Before he was the perfect TV dad, Fred MacMurray was Billy Wilder’s favorite movie heavy. In this noir classic MacMurray revels in his dark side.
If you laid Double Indemnity and Frenchman’s Creek end to end you might still prefer to spend the evening with Madame Bovary; yet you might find a few things mildly worth examining in these two so different, so similar reflections of current attitudes toward bourgeois adultery. The James Cain story, under Billy Wilder’s control, is to a fair extent soaked in and shot through with money and the coolly intricate amorality of money; you can even supply the idea, without being contradicted by the film, that among these somewhat representative Americans money and sex and a readiness to murder are as inseparably interdependent as the Holy Trinity. Wilder also has a real feeling, on a not-quite-real, smart level, for the streets arid suffocating marriage hatches and calm-lighted Piggly Wigglies and heartlessly resonant offices of his city, and I agree that his casting of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson is perceptive. But not that it is wholly successful.
Indeed, the picture never fully takes hold of its opportunities, such as they are, perhaps because those opportunities are appreciated chiefly as surfaces and atmospheres and as very tellable trash. It is proper enough, for instance, that Barbara Stanwyck should suggest a greatly coarsened Esquire drawing and that her affair with MacMurray should essentially be as sexless as it is loveless. Her icy hair and teeth and dresses are well worked out toward communicating this idea. But in Wilder’s apparent desire to make it clear that nympholepts are cold he has neglected to bring to life the sort of freezing rage of excitations which such a woman presumably inspires in such a fixer as Waiter Neff; this sort of genre love-scene ought to smell like the inside of an overwrought Electrolux. Wilder has not made much, either, of the tensions of the separateness of the lovers after the murder, or of the coldly nauseated despair and nostalgia which the murderer would feel.
In many ways Double Indemnity is really quite a gratifying and even a good movie, essentially cheap I will grant, but smart and crisp and cruel like a whole type of American film which developed softening of the brain after the early thirties. But if at the same time you are watching for all that could have been got out of it, you cannot help being disappointed as well as pleased.
The Cain story is trash at best; at its worst it is highly respectable, set beside Daphne du Maurier’ s little bathroom classic, Frenchman’s Creek. I have always thought – not very originally, I imagine – that the essence of Madame Bovary and her millions of great-granddaughters is masturbation, literal as often as figurative. This film, like the “novel” it improves on, is masturbation fantasy triple-distilled, infallible as any real-life dream and as viciously fascinating as reading such a dream over the terrible dreamer’s shoulder.
The shoulder of the actual dreamer, here, and of the audience, is unmistakably that of a suburban fat-mama. But on the screen there is magically no such thing: she is an English noblewoman of the Restoration, and lovely to look at, at that. Her husband is no sacksuited dollar-chaser but a London fop. Her country refuge is not some little place in Connecticut; it is a whackingly beautiful mansion on the Cornish coast. Her lover, a local pirate who loves life and lives it as he likes, is more of a composite. With his accent, his gently insolent bearing, and his knowledgeable eyes, he is that sort of European who panics sensitive young matrons by observing that your “Amarican men, sharming -and antoozieyestic as they are, know noddinx oof lahv’ ‘ -or, as usefully, by sad-eyed muting of reference to his experience in concentration camps he never saw; at the same time he is easily recognizable as the sort of tousleheaded, briar-sucking commercial artist who fancies himself as a second Gauguin on Sundays, who has gone hermit at $20,000 a year, and who threatens every smug harbor on both shores of Long Island Sound with his trim little launch. None of the unusually resourceful Technicolor, wax-fruit dialogue, or munificence of costume and social degree conceals the fact that this is really just an archetypally sordid, contemporary middle-bracket flirtation, told without perception, warmth, honor, or irony from the center of a soul like a powder-parlor — but told, in those terms, with the gloves off, and every cowardly emotion and creepy desire and sniveling motive caught red-handed.
As the life of this party Joan Fontaine has a prettiness and vivacity which I had not suspected of her. She also develops, in place of any believable semblance of erotic or emotional passion, a sort of excitement which I find appropriate to the story, and revealing of its audience beyond cavil. As she conducts her discreet little coastal cruise along the coves and peninsulas of adultery, she never once suggests a woman in love or even in confusion; but she does constantly suggest a Vassar girl on a picket line.