DOUBLE INDEMNITY – Miklós Rózsa
Original Review by Craig Lysy
James Cain’s story “Double Indemnity” was first published in 1935 as an eight part serial in Liberty Magazine, but because of its sordid narrative studios were loathe buying the film rights, fearful of censoring by the Hayes Commission. When it was released as a successful novel in 1943, director Billy Wilder convinced Paramount to let him take on the project. Raymond Chandler was hired to collaborate with Wilder in writing the screenplay. Yet they clashed and Chandler stormed off the project, refusing to return unless his demands were met. The Studio agreed and work continued, although the two men detested each other. Casting was challenging as many actors were loathe to take on such reprehensible roles. Yet Wilder was persistent and eventfully secured a stellar cast, which included Fred McMurray as Walter Neff, Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, Edgar G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, Porter Hall as Mr. Jackson, Jean Heather as Lola Dietrichson, Tom Powers as Mr. Dietrichson and Byron Barr as Nino Zachetti.
The story is a sordid one of murder, conspiracy, deception and betrayal. Walter visits the Dietrichson household as their automobile insurance policy is up for renewal. Phyllis flirts with him and then inquires if she can take out a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge; Walter is put off sensing intent to murder and refuses. When later she shows up at his apartment he surrenders to the sexual chemistry and resolves to use his insurance knowledge and tricks of the trade to help her murder her husband. He plans to have her husband fall from a train, which would trigger the policy’s double indemnity clause. Well they execute their plot, murder Mr. Dietrichson, and initially all seems to be going to plan. However there are no perfect murders, and their story slowly begins to unravel. Eventually as everything is falling apart, they turn on each other with Phyllis wounding Walter with a gun, only to be gunned down herself by him as she confesses her love. His deeds are ultimately discovered and he pines his regrets as he faces with certainty, the gas chamber. The film was a commercial success, earning five times its production costs. It was also a stunning critical success, and is today judged to be a paradigmatic Film Noir, defining and setting the standard for the genre. It earned seven Academy Award nominations including; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Recording, Best Film Score.
Wilder and Miklós Rózsa bonded on their first collaboration Five Graves To Cairo (1943) and he promised to hire him for his next film. Wilder initially wanted to use a restless string fugue like the one in Shubert’s Unfinished Symphony to underpin the film’s conspiratorial narrative. Rózsa was receptive and actually interpolated the fugue for the scene above the Hollywood Bowl, however he had a more personalized approach in mind. The construct of his soundscape would be anchored by three primary themes; the Conspiracy Theme, the Murder Theme, and the Love Theme. The Conspiracy Theme is restless and emanates a dark energy, which animates the treachery of the lovers. The Murder Theme is powerful, brutal and tragic portending the lover’s doom. The Love Theme by contrast offers quintessential florid Rózsa romanticism, a perfect juxtaposition to the opposing darker themes. The film is held up by this exceptional trio of themes, each perfectly supporting the intersecting arcs of the film’s narrative. It should be noted that the Paramount Music Director Louis Lipstone found the music too brutal and harsh, more suited to a Carnegie Hall performance than a film. He queried Rózsa as to why he had not written something more attractive? Rózsa ‘s response was classic; “Billy Wilder’s film was about ugly people doing vicious things to each other.” As such he refused to relent, standing by his creative vision. Well, when the final film version was screened, Studio executive Buddy de Sylva praised Rózsa for a magnificent score, to which Lipstone had the audacity to reply “Buddy, I always get you the right man, don’t I.” The score ended up being widely praised and earned Rózsa his fifth Academy Award nomination.
“Prelude/First Scene” provides an amazing score highlight. It supports the roll of the opening credits against the silhouette of a man walking towards us on crutches until he blacks out the screen. Rózsa supports his progress and brilliantly sets the tone of the film with an extended rendering of the Murder Theme. The theme emotes with a grim rhythmic determination, a tragic marcia funebre for a man walking to his doom. Timpani strikes provide the grim rhythm, violins affanato writhe against its numbing pulse while horns brutale portend dark purpose. This is clearly an allusion to the story’s outcome and Rózsa in a masterstroke captures the film’s emotional core. At 1:03 a violin descent bridge ushers in a scene change of a car recklessly being driven with abandon at night. Strings furioso propel the car with a determined but desperate energy, which crescendos powerfully, yet dissipates as the car arrives at its destination. We see Walter arrive at his office where the night attendant admits him and escorts him up to his office. Fragmentary phrasing of the Murder Theme carries their trip. As he walks to his office anguished strings adorned with twinkling xylophone create a surreal effect. The Murder Themes grim pulse returns as a marcia funebre as he sits down and takes off his coat. We see he is wounded, bleeding at the left shoulder. He dictates a confession where he states he murdered Dietrichson for a woman and money, and will get neither. We sense his pain and his regret, amplified by the Murder’s Themes grim march, which closes the cue darkly. This is writing of the highest order.
In “The Meeting” Walter continues to dictate and we flashback as he narrates how this sordid tale began. Rózsa introduces his energetic Conspiracy Theme, which is animated by dark purposeful energy. It supports Walter’s drive to the Dietrichson residence to renew an insurance policy. Mr. Dietrichson is not at home but Phyllis his wife is and we see immediately that there is an attraction. Rózsa introduces nascent brief statements of his Love Theme to support their flirtation. The two themes shift to and fro, attracted to each other, though not yet coalesced into dark purpose. In an unscored scene Walter returns to see Phyllis, their flirtation is more obvious and she puts him off with a request to purchase life insurance on her husband without his knowledge. He senses intent to murder and leaves. “In the Cab” offers the Conspiracy Theme, which supports his travels afterwards. In “The Anklet” Walter is at home conflicted with his feelings. When Phyllis expectantly arrives, all pretenses are dropped, they surrender to the palpable sexual chemistry, and as they kiss she confesses her love for him. Rózsa features the Conspiracy Theme, briefly countered by a brief yet more overt and expressive phrase of the Love Theme. “Inner Struggle” reveals a return to Walter’s opening narration where we see he is faltering with his lust for Phyllis overcoming reason. We hear repeating statements of the Conspiracy Theme that are joined in common cause by a chilling rendering of the Murder theme articulated by grim strings and dark low register bassoon. This orchestral descent informs us of Walter’s descent into dark purpose.
In “The Conspiracy” Walter crosses the Rubicon and informs Phyllis that he we save her from her abusive marriage and murder her husband. They first need a policy, and informs her that everything must be done right, using his knowledge and tricks of the trade to ensure there is no suspicion. Rózsa supports this dark intent with a reprise of the Murder Theme, which marches forward with grim resolve atop tremolo violins. What a fine joining of film imagery and music! “The Policy” reveals Walter making his pitch to Mr. Dietrichson to purchase life insurance. He is rebuffed yet manages to distract him while signing the auto insurance renewal to also sign the life insurance policy. As Mr. Dietrichson retires, Walter takes Phyllis aside and explains as he leaves that she must convince her husband to take a train next week for his trip as a death from a train fall would trigger a double indemnity payoff of $100,000. He states; “We are hitting for the limit.” and she consents. Rózsa supports the scene following Deitrichson’s signature with a complex rendering of the Murder Theme. It returns as a tragic marcia funebre, yet within the strings we also hear sadness, but these feelings are fleeting, snuffed out by a more cruel and dark purpose. In “The Market” Walter and Phyllis meet obscurely to collaborate without drawing suspicion. He stresses that they needed to be careful about appearances and stick to his plan. The Conspiracy Theme supports the scene and their murder plot, accented by dark portentous horns.
“Reading His Mail” reveals Walter at his desk reading his mail as he narrates Mr. Dietrichson breaking his leg had proven to be a temporary setback. Rózsa offers the Conspiracy Theme, which features some nice contrapuntal writing. “Preparation” reveals Walter setting up his alibi and donning a navy blue suit, the color Phyllis said her husband would be wearing. He sneaks into the Dietrichson garage and lays down in the back seat. Mr. Dietrichson soon enters without noticing him and she begins the drive to the train station. The Conspiracy and Murder Themes entwine in evil purpose. At 0:49 we segue into “The Murder” atop a tortured ascent by strings, which build as Phyllis turns onto a dark street. When she signals Walter, he rises up and murders Mr. Dietrichson, which Rózsa affirms with declarative phrases of the Murder Theme. Dark horns and twinkling xylophone support the aftermath and we culminate with a final grim statement of the Murder Theme as Walter boards the train and advises Phyllis of the pickup point. In “Railroad Tracks” Walter jumps off at the designated pickup point. He and Phyllis setup Mr. Dietrichson’s corpse on the tracks with his crutches to create the impression that he had fallen off and died. Rózsa supports the scene darkly with low register strings and macabre woodwinds. The Murder Theme joins with impassioned strings, which add both urgency and energy to their efforts. Slowly, we rise to crescendo, which dissipates at 2:15 where we see them drive off from the scene. Walter rehearses how they need to react should there be an inquiry. The Conspiracy Theme returns and animates their planned deception. As she drops him off near his apartment she asks him for a kiss as she confesses her love. Rózsa crowns the moment with a statement of the Love Theme.
Phyllis has met with Walter, Keys and the company CEO and successfully rebuffed the insinuation that this was a suicide, which invalidates the policy. She storms out in a huff, apparently having won the day. In “Relief” the Conspiracy Theme supports Walters growing confidence as he travels to his apartment. A phone call from Phyllis brings the Love Theme to flower; as she asks to join him, but its melodic flow is severed by bass pizzicato as the doorbell rings and Keys enters. In “The Hallway” Walter is extremely tense, as he knows Keys cannot be allowed see Phyllis coming to his apartment. Keys relates that he now suspects foul play and that he has indigestion. Phyllis arrives but hears the conversation in the hallway and so wisely, does not ring the doorbell. As Keys leaves she hides behind the door out of site. Rózsa sows tension with a repeating five-note figure growling in a dark strings and woodwind milieu, which amplifies Walter’s unease. If Key’s discovers Phyllis, all is lost, but he does not and departs in the elevator. As they reunite in his apartment Walter and Phyllis kiss and the Love Theme once again blossoms forth. In “The Daughter” Lola visits Walter at his office and drops a bombshell – that Phyllis was her mother’s nurse and she believed she murdered her mother to marry her father. The Conspiracy Theme underpins the encounter with fragmentary phrases of the Murder Theme as Walter tries to diffuse her anger.
“Warnings” reveals Walter being called to Key’s office and finding a police inspector sitting outside his door. Keys relates his new theory that Dietrichson was murdered, and that an imposter boarded the train, jumped off and then placed the corpse on the tracks to simulate the death. He believes she and an accomplish murdered her husband, and plans to reject her claim. Walter is now concerned and leaves to call Phyllis from a pay phone. He impersonates a man from the market, advising her that her soap had arrived in case her phone was bugged. Their encounter in the market is a dramatic score highlight. They are at odds, he insisting that she not challenge the claim rejection, she insisting that they are in this together until the end. There is tension, distrust and conflict and Rózsa offers three minutes of exceptional music, which speaks to the intersecting emotions and motivations. Dark woodwinds open and the Murder Theme growls in the low register with string counters. Slowly the melody ascends in register, full of emotion, tension, building to a crescendo of pain, which fails to culminate, instead dissipating as a diminuendo as they depart. In “The Appointment” we see Walter continuing his office narration with a scene change of him and Lola walking in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, where she drops another bombshell – Nino has been cheating on her with Phyllis every night! Rózsa sows danger with repeating string figures joined by a plaintive oboe, dark bassoon and kindred woodwinds, which create a grim aura. A scene change to the office reveals Keys advising that he now knows who was the accomplice. As he leaves for the day, Walter sneaks into his office to listen to his dictation, which confirms that he was not a suspect, and that it was Key’s belief that Phyllis and Nino murdered her husband. He added that it was his intent to refer the matter to the police. The Conspiracy Theme supports this final scene.
“Punishment” begins a stunning score highlight where Rózsa’s score achieves its emotional apogee. Walter arranges to meet Phyllis at her house with the intent to murder her. She also has evil designs and is seen hiding a revolver under her chair sofa before he arrives. After his exposure of her relationship with Nino she discerns his intent to murder her. As he closes an open window and draws the blinds, she shoots him in the shoulder. He walks to her, and asks her to finish the job. A dark cello joined with anguished kindred strings carry him to her. Yet she relents, lowers the pistol and confesses her love. Rózsa supports this eloquently with an impassioned ascent in the strings. As she embraces him we culminate with a passionate statement of the Love Theme, which is severed by her look of horror as she feels his gun in her ribs, followed by two mortal shots. As she falls dead the now horrific Murder Theme resounds and carries his flight. Outside he encounters Nino who he exhorts to leave, and call Lola as she is truly in love with him. A plaintive oboe and a kindred secondary Love Theme supports their encounter. At 3:01 we scene change to where we began, with Walter dictating in his office. Rózsa provides a funeral dirge as we hear terrible remorse in his voice. At 3:39 a rapid ascent of strings informs us that Keys is present and has been listening to his confession. He enters and closes the door. The Murder Theme returns, grimly countered by anguished strings as Walter entreats Keys to let him go. At 4:41 in “So Long Keyes”, as Walter tries to leave, sad and impassioned strings carry his struggling progress. We build to crescendo, yet at 6:18 in “Finale” he collapses too weak from blood loss to continue. A rapid expiating descent of strings supports his fall. As he lies on the floor consigned to his fate, a plaintive oboe portends his doom. Keys joins him, and as he struggles to light one last cigarette Rózsa begins an extraordinary impassioned ascent on strings. We are taken higher and higher, achieving a grand crescendo, which culminates with a glorious flourish to conclude the film.
I commend Lukas Kendall, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson of Intrada for restoring this Golden Age gem. Drawing from 35mm magnetic film stored in the Paramount vault, they were able to salvage 40 of the total 48 minutes of the monaural score, and present it as a compilation album along with music from Hugo Friedhofer’s score for Ace in the Hole, Franz Waxman’s score for Sorry Wrong Number, Leith Stevens’s score for The Scarlet Hour, Heinz Roemheld’s score for Union Station, and Victor Young’s score for I Walk Alone, among others. The restoration and mastering was good, with only a few discernable imperfections, which did not detract from my listening experience. While Rózsa is best known for his epic film scores, it should be noted that his skills in supporting Film Noir were no less exceptional. Double Indemnity for me was a paradigmatic Film Noir, which both defined and set the standard for the genre. I attribute much of its success to the film score. With his trio of themes Rózsa was able to capture the emotional core of this truly sordid tale. The intersecting arcs of conspiracy, murder, betrayal and love were all perfectly attenuated to their characters, scenes and story narrative. The juxtaposition of the sumptuous Love Theme against the malevolent Conspiracy and Murder Themes was a masterstroke, which accentuated the darkness and ugly emotional drivers. This score in my judgment is a seminal effort, one of the finest examples of the Film Noir genre, a Golden Age gem, and an essential addition for any lover of film score art. I highly recommend you purchase this classic.
I have embedded a YouTube link to a wonderful 8-minute suite, which graces you with Rózsa’s exceptional trio of themes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmcrBjbdqt8
Buy the Double Indemnity soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Prelude/First Scene (4:50)
- The Meeting (2:35)
- In the Cab (0:52)
- The Anklet (0:55)
- Inner Struggle (1:18)
- The Conspiracy (0:57)
- The Policy (1:48)
- The Market (1:04)
- Reading His Mail (0:28)
- Preparation/The Murder (3:06)
- Railroad Tracks (3:10)
- Relief (1:21)
- The Hallway (2:15)
- The Daughter (0:57)
- Warnings (3:02)
- The Appointment (1:24)
- Punishment/So Long Keyes/Finale (8:03)
Running Time: 38 minutes 41 seconds
Intrada ISC-335 (1944/2015)
Music composed and conducted by Miklós Rózsa. Original orchestrations by Eugene Zador. Score produced by Miklós Rózsa. Album produced by Lukas Kendall, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.