Double Indemnity & Film Noir

July 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Double Indemnity book cover

The per­fect Film Noir, weak man, strong woman

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”.

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurry

Bar­bara Stan­wyck, Fred MacMurry

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!

Barbara Stanwyck

Last time for Phyllis

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.

by Michael Mills

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .