this, I did not like or understand. Even at the age of 5, I knew instinctively that no woman should ever bow to a man, and that in my fantasy mind, you could put me in a dress, put make-up on my face and slip those clicky high heels on me but no way were you going to make me cower to someone because he had a penis and a deeper voice. Something seemed so off about that.
When Barbara Stanwyck came on the screen, I had an epiphany (can five year olds have epiphanies?!!) Here was a woman serving up sexual confusion and comfort, not only to Fred MacMurray but also to me. Brassy and brash-talking, glamour-puss Stanwyck wasn’t afraid to talk back to a man. She would lower her voice to decibels deeper than his, order him around, and slap him across the face if she wanted to. And she was secure enough in her own persona to take a slap or two if she felt SHE deserved it. She seemed neither man nor woman, or seemed to be both. In her movies, she could mount a horse, wield a whip, and throw a punch better than any guy. Talk about swagger! And yet, side-by-side with these masculine traits was a palpable female seductiveness. She knew how to doll up: the face Valentine-pretty, the voluptuous body almost always bound up in too-tight wardrobes, the basso voice that could turn into a purr if she needed to seduce her prey. It was learned in later years that Stanwyck lived an unashamedly bisexual life; a fact Hollywood studio heads kept from audiences they thought might run away from such “depravity”.
Barbara Stanwyck helped re-define ideas about gender and the role of women in society, not only in movies but more importantly, in American culture as well. In “Double Indemnity”, SHE is the man, or she adopts the male stereotype of “I’m really the one in charge here”.
The always likable Fred MacMurray wasn’t a powder puff by any means but he had a soft side to him, a gullibility, especially in his voice, and the way he had of arching his eyebrows, looking, to be honest, fairly dopey (skills that served him well in later vehicles such as Disney’s “Absent-Minded Professor” series and T.V.’s “My Three Sons”). And so, in him, we are given the perfect rube for Stanwyck’s devious machinations, and thus, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is born.
The film is on fire from the moment it starts; Miklos Roczsa’s music is aflame, too, grabbing us by the throat, with no mercy, and dragging us down, down, for this is truly Hell. We, along with the characters in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, are headed for the exit lest the smoke of sexuality and deception suffocate us—only there is no exit, just the awful crawling toward an escape we only THINK is there.
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Based on the hit potboiler of the same name by super crime novelist, James M. Cain, the movie boasted 7 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture of 1944. The great Billy Wilder directs and also co-wrote the screenplay with the equally legendary Raymond Chandler. The movie almost didn’t get made; the Hollywood Code Office took eight, long years to relent to letting its lurid story be filmed. Alan Ladd and George Raft both turned down the role MacMurray eventually won. Known prior to DOUBLE INDEMNITY for comedy roles, he, too, was reluctant to sign on to play such a dastardly fool but Wilder finally talked him into shaking up his image.
The always wonderful Edward G. Robinson was a top box-office star. A leading man, he had a hard time accepting that he would now, as he aged, be relegated to supporting roles. He did not want to take a backseat to Stanwyck and MacMurray. But after some soul-searching, he chose to make the graceful transition to well-written secondary roles in good, solid scripts like DOUBLE INDEMNITY with respected directors like Wilder rather than play leading men in sub-standard fare. DOUBLE INDEMNITY stands as the best work any of these three performers ever did in each of their long careers. I think it is not too bold of me to say that it is the best noir ever made; its dark themes, its relentless amorality marked a sea change in the American landscape, shaking up the culture to the point where our lives, our desires, what we wanted, who we were became un-recognizable from what they had been prior to World War II. The world had changed and so movies changed with it. Like it or not, America had lost its innocence and wanted stories and actors that reflected that change — common, hard-boiled people doing bad things to get what they want or need. The movie actually makes possible the impossibility of putting the audience on the side of the killers, a nearly unheard-of feat in those sophomore years of Hollywood.
Before I leave these notes, I want to mention, too, the costumes by the ever-inventive Edith Head. Their (and her) artistry embellish the characters, adding to the performances: Stanwyck’s skirts with their slick, sleek, streamlined cut, and the men in suits as loose as their morals for really, Robinson’s husband is as feckless as Mac-Murray’s hapless loverboy; both fall for Stanwyck for all the wrong reasons, let themselves be blinded by her Black Widow beauty and conniving allure.
Ah, Barbara Stanwyck, the likes of whom moviegoers always return when trying to figure out why movies can be so hypnotic. All great stars have a danger to them, the feeling that, at any moment, they are going to go off like ten nuclear bombs. Stanwyck had that quality in spades; the lunatic factor is high. Even when actors like Stanwyck don’t explode, in fact, ESPECIALLY when they don’t explode but keep the lid on their rage, THIS is when we fear them most, love them most, when they fascinate us the most. All engines percolating, their repression somehow seizes the screen — we are ready to jump out of our skin right along with them yet — they hold back, the Ultimate Tease, the Ultimate Seduction Number whether emotional, physical, sexual or all three (Of today’s stars, Ryan Gosling has this combo down to a science). Even when Stanwyck loses her cool, we know she isn’t losing it as much as she wants to, or can. She is fire and ice combined — there was never anything middle-of-the-road about her, and that’s what audiences liked — the lip was always too perfectly curled, the pop eyes too perfectly popping, the promises always so insincerely sincere, the nasty undercurrents always too, too real. She just couldn’t be trusted, that one. Was she a guy? Was she a girl? Did she love you? Did she despise you? With her, you never knew where you were at.
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In that Plymouth at that drive-in, I can still, all these years later, smell the popcorn, feel the buttery heat from the still-warm bag of deliciousness, hear my father’s steady, impossibly handsome, hot breath next to me. I can still see Stanwyck up there on that giant screen, her eyes staring down at me, her wonderfully androgynous aura boring into my sexual questionings, letting me know it was okay to be male/female, and get away with it.
Go see DOUBLE INDEMNITY because it is a fantastic film with fantastic performances. Go see it especially for Stanwyck, who helped make the world the gender-liberated place it is today…