Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA 1944) vs. Bodyheat (Lawrence Kasdan, USA 1981)

With Film Noir being one of my favourite film genres and Double Indemnity one of my favourite films, in what follows, I seek to examine the similarities as well as the differences between Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (USA 1944) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (USA 1981).

The similarities are at once obvious and vague. With almost forty years between them, Wilder’s film was shot under entirely different circumstances and in a completely different political climate: the Production Code was still in action and America had just entered the war against Nazi-Germany while Kasdan’s film was shot at the beginning of the Reagan era. My intention is to look at both films by taking into account their respective political backgrounds, and, furthermore, to examine how both films are related to each other. James M. Cain’s novel, Double Indemnity, on which Wilder’s film is based, was first published in 1936, but because of its explicit violent content it was first deemed unfilmable. With the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Wilder was greatly restricted in terms of what could and what could not be shown on-screen, forcing him and his co-writer, Raymond Chandler, to employ a great deal of subtlety and innuendo so as not to offend the censors. However, like in so many other (American) films of that era, given a skilful screenwriter, this subtleness and delicacy often worked to the film’s advantage. Moreover, America was at war with Nazi-Germany, which not only indirectly led to the emergence of film noir, of which Double Indemnity is a prime example, but it also resulted in an influx of European immigrants to Hollywood, many of whom had previously worked at the UFA studios in Berlin at a time when German Expressionism flourished and whose influence they later translated into their contribution to American film noir. Even though the film considered to be the first film noir was shot by John Huston, an American, The Maltese Falcon (USA 1941), most subsequent films noir were made by European refugees, among them Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Otto Preminger, John Brahm and, of course, Wilder himself, all of whom -with the exception of Preminger- had worked at UFA. And although Ernst Lubitsch was not directly a refugee as such (for he had left Germany in 1923, following an invitation from Mary Pickford), he would remain Wilder’s foremost influence as Wilder considered Lubitsch to be ‘the master of film composition, a magician’ (Zolotov 1977: 64). Lubitsch was also responsible for getting Wilder a job at Paramount, considered to be the most European of all Hollywood studios because of the large number of émigrés who worked there. In the case of Double Indemnity the European influence is clearly discernible. Miklos Rosza, who composed the film’s evocative, powerful score, was Hungarian but also worked at UFA prior to his immigration to the US. Paramount’s head of Production Design was Bremen-born Hans Dreier, who himself was responsible for Double Indemnity’s sets. His influence seems particularly apparent in Phyllis’ living-room, which has a distinct European, almost gothic, flair to it, as if haunted by Caligari and his ghosts. And even Wilder’s collaborator, Raymond Chandler, too, had a strong European connection. Of Irish stock, he was educated at Dulwich College and spent parts of his youth in France and Germany. In fact, there are scholars who claim that Chandler’s European education contributed substantially to his unique, inimitable prose.

By comparison, Body Heat seems blatantly American, which is why at first sight the two films do not appear to have much to do with each other. Yet, Kasdan said that Body Heat is
'a child of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity
and Out of The Past, but used for my own purposes'
(Spicer 2002: 150).
Much like Chandler and Wilder did when they adapted Cain’s novel for the screen, Kasdan, too, kept the rough framework of Wilder’s film, by restricting his changes to details such as, for instance, turning Walter Neff from a humdrum insurance salesman into a small-time lawyer, which is his 1980s equivalent. One significant change, however, is the ending. Whereas at the end of Wilder’s film Phyllis dies and Walter is about to die, Matty Walker escapes and Ned Racine, the man she so viciously ensnares, is on death row.

Like in Double Indemnity, music also plays an important role in Body Heat, and sets the mood for the better part of the film with the difference that Miklos Rosza’s scaremongering, unsettling score has been traded for John Barry’s jazzy, sultry tune that subtly underscores the erotic tension between Matty and Ned. However, while Rosza’a score is so powerful that it could almost tell the story on its own, Barry’s score, albeit beautiful, is too restrained to achieve that.
Instead of being shot in Los Angeles, still not the major metropolis that it is today at the time Double Indemnity was made, Body Heat is set in Pine Haven, which sounds like a name taken from a Raymond Chandler novel.Shot in colour, gone are the chiaroscuro, the shadows and murkiness of its predecessor. Nevertheless, the film uses colour very cleverly to signify the frame of mind of the protagonists. As noticed Spicer:
'the warmth of the yellows, browns and reds gradually
gives way to cool blues and greys as Ned realizes he
is the victim of Matty’s wiles' (Spicer 2002: 151).
Unlike in Double Indemnity, where most of the action takes either place at night or in darkened rooms, one of the most striking features about Body Heat is the use of light, open spaces and, particularly, heat. While Phyllis and Walter meet in an enclosed space, Matty and Ned meet at an open-air concert in the middle of one of Florida’s heat-waves. However, heat, as the film’s title suggests, refers not just to the heat-wave, but rather becomes a metaphor for the sexual attraction, the ‘heat’, between Matty Walker and Ned Racine, and the filmmakers deserve credit for making the heat palpable through the screen. Like in Chinatown (USA 1974), in Body Heat light is used to -literally- highlight the evil and the depravity that lie beneath. The relatively modest house Phyllis lives in has now turned into a grand mansion, and the husband, previously an oil-executive, is now a very wealthy real-estate broker and millionaire. These changes reflect the political climate of the time, for with Ronald Reagan having been elected the year before, America was about to enter its most prosperous decade since the 1950s. Matty Walker is the epitome of the Reagan woman, whose dream it is ‘to be rich and live on an exotic island’. Invoking Chandler’s and Wilder’s famous predilection for razor-sharp dialogues, Kasdan invented similarly witty lines and retorts for Bodyheat. However, like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, it tends to be Matty who comes out on top and whose intellectual superiority to Ned is established by having her putting him in his place through acerbic, biting one-liners like ‘You aren’t too bright. I like that in a man’.
The Keyes-Neff friendship has its equivalent in Kasdan’s film, where the cigar-smoking Edgar G. Robinson is replaced by Ted Danson, who repeatedly performs tap-dancing routines in, what we must assume, is an imitation of Fred Astaire, which can be seen as an homage to the 1930s and 40s, which is also the time when film noir first started to flourish.

In conclusion, it can be said that both films are a reflection of the times they were made in. With the Vietnam War just barely over -and not yet been exhaustively tackled by filmmakers- and with a new president who promoted rearmament, nuclear power and relentless capitalism, the fear and uneasiness were perhaps not that different from how people felt forty years earlier. To quote Kasdan himself,
'The loss of innocence and which he (Kasdan) saw as
analogous to the feelings experienced by those returning
from the Second World War' (Spicer 2002: 150).


Spicer, Andrew (2002): Film Noir. Edinburgh: Pearson Education Ltd.
Zolotov, Maurice (1977): Billy Wilder in Hollywood. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.


Huston, John, The Maltese Falcon, USA 1941
Kasdan, Lawrence, Bodyheat, USA 1981
Polanski, Roman, Chinatown, USA 1974
Tourneur, Jaques, Out of the Past, USA 1947
Wilder, Billy, Double Indemnity, USA 1944