Crooking the House

“There’s a speed limit in this state – 45 miles per hour.”

“How fast was I going, Officer?”

“I’d say about 90.”

“Suppose you get down off that motorcycle and give me a ticket.”

“Suppose I give you a warning instead.”

“Suppose it doesn’t take.”

“Suppose I have to wrap you over the knuckles.”

“Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.”

“Suppose you put it on my husband’s shoulder.”

“That tears it.”

 

In preparation for Fred MacMurray’s day on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars (Saturday, August 9), I thought I would re-visit what many say is his best performance.

      In Double Indemnity, the verbal sparring of Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson is smart, sexy, and almost too hip for the room. Beautifully written by director Billy Wilder and his partner Raymond Chandler, who elevated hard-boiled fiction to poetry, the piercing dialogue is the very essence of the term “badinage.” It certainly enhances James M. Cain’s story of two lovers who murder for the insurance money; his original novel of the same name lacks this type of jazzy, well-paced dialogue, which is so rife with subtext.

            The dialogue dances off the tongues of stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray who deliver their lines with the exquisite timing of the best of the Golden Age movie stars. In retrospect, Stanwyck and MacMurray seem perfect as Walter and Phyllis, but both actors had to be talked into their roles. Stanwyck had begun her career in the pre-Production Code era playing tough-talking dames-with-a-past who were sympathetic but notorious. After the Production Code (censorship code) was enforced in 1934, she became a major star playing traditional leading ladies who were generally honest, upright, and the moral centers of the films. Stanwyck feared that Phyllis Dietrichson represented a step backward for her in an era that frowned on disreputable leading ladies. Wilder provoked her into taking the part by asking her, “Are you a mouse or an actress?”

A MATCH MADE IN HELL

WALTER & PHYLLIS: A MATCH MADE IN HELL

            Finding an actor to play Walter Neff proved even more difficult for Wilder. [The character was called Walter Ness in the novel, but someone at Paramount discovered that there was a real-life insurance agent named Walter Ness in Southern California, so "Ness" was changed to "Neff."] The essence of Walter is that he is an ordinary, middle-class man who commits murder. He isn’t driven to murder by anger or revenge; he isn’t psychopathic; and he can’t blame his moral lapses on a bad childhood. Walter is simply an ordinary man – a lower middle-class insurance agent – who becomes a killer. He represents the dark side of the middle-class ideology. Part of the middle-class myth is a firm belief in the “success story,” that is, if a man works hard and tows the line, he will move up the ladder of success to the top, where he will find happiness and satisfaction. But, Walter discovers that there is no happiness in working long hours for little money, and the person at the top of the ladder is the boss’s son who is inept and stupid. Small wonder that in the marvelous voice-over narration, Walter expresses a long-harbored desire “to crook the house,” and Phyllis is the catalyst that unleashes that pent-up desire.

            Wilder needed an actor whose star image was synonymous with “the average Joe.” He wanted someone who radiated sympathy, decency, and good humor, so that Walter’s descent into immorality would be seen as a tragedy, rather than as wallowing in depravity. He decided to ask Fred MacMurray, a minor Paramount contract star who was enjoying moderate success playing unthreatening romantic leads and lovable, wise-cracking secondary characters. The two had known each other since 1935 when Wilder wrote a script on spec called Champaign Waltz tailored for MacMurray, newly arrived in Hollywood after a career as a band singer and saxophone player. After the initial draft, the script was taken away from Wilder, but he ended up under contract to Paramount and MacMurray basked in his role as swing musician Buzzy Ballew.  

However, MacMurray turned down the role of Walter Neff, because he didn’t want to play a killer, nor did he want to play a character that gets killed. He also feared it would ruin his happy-go-lucky persona, as did Paramount, who told the director that Fred would not be playing the part. Wilder then asked a who’s who of leading men from the 1940s, including Alan Ladd, Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Fredrick March, and Gregory Peck. Even George Raft – who had made his name playing gangsters – turned the role down.

        For today’s audiences, who are accustomed to anti-heroes, violent action heroes, and criminals as protagonists, it might be difficult to understand why these major actors hesitated, or why their studios did not want them to play Walter Neff. But, during the Golden Age, protagonists were typically heroic, partly because of the Production Code and partly because studio heads wanted it that way. In those days, charismatic movie stars avoided playing criminals or those who were morally challenged because it was believed that it glorified criminal activity and might inspire young male viewers to emulate negative behavior. Film noir, with its morally flawed protagonists, had not yet developed as a genre; indeed, Double Indemnity would be a seminal film in its evolution. So, playing a killer who “didn’t get the money and didn’t get the woman,” as Walter sums up his situation, was so atypical for leading men that it is understandable that both big-name and up-and-coming stars did not want the part.

JOHN SEITZ'S ULTRA-LOW-KEY LIGHTING WAS DARING FOR THE TIME

       After so many refusals, Wilder went back to MacMurray, badgering him every day in the studio commissary, in his dressing room, and even at home until Fred agreed, partly because he thought that the studio wouldn’t let him do it anyway. It seemed that Paramount’s West Coast executive production head, Y. Frank Freeman, hated “immoral” films, hated Billy Wilder, and hated Double Indemnity, which had been on the Production Code Administration’s list of inappropriate properties since its publication. However, by this time, MacMurray was unhappy and making noise over his contract with Paramount, so he told the studio he wanted to take the part as a threat to get better roles and a better deal. He assumed they would still not want him to play Walter Neff and would be eager to assign him a new film. But to punish him, Paramount and Freeman approved him for the role.

 

       According to Wilder, once MacMurray began playing Walter Neff, he truly loved the part. One sequence they were particularly excited about was the original conclusion to the film in which Walter goes to the gas chamber for the murders he committed. It was an elaborate sequence in which Wilder took great care to accurately depict an execution by gas chamber, including shots of the pellets dropping, the gas forming, and the doctor waiting nearby with this stethoscope to make sure the executed man was dead. Then Keyes, Walter’s father figure and close friend in the film, pulled out a cigar, fumbled with the match, and registered a look of horror as he realized his friend and surrogate son was dead. It cost Paramount $150,000 to build the authentic-looking set, and it took five days to shoot the sequence. But, when reviewing the scene, Wilder realized that it was too strong and out of key with the rest of the film. He scrapped it against the wishes of cowriter Raymond Chandler, preferring to end the film with the scene between Walter and Keyes at the elevator when Keyes lights the wounded man’s cigarette. The two men then realize the closeness of their relationship, but it is too late. According to Wilder, “You couldn’t have a more meaningful scene.”

A SHOT FROM WALTER'S POV FROM THE DELETED CONCLUSION

       With Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Wilder gave MacMurray one of the best roles of his career, partly because it subverted his image as the good-natured, amiable guy next door. But, MacMurray brought much more to the role. His interpretation of the character was to talk fast and smooth, playing his emotions close to the vest, which was in contrast to the bumbling stutter he used in comedies. The smart mouth and slick, cocky exterior worked as a shield for Walter, who was profoundly disappointed in modern society. MacMurray allowed the audience to see the humanity behind the tough-talking cynic and the inherent tragedy in his failure to crook the house. As Walter so eloquently puts it, “I did it for money and a woman, but I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” 

 

 

Lally, Kevin. Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. New York City: Henry Holt & Co., 1996. 

Porfirio, Robert. “Billy Wilder: About Film Noir,” Film Noir Reader 3, Alain Silver, Robert Porfirio, and James Ursini. New York City: Limelight Editions, 2001. 

Schickel, Richard. Double Indemnity. London: BFI Publications, 1992. 

Zolotow, Maurice. Billy Wilder in Hollywood. New York City: Limelight Editions, 1987.

16 Responses Crooking the House
Posted By Sam Nova : August 4, 2008 9:49 pm

After reading your blog on Double Indemnity, I’ll have to go back and watch it, with the knowledge you provided, it should make a big difference. You write I learn, thank you Suzi
Sam “Boompa” N

Posted By Sam Nova : August 4, 2008 9:49 pm

After reading your blog on Double Indemnity, I’ll have to go back and watch it, with the knowledge you provided, it should make a big difference. You write I learn, thank you Suzi
Sam “Boompa” N

Posted By Patricia : August 5, 2008 3:44 am

I like to think that it’s the musician in MacMurray that made him such a good actor. He “played the notes” as they were meant to be played – respected the script, and brought that something extra from his heart and mind to make it live.

Next to Walter, I adore his playing in “The Absent-Minded Professor”. I watched it countless times on a Family channel loop when my kids were younger. It’s a priceless comedy performance, totally endearing because this man truly believed he invented flubber.

Posted By Patricia : August 5, 2008 3:44 am

I like to think that it’s the musician in MacMurray that made him such a good actor. He “played the notes” as they were meant to be played – respected the script, and brought that something extra from his heart and mind to make it live.

Next to Walter, I adore his playing in “The Absent-Minded Professor”. I watched it countless times on a Family channel loop when my kids were younger. It’s a priceless comedy performance, totally endearing because this man truly believed he invented flubber.

Posted By 42nd Street Memories : August 5, 2008 8:05 am

DOUBLE INDEMNITY, CASABLANCA and THE GODFATHER arguably have the most (and best) lines to quote from.

Edward G Robinson as Keyes sums up Walter’s character in a great line from the film:

” I picked you for the job, not because I think you’re so darn smart, but because I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”

Posted By 42nd Street Memories : August 5, 2008 8:05 am

DOUBLE INDEMNITY, CASABLANCA and THE GODFATHER arguably have the most (and best) lines to quote from.

Edward G Robinson as Keyes sums up Walter’s character in a great line from the film:

” I picked you for the job, not because I think you’re so darn smart, but because I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”

Posted By JC Loophole : August 5, 2008 9:24 am

Great article on a great film. I didn’t know about the alternate ending, and don’t remember seeing it available on the recent DVD release. Is it available to see anywhere or lost footage forever?

Posted By JC Loophole : August 5, 2008 9:24 am

Great article on a great film. I didn’t know about the alternate ending, and don’t remember seeing it available on the recent DVD release. Is it available to see anywhere or lost footage forever?

Posted By debbe : August 5, 2008 11:11 am

Great article suzi doll. I didnt know about the alternative ending. I wonder how audiences would have reacted?

Posted By debbe : August 5, 2008 11:11 am

Great article suzi doll. I didnt know about the alternative ending. I wonder how audiences would have reacted?

Posted By Jeff : August 6, 2008 10:20 am

Suzi,

Your article makes me want to see this again right away. I did just watch PUSHOVER again which has Fred playing another basically decent guy who’s fed up with playing by the rules and goes bad in a heartbeat when he meets Kim Novak. It’s no Double Indemnity but it’s a good antidote to Disney pap like Follow Me, Boys and The Happiest Millionaire.

Posted By Jeff : August 6, 2008 10:20 am

Suzi,

Your article makes me want to see this again right away. I did just watch PUSHOVER again which has Fred playing another basically decent guy who’s fed up with playing by the rules and goes bad in a heartbeat when he meets Kim Novak. It’s no Double Indemnity but it’s a good antidote to Disney pap like Follow Me, Boys and The Happiest Millionaire.

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : August 8, 2008 2:53 pm
Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : August 8, 2008 2:53 pm
Posted By Carole & Co. entries, August 2008 « Carole & Co. : December 9, 2011 11:06 am

[...] * “Crooking The House,” an examination of what many regard as MacMurray’s greatest performance — Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity” (http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/08/04/crooking-the-house/). [...]

Posted By Carole & Co. entries, August 2008 « Carole & Co. : December 9, 2011 11:06 am

[...] * “Crooking The House,” an examination of what many regard as MacMurray’s greatest performance — Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity” (http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/08/04/crooking-the-house/). [...]

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