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The Sweet Smell of Murder: The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity

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In 1925, Ruth Brown Snyder, of Queens NY, who was having an affair with a married salesman, Henry Gray, decided to kill her husband. With the assistance of an insurance agent, who was later fired and imprisoned for forgery, Snyder purchased an insurance policy in her husband’s name, a policy that paid extra — double indemnity — if her husband died in an act of “unexpected violence.” Snyder then attempted to kill her husband at least seven times, finally succeeding with her lover Henry Gray’s assistance, and subsequently staging the murder as a robbery gone bad.

Snyder’s inconsistent stories about the robbery-murder, along with the police discovery of the stolen items hidden in the house, caused detectives to investigate Snyder more thoroughly. When police located her lover, Gray, he confessed in great detail. Snyder was found guilty and imprisoned. In 1928, she became the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Tom Howard’s dramatic photograph of Snyder in the electric chair mid-execution was printed on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Ruth Brown Snyder, photographed mid-execution by Tom Howard, © New York Daily News

Many celebrities and reporters covered Snyder’s trial, including crime reporter James M. Cain, who subsequently based two of his novels on Snyder’s story: The Postman Always Rings Twice, about a woman who murders her husband with the help of her ex-con lover; and Double Indemnity, which more closely follows Snyder’s story.

The novel is a crime fiction classic, and the 1944 film of the same name, co-written by director Billy Wilder and crime fiction author Raymond Chandler, has since become one of the defining classics of Noir Film, with all the genre’s requisite essentials: a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over narration limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous but always beautiful and sexually alluring femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a Dictaphone message for a colleague, Keyes, a brilliant claims adjuster noted for ferreting out insurance fraud. Walter’s confession becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, seems to be seriously offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With Phyllis’ ostensibly reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Edward G Robinson as Keyes, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man instead of as a criminal or gangster) is immediately suspicious about the husband’s accident. Keyes intentionally stalls payment on the insurance policy to aggravate Phyllis, complicating Walter’s relationship with her.

Jean Heather as Lola, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Further, the victim’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) knows some secret about Phyllis’ past that makes Lola also suspect foul-play was involved in her father’s death. While simultaneously side-stepping his colleague’s ongoing fraud investigation, Walter spends more time with Lola to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions. Though still sexually involved with Phyllis, Walter begins to have feelings for Lola. When she tells him that she thinks her stepmother Phyllis is involved with Lola’s own boyfriend Nino, Walter’s guilt about the murder and his burgeoning fear of Phyllis make him anxious for his own life.

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Fred MacMurray as Walter, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity is a “moody, pessimistic crime story with strong overtones of spiritual bankruptcy and moral cynicism” and is considered both a model and an archetype of the Noir Film genre.

Filmed in black-and-white, and

[b]rilliantly photographed by John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity’s use of ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting (creating a jail bars effect that foreshadows the likely, if not actual, fate of its protagonists) was to go on become a staple of the film noir look.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, regarded as a “template” for Noir films, and considered by most critics and archivists to be one of the best American films of all time, Double Indemnity is available for rent for $2.99/3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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