TCM Host Robert Osborne introduced tonight’s world premiere restoration screening of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) by saying it’s “one of my all time favorites,” and characterizing the film as “a great feather in Wilder’s cap.” But he also pointed out that certain aspects of the film’s production and reception were as tough as the characters it portrays.
Director Billy Wilder had a hard time casting the leads because the characters were so “despicable.” George Raft passed on the Walter Neff role (as he was known to pass on so many great parts) because it didn’t have a “lapel moment” when the character turned his jacket to reveal a badge—and better motives than anyone had suspected. Eventually, Wilder convinced Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray to take on the leading roles, which turned out to be “among the greatest” they would play.
Once the film rolled, every ounce of praise Osborne had lavished on the film seemed not only deserved, but perhaps even understated. The nightmarish world created by Raymond Chandler’s dialogue and John F. Seitz’s cinematography, with clockwork direction by Wilder and a haunting score from Miklos Rozsa, is among the most distinctive and atmospheric in film history. Too often, discussions of film noir focus only on its visual style, and that style was instantly recognizable to the audience at tonight’s screening. But without a hard-boiled story underlying the action—a story where deep longing causes the protagonist to make a fateful decision that sets in motion a cosmic balancing of the scales—the camera’s noir vision is uncoupled from the proper hard-boiled worldview, and noir becomes nothing more than a stylistic veneer.
What was evident to everyone who saw DOUBLE INDEMNITY tonight is its undeniably hard-boiled worldview. In fact, that may be the single most important and defining characteristic of this film, despite the incredible performances from the leads. And that should come as no surprise, given that its source material is a novella by James M. Cain (who also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce) extensively rewritten for screen by Chandler (with the assistance, or interference—depending on whose account you believe—of Billy Wilder, who would later be responsible for the iconic noir Sunset Blvd.)
It might seem that a kid who spent his early years in Plattsmouth, Nebraska before attending a prestigious “public” school in London, England (Dulwich College) would be an unlikely candidate to become the hard-boiled voice of the Los Angeles. But Chandler knew heartache. His alcoholic father abandoned the family when Raymond was a child, forcing their move to England (closer to his mother’s only well-heeled relatives). There, he studied classical literature at the same school that produced P. G. Wodehouse and C. S. Forrester, and journalism while on staff at the Daily Express. When Chandler came back to the United States, he struggled to make ends meet as a tennis racket stringer and fruit picker, then saw action in the trenches of WWI. Finally, he got into the most American of businesses, moving his way up the ranks to become a vice president of Dabney Oil in L.A. before his alcoholism and womanizing ended that career.
Only then, at the age of 44, did he decide to become a detective fiction writer, and from his uncommon blend of life experiences—high culture and low, small town and big city, success and failure—he created one of the most poignant and distinctive voices the literary world has ever known (and in detective Philip Marlowe, one of the most iconic literary heroes). For a decade, from 1933 to 1943, Chandler published numerous stories in the pulps and his first three hard-boiled novels, all of them featuring Marlowe.
Then, in 1943 he was hired by Paramount to collaborate with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for DOUBLE INDENMITY. While Chandler’s works and characters would be adapted dozens of times to radio, film and television, this was one of just four screenplays to bear his name, along with And Now Tomorrow, The Blue Dahlia, and Strangers on a Train (though virtually nothing of his work on the last remained after the screenplay was rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, and Chandler and Hitchcock both tried unsuccessfully to have Chandler’s name removed from the credits). Of these, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is clearly the greatest.
Chandler described his collaboration with Wilder as “an agonizing experience,” and later wrote “in Hollywood the screenplay in written by a salaried writer under the supervision of a producer—that is to say, by an employee without power or decision over the uses of his own craft, without ownership of it, and, however extravagantly paid, almost without honor for it.” But whatever suffering Chandler felt over the process seems only to have enhanced the final product.
It’s a poignant and riveting story of betrayal and scheming, with lines that only Chandler could have written—the sorts of lines that made him the true poet of the city of fallen angels (“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”). Told in flashback into a dictaphone to heighten protagonist Walter Neff’s (MacMurray) regret and to underscore the collective loss of innocence of all the players—particularly Neff’s friend Barton Keyes, played masterfully by Edward G. Robinson—it perfectly captures the mood of wartime America. But as was evident today at the Chinese Theatre today, it creates a dark and brooding mood no matter when it screens, mostly thanks to the Chandler-Wilder screenplay.
Amidst the sizzling innuendos of MacMurray and Stanwyck (the famous “How fast was I going, Officer?”), the tensions created by Keyes’ (Robinson) dogged pursuits and unfailing hunches, and the pure poetry of the screenplay, there is a quiet moment that is easy to miss but speaks volumes. Fifteen minutes in, as Neff leaves Keyes’ office, sweating the fact that Keyes seems to be onto something fishy about the insurance claim that will implicate Neff, he passes a man sitting quietly in a chair, reading a magazine. That man is Raymond Chandler—the quiet literary type who publicly shunned the limelight but always wanted a little more fame and notoriety, a little more success with the ladies, and the ability to get away with something (which in a sense he did, because this cameo by Chandler went unnoticed for more than 60 years).
His presence there, rather meek and mild, seems to sum up why this movie, and all of Chandler’s writings (and to some extent, Cain’s), still hit the mark. They convey a keen awareness that heroes are needed but they are bound to be tarnished souls, born of a world that has lost its innocence. Chandler’s own comments on crime fiction, in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” sum it up best:
“The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.”
Today, viewers were treated to the interesting patterns that Chandler and Wilder made of this not so fragrant world. And even now, armed with the knowledge that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle, they’d go back and do it again. Straight down the line.