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Old Globe Gives 'Double Indemnity' Its San Diego Premiere

(from left) Angel Desai as Phyllis Nirlinger, Murphy Guyer as Herbert Nirlinger and Michael Hayden as Walter Huff in the San Diego Premiere of Double Indemnity, adapted by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, based on the book by James M. Cain, directed by John Gould Rubin, July 27 - Sept. 1, 2013 at The Old Globe.
Jim Cox
(from left) Angel Desai as Phyllis Nirlinger, Murphy Guyer as Herbert Nirlinger and Michael Hayden as Walter Huff in the San Diego Premiere of Double Indemnity, adapted by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, based on the book by James M. Cain, directed by John Gould Rubin, July 27 - Sept. 1, 2013 at The Old Globe.

James M. Cain's Hard-Boiled Novel Provides Basis For New Play

The Old Globe's "Double Indemnity"
GUESTS: John Gould Rubin, Director, "Double Indemnity" David Israel Reynoso, Costume Designer, "Double Indemnity" Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts and Culture Reporter

CAVANAUGH: Femme fatales, dark streets, and darker motives make up the seductive world of film noir. How do you transfer this quintessential movie style to the stage? Beth Accomando went behind the scenes of the new production of the film noir classic, Double Indemnity. NEW SPEAKER: How can I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle? ACCOMANDO: Double Indemnity concerns Walter huff who falls for a married woman named Phyllis. Together, they murder her husband for the insurance murder. They make it look like he died falling off a train so they can cash in on the policy's Double Indemnity clause. Of it was famously adapted into a 1944 film. Recently it's been adapted to the stage. Here's a scene from the film. It's a rant by the claims adjustor about why the death could not be a suicide. (Audio Recording Played) NEW SPEAKER: I could write ten volumes on suicide alone! By poison, by firearm, drowning, leaping! Subdivided by types of poison, corrosive, systemic, gaseous, narcotic. Leaps, leaps from high places, under the feet of horses, trucks, from Steamboats. But of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. ACCOMANDO: John, did you want to reference the book or the film in the way you directed the play? RUBIN: When we started it, we could not ignore the fame of the film, and the novel. Although I think the film is better known than the novel. And I think what we struggled to do, and this includes in the costuming and all the design elements, is to reference the noir genre. And more to the point, our associated memories of it. So we played on those memories of the design of the show more than we've tried to be faithful to the exact particulars of the period. ACCOMANDO: And what were the elements for you as a director that you wanted to tap into that you felt were kind of classic noir or that you wanted to make sure that people made an association with? RUBIN: The shadow play, are and the musical scoring, and the black and whitedness, and the sense of smoke, and the atmospherics that are part of film noir that come from German expressionism, and the silent films of the turn of the century, and those paintings that in American film noir we associate with those movies where women are called Toots. So when you watch it, you can feel like you were thrust in it and have a sensory and emotional experience. ACCOMANDO: And with the costume design, what elements of noir were you trying to tap into? REYNOSO: There were some expectations that come with film noir. There's a lot of a sense of fantasy that it invokes. A sense of sensuality that is represented, especially with the femme fatale. We live in a tech nicolor world, but we did limit our palette quite a bit and tried to be choosy about our colors, sort of desaturating some of our color and being careful about when it was we were going to inject the reds and the purples. So you'll see a lot of men with square shoulders, and fantastic hats for the ladies, and of course trench coats galore. [ LAUGHTER ] REYNOSO: I think our memories associated with film noir that we wanted to make sure that we represented. But it was important to John and I that our characters really felt like real people, and they were wearing real clothes. And we do push it in some ways that there's a theatricality to what they're wearing. But I thinks strength and the exact of the piece is in the fact that this is happening to real people. RUBIN: I think it was crucial that they feel like -- that there's psychology in it, that they're real people, that they act from motivations that you can articulate and the actors can feel that they're living them. And that they wear clothes that are part of their economy and part of the period in which they live. And like all of us, part of the periods in which they have lived so they have clothes from before like we all do in their closets, and that they feel like they're not wearing the fashion of the era but their personal response to the fashion of the era and previous eras. ACCOMANDO: Film noir is known for its dialogue, tight, snappy. How much of that did get carried over from the play? RUBIN: From the book, a lot, more than from the film. The film takes off on its own track more than the novel. But the play, the writers are quite faithful, as faithful as they can be in the structuring of a play based on a novel that's 90 pages. They have been quite faithful to it, and the dialogue is snappy, and it has all that subtext and innuendo. And it's got all those kinds of elements of dialogue that you associate with film noir and that snappy dialogue and the wit and vanity of it. ACCOMANDO: The set design is innovative and cinematic. RUBIN: In this pursue of endowing the audience with their associated memories of the genre, the set has -- its central construction is that there is 1 piece of furniture on the set that rotates on a turntable. And that can be a car or train or the top of a boat, a ship, or a hospital bed, or it's a sofa. And we wanted the play to be able to move like a movie, are seamlessly from scene to scene. So scenes happen, there are scrims that come down and rise on every four days of the box in which the production is framed. So the turntable turns, and this piece of furniture converts, and scenes are defined by what this piece of furniture converts to, and what in the surrounding area it is facing. ACCOMANDO: There's also video projection. And I understand that part of it deals with the smoking issue because you're in a theatre and you can't just have people lighting up all the time. So what was your solution? RUBIN: Well, the video came out of conversations about that. There are very strict laws in California about how you can or cannot represent smoking on stage. And more to the point, people don't like it. We're really constrained from doing real smoking on stage. And I didn't want to do it because I feel like it's got limitations like that. There's got to be a way to represent what you're trying to do that's more effective, and at the same time, Chris started talking about using a turntable, and that we start talking about representing the smoke by having the smoke blow above the players, and they just pantomime smoking. So that's what we do. And the smoke happens and the sound effect happens, and many things happen that way, just by the representation through sound. The ship is just a sound, and then there's water, and rain, and the sound of rain. It's an effort to make you feel as you're watching it like you're having a sensory experience while you're watching a narrative rather than trying to place the pieces together. At its best, it's like life. There are elements of it which are intellectual and thoughtful and elements of it which were sensory and which you just absorb and take in. And we've tried to represent them both in the color palette, the sound scape, and in the music. And in the kind of sensory video a cinematic experience on stage. That's the effort. REYNOSO: And the audience, the first time the smoke is projected, you just hear this delight. People sort of chuckle to themselves, it invites people to be part of the fun I think of the play. It's quite effective. ACCOMANDO: It sounds like it makes it more of a theatrical experience in the sense that you can't be exactly like film, but by leaving these elements to the audience's imagination, which film doesn't normally do. They usually present you with a very realistic looking representation of things, that you're really engaging the audience more to say, okay, you're a part of this and you have to fill in some of the details. RUBIN: Yes, I really hope that's right. To make the audience feel like their imaginations are engaged in the construction of the experience fully. And I think David is right, they get tickled when they see things like that. ACCOMANDO: You can't have noir without a femme fatale. How does the costuming you did play or not play to Phyllis as a femme fatale? REYNOSO: It was just so fun to collaborate with her to try to find pieces of clothing that really made her feel great, or strong depending on the mood of each of the scenes. And while there is a lot of things that are sort of -- use the 1930s and early '40s as a jumping off point for educating the visual vocabulary of their clothing, there is sort of an interjection of contemporary esthetic that I think makes the clothing feel a bit more -- like something you might want to wear now. That's a skirt which he wears which is contemporary, but it has lines that are very true, it's a pencil skirt from the late 1930s. But it's made out of leather, which I don't think would have been right. [ LAUGHTER ] REYNOSO: But it lends and feels true for that moment when she wears it. It's very sexy, but it's also -- it gives her some power in some ways. And it just also -- I find the clothing really affects the way people behave. It affects the way they view themselves in the world and how they view themselves in relation to their circumstances. And I think that was something that I really wanted Angel to feel, that her clothing represented what was true of her character. ACCOMANDO: Film noir gets criticized for being misogynistic. I wouldn't use that term, because I find these women refreshingly complex and strong. They manage to move in a male-dominated world and use the same tools as men. Are you addressing that criticism or challenging it? RUBIN: Film noir is a genre that is most out of male imagination. You could easily make the case that the women's power came from behaves like men in some ways. But I don't know. I'm not a student of the feminism of the genre. I think the genre is very much -- surges from a male imagination. But I haven't responded to it. I've represented the play as it's written. She is certainly a powerful character, but she is definitely a perverse character. You could make the case that she leads a main astray. But you could make the case watching this play that he leads her astray or that they take each other mutually downhill. She is a murderess from before the events in the play. I don't know. The feminist elements of it or questions of whether women are well depicted are not issues that I've tried to address in the representation of the character in the play. I've tried to figure out her psychology with the actress. It is complicated and deep. But if if we were doing something else, we'd be having the same conversation, and talking about whether or not Ibsen was sexist, we could have the same conversation. So the effort is to figure out why she behaves the way she does. ACCOMANDO: In film noir, lightning is so important. So how did this play out in the play? RUBIN: There are a lot of different looks in the scenes. We've got the Venetian blinds, and a lot of atmospherics and shadow play, and part of the advantage of having the video is that we can actually project through the scrims. And you can have mist appearing and you can project all of those. But the video and the lightning design had to have a real collaborative relationship because they can work against each other. But it is about planes of imagery so that you can have a scrim above the action of the play, and a scrim below on one side of the action of the play, and lightning in the action of the play. And those different planes of lightning are like a Caravaggio painting, and we've deliberately tried to infuse that sense of atmosphere of the genre and those looks that you associate with it. In particular, we made an effort with the lightning to get that sense of atmosphere that you have an emotional association with when you look at those movies. ACCOMANDO: Thank you both very much for taking the time to speak with me. RUBIN: Thank you. REYNOSO: Thank you very much.

'Double Indemnity' And Designing Noir For The Stage
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."

ANCHOR INTRO: Sex. Murder. Betrayal. Welcome to the noir world of “Double Indemnity.” KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes us inside the San Diego premiere of the stage adaptation of “Double Indemnity” at the Old Globe Theatre. INDEMNITY (ba).wav 3:59 (music out at 5:20) TAG: “Double Indemnity” continues through September 1 at the Old Globe.   CLIP: Yes I killed him. Killed him for money, for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Yep. That pretty much sums up noir. There’s always a dame, there’s always murder, and no one lives happily ever after. Film noir was inspired by the hard-boiled fiction of the 30s and 40s, and stylistically influenced by German Expressionism. Films like Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” defined the genre. It had dialogue that crackled with sexual electricity, it had a ruthless and seductive femme fatale in Barbara Stanwyck, and it boasted glorious black and white photography. It was a dark, shadowy world that reflected an even darker sense of amorality. 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.” JOHN GOULD RUBIN: 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. 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. DAVID ISRAEL REYNOSO: 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. Reynoso’s costumes address that fantasy with some sexy designs but he also wanted the clothes to be grounded in reality. DAVID ISRAEL REYNOSO: The strength and the impact of the piece is in the fact that this is happening to some genuine people. John Gould Rubin agrees. JOHN GOULD RUBIN: 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. JOHN GOULD RUBIN: It is about planes of imagery. 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. JOHN GOULD RUBIN: 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. 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. DAVID ISRAEL REYNOSO: 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. 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. JOHN: Yes I really hope that’s right, 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. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

James M. Cain's hard-boiled novel "Double Indemnity" was made into a film in 1944 and into a play in 2011. The play gets its San Diego premiere this summer at the Old Globe Theatre.

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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.

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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.

Trailer: 'Double Indemnity'

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"

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