"I don't know if you know my career, but I'm not known as a film noir kind of guy," admits the man who gave us "Happy Days" and scores of other sunny sitcoms. Garry Marshall considers himself the opposite. "I'm a film blanc or something, but, on the other hand, I'm an admirer of film noir, and this gave me a chance to get involved."
"This" is Billy & Ray, Mike Bencivemga's play about the combustible collaboration that sparked the film noir genre. By any other names, that would be Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler at work — and at war — on "Double Indemnity" 70 years ago. It started previewing Oct. 2 at the Vineyard Theatre for an East Coast opening Oct. 20.
That improbable, contentious pairing interrupted one of the most successful screenwriting streaks of all time — Wilder's with Charles Brackett. It ran for 12 years and 14 films, from Bluebeard's "Eighth Wife" (1938) to "Sunset Boulevard" (1950).
James M. Cain's novella on which "Double Indemnity" was based told of an insurance salesman who's seduced by a woman into murdering her husband for the policy being peddled. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were the deadly duo, and Edward G. Robinson was the claims adjuster closing in on them.
Wilder found the enterprise too tantalizing to resist; Brackett thought it just tawdry and gave it a pass. Hands all over Hollywood shot up to take his place. "Billy's great moment," according to Marshall, "was when his Paramount bosses said, 'Every screenwriter wants to write with you,' and he said, 'I don't need a screenwriter. I'm a screenwriter. Get me another kind of writer. Get me a mystery writer.'"
So they went to the source, but Cain was — incongruously! — committed to scripting a western at 20th Century Fox. That made Raymond Chandler, famed for his hardboiled, tough-talking pulp fiction (only seven novels in all), the obvious choice.
It was a marriage made in hell, but it produced a screen classic that, in turn, ignited a cycle of darkly brooding type of detective stories. "It really did change the film industry," insists Marshall. "It invented a new film form, and two unlikely people did it. They didn't get along at all. Billy was animated and spoke his mind, liked women, liked drinking, liked cigarettes. Raymond was kind of a recluse who started the film as an ex-alcoholic and, subsequently, fell off the wagon. That's part of our drama."
Wilder considered this proper payback for the constant agro that his inexperienced scripting partner caused. "The small revenge I had — because at the very end, he hated me — was that he started drinking," he said, "and became an alcoholic again."
The silver lining to all the turbulence, Marshall believes, is not only Exhibit A — the film itself — but the grudging respect that evolved between the two. "No matter how you don't get along — if someone is talented, you do respect that, and Billy finally did.
"Also, Billy was Viennese and not the best speaker of English — he learned all his English by listening to baseball games — but he knew that Raymond could definitely talk the talk. There's a line in the play where Billy says, 'I need you because I don't speak the vernacular very well, and I'm not even sure what vernacular means.'" Wilder always gave Chandler full credit for the film's rat-a-tat-tat exchanges, but it was arrived at with difficulty. He wanted Chandler to use Cain's original dialogue, and actors acted out scenes directly from the book. Cain came in to referee and sided with Chandler, who knew Cain's dialogue was written for the eye, not the ear.
"It's the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of," Cain himself once confessed. "Wilder's ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine — I'd have done it, if I had thought of it."
Wilder not only manhandled the book, framing the story in flashback, but he played fast and loose with the film, too. The already-shot final scene where MacMurray goes to the gas chamber for his sins was cut, and he's allowed a last cigarette, with Robinson hovering over. MacMurray: "You know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? The guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you." Robinson: "Closer than that, Walter." MacMurray: "I love you, too." Fade to black.
The last play Marshall directed in New York was 1993's Wrong Turn at Lungfish, which, with George C. Scott and Tony Danza in the leads, ran for six months at the Promenade. It has played twice at Marshall's theatre in L.A., the Falcon, which is run by his daughter, Kathleen. "No, not that Kathleen Marshall," he hastens to add. "Once I found out nepotism was legal, I made it an art form. All of my kids work for me.
"Kathleen found Billy & Ray, brought it to me and introduced me to Mike. We went through a reading, then a tryout at the Falcon. Since then, Mike and I have become close friends, and now we have bonded over our recent surgeries. The director and the writer of Billy & Ray will be walking tall into the Vineyard with new knees."