DOUBLE INDEMNITY: THE FILM NOIR CLASSIC

A car careens through the dark streets of downtown L.A., avoiding an accident and blowing through a red signal. A man gets out of a car and enters an office building, getting  curious looks and questions from the night attendant. He goes to his office, shaky and weak. He  lights a cigarette in his trademark manner, striking the match with his thumbnail,  then  readies his Dictaphone.  He speaks out a memo for his boss at the Pacific All Risk Insurance Co. “I suppose you’ll call this a confession,” he states. “Well I don’t like the word confession. I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against  your nose.”

Double Indemnity Title

Set to the unforgettably dramatic and alternately mysterious musical score of Miklos Rozsa, thus opens Billy Wilder’s classic film noir –  Double Indemnity. Like Wilder’s later Sunset Blvd. and typical of the film noir genre, the film starts at the end of the story, a device emphasizing the fatality of the characters’ lives. Also paired with the end-of-story beginning is a voice-over from the character explaining how things went wrong in their lives. With Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, this comes early in his  opening “confessional” scene regarding the Dietrichson case, the case that Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes finally suspects was murder. “Yes I killed him.” says Neff referring to Dietrichson. “I killed for money. And for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”

 

Double Indemnity confession

The woman was  Barbara Stanwyck playing femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson. Walter Neff was a sucker as soon as he saw her at the top of the stairs wearing a bath robe, and sealed when she sat down across him wearing an ankle bracelet. Their sharp repartee moves quickly from her anklet to auto insurance to accident insurance to a come-on that is deftly repelled, with a succession of double-entendres leading to a time for him to return when her husband will be there. And of course her husband wasn’t there when Neff returns, with Neff now ready to settle in. But her plan of taking out accident insurance on her husband without him knowing about it has Neff beating a quick retreat. But Neff can’t get her out of his mind, and all it takes is a visit from Phyllis to his apartment late at night to set things in motion.

 

Double-Indemnity- 1

This entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Blogathon, features a central plot element aboard a train.

The story itself was ripped from the headlines, a case from 1927 when a wife and her boyfriend knocked off the husband for insurance money. The noted noir writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice) serialized his novella of Double Indemnity” in Liberty Magazine before it was published as a book. A script outline had been sent to the Production Code Administration (the censors) by Louis B. Mayer as early as 1935, with the response that the story was “in violation of the Production Code,” with the same information given to Warner Brothers some years later. When Billy Wilder got interested in the story he asked Cain to write the script but he was too busy, so Wilder turned to Raymond Chandler who accepted. Wilder and Chandler did not get along. They were very much opposite personalities, and Chandler’s heavy drinking didn’t help. Chandler had written books but no scripts, so they stayed in the same room working on the script until the script was finished – and they couldn’t stand each other.They shared script-writing credits although Chandler’s characteristic  clipped, hard-boiled dialogue is a hallmark of the film, along with his facility with the thinly veiled dialogue of sexual come-ons.  A rare glimpse of Raymond Chandler seated on a bench reading a book can be seen as Fred MacMurray exits Edward G. Robinson’s office for the first time.

 

Double Indemnity 4

Neff is powerless when Phyllis Dietrich comes calling to his apartment. The mood is emphasized by the noir cinematography of John Seitz

 

This was an early film noir and a trend-setter. It was Billy Wilder’s first great film, but at the time everybody turned down the roles of the criminal leads. Billy Wilder had to convince Barbara Stanwyck to take the part of the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, her first unsympathetic role. Fred MacMurray, a former saxophone player,  had previously only played in nice romantic comedy roles. Here he plays a devious insurance agent suckered into a murder scheme for money and for a woman. Edward G. Robinson was uninterested in playing a supporting role, having been a lead since the 1930s. As it turned out, these were all memorable career roles for the three actors. The scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray were masterfully shot by cinematographer John Seitz, pushing the envelope of darkness in interior and exterior lighting, and  using the coming noir  trademark of Venetian blind shadowing to foreshadow the prison bars in Neff’s future.

Double Indemnity_Bar_Lighting

And of course this is a story of pre-meditated murder. One of those where the premeditated part is supposed to be a plan where  all the details are worked out so that the insurance money is collected and the murderers get away with the crime. The fatality of film noir is emphasized early in the plot, however, “The machinery had started and nothing could stop it,” said Neff.  It’s Walter Neff’s voice-over we hear, his point of view, his slip from ordinary insurance salesman to punch-drunk lover to murderer. And yet his good-looks and soft-spot for the daughter Lola Dietrichson and her rough-edged boyfriend leads us to sympathize with his plight. As for Phyllis, she’s “rotten to the heart” as she admits, but achieves a sort of redemption by not following through with killing Neff, and gets killed instead. A repeated line in the script emphasized their partnership “straight down the line.” Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) said it more explicitly about the pair in the crime, “They’re stuck with each other. They have to ride all the way to the end of the line, it’s one-way and the last stop is the cemetery.”

The crime itself was a simple strangulation in an automobile, with the plan to dump the body next to the rail-road tracks and make it look like the body had fallen off the train. This would be made verifiable by Neff getting on the train earlier and mpersonating Mr. Dietrichson, complete with fake broken leg and crutches. Only there was another rider on the observation deck, who saw him, but he was sent of to fetch “Dietrichson’s”  forgotten cigarettes. He could now jump off near where the body was, and be picked up by Phyllis and be dropped off near his apartment. It all seemed to work, except that when Neff was walking home, Neff reflected on his situation, “I felt that everything would go wrong. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

 

Double Indemnity 6

It was made to look like an accident – he fell off the train, and one of those “double indemnity” cases where the insurance would pay double

 

Those were haunting words and thoughts for the man who had planned it all to go perfectly. But was he really in control? Or was he a patsy in Phyllis’ scheme. Keyes is suspicious, and won’t pay on the claim; Lola visits Neff and they spend time together, where she says Phyllis was her mother’s nurse but  believes she murdered her to marry her father; and then Neff hears Keyes’ Dictaphone recording of his suspicions, including private eye evidence that Phyllis and Lola’s ex-boyfriend Zachette were spending a lot of time together. Neff no longer trusts Phyllis, and believes he has to get off of that one-way train.

 

Double-Indemnity-Jerrys

Walter and Phyllis at Jerry’s Market

Neff calls Phyllis and sets up a meeting at her house. They had been holding secretive meetings at “Jerry’s Market” up until then. Phyllis is prepared, with a handgun tucked away under the cushion of her stuffed chair. Neff tells her he knows she’s been playing him for a sucker, that she was going to run off with the money, but now Keyes isn’t paying off on the insurance, and has Zachette down as the murderer, with her as the accomplice, and  he was getting off this train. Then Phyllis shoots Neff, wounding him in the shoulder. “You can do better than that baby,” he says. As he walks toward her she holds the gun but doesn’t shoot.                                                                      “Don’t tell me you loved me all this time.”                                                       “No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me.”                                                                 “Sorry, baby I’m not buying.”

Phyllis has a look of surprise and horror when Neff shoots her, twice. Walter lay her down on the couch, dead. Once outside, Neff runs into Zachette, and tells him to call Lola, who really loves him, and to beat it. Neff then goes on a speed run to where we first saw him, making his confession. Only now, barely holding on as he speaks, Barton Keyes overhears him. Neff asks for time to get to the border, Keyes tells him he won’t make it to the elevator. Indeed, he collapses at the office doorway. Neff props himself up, as Keyes bends down beside him.                                                                                                                                 “You know why you couldn’t figure this one Keyes? I’ll tell you. Cause the guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you.”                                                                                                          “Closer than that, Walter.”                                                                                              “I love you too.” Neff says.

Neff tries to light a cigarette. Keyes does it for him, striking the match with his thumbnail. With Rosza’s now indelible pounding theme music closing out the scene, Double Indemnity comes to its end. It was dialogue like that quoted above and the closing scene that distinguishes  Double Indemnity and makes it sublime among Noir films. An alternate ending had Neff going to the gas chamber (in the book the lovers commit suicide). It tested unpopular and in reality would have compromised the greatness of the ending above.

The look of Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson is very characteristic in the strict definition of the word. Her blond wig and dark glasses as worn in the last Jerry’s Market scene is often viewed as a clip from the movie. Billy Wilder himself selected the wig from a wig store, rather than to have the more professional studio hair stylist dye and prepare her hair. Some say it was to make Phyllis seem “cheap.” I think it was to emphasize the “costumed” character, playing one of her many roles: wife; seductress; nurse; step-mother; murderess; widow; spy. Edith Head designed her costumes. Barbara and Edith had developed a close relationship since working together on The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and several other movies. In this period of the early and mid-1940s, Edith had developed a  very flattering silhouette for Barbara, whose slight, long waisted figure was improved with Edith’s designs. Characteristic of the film and also of several films noir are the location shots. Here we see Jerry’s Market at 5330 Melrose Avenue, the “Dietrichson” house at 6301 Quebec Drive in the Hollywood Hills, 5th and Olive for the beginning car scene, 1825 N. Kingsley Drive for Walter Neff’s apartment, and the intersection of Hollywood and Western, among others.

 

Double Indemnity received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Writing, Music, Cinematography and Sound. It won in none of those categories. It received no Best Supporting Actor nomination, which continued Edward G. Robinson’s streak of never having won an Academy Award. The winner of Best Picture that year was Going My Way.

The American Film Institute ranks it #27 in the 10th edition of 100 Years 100 Movies.

 

 

 

 

FABULOUS 1950s IN FILM FASHION

The 1950s are presented in various and changing images as the years go by, bolstered by films and TV shows: suburban growth; stereotypical families; mass consumerism; the cold war and the threat of the atomic bomb;  rebelious rockers; and a seemingly simpler even idyllic time. In Hollywood the Production Code was still in force, and therefore the censor still prevailed in what was shown on the screen and how far a screenplay could go in subject matter and treatment.

In the post-war 1950s, the combined restrictions from film censorship and the lagging societal constraint on sex in general had the effect of unleashing an ever-present focus on the image of female sexual attraction on film. While beautiful movie stars with sex appeal had been around since the silent screen, the overt sexual magnetism of the 1950s stars is contrasted and often made contradictory by the wholesome image of the star. This role was played by several stars including the beautiful Esther Williams, and was perfected by Doris Day.

 

Sophia Loren (circa 1950s)

Photo Courtesy Photofest

 

The European movie-stars on the other hand provided the desired amount of foreign, and a perceived lack of restraint to play daring roles in film, while wearing provocative costumes and fashions. American G.I.s during World War II  already had a taste of their appeal. Sofia Loren, beginning her film career in Italy in 1950, virtually defined the post-war look of continental sexual allure. Such a look is not based on showing a lot of skin, nor is it entirely based on the French New Look in fashion. But in the dress above worn by Sofia Loren, the style shows off the contours of her body perfectly, and it does share with the New Look a reliance on corsetry to pinch the waist in order to accent the hips and bust, the latter the particular sexual fetish of the 1950s.

Another European bombshell exploded on the scene in the 1950s: Brigitte Bardot. She began making movies in 1952, but her beauty and looks typecast her in lightweight eye-candy roles. Her then-husband Roger Vadim, part of the French New Wave, cast her along with Jean-Louis Tintignant in And God Created Woman (Et Dieu Crea la Femme) in 1956, and an iconic star was born. Bardot was very much  a portent for the look of the coming 1960s (and later decades). She is pictured below in a costume from And God Created Woman. The outfit was designed by French couturier Pierre Balmain. It is a simple black shirt with a long center-buttoned skirt. Later in the film she dances in the outfit with the buttons undone to her waist. Brigitte Bardot had previously popularized the bikini bathing suit on the French Riviera.

 

Fab 50s Bardot God Created Woman Balmain

 

America’s swimsuit goddess was Esther Wiliams, a previous National champion swimmer who became a movie star at MGM. The studio created the wildly popular genre of “acqua-musicals” based on her skills and personality. Following years of the Great Depression and WWII, the smiling face and healthy physique of Esther Williams combined with the sunny skies of California made for a popular series of films. The costume and fashion designer Irene dressed Esther Williams in her early MGM movies, although Helen Rose designed for her 1950s films, including the classic Million Dollar Mermaid, 1952; Easy to Love, 1953; and Dangerous When Wet, 1953Both designers designed Esther’s unique swimsuits for the films.

 

Fab 50s Esther Williams

 

The fashion trend that defined the basic look of the 1950s started in Paris with the couture creations of Christian Dior. Following years of deprivation during World War II, French couture went on a splurge in the use of fabric, which had previously been rationed. The
“New Look” as it was dubbed by Life Magazine in late 1947, was based on a pinched waist, a full skirt with layers of petitcoats, and a full breasted-bodice, the whole based on foundation undergarments. The style was a return to the hourglass silhouette popular during the 1860s and earlier.

The model below shows a Christian Dior fashion. During the 1949-1950 period, both the New Look and the broad-shouldered, pencil-skirted look of the 1940s could be seen side-by-side. There were some groups of women that demonstrated against the New Look, asking why was Dior trying to hide women’s legs.

 

Fab 50s Dior new look

 

As would increasingly be the case, youth, led the way in starting the trend in the U.S. The movies continued to have a major impact through the combination of costume designer and star they dressed. One such combo was Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Rose. Helen Rose had been dressing Elizabeth since she was 15 and starring in A Date with Judy. Her violet eyes, dark hair and prominent eyebrows made for a beautiful impression on screen – and a star was born. Rose designed the Father of the Bride movie in 1950, and subsequently Elizabeth’s real wedding gown, and then the movie sequel. This was followed by Love is Better Than Ever, made in 1951 but released in 1952. In this film Rose dresses Elizabeth Taylor in New Look dresses. Elizabeth had become the model for teenage girls, and both the New Look and Helen Rose became hot.

 

Elizabeth & Helen LoveIsBetterEver_1952

Elizabeth Taylor in Love is Better Than Ever. In the film she plays a dance teacher. Photo courtesy Photofest

 

The New Look with its petticoats and prim attention to proper dress seems foreign to the last 30 years of teenage styles, but it was the trend of the day. As ever, teenage girls wanted to look different than their mothers. Shown below is a costume sketch designed by Mary Wills for the movie Teenage Rebel, from 1956. This design was for the teenager played by Betty Lou Keim, the “rebellious” daughter of the character played by Ginger Rogers. A teenage girl yearning for womanhood and showing decollete was the height of fashionable statements of the day.

 

Mary Wills - Teenage Rebel

 

Elizabeth Taylor matured quickly. The red dress that Helen Rose designed for her in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), caused problems with the on-set fiilm censor because of the amount of cleavage that was displayed. This caused a work stoppage and loud arguments by the director Richard Brooks. Brooks ultimately won.

Elizabeth-Helen-Last-Time-I-Saw-Paris

 

Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Rose teamed up on the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958. Helen Rose created a dress that would become the fashion rage. The “Cat” dress it would be called, and garment manufacturers were knocking it off all over the world. The chiffon cocktail dress with full skirt and Grecian bodice became so popular that Helen Rose decided to start her own fashion line, and continued selling it in various colors for years. When dressing Elizabeth Taylor, her shoulders and chest were always emphasized to good effect.

 

Liz - Cat Dress

 

Another screen goddess from the 1950s was Grace Kelly. Her smashing entrance into Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in  Rear Window (1956) dressed in Edith Head’s stunning black and white evening outfit is unforgettable. The costume is a simple black decollete top and a full white chiffon skirt decorated with beaded twig decorations in black. It was one of Edith Head’s best designs. Grace wears black strappy heels with the outfit.

 

Grace Rear Window2

 

Edith Head also designed Grace Kelly’s costumes for To Catch a Thief (1955). Grace Kelly was the perfect embodiment of the 1950s sexual image: the wholesome and proper young woman with a lurking sexual appetite, waiting for the right occasion. “Do you want a leg or a breast” she asks Cary Grant as they go out on a picnic. Her rose-colored skirt and white-embroidered sleeveless top shown below is a beautifully-designed outfit for the occasion.

 

Fab 50s Grace-to catch a thief

Grace Kelly had worked as a model in her acting student years, and her poise shows in the photo below, wearing an Edith Head gown for the 1955 Academy Awards, where she won Best Actress for Country Girl.

Fab 50s grace-kelly-life-cover

Doris Day seemed to represent the ethos of the 1950s in America. She had started as a singer with big bands and became a hit with the movie Romance on the High Seas, in 1948. U.S. G.I.s in Korea voted her their favorite movie star in 1950. Her movies in the 1950s often had songs that became hit singles, and her teamwork with co-stars Rock Hudson and Tony Randall started in 1959 with Pillow Talk and continued into the 1960s.  Doris Day was always a great dresser in her roles, and she worked with the best: Jean Louis; Edith Head; Helen Rose, and she was especially close to Irene, with whom she worked on Midnight Lace, and Lover Come Back, two of the last three movies Irene designed before her death.

In the photo below Doris Day wears a popular leisure outfit of the 1950s, capri pants, called pedal pushers in the day, along with a long-sleeved, collared blouse.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett/REX_Shutterstock (1897985a) Doris Day, circa 1945 Doris Day, circa 1945

Photo by Everett/REX_Shutterstock (1897985a)

 

Some actresses were more daring in their looks on screen, and film directors and producers pushed to accent their beauty and sexual appeal. Martha Hyer is shown below in 1957, showing the silhouette that emphasized the then-popular missile-cone bustline.

Photo courtesy of Photofest

Photo courtesy of Photofest

 

The movie star looks of Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Kim Novak in the1950s created a huge demand for a moulded silhouette emphasizing curves and a prominent bust line. What was achieved through foundation undergarments on film was now becoming increasingly available to the average woman consumer. Nylon was making bras lighter and cheaper, and conical stitching was providing that perfect “missile bra” look so desired in the mid 1950s.

The “Sweater Girl” look had also became popular, starting with the films of Lana Turner. In the 1950s there was a competition for the title of “National Sweater Queen.”  In the early 50s the tight sweater was worn with the very full circle skirts made popular by the New Look. Later in the decade and into the early 1960s, tight pants were joined with tight sweaters to make the very hot look as shown below by Kim Novak.

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And of course what would the 1950s be without Marilyn Monroe, star then and everlasting star. She had so many looks, but costume and fashion designer William “Billy” Travilla dressed her best in her films for 20th Century-Fox. Below she wears a gold lame gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Travilla knew how to accentuate Marilyn’s curves while providing her glamorous and beautiful costumes. He was also daring with such outfits as the one below.

 

Marilyn Monroe wearing a gold lame gown by Travilla from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953)

Marilyn Monroe wearing a gold lame gown by Travilla from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)

As the 1950s rolled into the early 1960s, fashions made no particularly big swings. The “revolutionary” styles were around the corner in 1963 and beyond. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was concentrated on the young. By then the sexual tidal wave in film fashion had already been crashing on the censor’s gates for years.