BFI Classics: Double Indemnity

Author: Richard Schickel

What a fun essay this is, and as a bonus it’s more accessible to a general readership than many other essays in the BFI series.

Schickel’s behind-the-scenes stories of Double Indemnity’s creation are almost as fascinating as what wound up on screen. Writer/director Billy Wilder and co-screenplay writer Raymond Chandler wrestled with the dialogue from James M Cain’s original novel: the plan had been to simply put Cain’s rapid-fire, hardboiled exchanges straight into the script, but at readings it became immediately obvious that what leapt off the page fell flat out loud. Their efforts resulted in that rare beast: a film adaptation of a book that is better than the source.

Without making the point so crudely explicit, Schickel makes a good case for the relationship between Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff and his boss Keyes (a loveably cranky Edward G. Robinson) being one of modern film’s earliest examples of the so-called bromance. In fact he’s so persuasive on this point that when he describes the final scene, with Neff dying in Keyes’ arms, I realised to my horror that I was having trouble reading because my eyes were welling with tears.

There’s much here to interest anyone with a taste for the immediately post-Golden Age of Hollywood and the birth of American noir films, but Schickel is nothing if not focused. Alas, this means that he never gets around to telling us just how Barbara Stanwyck got her hair so beautifully shiny.

Clare Moody

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