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Classic Screenplay Review Series
By Christopher Wehner

Date: 3/28/02

(Note: I have to admit I've been working on this off and on for a day or two, and now with Billy Wilder's sudden death it seemed appropriate to finish it and get it posted to the site. We here at SU are all very saddened by this news.)

"It begins with a screenplay." I've had some requests to go back and look at some of the classic screenplays, and discuss in a more instructive way how the writing contributed to the success of the movie. (Don't worry, Darwin and I will still be doing reviews of movies in production.) All we ever hear about is the vision of the director. Well, the script is the vision of a screenwriter. It has a theme, and a purpose. When the vision of a good script is followed, the result is a good movie. Over the coming months I will look back at some of the best screenplays American cinema has produced.


Screenwriter Ben Hecht who wrote Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND and NOTORIOUS, and many other movies, once recalled a conversation he had in the mid-1920s with Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote CITIZEN KANE with Orson Welles. "I want to point out to you," Mankiewicz told him, "that in a novel the hero can lay ten girls and marry a virgin for a finish. In a movie this is not allowed. The hero, as well as the heroine, has to be a virgin. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end. When he falls with a bullet in his forehead, it is advisable that he clutch at the Gobelin tapestry on the library wall and bring it down over his head like a symbolic shroud."

Though this conversation took place many years before the term film noir was coined, it has roots that can be traced all the way back to the silent era, and even some of D.W. Griffith's films. Mankiewicz might have been exaggerating some, but the point is well taken. For a layman's definition of film noir, his words are relevant.

Film noir is the expression of hopelessness in a story where the characters feel trapped, and from the outside appear destined to a terrible end. Where the bad guys can never get away with the crime, which of course isn't true. Bad guys get away with it all the time in the real world. So film noir is about lies. The lies that writers, storytellers, had to tell. Indeed, with the Production Code still in place and the Hays Office breathing down writer's necks, every script had to be approved and each film given a "purity seal" before the public could see it. This forced screenwriters and filmmakers to come up with clever ways to imply a sexual relationship, among other things. This forced screenwriters to be highly creative, while at the same time utilitarian. Censorship is also a factor in why the language was kept squeaky clean, once again forcing writers to be that much more creative with their dialogue. To appreciate the movies of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s you have to understand the environment that created them.

In 1946 an exhibition of American films was held in Paris. Before then not much was known about the developments of American film because of World War II. Some of the films shown included THE MALTESE FALCON; MURDER, MY SWEET; and DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Upon viewing these and several other films the French critics called them film noir or "black film." The term referred to certain stylistic and thematic developments in American film in the eyes of the French critics. These films were lit differently, filmed differently, and told much different kinds of stories than what the French had last seen before the war. The moods and themes of these films were very dark, and narratives were cold, gloomy and caliginous. The stories focused on the tormented and the afflicted.

Screenwriter/director (and producer) Billy Wilder was born in Germany and fled when Hitler gained power. Wilder first got into the industry as a ghostwriter, writing for "B" pictures-his only credit being LOTTERY LOVER in 1935. By 1937, Wilder teamed up with screenwriter Charles Brackett and it marked the beginning of over twenty years of collaboration. Some of Wilder's films included such classics as SUNSET BOULEVARD, SOME LIKE IT HOT, and of course DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Wilder wrote and directed DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Raymond Chandler was the co-writer), as he usually did with all of his pictures. Brackett wasn't interested in DOUBLE INDEMNITY because he considered the story to grisly. This lead to Chandler's involvement. Chandler helped to create the overall mood and tone of the story. He was of course the author of "The Big Sleep." His contribution to the dialogue was also an important part of the film.

The date of the draft that I will be referencing is September 25, 1943. It contains 2 alternative endings, one of which was shot. This script has been published in its original form (it includes some of Wilder's hand written dialogue edits) by the University of California Press and contains an excellent introduction by Jeffrey Meyers, which I refer to here several times.

The screenplay for DOUBLE INDEMNITY actually has a very unique structure, especially considering it was written in 1942. The story is told completely in flashback. CITIZEN KANE (1941) pre-dates DOUBLE INDEMNITY in its use of flashbacks/flash-forwards, but each script uses them very differently. KANE has a much more complicated structure. As a matter of fact, CITIZEN KANE flashes forward through two decades at one point.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is based on James M. Cain's 1936 novel Double Indemnity, which is based on an actual case. According to Jeffrey Meyers, there were some problems inherent to the source material that required some fairly inventive thinking on the part Billy Wilder. Double indemnity refers to a clause in life insurance where the beneficiary is paid double if a certain type of accident results in death. Otherwise it's a normal pay out.

The biggest problem was the ending. In the novel both of the main characters commit suicide, but that's not all, how they get to that point is beyond absurd. According to Jeffery Meyers, though the script follows the same basic plot as the book, Wilder invented many of the crucial plot elements of the story.

The script starts with the character Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, on a dark gloomy night wandering into his office. He is labored, out of breath, and struggling to move around. He makes it to his office. We discover he has been shot. He sits down at his desk, lights a cigarette and proceeds to record a confession of a murder. From that point the story is essentially told in flashback with Neff being a kind of narrator, but at times he seems to be almost offering an explanation of what he did while admitting his guilt. A clever ploy that allows us to gain a little insight into what happened. A very original and inventive way to deal with the novel. The confession sequences and the ending were inventions of Wilder's in order to tell a more complicated yet narrative friendly yarn. The script opens with the beginning of what will be the final sequence of the movie. The story is being told with Neff's narrative until we catch up to real time, with Neff in his office at his desk, finishing his confession. A structure that is very modern, and was exceedingly experimental for its time.

This story isn't about the crime; it's about the people who commit it. As is most film noir. We already know Neff is guilty, but what we want to know is what happened. Why would a successful insurance salesman with everything going for him commit murder? Like almost all film noir, it's a story that will not offer any real kind of an explanation for the character's actions, though if you listen to Neff carefully you pick up some half-hearted reasoning. To offer any reasonable explanation would almost justify the actions, and the censors would never allow that in a story. At least not allow it if they realized it was there in the story.

Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) has an adulterous affair with a married women, Phyllis Dietrichson (played by the intriguing Barbara Stanwyick). A typical film noir relationship. As soon as this happens you know both characters are doomed.

Neff stops by the Dietrichson home in the afternoon with some car insurance renewal forms. Mr. Dietrichson isn't in. After interrupting Phyllis' sun tanning session, a tangy rapid-fire exchange filled with innuendoes takes place. You don't often see this in today's writing. Here's a small sample.

PHYLLIS: Is there anything I can do?

NEFF:    The insurance ran out on the fifteenth. 
         I'd hate to think of you getting a smashed fender 
         or something while you're not fully covered.


She glances over her towel costume.

PHYLLIS: (with a little smile)
         Perhaps I know what you mean, Mr. Neff. I've 
         just been taking a sun bath.

You get the feeling that she of course knows what he's taking about. Regardless, the dialogue implies plenty. Phyllis asks Neff what kinds of insurance he sells, he says all kinds, even accident insurance. As he talks, Phyllis instantly tunes him out and starts pacing. Her mind is already working. They arrange for another time in the evening when Mr. Dietrichson will be home. Neff leaves, but all he's thinking about is this dame, and her ankelet. (Earlier in the scene he catches a glimpse of it on her ankle.)

In the movie, as Neff leaves the house a voice over opens the scene, but parts of it were moved to the end during production. It was also edited down from the script's version. The effect of what Neff says has more meaning after this encounter than before it, so it was the right move.

	It was mid-afternoon, and it's funny, 
	I can still remember the smell of 
	honeysuckle all along that block. I 
	felt like a million. There was no way 
	in all this world I could have known 
	that murder sometimes can smell like 

Neff goes back to the office where we meet Keyes, his boss, the guy who Neff is recording his confession for. They are friends, a nice relationship that is intelligently and subtly captured in the script. After a minor argument they make up, well sort of.

KEYES:	   That's enough from you, Walter. Get 
           out of here before I throw my desk at you.

KEFF:      I love you, too.

Neff goes back to his office where a message from Phyllis wanting to change the time of the next appointment from the evening to the afternoon. We then cut to the scene. Phyllis answers the door, the maid has the day off, they sit and chat. Once again the dialogue is full of undertones and subtle meanings. Then she hits him with it, she wants to take out a policy on her husband "without bothering him" with it. She says she's worried about him getting killed on the job, he works in the oil business and goes to the fields often.

PHYLLIS:    Is there anything wrong with it?

NEFF:       I think it's lovely. And then, some 
            dark wet night, if that crown block fell on him -

PHYLLIS:    What crown block?

NEFF:       Only sometimes they have to have a little help. 
            They can't quite make it on their own.

PHYLLIS:    I don't know what you're talking about.

NEFF:       Of course, it doesn't have to be a crown block. 
            It can be a car backing over him, or he can fall 
            out of an upstairs window. Any little thing like that, 
            as long as it's a morgue job.

Phyllis calls Neff "rotten" and he leaves.

Next there are a series of shots of Neff at a restaurant, bowling ally, and finally at home. At first he tells us that, "I knew I had hold of a red hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burner my hand off." Arriving home he tells us, "I was all twisted up inside, and I was still holding on to that red hot poker."

Film noir characters are very real. They are sometimes dimwitted, pathological, corrupt, desperate, and almost always driven to commit crimes for unknown reasons, or reasons that aren't always understandable. They steal money, but never seem to have a goal for what to do with it. If they do, it's not a rational idea. It's the act of committing the crime that turns them on. It's lust, self-loathing, and a fatalistic mindset that drives them. All of these things are very real. I love film noir characters, but I don't always like film noir endings. After Neff is inside his apartment his destiny arrives right after him.

	So at eight o'clock the bell would ring 
	and I would know who it was without even 
	having to think, as if it was the most natural 
	thing in the world. 

Phyllis shows up and they embrace passionately. She speaks of her husband as a controlling and volatile man on the edge. Neff gives in and tells Phyllis they will kill him and get the insurance money.

Phyllis is the manipulator. She gets Neff to talk about murder first by subtly implying it by asking about accident insurance; she shows up at his house and seduces him, and in return he tells her how they can get away with murder. She even induces the conversation by saying she doesn't want her husband dead. Meanwhile, Neff is providing the narrative background and starts painting an ugly picture of Phyllis for us. Like he was a man who was duped into a crime by a women he thought loved him. A crime of passion, and money.

So several things to consider. Is Walter Neff an unreliable narrator? It's early for this technique to be used in screenwriting, and I can't say if it has appeared in film yet by 1942, the year they started writing the script. But it's an intriguing thought at this point in the script. All we're getting is the story from Walter's point of view. I don't think it presumptuous to assume that Billy Wilder didn't think of this. He has proven himself to be a masterful screenwriter and innovative. Neff does tend to paint himself in a sympathetic light. Phyllis was the coldhearted bitch who drove him to do it. Yet, everything seems to be his idea.

NEFF:       Call me tomorrow. But not from your house. From a 
            booth. And watch your step. Every single minute. 
            It's got to be perfect, understand. Straight down 
            the line.

It's difficult to accept Neff's character as a dupe. He's not a victim, either is Phyllis. But when we see Neff, he is confident, almost arrogant, and is bursting with wit and charm. Not the kind who is easily hoodwinked into committing a crime. But maybe he just met his match?

During this time we are introduced to Mr. Dietrichson's daughter Lola, Phyllis' stepdaughter. They obviously don't like each other. Lola is dating an guy who has a chip on his shoulder and doesn't really seem to care about her. But we learn she is deep in love with him. There is an interesting storyline that develops between Neff and Lola, Neff almost playing a father figure. Their relationship appears to be running into a dead end when something happens that I won't divulge.

Later Neff comes by the Dietrichson home as arranged. He is to make Mr. Dietrichson think he's signing the auto renewal when in fact he signs the accident insurance. He's successful and when Neff starts to leave, and Mr. Dietrichson retires for the evening, he and Phyllis have a quick chat outside the front door. Once again it's Neff who is doing the scheming.

NEFF:       Look, baby. There's a clause in every accident 
            policy, a little something called double indemnity. 
            The insurance companies put it in as a sort of come-
            on for the customers. It means they pay double on 
            certain accidents. The kind that almost never happen. 
            Like for instance if a guy got killed on a train, 
            hey'd pay a hundred thousand instead of fifty.

And that's how they, or I should say Neff, plans it. They make it look like the guy was killed falling off a train. It's actually a little more complicated than that and I won't go into details in case you're interested in seeing the movie.

What is interesting about Neff revealing the double indemnity clause is that because the accident happens in this way, the insurance company (Neff's boss Keyes) gets doubly involved in the case and investigates it with extreme prejudice. They don't want to pay double. Which ultimately is Neff and Phyllis' down fall. They are their own worst enemies, as all film noir characters are.

The script continually delivers conflict, tension, intrigue and best of all, it has a couple of surprises up its sleeve. I won't reveal as I'm willing to bet many of you haven't seen this film and may now want to.

Eventually, through the investigation, Neff and Phyllis' plan is revealed, but not in the way you would expect. We wind up back at Neff's office in the middle of the night. Neff was originally let in the building by the janitor. Just as Neff is finishing his confession he slowly stops, and turns. Feeling someone's presence. It's Keyes, the janitor saw blood dripping from Neff when he arrived and called him. Now Keyes, for the first time, realizes Neff's involvement. Once again the writing has subtle undertones that are very effective.

NEFF:       Kind of a crazy story with a crazy twist 
            to it. One you didn't quite figure out.

KEYES:      You can't figure them all, Walter.

NEFF:       That's right. You can't, can you? And now 
            I suppose I get the big speech, the one with 
            all the two-dollar words in it. Let's have 
            it Keyes.

KEYES:      You're all washed up, Walter.

NEFF:       Thanks, Keyes. That was short anyway.

Walter gets up and starts to make his way out of the building, he's going to run. He pleads with Keyes who wants to call an ambulance, Neff refuses. Keyes tells him he's not going to make it (the Police have been called.) Neff is indifferent and approaches the door, struggling to take his steps. He collapses half in and out of the door. Keyes walks over to him and kneels down.

KEYES:      How you doing, Walter?

NEFF:       I'm fine only somebody moved the elevator a couple miles away.

And then finally, a very touching and moving moment between two friends. One has made a fatal mistake, the other knows it and is powerless to help.

NEFF:       You know why you didn't figure this one, Keyes? 
            Let me tell you. The guy you were looking for was 
            too close. He was right across the desk from you.

KEYES:      Closer than that, Walter.

The movie follows the script almost verbatim. Bits of dialogue were changed, a few omissions. But the script Billy Wilder wrote is the one he shot. He knew what he wanted, and didn't need to invent much while filming. Everything on the screen is in the script. There are a few interesting side notes. For example, Neff and Keyes relationship, through out the entire movie (3-4 times) Neff is constantly lighting Keyes' cigars for him. Only one is actually in the script, the rest were added on the set. Then it's obvious as to why, here at the last scene as Neff is apparently dying, Keyes lights his cigarette for him. A subtly that is missing in a lot of today's films.

The ending was perfect. But apparently Wilder wasn't completely convinced as he had two other alternative endings on paper. It goes to show that when something looks good on paper it might not always translate to the screen. But this ending proved effective and appropriate. The bad guy dies in the end, he has to.

The other ending "Sequence D" is less subtle and has Neff saying he loves Keyes, who doesn't respond, and then Neff gives a short melodramatic goodbye speech to Keyes. Over the top and Wilder was intelligent enough to see it.

Now the other ending choice, "Sequence E," which Wiler actually did film. It was an expensive shoot, and is several pages long. It is also quite interesting actually. It has Neff on death row at San Quentin where he is put in the gas chamber and executed. There is a nice moment between Neff and Keyes where they make eye contact just before. But once again, it isn't needed. The ending as it remained served the story well.

When the director is also the screenwriter, or in this case the co-writer, there are usually very few changes between the final draft of the script and movie. The writer/director's vision for the film is always the script. When we move away from the author-auteur's of this kind is when we find muddling directors ruining scripts. Themes get lost, the subtly of great and beautiful screenplays disappears. Remember the ancient Chinese proverb, "no director has ever made a good movie from a bad script," regardless of what movie critics say.

-- Christopher Wehner


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