The Perfect Noir: Billy Wilder's <i>Double Indemnity</i>

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by David Selden

It is evident in the opening frames of Billy Wilder's archetypal film noir, even before the confession he is about to recount, that Walter Neff is a doomed man. With his back to the camera, Neff slumps in abject defeat. In his colleague's office he narrates the story of an intricately plotted murder unraveling.

In 1935 James M. Cain's novella of the same name had ripped its story straight out of the headlines. Ten years earlier Judd Grey had been persuaded by his girlfriend, Ruth Snyder to murder her husband so that she could claim the insurance. According to Grey, it had been her seventh attempt but it they would both face execution.

The trial in 1928 had been a sensation, covered by D.W Griffiths and Damyon Runyon amongst others. Tom Howard had smuggled a camera into Sing Sing and the resulting photo of Snyder in the electric chair made the front page of The New York Daily News. Snyder was to be the first women executed in 29 years. Attempts to prosecute the paper failed and Howard's camera would end up in the Smithsonian.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood was keen to option James M. Cain's account of the crime and the princely sum of $25,000 was offered. At The Hays Office, Joseph Breen had other ideas and issued the stern directive, "The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation." The offers were promptly withdrawn.

Some eight years later Paramount were to finally acquire Double Indemnity for $10,000 less than their original offer. James M. Cain was somewhat annoyed but Breen was still implacable. It took a treatment by Wilder and his regular writing partner Charles Brackett to finally get his grudging acquiescence. The film was approved with a few changes.

With four Oscar nominations behind him Wilder was on a tear but Double Indemnity remained a hard sell. Brackett dropped out, feeling that the material was beneath him and Wilder cast around for a co-writer. His first choice, James M. Cain, was unavailable due to competing Hollywood obligations. Raymond Chandler was an obvious next move but Wilder was disappointed in him.

Expecting a hard bitten ex-private detective, chewing out lines of effortlessly effective dialogue he was instead confronted with an emotionally reticent, English educated alcoholic whose reserve and formality sat ill at ease with Wilder's brasher more "Hollywood" style.

The two men loathed each other but Chandler, entirely naive about writing for film and desperate for what he thought would be easy money, agreed to write a script for $1000. He said he would need at least a week. The eighty pages of "useless camera instructions" that he delivered a few days later were patiently set aside and the two set to work. Four months later the script they produced from their uncomfortable working relationship was one of the greatest in the history of cinema.

Chandler would later peevishly complain that despite "his" script being nominated for an Oscar he wasn't invited to the ceremony, Wilder retorted that the writer "was under the table drunk at Lucy's." Perhaps it was just as well, for despite receiving nominations in 7 categories Double Indemnity lost in every single one. Wilder was so infuriated that when Leo McGary won best director for Going My Way (a musical comedy in which Bing Crosby played a priest), he stuck out his foot and tripped the unfortunate director as he made his way to collect the award.

Wilder would later say that his subsequent picture, The Lost Weekend (in which Ray Milland would play an alcoholic writer on a self-destructive binge) was an attempt "to explain Chandler to himself." Despite the acrimony between the two it should be noted that much of the film's sense of authentic location was based on Chandler's research and that the machine gun dialogue bears his unmistakable imprimatur. Chandler even makes a fleeting cameo in the film (watch out for him around 16:12, glancing up from a book as Neff walks past).

Of course a great script is nothing without great actors, and Wilder's casting was inspired, even if out of necessity. Wilder and his producer Sistrom had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for Dietrichson from the outset but they were lucky to get her. The character of Dietrichson was manipulative, if not sociopathic, a femme fatale without any redeeming qualities. Stanwyck was the highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time and had initial misgivings about the role, fearing it might tarnish her image. The trashy blonde wig that Wilder insisted on infuriated the studio, executives privately grumbling that they were paying for Stanwyck, but getting George Washington.

Neff (an insurance salesman hypnotized by Dietrichson and the smell of honeysuckle, who is intoxicated at the prospect of committing the "perfect" murder) proved harder to cast. Alan Ladd, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, Frederic March and George Raft all passed on the role. Fred MacMurray, who had been known for happy go lucky leads, was under studio contract but getting ideas above his station. Amongst the highest paid actors in Hollywood but thoroughly typecast as a "nice guy", to MacMurray's initial horror the studio decided to "teach him a lesson" by allowing him to take such a dark role.

MacMurray's performance and chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck would be incendiary. Cast against type it would be amongst the defining performances of a career that seventeen years later would find him playing Professor Ned Brainerd in Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor. MacMurray would later describe Double Indemnity as "the best picture I ever made."

The chemistry between MacMurray and Stanwyck drives the narrative of Double Indemnity. Even as the Hay's Production Code forbade the depiction of explicit sex, as the couple discuss the various mundanities of insurance cover the conversation becomes the unlikely kindling of a convincing Amour Fou. As Dietrichson says, "There's a speed limit in this state Mister, and I think you just broke it."

The role of Neff and Dietrichson's nemesis, Keyes, was reluctantly taken by Edward G. Robinson, who saw it as a demotion from his usual star billing. Robinson was later to concede that (in addition to drawing the same salary as the two leads for less work) the role represented a graceful passage into "middle and old agevii". Nonetheless, his performance as the relentlessly skeptical Keyes crackles with energy, the claims adjustor's eyes sparkling as he begins to sense that something is not quite right with "accident" he is charged to investigate. Neff, his work colleague and friend, begining to sweat cold paranoia, increasingly certain that the only way is, "straight down the line. And the line ends at the cemetery."

Brilliantly photographed by John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity's use of "Venetian Blind" lighting (creating a jail bars effect that foreshadows the likely, if not actual, fate of its protagonists) was to go on become a staple of the film noir look. Sunny Californian locations are used in sharp contrast to the gloomy interiors and the restlessness of Miklós Rózsa's dissonant score (despite the disapproval of Paramount's musical director Louis Lipstone) perfectly underlines the conspiratorial urgency that drives the movie to its tragic conclusion.

Despite the singer Kate Smith organizing a campaign to get the public to stay away from Double Indemnity on its release, the film was a hit, even as some critics were divided as to its moral rectitude. The notoriously waspish and conservative gossip collumist, Louella Parsons surprisingly gave the film her seal of approval but the film was jilted by The Academy. Perhaps the final word on the perfect noir of Double Indemnity should go to Alfred Hitchcock, who wrote to the director -- "Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are 'Billy' and 'Wilder'".


i An alternate ending exists with Neff facing the gas chamber but (despite the protestations of Chandler) it is dramatically less effective than the version released, otherwise Breen expressed his displeasure at a proposed scene showing the disposal of the body and at the skimpy towel worn by the female lead in the first scene.

ii "Shadows of Suspense". Double Indemnity Universal Legacy Series DVD (Universal Studios ). 2006. The Lost Weekend can be enjoyed here at Network wesome.

iii The only other known footage of Chandler is a fragment of home movie.

iv I said, "I love the script and I love you, but I am a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out killer." And Mr. Wilder -- and rightly so - looked at me and he said, "Well, are you a mouse or an actress?" And I said, "Well, I hope I'm an actress." He said, "Then do the part". And I did and I'm very grateful to him.

Barbara Stanwyck quoted in Lally, Kevin (1996). Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

v Lally. (The remark is attributed to Paramount Production Executive Buddy DeSylva).

vi Zolotow, Maurice (1977). Billy Wilder In Hollywood. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

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