Note: In the following ode, Eddie Muller is going to presume you've seen Double Indemnity at least once.
If you haven't and you want to avoid spoilers
, see this iconic film immediately; and then come back and enjoy. Of course, it isn't by chance that the "Czar of Noir
" was hand-selected for this insightful piece. He appears on the DVD in the Shadows of Suspense documentary hidden among the extra features.
What was the first film noir
? Stranger on the Third Floor
? The Maltese Falcon
Is film noir
an American cinematic movement or is it international in scope? Did the French create it, or just define it? Is it qualified by its content or its style? Must a movie end badly to truly be noir
? Can noir
be in color? Is noir
dead, or does it live on in new films?
Open for argument, every last damn thing.
Except for one chiseled-in-stone fact. The most important film noir
ever made is Double Indemnity
. Don't even attempt a counter argument - there isn't one.
"movement" in 1940s' Hollywood officially began September 7, 1944, when Paramount Pictures opened Double Indemnity
wide. Big grosses poured in, proving that American audiences didn't need to be coddled or mollified or treated like children. They could take the 100 proof stuff and not choke. When the Academy Awards rolled around six months later, the film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Every studio, from MGM to Monogram, began churning out murder dramas inspired by Double Indemnity
's success. Co-writer and director Billy Wilder
had proven that few things are as entertaining as human beings giving in to their worst instincts. Provided the tawdry tale is brilliantly told.
Oh yeah, Best Picture that year: Going My Way
. Even more ridiculous, is that Edward G. Robinson
- whose Barton Keyes is one of the greatest supporting characters in movie history - wasn't
one of Double Indemnity
's seven nominations. (The film didn't win a single Oscar, by the way. It had to settle for the consolation prize: changing the course of movie history.)
Although I believe Billy Wilder was the finest writer/director to ever work in Hollywood, I refuse to describe this landmark film as "Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity
." There are too many essential contributors (producer Joe Sistrom
, cinematographer John Seitz
, composer Miklos Rosza
, all the actors) to give Wilder all the credit.
James M. Cain
's novella isn't nearly as good as The Postman Always Rings Twice
, but the guy deserves massive props for erecting the foundation upon which all of Dark City was built. But consider Cain's introduction of Phyllis:
A woman was standing there. I had never seen her before. She was maybe thirty-one or two with a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair. She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas. She had a washed-out look.
No wrought-iron staircase, no white terrycloth towel, no platinum dye job, no anklet. Cain's brilliance is in making his murderers seem utterly ordinary. That wasn't going to wash in Hollywood, and especially not in the hands of a screenwriter (Wilder) who was determined to be a director on par with Hitchcock
. Reworked by Wilder and Raymond Chandler
, Walter and Phyllis shimmer with fatal allure from the moment they appear onscreen.
The co-writers - who throughout months of collaboration grew to despise each other with unconcealed intensity - refined Cain's story into a dazzling succession of scenes that would become emblematic of the genre. (I recently witnessed a virtual a scene-by-scene remake of Double Indemnity
, albeit with lots more lip-synced pop songs. It was a 2003 Bollywood offering with the inspired title Jism
. Imagine Phyllis bursting into song every time she drops by Walter's crib for some action.)
Despite years of imitation and parody, Double Indemnity
never loses its freshness. Hell, I still laugh when Fred MacMurray
says, "Why don't you get down off your motorcycle and write me a ticket?"
And make no mistake about it, everything you love about Double Indemnity
was drawn up in the script, which is a masterful example of the screenwriter's art. At least up to "Sequence D," one of the alternate endings (never shot) in which Walter actually professes his love for Keyes. Better, but only slightly, is "Sequence E" (actually shot), in which Barton Keyes observes Walter's execution in the gas chamber.
Universal's incredible delay in getting a decent DVD edition of Double Indemnity
to market fueled speculation that the "deluxe" edition would contain the original ending, which over the years has become a Holy Grail for many noir
Well, here's the good news: Sequence E is still missing. If it had been discovered, and reinserted, Billy Wilder would have come back from the dead to kill everyone involved. He always maintained that he cut the scene because the story ends, emotionally, with Walter dying beside the surrogate father whom he has betrayed. Nothing else is necessary.
I'd always assumed that the gas chamber scene was written only to appease the Breen Office, which would have rejected the shooting script if Walter wasn't explicitly punished for his crimes.
According to Paramount archivist Barry Allen
, who knows more about the studio's physical assets than anyone on earth, the legendary gas chamber scene "will never be found. It may, through some fluke, some day be discovered, someplace where it ended up by mistake. But we've looked for it for years, and we have to assume that it was destroyed."
Fine by me. Edward G. Robinson lighting MacMurray's last cigarette as his protégé bleeds out on the floor is about as good as it gets.
God forbid if Wilder had shot Cain's ending, in which Walter and Phyllis escape the law, but not their own wretched self-loathing.
"I don't even know where we're going. Do you?"
"... Walter, the time has come."
"What do you mean, Phyllis?"
"For me to get my bridegroom. The only one I ever loved. One night I'll drop off the stern of the ship. Then, little by little I'll feel his icy fingers creeping into my heart."
"... I'll give you away."
"I mean: I'll go with you."
"It's all that's left, isn't it?"
Keyes was right. I had nothing to thank him for. He just saved the state the expense of getting me.
We walked around the ship. A sailor was swabbing out the gutter outside the rail. He was nervous, and caught me looking at him. "There's a shark. Following the ship."
I tried not to look, but couldn't help it. I saw a flash of dirty white down in the green. We walked back to the deck chairs.
"Walter, we'll have to wait. Till the moon comes up."
"I guess we better have a moon."
"I want to see that fin. That black fin. Cutting the water in the moonlight."
Somehow, I can't see Double Indemnity
scoring seven Oscar nods if Barbara Stanwyck
and MacMurray had fed themselves to a marauding shark. (The Breen Office wouldn't have allowed it anyway: suicide couldn't be shown as a way of "escaping" justice.)
This excerpt clearly displays what Chandler realized immediately about Cain's dialogue - it may play on the page, but it's lousy on the lips. Not even Stanwyck, the greatest actress in movie history, could have delivered those lines. (And it's a major clue as to why Cain never succeeded as a Hollywood screenwriter.)
For the record, Cain loved the changes made by Wilder and Chandler, especially the use of the dictaphone to set up the flashback structure, and the strengthening of the Neff/Keyes relationship. He wished he'd thought of them, and pretty much admitted that the film was stronger than the original source material.
Over the years, the only consistent complaint I've heard about Double Indemnity
- and this one that comes from many a self-professed noiraholic - concerns Barbara Stanwyck's wig. It's obvious, tawdry, and badly-styled. Sounds like Phyllis personified. Don't believe stories that Wilder regretted the wig halfway through filming, but couldn't reshoot. He knew what he was doing. The falseness of the hair, and Walter's willingness to look right past it, explains both characters perfectly.
More annoying are guys who knock Stanwyck's supposed lack of sex appeal. Generally, these arrested adolescents say shit like, "I want to like the film, but who can believe a guy would kill for that chick? She's not even a little bit hot."
This isn't even worth comment, since Babs could, in short order, have these guys licking the soles of her stilettos. But it does point out a common misconception - that Double Indemnity
is about a femme fatale
sexually entrapping a man into committing murder. Let's get it straight: that is not what the film is about.
Walter Neff's real motive isn't a dalliance with Mrs. Dietrichson, it's proving that he can beat the house, that Barton Keyes's infallible actuarial tables do not apply to him. The affair between Phyllis and Walter is less about sexual attraction than it is about people coldly manipulating each other.
The real love story, and the heartbreak, is between Neff and Keyes.