Insurance salesman Walter Huff’s intention: get the girl, get the money and get away with murder. As we all know, though, the best-laid plans often go awry, especially when they involve a femme fatale, a phoney insurance claim and a homicide.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production, Double Indemnity, is adapted from James M. Cain’s 1943 novel, which was first published as a magazine serial in 1936. The book was made into the archetypal film noir of the same name: 1944’s Double Indemnity starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray set the standard for subsequent films in that genre.
The plot centres on Huff (played by Leon Ford), a promising insurance man who rather eagerly gets himself involved in a murderous plot after encountering the alluring Phyllis Nirdlinger (Claire van der Boom) when he turns up on her doorstep to renew her ageing husband’s insurance policy.
Claire van der Boom as Phyllis Nerdlinger. Photography by Jeff Busby.
The pair scheme to trick Mr Nirdlinger (Richard Piper) into signing a life insurance document for double indemnity, a clause that means the payout doubles if death is caused accidentally – by, for example, falling from a moving train. His signature on the policy, Mr Nirdlinger sets in motion an unstoppable series of events: he has signed his own death warrant.
What Huff doesn’t realise until it’s too late is that Phyllis Nirdlinger is always several steps ahead of him. It slowly emerges that this isn’t the whip-smart Phyllis’s first rodeo.
From the moment she appears on stage (“I’m Phyllis. What can you do for me?”), Claire van der Boom is mesmerising. With one arched brow and a swivel of her hips, she wins Huff – hook, line and sinker – and the audience can believe it.
Leon Ford as Walter Huff, Peter Kowitz as Mr Keyes and Lachlan Woods as Norton.
Also fantastic is Edwina Samuels as Huff’s put-upon secretary, whose competence far exceeds that of any of her bosses. Piper as the hapless Mr Nirdlinger is perfectly oblivious to his stage wife’s scheming, while Peter Kowitz as Keyes is a frenetic ball of frustration. The cast includes Jessica Tovey as Mr Nirdlinger’s daughter, Lola, and Lachlan Woods in a double role as her paramour, Nino, and the boss Norton.
The set and lighting draw on the spare, dramatic look of film noir – all smoke in the darkness, brooding in dim, yellow lighting and dramatic shadow – and the gorgeous ’40s costumes are designed by Esther Marie Hayes.
Double Indemnity is on at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 2, 2016.
Book here: Double Indemnity