The first thing we see is an X-Ray of a stomach.  This stomach, we learn from an unseen narrator, is cancerous, and the man it belongs to, long-time bureaucrat and “Section Chief” Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has not long to live.  The shot of the X-Ray cuts to Watanabe himself, hunched over his desk, drowning in a sea of papers to either side of him.  It is here, once we see this doomed man for the first time, where the narrator’s next remarks ring so true: “He’s simply passing time without actually living his life.  In other words, he’s not even alive.”

This will be significant focus in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Ikiru”: the utter futility of bureaucracy and the soulless bodies that it produces.   As Watanabe goes on stamping his papers, the narrator tells us “he’s been worn down completely by the minutia of the bureaucratic machine and the meaningless business that it breeds.”  It’s here where I wish we were spared the narration, which makes the moral of the story painfully obvious, and instead Kurosawa simply allowed Shimura’s acting to do the talking.  You need not look further than Shimura’s mere body language in this opening scene to know that his Watanabe is indeed a man completely dehumanized by the bureaucracy.  He wears a plain suit, sits hunched over his papers, has that long, pathetic face we’ll come to identify him with over the next 2 ½ hours, and even looks up in confused horror when a female employee dares to chuckle at a joke she’s reading in the middle of a work day.  He simply is this worn-down, lifeless individual who’s dying of stomach cancer.  We don’t need a narrator to tell us this. 

Nevertheless, it’s at least somewhat necessary to let us in on the cancer: the thing that will kill him physically when in fact the bureaucracy has actually been killing him emotionally for thirty years.  Is this narration, in conjunction with our initial impressions of this little man, meant to inspire pity in us?  Perhaps, but over the course of Ikiru, Watanabe will learn lessons about life and do things that will inspire in us a thing far from pity: we will feel the utmost admiration for this man.

Our first impression of Watanabe is of an old, shriveled, exhausted shell of a man.  He is just about always in the same slouched position whether sitting or walking, rarely looks people in the eye when speaking, has a raspy voice that borders on a panting whisper, and has a face featuring a long frown, wide eyes, and a look of near-shellshock.  Exaggerated it may be, but Takashi Shimura’s acting prowess is more than obvious, perhaps even as a result of how exaggeratedly haggard Watanabe is.  Shimura was only 47 years old (somehow looking at least twenty years older) when he starred in Ikiru, and even more shockingly, it would be two years after this when he would reunite with Kurosawa to play the strong-willed, heroic warrior Kambei Shimada in Seven Samurai.  True, his character in Ikiru is drastically weaker physically than his character in Seven Samurai, but that weak, dying bureaucrat develops a kind of staunch defiance and inner determination that proves to be just a strong as that of a samurai.

But first, of course, we see Watanabe as that pathetic bureaucrat, now burdened by the knowledge of his impending death to go along with the constrictive nature of his lifestyle.  Consider his visit to the doctor’s office, where he essentially receives his death sentence.  Sitting in the waiting room, a fellow patient not-so-unhappily regales Watanabe with the precise symptoms of stomach cancer, and the lies that the doctor will tell the unlucky patient.  As each symptom is described and the music becomes more and more ominous, Watanabe turns from this man, slumps into a kind of hunchbacked ball, and slinks towards the camera.  He says nothing, but Shimura’s body language and that look of his, as if his face is melting, is enough to tell us that Watanabe has had each of these symptoms.  Nothing changes in the examining room (whose unpleasant appearance with scores of robotic doctors is just as impersonal and sweatshop-ish as Watanabe’s office), where the doctor says exactly what Watanabe and we expect.  Dropping the coat, Watanabe turns and faces us with that same pathetic look of despair, only to strike up something of a weak argument with the doctor concerning the diagnosis of a “stomach ulcer”, as if pleading for his life.

Though that weak, raspy voice that Shimura employs is effective in conveying Watanabe’s physical and emotional weakness, it is without a doubt his physical mannerisms, particularly his face and his posture, that make the performance so brilliant.  After that fateful doctor’s appointment, for instance, Watanabe’s somewhat money-grubbing son and daughter-in-law come home, musing on whether they can use his father’s pension money to buy a more modern home.  Turning on the light, they see Watanabe simply sitting on the floor, doing absolutely nothing.  Still wearing his overcoat and that iconic hat, he sits in his usual pathetically hunched-over position, eyes wide to a frightening degree, staring ahead as if in a catatonic shock.  It was such a striking position and such a disturbingly blank face that it almost reminded me of the monstrous Nosferatu, or any other exaggerated silent film figure for that matter.  Until now, Watanabe has never really been a human character, but here he becomes pure animal, frightening and pitiful. 

So much of Shimura’s performance feature him simply…standing, hunched over, often with his back to the camera as if hiding his face from the audience.  Often when in conversation, he simply stops and stares off into space, as if catatonic when trying to think of what to say next.  It’s only after that encounter with his son, when he weeps, huddled in his sheets beneath a wall plaque commemorating thirty years of civil service, when we understand where our pity is going.  It’s a painfully obvious reminder of the movie’s anti-bureaucracy theme, yes, but the power that Shimura brings to it is undeniable.  He shows no inhibitions in this absolutely thankless aspect of his performance, and it is just about the least glamorous role one could imagine.  When a congratulatory plaque can loom large over a ruined shell of a man like a slave master, though, glamour clearly isn’t called for.

Just as Takashi Shimura releases all inhibitions in showing his character’s despair in all of its non-glory, his Watanabe at least attempts to release his inhibitions upon learning of his impending death.  Realizing that for thirty years he has led a complete waste of a life, he attempts to live for the first time with what little time he has left.  I look at his quest for a short yet meaningful existence in three separate stages, not unlike the five stages of death, actually.  The first would quite obviously be his hedonistic stage.  With money that took him dozens of years to earn, he attempts to drink, dance, and glide his way through the city’s night scene in order to have fun for the first time in his life, led by an understanding and romantic writer (Yûnosuke Ito).  “You were a slave to your own life,” the writer tells him.  “Now you will become its master.”  Watanabe responds with a smile that’s as awkward as hell, as if a mere smile causes him physical pain.  And throughout this night of drunken debauchery, Watanabe will in fact be far from a master, easily getting lost in the shuffle of drunken partiers and hedonistic revelries, looking as uncomfortable in his bewildered confusion as he did in his pained agony in the doctor’s office.  He protects his hat as if it were his child, stumbles his way through crowds and heavy traffic, gives a carnal, animal-like roar when watching a striptease, and runs out of a car to vomit, looking up at his companion with wide, teary eyes as if he were a dog who’s done something wrong and knows it.

Shimura plays Watanabe throughout this hedonism segment of his reawakening somewhat comically, as a man clearly over his head and looming small amongst the pleasures of the night.  Except, that is, in one of the movie’s most famous sequences, when a drunken Watanabe sits slumped in a seat in a nightclub, singing “Life is Brief” in conjunction with a piano player.  The patrons of the place are dancing, but all stop and look on in near-shock at this small man with the deep voice.  Shimura’s face fills the entire screen, tearing up as that deep voice sounds like, say, the tortured, disembodied voices of the ghosts in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari.  Watanabe is overcome by emotion upon his haunting rendition that foretells his own bitter mortality, and both the patrons and we the audience are left to simply watch this strange little man in both shock and awe.  Impending death has no business being in a place of such carefree revelry, but there Watanabe sits nonetheless, having his say via song. I’ve seen Ikiru at least three or four times by now, and I’m not sure if that face of complete devastation will ever cease to move me.

If hedonism was the first stage in Watanabe’s attempted transformation from living death to life itself, then the second stage is infatuation.  The subject of that infatuation is a young girl (Miki Odagiri) looking to quit her job in Watanabe’s office.  It’s the same girl, in fact, who committed the egregious sin of letting out a chuckle during the workday.  They play games, go to the amusement park, eat at restaurants, and walk arm-in-arm (much to the chagrin of Watanabe’s son and daughter-in-law, naturally assuming a romantic tryst), their excursions kind of acting as an innocent foil to the obnoxious revelries that he and the writer experienced the night before.  And maybe, just maybe, that eternal slouch and painfully slow gait of his are starting to vanish just a bit, as he begins to gain a hop in his step while being exposed to such lively and youthful innocence.  While slurping their noodles, she regales him with her nicknames for her co-workers, to which he laughs like he’s never laughed before.  It’s a laugh that seems just as pained and uncomfortable as his smile for the writer, but at least this pained laugh seems genuine.  She reveals that her nickname for him was “the Mummy,” and yes he is upset by it, but also understanding.  He knows he’s been a mummy for thirty years, and is only now, on the cusp of death, is he trying to do something about it. 

That’s admirable, sure, but Shimura doesn’t exactly go out of his way to make us feel admiration for this character either.  Once the girl becomes uncomfortable with this old man’s constant fawning (and rightly so), he practically assaults her in cozying up to her and pleading with her to reveal why she’s so alive and vigorous.  As Shimura combines that raspy voice with those wide dinner plate-like eyes and his awkward, slouched mannerisms, I saw him as a giant insect, or even a life-sucking succubus or, appropriately enough, a mummy.  We feel just as awkward as she does, even as Watanabe so desperately tries to find the secret of living a meaningful life.  Shimura isn’t trying to garner our sympathy at this point.  His Watanabe is beyond sympathy.  He simply exists, and we’re left to judge him as we choose.

Hedonism was the first (possibly ill-advised) stage of Watanabe’s awakening, and infatuation was the second.  The final, and by far the most important, stage is altruism.  And oddly enough, we see it entirely in flashback, after Watanabe’s death, as his fellow bureaucrats reminisce at his memorial.  Until now, Watanabe has tried to experience the pleasures of life that he forgot about in that limbo of government bureaucracy, but now he actually tries to find significant meaning in using every ounce of his strength and willpower to have a stagnant cesspool converted into a playground.  Of course, Shimura shows this sudden sense of purpose in a physical sense, as Watanabe becomes unusually spry in his return to the office after a long hiatus, moving around piles upon piles of papers and running about to personally oversee the decision-making process as if he were a man possessed.  Naturally, his employees are flabbergasted, with a hint of disappointment in one who has aspirations of becoming the new Section Chief.

You’d expect the main protagonist in a life-affirming film to undergo an obvious character transformation, and Watanabe does that, but I consider the most important aspect of Shimura’s performance in this final segment to be how he doesn’t outwardly change.  Yes, he’s mobile and lively like never before upon his return to the office, but afterwards, for the most part, he’s the same Kanji Watanabe we’ve seen all along.  He still shuffles along slouched over in that overcoat and hat, still stares wide-eyed at his unsuspecting victims, still stutters along with that exhausted voice of his.  Remarkably, though, Shimura’s Watanabe now inspires the utmost respect and admiration out of us, whereas before that admiration was pity.  Same game, different result.  Even in the pouring rain as he shuffles through the cesspool he’s determined to fix, he looms large as a weak, sickly near-crawl becomes heroic rather than pathetic.  As he leads the group of women who initially petitioned for fixing the cesspool through the site and through the various sections of his office building, this little, slumping man might as well be leading a brigade into war.  When the deputy mayor dismisses his polite demand for funds to fix the cesspool, Watanabe, motionless, hangs his head down as if asleep on his feet.  Where before this would have been a sheer sign of the pathetic Watanabe resigning himself to his fate, now the exact same mannerism is a Gandhi-like protest against the uncaring bureaucracy he’s now distanced himself from.  Using that same mannerism, apathy and despair suddenly become defiance.  Somehow, with barely a change in his physical demeanor, Shimura’s Kanji Watanabe has achieved one of the great character transformations in all of cinema.  Of course, much of this achievement must be attributed to Kurosawa for the outside-the-norm choice of showing all of this in flashback.  We’re seeing this after Watanabe’s death, in the retrospective of drunken bureaucrats, so our individual perceptions are being laid onto the performance, so that he changes in our minds, if not necessarily on the screen.

True, Watanabe’s composure barely changes in his odyssey from soulless bureaucrat to determined civil servant and hero of the common man, woman, and child.  Shimura’s performance is arguably as brilliant as it is for precisely that reason: outwardly, he changes little, so that the performance is left widely to one’s own interpretation.  We’re left to infer that the change is occurring, rather than being showed that change outwardly a la your typical Oscar-bait performance.  Thankfully, then, both Shimura and Kurosawa aren’t treating their audience like idiots.  However, Shimura certainly shows little hints of change that even cinema’s greatest novice could pick up.  Consider his run-in with a group of gangsters who want the cesspool to stay just as it is.  Even after they get in his face and threat him, Watanabe simply stands his ground against these vile men, even showing a defiant, almost wicked smile as he turns his backs to them and walks away.  It’s the first time a smile of Watanabe’s feels neither forced nor uncomfortable: it is truly genuine.  Watanabe has found his strength and his reason to live.  And, in that very famous send-off featuring a swing set and the falling snow, he has also found his peace.  For thirty years he has been emotionally dead in life.  Now, in death, he is finally alive.

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Double Indemnity is a film that deals not with some conflict between good and evil, but between different shades of evil.  The narrator and chief protagonist, insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), garners our sympathy despite conspiring with a seductive customer to kill her husband for the insurance money.  We feel contempt for Walter over his greed in insisting on killing the man via train to collect as much money as possible, and his anxiety becomes our anxiety when the aftermath of the scheme begins spiraling out of control.  Billy Wilder plays with our loyalties and our deepest values so that we’re almost forced to align ourselves with these corrupt people by default.  It’s perhaps the darkest, and most brilliant, story he ever filmed.

The only honorable character to speak of is claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a strange, fast-talking little man confined to the sidelines as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and their dirty deed take center stage.  The honest and well-meaning Keyes comes off as incredibly likable in an impish kind of way, making a long diatribe about the ins and outs of the insurance industry sound like a Shakespearean soliloquy.  Admittedly it’s one of my favorite supporting performances of all-time, and Keyes certainly serves as an honest foil of sorts to his dishonest friend Walter Neff.  However, even I must admit that it’s not the film’s most important character or performance. 

Yes, Neff utilizes his knowledge of the insurance industry to use the suspicious Keyes like a puppet, throwing a wrench into Keyes’ investigation.  But Neff himself is ultimately just as much a puppet as Keyes is.  It is Neff who orchestrates the entire scheme that’s destined to fail, and yet he himself is being manipulated, and the manipulator is Mrs. Dietrichson.  Manipulative, sultry, scheming and lustful, Barbara Stanwyck’s turn as Phyllis Dietrichson is the very definition of femme fatale in a movie that is the very definition of film noir.  She fools Keyes and takes complete advantage of Walter Neff, and in turn takes complete advantage of us.

Aside from the grim opening depicting an injured Walter relaying his guilt-ridden story we are about to see via audio recording, our first impression of Mr. Neff is that of an expert salesman, a smooth customer, a lady’s man, and an overall likable guy.  From the start, we go with it and follow along.  Upon visiting the Dietrichson residence to renew automobile insurance, both Walter and we are introduced to Phyllis Dietrichson in one of the great entrances in all of cinema.  In a shot undoubtedly risqué circa 1944, Phyllis appears at the top of the stairs, with only a towel to conceal her naked body and an anklet jingling above her foot.  Immediately, Walter is entranced, and seeing this blonde bombshell via a low-angle point-of-view shot from Walter’s vantage point, so are we.  Afterwards, the two engage in a seemingly innocent tete-a-tete, the sweet talk incredibly over-the-top and nearly poetic like no 40s-era noir dialogue I’ve heard:

There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff.  Forty-five miles an hour.
How fast was I going, officer?
I’d say around ninety.
Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Suppose it doesn’t take.
Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
That tears it.

Walter and Phyllis might as well be reading off of a script, and in a way, both believe that they are.  You have the sense that Walter’s done this time and time again in trying to woo this dame or that.  But in the case of Phyllis, something much more subversive, much more sinister, is going on here.  Stanwyck is just so calm and collected and, in a way, speaking as if all this flirtatious banter is merely a means to an end.  It’s as if she too has done this many times before, but for reasons much different than Walter’s.  She’s met this man for the first time and has read him perfectly, knowing just which buttons to push and pushing those buttons in an absolutely business-like fashion.  She has him hook, line, and sinker, and this seductress will soon be convincing him to commit murder.

There are moments throughout Double Indemnity where Barbara Stanwyck shows what you would call “emotion,” namely by seducing Walter in his apartment by professing her love and what-not, but even then it’s all for the higher purpose of controlling this man, getting rid of her husband, and becoming very, very rich.  There’s always something…”fake”…about Phyllis’ interactions with Walter, and about Stanwyck’s delivery, as if those sweet nothings in Walter’s ear are the work of a conniving witch telling her pawn exactly what he wants to hear.  Could you attribute such a ham-handed delivery to bad acting, or at least overacting common in that era?  You could, but I certainly won’t.  I see it as the brilliant portrayal of a cold, greedy woman who herself is overacting, saying tender words that she’s clearly never been comfortable saying except for her own duplicitous purposes, and in the case of her latest project, turning an insurance agent with a chip on his shoulder into a murderer, she’s succeeding.  To Walter Neff, Phyllis Dietrichson is a muse.  In reality, she’s a puppet master.

Phyllis Dietrichson is clearly a cruel woman with any semblance of loving, positive emotion being a ruse.  Even her glee upon accomplishing some goal or another is at least partially kept in check.  Consider the very famous scene in which Walter, hidden in the back of the Dietrichson car, strangles Mr. Dietrichson as Phyllis drives.  We hear the struggle, but the camera remains fixed on Phyllis’ face.  We see Barbara Stanwyck barely change facial expression, but what little change we do see is brilliant: the slightest hint of a knowing smile, fixed and frozen like the face of a doll.  It’s as if she’s trying to suppress a kind of orgasmic glee, but barely betrays it with a snide smile.  Or, that slight smile could indicate Phyllis’ quiet satisfaction that her plan is proceeding perfectly.  It’s simply left to our individual interpretation.  She never betrays what you think would be an honest emotion, but rather various masks concealing the depths of an incredibly black soul. “I was afraid she would go to pieces a little, now that we had done it,” Walter tells us in his narration.  “But she was perfect.  No nerves, not a tear, not even a blink of the eyes.”  We know better, and so does she.

True, Barbara Stanwyck betrays nary an emotion as Phyllis Dietrichson, but even then the character goes through something of an evolution, or rather a de-evolution.  At the outset, she’s the blank slate that so easily twirls Walter Neff around her finger with the smooth talk and the sexy seduction, yet maintains a nearly ice-cold exterior when dealing with that little matter of killing her husband.  Later, though, after the deed is done, I believe she begins to change.  Just as Walter’s nerves and a guilty conscience begin to get to him once Keyes hones in on the suspicious circumstances surrounding Mr. Dietrichson’s death, Phyllis also might be unraveling.  Consider one of Walter and Phyllis’ covert meeting in the supermarket: Phyllis now wears huge sunglasses, and that sexy seductress is gone.  The icy exterior remains, but the manipulative tabula rasa has now become a wicked shrew of a woman, clinching her teeth in berating Walter and his sudden change of heart concerning his going through with the rest of the plan.  She’s clearly nervous at this point, but Stanwyck still keeps a good amount of emotion in check, so that even a nervous Phyllis is an in-control Phyllis.

And then comes that final, fateful encounter between Phyllis Dietrichson and a now-completely disillusioned Walter Neff in the Dietrichson house in the middle of the night.  Wanting to put an end to this madness for good, Walter enters a dark, terrifying room lit by the faint light through the window, with jail bar-like shadows and Phyllis’ cigarette smoke permeating the room as if it were the lair of the devil itself.  And there in the armchair sits the devil’s stand-in, Phyllis: as always, calm and composed, potential murder weapon right beneath her, relaxing as if she’s been expecting her guest for years.  Sitting in a position as relaxed as you could imagine with her head back and that knowing smile still there, Stanwyck’s body language suggests both self-assurance and utter lethargy.  “I never loved you Walter.  Not you or anybody else,” she says.  “I’m rotten to the heart.  I used you, just as you said.  That’s all you ever meant to men.”  At last Phyllis has admitted what we’ve known all along, but she probably didn’t even need to.  Every aspect of her exterior identity has been a carefully self-controlled front: she knows it, we know it, and Walter now knows it far later than he should have.  Her plan’s gone to hell, but she remains so sure of her ability to pull the strings, even in this final dance of death with Walter, brought upon them by fate.

Stanwyck both overacts and underacts, goes completely over-the-top in taking Walter to bed with her words and employs a frigid monotone in eventually taking command over the increasingly wary insurance salesman. She so easily makes transitions from blonde seductress that any man would pine for to greedy, manipulative bitch.  How odd it is that she employs such a gamut of supposed emotion with her delivery,  yet so clearly demonstrates the ice in her veins.  It’s all about façade with Phyllis Dietrichson, and the façade that Barbara Stanwyck gives her is complex, terrifying in both its coldness and its appeal, and flawless in the morally gray-to-black noir world of “Double Indemnity.”  She may not always show it on the outside, but as Walter tells us, she was always thinking about murder, and he was thinking about that anklet.