d. Billy Wilder / 1944 / USA / 107 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
I often wonder what contemporary audiences made of certain films, particularly ones that have long been considered to be undeniable classics. There is, of course, the famous case of Citizen Kane, currently getting yet another cinema reissue in the UK thanks to the BFI. These days, Orson Welles’ directorial and starring debut is viewed as an unparalleled slice of groundbreaking cinema, perennial topper of cinematic ‘best of’ lists and the closest we’ll ever get to a certified ‘Best Film Ever’. But in its day – despite Welles’ notoriety, fairly widespread critical approval and a bunch of Oscar nominations – Citizen Kane was anything but a commercial success, barely recouping its production budget and supposedly sparking a wave of adverse reactions from exhibitors and audiences, attracting regular cinema walkouts.
Thus, while attempting to understand the opinion of contemporary audiences is a valuable exercise, it can be rather fruitless. As a task, it is nearly impossible, and even if you can establish how long a particular film ran in key markets or provide a rough estimate of total box office, you will never know what contemporary audiences actually ‘thought’ of a film. Gaining any indication of ‘true’ contemporary audience reactions is difficult enough, but it goes without saying that to make an assumption as to how these audiences reacted is – as within any historical field – a largely pointless and foolhardy endeavour.
Amongst the contemporary reactions to Hollywood cinema, however, there is one segment of society of whose opinion we can be fairly certain: the humble, ever-dependable film critic. And with Double Indemnity undoubtedly existing as one of those rarefied Hollywood ‘classics’ – regularly held up as a pioneering example of the femme fatale driven film noir cycle – it is interesting to note what some contemporary critics made of it.
From an East Coast perspective, the Variety review of Double Indemnity in April 1944 was quick off the mark (and even quicker to pun) claiming that the film was ‘certain boxoffice insurance. And double indemnity with such marquee names as Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson.’ Making much of its relationship with the sensational Snyder-Gray murder of the 1920s, Variety praises Double Indemnity as ‘rapidly moving and consistently well developed’ and ‘a story replete with suspense’, a factor they largely attribute to Billy Wilder’s handling of the dual-role of Director and Co-writer.
Of course, Variety exists in very close proximity to the industry – both geographically and ideologically – and can therefore come across as more lenient on certain films depending on the levels of industry-wide investment. Whilst Variety praises Fred MacMurray, noting that he ‘has seldom given a better performance’, it tempers its plaudits for Stanwyck who – although ‘not as attractive as normally’ – is nonetheless ‘consistent though the character in the final reel would have been stronger had not the scripters sought to reflect some sense of human understanding for her.’
When the film begun its East Coast run at the Paramount Theatre, Times Square in September 1944, Bosley Crowther in the New York Times gave Double Indemnity a rather mixed review, making reference to its ‘long dose of calculated suspense’ and adding that ‘Such folks as delight in murder stories for their academic elegance alone should find this one steadily diverting, despite its monotonous pace and length.’ In fact, Crowther’s reaction to the film remains fairly ambiguous – if mildly displeased – until, having discussed Wilder’s direction, he points out that he has ‘No objection to the temper of this picture; it is as hard and inflexible as steel’ but that ‘the very toughness of the picture is also the weakness of its core, and the academic nature of its plotting limits its general appeal’. Providing a contrast to Variety‘s boosting of MacMurray, Crowther singles out Edward G. Robinson for particular praise: ‘As a matter of fact, Mr. Robinson is the only one you care two hoots for in the film. The rest are just neatly carved pieces in a variably intriguing crime game.’ Crowther’s disapproval toward the low-lifers that populate these gritty crime pictures is fairly self-evident.
Similarly, the irrepressible James Agee – writing in Manhattan-based periodical, and champion of the liberal-left, The Nation – introduces his Double Indemnity review of October 1944 with an acerbic invocation of what he terms ‘bourgeois adultery’. Agee expands on this idea with an indictment of the film and what he sees as its invocation of America’s near-religious fervour for money, sex and violence: ‘The James Cain story, under Billy Wilder’s control, is to a fair extend soaked in and shot through with money and the cooly intricate amorality of money…among these somewhat representative Americans money and sex and a readiness to murder are as inseperably interdependent as the Holy Trinity’.
Having dispensed with the political/moral approach, Agee settles into a more traditional critical analysis of Double Indemnity, giving tempered praise to Wilder and his cast but complaining that ‘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’. The reference to ‘very tellable trash’ might infer that, although somewhat loathe to admit it, Agee actually quite enjoyed Double Indemnity. In fact, he closes his review by essentially giving over to the pulpish persuasions of this ‘tellable trash’, and providing a rather astute encapulation of the critical consensus amongst many of his contemporaries:
‘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.’
And yet, just two months after his review of Double Indemnity, Agee seems resigned to its significance in a review of Farewell, My Lovely – another classic ‘noir’, this time adapted from a novel by Wilder’s co-writer on Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler. In spite of his preference for the ‘messiness and self-accomplishment’ of Farewell, My Lovely, Agee is forced to concede that Double Indemnity is ‘much better-finished, more nearly unimpeachable, but more academic and complacent’. It is Agee’s indication that the film is ‘nearly unimpeachable’ which clearly suggests that Double Indemnity had begun to exert its privileged status almost immediately.
From a historical perspective, James Naremore’s excellent article for Film Quarterly entitled ‘American Film Noir: The History of an Idea’ (a forerunner to his book on the subject) traces the troubled evolution of the ‘film noir’ label. Naremore notes that for the most part, contemporary American critics ‘made no attempt to invent a new term’ for this cycle of films, and this is certainly true of the reviews outlined above. Using Double Indemnity as an example, Naremore quotes critical references to it being everything from a ‘murder melodrama’ (in The New Yorker) to an ‘intellectual exercise in crime’ (in the Los Angeles Times). And so it remains that, whilst the notion of ‘film noir’ is little more than a historical label – a retrospective construct imposed on an otherwise disparate group of films, such terms can be as misleading as they are convenient. And with or without the ‘film noir’ label, Double Indemnity seemed destined to remain in the public consciousness for years to come.
“Suppose this is some of the best dialogue of all time”: