A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Oscar-bashing is an easy game to play, but sometimes it's a necessary one. Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards: best picture, best director (Billy Wilder), best actress (Barbara Stanwyck), best screenplay (Wilder and Raymond Chandler), best black-and-white cinematography (John F. Seitz), best scoring (Miklós Rózsa), and best sound recording. It won none of them. The most egregious losses were to the sugary Going My Way, which was named best picture; Leo McCarey won for direction, and Frank Butler and Frank Cavett won for a screenplay that seems impossibly pious and sentimental today. Almost no one watches Going My Way today, whereas Double Indemnity is on a lot of people's lists of favorite films. The reason often cited for Double Indemnity's losses is that it was produced by Paramount, which also produced Going My Way, and that the studio instructed its employees to vote for the latter film. But the Academy always felt uncomfortable with film noir, of which Double Indemnity, a film deeply cynical about human nature, is a prime example. Wilder and Chandler completely reworked James M. Cain's story in their screenplay, and while they were hardly cheerful co-workers (Wilder claimed that he based the alcoholic writer in his 1945 film The Lost Weekend on Chandler), the result was a fine blend of Wilder's bitter wit and Chandler's insight into the twisted nature of the protagonists, Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) and Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). And as long as we're on the subject of Oscars, there are the glaring absences of MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson from the nominations -- and not only for this year: Neither actor was ever nominated by the Academy. MacMurray's departure from his usual good-guy roles to play the sleazy, murderous Neff should have been the kind of career about-face the Academy often applauds. And Robinson's dogged, dyspeptic insurance investigator, Barton Keyes, is one of the great character performances in a career notable for them. (The supporting actor Oscar that he should have won went to Barry Fitzgerald's twinkly priest in Going My Way, a part for which Fitzgerald had been, owing to a glitch in the Academy's rules, nominated in both leading and supporting actor categories.)

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