"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Double Indumbnity

[SPOILER ALERT: I'm about to reveal essential plot details to a movie released in 1944. If that's going to upset you, then go back to watching The Sixth Sense. BTW -- the kid can see Bruce Willis because he’s dead.]

Exhausted after a recent day filled with kayaking, yard work, and contemplating the increasing possibility of a Trump presidency, Carol and I collapsed on the couch after dinner and sought some televised (cable-cast?) entertainment. I noticed a listing for a so-called "classic" film; one that I had never managed to see before and so thought we might enjoy it.

The movie was Double Indemnity, a leading example of the genre known as film noir (which is French for "not in color"). While I enjoy movies and my personal experiences in viewing them go back many decades, I don't consider myself a "film buff" (which is English for "watches movies while naked"). To that end (pun not intended), I've skipped a few chances to see some of the classics, but now I could rectify at least one such oversight and watch a commercial-free showing of a flick that made the top half of the American Film Institute's list of "100 Greatest American Movies." Well, there's no accounting for taste... Here's what happens:

An insurance salesman played by Fred MacMurray is shot after... wait a second -- this movie is about an INSURANCE SALESMAN? I thought the lead characters in these noir films were gangsters, or private investigators, or crooked cops. Why would anyone want to watch a drama about an insurance salesman? I'm certain if Arthur Miller had named his play Death Of An Insurance Salesman there would have been no Pulitzer awarded and Marilyn Monroe wouldn't be part of his biography, either.

Anyway -- MacMurray staggers into his office after being shot and spends the next two hours slowly bleeding to death. As he becomes increasingly diaphoretic, he musters barely enough strength to talk non-stop through the remainder of the movie, even when he's not in the scene. In a series of flashbacks, we learn what sparked the events leading to the shooting -- which was apparently Barbara Stanwyck's proclivity for receiving unannounced visitors to her home while wearing only a bath towel. After eyeing less skin than I've seen displayed by some Walmart greeters, MacMurray falls hard for the dame. After two more brief meetings, some allegedly clever banter (for example -- Her: "I was just fixing some iced tea; would you like a glass?" Him: "Yeah, unless you got a bottle of beer that's not working."), and a shot of bourbon, Fred expresses his love for Barbara by saying, "I'm crazy for you, baby." From the current-day perspective, such language is considered neither politically correct nor feminist-embracing. Today, Fred would need to use an affirmative consent approach by asking, "Do I have your permission to engage in adulterous sex and then proceed to knock off your husband?"

The lovebirds hatch a plot, using Fred's inside knowledge of the insurance racket, to murder her other half but make it look like an accident. Specifically, an accident where the soon-to-be-deceased falls off a moving train. Fred is very precise about the circumstances, saying this is the "only way" to pull off the scam and trigger the double indemnity clause. The husband can't be hit by a car, or fall down the steps, or die of boredom from watching this movie. Through death-by-train, the widow will receive twice the normal payout -- a grand total of $100,000. In those days, that was considered a lot of money. Now that's how much Kim Kardashian gets paid for tweeting what brand of eye liner she wears during liposuction.

Of course, these carefully-laid plans start to unravel once Edward G. Robinson gets involved. Ah, finally - a gangster makes an appearance! Now this is getting interesting... wait, what's that you say? Edward G.'s character is a... CLAIMS ADJUSTER?
  • Q: Is there any kind of character that could possibly be less engrossing than an insurance salesman?
  • A: Yes. A claims adjuster.
At least Eddie's character is an adjuster with some brains, which he proceeds to use to uncover the scam. Well, actually he doesn't rely on his brains so much as pointing to his chest and saying "the little man inside" provides the insights. If this film were remade today Robinson would be playing a character with schizoaffective disorder, with the dramatic tension deriving from his ability to connect the dots only when he goes off his meds.

Somewhere in there Stanwyck’s step-daughter and her no-good boyfriend come into play. When their involvement threatens to derail the scheme, MacMurray manages to get them out of the picture (pun intended) by greasing the boyfriend's palm with a nickel and encouraging him to make a phone call -- problem solved (I'm not kidding). Carol had briefly fallen asleep (I can't imagine why) during this part of the film, so when the boyfriend later became essential to the action she had no idea who he was and kept peppering me with questions regarding what was happening. I responded by adopting a noir persona of my own and told her, "Shut up, baby. I'll fill you in when I'm good and ready to and not a second before. Now go skip into the kitchen and see if you can scare me up a beer that's not working."

Fred MacMurray wasn't the only person who got shot down that evening.

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