In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I discuss the diamond anniversary of the release of Billy Wilder’s screen version of Double Indemnity. Here’s an excerpt.
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Seventy-five years ago, “Double Indemnity” opened in theaters across America. It was an instant hit, and remains to this day a staple offering of revival houses and on cable TV and streaming video. Yet little journalistic notice has been taken of the birthday of Billy Wilder’s first great screen drama, a homicidal thriller that nonetheless had—and has—something truly unsettling to say about the dark crosscurrents of middle-class American life….
It’s hard to understand what possessed Wilder to take on such a project. He was best known in 1944, after all, for having collaborated with Charles Brackett, a Harvard-educated WASP, on the screenplays for such romantic comedies as “Ninotchka” and “Ball of Fire.” But then he swerved far off course and decided to make a movie out of a 1936 crime novella by James M. Cain, who also wrote “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” another hard-boiled tale of sex and bloodshed. Moreover, Wilder was determined to direct “Double Indemnity” himself, having concluded that most Hollywood directors treated scripts like “toilet paper that they either used or they didn’t.” The patrician Brackett had no interest in adapting so sordid a tale for the screen, so Wilder found himself another collaborator in Chandler. The two men soon grew to loathe one another, but the fruit of their uneasy labors landed seven Oscar nominations and turned Wilder into the hottest of properties.
Small wonder: Every aspect of “Double Indemnity” is distinguished, so much so that you could write a column about any single element….
* * *Read the whole thing here.
A scene from Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck: