Old Globe Gives ‘Double Indemnity’ Its San Diego Premiere
James M. Cain’s Hard-Boiled Novel Provides Basis For New Play
Originally published August 15, 2013 at 6 a.m., updated August 16, 2013 at 5 a.m.
John Gould Rubin, Director, "Double Indemnity"
David Israel Reynoso, Costume Designer, "Double Indemnity"
Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts and Culture Reporter
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando talks with the Old Globe's creative team about designing noir for the stage in their San Diego premiere of "Double Indemnity."
Emergence Of A Noir Style
During the 1930s, American detective fiction developed into what would come to be termed “hard-boiled."
These hard-boiled tales often found a home in the cheap pulp magazines famous or infamous for their lurid covers. In magazines like "Black Mask," you could find Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon," which introduced the iconic anti-hero private eye, Sam Spade.
In an Old Globe press release about Cain, the author is described in this way: "Then along came James M. Cain — the man who transformed hard-boiled detective fiction into something even darker. Cain denied belonging to the hard-boiled or any other school of writing. And while his work clearly owes a debt to those writers, he also turned their structure on its head. Cain wrote “inverted” detective stories, stories in which the reader follows not a flawed yet heroic investigator, but rather the decidedly un-heroic criminal who is trying to outwit him. Cain’s work marked a shift in the genre: from detective fiction to crime novel, from hard-boiled to noir."
Noir cinema was inspired by this hard-boiled fiction of the 30s and 40s, and stylistically influenced by German Expressionism. More recently, it has been adapted to the stage by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright. The play draws more directly from Cain's book than the film did. The film, scripted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, a hard-boiled novelist in his own right. The film spun the tale in a slightly different direction but Cain apparently liked the changes the film made to his story.
Cain’s novel “Double Indemnity” was famously adapted into a 1944 film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.
Early in the film's open Walter (renamed Neff rather than Huff as in the novel) informs us: "Yes I killed him. Killed him for money, for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman."
That pretty much sums up noir. There’s always a dame, there’s always murder, and no one lives happily ever after. Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” defined the film genre. It had dialogue that crackled with sexual electricity, it had a ruthless and seductive femme fatale in Stanwyck, and it boasted glorious black and white photography. It was a dark, shadowy world that reflected an even darker sense of amorality.
Here's the trailer from the 1944 film adaptation of Cain's book.
Developing A Noir Style For The Stage
These vivid noir films of the 40s and 50s were something that director John Gould Rubin simply could not ignore when he tackled the stage version of “Double Indemnity.”
"I think what we struggled to do is to reference the genre, the noir genre, and more to the point our associative memories of it. And so we’ve played on those memories in the design of the show," said Gould Rubin.
The play is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel “Double Indemnity.” Insurance agent Walter Huff falls for the married Phyllis Nirdlinger. Together they murder her husband and make his death look like he died falling off a train so they can cash in on the policy’s double indemnity clause. Costume designer David Israel Reynoso understands that working in noir creates certain expectations.
"I think there’s a lot of, even sort of, a sense of fantasy that it evokes, a sense of sensuality that is represented, especially with the femme fatale," said Reynoso.
Reynoso’s costumes address that fantasy with some sexy designs but he also wanted the clothes to be grounded in reality.
"The strength and the impact of the piece is in the fact that this is happening to some genuine people," added Reynoso.
John Gould Rubin agrees: "I think it was crucial that they feel like, that there’s psychology, that they are real people, that they act from motivations that you can really articulate and that the actors can really feel like they are explicating and that they are living them."
The play’s being performed in the round with the audience looking down onto a stage mounted on a turntable that rotates. There are also four sliding scrims that box the actors into something that evokes a multi-dimensional movie screen. The scrims are made out of gauze-like fabric that can be transparent or have images projected on it.
"It is about planes of imagery," Gould Rubin explained, " So that you can have a scrim up above the action of the play and a scrim down below on one side of the action in the play and lighting in the action of the play, and those different planes of lighting are like a Caravaggio painting. We made an effort with the lighting to get that sense of atmosphere that you have like an emotional association with when you look at those movies."
The scenic design also strives for a cinematic style by being exceedingly flexible.
"There is one piece of furniture on the set that rotates on the turntable and that piece of furniture can be a car or it can be a train or it’s a hospital bed or a sofa, it converts to all these things," said Gould Rubin.
This allows the action to move seamlessly from one scene to another, and to keep Walter Huff onstage almost continuously so you feel the relentless motion pulling him in and down. Once the murder is committed, nothing can stop the consequences that follow. But the play also maintains a uniquely theatrical quality. When the characters smoke, they pantomime lighting up while smoke is projected on the scrims above them. Reynoso says this elicits an immediate response from the audience.
"You just sort of hear this kind of delight, people sort of chuckle to themselves and it sort of invites people to to be part of the fun of the play so it’s quite effective," Reynoso said.
It’s effective in making the audience fill in the details in ways that they would never be asked in a cinema. And that’s exactly what John Gould Rubin wanted.
"Yes I really hope that’s right," said Gould Rubin, "it’s to make the audience feel like their imagination’s engaged in the construction of the experience fully."
James M. Cain wrote “Double Indemnity” more than half a century ago but murder and seduction just never seem to go out of style.
"Double Indemnity" runs every night except Mondays through Sept. 1 at the Old Globe's 250-seat theater in the round, the Sheryl and Harvey White Theater.
Companion film viewing: "Double Indemnity" (1944), "Out of the Past," "The Lady From Shanghai," "The Postman Always Rings Twice"