April 9, 2023

DOUBLE INDEMNITY and the High Cost of Living

Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Billy Wilder. (107 min)
Essay by D.M. ANDERSONđź’€

Though fairly late to the party, I love classic film noir. There’s something inherently fascinating about shady characters living on the fringes of society who aren’t likely to die of old age, largely due to their own misguided life choices. In the hands of the right director, it’s a world you never want to leave.

Great film noir is dark and unpredictable, with stories that generally preclude a happy ending and characters who, despite being morally questionable at best, we’re completely invested in. Narratives are seldom simply good vs. evil. It’s often bad guys vs. worse guys, or more intriguingly, a basically decent fellow coerced into making monumentally terrible decisions…usually for the sake of a woman who doesn’t have his best interests in mind.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be 1944’s Double Indemnity, which brilliantly sums-up everything great about film noir with the line, “I killed him for the money…and a woman. And I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”

The events leading up to that confession unfold in flashback. Cynical insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) swings by the swanky L.A. home of a client, Mr. Dietrichson, to renew his car insurance. Instead, he’s immediately twitterpated by the man’s sultry wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), who none-to-subtly inquires about taking out an accident insurance policy on her husband. Phyllis practically oozes sexuality the second she first appears at the top of the stairs, so it doesn’t take much effort for her to talk Walter into killing Mr. Dietrichson to collect on the policy.

Walter meticulously plans the entire crime, which involves killing Dietrichson, then later boarding a train disguised as him. Meanwhile, Phyliis drives to a specified point on the train’s route with the body in her trunk. Walter jumps from the train and the two put the body on the tracks to make it look like an accident. It seemingly goes off without a hitch and is assumed to be a suicide. However, Walter’s boss, claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), ain’t buying it. He suspects murder, but has no actual proof. Meanwhile, Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), tells Walter she’s convinced Phyllis is behind it all. She also reveals Phyllis was the nurse of Dietrichson’s first wife, who also died under suspicious circumstances. Though he talks her out of going to the police, Walter realizes he can no longer trust Phyllis and now fears for Lola’s life.

"I remembered the coupons this time."
The premise is classic noir, stylishly directed by Billy Wilder, who co-wrote it with none other than Raymond Chandler (adapting James M. Cain’s novel). But what really makes it pop are the performances, which were sort of a revelation when I first watched the film. I grew up on MacMurray as a Disney dad and inventor of Flubber, as well as the wholesome family man in My Three Sons. Who knew he had it in him to convincingly play a conniving killer? Then there’s Stanwyck, the matriarch of The Big Valley, as one of the most smoking hot femme fatales in film noir history. It turns out she's great at being a bad girl.

Whenever I watch Double Indemnity, I almost always see something I never paid much attention to before, like the inherent sexiness of anklets, or that Edward G. Robinson can be damn funny when given the opportunity. Aided by witty dialogue, Robinson is often hilarious - the closest thing the film has to comic relief - delivering such deceptively clever throwaway lines that you might not catch them the first time.

But as much as I love its timeless story and themes, I recently noticed an aspect of Double Indemnity that's monumentally depressing, especially now that I have a mortgage…

Early in the film, Walter is pulling into Mr. Dietrichson’s driveway, his house located in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. In classic noir fashion, MacMurray’s character provides voiceover narration, setting up the scenario. That’s when he lays this sad little tidbit on us: “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This one must have cost somebody about thirty-thousand bucks…that is, if he ever finished paying for it.”

Thirty-thousand bucks.

$30,000 for a huge Spanish-style villa - practically a mansion - located in the Hollywood Hills (some of California’s most expensive property). The house is still there today, and after doing a bit of checking, I learned that it’s 3,077 square feet and is currently listed by Zillow at over $2 million. One might naturally assume the exorbitant price is because the place could be considered a famous landmark. However, $2 million is actually on the low end of property values in that area.

The $30,000 Double Indemnity house...now and then. Yours for only $2 million.
Thirty-thousand bucks. Granted, 1944 was almost eighty years ago, but it still means the house’s value has increased 6666% since. In that same time span, the average cost of a gallon of gas was twenty cents and has since gone up 1904%. The average cost of a new car was around $800. According to Kelly Blue Book, it’s now $49,000, an increase of 6129%

Not all cars, of course. I used to collect Hot Wheels cars when I was a kid. They only cost a buck back then, so convincing Mom to let me throw one in the shopping cart was fairly easy.

Do you know how much Hot Wheels go for these days? Still a BUCK! Ironically, they’re more expensive at Dollar Tree than anywhere else because everything in that store is now $1.25. Even after all these years, Hot Wheels remain among the biggest selling toys in the world…probably because they’re still a fucking dollar. So I guess inflation hasn't affected everything. If so inclined, I could buy 30,000 of 'em for the mere price of a 1944 Spanish villa.

But I digress. Hot Wheels notwithstanding, I understand things ain’t the way they used to be and won't unleash my inner Boomer by ranting about how cheap everything was back in the day. Still, sometimes old movies are a sobering reminder of just how expensive everything’s gotten. You can find another sad example in the 1968 film, Yours, Mine & Ours, in which a widowed man (Henry Fonda) with 10 kids marries a woman (Lucille Ball) with eight of her own. One particularly depressing scene has them buying the weekly groceries and loading up four carts, which comes to a grand total of $123…for 20 people. To put that in perspective, there are four people in my household - five if you include the cat - and we’re lucky to get away with spending less than $200 a week at our local WinCo. Probably the cat’s fault.

As a more recent example, there’s an early scene in 1988’s Die Hard where Sgt. Powell pulls into an AM/PM. The price for a gallon of regular gas is seventy-four cents. I saw the movie in a theater when it was first released, and distinctly remember nudging my wife and commenting on how expensive L.A. gas prices were. Today, seventy-four cents might get half my lawn mowed.

When gas was still cheaper than Twinkies.
Getting back to Double Indemnity…Walter is willing to commit murder for $100,000, the value of the insurance policy Phyllis took out on Mr. Dietirchson, and obviously a shitload of money back then, enough to buy three Spanish villas and a half-dozen cars. Not that I’ve ever considered it, but I don’t think that amount (which would barely pay off my school loans) is murderworthy anymore. I might punch my brother-in-law for that much, and God knows he has it coming. However, if I’m gonna be persuaded to risk my freedom for money, it would take more than a hundred grand and Barbara Stanwyck wearing a sexy anklet…maybe ten million bucks and Ann-Margret wearing a sexy anklet…

…and Super Bowl tickets.  

For me, movies will always be the ultimate escape. Film noir, in particular, allows us a voyeuristic glimpse at society’s seedy underbelly from the relative safety of our homes (or a theater, if you ever get a chance). Double Indemnity is arguably the greatest film noir ever made, with unforgettable characters and a timeless story. Only the high cost of living really dates it, and unfortunately, sometimes classics like this end up being an unwelcome reminder of that reality.

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