The Old Globe stages Cain classic Double Indemnity

Double calamity

Murphy Guyer as Herbert Nirlinger and Angel Desai as Phyllis Nirlinger in the San Diego 
premiere of Double Indemnity.
  • Murphy Guyer as Herbert Nirlinger and Angel Desai as Phyllis Nirlinger in the San Diego premiere of Double Indemnity.

When Paramount bought the rights to James M. Cain’s serialized novella Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay in 1943. Though Cain’s dialogue worked wonders on the page, they found that when spoken aloud, said the ever-arch Chandler, it sounded “like a bad high school play.” And Cain’s dialogue “over-said” everything.

So does the Old Globe’s Double Indemnity. Like Sideways at the La Jolla Playhouse, the adaptation snubs the movie version for the novel that preceded it. Authors David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright bypass the Wilder/Chandler movie classic and go back to Cain’s original. Along with director John Gould Rubin, they overstate everything. The result’s a watered-down remake devoid of subtlety and, surprisingly, of menace. At its best, it’s pseudo-film noir; at worst, just a parody.

The designers get it right. Christopher Barreca devised a black, floor-to-ceiling cage for the White Theatre’s in-the-round configuration. Diaphanous screens rise and fall on all four sides. Keith Skretch’s excellent videos drizzle rain down windows, cigarette smoke spirals upward (ubiquitous in film noir), and clouds and pea-soup fog keep the outside world at bay. A turntable makes scenes flow. David Israel Reynoso’s costumes deck the men in various shades of brown: fedoras and suits; the women in beige, save for shocking red apparel at times stained with bourbon (one choice may give film purists a shudder: in the movie, Barbara Stanwyck wears an obviously fake blond wig, to show Phyllis’s bad taste; Angel Desai’s Phyllis is a brunette).

Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting is masterful. Film noir lurks in the shadows. Like Dracula, it deplores sunlight. Stark camera angles make the familiar strange. The overall look resembles a photographic negative, as if viewers have arrived at the Dark Side of the Force, or, as film after film insists, to a place that has been there since Eve bit the apple.

Strawbridge lights some interior scenes too brightly — the hospital, for example. This may be deliberate, to heighten the doom-shrouded, Satanic mills atmosphere elsewhere. He reverses normal contrasts, making the dark dominant, and uses the famous striped “Venetian blind” effect in the Wilder movie.

At the end, Phyllis and Walter Huff, co-conspirators of the crime, meet on a luxury liner headed down Mexico way. Waves roll across the charcoal-gray, checkerboard floor, the whitewater flowing south. But when Phyllis stands on a gunwale and faces north — i.e., toward the bow — she claims she’s on the stern. In which case, the water’s roiling in the wrong direction.

By design? It’s hard to tell. Except for Kwan-Fai Lam, whose music has all the tump-tump, creeping-footstep clichés of the genre, the designers take their tasks seriously. They have replicated the world of noir. The direction and performances, however, can’t seem to make up their mind. Possibly because the script’s such a shallow imitation of the novella — with dialogue more explanatory than Cain’s — even technical wizardry can’t save it. It needs irreverence.

Cain based his story on an actual murder. In 1927, a woman and her lover plotted to kill her husband to collect “double indemnity” on his accident insurance policy. They got caught, the lover got the chair, and Cain, a journalist at the trial, got a darn good story that might not have worked in 1927 but would in 1935. He serialized it during the Depression, when thoughts of human nature — and a hatred of the “haves” — took a turn for the morose.

The script’s weakest sections come at the beginning. In the film and Cain’s novella it takes time for Phyllis Nirlinger and Walter Huff’s devious light-bulb to flick on. She loves her husband, she swears, and actually might — it’s just that...well. Much of the early drama comes from their attempts to resist the unthinkable.

The Pichette/Wright script falls just short of “Sure, why not?” And once the couple decides, the early scenes spend more time comically not consummating their relationship than on motives or suspense.

Angel Desai has a list of impressive credits in her bio. However, she plays Phyllis not as a femme fatale but as a femme loco. She’s neither smoldering nor evil (which hardcore hard-boilers pronounce “Eve-ill,” betraying the genre’s rampant fear of women). She’s supposed to go insane. But she’s so shrill and over-the-top, she’s simply not believable.

But this, too, may be a directorial decision. Desai strikes many an obviously alluring pose as she flirts with the young insurance man (Michael Hayden, hyper-agitated). They’re so hot to trot, and so often thwarted, they’re mostly goofy.

They become more so when Huff’s boss, Keyes (Murphy Guyer), floors the moral gas pedal, in Act Two, and spells out the consequences of their actions (Keyes also has Cain’s noir-drenched line: “The whole human race is a little bit crooked”).

So, maybe the show’s just a soft-boiled spoof. Audiences get to laugh at the famous characters. But this take is old hat, too. Few films have been parodied more than Double Indemnity. The most memorable being Carol Burnett’s “Double Calamity,” a title that applies here as well. ■

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity, adapted by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright

Directed by John Gould Rubin, cast: Angel Desai, Murphy Guyer, Michael Hayden, Megan Ketch, Vayu O’Donnell; scenic design, Christopher Barreca; costumes, David Israel Reynoso; lighting, Stephen Strawbridge; sound, Elizabeth Rhodes

Playing through September 1; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623

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