September’s Classic film is a masterful collaboration between a Jewish screenwriter (who had fled the rise of Hitler) and a novelist (who had once worked for the Bristol Western Gazette). Though they did not hit it off, this (their only) partnership succeeded in adapting a serialized story from Liberty magazine based on a real event.
The outcome won 7 Oscar nominations, was ranked 38th by American Film Institute’s 1988 list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century and has even been lauded as a comment (perhaps accidentally) on capitalist paternalism.
Billy Wilder had already been nominated for the script of Ninotchka (1939), which demonstrated his wry sense of humour and a fresh outsider’s view of America (Film Club regulars may recall from his later film, Ace in the Hole, 1951). On this, only his third film as director, he was teamed with a British writer who had fought with the Gordon Highlanders in the trenches and been educated at Dulwich College, London.
Though born in Chicago, Raymond Chandler had moved to London aged 7, had become a British citizen, lived in Paris and Munich in his teens and worked in the Admiralty before quitting to become a reporter. Then, aged 24, he borrowed the money for a ticket to California. Starting as a bookkeeper for an oil company, he rose to executive level, but after the crash at the end of the 1920s, was penniless and began turning his hand to writing.
Despite a modern American setting, this film has an underlying, old-world sensibility so that it presents the automobile as a murder location (rather than a desirable machine of convenience) and the supermarket (hardly glimpsed yet in Britain) is where clandestine meetings take place. Despite this, other details suggest a fairy-tale modality – a wicked step-mother, a man who (like a Russian doll) has a ‘little man’ inside him and can tell him when something is wrong, a murderer who cannot hear his own footsteps. The set design, meanwhile, displays expressionistic freedom of form – note the curious door configuration in the apartment (that meet the demands of a plot device).
Romania’s best known export, Edward G. Robinson, moving from his more famous gangster roles, here plays a wise, old-fashioned, father figure – not only to Fred MacMurray’s all-American insurance salesman but also to the company executive – a man from the front office, who does not get his hands dirty and has “never read an actuarial table in his life”. Robinson’s benevolent father figure, wants to bestow blessings on his annointed successor, but MacMurray’s Oedipal desire is to beat the system by fooling this patrician authoritarian.
My friend Sigmund (Freud) tells me that Robinson plays the ‘good’ father, while Barbara Stanwyck’s husband is the ‘bad’ one, who deserves his fate at the hands of the Oedipal Walter Neff – though prompted by Stanwyck’s wicked step-mother figure. Not sure if Sigmund can explain though why, if she is the ‘bad mother’ (though not in the ‘rapper’ sense), then the nearest thing to a ‘good mother’ in the piece, ironically, is her daughter. Hmm …
The protagonist of film noir (as this film has been categorised) is usually seen as blameless, but MacMurray (better known for his happy-go-luck good guys) is the architect of his own fate. Wilder’s camera however makes us look on him as essentially a good soul (until we simply can’t any longer) and makes Stanwyck’s femme fatale the root cause (note, for example, who gets the close-up in the murder scene).
All three main actors were reluctant (for different reasons) to participate in this dark tale of American hubris, but Wilder wore them down – luckily, for they ended up in one of the best films of their careers. Some of you may think you have seen this film and that’s all there is to say. But I say that, although it is often thought of as a classic American film noir, Double Indemnity has a strong European flavour; it’s resonance and dark humour springs from its multi-layered text – and what is more, it always rewards further viewings.
Paramount had difficulty getting the script past the censors. Eventually Wilder and his writing partner, Charles Brackett, submitted a treatment and this time the Hays Office approved the project with only a few objections: the portrayal of the disposal of the body, a proposed gas-chamber execution scene, and the skimpiness of the towel worn by Barbara Stanwyck in her first scene.
Charles Brackett decided it was too sordid for his upper-crust sensibilities and bowed out of the project. Wilder’s first choice was then James M. Cain, the author of the original story, but he was already working for another studio (although Cain claimed he was never asked).
Wilder described Chandler in their first meeting as looking like an accountant. Not realizing he would be working with Wilder, Chandler demanded $1000 and at least a week to complete the screenplay. After the first weekend he presented 8 pages that Wilder said was “useless camera instruction.”
Chandler was a recovering alcoholic. He later complained, “The first picture I worked on was nominated for an Academy Award (if that means anything), but I was not even invited to the press review held right in the studio.” Wilder responded by saying, “We didn’t invite him? How could we? He was under the table drunk at Lucy’s!” But he admitted, “I think he [Chandler] had a tough time with me – I drove him back into drinking…” Nevertheless Wilder typically made use of the experience: his next project, The Lost Weekend, about an alcoholic writer, was made in part “to explain Chandler to himself.”
After watching the film half a dozen times, James M Cain said, “It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it [that] I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it.”
After the character of Walter Neff had been turned down by Alan Ladd, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck and Frederic March, Wilder recalls “scraping the bottom of the barrel” and approaching George Raft, who was illiterate. About halfway through Wilder’s reciting of the plot, Raft interrupted: “Let’s get to the lapel bit,” he said. “What lapel bit?” Wilder asked. Annoyed by such stupidity Raft explained, “You know, when the guy flashes his lapel and you see his badge and know he’s a detective.” This was his vision of the film, and since it wasn’t part of the story, Raft turned the part down.
Chandler can be seen 16 minutes into the film, a seated figure who looks up from reading as MacMurray passes in the insurance office (see above). This is the only film footage known to exist of Chandler.