Excitement is hard to come by in this weary adaptation of James M Cain's pivotal noir thriller
At one point deep into Melbourne Theatre Company’s staging of James M Cain’s seminal hard-boiled crime novella Double Indemnity, the protagonist Walter Huff (Leon Ford) muses that despite his twin motivations of greed and desire, he still “didn’t have the money and didn’t have the girl”. The same could be said of the production itself; drab, pointless and unsatisfying, it generates almost none of the thrills you’d expect from a tawdry crime.
The plot is utterly conventional, which in this case is hardly a criticism, given that Cain virtually invented the conventions. Huff is an insurance salesman who makes a house call on a client whose policy is about to run out. The client, Nirdlinger (Richard Piper) isn’t home, but his treacherous wife Phyllis (Claire van der Boom) certainly is. Together they plot to kill the husband for the insurance pay-out; a double indemnity clause means twice the standard amount if he’s killed on a railway line.
Huff’s intimate knowledge of insurance gives him an inflated sense of his own invincibility, but he doesn’t count on the sheer tenacity of his colleague Keyes (Peter Kowitz), who circles the truth like an ominous shark metaphor. As the complications pile on top of each other, and the fragile bond between the murderous lovers begins to crack, the tension becomes unbearable.
Well, that’s the idea, at any rate. In this production, tension is hard to come by, and none of it is sexual; in fact, sex of any kind is depressingly absent in a story driven by it. Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir masterpiece is still startling for its seething, poisonous sexual energy, but the opening scenes of Tom Holloway’s adaptation are a drooping, ponderous bore. Ford and van der Boom never establish that initial spark that will smoulder and blaze, which makes the subsequent heat hard to feel.
The other five performers do their best to inject some life – although Piper and Kowitz work a little too hard – but it becomes increasingly obvious that the machinations of the plot are going to play out despite the actors’ or the audience’s genuine involvement. As Andrew Bailey’s convincingly Deco but otherwise dull double-revolve set turns pointlessly around and around, everyone’s interest starts to wane.
The rumour is that MTC tried and failed to acquire the film rights, which would have granted access to Raymond Chandler’s savage and economical dialogue and an ending that even Cain preferred to his own. The program notes insist director Sam Strong and Holloway initiated this pallid and ersatz variation on a classic tale. Given the increasingly desperate pillaging of famous film brands from this company, you’d expect them both to inject a little, I don’t know, theatricality into the exercise. As it stands, you’d get more menace from shining a lamp on your venetian blinds than forking out good cash for this yawn.