Double Indemnity – Film Noir, American Opera

By Nicholas Meyer

We’re going to see “Double Indemnity” in about four minutes so I am not going to deconstruct the movie in advance. After all, there may two or three fortunate souls here who haven’t seen the film, and we wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises.

In his justly celebrated essay, “On the Name and Nature of Poetry,” the poet A.E. Housman conceded that he couldn’t define poetry, but he knew it when he heard it. Similarly, there have been many attempts to define Film Noir, many of them contradictory. In a 1972 essay brought to my attention by my daughter, Madeline, filmmaker Paul Schrader insisted that Noir was not a genre but rather a movement of film described by qualities and tone. More recently, novelist Megan Abbott countered that Noir is indeed a genre. Noir has variously been described as a reaction to the post war letdown; exclusively to be found in black and white (though there are Noir films in color); almost exclusively set at night; something peculiar to Los Angeles, (though potent examples can be cited in San Francisco as well as the Mid-West). Is Noir the aesthetic embodiment of Murphy’s Law? That if a thing can go wrong, it will? Is it even purely American? It’s worth noting that Jules Dassin, who directed such Noir exemplars as Brute Force and Naked City, fled to France during the blacklist, where he directed his masterpiece, Rififi, proving that Noir works, even in translation. Film Noir is, after all, a Gallic coinage. And so the debate as to what Noir is and what constitutes it, goes on.

(Parenthetically, any conversation about film noir ought to acknowledge as well, the literature of Noir, oftentimes the springboard for those self-same films and equally vast. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Leigh Brackett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith; even Ernest Hemingway – all contributed to lit noir).

Noir, whether written or filmed, has been characterized as the literature of Eros and Despair, the sinister and vertiginous intertwining of erotic frenzy and doom.

To paraphrase A. E. Housman, I can’t define Film Noir, but I know it when I see it – and the film you are about to view, in my opinion, personifies Noir. “Double Indemnity” seems to be almost trapped within itself, preserved in amber in a dream world of its own creation, an all-American nightmare of sex and death.

The movie was adapted from the novel by James M. Cain. Cain was an unabashed opera lover. Was Bizet’s “Carmen,” the first film noir and Don Jose its first hapless – if not altogether innocent – victim? Cain was surely aware of Puccini’s one act opera, “Il Tabaro” – almost certainly the opera noir blueprint for Cain’s classic, twisted, love triangle, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

The screenplay based on “Double Indemnity” was co-written by another Noir stalwart, Raymond Chandler, who gave the world private eye Philip Marlowe and all his modern day approximations.

But it was Chandler’s co-writer, who also directed the film, who, one suspects, was chiefly responsible for the cinematic triumph it became. It is an odd instance that the most successful Hollywood movie in every genre turns out to have been directed – and in many cases co-written – by the same man. The best POW escape movie? “Stalag 17.” Best flat out comedy? “Some Like It Hot.” Best courtroom drama? “Witness for the Prosecution.” Best movie about a drunk? “The Lost Weekend.” Best social comedy, “The Apartment.” Best movie about Hollywood? “Sunset Boulevard”; The most dyspeptic look at the media? “Ace in the Hole.” Best film Noir?... Well, some might make a case for “Out of the Past,” but then again...

Of course, these are matters of taste and opinion. But with such a string of hits, one does have to concede what all these films have in common, (besides being in black and white). It has to be their striking American-ness. All these films, good, bad, comic and ugly are preoccupied with the subject of America – which is ironic, because each of these masterpieces was made by the same foreigner, that Austrian √©migr√©, Billy Wilder. It is perhaps significant that Wilder, with his background of European sophistication and tragedy – (some of his family perished in the death camps) – was not a born English speaker. But like those other non-English masters of English prose and English idioms, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Wilder’s love affair with America and especially American English, (English, as someone characterized it, with its sleeves rolled up) – rendered him acutely sensitized to double entendres the rest of us take for granted and to the poetry buried in every day slang. Who could know that murder smelled like honeysuckle? In this sense, all of Wilder’s films, even those set abroad, seem ultimately to be hymns and valentines to his adopted country – even if they are nasty, cynical valentines.

But there is also, as we have noted, an operatic sensibility at work in “Double Indemnity.” I don’t know what Wilder thought of opera – it’s easy to imagine a devastating put down from him of fat ladies shrieking in Europe – but it is hard to watch the film you are about to see without conceding its operatic properties, and by operatic, I mean larger than life, life as it were, on lsd. What was the point of making “Sunset Boulevard” a musical when it was already deliriously an opera? As for “Double Indemnity,” for starters, listen to the music itself, the evocative and patently operatic score, written by the Hungarian, Miklós Rózsa, who composed no fewer than five movies for Wilder. Indeed, before segueing into his remarkable series of historical epics, (“Ben-Hur,” “Ivanhoe,” “El Cid,” “Quo Vadis,” etc), Rózsa made substantial contributions to the world of Noir for other directors in such films as “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Naked City,” “Brute Force,” “The Killers” and “The Red House.”

One could go on and parse ad nauseum the components that make “Double Indemnity” what it is. We could talk about the harsh yet atmospheric lighting by cinematographer John S. Seitz, or discuss the three unsentimental performances by Fred MacMurray (taking his good guy career in his hands), by Barbara Stanwyck (grabbing his balls by hers) and the astonishing Edward G. Robinson. But I promised not to do this. Besides, would our observations, however astute, explain or enhance alchemy? “Double Indemnity” is magic – not legerdemain – but real magic and real magic is hard to explain. It is hard if not impossible, to account for the effect of the sum total of “Double Indemnity’s” parts. These things must and will speak for themselves. Murder, as the man says, will out. The debate about film noir will go on, not, I suspect because it is important, but because it is fun.

Enough! Speeches before the movie is like listening to the pilot before the plane takes off. As someone else once said around here, Fasten your seatbelts.

Double Indemnity
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.”

Laurie MacMurray Gerber, Juliet Rózsa, Nicchi Rózsa and Miriam Nelson.

Laurie MacMurray Gerber, daughter of actor Fred MacMurray’s, Juliet Rózsa, daughter of composer Miklós Rózsa, Nicchi Rózsa, grand-daughter of Miklós Rózsa, and dancer Miriam Nelson.

Nicholas Meyer

Writer/director Nicholas Meyer

Miriam Nelson

Dancer Miriam Nelson speaks about “Double Indemnity.”

Nicholas Meyer

Writer/director Nicholas Meyer introduces a screening of “Double Indemnity” at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Randy Haberkamp and Laurie MacMurray Gerber

Academy director of special projects Randy Haberkamp speaks with Laurie MacMurray Gerber, daughter of actor Fred MacMurray, after a screening of “Double Indemnity.”