“Double Indemnity’s” Seven Oscar Nominations Helped Ignite the Film Noir Boom
By Stuart Mitchner
While channel-surfing the other night, I found myself watching the beginning of a film I’d already seen and had no intention of seeing again. That’s Fred MacMurray slumped at a desk in the film noir shadows of the headquarters of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s talking into a dictaphone, about to confess to his boss his part in a sordid tale of claim-rigging, murder, and betrayal. The room onscreen is so deep in the murk of its mood it seems to be glowering at me from the third dimension. Never mind that the man slowly bleeding to death is being played by one of my least favorite actors, he’s sinking his teeth into the role of a lifetime, a mortally wounded insurance salesman named Walter Neff mouthing the hardboiled poetry of Raymond Chandler, with contributions by director Billy Wilder, from a novella by James M. Cain. That’s all she wrote, I’m stuck, can’t turn it off, can’t stop watching, can’t change the channel, Turner Classic Movies scores again.
As the scene shifts to a daylight flashback that shows Neff driving up to a nifty little Spanish colonial hillside chateau, I shout out, “It’s Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s house in Los Felix!” and my wife, who grew up in L.A. and loves this movie, comes running.
The house is still there, though according to underthehollywoodsign.com, the reality is not in Los Felix but in the Hollywood Dell. “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago,” Neff is telling us. The interior, according to the screenplay, is “Spanish craperoo in style” with a wrought-iron staircase curving down from the second floor.
And look who’s coming down that unworthy staircase.
By now my wife’s sitting in her usual place beside me to enjoy one of the seminal moments in film noir played to tawdry perfection by a woman we feel as close to as we would to a glamorous beloved relative who’s been dead for 22 years. We’re familiar with every nuance of her voice, with the way she walks, and moves, and we can imagine her having a laugh with the crew about that big blond wig she’s wearing and the ankle bracelet or “anklet,” as Walter Neff calls it, his eyes fastened on the ankle it’s fastened to while he snidely fields sinister queries from the shady lady about her husband’s life insurance policy. Call it what you will, the effect that little adornment has on Walter is devastating. Stanwyck’s anklet is to Double Indemnity as Rosebud is to Citizen Kane, everything evolves from it, and Walter’s a goner the moment he sees it, as is Stanwyck’s about-to-be-double-indemnified husband.
According to Shadows of Suspense, the documentary accompanying the Universal Legacy Series 2-Disc DVD of Double Indemnity, when Fred MacMurray was offered the part, his are-you-kidding-me response was, “I’m a saxophone player. I do light comic stuff with Claudette Colbert.” Barbara Stanwyck was afraid the film would ruin her career. The beauty of casting a “regular guy” like MacMurray was that audiences would be fascinated by the there’s-a-killer-in-all-of-us aspect, and as a result the glib, regular-guy insurance agent Walter Neff has become one of the rare characters from vintage Hollywood whose name is as much a part of movie lore as the name of the star playing him. If the same can’t be said for Phyllis Dietrichson, the name of the scheming wife, it’s because Stanwyck’s allure overwhelms the impersonation. MacMurray is a mere mortal transcending himself in a killer role. Stanwyck is a luminary from a loftier realm who in 1944 was said to be the highest paid woman in the United States.
Academy Awards 1944
Besides being the only film noir to come close to winning a Best Picture Oscar (it lost to the upbeat, feel-good, priests-can-be-charming box-office smash, Going My Way), Double Indemnity also fits the sub genre of the so-called “buddy movie” most recently represented by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The affectionate rapport between Neff and his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in his prime) creates a sympathetic contrast to the cold-blooded bond between the lovers. Whenever Keyes fumbles to find a light for his cigar, Neff is there to light it for him with a playful but caring “I love you too.” Walter and Phyllis consummate the relationship by killing one another; but when Neff is dying in the hall outside the office where the story began, it’s Keyes who lights his cigarette.
The various talking heads in Shadows of Suspense all agree that the Academy’s recognition of Double Indemnity (seven Oscar nominations), along with its box office success, helped ignite the film noir boom that took place between the mid-1940s and the advent of CinemaScope ten years later. While the wartime American public “had lost its innocence and wanted more adult stories,” according to film noir authority Eddie Muller, the Motion Picture Academy couldn’t stoop to honoring so disreputable and nascent a genre with an actual Oscar. Probably the most deserving of the nominees, along with Wilder as Best Director, was the cinematographer John F. Seitz, who steeps scenes in lavish depths of darkness that are remarkable even for film noir. While Barbara Stanwyck was at least nominated for Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman won for Gaslight), MacMurray and Robinson did not even make the cut for the Best Actor and Supporting Actor Oscars, which went to Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in the Going My Way landslide.
My only quibble with Shadows of Suspense is that it opens with Muller’s declaration that film noir “for all intents and purposes began with Double Indemnity.” This is a shaky generalization at best when you consider that Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady was released eight months earlier in February 1944 and that Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window also appeared the same year. As far as that goes, noir themes can be dated back to films like Stranger On the Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming and The Maltese Falcon (1941), Kid Glove Killer and This Gun for Hire (1942), to mention only a few.
I’ll come clean: we skipped the Oscars this year to watch David Hare’s two-hour-long Page Eight on PBS because we liked the cast, especially Bill Nighy. While I’m all for one night every year being set aside to celebrate the movies, I have a low tolerance for all the glitzy scripted back and forth, the unbelievably tasteless jokes (like the cute one about the assassination of Lincoln), and I have a lifelong aversion to watching “beautiful people” embarrass themselves in public. If there were an over the counter drug that prevented cringing and squirming, I would need half a bottle to get through an hour of Oscar night. Argo was a worthy winner, but I doubt I’ll ever see it again, except maybe to enjoy the great lines dished out by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who also lent his inimitable presence to Flight. The fact that Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar, particularly for the role that launched a thousand quotes, exposes an essential and enduring Academy blind spot. Fifty years from now somebody somewhere will be streaming The Big Lebowski and laughing at lines from Walter and Donny and the Dude they know by heart, but will anyone be visiting this year’s big winners? I doubt it. The Dude abides and so does Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet.
Born February 27
When you look at who was born on this date, you might be forgiven for thinking Oscar himself first saw the light on the 27th of February.
For instance there’s William Demerest (1892-1983), one of the best character actors of his time, a man who performed pratfalls elaborate enough to convulse the comic gods. His one Oscar nomination was for Best Supporting Actor in 1947’s The Jolson Story, but he’s at his best in Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Another member of the 27 Club is Franchot Tone (1905-1968), who netted a Best Actor nomination in 1935 for Mutiny On the Bounty.
Perhaps the most unlikely nominee ever for a major award was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (born 2/27/23), whose rollercoaster career included jazz stardom, drug addiction, prison time, comeback as a dominant player, and then, five years before his death in 1990, being cast by Bernard Tavernier as the tenor legend in Round Midnight, for which Long Tall Dex landed a Best Actor nomination and a seat at the 1986 Oscar ceremonies.
One of two well-known writers with Hollywood credits born on this date, Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) was nominated as co-writer of the screenplay for Talk of the Town, but the single most prodigious generator of Oscar-winning product was John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Besides scoring nominations for writing Viva Zapata, A Medal for Benny, and Lifeboat, he produced a series of novels that Hollywood feasted on to a degree unmatched by his peers, the biggest winner being Grapes of Wrath, which took two Oscars out of seven nominations in 1940.
Of the three actresses born on February 27, four-time nominee Joanne Woodward (1930 —) won a Best Actress Oscar in 1957 for Three Faces of Eve. Joan Bennett (1910-1990) never won an Oscar, nor was she nominated, but any time you talk film noir, she comes into the conversation as a femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Last but definitely not least, there’s the two-time Best Actress winner James Agee greeted with a notice in The Nation she must have cherished from the age of 12 on. Writing in December of 1944, Agee admits, “Frankly, I doubt that I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment of Miss Elizabeth Taylor. Ever since I first saw the child, two or three years ago, in I forget what minor role in what movie, I have been choked with the peculiar sort of admiration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school.” Later, after giving her performance in National Velvet a more objective analysis, he adds, “She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful.” Taylor, who died in March 2011 at 79, was nominated five times for Best Actress and won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).
The two-disc Double Idemnity DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.