I admit it: I’m not particularly fond of old movies — the term “old” in this case meaning those made before about 1958. To be more honest, I usually like them even less if they’re considered “classic.” While I can credit their groundbreaking moments, movies made in the 1930s and ’40s rarely hold up very well today. Maybe it’s the cornball acting style, all that staccato dialog and scenery-chewing that has been satirized so often since. Or maybe it’s the incessant background score in every scene — back then, filmmakers didn’t trust viewers to get any emotion without tarting it up in a surge of violins.
Case in point: Double Indemnity, that classic 1944 film noir starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Watching the Netflix DVD the other night, I was struck by how pat and rudimentary it seems. It takes Walter Neff about five minutes to go from insurance salesman to killer, and the lust that is supposed to motivate him arises chiefly from some cringe-inducing repartee with the sultry Phyllis. I know the censorship of the day didn’t allow for anything blatantly erotic, but there just isn’t much carnal desire or tension communicated here — certainly not enough to motivate murder. As to the “almost perfect crime” alluded to in ads for the film — it’s a preposterous scheme that is nowhere near perfect, since Walter’s boss smells a rat from the get-go and refuses to approve the insurance claim. Look, if you want to suggest a fatal accident or suicide, dumping a corpse in the wake of train doing 15 mph is probably not the best way to go about it.
I know, Double Indemnity is considered by many to be the birth of the genre. The risks Billy Wilder took then have become the conventions of today — or the cliches, depending on how they’re deployed. I do admire the moody photography, the interesting angles, and those shadows of venetian blinds that have become such a noir trademark. And the writing, in places, isn’t half bad. That’s the influence of script co-writer Raymond Chandler. You have to love this line early in the film, which pretty much defines film noir as we know it:
“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”
You can’t help comparing Double Indemnity to Body Heat, one of the many movies it inspired and without doubt about 10 times better. In Body Heat, lust as a motivator seems real and insistent and is communicated in a dozen different ways, most involving perspiration. The murder plot is clever enough to actually have a chance of working. And the protagonist sees his doom coming in shuffling little steps, long before it arrives, so the tension is unrelenting.
As a foundation for the sort of movie I love, Double Indemnity might deserve its place in the Time Magazine’s 100 best movies of all time. But if I were laboring over a list of my personal favorites, I don’t think I’d include it. There are some other “classics” I’ll leave off the list, but I’ll get to them later. How about you? Any beloved films come to mind that you just can’t bear to watch?