‘Double Indemnity’: A Mesmerizing Film Noir Conceived Out of a Troubled Relationship of Two Greats

Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity was made in 1944 and in the last seventy years it has stood on the pedestal as one of the best examples of what the film noir genre has to offer. By using James M. Cain’s 1943 novella of the same name as the foundation of their story, Wilder and extraordinary novelist-turned-screenwriter Raymond Chandler wrote a mesmerizing script that introduced one of the most memorable cinematic trios to the audience. A story of a cold-blooded wife who sets up a scheme with an insurance salesman to kill her husband and profit from his newly established policy transformed, partly thanks to the phenomenal performances of Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, into an established classic that set the standard for film noirs that blossomed after the end of the Second World War. The original novella was inspired by a real 1927 murder in New York, a case which Cain followed as a journalist, but the road from the novella through a treatment to the finished script was an extremely bumpy one, as Wilder and Chandler’s ideas, vision and style collided more often than not. During the four months of their collaboration, the two artists frequently clashed, leading Chandler to the verge of quitting. But Wilder respected him for his writing prowess and stuck it out, afterwards going as far as claiming that the final product was as good as it was exactly because of his troubled relationship with Chandler. How difficult these times were for both of them can be seen in the fact that Wilder’s next project was The Lost Weekend, a story of an alcoholic writer, a story he wanted to tell in order to “explain Chandler to himself.”

But their effort paid off abundantly, as the script for Double Indemnity has been continuously lauded for the wittiness and cynicism of its dialogues, well-developed characters and intriguing, heavily atmospheric plotline. In fact, as Cain’s original dialogue from the novella fared poorly when translated to the screen, the lines seen in the movie have more to do with Wilder and Chandler than with the original author. Besides the bulletproof screenplay and inspired deliveries from its cast, what makes Double Indemnity such a haunting experience is Miklós Rózsa’s effective musical score, as well as John F. Seitz’s beautiful cinematography, with masterful use of lighting and shadows.

Often compared to another Wilder classic, Sunset Boulevard, mostly due to the similarities in their narrative structure, Double Indemnity is widely considered one of the best film noirs ever made, just as it is firmly placed on every relevant list of the best movies of the forties. This film is one of those rare moments in the history of cinema when everything fell into place perfectly, with immeasurable talent gathered both in front of and behind the camera. Even Cain, who wrote the original story, had to bow to Wilder’s accomplishment, having seen it half a dozen times. “It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of,” he said. By making the most out of its literary basis, Wilder surrounded himself with great artists, unafraid to take chances, reasonable enough to listen to the advice of his crew, fully confident that what he had in his hands was a truly great film. One of many in this master’s long and fruitful career.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler’s screenplay for Double Indemnity [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
In this interview, conducted by James Linville, Billy Wilder discusses collaborating with Raymond Chandler on the script for Double Indemnity.

“Chandler had never been inside a studio. He was writing for one of the hard-boiled serial magazines, The Black Mask—the original pulp fiction—and he’d been stringing tennis rackets to make ends meet. Just before then, James M. Cain had written ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ and then a similar story, ‘Double Indemnity,’ which was serialized in three or four installments in the late Liberty magazine. Paramount bought ‘Double Indemnity,’ and I was eager to work with Cain, but he was tied up working on a picture at Fox called Western Union. A producer-friend brought me some Chandler stories from The Black Mask. You could see the man had a wonderful eye. I remember two lines from those stories especially: ‘Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool.’ The other is when Marlowe goes to Pasadena in the middle of the summer and drops in on a very old man who is sitting in a greenhouse covered in three blankets. He says, ‘Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth.’ A great eye… but then you don’t know if that will work in pictures because the details in writing have to be photographable.

I said to Joe Sistrom, Let’s give him a try. Chandler came into the studio, and we gave him the Cain story ‘Double Indemnity’ to read. He came back the next day: ‘I read that story. It’s absolute shit!’ He hated Cain because of Cain’s big success with ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ He said, Well, I’ll do it anyway. Give me a screenplay so I can familiarize myself with the format. This is Friday. Do you want it a week from Monday? Holy shit, we said. We usually took five to six months on a script.

Don’t worry, he said. He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him. He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He’d put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he’d grasped the technique. I sat him down and explained we’d have to work together. We always met at nine o’clock, and would quit at about four-thirty. I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me. What we were doing together had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer—but not of scripts.” —Billy Wilder discuss the Art of Screenwriting

The following interview with Billy Wilder was conducted by Robert Porfirio in July 1975. The full interview is published in ‘Film Noir Reader 3,’ edited by Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini (November 2001; Limelight Editions).

When you started in film, there was a kind of an angst pervading Central Europe after World War I. Did your background, being Jewish in a culture that was becoming rabidly anti-Semitic, create a darker attitude towards life?
I think the dark outlook is an American one.

Even in the noir films? So many were made by émigrés: you worked in Europe with Siodmak, Ulmer, and Zinnemann, but also Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger…
Where does Preminger figure in film noir?

Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Fallen Angel. He took issue with me about Max Reinhardt, German Expressionism, looking for patterns…
But you see, the thing is that you used a key concept there: that is looking for patterns. Now, you must understand that a man who makes movies and certainly somebody like myself that makes all kinds of movies, works in different styles. I don’t make only one kind of movie, like say Hitchcock. Or like Minnelli, doing the great Metro musicals. As a picture-maker, and I think most of us are this way, I am not aware of patterns. We’re not aware that “This picture will be in this genre.” It comes naturally, just the way you do your handwriting. That’s the way I look at it, that’s the way I conceive it. When you see movies, you decide to put some kind of connective theory to them. You may ask me, “Do you remember that in a picture you wrote in 1935, the motive of the good guy was charity; and then the echo in that sentiment reappears in four more pictures. Or, you put the camera…” I’m totally unaware of it. I never think in those terms: “The big overall theme of my œuvre,” I say that laughingly. You’re trying to make as good and as entertaining a picture as you possibly can. If you have any kind of style, the discerning ones will detect it. I can always tell you a Hitchcock picture. I could tell you a King Vidor picture, a Capra picture. You develop a handwriting, but you don’t do it consciously.

But there’s something that brings you to that material. Why, for instance, did you pick a story like Double Indemnity? Why did you choose Chandler to collaborate with?
Ah, that’s a very good question, and I’ve answered it and written about [it] before, as I’m sure you know. So I will give you a very romantic version as explanation. A producer, [Joe Sistrom], came to me and said, “Look, do you know James M. Cain?” I answered, “Certainly. He wrote ‘Postman Always Rings Twice.’” He said, “Well, we don’t have that, Metro has that, but as an afterthought, and to cash in, he wrote a serial in the old Liberty Magazine called ‘Double Indemnity.’ Read it.” So I read it, and I said, “Terrific. It’s not as good as ‘Postman,’ but let’s do it.” So we bought it. Then we said, “Mr. Cain, how would you like to work with Mr. Wilder on a screenplay?” He said, “I would love to, but I can’t because I’m doing Western Union for Fritz Lang at Twentieth Century-Fox.” So, the producer said, “There is a Black Mask mystery writer around Hollywood called Raymond Chandler.” Nobody knew much about him, seriously, as a person. So we agreed, “Let’s bring him in.” He’d never been inside a studio. Then he started working. So you see, it is not that I am tossing up and down in my bed like Goethe conceiving art, and wind is playing in my hair, and I plan it all out to the last detail. No. It’s happenstance that we found Chandler.

Regarding Double Indemnity, in the end you decided the sequence in the gas chamber was anti-climactic?
We were delighted with it at first. Fred MacMurray loved it. He didn’t want to play it. No leading man wanted to play it, initially. But then he was absolutely delighted. I am a great friend of his, but can tell you when he shot the scene, there was no hesitation, no nothing, no problem with his performance. I shot that whole thing in the gas chamber, the execution, when everything was still, with tremendous accuracy. But then I realized, look this thing is already over. I just already have one tag outside that office, when Neff collapses on the way to the elevator, where he can’t even light the match. And from the distance, you hear the sirens, be it an ambulance or be it the police, you know it is over. No need for the gas chamber.

MacMurray is ideal as a romantic debunker, tough on the outside, yet soft enough to be lured by this woman.
Well, he was just kind of a middle-class insurance guy who works an angle. If he is that tough, then there is nothing left for Stanwyck to work on. He has to be seduced and sucked in on that thing. He is the average man who suddenly becomes a murderer. That’s the dark aspect of the middle-class, how ordinary guys can come to commit murder. But it was difficult to get a leading man. Everybody turned me down. I tried up and down the street, believe me, including George Raft. Nobody would do it, they didn’t want to play this unsympathetic guy. Nor did Fred MacMurray see the possibilities at first. He said, “Look, I’m a saxophone player. I’m making my comedies with Claudette Colbert, what do you want?” “Well, you’ve got to make that one step, and believe me it’s going to be rewarding; and it’s not that difficult to do.” So he did it. But he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to be murdered, he didn’t want to be a murderer. Stanwyck knew what she had. Dick Powell, he volunteered to do it. He told me, “I’ll do it for nothing.” He knew that was the way out of those silly things—you know where he was singing smack into Ruby Keeler’s face and he had to get out of that, so he was dying to play [Walter Neff]. That was before Murder, My Sweet. He came to my office to sell me: “For Christ’s sake, let me play it.” “Well look, I can take a comedian, and make it. But I don’t want to take a singer.” And he was damned good, you know, in Murder, My Sweet.

Isn’t this dark aspect of the middle class what Chandler was describing with the image of meek housewives feeling the edge of a knife as they stare at their husbands’ necks?
Chandler was more of a cynic than me, because he was more of a romantic than I ever was. He has his own odd rules and thought Hollywood was just a bunch of phonies. I can’t say he was completely wrong, but [he] never really understood movies and how they work. He couldn’t structure a picture. He had enough trouble with books. But his dialogue. I put up with a lot of crap because of that. And after a couple of weeks with him and that foul pipe smoke, I managed to cough up a few good lines myself. We kept him on during the shooting, to discuss any dialogue changes.

You say he had a way with dialogue, but not plotting…
The plotting was lousy; but then again, it had to be lousy so as not to get in the way of the atmosphere. There again, the plotting was not good in Chinatown. It is not very good in many Ross MacDonald or even Dash Hammett novels. The plotting, no. It is the atmosphere of the hot house. It is the description of the man with hair coming out of his ears long enough to catch a moth. This kind of thing. The funny thing is, Chandler would come up with a good image, pictorial, and like I said I would come up with a Chandlerism, as it were. It’s very strange, you know, that’s the way it always happens. He was not a young man, when we worked together on Double Indemnity for ten or twelve weeks, so he never quite learned it… the craft. And then he was on his own, with John Houseman barely looking over his shoulder. A screenwriter is a bum poet, a third-rate dramatist, a kind of a half-assed engineer. You got to build that bridge, so it will carry the traffic, everything else, the acting, the drama, happens on the set. Screenwriting is a mixture of techniques, and a little literary talent, sure; but also a sense of how to manage it, so that they will not fall asleep. You can’t bore the actors or the audience.

Can we talk about Ace in the Hole and its depiction of how some people exploit others’ tragedies?
Our man, the reporter, was played by Mr. Kirk Douglas. Now, he was on the skids and he thought that a great story would get him back into the big time, big leagues. He remembered the Floyd Collins story. Now, I looked up the Floyd Collins story. They composed a song, they were selling hot dogs, there was a circus up there, literally a circus, people came. I was attacked by every paper because of that movie. They loathed it. It was cynical, they said. Cynical, my ass. I tell you, you read about a plane crash somewhere nearby and you want to check out the scene, you can’t get to it because ten thousand people are already there: they’re picking up little scraps, ghoulish souvenir hunters. After I read those horrifying reviews about Ace In The Hole, I remember I was going down Wilshire Boulevard and there was an automobile accident. Somebody was run over. I stopped my car. I wanted to help that guy who was run over. Then another guy jumps out of his car and photographs the thing. “You’d better call an ambulance,” I said. “Call a doctor, my ass. I’ve got to get to the L.A. Times. I’ve got a picture. I’ve got to move. I just took a picture here. I’ve got to deliver it.” But you say that in a movie, and the critics think you’re exaggerating.

Did you see a kind of trend happening in the 1940s when Double Indemnity spawned a rash of movies with first-person narrations?
I have always been a great man for narration, and not because it is a lazy man’s crutch. That is maybe true; but it is not easy to have good narration done well. What I had in Sunset Boulevard, for instance, the narrator being a dead man was economical story telling. You can say in two lines something that would take twenty minutes to dramatize, to show and to photograph. There are a lot of guys who try narration; but they don’t quite know the technique. Most of the time, the mistake is that they are telling you something in narration that you already see, that is self-evident. But if it adds, if it brings in something new, another perspective, then good.

Obviously I planned to ask about the noir aspects of Sunset Boulevard.
The description of the house was, if I remember, the whole thing was early Wallace Beery, to whom she was married at one time, by the way. At first, you know, this was supposed to be a comedy. We were going to get Mae West, but she turned us down. And then [Gloria] Swanson almost dropped out when Paramount asked for a screen test. There was a lot of Norma in her, you know. The biggest threat to the mood in Sunset Boulevard was when we lost the original actor, [Montgomery Clift], and went with Bill Holden. He looked older than we wanted, and Swanson did not want to be made up to look sixty. It would never have worked anyway. This was a woman who used all her considerable means to go the other way. Who knows what mood a younger actor, or at least younger looking, would have given.

You had the same cameraman lighting these moody interiors in both Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, John Seitz.
Johnny Seitz was a great cameraman. And he was fearless. He should have won an [Academy] Award on Five Graves and I thought surely he would on Sunset Boulevard.

The final scene in the house in Double Indemnity
Yes, that was beautiful.

And the night exteriors in that picture, the glistening train tracks.
Johnny was brilliant, yes.

In Double Indemnity, the make-up on Barbara Stanwyck…
Mistake there. Big mistake.

Why?
I don’t know. I wanted her blonde. Blondes have more fun, but…

She seemed almost ice cold with that.
Yeah, I wanted to do that, to have her look like that. But you must understand one thing, it was a mistake. And I was the first one, to see the mistake after we were shooting. I talked to somebody about George Stevens’ Place In The Sun. A real masterpiece, I think. But this guy said, “That’s a great picture, but there’s one cheap kind of symbolism that is almost not worthy of that great picture, that is, that district attorney, he limps. Justice kind of limping, you’ve got that cane. It was just kind of cheap and cheesy.” “Well, I agree with you. As a matter of fact, Stevens agrees with you.” But you see, if you do that in a play, after the third performance you go backstage and you tell that actor, “Look, tomorrow no cane. Okay. Tomorrow lose the cane.” But after the picture is half-finished, after I shot for four weeks with Stanwyck, now I know I made a mistake. I can’t say, “Look tomorrow, you ain’t going to be wearing the blonde wig.” I’m stuck… I can’t reshoot four weeks of stuff. I’m totally stuck. I’ve committed myself; the mistake was caught too late. Fortunately it did not hurt the picture. But it was too thick, we were not very clever about wig-making. But when people say, “My god, that wig. It looked phony,” I answer “You noticed that? That was my intention. I wanted the phoniness in the girl, bad taste, phony wig.” That is how I get out of it. —Billy Wilder: About Film Noir

BILLY WILDER SPEAKS

Illustrated with film clips, rare photographs and artwork, Billy Wilder Speaks is a lively lesson in filmmaking, from one of its undisputed masters. In a series of filmed interviews conducted by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), acclaimed writer/director Wilder recounts the achievements and pitfalls of his 60-year career. As one might expect from the maker of The Apartment, Double Indemnity and Sabrina, Wilder peppers his conversations with hilarious anecdotes, keen insights into the craft of moviemaking and frank advice about the art of survival in Hollywood. With bonus interview footage not seen on US Television, film clips, and 19 Wilder trailers. —Kino Lorber

 
“I love to shoot elegantly and I pride myself that it’s not whacked together by a dilettante. But I despise doing fancy schmancy shots. I cannot stand it. If anybody in the middle of a picture suddenly grabs his partner’s knee and says, ‘Oooooh, look at that setup!’ then the picture is dead to me because he knows that there was a setup. He knows there was a camera, he knows there were people on the dolly pushing backward, forward. I try to involve the audience and make them part of what is happening on that two-dimensional screen. The key is just make it effective, but don’t make it obvious. Make it clear to them, but don’t spell it out like the audience are just a bunch of idiots. Just aim it slightly above their station and they’re going to get it.” —Billy Wilder

Below: production still from the lost, original ending of Double Indemnity.

Billy Wilder once said, “You have to take the bitter with the sour.” His films proved that. Here he is creating some of his cynical, desperate, yet totally human characters. Production still photographer: Ed Henderson © Paramount Pictures.

 
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