Before Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled L.A. detective Philip Marlowe and his vivid literary prose caught the public's attention, before Billy Wilder's towering position as one of Hollywood's greatest writer-directors, there was a James M. Cain novel titled, "Double Indemnity."
The true story of how Chandler and Wilder made movie history with the book's screen adaptation in a collaboration that would launch not only their respective iconic careers, but the dark and edgy genre of American film noir, is the subject of playwright Mike Bencivenga's first-rate new comedy, "Billy & Ray," expertly crafted and well-cast in its world premiere run at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
It's an oil-and-water mix when tormented, down-and-out author Chandler (Shaun O'Hagan) and crude, lewd and brilliant Wilder (Kevin Blake) team up to adapt Cain's novel for the screen. Wilder is asked by Paramount producer Joe Sistrom (sympathetic Anthony Starke) to see what he can do with Cain's novel. Wilder's regular co-writer, however, wants nothing to do with it. Impressed with Chandler's stylish prose in short crime stories published in a popular pulp magazine, Wilder recruits him for the project, although he and secretary Helen (smart, wise-cracking Ali Spuck) are taken aback to find the author ascetic and dour, even prudish in person.
Chandler, it turns out, has never seen a screenplay before and doesn't consider it "real writing." Chandler, who took up writing later in life having lost a prestigious position in the oil industry in large part due to alcoholism, accepts the job simply because he's broke.
Wilder, recognizing that Chandler's disdain targets Cain and Wilder himself, takes perverse pleasure in goading his new writing partner with vulgarities and peripatetic pacing. Their comic back-and-forth, at times laugh-out-loud funny, doesn't hide the deeper dimensions that drive both men, revealed partly in the telling physicality that director Garry Marshall (assistant director Joseph Leo Bwarie is also credited) gives both lead actors. O'Hagan, in a tour-de-force of nearly continuous movement, uses the stage as both a defensive and offensive physical statement. For the most part, Blake's painfully self-contained Chandler remains seated, occupying one end of a sofa, briefcase close at hand, in what appears to be self-protective emotional confinement.
Yet despite the often hilarious personality-driven clashes, or perhaps because of them, it's clear that the two men spark off each other creatively, eventually turning Cain's steamy novel of adultery and murder into movie gold for all concerned. Blake and O'Hagan make believable the moments of connection between Wilder and Chandler as two gifted writers who can appreciate a good line or idea that will serve the script, despite their personal antipathy. Wilder may disparage Chandler's first attempt at a script, but loves his line, "I never thought that murder could smell like honeysuckle."
Bencivenga makes it clear that the two men are united, too, in their efforts to script a film for adults by circumventing the heavy-handed censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code that came into being in 1930 to protect the movie-going audience from corrupting depictions of sex and violence. Wilder and Chandler's ingenious plan to slip Cain's story of an adulterous wife and her lover who kill her husband for the insurance money past the gatekeepers of the public good: Show nothing, suggest and tell everything through first person narration, gloomy lighting and dark shadows, unsettling camera angles and facial close-ups, and an atmosphere of menace and moral ambiguity.
The carefully researched, colorful capture of time and place here extends to costume designer Terri A. Lewis' '40s-era styling and to Jeremy Pivnick's subtle lighting design, David Beaudry's evocative sound and Keith Mitchell's striking multi-room set — dark wood paneling, Venetian blinds and cantilevered angles — that suggest the noir aspects of both the film-to-be and the protagonist's real lives as well. These include Austrian immigrant Wilder's hidden concern for Jewish family members still in Europe and Chandler's anguish over past failures. (Professing that he doesn't drink and openly disapproving of Wilder's prodigious alcohol intake, Chandler takes surreptitious and foreshadowing gulps of bourbon from a bottle stashed in his briefcase).
The two men never worked together again. In his award-laden career, Wilder went on to craft some of Hollywood's most respected films, "The Lost Weekend," "Sunset Boulevard," "Some Like It Hot" among them. Warner Bros. turned Chandler's 1939 novel, "The Big Sleep," into that iconic Humphrey Bogart film classic and brought Chandler a public following as an author; his subsequent Philip Marlowe novels (and a couple of other screenwriting detours) ensured further monetary success and solidified Chandler's reputation as a literary stylist.
If in the end the production veers a tad toward pat sentimentality, it isn't enough to derail this truly inspired convergence of comedy, the creative process and real life.
What: "Billy & Ray"
Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday through next Sunday (April 28). Also 8 p.m. May 3-4, 4 p.m. May 5. Ends May 5.
More info: (818) 955-8101, falcontheatre.com
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about stage and culture for Marquee.