Los Angeles. 1930s. Dark suits. Platinum blondes. And a man who tells us he knows how to get away with murder and make a little money on the side.
Insurance agent Walter Huff (Leon Ford) heads up to Hollywoodland to renew insurance for Mr Nerdlinger (Richard Piper), but with the man of the house out, Huff meets and quickly falls for his wife, Phyllis (Clare van der Boom). It’s a simple enough set-up and in this stage adaptation of James M Cain’s Double Indemnity, playwright Tom Holloway has taken a few cues from the film adaptation – and given the women of the story a lot more agency than in the original book.
Cain’s novel was originally serialised in Liberty magazine in 1936, published as a novel in 1943 and soon hit the big screen, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as Walter and Phyllis. Where the book is a fairly straightforward procedural from the insurance man’s point of view, the film is considered one of the earliest examples of “film noir” – a genre known for hard-bitten private eyes matching their wits with femme fatales. The screenplay by Raymond Chandler brings that feeling out in spades.
Holloway’s play is quite faithful to the plot of the book, but gives van der Boom’s Phyllis the wicked tongue we might expect from Stanwyck in the film, though is barely glimpsed in the book itself. If you’re wondering why a theatre company might produce a show based on a book that is eighty years old, the key is in the intricacy of the plot – and the rapid-fire dialogue that suits the stage.
Director Sam Strong has a clear, cinematic vision of the piece; supported by Andrew Bailey’s complex revolving set that allows for a fluidity between scenes and locations. The set is deceptively monochrome and in combination with Paul Jackson’s lighting, the audience can – at moments – see through walls; voyeurs in the dark, watching as the complex interlocking story unfolds.
Where film noir is often narrated in voice over, Leon Ford’s Huff directly addresses the audience – he knows they are watching him confess; he admits as much before the curtain rises. Huff is an everyman who slowly loses his grip on what is happening around him and Ford’s performance is subtle and compelling. Van der Boom takes a little time to settle into the role of Phyllis, but at some point everything clicks – and she and Ford are like two sharks circling each other, ready to strike.
The entire cast is strong, but keep your eyes on Edwina Samuels and Lachlan Woods – who both play multiple roles and make a strong impression each time. Samuels’ Nettie, in particular, could be the very definition of supporting role but she brings a memorable strength to a character who might otherwise be forgotten.
This is a striking production to look at, though some of the stage craft becomes distracting in moments, particularly during the murder scene in the car in the first act. And in eight decades, the dialogue occasionally skates too close to parody; we’ve heard so much of this kind of repartee before.
Holloway’s script is a strong adaptation of a solid story, enhancing the female characters without taking the spotlight off Leon Ford’s Huff – a study of a man who thinks he is smart enough to get away with murder, the girl and the money. Get along to see if he does.