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« Link 15 | Main | Visual Index ~ Double Indemnity's Best Shot(s) »

Double Indemnity (Pre 'Body Heat' Post Coital) 

Hit Me With Your Best Shot Episode 4.8

Double bourbon is fine, Walter."

As a baby cinephile in the 1980s I grew up with Body Heat (1981) as my noir of choice. Before I had any biblical knowledge of my own, I was utterly enthralled by Kathleen Turner's come-hither challenge and roaming hands, William Hurt's 'not-too-smart' insatiable lust and that broken window in a sticky Florida summer. For reasons that seem immature/absurd now, I avoided Double Indemnity for many years afterwards feeling 'I'd already seen it'. Never mind that Body Heat was less a remake than an "inspired by" or that Body Heat's reign as the Best of the Neo Noirs does nothing to diminish the bewitching "rotten to the core" vortex of Double Indemnity's scheming plot and sexual shenanigans.

Different noirs for different eras. But the long shadow that Body Heat cast on my early views of this entire genre is probably why my choice for this week's "Best Shot" is this seemingly minor one from Billy Wilder's 1944 classic. 


This shot occurs at the end of a long "love scene" early in the picture between Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck --  the collected Best Shot articles have many insightful comments about this unimproveable star turn) and Walter (Fred MacMurray) as they dance around their sexual and murderous desires. The scene is filled with talking in the shadows -- I could watch Stanwyck plot silently and minimistically for another two hours on loop --  and three bits of physical intimacy, an arm grab, a kiss and a 'comforting' embrace. The scene is then interrupted by a narrative flashforward. When we return to the scheming duo, they're presented to us like so. Phyllis side-eyes her willing rube, gazes at her hands (a repetitive gesture... just how much blood is on them?) and stands up to leave with this bit of disingenuously banal needinees...

will you phone me?

Double Indemnity has many gorgeous shot compositions involving diagonal shadows and I love all of them. But its visual prowess and ideas extends beyond venetian blinds. This is an atypical shot in the film's visual composition because, despite the square frame, it's very horizontal... as befits a post-coital tableau.

Yes, they've 100% just had sex even if they're still in the same clothes as before the flash-forward. We've never seen Walter with his guard this down though Phyllis, inscrutable Phyllis is still the exact same woman. Sealing the deal of this scene's brilliance for me is the costuming and cinematography: Phyllis has never before been clothed in such a tactile way (fuzzy sweaters must have equalled instant boners back in the 40s and 50s); and the lighting choice is provocatively counterintuitive since it's Phyllis, the not so innocent and virginal, who is bathed in soft light while Walter in shadow.

P.S. A runner up...

This shot, from the final confrontation between Phyllis and her conquest, could inspire novels out of context it's such rich and decadent. In context, which is what we should be talking about, it's a triump of both Art Direction and Cinematography; that same living room, which we've returned to multiple times, never feels as sinister in any other shot. The composition also allows Walter's shadow to enter the frame before him, which is telling, and then has both the regretful man and his dark shadow in frame, both separated. It's also my favorite example of Double Indemnity's great use of venetian blind shadows -- usually involving Walter -- and the diagonal tension they bring to each of his scenes withough the film having to resort to anything as crude as canted camera angles.

Straight Down The Link...
Aliston Tooey on Phyllis' spidery web
Amiresque "drive thru beer!"
Antagony & Ecstasy on Stanwyck's unparalleled femme fatale triumph
Cinesnatch this week's film coincides with some Best Picture Oscar revisionism here
Entertainment Junkie loves Stanwyck's satisfaction
Film Actually 'the stillness speaks volumes'
The Film's The Thing 'a messy bit of business in Aisle 3"
I Am Derreck on Walter's double secret life
Pussy Goes Grrr the scorpion and the frog
Victim of the Time considers the 'ugliness' of Double Indemnity
We Recycle Movies talks LA Architecture and venetian blinds

.... or see all the stills in chronological order

Next Week, Wednesday May 8th:
David Lean's Summertime (1955) with Katharine Hepburn in Venice. Join us by selecting your own choice for "best shot"


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Reader Comments (18)

When are we gonna see April`s Fools Predictions?

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Quesada

its all anyone cares about

May 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

best hit me article ever. congrats

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

thanks Cal. hopefully you're being sincere

May 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Of course I am sincere, it is a great entry. I love this movie, and even without seeing it again I can realize now that there are new shades of greatness in it after reading this article. I have this problem with Wilder that I get so focused in the dialogue that sometimes I forget how brilliant he was a director, too. The only Wilder movie that got me as a huge director achievement more than a screenwriter achievement was Sunset Blvd, but now I am considering to revisit his filmography (it'd be a great marathon).

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I love you too.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJulien Faddoul

cal, you might need to block off a couple weeks. lol. that dude cranked em out.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

cal-- sorry. am feeling a bit touchy today. It is rather unreal how many classics Billy Wilder does have in his filmography. humbling actually. for just about any director other than Billy Wilder ;)

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I agree. There's no way they *haven't* had sex during that convenient blackout. Gotta love those Hays Code censorship restrictions.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Thank God for those lovely music cues!

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I watched most of Billy Wilder's filmography for the first time over Christmas, and I was blown away by how many masterpieces the man directed, and by how diverse all of them were. It's crazy to me to think that the same person directed Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd, and The Apartment.

I really want to see more of Barbara Stanwyck. My dad loved her because she must have been in about 2 million Westerns - his favorite genre. I always think of him when I see one of her movies. :)

What do you think of Fred MacMurray as an actor? I really enjoyed him in this.

Tyler -- i can't say that I know MacMurray's filmography very well (i haven't even seen his TV series that everyone knows him) from but i thought he was really good in this.

May 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

For Barbara Stanwyck fans, a must-see in terms of western is The Furies. Like the best westerns, it has a Greek inspiration, and Stanwyck is a kind of Elektra with a very stormy relationship with her father (Walter Huston).

She. Is. Fierce.

I love her collaboration with Samuel Fuller, too, in Forty Guns, but The Furies may have her best performance ever. Yes, considering Double Indemnity, Ball of Fire, everything.

And The Furies is such a great movie. I bet that if we took the same story and tone in a Douglas Sirk scenery a lot of people would love it (a LOT of westerns are very much like Douglas Sirk melodramas).

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Have you all seen Stanwyck-MacMurray together again in Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow? Beautiful.

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

loved reading this! excellent right up, nathaniel. i first saw this movie several years ago and was blown away by the entire execution of this film. and i agree with you, i can watch barbara stanwyck plot quietly for a whole movie. she is definitely best in show in an already great cast

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkent


It seems obvious that your Oscar charts have become so elaborate that
It taks many days to complete. It also seems you find them so laborious
That you really don't enjoy or have any fun in posting them like the old days.

I know TFE readers love the charts but we would understand if you
Simplified the charts or even took a couple of season breaks to re-energize.

Just some food for thought...

May 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Mark -- it's really just a time thing. I still love talking Oscar. But, yeah, i love writing more than i love constructing charts. and the first wave of it is very difficult / time intensive. once the charts are set up it's much easier. i'll get to it. it just depresses me when people dont care about anything else.

May 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Just watched "Double Indemnity" on TCM during the Oscars festival. Amazing film. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were so good together. No one mentions Edward G. Robinson anymore, but he was very good in this too. Billy Wilder at his very best.

May 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIan

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