Double Indemnity & Film Noir
By the fall of 1943, Barbara Stanwyck had starred in 43 films. She had shown versatility with many styles. However, there remained one type of role, and an integral part of the spectrum of any actress, that she had never done, and the time seemed right for it. It was still early enough in cinema history for audiences to be shaken up by a thoroughly evil woman.Stanwyck was well aware of the potential in the role of Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Wilder remarked later how Barbara jumped at the chance of playing it. In an interview for Movie Digest in 1972, Barbara, recalled, “when Billy Wilder sent me the script of Double Indemnity, and I read it, I realized that I had never played an out–and–out killer. I had played medium heavies, but never an out–and–out killer. And because it was an unsympathetic character, I was a little frightened of it. I went to his office, and I said to him, I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid, after all these years of playing heroines to play the part of an out–and–out cold– blooded killer… Mr. Wilder looked at me and resolutely declared, “Are you an actress or a mouse?” Well, I hope I’m an actress I lamented. To which he bluntly replied, Then take the part.”, I did, and I have been grateful to him since”.
In casting the characters, Barbara was Wilder’s first choice for her role, but he had great difficulty finding a leading man for the role of the besieged Walter Neff. In those days none of the big names dared play a murderer. When he proposed the story to George Raft, Raft said he would play the role only if the insurance salesman turned out in the end to be an FBI agent, an appalling thought, trying to pin down Miss Stanwyck as the murderer.Even with Rafts refusal, Wilder was convinced he had the makings of a great film. He approached Fred MacMurray who himself had some misgivings about accepting the part. It took perseverance and a great deal of work to bring together the final combination of Stanwyck, MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson,. Who would under Wilder’s superb direction, become one of the most memorable trios in film history.The screenplay, fashioned by Wilder and Raymond Chandler was based on the novel by James M. Cain. The film went into production in September of 1943 with a harshly made–up, brassily blond Stanwyck. The blond wig was Wilder’s idea, He used it, as he said “to complement her anklet. I wanted to make her look as sleazy as possible”. Cinematographer John Seitz recalled later that when Buddy DeSylva, then production head of Paramount, saw the first shots he remarked, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington”. Wilder said later, “The wig was not much good, I must admit”. I thought it was perfect!
Phyllis is so indifferent to the feelings of others that she is able to use them at her leisure. And, since she experiences no involvement, she remains free to operate without a sense of guilt. The killing of her husband finds her ablaze with satisfaction. And Walter who initially tries to pull out of their deadly arrangement is verbally poisoned. And now… Moreover, when he shows up later with murderous intentions of his own toward her, he’s faced with more of the same. What makes her so attractive is the way in which she operates. Walter hits on it when he says, “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.”
Six Academy Award nominations were given to Double Indemnity; Best Picture, Actress, Cinematography (Black and White), Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Sound Recording to Loren Ryder and Best Written Screenplay. “The film was shot in newsreel style”, said cameraman John Seitz. We attempted to keep it extremely realistic. One of Seitz’s touches of realism was the effect of waning sunlight in the cheerless living room of the Dietrichson house, which he achieved through the use of some silver dust mixed with smoke. Enhanced by his low– key lighting, it wraps the characters in an atmosphere that is both realistic and an orchestration for their deeds.
Billy Wilder has not seen the picture in years. “I never look at my old stuff”, he claims, but regards Double Indemnity as one of his favorites, “because it had the fewest takes, and because it was taut and moved in the staccato manner of Cain’s novel.”
When the film was released, the New York Herald Tribune wrote; Billy Wilder has adapted James Cain’s story with uncompromising artistry. His staging makes the offering one of the most vital and arresting films of the year. With perfectly coordinated acting by Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson and the lesser players, it hits clean and hard right between the eyes. Wilder has made a sensational contribution to filmmaking in Double Indemnity.
Of Barbara Stanwvck’s portrayal, the New York World Telegram had nothing but whoops and bravos for “the vicious conniving spirit she has woven into the girl. The Tribune found her “vibrantly malignant and attractive as the homicidal wife.” And The Brooklyn Eagle said she “has never given as striking a performance. She proceeds to give us a classic lesson in femininity.” It did. And Phyllis Dietrichson opened up a whole new direction for Barbara 5tanwyck. The fact that audiences not only accepted her as a heavy, but liked her, meant that she had added the final dimension to what she could play. Comedy or drama, heroine or villainess she would have her choice from now on.
In 1981, first time director Lawrence Kasden had a hit with Body Heat, using, virtually, the entire look and feel of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece. Though it was critically acclaimed, to most purists, it paled in comparison.