It’s a good thing Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s classic noir of desire–for lust, money and revenge–was made in 1944, because it wouldn’t get made today. Not because it still isn’t a great movie–it is. But because thanks to the obdurate, formulaic rules that studio execs and their coverage readers swear by nowadays, (incanted like the Holy Grail by screenwriting mavens Syd Field and Bob McKee), there is one thing you never do: use flashback.
So imagine if today’s reader got the script from Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and on the very first page the protagonist (hotshot insurance salesman Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray) recites his confession into a Dictaphone and tells us he did it for the money and the dame, and that he didn’t get either. What the hell? It isn’t a story stopper. It’s a story killer. It’s over. We know what happens, it didn’t turn out good. Next script.
Of course they would have missed one of the standard bearers for the best in Hollywood film noir. Scripted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler — the slumming angel himself of the dark side of those southern California silver-lined clouds —Double Indemnity is a tighter, faster and, yes, better version of the James M. Cain novel.
In the book, the story unfolds in what Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Phyllis, calls repeatedly, a “straight down the line” sequence of events. But the film—hold up your messianic crosses, Bob and Syd—is told in flashback. In fact, it’s almost elliptical, so the beginning is the end.
Wilder and Chandler also expanded the role of uber claims man, Barton Keyes, so that instead of being a minor character, he becomes, in screenwriter terms, the Antagonist. He is, and not to put too fine or weird a point on it, the other love interest–and not just because Neff tells him he loves him at the end of the film. Neff respects Keyes, and almost like the son who must challenge the father before he can leave the castle and vanquish the world, Neff attempts this double-cross not just for the money and the dame, but to test his skills against Keyes. Indeed, why else would Neff stagger back to the office to tell his story?
Wilder’s choice of perennial tough guy Edward G. Robinson to play Keyes was brilliant. The whip-smart investigator drills facts and actuarial tables like he used to drill thugs in his gangster movies. The guy’s a royal pain in the ass, but he’s a smart ass who can and does quote statistics about suicide and shoot them machine gun-style at his boss. He verbally blows away the man quoting suicide by race, color, occupation, sex, by time of day and year. He includes suicide by poisons– “…subdivided by cyanide, by mercury, by strychnine, by 38 other poisons, 16 of them no longer procurable at prescription pharmacies.” He finishes him off with: “… not one case out of all these millions of cases, of a leap from the rear end of a moving train. That’s just one way they don’t do it!”
And there goes the “perfect murder” that Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson were sure would get them a hundred grand (fifty thousand doubled because of the double indemnity clause in the insurance policy).
Let me flashback here myself: The story is the traditional set-up of the noir genre–weak man, strong woman, dark plans, trouble everywhere. So when Neff stops by to renew a policy for Mr. Dietrichson and meets the wife Phyllis with only a towel and a staircase between them (“You’re not fully covered”), he’s gah-gah for the girl. Suddenly, Walter isn’t selling insurance, he’s selling Walter. And Phyllis, no slouch in hooking a man (she nursed her husband’s former wife to death, just to conveniently put herself in line), tells him:
“There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles per hour.”
“How fast was I going officer?”
“I’d say around 90.”
He leaves, but we know he’s coming back, especially when he says in another screenwriting No-No, a voiceover, “..murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.”
He returns. Of course. Then Phyllis floats Walter the idea of getting a $50,000 double indemnity policy on her husband, “..without him knowing it of course.” And then arranging the husband’s accidental” death.
Walter isn’t only willing; he’s the brains behind the operation: Hubby is going to take the train up to Stanford for a college reunion. Only he never makes it. In fact, he never even makes the train station. Walter whacks him, then substitutes himself (on crutches no less, since the poor schmuck husband broke his leg a few days before the trip) to establish that Dietrichson was on board. Walter jumps from the platform car, meets up with Phyllis and they dump her husband’s body on the tracks. Perfect. Even the insurance company boss buys the “suicide.”
Then comes Barton Keyes and the “little man who lives in my stomach” and the aforementioned statistics. Keyes smells something, and it isn’t honeysuckle, it’s a rat. Somebody’s working with Mrs. Dietrichson to defraud the company. That the somebody was so close to Barton, he, seemingly doesn’t suspect—although the way that Keyes shows up at Neff’s apartment, keeps telling him why the case stinks, hints at a more subtle knowledge.
Alarmed at Keyes on the hunt, Walter tells Phyllis they can’t be seen together until things blow over. And absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, it makes it suspicious. Walter begins secretly seeing Phyllis’s step-daughter, Lola. Meanwhile, Phyllis has been secretly seeing Lola’s former boyfriend. Oh, the perfidy! And the good guy/Oy-vey guy Barton has been openly seeing double-cross on this double indemnity.
After all of this maneuvering, Walter meets Phyllis one last time. She shoots him and then can’t take the fatal second shot. Walter doesn’t have that crisis of conscience: he plugs her two times up close and very personal. Then staggers back to the office to make his confession.
“You know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell you. Because the guy you were looking for was too close—right across the desk from you.”
”Closer than that, Walter.”
“I love you, too.”
Wilder was 38 when Double Indemnity was released. It was the third film he directed. An émigré from Austria, he took a cynical look at Hollywood (and no doubt Americans), but clothed it in his own personal nuanced style. For all their lust, Wilder makes Walter’s and Phyllis’s passion seem cool, distant, merely on the surface. Some of this was due to the Hayes Commission, which almost didn’t allow the movie to be made because, ”The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater.“ But beyond that, Wilder seems to have a different perspective than not only the audience, but the characters themselves. He’s interested in not just in the act they commit, but what happens afterwards.
His cynical sensibility worked in many ways to create his vision–from John Seitz’s severe cinematography, including the slotted shadows of venetian blinds, to using Chandler to help with the dialogue, and finally, getting strong performances from movie veterans that were polarized versions of their movie personas. Edward G. Robinson who made “Yeah, see!” a criminal anthem as Rico in Little Caesar, plays a nice guy. Barbara Stanwyck plays the hot blond with a cold heart, but became the powerful matriarch of the Barkley family in one of the TV’s longer-running series (112 episodes) of the ‘60s, The Big Valley. Fred MacMurray, the bloodied lothario who is so besotted by evil, would transform in the ‘60s into one of television’s most iconic Dads: widower Steve Douglas of My Three Sons, where for a dozen years and 380 episodes, he made sure his trio of boys knew that honesty and courage were the paths a boy took to becoming a man.
Supposedly, Wilder and Chandler disliked each other immensely. Chandler often showed up drunk, smoked a smelly pipe, and really didn’t know squat about screenplays and their structure. It’s rumored that he also hated Wilder for his slick way of chatting up the girls with his heavily-accented version of English. Since Chandler was somewhat of a mama’s boy–living with his mother until she died, marrying a woman 18 years his senior—this hatred seems obvious.
Yet, for all their issues, Billy and Raymond knew how to turn a phrase. Double Indemnity crackles with terrific double entrendre dialogue:
”Wish you’d tell me what’s engraved on that anklet.“
”Phyllis, huh. I think I like it.“
”But you’re not sure.“
”Well, I’d have to drive it around the block a couple of times.“
”Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket?“
”Suppose I let you off with a warning.“
”Suppose it doesn’t take?“
”Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.“
”Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder?“
”I wonder if I know what you mean.“
”I wonder if you wonder."
Their words were such polished perfection, because while Wilder and Chandler were so totally different, their views were so very much the same: a passionate desire to show a sliver of life beyond the pale, with a lepidopterologist’s dispassion for the very subject they were pinning down.
Interestingly, Wilder gave Chandler a tiny cameo in the movie. It comes at 16:14 into it. Neff leaves Keyes’s office and there, sitting on a bench, is the author of The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window, and The Lady in the Lake. History doesn’t tell us why Wilder did this. Perhaps he felt sorry for Chandler, and the cameo might have gotten him a SAG card and all the benefits of the screen actor’s insurance and retirement plans–something to consider since Raymond was 56 then and the Big Four of his career were behind him. Or maybe by making him an actor, Wilder could direct him–make him do take after take; berate him for not even knowing how to sit.
In 1997, at the DGA symposium, four of the attending directors cited Wilder as their most creative influence. And these were directors whose pictures included Titanic, Good Will Hunting, The Sweet Hereafter, The Full Monty and L.A. Confidential. So if those heavyweights thought Wilder was the Oscar of Directors (and not just because he won 4 of them), maybe Hollywood should reconsider its shibboleth against flashback.
Wilder loved flashback. Actually, he adored it since a few years later he used it in Sunset Boulevard, again at the very start of the movie, but took it a step further because that was a dead man talking.
Maybe the studios should take a second look at flashback. The payoff might well be… double.
John Geraci is an award-winning screenwriter who recently turned his talents to fiction. His first novel, Dead Man Talking—a thriller set in a Southern California beach town where the dead bodies are beginning to outnumber the tanned ones—will be released in 2013.
Read all posts by John Geraci at Criminal Element.