Few movies are as great as 1944’s Double Indemnity. And few people drove Raymond Chandler as crazy as director Billy Wilder. It wasn’t just Wilder’s mannerisms, his walking stick, his constant pacing while they collaborated on the script for Double Indemnity. It was also the constant stream of phone calls--Wilder chatting up young women, and scoring with them at night. How it must have galled Chandler, 18 years Wilder’s senior, to see this young man with broken English score with such a lot of babes.
Chandler apparently considered Wilder a good character. In his 1949 Philip Marlowe novel, The Little Sister, Chandler writes about a Hollywood agent with most of Wilder’s mannerisms intact. Take that, Billy!
To me, Double Indemnity is interesting because Wilder and Chandler turned a good book into a great screenplay.
American journalist and author James M. Cain broke new ground with his novels Mildred Pierce (1941), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1943). Even his lesser-known works, such as Career in C Major and Other Stories (1943), are worth reading. But like many books by the pulp writers of his time, Cain’s are often better in conception than in execution.
So how did co-writers Wilder and Chandler improve Double Indemnity? For one thing, the two enlarged the part of Barton Keyes, played on screen by Edward G. Robinson. In Cain’s novel, Keyes is a minor character, but in the movie Keyes is the third part of a love triangle between Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). I think Wilder and Chandler gave Robinson the best speech in the film, as he berates the front office owner of their insurance company for knowing nothing about the business.
For another, the narrative of the book is a straight chronology of events. In the film version, there’s a narrative frame, consisting of Walter’s confession to murder. This frame not only gives us all the expositional material we need, it also gives the whole story its tone--we know things are not going to work out for Walter Neff.
Then there’s the dialogue. Nobody wrote it better than Wilder and Chandler. Despite their differences, they clearly enjoyed the use of language. Take this scene as an example:
Listen to the rhythm of the dialogue, how MacMurray and Stanwyck spar with each other, and the great subtext that brings a certain heat to their interaction.
Subsequent movies such as Body Heat (1981) and China Moon (1994) owe debts to Double Indemnity, but I'm hard pressed to think of a modern motion-picture that has the wit and suspense of this classic. How about you? Have you seen a recent film that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Double Indemnity?
* * *Click here to see the Double Indemnity trailer and Raymond Chandler’s brief, oft-overlooked cameo appearance in that movie.
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Insurance,” by Hannah Peterson (Noir Nation: International Crime Fiction); “Billy Wilder and Double Indemnity,” by Thomas Kaufman (Spinetingler Magazine).