The Greatest Screenplay Ever Written? Chandler & Wilder’s Double Indemnity Script
Well, it was a terrible idea. Vintage screenplays are formatted completely differently than contemporary ones; after reading a few of them, I haven’t the foggiest idea how to write a screenplay. In fact, I’m more confused than ever. It’s alright, however, because my “connected” friends tell me, in fact, there isn’t any money in Hollywood anymore; it’s all remakes and reboots for the next ten years. Everybody’s tapped out, so movies are pretty much greenlit only if they’re, y’know, “re-imaginings” of “The Partridge Family,” “TJ Hooker” and/or “Webster,” preferably without any resemblance to the originals because, let’s face it, that shit sucks.
However, I did stumble across at least one good experience, completely in spite of myself.
If you have any interest in noir, screenplays, movies, popular American literature, or the fact that life sucks and human beings as a philosophical and moral construct quite simply blow chunks, this facsimile edition of the Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder script for Wilder’s absolutely unparalleled 1944 production of Double Indemnity.
It is a must-see movie, one of the vest films noir ever released. It is a must-read novel, a museum tour of a tense psychological hell and one of the tautest, tightest, meanest, scariest, most thrilling, most beautifully written and above all most human novels ever written.
And as for the screenplay? The damn thing is better than either of them.
In fact, I believe it just may be the best screenplay for a crime movie ever written — with the Maltese Falcon running either a close second or just barely edging Indemnity out, depending on my mood.
How is that possible, you ask? How can a screenplay be better than the novel it’s based on and the movie made from it?
I make this assertion after reading many screenplays and writing a couple, and studying film fairly closely for the better part of my life so far. Films are creations with many moving parts — far more moving parts than novels. That is one of the reasons that when a screenplay is not original to the screenwriter — or based on a play or other property – novels are usually the starting point for feature-length storytelling, not the other way around. Screenplays turned into novels require padding; padding is death to good novel-writing, as far as I’m concerned…. especially in the action and crime genres. I don’t know about you, but I would never expect a novelization to be any good at all, even when based on a very good film with a very good screenplay. My heart goes out to the writers who write them. They have to spin silk purse out of sow’s ears even when they’re writing from damn good scripts and/or movies.
Novels are a glimpse of inner life; they’re personal, because (usually) one person thought them all up. They’re not collaborative works. Scripts, even when written by a single screenwriter, require allowance for the actions of others — whether that’s lighting, staging, acting, tone of voice, or whatever. With a novel, what you see on the page is what you get in the brain of the reader. With a screenplay, the idea is that such a thing is only true until the sale is made and a production moves forward. Then? What you get in the brain of a reader depends on a lot of peoples’ talents.
Cain’s novel Double Indemnity, which should probably more properly be called a novella, is one of the best things ever written in the English language. It’s also deeply flawed. Its ending devolves in much the same way that Jim Thompson’s brutal and uncompromising novel Savage Night does…in both cases, it feels like not knowing where to go with the ending, the author punted. Don’t get me wrong; both works are still worth reading. Savage Night is not one of Thompson’s best in my opinion, but it’s still sui generis and memorable as hell like almost everything that spilled from Thompson’s pen. Double Indeminity, on the other hand, is quite simply so good that even a punted ending can’t do anything but leave me gasping.
On the other hand, the Wilder-Chandler screenplay utterly solves the problem of the ending. If you’ve seen the flick, I hope you’ll agree that the viewer gets a one-two punch from that final scene between Fred McMurray’s Walter Neff (Walter Huff in the novella) and his boss, Edward G. Robinson’s smart but at times pathetic (in Neff’s eyes) Barton Keyes. To me, it’s the mope saying “Sucker!” to the mope…the sad act of lighting a smoke serving as a final valediction between a man who committed murder and a man who’s spent far too many of his days thinking about committing murder. Where’s that line between lighter-of-the-match and smoker-of-the-smoke in that brilliant staging there in the film’s final moments? Where’s the boundary between deviant and detective, insurance peddler and insurance scammer…the killer and the killed?
Chandler and Wilder found it, in a shifting shadow between Neff and Keyes. It isn’t pretty to see how mutable and yet how durable that boundary is, and Robinson’s Keyes carries that nightmare in his eyes. But the ambiguity is right here in the screenplay, if you read it closely… a final moral judgement from the faithful, or maybe just a twist of the wicked knife from two nasty satirists bent on hurting the audience one last time, because that’s what they’re there for. Where the usually bitter-sounding Cain wasn’t always sure where the boundary lay between right and wrong, ugly and beautiful — which was largely his strength as a novelist — Chandler knew, and so did Wilder. They just didn’t respect it all that much.
In this facsimile edition, the script is recreated in exact typographical detail; there are even handwritten notes from the original, whether by Wilder or Chandler I couldn’t begin to speculate, but I get goosebumps just thinking about either of them scrawling notes while glaring at each other and quite possibly plotting murder.
What’s that? Yes, the two guys hated each other. The best damn part of this amazing edition is the Jeffrey Meyers introduction which covers just how much Chandler hated working with Billy Wilder, and just how fussy and insane Wilder found Chandler. They drove each other nuts. Can you imagine? Two unparalleled geniuses ready to throw down, while creating one of the greatest scripts of all time for one of the greatest movies of all time based on one of the greatest novels of all time, by a writer that Chandler actively disapproved of? That’s right, Chandler didn’t even respect Cain. He didn’t like his writing.
According to the introduction, Chandler actually went to movie company execs and demanded that Mr. Wilder not wave his cane under Chandler’s nose or assign him arbitrary tasks, like “Ray, open the window, will you?” “Ray, close the blinds, will you?” Chandler was also pissed off that Wilder wore his hat indoors. Honestly, the idea of Raymond Chandler, wry sarcastic tough-guy author from England sitting there stewing while Billy Wilder asks him to open the window — I mean, hell! Could anyone MAKE this stuff up?
That is not to distract from the point that, despite its weak ending, this is one of the most nearly perfect imperfect crime novels ever written, and as I said the brilliant screenplay by Wilder and Chandler completely remedies novel’s only real problem with a one-two punch that leaves you gasping.
When Edward G. Robinson lights that match? Fuck’s sake, man. You know it’s all over: It’s the death of the human soul, people, and little time to mourn it.
The screenplay also crowbars Chandler’s brilliance out of the master’s main shortcoming, in my opinion — that being his tendency to write detective novels that linger on incredibly confusing details that, honestly, I don’t give a damn about. For all that Chandler is a poetic stylist with no peer, his plots could get bogged down in details and repeated red herrings to the point where I always feel like I have no idea what’s actually going on and, more importantly, don’t care. Don’t get me wrong — I love Chandler. He’s one of the best writers of detective novels around, do I even need to say it? But for all its pleasures, reading Chandler can get at times, shall we say…a little thick?
Cain was nothing like that. He didn’t have Chandler’s fondness for convoluted tautness and complex threads of mystery. He was straightforward to a fault — almost to the point of being blockheaded, which is why he works so well as melodrama, where Chandler actively doesn’t. Cain is movie-friendly because he’s obvious…or, at least, he appears obvious on the surface, much like Jim Thompson. Chandler didn’t like the obvious. His plots were subtle….so subtle I’ve heard stories about him getting confused himself when he was asked about them.
It seems likely that if Chandler really didn’t like Cain, he thought him an inferior writer for this very reason….melodrama, melodrama, melodrama. But I believe it’s Chandler’s disdain for Cain that led to his and Wilder’s tapping into a breezy, cynical, world-weary tone that was 100% Chandler, 100% Cain, and 100% f#*@!#ing genius.
They just don’t write ‘em like this any more.
Read the novel, see the movie, gape in awe at the genius of it all. This is classic America, A-list noir, the soul of the nation laid open and bloody with a tire iron.
Originally reviewed at http://thomasroche.livejournal.com, 03/12/2010.