Spoilers ahead. (But really, it’s a movie from 1944.)
I’m a bit ashamed to say that I only just recently watched Double Indemnity. As a self-proclaimed film noir fan, not watching the movie was a huge gap in my knowledge of the genre.
But I did finally watch it. It was amazing. I now know why it is such a celebrated entry in the film noir cannon.
Although, there is something that bothered me while watching. I thought all the actors (Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson) gave phenomenal performances. I just could not for the life of me figure out if Fred MacMurray’s character was supposed to be a suave, hard boiled insurance salesman, or if he was trying to be a suave, hard boiled insurance salesman. In other words, is MacMurray’s character cool in the movie, or is he a dork?
This is what I mean. Look how smug he is. Is he really that good or is he trying to be that good?
Part of the problem with watching older movies is that the plot, acting, set design, dialogue, etc. can seem antiquated or silly. I try really hard to look past things like characters smoking in hospitals. I know that’s what it was like back then. These movies are like time machines. They’re not perfect portals into the past (I highly doubt everyone talked in a Trans-Atlantic Accent), but they are good representations of what the past was like.
When it comes to MacMurray’s character, on one hand I can see how audiences would view him as a really cool and slick character. On the other hand, watching today, I have decades upon decades of other films to look to that feature characters who are hard boiled, slick, and for lack of a better adjective, bad ass. If you compare MacMurray to any of these characters (for instance Jack Nicholson in Chinatown), you get the sense that MacMurray is not on the same playing field.
What it really comes down to is that MacMurray seems like he’s trying too hard to be hard boiled. It’s in his face and the way he delivers the lines. He has this look about him like he’s very satisfied with himself for coming up with the zingers and quips. His face beams “nice guy.” He comes across like he read a Raymond Chandler novel, memorized some quotes, and uses them incessantly in real life.
Here’s the thing though. It doesn’t matter. The movie works both ways. Whether MacMurray really is a hard boiled insurance salesman or if he’s a dork trying to hard. Either he comes up with this brilliant plan to kill Stanwyck’s husband and meets his demise through overlooking his lust or he is a dork and Stanwyck walks over and manipulates him the whole time.
In the first case (MacMurray is hard boiled), then the movie plays like one of the best film noirs in the genre. All the elements are in place, suave lead actor, femme fatale, a plot that sucks in the main character against his will, the idea that no matter what happens the hero is destined to fail. When the movie is viewed this way, there aren’t any huge surprises in the plot if you are a film noir fan. It’s just that movie is done really, really well.
In the second case (MacMurray is trying to be hard boiled), I would argue that this movie now becomes a commentary on the film noir genre. The protagonist sees himself as a film noir hero. He finds a beautiful woman and is instantly attracted to her. (In the movie MacMurray falls head over heels for Stanwyck the moment they meet. Later in the movie MacMurray says he loves her. But they’ve barely interacted. They’ve barely spent time together.) Then, while being completely oblivious to the woman’s darkness, the man becomes entangled in a plot to murder another person. MacMurray thinks he can get away with it because he believes himself to be clever. Not only that but he thinks he is righteous in his cause. Stanwyck says she is emotionally abused by her husband. MacMurray doesn’t even do his own research into this claim. He believes Stanwyck and face value.
Once MacMurray starts to unravel Stanwyck’s ulterior motives it becomes either a win for MacMurray (he uses his wit to figure out he’s been duped) or it’s horribly heartbreaking (he finally realizes he’s been manipulated by someone he thought he loved).
Here’s some food for thought. Throughout the movie, MacMurray constantly has a supply of strike anywhere matches. He uses them by flicking his thumb against the match head. Is that the behavior of someone who is cool or is that the behavior of someone trying to be cool?
Start the video at 0:09. Ignore the rest.
Either way, it’s really a testament to how great this movie is if MacMurray’s performance can be read in two completely different ways and still work.
What do you think? Is MacMurray a cool cat or is he a dweeb? Comment below!