Among my friends I have a reputation for liking old films, as if it’s some sort of kink.
I don’t see it that way at all. To me movies are – or should be – about the story. Yes, it’s ok once in a while to enjoy an all-guns-blazing action film where it’s all about the fight scenes, or even a film like Rocky IV which has a paper-thin plot but a great soundtrack and a series of music videos that just make you want to go out and exercise to your maximum capacity, but most of the time I like a film because of the plot.
And old films often have some of the best plots. That shouldn’t be a surprise of course; they’ve been making ‘talking’ films for nearly 100 years so why shouldn’t there be good films from back in the day?
But some people just don’t see it.
Well anyway, today I watched an old film from 1944, Double Indemnity. I’ve seen it before a few years ago – long before I started writing reviews – and I’ve been meaning to get round to watching it again for some time. Seeing as I’ve got a cold and have spent the day in bed, I
thought ‘Why not today’.
What’s This Film About?
To quote the Internet Movie Database:
An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator’s suspicions.
Simple as that.
There’s a reason Double Indemnity – ranked #56 in the often reliable imdb top 250 – is considered to be one of the best films ever made, and I’ll get to that shortly.
Before I do though, I’ll praise one of the things I love about this film (and indeed many old films) and that is that it’s like a time capsule.
Seeing things like ‘supermarkets’ from a time before mass refrigeration, the main character – played by Fred MacMurray – going to a drive in to have a beer while sitting in his car, the actors referring to having a ‘coloured lady that comes by once a week’; it’s a different world from what we live in today and it’s fascinating.
Yes, you can get films these days that are set back in the 1940s but I often think that they aren’t all that genuine. What’s great about a film like Double Indemnity is not just that it represents the era it was made in in terms of sets, props and general look, but the idea of the ‘time capsule’ also applies to the style of acting and the music as well.
If you got a film made today set in 1944 it wouldn’t resemble Double Indemnity much at all. Certain things just wouldn’t be the same. The acting style is different. You wouldn’t get a modern-day actor working in the same way as Fred MacMurray does here; his style of delivery, the fast paced theatrical flirting that goes on between the characters (the scene at the start between him and Barbara Stanwyck is so ‘of the time’ that it made me laugh) and even the way he looks (actors these days tend to look – and most likely are – a lot more healthy in mind and body than someone from the 1940s). MacMurray and his co-stars simply are people from the 1940s. That cannot be faked or reproduced today.
And as I say, the sort of orchestral music you got in all films back in those days never appear in modern-day films set around that time either. And I think that’s all part of the appeal.
Another good thing about older films like this is that they offer the sort of honest plot that you just can’t get these days. Double Indemnity couldn’t work in 2012 because the plot centres around a murder that is made to look like an accidental death. Today, such a plan would fall at the first hurdle because of CCTV, and the investigation would be done by the police rather than by an insurance underwriter. That’s not unique to this film though; almost every single Columboplot would be made invalid by modern technology. In many ways, modern technology
has ruined certain types of storytelling – unless of course you set it back in time.
And it’s the plot – the sort of plot that you couldn’t do today – that makes this film as great as it is. Yes, it’s acted well, but it’s the writing and the directorial style that does it for me.
I love the way it’s presented in the style of a prolepsis (flash-forward), whereby the film starts with MacMurray’s character coming in to his office to confess his guilt to his co-worker. Most of story is told from the perspective of him recounting the tale of what got him to that point before finishing back where it started, if you know what I mean. It’s brilliant.
You might think that it’s not exactly a unique way of telling a story since it’s probably appeared in dozens of films and TV shows in recent years, but the point is that this came first. Director/writer Billy Wilder was doing what is considered a progressive way of writing today, 68 years ago.
The way the main characters’ plan is formed and ultimately unravels is not something I want to spoil for you if you haven’t seen it, but again, it’s brilliantly executed and flows wonderfully.
At 103 minutes, it’s not the longest film in the world, but it doesn’t need to be. It keeps your attention from start to finish and ticks all the right boxes.
Should You Watch Double Indemnity?
Some people will sadly look at this – and any other film made around this time – as some kind of museum artefact that couldn’t possibly rival modern films that we’re told to love (like Inception), but those people either haven’t given old films a chance or are narrow-minded.
To me it doesn’t matter when a film was made; if it is well written, acted and directed then it is worth my time.
And Double Indemnity ticks all of those boxes.
I couldn’t tell you how many movies have been made over the last hundred years, but if a film from 1944 is still knocking on the door of the top 50 films ever made with over 50,000 votes from the public to its credit, then that must tell you something about its quality.
If you’re reading this and value my recommendation, then I would suggest you watch Double Indemnity as soon as you get the chance.
And remember, if you agree 0r disagree with my assessment of this or anything else I review, feel free to leave a comment.