Sometimes just a scant few minutes of a movie can build a permanent home in your memory. Scenic Routes is a feature devoted to exploring cinema's most remarkable individual sequences: the sublime, the exasperating, the iconic, the ineffable.
Sexual attraction—especially in cases where it happens instantaneously rather than building up over time—is a phenomenon that's nearly impossible to capture in words. I had a girlfriend once who told me, years after the fact, that she knew the precise moment when I first wanted her; she then related an incident I'd completely forgotten, in which we were both squatting on our heels looking for something in a floor-level cupboard and she suddenly knocked me over with her index finger, right in the middle of an innocuous sentence. "I so wish I had a picture of the look in your eyes right then," she said, kind of wistfully. Thankfully, a film camera can take 24 such pictures every second, which is why movies wipe the mat with even the most torrid prose when it comes to depicting surging libidos. And I know of few first encounters more unforgettably electric than the one between insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and bored, homicidal housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder's film noir masterpiece. Watch it once for the words, then again for the faces.
The tail end of this scene, with its ping-pong match of sardonic suppositions, is among the most celebrated exchanges in film history, with good reason. (The screenplay was written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, adapting a serialized novel by James M. Cain—pretty hard to go wrong with those three guys.) This sort of unabashedly stylized dialogue is now mostly a lost art, at least when it comes to movies with any hope of appearing remotely serious. But as delectable as the words are, I can't imagine them coming across as more than mildly amusing on the page. So much of the snap and crackle here comes directly from the actors—and not just from their rapid-fire delivery, but from, for example, the rakish angle at which MacMurray holds his head, as if he's striving to look through Stanwyck rather than at her. Similarly, when he first sees her at the top of the stairs, dressed only in a bath towel, his double entendre about the importance of her being "uh, fully covered" is funny, but almost redundant after the wolfish smile that crosses his face when she asks whether there's anything she can do for him.
Audiences in 1944 must have been taken well aback by the sight of MacMurray and Stanwyck working it this hard, as both actors were playing against type. MacMurray was then known—and, with occasional exceptions like Wilder's The Apartment in 1960, would continue to be known—as the quintessential nice guy; playing a male secretary named Darling in the 1942 light comedy Take A Letter had been more his speed. Stanwyck's résumé was considerably flintier, but while she'd tackled a variety of sex bombs in films like 1941’s Ball Of Fire and 1943’s Lady Of Burlesque, she had virtually always been wholly sympathetic, the vamp next door. In Double Indemnity, both are unadorned heels, conspiring to murder an innocent man for $100,000. (Which would be about $1.5 million today, incidentally. And Stanwyck's Spanish-style house, which "must have cost somebody about thirty thousand bucks," would be worth roughly $450,000, though perhaps not in the current market.) Double Indemnity isn't the earliest film noir, by anyone's reckoning, but it's often considered the pinnacle of the genre, and you'd expect the stars of that movie to be, say, Bogart and Hayworth. That it's two of the most endearing Hollywood icons only makes this express trolley ride to the cemetery that much more bracing.
As a director, Wilder gets little credit as a visual stylist—indeed, that alleged deficiency, along with his generally cynical sensibility, is what makes him anathema to a certain stripe of rabid auteurist. (Andrew Sarris, in his seminal breakdown The American Cinema, filed Wilder under Less Than Meets The Eye, his category for the overrated.) I'm gonna have to call bullshit, fellas. True, Wilder is almost never flashy, and his movies, including this one, are so crammed with superlative dialogue that it's easy to assume that the camerawork is strictly functional. But look at how he's blocked MacMurray and Stanwyck when they first sit down together in the living room. Stanwyck sits in a large easy chair, but entirely to one side, leaving plenty of room for MacMurray to squeeze in beside her if he were so inclined—a symbol of availability every bit as alluring as the anklet he repeatedly admires. And MacMurray, barely seated on the arm of the opposite couch, looks ready to pounce on her at any moment. He was a tall guy, to be sure, but in this shot he looks almost twice Stanwyck's size, as if they were in one of those Mystery Spot shacks that use forced perspective to make people of equal height look like giants or midgets, depending on which corner of the room they inhabit.
Also impressive is John Seitz's cinematography—you can't help but admire the way the sunshine coming in through the venetian blinds shows off the dust in the air. Unfortunately, you can't help it because MacMurray's voiceover narration all but drums it into your skull. I'm not one of those sad people who insists, as "Robert McKee" does in Adaptation, that narration is invariably a lazy crutch to be avoided, and Double Indemnity's structural device, in which the story is told in flashback by the wounded MacMurray to claims manager Edward G. Robinson, generally works like a charm, filling in plot details that'd be tricky to dramatize and creating a suitably doom-laden mood. In this particular scene, though, it has the literal clumsiness of the early sound era, describing for us things that we can see perfectly well without assistance. I've been describing Double Indemnity as flawless for close to 20 years, and it comes pretty damn close, but I must confess that I winced this time when MacMurray started blabbering about the goldfish, even as the slightly younger version of him onscreen shook some food into the bowl. And I kinda knew that he was thinking about Stanwyck's bare legs, but thanks for the assist.
Still, that's a minor, forgivable hiccup in an otherwise magnificent pas de deux—one that immediately became the gold standard for what one might call the meet-hot. (Nowadays we only have the meet-cute.) And as much as I love that closing verbal sparring match, it's mostly the first instant in which they lay eyes on each other that slays me, with Stanwyck looking down on her pigeon-to-be from atop that "silly staircase," perfectly at ease standing all but naked in front of a total stranger, and MacMurray not even bothering to conceal his lust, radiating a brash self-confidence that even contemporary mega-studs like Clooney and Depp would be hard-pressed to pull off. (Clooney comes close, but he doesn't leer like this.) And then the camera tracking alongside Stanwyck's feet as she descends the stairs. Yeah, that tears it.