The movie 1944 “Double Indemnity”, starring Fred MacMurry, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson and directed by Billy Wilder, was based on James M. Cain’s 1936 even darker novel . The Library of Congress ranked the film to be of “cultural, historical or aesthetic significance”. It’s ranked alongside the company of other noir movies of the time such as “The Human Comedy”, “The Maltese Falcon” and “Citizen Kane”. Two of Cain’s other novels were also the source of seminal films: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and the Academy Award winning “Mildred Pierce”.
Film noir was developing in other countries at the same time, most notably in France. It’s an evocation of the sadness and cynicism following the First World War and the ravages of the Great Depression. I saw Jacque Cocteau’s noir classic film “Orpheus”. Released in 1950, it resonates with moody lighting including the characteristic venetian blinds pattern on the walls and over the actors. It’s a modern reworking of the Eurydice and Orpheus legend. (In addition, Cocteau’s line drawings for the titles and credits are among the most interesting I’d seen in a long time.)
This production, adapted by popular local actors R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette, is taken directly from Cain’s novel, reverting from the movie to the original story line. The play is unimpeded by the Hays Office, the film censorship board at the time. To maintain a moral tone the Hays Office was adamant that evil doers be punished for their perfidy. The final movie scene was supposed to be of the insurance adjuster that figured out the scam, standing at the viewing window as Walter Huff is electrocuted, but the Hayes Office thought it too specific and too grim. Cain’s novel, and thus the play, is grittier than the movie was allowed to be.
Even before the play begins, the set is intriguing. It consists of a floor and a giant wedge of wall that the juts into the proscenium, almost cutting the stage in half. The floor and the angled wall are painted the same beautiful and unusual mottled combination of emerald green and teal blue. When it begins, the promontory slides open in a very complicated manner, the walls folding within themselves with panels, hinges and strips in an elaborate manner, reminiscent of computer-generated, futuristic, science fiction images. As the play progresses, very modest furniture rotates out on one of two concentric circles of floor.
The play’s female lead, Phyllis Nirlinger (Carrie Paff), is an unredeemable, amoral woman who goes after what she wants with no empathy for the people she discards or destroys on her trip to temporary satisfaction.
Walter Huff is an experienced insurance agent; he’s also good natured but, unfortunately, a very malleable man who’s putty in the hands of a femme fatale like Phyllis. He wasn’t a confirmed cynic until he meets his co-conspirator, the sexually charged, innately acquisitive, bored housewife Phyllis.
When Walter shows up at her house to renew her husband’s car insurance, she toys with him, saying that her husband is talking about joining the Automobile Club but to come back the next evening. Not unexpectedly Nirlinger’s not there, again. The third time Neff comes back, she flirts outrageously with him, sends him away and shows up at his apartment where they share some passionate kisses.
Phyllis wants Walter to tell her how to get a $25,000 life insurance on her husband without him knowing about it. That tells him that she wants to murder her husband, collect the money so she can move on. Walter confuses lust with love, and confuses the predator, the object of his lust with a woman worthy of pursuit.
Walter advises her that she needs to do three things to accomplish the murder/ insurance scam. First, she needs someone familiar with the insurance game to pilot her through the intricacies of the investigation following a death. Not surprisingly, he wants this job. Second, they must make decisive choices about the time, place, and process and plan how to deal with unintended interruptions or accidents. Third and most important, she needs audacity – total commitment to the plan and the fortitude to carry it out despite whatever may happen without squeamishness. She enjoys and endorses the whole idea.
The foil to this emotional hardness is Walter’s mentor and father figure Keyes (Mark Anderson Phillips). Keyes is an obsessively careful insurance investigator who has memorized the actuarial tables. He can feel intuitively if there’s anything the least bit hinky in a claim. Keys claims to have a Little Man in his gut who ties it into knots and raises his suspicions. His gut’s intuition has done him well over the years, enabling him to uncover a number of scams.
Phyllis and Walter cynically hatch a plan to murder Mr. Nirlinger, who sells pipes and other supplies, which take him into the dangerous Southern California oil fields. Walter devises a way to insure Phyllis’s husband for $25,000 with a double indemnity clause without him knowing.
Double indemnity is a clause in an insurance policy that pays double the face value if the death occurs in a very unusual manner, in this instance, on a railroad train. All insurance is a gamble. The insurance company bets that the covered individual will not die in a manner that is so obscure that the actuarial tables consider it a very low risk. The insured person, or in this case, the insured’s wife, is betting that she and Neff can kill him and make it look like an accident, giving her double the $25,000 face value.
Only after they confirm the plan does Walter concern himself with Nirlinger’s nearly adult daughter, Lola (Jessica Martin), whose mother recently died of pneumonia in a mountain cabin. Phyllis, a respiratory care nurse specialist was with her when she died – ummmmm. Walter finally realizes that Lola will be losing her father as well if the plan succeeds.
Her father has forbidden Lola to go out with Nino (Mark Anderson Phillips), a man he considers a low life, a surly, sarcastic, cynical, tough guy opportunist. Lola asks Walter to drop her off downtown so she can see a movie with a girlfriend. She confesses to Walter that she’s not meeting a girlfriend but rather wonders if he’d pick up Nino. They plan to spend some time together. She asks Walter to keep her confidence about the tryst. Nino, a medical school dropout, is indeed everything that Lola’s father fears, but Walter keeps Lola’s meeting a secret.
If you want to know the rest of the story, go see “Double Indemnity” at ACT. It runs through November 20. For tickets or other information, contact the ACT box office at 206-292-7676 or go online at www.acttheatre.org. And maybe read James M. Cain’s roman noir. (I love that it sounds so snooty to say roman noir instead of noir novel.)