After Paramount purchased the rights to the novella for Wilder, the next step was a screenplay. The material was widely regarded around Hollywood as unfilmable due its iniquitous characters and the restrictions imposed by the Code. Although he had worked on the treatment, tweedy Charles Brackett decided it was too sordid for his uppercrust sensibilities and bowed out of the project, leaving Wilder to find another collaborator. His first choice, James M. Cain himself, was already working for another studio and unavailable (although Cain claimed he was never asked). Producer Joseph Sistrom, an avid reader and an admirer of The Big Sleep, then suggested Raymond Chandler.
Wilder would later recall with disappointment his first meeting with Chandler. Envisioning a former private detective who had worked his own experiences into gritty prose, he instead met a man he would later describe as looking like an accountant. Chandler was new to Hollywood, but saw it as a golden opportunity. Not realizing that he would be collaborating with Wilder, he demanded $1000 and said he would need at least a week to complete the screenplay, to which Wilder and Sistrom simply looked at one another in amazement. After the first weekend, Chandler presented eighty pages that Wilder characterized as "useless camera instruction"; Wilder quickly put it aside and informed Chandler that they would be working together, slowly and meticulously. By all accounts, the pair did not get along during their four months together. At one point Chandler even quit, submitting a long list of grievances to Paramount as to why he could no longer work with Wilder. Wilder, however, stuck it out, admiring Chandler's gift with words and knowing that his dialogue would translate very well to the screen.
Initially, Wilder and Chandler had intended to retain as much of Cain’s original dialogue as possible. It was Chandler, ironically, who first realized that the dialogue from the novella would not translate well to the screen. Wilder disagreed and was annoyed that Chandler was not putting more of it into the script. To settle it, Wilder hired a couple of contract players from the studio to read passages of Cain’s original dialogue aloud. To Wilder's astonishment, Chandler was right and, in the end, the movie’s cynical and provocative dialogue was more Chandler and Wilder than it was Cain. Chandler also did a lot of fieldwork while working on the script and took large volumes of notes. By visiting various locations that figured into the film, he was able to bring a sense of realism about Los Angeles that seeped into the script. For example, he hung around Jerry's Market on Melrose Avenue in preparation for the scene where Phyllis and Walter would disceetly meet to plan the murder.
The tumultuous relationship between Wilder and Chandler only enhanced the product of their collaboration. Wilder, in fact, believed that discord, a tug-of-war, was a vital ingredient necessary for a fruitful collaboration: "If two people think alike," he once said, "it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off of." His tugging with Chandler did have a softer side, it seems: over 60 years after the film's initial release, it was discovered that Chandler had agreed to appear in a fleeting cameo at 16:12 into the film, glancing up from a book as Neff walks past in the hallway. This is notable because, other than a snippet from a home movie, there is no other footage of Chandler known anywhere.
When Chandler came to work with Wilder he was already a recovering alcoholic. As Wilder noted, "He was in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I think he had a tough time with me — I drove him back into drinking...". By the time the picture was released, Chandler was thoroughly disillusioned with the writers' lot in Hollywood; he published an angry piece titled "Writers in Hollywood" for The Atlantic Monthly in November 1945 in which he complained, "The first picture I worked on was nominated for an Academy Award (if that means anything), but I was not even invited to the press review held right in the studio." He neglected, however, to mention that the studio had kept him on salary during the eight-week shooting schedule and that no changes to the script were allowed without his approval — a very rare accommodation for screenwriters, particularly newcomers, in those days. Offended, Wilder responded by saying, "We didn't invite him? How could we? He was under the table drunk at Lucy's," a nearby watering hole for Paramount employees. This relationship with Chandler is what drew Wilder to his next project, the Best Picture-winning The Lost Weekend, about an alcoholic writer. Wilder made the film, in part, "to explain Chandler to himself."
Cain himself was very pleased with the way his book turned out on the screen. After seeing the picture half a dozen times he was quoted as saying, " ... It's the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder's ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine — I would have done it if I had thought of it."
Wilder's and Brackett's estrangement during Double Indemnity was not a permanent one. Years later Wilder would characterize their time apart as just another kind of adultery: "1944 was 'The Year of Infidelities,'" he said. "Charlie produced The Uninvited...I wrote Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler... I don't think he ever forgave me. He always thought I cheated on him with Raymond Chandler." Brackett spun the breakup in a decidedly different light, saying, "Billy got so despondent at being without me that we did The Lost Weekend, a depressing film about a writer who has trouble writing." Lost Weekend was a distinguished offspring for the reconciled couple — they left Oscar night with three Awards: Best Picture for producer Brackett, Best Director for Wilder, and a shared pair of statuettes for both for Best Screenplay. They worked together through Sunset Boulevard in 1950, then split for good.
Read more about this topic: Double Indemnity (film), Production
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