Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) wasn’t the first film noir, but it was the beginning of a new phase in Miklos Rozsa’s already stellar career. Adapted from James M. Cain’s classic crime novel, Fred MacMurray stars as insurance salesman Walter Neff, Barbara Stanwyck is the sultry housewife Phyllis who convinces him to bump off her husband for the insurance money, and Edward G. Robinson is the claims adjuster who smells something fishy.
Rozsa’s music matches the film noir genre with its light and shadows, tension and release. The score contains few themes and the music is dissonant and lean. The opening theme in the trombones and horns conveys impending doom, and the funereal drumbeat is synchronized to the dragging steps of the limping silhouette onscreen.
The love theme is as cold as the characters it portrays. The nervous, agitated string tremolo sets off each of Walter’s flashback sequences. “[Wilder] had the idea of using a restless string figure (as in the opening of Shubert’s Unfinished Symphony) to reflect the conspiratorial activities of the two lovers against her husband; it was a good idea,” wrote Rozsa in his autobiography, Double Life.
Paramount Studio’s musical director was displeased with the dissonance of the score. “I was asked to appear in his office, where he there explained that the music was very bad,” Rozsa said. “He told me it belonged in Carnegie Hall. I thanked him but he said he hadn’t meant it as a compliment. He then asked why I hadn’t written something attractive, to which I replied that Billy Wilder’s film was about ugly people doing vicious things to each other. Once the premiere was over and the film went over well, Buddy De Sylva, Paramount’s head of the music department, thought it was a wonderful score and the musical director changed his tune.”
I can’t watch this film without being reminded of the old Carol Burnett spoof, “Double Calamity.” Carol takes on Stanwyck’s role with the hysterical sound effect of loud jangling jewelry for her ankle bracelet. The sound gag becomes an even funnier sight gag when Steve Lawrence (taking on the MacMurray part) sits down, crosses his legs and shows off his own ankle bracelet.
Rozsa’s score raised the bar on film noir scoring and led the composer into the second phase of his film career.