Someone once said that there was less in Billy Wilder than meets the eye. But actually there was more. What met the eye was usually pretty good. But it is often what meets the ear that’s just as important. Where would Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot be without their scripts, fashioned by him and marvellous writers like Charles Brackett, I.A.L. Diamond and, in the case of Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler?
What Wilder contributed was an ironic Viennese mordancy which is frequently copied today without the slightest idea of how to accomplish it properly so that it all becomes parody. Double Indemnity is a classic 40s film of the sort which couldn’t be made now without self-consciousness. Taken from James M Cain’s work, and actually made a good deal better by Chandler, who used to call Cain “a Proust in overalls”, it has the inimitable Fred MacMurray as an insurance agent seduced by Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale in order to dispose of her husband for the ‘double indemnity’ insurance money.
The two work out a complicated scenario which, after the death of the husband, is gradually sussed by Edward G Robinson’s private investigator.It wasn’t sexy, like The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Wilder always said was his model or testimonial. That wasn’t possible in 1944 if you wanted to make a commercial movie that didn’t worry the Paramount executives and, anyway, Wilder invariably had as sharp an eye on what might get him into trouble as on his dialogue.
The film is marvellously acted, particularly by MacMurray, who was so often cast in relatively anodyne romantic roles that his all-American wholesomeness could become cloying. Here that persona was brilliantly exploited to show us the weakness behind it. Wilder always depended upon his casts because sometimes the characterisation wasn’t as sharp as the dialogue.
Another factor which makes Double Indemnity exceptional is its humour and lightness of touch which prevents what is a decidedly dark tale, illustrated by Miklos Rozsa’s superb score (based on Cesar Franck’s Symphony) subsiding into melodrama.
The scene where the insurance man first meets his nemesis – he’s trying to renew his motor insurance with her husband – has Stanwyck at the top of the stairs dressed only in a towel. Eyeing her with some interest, he says: “I’d hate to think of you getting a scratched fender when you’re not covered,” Stanwyck replies: “I know what you mean. I’ve been sunbathing.” “Hope there weren’t any pigeons around,” he replies.
Later, the world-weary, Marlowe-like voiceover proclaims, as he drives away from the encounter: “It was a hot afternoon and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like that?” Wilder once proclaimed Double Indemnity his best film. Asked why, he said: “It had the fewest mistakes.” He was probably right.