Double indemnity is a legal term: it is a provision or clause in a life insurance or accident policy whereby the company agrees to pay twice the face of the contract in cases of accidental death. Legalese wording may be dry as dust but Billy Wilder could make it still sparkle as star dust. The pixie magic of movies makes even the tawdry dream of murder for gain seem very possible. It is always fascinating how a decent tax-payer who might balk at the idea of filing false returns laps up films reeking with the basest of human passions as portrayed in Double Indemnity. Having said the above the film is a classic in the film-noir genre and it has became part of the Hollywood mainstream.
The plot is simple: A frowsy housewife ( in a hideous blond wig) weaves a plan to do away her man with the help of an insurance agent and nearly gets away with it.
The movie was based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, the subject of a notorious 1930s murder trial. James M Cain who wrote The Postman Rings Twice improved on the bald facts of the case. His dark novella dealt with greed into which nothing is sacred, marriage or human life while each twist and turn of the story was dealt kinesthetically by Billy Wilder with a gravedigger’s sure touch to turn up dirt. There are other famous talents here: Raymond Chandler had his hand in writing the script along with Wilder. Musical score was from Miklós Rózsa. Barbara Stanwyck was the first choice and when she demurred at the brutal side of her role and expressed her concern to Billy Wilder, he asked her, “Are you a mouse or an actress?” Billy Wilder had a tough time getting a leading man for this film: many actors, including George Raft turned the project down. He had to persuade Fred MacMurray to accept the part. Of course he acquitted himself well in the role of Walter Neff, a salesman for the Pacific All-Risk insurance company. The other principal character is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, a claims adjuster,a friend and colleague of Neff.
Walter Neff (MacMurray) is a successful insurance salesman for Pacific All-Risk. But when he returns to his office building in downtown Los Angeles late one night, we know there is something very wrong. Neff is clearly in pain, and he sits down at his desk and tells the whole story into a dictaphone, for his colleague Barton Keyes (Robinson), a claims adjuster.
It is the story of how he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) during a routine house call to renew an automobile insurance policy for her husband. A cheap affair develops as with a man who has head for figures but his heart is not actively engaged and who knows his senses are inflamed with some cheap perfume from a woman alone in her unmade drawing room, and she hints that her man had just left the coast clear for some smooching if he could figure that out. Well Neff sees the possibilities and is interested until Phyllis wonders how she could take out a policy on her husband’s life without him knowing it. Neff knows his cheap flirting has dirt under the carpet where he might get down for a roll. Oh boy, she has murder in mind and he wants no part of it.
Having tasted stolen bread in secret, Neff must deal with the proverbial aftertaste of it. Phyllis is the pursuer and she catches him in his own home and persuades him to that the two of them, together, should kill her husband. Neff who had played straight for long knows and up front knows instantly all the tricks of his trade: and comes up with a plan in which Phyllis’s husband will die an unlikely death, in this case being thrown from a train. Pacific All-Risk will therefore be required, by the “double indemnity” clause in the insurance policy, to pay the widow twice the normal amount.
Keyes, a tenacious investigator, does not suspect foul play at first, but eventually concludes that the Dietrichson woman and an unknown accomplice must be behind the husband’s death. He has no reason, however, to be suspicious of Neff, someone he has worked with for quite some time and admires.
Neff is not only worried about Keyes. The victim’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), comes to him convinced that her stepmother, Phyllis, is behind her father’s death because Lola’s mother also died under suspicious circumstances when Phyllis was her nurse.
Once he realizes that Phyllis is playing him for a sap and also seeing another man – Lola’s boyfriend – behind his back, Neff believes the only way out is to murder Phyllis himself. But she has had the same thought; when they meet, she shoots him first. Neff, badly hurt, is still able to shoot and kill her.
Neff then drives to his office. There he dictates his full confession to Keyes, who arrives in person just in time to hear the last of the gory details and see his dying friend Neff collapse to the floor.
By the way Wilder shot an alternate ending to the film (to appease censors), featuring Neff paying for his crime by going to the gas chamber. This footage is lost, but stills of the scene still exist.
Scripting the film:
Apart from the racy content- a tale of adultery and premeditated murder for hire, and the language the way two geniuses could work together is itself an interesting sidelight
Wilder, working for Paramount Pictures, acquired the rights to Cain’s novella but creating a screenplay from it was a challenge. For the Austrian-born Wilder who was yet to get total command of English. His American writing partner Charles Brackett refused to work on the film. Paramount and Wilder tried to get James M. Cain to co-write the screenplay but he was under contract for another studio. After reading The Big Sleep, Wilder decided that Raymond Chandler would be a good choice. ‘Cain’s crime story was intact but now it featured witty dialog that was a combination of 1930’s machine-gun chatter (especially Robinson’s speeches) and the laid-back hip dialog that would be Chandler’s trademark. The result is a screenplay that actually ends up being more sexual than the novella’(filmnoiroftheweek.blogspot.com)
Raymond Chandler hated the experience of writing the script with Billy Wilder so much that he actually walked out and would not return unless a list of demands was met. The studio acceded to his demands and he returned to finish the script with Wilder who claimed that he flaunted his womanizing ability at the time to torment the sexually-repressed Chandler.(wikipedia)
* Porter Hall as Mr. Jackson
* Jean Heather as Lola Dietrichson
* Tom Powers as Mr. Dietrichson
* Byron Barr as Nino Zachetti
* Richard Gaines as Edward S. Norton, Jr.
* Fortunio Bonanova as Sam Garlopis
* John Philliber as Joe Peters
Other films inspired by the Snyder-Gray murder include The Postman Always Rings Twice (also based on a Cain novel) and Body Heat. Both Postman and Double Indemnity were remade, with Double Indemnity being a “made-for-TV” movie in 1973 starring Richard Crenna, Lee J. Cobb, and Samantha Eggar.
Academy Award Nominations
* Best Actress in a Leading Role (Barbara Stanwyck)
* Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
* Best Director (Billy Wilder)
* Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture
* Best Picture
* Academy Award for Best Sound, recording
* Best Writing, Screenplay
In his review, film critic Roger Ebert praised director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz. He wrote, “The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings.”
* The character Walter Neff was originally named Walter Ness, but director/writer Billy Wilder found out that there was a man living in Beverly Hills named Walter Ness who was actually an insurance salesman. To avoid being sued for defamation of character, they changed the name.
* The scene where Neff and Dietrichson can’t get their car started after the murder, was added by Wilder after his car wouldn’t start at the end of a shooting day.
* Dick Powell wanted the role of Walter Neff, but he was under contract to another studio and they wouldn’t allow it. He was enraged and tore up his contract. The role went to Fred MacMurray.
* The blonde wig that Barbara Stanwyck is wearing throughout the movie was the idea of Billy Wilder. A month into shooting Wilder suddenly realized how bad it looked, but by then it was too late to re-shoot the earlier scenes. To rationalize this mistake, in later interviews Wilder claimed that the bad-looking wig was intentional.
• In the first scene in which Walter first kisses Phyllis, we see a wedding ring on Walter’s hand. Fred MacMurray was married and the ring was not noticed until post-production.
* The victim, Mr. Dietrichson, is an oil company executive. Screenplay writer Raymond Chandler was an oil company executive before he became a writer.
* Silver dust was mixed with some subtle smoke effects to create the illusion of waning sunlight in Phyllis Dietrichson’s house.
* We never learn the first name of Mr. Dietrichson.
* Various studios expressed interest in the story when it first appeared in serial form in 1935 but realized it was unfilmable within the strictures of the newly-established Production Code.
• On viewing the film’s rushes, production head Buddy G. DeSylva remarked of Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde wig, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington”!
* In the scene where Phyllis is listening at Neff’s door as he talks with Keyes, Keyes exits into the hallway and Phyllis hides behind the door. The door opens into the hallway, which isn’t allowed by building codes even back then, but it does give Phyllis something to hide behind and increases the tension.
Walter Neff: You’ll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.
Walter Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter Neff: I wonder if you wonder.
Walter Neff: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.
Barton Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.
Walter Neff: I love you, too.
Walter Neff: It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet.
Barton Keyes: Have you made up your mind?
Jackson: Mr. Keyes, I’m a Medford man – Medford, Oregon. Up in Medford, we take our time making up our minds.
Barton Keyes: Well, we’re not in Medford, we’re in a hurry.
Barton Keyes: They’ve committed a murder and it’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.
Walter Neff: Do I laugh now, or wait ’til it gets funny?
Walter Neff: How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?
Walter Neff: Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.
Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?
Phyllis: I was just fixing some ice tea; would you like a glass?
Walter Neff: Yeah, unless you got a bottle of beer that’s not working.
Barton Keyes: I picked you for the job, not because I think you’re so darn smart, but because I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.
[Norton, Keyes's boss, has just tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a client that her husband's death was a suicide]
Barton Keyes: You know, you, uh, oughta take a look at the statistics on suicide some time. You might learn a little something about the insurance business.
Edward S. Norton: Mister Keyes, I was RAISED in the insurance business.
Barton Keyes: Yeah, in the front office. Come now, you’ve never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they’ve got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by TYPES of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth. Suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from STEAMBOATS. But, Mr. Norton: Of all the cases on record, there’s not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No, no soap, Mr. Norton. We’re sunk, and we’ll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.
Jackson: These are fine cigars you smoke.
Barton Keyes: Two for a quarter.
Jackson: That’s what I said.
Walter Neff: Who’d you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good looking dame’s front parlour and says, “Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands… you got one that’s been around too long? One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?”
Walter Neff: They say all native Californians come from Iowa.
Phyllis: I’m a native Californian. Born right here in Los Angeles.
Walter Neff: They say all native Californians come from Iowa.
Phyllis: We’re both rotten.
Walter Neff: Only you’re a little more rotten.
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.
Building attendant: Well, hello there, Mr. Neff.
Barton Keyes: Now that’s enough out of you, Walter. Now get outta here before I throw my desk at you.
[looks in his pocket for a match]
Walter Neff: [takes a match of his own and lights Keyes' cigar] I love you, too.
Walter Neff: I really did, too, you old crab. Always yelling your head off, always sore at everybody. You never fooled me with your song and dance, not for a second. I kinda always knew that behind all the cigar ashes on your vest was a heart as big as a house.
Phyllis: I think you’re rotten.
Walter Neff: I think you’re swell – so long as I’m not your husband.
Phyllis: Get out of here.
Walter Neff: You bet I’ll get out of here, baby. I’ll get out of here but quick.
Edward S. Norton: That witness from the train, what was his name?
Barton Keyes: His name was Jackson. Probably still is.
Barton Keyes: Walter, you’re all washed up.
Barton Keyes: What’s the matter? Dames chasing you again? Or still? Or is it none of my business?
Walter Neff: If I told you it was a customer, you’d…
Barton Keyes: “Margie”! I bet she drinks from the bottle.
Phyllis: Do you make your own breakfast, Mr Neff?
Walter Neff: Well, I squeeze a grapefruit now and again.
Barton Keyes: Well, I get darn sick of tryin’ to pick up after a gang of fast-talking salesmen dumb enough to sell life insurance to a guy who sleeps in the same bed with four rattlesnakes.
Barton Keyes: The job I’m talking about takes brains and integrity. It takes more guts than there is in 50 salesmen. It’s the hottest job in the business… Desk job? Is that all you can see in it? Just a hard chair to park your pants on from 9 to 5, huh? Just a pile of papers to shuffle around and five sharp pencils and a scratch pad to make figures on. Maybe a little doodling on the side. Well, that’s not the way I look at it, Walter. To me, a claims man is a surgeon. That desk is an operating table. And those pencils are scalpels and bone chisels. And those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation, they’re alive, they’re packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claims man, Walter, is a doctor and a bloodhound… and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor all in one. And you want to tell me you’re not interested. You don’t want to work with your brains. All you wanna work is with your finger on the doorbell, for a few bucks more a week.
Walter Neff: I get the general idea. She was a tramp from a long line of tramps.
Directed by Billy Wilder
Produced by Buddy G. DeSylva
Narrated by Fred MacMurray
Starring Fred MacMurray
Edward G. Robinson
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography John F. Seitz
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time 107 minutes
Body Heat (1981, Lawrence Kasdan)
Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (1957, Louis Malle)
Kill Me Again (1989, John Dahl)
Niagara (1952, Henry Hathaway)
Seduced (1985, Jerrold Freedman)
Too Late for Tears (1949, Byron Haskin)
The File on Thelma Jordon (1949, Robert Siodmak)
The Pushover (1954, Richard Quine)
The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, Joel Coen)
Movies with the Same Personnel
Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Billy Wilder)
The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)
Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder)
Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder)
The File on Thelma Jordon (1949, Robert Siodmak)
A Foreign Affair (1948, Billy Wilder)
Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)
Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey)
Other Related Movies
is featured in: Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993, Woody Allen)
Femme Fatale (2002, Brian De Palma)
is related to: The Moonlighter (1953, Roy Rowland)
There’s Always Tomorrow (1956, Douglas Sirk)
Slightly Scarlet (1956, Allan Dwan)
Bad Education (2004, Pedro Almodóvar)
Double Indemnity was released September 1944 and it became a classic for well merited reasons. It is a dark, back-and-white tale of lust, greed and murder told in a flashback as with Wilders Sunset Boulevard. It stands apart from other films- noir of the time including The Maltese Falcon – and was a box office hit. Double Indemnity competed against romantic thrillers and Hollywood melodramas at the 1944 Oscars – the film lost the Best Picture award to the Bing Crosby-starrer Going My Way. .( ‘In 1992, Double Indemnity was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The film was listed at number 38 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films of all time and at number 29 on the 10th Anniversary Edition of the list’-wikipedia)