About 15 minutes into Double Indemnity as Walter Neff strides out of Barton Keyes’s office you’ll notice a man sitting there in the hallway. He looks up from his magazine. His eyes register under his glasses as white gleams of disapproval, as though he can read Neff’s innermost thoughts and wouldn’t give a penny for them.
The man doesn’t have a movie face. Not even a movie extra face. It’s an ordinary, tired, slightly puffy face, a face that long ago lost the fight against gravity. He looks like nobody’s favorite college professor, you know, the one who knocks you down a whole grade for a misplaced comma. Billy Wilder said that he looked like an accountant.
That’s Raymond Chandler, co-writer of Double Indemnity, creator of Philip Marlowe, master of the hardboiled crime novel (and all around love of my life).
Chandler’s memories of collaborating with Wilder might explain why he looks so cranky in this cameo. (Then again he might’ve just been that cranky because it was a Tuesday.) According to Chandler, “Working with Billy Wilder was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it about as much about screen writing as I am capable of learning, which is not very much…. The wise screenwriter is he who wears his second-best suit, artistically speaking, and doesn’t take things too much to heart. He should have a touch of cynicism, but only a touch. The complete cynic is as useless to Hollywood as he is to himself.”
Wilder didn’t exactly have fond memories of his co-writer either: “there was a lot of Hitler in Chandler,” he said years later, alluding to the novelist’s irritability and controlling streak. While working on the script for Double Indemnity, Chandler had even threatened to resign. As for his reasons, he complained to the studio about what he perceived as Wilder’s lack of manners (the failure to say “please” when asking Chandler to close some Venetian blinds, for instance) and about the writer-director’s lengthy, on-the-make phone calls to various women.
Nevertheless, Wilder respected Chandler’s talent: “He was a dilettante. He did not like the structure of a screenplay, wasn’t used to it. He was a mess but he could write a beautiful sentence.”
I guess we’re lucky the writing sessions didn’t result in a very real homicide. But between them the two men sure came up with a movie to die for.