I wasn't gonna talk about Double Indemnity at first; so much has already been written and said about it already. Still, it was the first movie I ever saw Barbara Stanwyck in, so I figured I could probably talk about that much at least. I rushed home from Brooklyn to see this, but I still missed the first fifteen minutes. No big deal, though; I've seen this plenty of times.
The last time I saw it, if I'm not mistaken, was in Bryant Park during their annual summer movie series. That might have been the first time I had seen it on a big screen. What I remember most was the crowd laughing at what they thought was unintentionally funny, which irritated me, but what can you do?
Actually, I'm not certain where I first saw Double. I keep thinking it might have been in my college film class, which is possible, but I could just be associating it with Sunset Boulevard, which I know I saw in film class. If it wasn't there, then it would've been during my video retail job for sure.
Either way, I do recall with some clarity my first impressions of Stany. I didn't think anything about the blonde wig, after all, I didn't know that she looked like without it. I do recall that it took me awhile to get used to seeing her as a brunette in other movies. (Thank god she didn't start her career as a bleached blonde like sooooooooo many other actresses in the 30s!)
I'm fairly certain that this was the movie that started the debate between me and my friend Steve about her looks. He didn't think she was ugly, but he thought she looked unconventional at best. It's true, Stany was no Rita Hayworth, and the wig does her no favors, but I defy anyone to look at her in the first scene in only a towel and that honey of an anklet and not call her sexy!
In Dan Callahan's recent biography Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, he writes about how Stany was reluctant at first to take the part:
Stanwyck admired Double Indemnity as a script, but she was nonetheless uncertain about it. "I had never played an out-and-out killer," she remembered. "I had played medium heavies, but not an out-and-killer." (I love her term "medium heavy," which suggests there is a kind of human scale for perfidy). She went to see Wilder. "I was a little frightened of it and, when [I went] back to his office, I said, 'I love the script and I love you, but I am a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out cold-blooded killer.' And Mr. Wilder—and rightly so—looked at me and he said, 'Well, are you a mouse or an actress?' And I said, 'Well, I hope I’m an actress.' He said, 'Then do the part.'"I don't think I was familiar with the term "film noir" at the time I first saw it, but I had a basic awareness of some of the tropes, including the "femme fatale" - only I always saw them as parodies, cliches. Double may have been the first time I saw them for real - the hard-boiled dialogue, the speedy delivery of that dialogue, stuff like that. I could never imagine people talking that way in real life, yet on the screen, it seems more believable somehow.
In fact, there was a brief period where I tried getting into old crime novels. I read Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler (who co-wrote Double with Billy Wilder), but that was about the extent of it. They didn't do much for me, though I was much younger when I read them.
Wilder talks about Chandler's writing style in Conversations With Wilder (yes, I'm still quoting from this book; what can I say, I like it). Wilder loved his dialogue but not his method of constructing a story:
... He was about sixty when we worked together. He was a dilettante. He did not like the structure of a screenplay, wasn't used to it. He was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence. "There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool." That is a great line, a great one. After awhile I was able to write like Chandler.... I would take what he wrote, and structure it, and we would work on it. He hated James Cain [the author of the original Double novel]. I loved the story, but he did not care for Cain. I tried to get Cain, but he was busy making a movie.Wilder's regular collaborator at the time, Charles Brackett, backed out from adapting Double, finding it too grim, according to Wilder.
That hard-boiled dialogue belongs to another era now, I think. Whenever I watch Double, I always try to imagine spouting it, but I know I'd only end up tongue-tied. I used to have trouble speaking publicly, and it was only with a conscious effort that I was able to overcome it - by talking slower. Studying acting helped in that regard. So I'd never choose to perform in roles like these. I look at someone like Edward G. Robinson in this film, and I marvel at his ability to make that dialogue simply crackle with life.
Going back to Miracle Worker, Callahan examines the theory, which I've seen elsewhere, that Robinson and MacMurray's characters are secretly gay, particularly the former. I briefly thought of this while watching the movie, but I still don't buy it. The relationship between Keyes and Neff strikes me as much more surrogate father-son than anything else. I do agree with Callahan, however, in thinking that Keyes is probably misogynistic, though that doesn't make him any less of a great character to me.
Did you know that there was an alternate ending to Double where we see Neff executed? From Conversations again:
... It was a close-up of Robinson and a close-up of MacMurray. The looks. There was a connection with his heart. The doctor was standing there listening to the heartbeat when the heartbeat stopped. I had it all, a wonderful look between the two, and then MacMurray was filled with gas. Robinson comes out, and the other witnesses are there. And he took a cigar, opened the cigar case, and struck the match. It was moving - but the other scene, the previous scene, was moving in itself. You didn't know if it was the police siren in the background or the hospital sending the doctor. What the hell do we need to see him die for?I'm glad he chose to drop it, though I wouldn't mind seeing this scene sometime.
Banjo on My Knee/Remember the Night