The Wall Street Journal - 13.08.2019

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Tuesday, August 13, 2019 |A



A Sonic Tapestry of Past and Present

Bon Iver’s new album blends the tech-heavy sound of their recent work with the orchestral folk-rock of their earlier efforts

to direct “Double Indemnity” him-
self, having concluded that most
Hollywood directors treated
scripts like “toilet paper that they
either used or they didn’t.” The
patrician Brackett had no interest
in adapting so sordid a tale for the
screen, so Wilder found himself
another collaborator in Chandler.
The two men soon grew to loathe
one another, but the fruit of their
uneasy labors landed seven Oscar
nominations and turned Wilder
into the hottest of properties.
Small wonder: Every aspect of
“Double Indemnity” is distin-

guished, so much so that you
could write a column about any
single element. The script is a daz-
zling amalgam of precisely tooled
plot points and sharp-cornered
repartée. (Phyllis: “We’re both rot-
ten.” Walter: “Only you’re a little
more rotten.”) Miklós Rózsa’s
background score skillfully height-
ens all the on-screen emotions,
while Wilder’s unshowy style ex-
emplifies his prime directive of di-
rection: “When somebody turns to
his neighbor and says, ‘My, that
was beautifully directed,’ we have
proof it was not.”

Fred MacMurray, who would re-
invent himself years later as the
bland sitcom dad of “My Three
Sons,” plays Neff with a cheerful
snappiness that barely conceals his
inchoate longing to break free
from the iron shackles of respecta-
bility. Edward G. Robinson, the
gangster-star of the ’30s who here
switched over to his first support-
ing role, gives the performance of
a lifetime as Barton Keyes, the
claims manager of Pacific All-Risk
Insurance, who loves Walter like
the son he never had, then discov-
ers to his horror that his “son” is

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944)


SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, “Double
Indemnity” opened in theaters
across America. It was an instant
hit, and remains to this day a sta-
ple offering of revival houses and
on cable TV and streaming video.
Yet little journalistic notice has
been taken of the birthday of Billy
Wilder’s first great screen drama,
a homicidal thriller that nonethe-
less had—and has—something
truly unsettling to say about the
dark crosscurrents of middle-class
American life.
Directed by Wilder and co-writ-
ten by him and Raymond Chandler,
the celebrated mystery novelist,
“Double Indemnity” is the story of
a restless insurance salesman who
helps a sexy, frustrated housewife
murder her husband for profit.
Though neither Wilder nor Chand-
ler realized it at the time, it would
later be acknowledged by critics
and scholars as the first fully de-
veloped example of film noir, in
which a flawed but basically inno-
cent protagonist is presented with
a moral choice, makes the wrong
call, and is plunged into a violent
after-hours world of passion and
crime. From “Out of the Past” to
Quentin Tarantino, every subse-
quent noir and neo-noir film has
been haunted by the ghosts of Wal-
ter Neff, the wisecracking salesman
who secretly longs to “crook the
house” by any means necessary,
and Phyllis Dietrichson, the shop-
worn babe who takes Walter for all
he’s got—until he finally gets wise.
It’s hard to understand what
possessed Wilder to take on such a
project. He was best known in
1944, after all, for having collabo-
rated with Charles Brackett, a Har-
vard-educated WASP, on the
screenplays for such romantic
comedies as “Ninotchka” and “Ball
of Fire.” But then he swerved far
off course and decided to make a
movie out of a 1936 crime novella
by James M. Cain, who was also
the author of “The Postman Al-
ways Rings Twice,” another hard-
boiled tale of sex and bloodshed.
Moreover, Wilder was determined

the killer he’s been hunting down.
Best of all, though, is Barbara
Stanwyck. Part of what makes her
so striking is that Wilder showed
her villainy in an unexpectedly
sympathetic light (an impression
underlined by Rózsa, whose music
for the love scenes is overtly ro-
mantic). In addition, she’d ac-
quired from her earlier comic roles
a deftness that allowed her to toss
off the film’s crisp dialogue with
beguiling ease.
None of the makers of “Double
Indemnity” knew they were shoot-
ing one for the ages. Critics are no
better at spotting true innovation,
and few of them saw in 1944 how
original it was. Bosley Crowther of
the New York Times dismissed it as
“a variably intriguing crime game”
that was “diverting, despite its mo-
notonous pace and length.” Even
the vastly more perceptive James
Agee, writing in the Nation, called
it “essentially cheap.” Not so: “Dou-
ble Indemnity” is deadly serious, a
moral tale about the thinness of the
ice on which human decency rests.
In a 1978 interview, Wilder went so
far as to admit that it reflected the
“deep-seated influence [of] having
read a lot of Dostoyevsky.”
On another occasion, Wilder
called “Double Indemnity” a “love
story between two men,” alluding
to the last scene, in which Neff,
who is lying in a pool of blood on
the floor of his office, gasps to
Keyes that he couldn’t see that the
murderer he’d sought was “too
close. Right across the desk from
you.” To which the heartbroken
Keyes replies in a voice whose
hardness cannot conceal his an-
guish, “Closer than that, Walter.”
That wrenching climax sums up
“Double Indemnity,” a pop-culture
masterpiece exemplary of the very
best that golden-age Hollywood
had to offer.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama
critic, writes “Sightings,” a column
about the arts, twice monthly.
Write to him at


A Film Noir Icon Turns 75

JUSTIN VERNON, the 38-year-old
frontman of Bon Iver, makes music
about communication: His songs
are about yearning for connection
when nothing makes sense, and
his early work was admired for its
directness. In 2008, the first Bon
Iver album, “For Emma, Forever
Ago,” was a breakup record filled
with pain and recorded in a cabin
deep in the Wisconsin woods. It
was confessional folk music, fea-
turing mostly Mr. Vernon and his
acoustic guitar, and the songs
were plainspoken compared to
what came later. In the years
since, he’s discovered that garbling
his transmissions with noise, dis-
tortion and wild editing makes his
music even more poignant.
Bon Iver’s last album, 2016’s
“22, A Million,” took this idea to
an extreme, with songs that were
mangled beyond recognition via
home-brew processing technolo-
gies. It was a fascinating and frac-
tured release that often made you
wonder if something was wrong
with your stereo, and it seemed
like a breakthrough, one that
would open up new possibilities
for Mr. Vernon’s work to come.
The new Bon Iver LP, “i,i,” which
came out Friday on his longtime
label Jagjaguwar, draws from the
innovations of “22” but finds an
appealing middle ground with his
earlier work. With band members
including multi-instrumentalists
Sean Carey and Rob Moose and vo-
calist and guitarist Jenn Wasner,
and produced by Mr. Vernon with
Chris Messina and Brad Cook, it in-
tegrates the tech-heavy sound of
his most recent al-
bum with the crash-
ing orchestral folk-
rock found on his
2011 full-length “Bon
Iver, Bon Iver.” Mov-
ing from strength to
strength, “i,i” is a
sonic masterpiece
filled with indelible
songs that marshals
a large cast and a
wide array of syn-
thetic and organic
sounds into a coherent whole.
The record is structured like a
suite, with pieces that bleed into
each other. As the oddly styled and
punctuated titles make clear—songs
on “22, A Million” included “715 -
CR KS”; here we have “iMi” and
“U (Man Like)”—Mr. Vernon is still
interested in how small units of in-
formation can be isolated and rear-
ranged to complicate their meaning.
He deploys confusion like an in-
strument, and it starts with his
singing. Drawing from coffeehouse
folk, gospel and shimmering R&B,

his voice is a
powerful instru-
ment, but Mr.
Vernon never
wants to leave it
alone. Instead,
he leaps be-
tween registers,
filters it with
electronics, adds
wordless asides,
and multitracks
it into a one-
man choir while sometimes sing-
ing in an invented language.
The record begins in medias res,
in what sounds like an airplane han-
gar, where people are asking each
other if they’re recording while
large whooshes that sound like
power washers mixed with a gospel
choir spray around the space.
That brief opener, “Yi,” leads
into “iMi,” which features British
songwriter and producer James
Blake, his familiar phrasing here
colored by electronics. It’s a
drunken parade of a song, stomp-

ing forward with a strange gait, a
mass of instruments and singers
doing their own thing until they
come together suddenly and force-
fully. Among the many other
guests on the album are singer Mo-
ses Sumney, and Bryce Dessner and
Aaron Dessner of the National.
The collection has a clear arc,
starting with collagist tracks like
the opening pair and the loping
fragment “We” and gradually mov-
ing to more traditionally struc-
tured songs. At the midpoint is “U
(Man Like),” which begins with
tinkling piano by Bruce Hornsby,
who also offers backing vocals,
and chords that hint at the stately
clarity of gospel music.
Since he comes from the world
of indie rock, with its cool-kid
pose and underground lineage, Mr.
Vernon’s love of adult contempo-
rary artists like Mr. Hornsby
marks him as someone immune to
trends. There is no irony in Mr.
Vernon’s music, even though he
comes at the soft-rock material

here with words of Mr. Vernon’s
own invention (in this case, “ana-
mime”; the earlier “Salem” has
“anorberic”), and the contrast be-
tween the tune’s expressive and
catchy midtempo jangle and the
surreal wordplay, which is more
about the musicality of vowels and
consonants than imagery or narra-
tive, returns us to his music’s ob-
session with communication. A
line in “Holyfield” goes “Couldn’t
tell ya what the cadence is / It’s
folded in the evidences?”: Its im-
penetrability is typical of the
words on the album—on the page
it means little, but integrated into
the song, it opens up, and it’s felt
more than understood.
Those moments when you grasp
something emotionally before hav-
ing the words to convey what you
feel are where Mr. Vernon’s music

Mr. Richardson is the Journal’s
rock and pop music critic. Follow
him on Twitter @MarkRichardson.

from unusual angles.
After the jagged initial section,
the latter part of “i,i” is where the
anthems are found and the colli-
sion of sound becomes more ex-
plosive. “Faith” begins with ring-
ing acoustic guitar, calling back to
Mr. Vernon’s more intimate early
days, and his soaring voice is in
his affecting falsetto register. As it
builds, strings enter on the chorus,
and then there’s a deep bass drop,
the kind that vibrates the ground
in fields at dance music festivals
around the world every weekend.
It’s an intoxicating clash of styles
that looks awkward on paper, but
the band makes it work.
After the late-album peaks, two
tracks serve as a comedown.
“Sh’diah,” a slow, sax-led mood
piece, feels like the embers of a
fireworks show’s grand finale tum-
bling slowly to earth as their
lights fizzle. And then the conclud-
ing “RABi” is kind of a summation,
a quiet exhalation.
“RABi” is one of a few songs

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver
in June; the group’s new
album, ‘i,i,’ is out now.

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