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The Rule-Breaking Maestro Behind Noir’s Trademark Sound

Features

Jun 1, 2022

There I was, sitting in a pie shop at the corner of Franklin and Vermont in Hollywood, a street corner that plays a small role in Double Indemnity. In that 1944 noir classic, a wily insurance agent finds the teenage daughter of the man he’s about to murder sitting in his car, and she asks him for a lift to this very intersection—on the pretense of going roller skating with her friend Anne Matthews, but really to meet her hotheaded boyfriend, Nino Zachette. I thought maybe sitting in the presence of their ghosts would help me write about the film’s score by Miklós Rózsa—a dance of death and fatalism that helped codify an entire genre. Rózsa was the musical counterpart to Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, the film’s writers, and Double Indemnity the ur–noir score.

Like the Dictaphone confession of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), the film’s antihero, Rózsa announces the fate of the character right from the jump, a tolling death sentence for French horns and timpani. We may not know who this silhouetted man on crutches is yet, but the score tells us he’s hobbling to his doom. Sure enough, by the end of the story Neff will end up collapsing on the office floor with a bleeding hole in his heart left by Phyllis Dietrichson—one of cinema’s foundational femme fatales, played by an ice-cold Barbara Stanwyck.

Director Wilder had achieved a high-water mark in film noir, a genre that the French critic Nino Frank heralded as “a new type of crime film coming out of Hollywood.” In his influential 1946 essay, Frank was specifically referring to this film and The Maltese Falcon (1941), and the catchy term came to absorb a suite of tropes: the hard-boiled detective, the Venus man trap, the seedy underbelly of American cities as seen through slatted blinds and illuminated by blinking neon. The big wave of noirs came after World War II, but the war was still raging when Wilder made Double Indemnity in the fall of 1943. By then, the Austrian director had already seen enough horror to undermine his faith in humanity, and though he didn’t know it yet, his mother and grandmother were both victims at Auschwitz. As film historian Foster Hirsch noted: “The best noir directors were German or Austrian expatriates who shared a world view that was shaped by their bitter personal experiences of . . . escaping from a nation that had lost its mind.”

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