Thursday, May 09, 2013

When Lightning Strikes

(Editor’s note: The following essay/film critique comes from Thomas Kaufman, an award-winning motion-picture director and cameraman from Maryland, who also pens the Willis Gidney private-eye series [Drink the Tea, Steal the Show]. His e-book, Erased and Other Stories, has just been published by Antenna Books.)

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?

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Click here to see the Double Indemnity trailer and Raymond Chandler’s brief, oft-overlooked cameo appearance in that movie.

READ MORE:8 Great Noir Films that Revolve Around Life
,” by Hannah Peterson (Noir Nation: International Crime Fiction); “Billy Wilder and Double Indemnity,” by Thomas Kaufman (Spinetingler Magazine).


J F Norris said...

I like Life at Stake, an odd 50s movie that rips off Double Indemnity in spades. Peterson's article on insurance noir mentions this movie but makes it sound rather bad. It's not if you stick with it. It pairs beefcake actor Keith Andes as a hunkier Neff with Angela Lansbury in the Phyllis role. It has some interesting twists, especially between Lansbury and her sister played by Claudia Barrett. Though Andes at times seems lost in his role it's the supporting cast that make it work so well. The two women are fantastic. It's Lansbury's sudden transformation into a ruthless vixen that saves the movie. Real cinema buffs will find a lot to enjoy despite Andes' wooden acting and some hokey melodramatic scenery chewing by others.

Thomas Kaufman said...

John, thanks for your comment I''ll check out Life at Stake, if only to see Angela Lansbury.

The director, Paul Guilfoyle, worked mostly in TV. Before then he was a character actor, you can see Cagney kill him in WHITE HEAT.

I wonder what other movies used DOUBLE INDEMNITY as a model?

Mike Doran said...

I found A Life At Stake in one of those Mill Creek 50-Packs.
The thing that caught me off-guard right at the start was the producer credit to Hank McCune.
You have to be at least my age to remember Hank McCune. He was a slapstick comic, skinny with a receding chin and jug ears, who had one of the earliest syndicated sitcoms, back around 1950.
It was the cheapest of cheap productions; I think most of the money went to the supporting players, who included Larry Keating, Hanley Stafford, and Arthur Q. Bryan (the original voice of Elmer Fudd).
Hank McCune pretty much disappeared from TV around '52-'53;
until I saw this picture I had no idea that he'd done anything else, let alone produce a cheepie thriller.
I'll be going to YouTube shortly to find out more (if there's anything to find ..).

Ove at Mystery*File a while back, I mentioned that I'd recently an episode of Kraft Mystery Theater from 1963, which was a pilot film for a Double Indemnity series.
Jack Kelly would have played Walter Neff, working for Broderick Crawford as Barton Keyes (they used the names and everything).
The TV story had nothing to do with the novel or the movie, beyond the character names and the insurance background.
Just a guess - they probably weren't going to do the book until at least the final season (and then they'd most likely change the ending ...).

Jack Getze said...

I have to admit my first (published) novel is pretty much a rip off of DI. My hero sells stocks and bonds, not insurance, and there's a new twist. But what can I say. DI has always been my favorite Cain book and a movie I will watch over and over again. To me, it's classic: woman leads man to crime; and it is a story done over and over again.

Thomas Kaufman said...

Jack, if you're going to rip off someone, steal from the best. And you can't do better than DI. Just ask Lawrence Kasdan.

Anonymous said...

I have another piece about a Q & A I did with Billy Wilder, it's now at Spinetingler:

Thomas Kaufman said...

Emma, thanks for mentioning the piece I did at Spinetingler about meeting Billy Wilder. How often do you get to meet a hero? Plus Wilder told me something very important about crime writing! Check it out if you have a chance.