Sunday, June 3, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Double Indemnity

The Story: There's no better movie about Lust Gone Wrong than Double Indemnity.  It's a noir's noir, black as pitch, and shepherded by several masters of the genre. The original tale was written by James M. Cain, who made a reputation for tales that rang twice, usually ending with a death-knell. Billy Wilder had a dark sensibility, too, with an absurdist's sense of humor and irony. Wilder was without his regular co-writer Charles Brackett, so he turned to the current master of the hard-boiled, Raymond Chandler, to help with the screenplay. The two did not get along (Wilder was expecting a tough guy, not a British English professor), but the sparks that flew between them set the script-pages alight, and smoldered with bitterness. The script is almost too good, everybody talking half-again as clever, while acting dumb as stumps. But that was sort of the point. The lusting co-conspirators were smart people who thought they knew all the angles and could get away with murder. Such is the stuff of film noir.

The principal players are interesting. Barbara Stanwyck was a seasoned professional who demonstrated a knack for both comedy and treachery in her roles, while Fred MacMurray made a comfortable living playing cowboys and handsome young beaus, but he wasn't Wilder's first choice for the role. George Raft was offered the part, but wanted to turn Walter Neff into an FBI agent who traps Phyllis Dietrichson into a murder plot, a move that seems absurd except to give Raft an opportunity to play a good guy—duplicitous, but good. MacMurray is damn near perfect in the role—a wise-acre American, confident in his charm to the point where he hasn't even realized he isn't being charming anymore. Arrogant and enjoying it.

Wilder insisted that Stanwyck cover her auburn hair with a brassy blonde wig (which prompted perpetually grousing Paramount exec Buddy DeSylva to crack "I hired Stanwyck and what I got was George Washington!"), and noting how false it looked on camera (but unwilling to change it to avoid costly re-shoots) explained it away as saying it made her look "fake." Whatever the reasons, mistake or no, it gives Stanwyck an arresting look. "Arresting" is what MacMurray's Neff should have been thinking about during this scene instead of the boy's network sexual harassment he displays throughout the scene. The look of smart-alecky amusement on his face, a satyr's glint in his eye and wolfish grin on his face, clearly communicates his interest in his client's wife. And Stanwyck's cool appraisal with arched eyebrows lends encouragement, while her words act as a bucket of cold water. She may not say it, but Stanwyck's character harbors dark thoughts and intentions even this early on in their encounters. 

And MacMurray, although known to most for his "Absent-Minded Professor" movies for Disney and the TV-series "My Three Sons," here shows a depth for drama that he would rarely get to exploit during his career. Billy Wilder would use him again as the duplicitous personnel director, Mr. Sheldrake, in The Apartment, and he played the "Judas" of the mutineers in The Caine Mutiny

I once had the occasion to work in a recording session with Fred MacMurray's daughter producing. We'd gotten to know each other a bit before finding out about her famous father, but I had to say it: "I know this is going to sound insulting, but I really mean it as a sincere compliment: your dad could play a really great son of a bitch."

She looked at me a moment, then smiled, and said, "Yeah, he would have loved to have heard that. Thank you."

The Set-Up: Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is always closing. An insurance salesman, he goes out to La Veliz in L.A. to see a client about renewing his auto policies. He wants the business, but the business he doesn't expect is from Detrichson's trophy wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), who appears wrapped in only a towel and a smile at the top of the foyer staircase. Mr. Dietrichson isn't at home, but she'll talk to Neff, and suddenly, this cold call heats up a little.



Neff comes into the room and throws his briefcase on the plush davenport and tosses his hat on top of it. He looks around the room, then moves over to a baby grand piano with a sleazy Spanish shawl dangling down one side and two cabinet photographs standing in a staggered position on top. Neff glances them over: Mr. Dietrichson, age about fifty-one, a big, blocky man with glasses and a Rotarian look about him; Lola Dietrichson, age nineteen, wearing a filmy party dress and a yearning look in her pretty eyes. Neff walks away from the piano and takes a few steps back and forth across the rug. His eyes fall on a wrinkled corner. He carefully straightens it out with his foot. His back is to the archway as he hears high heels clicking on the staircase. He turns and looks through the arch.
NEFF'S VOICE The living room was still stuffy from last night's cigars.
NEFF'S VOICE The windows were closed and the sunshine coming in through the Venetian blinds showed up the dust in the air.
NEFF'S VOICE The furniture was kind of corny and old-fashioned, but it had a comfortable look, as if people really sat in it. On the piano, in couple of fancy frames, were Mr. Dietrichson and Lola, his daughter by his first wife.
NEFF'S VOICE They had a bowl of those little red goldfish on the table behind the davenport, but, to tell you the truth, Keyes, I wasn't a whole lot interested in goldfish right then, nor in auto renewals, nor in Mr. Dietrichson and his daughter Lola.
NEFF'S VOICE I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she had looked at me...
NEFF'S VOICE ...and I wanted to see her again...
NEFF'S VOICE ...close, without that silly staircase between us.


Phyllis Dietrichson is coming downstairs. First we see her feet, with pom-pom slippers and the gold anklet on her left ankle.
CAMERA PULLS BACK SLOWLY as she descends, until we see all of her. She is wearing a pale blue summer dress.
PHYLLIS' VOICE I wasn't long, was I?
NEFF'S VOICE Not at all, Mrs. Dietrichson.

PHYLLIS I hope I've got my face on straight.
NEFF It's perfect for my money.
PHYLLIS (Crossing to the mirror over the fireplace) Won't you sit down, Mr. -- Neff is the name, isn't it?
NEFF With two f's, like in Philadelphia. If you know the story.
PHYLLIS What story?
NEFF The Philadelphia Story. What are we talking about?
PHYLLIS (She works with her lipstick) About the insurance.
PHYLLIS My husband never tells me anything.
NEFF It's on your two cars, the La Salle and the Plymouth.

He crosses to the davenport to get the policies from his briefcase. She turns away from the mirror and sits in a big chair with her legs drawn up sideways, the anklet now clearly visible.
NEFF We've been handling this insurance for three years for Mr. Dietrichson, and we'd hate to see the policies lapse.
(His eyes have caught the anklet)
NEFF That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson.
Phyllis smiles faintly and covers the anklet with her dress.
NEFF As I said, Mrs Dietrichson, we'd hate to see the policies lapse. Of course, we give him thirty days. That's all we're allowed to give.
PHYLLIS I guess he's been too busy down at Long Beach in the oil fields.

NEFF Could I catch him home some evening for a few minutes?
PHYLLIS I suppose so. But he's never home much before eight.
NEFF That would be fine with me.
PHYLLIS You're not connected with the Automobile Club, are you?
NEFF No, the All-Risk, Mrs. Dietrichson. Why?
PHYLLIS Somebody from the Automobile Club has been trying to get him. Do they have a better rate?
NEFF If your husband's a member.
PHYLLIS No, he isn't.

Phyllis rises and walks up and down, paying less and less attention.

NEFF Well, he'd have to join the club and pay a membership fee to start with.
NEFF The Automobile Club is fine. I never knock the other fellow's merchandise, Mrs. Dietrichson, but I can do just as well for you. I have a very attractive policy here. It wouldn't take me two minutes to put it in front of your husband.

He consults the policies he is holding.

NEFF For instance, we're writing a new kind of fifty percent retention feature in the collision coverage.

Phyllis stops in her walk.
PHYLLIS You're a smart insurance man, aren't you, Mr. Neff?
NEFF I've had eleven years of it.
PHYLLIS Doing pretty well?
NEFF ...It's a living.
PHYLLIS You handle just automobile insurance, or all kinds?

She sits down again, in the same position as before

NEFF All kinds. Fire, earthquake, theft, public liability, group insurance, industrial stuff and so on right down the line.
PHYLLIS Accident insurance?
NEFF Accident insurance? Sure, Mrs. Dietrichson.
His eyes fall on the anklet again.
NEFF I wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.
PHYLLIS Just my name.
NEFF As for instance?
PHYLLIS Phyllis.
NEFF Phyllis. I think I like that.
PHYLLIS But you're not sure?
NEFF I'd have to drive it around the block a couple of times.
PHYLLIS (Standing up again) Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
PHYLLIS My husband.
PHYLLIS You were anxious to talk to him weren't you?
NEFF Well, I was, but I'm sorta of getting over the idea a little, if you know what I mean.
PHYLLIS There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
NEFF How fast was I going, officer?
PHYLLIS I'd say about ninety.
NEFF Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
PHYLLIS Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
NEFF Suppose it doesn't take.
PHYLLIS Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
NEFF Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
PHYLLIS Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
NEFF That tears it.
Neff takes his hat and briefcase.
NEFF Eight-thirty tomorrow evening then, Mrs. Dietrichson.
PHYLLIS That's what I suggested.

They both move toward the archway.

NEFF Will you be here, too?
PHYLLIS I guess so. I usually am.
NEFF Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
PHYLLIS (Opening the door) I wonder if I know what you mean.
NEFF I wonder if you wonder.
He walks out.

Double Indemnity

Words by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler

Pictures by John F. Seitz and Billy Wilder

Double Indemnity is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Video.

Raymond Chandler sticks out like a tarantula
on an angel-food cake in Double Indemnity

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