The third film in our Great Movies series at the Severna Park Library was another fun evening with a large, enthusiastic crowd. Before we watched Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, I spoke for a few minutes about the problems in adapting James M. Cain’s earlier 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice for the screen. The novel was very popular at the time, but was considered smut by many, which didn’t help its chances with the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), which started clamping down on American films in 1934. (1934 was a bad time to be a Hollywood producer if you wanted to make a film that was even slightly racy.)
By the time Cain’s novel Double Indemnity was published, things were still pretty serious around the Production Code offices, so Raymond Chandler was brought in to work on the script. Chandler was able (when he was sober enough, according to must accounts) to work on the dialogue, adding enough double entendres that the censors either didn’t understand his references or thought no one else would (probably the former).
Yet the two leads Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck had their own reservations. MacMurray didn’t know if he could pull off the role of Walter Neff, since his entire career up to that point had been playing lightweights in some pretty breezy films. He knew he was just an average guy, and Wilder told him that’s exactly why he wanted him. Neff is just an average guy who gets caught up in something that’s way over his head. MacMurray was perfect for the part and gives arguably the best performance of his career.
Stanwyck was another story. She was not only the highest paid woman in Hollywood, she was the highest paid woman in America. Although she’d played bad girls before, she feared the role of Phyllis Dietrichson might ruin her career. Wilder famously told her, “What are you? An actor or a mouse?” From then on, Stanwyck nailed it.
Another actor who nailed it was Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, the insurance company investigator who can smell a rat a mile away. Robinson has several long rapid-fire lines in the film and according to everyone associated with the production, he nailed them every time, every take. Robinson may not have been much to look at, but he could deliver the goods any day of the week. He proves it in Double Indemnity and pretty much throughout his entire career.
We had a great discussion with the audience afterward on film noir, the use of shadow in the film, and what Wilder called the “true” love story in the film, the friendship between Neff and Keyes. As always, this was a fun group to watch and talk film with.
A big thank you goes out to Sun Valley Movies in Pasadena, MD, who provided us with free popcorn!
My co-worker Julia will be introducing and leading the discussion of our next film, Harold and Maude (1971), on Thursday, April 7 at 6:30pm. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll join us.