Film Studies: The talk is lust. The game is murder...

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The Independent Culture

Double Indemnity was released in the US on 7 September 1944 with the advertising line, "Double Indemnity - The Two Most Important Words in the Motion Picture Industry Since Broken Blossoms". If you think about it, that hype is breathtakingly callous at a time when guys were still dropping like flies in Europe and the Pacific, and when Broken Blossoms was vaguely remembered as one of those Lillian Gish films about true love being unbeatable.

Picture a young soldier on leave from the war - picture the Robert Walker character in Since You Went Away (that was 1944), taking his sweet girl (Jennifer Jones) to a movie, just like the old days. They're telling each other how much they're in love and how love will protect him "over there", when the girls says, "Gee, what is double indemnity?" and he says isn't it something to do with insurance? He smiles, to think of the fat chance he has - going back to Bataan or the Ardennes - to get a double indemnity policy. Then the picture starts and it's these fantastic, glittering rotten people, so shiny and loathsome you can't eat your popcorn, and all they do is talk this extraordinary high flirtation talk and look at each other like the frog and the scorpion.

Double Indemnity is back again, in a splendid re-issue, and it's enough to leave you wondering why the House Un-American Activities Committee never went after it. The film was made by Billy Wilder, a refugee from fascism in Europe, but I think the sardonic Wilder might have seen the point: that as America rallied for the last great sacrifice, this could have been a saucer of poison supplied by Dr Joseph Goebbels himself. Indeed, it tells you something wonderful about the resilience, the wit and the openness of that America that Paramount could make such a picture. Undoubtedly, the original prints had the familiar encouragement in their end credits - "Buy War Bonds As You Leave This Theatre". It could easily have included a warning to heroes coming home - "Take care, suckers!"

It comes from a James M Cain novella, loaded with Cain's great insight about life in America: that lust, adultery and so on were all pushed into being by money worries. It's the story of a shiftless insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) who has the luck one day to call on the Dietrichsons: he's a bad-tempered, elderly invalid; she's Barbara Stanwyck fresh out of the shower and wearing a chain anklet. Their talk is instant lust. Their game is murder spiced up with insurance angles. And the real pain comes in the way Fred has let down the boss (Edward G Robinson) the stalwart defender of order, the saint of insurance.

This was early on in Billy Wilder's American career. He had not yet had a great hit, and Paramount didn't quite trust him to deliver on his own. So they shut him in a room with Raymond Chandler, the detective story writer, confident that that would produce a great script. In a way they were right. The script is brilliant. But the working partnership was awful. The two men did not get on, and Wilder was much more skilled at the competitiveness of co-writing. What remains to be said is that, together, or in battle, they improved the Cain novella remarkably. Who said so? Cain himself. His very melodramatic ending was dropped and replaced with a rich development of the Robinson-MacMurray relationship. It's a touch of genius that Fred is telling Robinson the whole sad story, fatally wounded, on the office dictaphone. (It would be clear, after Sunset Boulevard, that Wilder adored bitter-sweet voice-over narration.)

In another way, building up the Robinson part is a clever adjustment in favour of the status quo. For it says that with office managers like Robinson around you can trust insurance - sooner or later, as was the way of the world, Paramount could be taken over by an insurance company, so cross your fingers. The other lesson for ambitious and horny young Americans is: don't trust women, especially the slinky kind like Barbara, who wear clinging sweaters and have dialogue more insolent than the guys. If only Fred had just been pals with Eddie - there is a vague notion of homosexual tranquillity lurking in the picture. And women, as we all know, are just helpless beasts driven by sex and money. No soul.

Double Indemnity looks just about perfect now. Yet in 1944 it was bitter medicine. And it didn't do too well. It got a lot of Oscar nominations, but in nearly every other category it lost to another Paramount picture, Going My Way, which is Bing Crosby as a Catholic priest and unwatchable today. So the cosy encouragements were being made, too. But for those who would rather live without pipe dreams, Double Indemnity is a fresh lemon just cut open. Suck on it.

'Double Indemnity' is re-issued on Friday. The Billy Wilder Season: NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) to 30 Dec

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