A masterpiece in film is both a document of the culture unique to the time of its conception as well as technical feet that provides continuing instruction for the generations that follow. The technical prowess of such a film is not limited to the technology of the cinema [cameras, lights, cranes, microphones etc.] but extends to its actor’s performance as well as the writing and directing of the feature. A masterpiece must be a watershed in all the before mentioned departments, so consequently, very few films may be considered masterpieces by this definition. Among the grandest are The Red Shoes, The Conformist, Faces, Walkabout, Wanda, Citizen Kane, and Double Indemnity.
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity has managed to accomplish a great deal in what looking back some sixty-five years may seem quite typical for a genre picture. First, it marked the influx of expressionistic detective films later labeled Film Noir. Like his contemporaries migrating from fascist Germany, Wilder choreographs his characters to drift in and out of the expressionist shadows at key emotional moments. At the end of the film, Wilder and cinematographer John Seitz, stage Keyes’ entrance on the dying Walter Neff so that he comes into shadow and out of shadow, as if not only entering a room, but the psychological world Neff has been building around himself since he began recounting his story. Keyes’ out of light into dark and into light again also heightens the audience awareness of his presence as they are taunted with an image that just can’t stay seen, evoking desperation similar to Neff’s. This ability to manipulate the audience’s investment in a film was wholly realized in Wilder’s use of Noir, which in its moment was spectacularly original and compelling. Other German directors, Robert Siodmak being one of the best examples, invested similar character and shadow co ordination but to a lesser extent, Siodmak himself only ever made one stand out American Film in The Killers. These other noirs came closer to Warner Bros. gangster films or at best the early work of John Huston than anything like the choreographed complexity of Wilder’s film [the example of this chorography given above is perhaps the clearest, but least complicated of Wilder and Seitz’s set ups].
Double Indemnity’s screenplay puts it right in it’s time with the hard boiled dialogue one only finds in the novels of Raymond Chandler, and it’s no surprise since he penned the film with Wilder [from a James M. Cain novel]. The stylization of the dialogue creates heightened character traits that would become staples of the genre. Only tuff guys like Neff say “baby” and only a femme fatale speaks with such innuendo. The script really is the first of the it’s kind but not the last, a lot of imitators have come down the pipes [Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep remake]. In it’s moment, and even now the style seems fresh because of its precision execution. The words were almost penned to fit beats at the rate the witticisms and comebacks are thrown back and forth by the film’s characters. A screenplay like this one could not exist in contemporary cinema. Not only because the flash back style has become cliché, but also because the slang in the dialogue, the very thing that makes it so Chandler, no longer exists. But looking back on the film, it fits perfectly; it draws the contemporary audience in who want to be lost in the era, the stylized age of tuff guys and thugs.
Looking at Double Indemnity today, with so much cinema in between, you can begin to gauge Wilder’s influence with this film. Beyond Film Noir and the before mentioned The Killers [whose script’s structure mirrors Wilder’s] this film has influenced even the British filmmakers of the sixties. John Boorman’s classic Point Blank has the same heightened stylized dialogue and use of flash backs [though with a decidedly LSD overtone] as Double Indemnity. Lee Marvin’s character in that film has a back story that could very well have been Neff’s. R.W. Fassbinder quotes the film’s characterizations in his early Samuel Fuller inspired gangster films starring Uli Lommel in the late sixties, such as Love Is Colder Than Death. The international film community has been barrowing from Wilder’s film for so long that one can barely recognize its influence anymore [even David Lynch choreographed the same fore mentioned shadow play in his film Blue Velvet when Jeffrey Beaumont meets Sandy Williams].
Upon this analysis of Double Indemnity, it has filled most criteria for a masterpiece, or at least as defined above. The technical expertise and its timelessness make it ever enduring.