Night and Day Film Noir Series Month Three: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity

[Courtesy of MAP] Poster Image for October’s NIGHT AND DAY: CLASSIC AND MODERN FILM NOIR series.
A couple of months ago, we began a conversation with Brandon Ryan, the curator behind Central Cinema’s Night and Day: Classic and Modern Film Noir series, wherein we talked about and around film noir, in general and other sundry topics. The conversation has continued ever since, so far covering Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Rian Johnson’s Brick.

This week, Ryan turns the table on the Star’s José Amador, discuss the lesser known movies that are coming up on the program, briefly touch on the influence of European films on the Noir genre, and talk about Billy Wilder’s notable characteristics on the way to discussing this month’s Classic noir: Double Indemnity.

Seattle Star: The Big Sleep, Touch of Evil, now Double Indemnity…the classic side of the series isn’t fucking around, is it?

Brandon Ryan: I don’t funk around, li’l José. Due to the very being and structure of film noir films themselves, the ratio between brilliant ones and not-so-brilliant ones is quite apparent. Thankfully, I can show all the the brilliant ones and not be bogged down by an overwhelming need to fill a ton of programming slots. Two high quality films a month will last me quite awhile.

SStar: What I’ve liked so far is that, while some might be a bit more obscure, or not as widely seen as others, these are all films that interested cinephiles will at least have heard of. Like Dark City, coming up on the modern side of things–this month’s Grifters is another one. Any more that are like that in the months ahead?

BR: My contemporary gems will include Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in December, soon to be followed by Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Gone Baby Gone, and Bound. My classics will have hidden treasures like The Sweet Smell of Success, Murder, My Sweet, and Strangers on a Train. Maybe Billy Wilder’s An Ace in the Hole. I have to revisit that one and see if it qualifies with enough noir elements.

SStar: I’d be curious to see what you say about that Ace, which is a great fucking film. We’ve already talked at length about how your definitions of noir are more inclusive than mine–and it now occurs to me that I’m thinking of A Face in the Crowd, which is a completely different film. Never mind, Ace in the Hole should easily fit.

BR: It’s always listed in the noir books and noir lists. I just don’t see it, so I wanna watch it again. I frikken adore the crap out of it, though; Kirk Douglas is so powerful and awesome in it. It definitely has that moral slope of a man’s-soul-crumbling-away element going for it.

SStar: Well, there isn’t a central mystery for the hero to solve, there isn’t even a hero, really.

BR: Yeah, not really. Very intriguing. The sickness that comes from wanting to be a part of something important is very apparent in that film.

SStar: It’s all about the moral slope, as you say, and the venality of most of the participants.

BR: Yes!

SStar: Ace is Wilder, isn’t A Face in the Crowd also his?

BR: Face was Elias Kazan.

SStar: Aha. Tangentially, 
is Face/Off a contender?

BR: Face/Off? Interesting. I loved the shit out of that flick when I was younger, though I don’t think it will have aged well. Way to many slow motion John Woo doves. Nic Cage and Johnny T are definitely fascinating at portraying each other…it seems like it may be too campy. Those aren’t exactly the words I want to use about that flick, but I think you know what I mean.

SStar: I do. It’d make for a fun watch, anyway, outside of your series…does camp factor weigh in against Bad Lieutenant: POCNO?

BR: The camp factor is a huge boon to that Nic Cage film because, as we discussed last month, all of his seemingly unnecessary techniques, choices and tics are filtered into a proper vessel in POCNO. All of his other films seems like he’s making a different movie that he is just not gonna tell us about; it seems like his objectives and intentions are just so far out there. POCNO seems like he’s actually letting us in on the joke, while most of his other films just keep us at a distance.

SStar: Another brief tangent: Blow Out leads me to wonder if Blow Up, the film by Antonioni that inspired De Palma, might not fit. If not, is it Blow Up‘s very European-ness that rules it out? We brushed up against this when we discussed The Third Man, but does Noir have to be somewhat American?

BR: You know what, I just don’t know enough about European films to comment. To answer your question about the European-ness of Blow Up disqualifying it from the programming…Noir was directly influenced by German expressionist films. Auteurs like Wilder and Hitchcock were integral in ushering in certain aspects of style and sensibilities from the European cinema into the mainstream American consciousness. So, although I can’t elaborate enough about many European tropes and differentials, it is clear that many of our past and current films have benefited from the early 40’s boom of their film techniques.

SStar: Okay, we should probably spend some time talking about this month’s first entry. Talking about Billy Wilder inevitably brings us to this month’s classic.


Wilder just has a mindset and an aesthetic that lends itself to noir. His double-edged sword of comedy and corruption both dwell in the same world; they are so close together. Probably what makes his comedies thought provoking and his dramas more lively. His style reminds me of a cool Hitchcock quote: “Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders.” Wilder was a genius who knew who to blend those worlds and think beyond the obvious intentions.

SStar: The Apartment is a great example of this.

BR: Yes, The Apartment is a wonderful example of that hybrid Wilder style; though to a more melancholy degree though than his darker side–still lovely though. Ah, I frikken love that guy!

SStar: Double Indemnity opens up the topic of adaptation for us, and how difficult it is to maintain Noir’s quality outside of film. Did you see ACT’s production of Indemnity last year?

BR: I didn’t. I was in a different show and i was too busy. Super bummed to have missed that. I very much wanted to.

SStar: It’s all right, you didn’t miss much.

BR: Was it stylized and fun? Do you think the movie had any influence on the final product, or was it all just book source material? BAM! I flipped it on you, interview man!

SStar: Nicely done. Oh, the movie is the only reason the production exists, though they hewed closer to Cain’s novel in some respects. I thought it was very much an attempt to capture Wilder’s film–a valiant effort, but a failed attempt, in my opinion. The shadow of Wilder’s film was impossible to ignore. Wait, I’m slipping into my role as theater critic, fuck that.

BR: Yeah, f that noise. I’ll take your word for it, though.

I never delved into the Cain novels. I tried Dashiell Hammet, but I just wasn’t a fan of his structure. So, I’m solely a Raymond Chandler aficionado. Meaning, I’ve read his books and know very little about everything else. I just dig Chandler, is all.

SStar: I love Hammett, but the films of his books don’t translate as well to Noir. Unless you count Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars/Last Man Standing, which are ultimately adaptations of Hammett’s Red Harvest.

BR: What about Falcon? Peggy (Gannon) loves that book. I don’t even know if I ever finished it.

SStar: Maltese Falcon?

BR: Ya. Maltese.

SStar: I don’t know that I’ve read that. It’s possible, like ages ago, but I don’t recall it…no, wait, I have, just the once.

BR: Ugh. Make up your mind. I can’t believe I do this with you.

SStar: Well, it doesn’t stick out in my memory, I guess. Great movie, though.

BR: Well, Indemnity was one of the first and definitely most important films to challenge the Hays Code for appropriate content. The Code was a set of industry moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968.

Cain’s first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was optioned in 1935 and then quickly dismissed as un-filmable due to its graphic sexual and murderous subject matter. The same was said about Double Indemnity. However, this is where we get the brilliant use of the “less is more” ambiguity that you and I dig so hard.

Wilder and his writing partners, in this case Raymond Chandler, were masterful at suggesting rather than showing. Entire scenes of dialogue are executed with that playful style that has innumerable sexual innuendos and insinuations steering the whole conversation. But it’s handled in a clever, playful way that skirted the Hays Code office. Wilder, like Hitchcock, would often play deference with the censors by submitting really overt sexual or other sketchy content, in hopes that they would miss specific scenes that Wilder actually wanted in the film.

This is a technique that’s still in use today. Scorcese submitted a particularly gruesome cut of his head in a vice scene in Casino so that there would be less focus on some of his other gruesome scenes by comparison. The old bait and switch.

SStar: What do you know regarding the casting of Fred McMurray in the lead role? He seems like such an odd, thus perfect, choice for the role.

BR: This is an awesome story, he was very much an odd choice.

McMurray was basically a straight up comedy dude who started out as a saxophone player in films. Wilder really wanted him but McMurray kept saying no, because he didn’t want to tarnish the expectation attached to his persona. Wilder kept persisting and he finally agreed, only because he thought the studio he worked at, Paramount, was going to veto the idea of him being cast in that kind of role.

However, he was coming to the end of his Paramount contract, and he had signed a deal to go to 20th Century Fox after finishing his last contractually obligated Paramount flick. Paramount thought the film and and the idea of McMurray in that role would dent his image. So, because they wanted him to be punished for jumping fences, they made him do it!

Instead, blammo! It gave him a nice side career to step into when he wasn’t doing comedy roles, Disney films or his long running tv show. Good thing too, as he is flipping amazing in the flick.

SStar: He’s even more of an everyman than Bogart in this movie, no offense to your man intended. Bogart has a charisma that one can’t help but be attracted to; McMurray, yeah, he’s the next guy over, he’s generally a good egg. A good egg who is bored with where his life has taken him, and is clever enough to create a little trouble for himself, thinking he’d be on top of it the entire time.

BR: Totally. He’s got the smarts and the good looks to think he’s invincible.

Double Indemnity, Wednesday October 10, at 9:30p.m. // Central Cinema, 1411 21st Avenue // $6 in advance, $8 at the door

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