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Out of the Shadows: Scoring ‘Double Indemnity’

Find out why this movie’s music is so unique within film noir.
Barbara Stanwyck In Double Indemnity
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on November 28th, 2020

Welcome to The Noirvember Files, a new series dropping the spotlight on essential film noir selections. The titles celebrated here exemplify the style and substance of cinema’s grimiest, most-relatable underbelly. In this entry, we’re listening to the music of film noir and specifically sticking our ears out for Miklós Rózsa’s Double Indemnity score.

For a Mount Rushmore of classic movie score composers, the film noir movement is one of the first places to look. Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Roy Webb, Leigh Harline, Adolph Deutsch, David Raksin — they all dipped their toes into the genre and produced incredible music that fashioned the distinctive sound of noir. Even famed jazz icon Miles Davis got in on the act, characterizing the “lonely trumpet” that would inform neo-noir pictures for decades.

But what is the film noir sound?

Film noir is a retrospective term; these films were thought of at the time as crime pictures or melodramas, with the connective tissue coming from their sense of post-war cynicism, itself inspired by the crime fiction that arose from America’s Great Depression. Matching the harsh and shadowy monochrome aesthetic of the genre are instruments that sound like weapons: the staccato gunfire of the brass, stabbing high strings, and a constant foreboding atmosphere that looms over every one of these pictures. The films are bleak, but the music is bleaker.

For example, Max Steiner opens The Big Sleep (1946) with a juxtaposition of fierce brass and seductive high strings, instantly stating that Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe needs to have his wits about him or the next victim in his case will be him. Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1948) begins with a sensuous scene with the story’s young lovers, which Leigh Harline scores with gorgeous romantic strings. But the cue turns on a knife-edge as the title card appears, with a serrated fanfare that foretells their tragic end. Film noir’s music is uncompromisingly brutal, no matter what the situation.

Perhaps this is why the music of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) is so unique. Right from the outset, Miklós Rózsa‘s score refuses to make everything neat and tidy for the audience; unsurprisingly, Rózsa became a noir icon, also scoring classics such as Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946). The 1950s radio and television show Dragnet later stole Rózsa’s music for its theme, fittingly as Dragnet itself was a byproduct of film noir. And Rózsa mentored Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote a masterful period score for Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir Chinatown.

Rózsa’s theme for Double Indemnity accompanies Fred MacMurray‘s hobbling Walter Neff in the titles with an angular brass phrase that feels purposeful yet nevertheless murky, the truth of what the picture contains hidden in the fog and the audience further distracted by horns and trombones in the higher registers. What follows is chaos, with a crazed orchestral display for a bustling Los Angeles. However, Rózsa’s furious tones are also scoring the turmoil in Neff’s heart. The film begins in medias res as we see Neff enter his office to record his confession. What Rózsa does here is particularly brilliant, with the audience knowing they’re going to hear something thrilling but the mysterious score underlining that they have no idea what’s coming.

Rózsa subsequently adds a fast-paced motif for strings to represent Neff’s flashbacks that additionally gives the narrative a sense of propulsion. A third romantic theme is introduced in a stunning flourish of strings as Barbara Stanwyck‘s Phyllis Dietrichson appears. There’s a subversion here where Rózsa underplays the immediate attraction between the pair, mostly from Neff’s naive point of view. Gazing at her like King Kong at Fay Wray, he’s instantly in love, and while Rózsa and Wilder make Neff appear like he’s in control with the return of the string motif, we know differently.

The score plays with expectations again when the romantic phrases return while Walter and Phyllis talk about murdering her husband. There’s a hint of the title theme as she leaves, just suggesting the potential consequences. Rózsa’s strings get more and more heightened as their plot comes closer to fruition, with the score for Mr. Dietrichson’s death spectacularly effective. The main theme again hangs over the pair as they enter their car with Neff hiding in the backseat, and the foreboding brass climbs in tempo and scale to a dramatic conclusion as Neff strangles him. As the camera focuses on Phyllis smiling, Rózsa’s brass section roars over Neff’s unseen violence. Chilling.

The most devastating scene is the final meeting between Neff and Phyllis, which musically bookends their relationship. Rózsa digs into his romantic theme here, the sumptuous strings intensely blossoming as they embrace, and it’s a real Hollywood ending — at least until it cuts off as he shoots her. A beautiful solo violin scores Neff’s collapse, and the main title reappears as he lights a cigarette while waiting to die, the brass and strings providing a dark musical soliloquy.

It’s no surprise that experts and film buffs alike refer to Double Indemnity as the quintessential classic film noir. A great deal of that comes down to Rózsa’s score. Like the film, it plays against type, supplying a thematic spine that underlines the characters’ motivations and emotions without being obvious, subsequently having a great influence on Hollywood. It’s also a great example of film music, with that lumbering theme an exemplar of the classic Hollywood age, making you think that if only Walter Neff listened to it, he might have lived — if only to face the consequences.

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Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)