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The Film Noir Blogathon: «Double Indemnity» (1944)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity (1944) begins with insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) returning to his office late one night. Bleeding from a gunshot wound, he records his murder confession on a dictaphone, addresing his boss and friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a meticulous and intuitive claims manager. Walter then thinks back to the day when it all started. While making a routine call on an automobilie insurance client, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powes), he meets the man's alluring blonde wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), who greets Walter wearing only a towel. Although she seems to be subtly seducing him, Phyllis coldly rebuffs Walter's advances and sends him away. Soon, however, they mutual attraction develops into an illicit affair.

When Phyllis asks how she could take out an accident policy on her husband's life without his knowledge, Walter deduces that she is contemplating murder and makes it clear he wants no part of it. However, he cannot get her out of his mind, and when Phyllis shows up at his own home, he cannot resist her any longer. Walter knows all the tricks of his trade and devises a plan to make the murder of her husband appear to be an accidental fall from a train that will trigger the "double indemnity" clause and pay out twice the policy's face value. Their plan succeeds, but Keyes doesn't believe that it was an accident and pursues the case, linking Phyllis with everyone but his friend. Neff, meanwhile, is told by Dietrichson's daughter from a previous marriage, Lola (Jean Heather), that she believes Phyllis killed her mother in order to marry her father. Neff suspects Phyllis of a double cross and confronts her. She shoots him once in the shoulder, but cannot bring herself to shoot him a second time. At the point, Walter takes the gun from her and shoots her twice, killing her. Bleeding, Walter drives to his office and sars speaking into a dictaphone. Keyes arrives unnoticed and hears enough to know the truth. Neff tells Keyes he is going to Mexico rather than face the gas chamber, but sags to the floor from his injury before he can reach the elevator. As Neff had done lighting Keyes' cigars for him throughout the film, Keyes lights Neff's cigarette as they await the police and an ambulance.

Walter Neff: [voiceover] It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?

The son of a college professor and an opera singer, James M. Cain hoped to follow the same career path as his mother, but was told that his voice was not good enough. At the age of 22, after holding a series of odd jobs, he decided to become a writer and began working as a journalist for The Baltimore American and The Baltimore Sun. In 1918, he enlisted in the United States Army and spent the final year of World War I in France, where the 79th Division appointed him as editor of their weekly magazine The Lorraine Cross. Upon returning home, he continued with his work as a reporter, writing editorials for The New York World, as well as a short story and a collection of satirical dramatic dialogues for The American Mercury. In 1931, Cain was hired as managing editor for The New Yorker, but soon became disillusioned with journalism and the freelance magazine market. Within ten months, he quit his job and moved to Hollywood, securing a screenwriting job at Paramount and then at Columbia. When he was terminated at Columbia in the mid-1930s, Cain resolved that it was finally time to write his first full-lenght book manuscript.

With the help of former journalistic colleague and friend Walter Lippman, Cain published his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in 1934. The story of a pair of adulterers who kill the woman's husband to collect on his insurance, the novel was an instant best-seller, establishing the author as "a new star in the hard-hitting fiction realm." The following year, Cain wrote a novella entitled Double Indemnity, which again focused on a murderous triangle involving a two men and a sensual woman. Originally serialized in Liberty magazine between February and April 1936, Double Indemnity and, albeit to a lesser extent, The Postman Always Rings Twice was inspired by a 1927 murder perpetrated by a married woman and her lover, whose trial he had attended while working as a journalist in New York. In the crime, Ruth Snyder, a housewife, persuaded her boyfriend Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman, to kill her husband Albert for his insurance policy, which contained a "double indemnity" clause. The culprits were quickly identified and imprisioned at Sing Sing, where they were both executed by electric chair in January 1928.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray
In 1935, shortly before the serialization of Double Indemnity in Liberty magazine, Cain's agent sent copies of the novella to all the major Hollywood studios, which began competing to purchase the rights for $25,000Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the first to inquire of the Production Code Administration (PCA), Hollywood's self-imposed censorship board, whether the property was suitable for filming. Immediately, PCA director Joseph I. Breen sent a letter to MGM executive Louis B. Mayer, in which he asserted, "The story deals improperly with an illicit and adulterous sex relationship. The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story make it [...] thoroughly unacceptable for screen production." Moreover, Breen noted, Double Indemnity portrayed the actual planning and carrying out of a murder plot in minute detail and "filmmakers were forbidden to depict details of a crime that might permit its imitation in real life." With the rejection of Double Indemnity by the PCA, MGM as well as every other studio in Hollywood abandoned the idea of turning the novella into a motion picture.

In 1943, Double Indemnity was published in book form as part of a collection of Cain's works that also included Career in C Major and The Embezzler. Cain's new agent sent it again to several studios, including Paramount, where the novella caught the attention of producer Joseph Sistrom. According to the author, Sistrom passed it on to Billy Wilder, who immediately "took it home and read it." Fascinated by its subject matter, Wilder informed Sistrom that he wanted to adapt Double Indemnity to film and the two proceeded to buy the screen rights for $15,000. Shortly afterwards, Paramount sent Breen a treatment of Double Indemnity, a detailed synopsis that Wilder had prepared with his longtime collaborator, Charles Brackett. This time, Breen felt that the revised storyline, which they had composed according to his specifications, had overcome  in large measure his original concerns. He added that, after all, "adultery is no longer quite as objectionable" as it once had been in motion pictures. While Breen accepted Wilder and Brackett's treatment, he still noted that in the opening sequence , the "bath towel must properly cover Phyllis, and should certainly go below her knees. There must be no unacceptable exposure" and that the "whole sequence of the detailed disposition of the corpse is unacceptable [...] as a too detailed exposition of crime [...] We strongly urge, therefore, that you fade out after they take the body from the car."

Edward G. Robinson and Fred MacMurray
Although Brackett had worked on the treatment, he ultimately decided to abandon the project, saying that a grim and gory crime novella like Double Indemnity was simply "not his cup of tea." With Brackett's unexpected departure, Wilder was left with the task of finding another screenplay collaborator. William Dozier, then in charge of Paramount's writers, initially suggested they engage Cain himself, but the author was then under contract to Fox and could not accept a screenwriting job at another studio. 

Dozier then offered the name of another eminent crime novelist, Raymond Chandler, who had turned to writing at the age of 44 after losing his job as an oil company executive during the Great Depression. Upon reading Chandler's acclaimed first novel, The Big Sleep (1939) which was given to him by Sistrom Wilder was impressed by the author's lively narrative style and pungent dialogue. Even though Chandler had no previous screenwriting experience, Wilder immediately gave his approval for Dozier to hire the author, especially because he "could put a nasty spin on dialogue." Reportedly, Chandler did not care much for Cain's work, but eventually accepted the assignment out of financial necessity.

By all accounts, Chandler hated the seven weeks he spent writing with Wilder. At one point, he even quit, submitting a long list of grievances to Paramount as to why he could no longer work with Wilder. In a letter to his English publisher, Hamish Hamilton, Chandler complained, "Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it about as much about screenwriting as I am capable of learning, which is not very much." The collaboration also left Wilder baffled. As a non-drinker, he had a hard time understanding how an intelligent man like Chandler could get alcohol ruin his talent. Wilder recalled, "He was in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I think he had a though time with me I drove him back into drinking." Nevertheless, Wilder put up with Chandler's drinking habits because "he was one of the great creative minds I have ever worked with, though more trouble than any other writer I've ever worked with." His relationship with Chandler was what drew Wilder to his next project, the Best Picture-winner The Lost Weekend (1945), in which Ray Milland portrayed an alcoholic writer. Apparently, Wilder made the film, in part, "to explain Chandler to himself."

Barbara Stanwyck and Billy Wilder on
the set of Double Indemnity
Sistrom and Wilder's first choice for the role of Phyllis Dietrichson was Barbara Stanwyck, who had delivered an Academy Award-nominated performance in the director's Ball of Fire (1941). At the time, Stanwyck was not only the highest paid actress in Hollywood, but also the highest paid woman in America. Given the malicious and unscrupulous nature of the character, she was initially hesitant to take the part, fearing it would have an adverse effect on her career. As Stanwyck recalled, "I said, 'I love the script and I love you, but I am a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out killer.' And Mr. Wilder and rightly so looked at me and he said, 'Well, are you a mouse or an actress?' And I said, 'Well, I hope I'm an actress.' He said, 'Then do the part.' And I did and I'm very grateful to him." As part of her characterization in the film, Wilder had Stanwyck wear a tacky blonde wig because he wanted it to project "the phoniness of the girl bad taste, phony wig." Her deliberately vulgar hairpiece caused Paramount head of production Buddy deSylva to complain, "We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington."

According to Wilder, every leading man in Hollywood including Alan Ladd, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck and Fredric March rejected the role of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. "I confess that I sank so low as to offer the role to George Raft," who had risen to prominence playing gangster roles in a series of crime melodramas at Warner Bros. "And that's pretty low!" When Raft told Wilder that he would take the part only on the condition that Neff reveal himself to be an FBI agent and arrest Phyllis at the end of the picture, Wilder replied that that was out of the question. Raft turned down the role and Wilder subsequently approached Fred MacMurray, Stanwyck's co-star in Remember the Night (1940). In 1943, MacMurray was reportedly the highest paid actor in Hollywood and fourth highest-paid American. Like Stanwyck, MacMurray hesitated to accept the part because he normally played "happy-go-lucky good guys" in light comedies. "You're making the mistake of your life!" he exclaimed to Wilder. MacMurray reasoned that playing a serious role required acting "and I can't do it." Confident that the actor was right for the part, Wilder pestered MacMurray about it every day until he finally gave in. "I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made," MacMurray remarked years later.

Fred MacMurray and Edward G.  Robinson
The role of Barton Keys was assigned to Edward G. Robinson, best known for his acclaimed performance as megalomaniac gangster Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930). Robinson was also reluctant to take on the role, but not for the same reasons as Stanwyck and MacMurray. Having been a star in his own right for over a decade, Keyes represented a step downward to the third lead. Robinson would later said, "At my age, it was time to begin thinking of character roles, to slide into middle and old age with the same grace as that marvelous actor Lewis Stone." It also helped, as he freely admitted, that he would draw the same salary as the two leads for fewer shooting days.

Principal photography on Double Indemnity began on September 27, 1943, with a budget of $980,000, which Wilder adhered closely to. According to the director, "I strove for a strong sense of realism in the settings in order to match the kind of story we were telling. I wanted to get away from what he described in those days as the white satin decor associated with MGM's chief set designer, Cedric Gibbons," who had worked on Wilder's Ninotchka (1939). To achieve this, he began by shooting exterior scenes on location in the crooked streets and back alleys of Los Angeles. In addition, Wilder instructed production designer Hal Pereira to make the interiors of the Dietrichson house to appear drab. Once the set was ready for shooting, Wilder later recalled, "I would go around and overturn a few ashtrays in order to give the house in which Phyllis lived an appropriately grubby look, because Phyllis is a poohousekeeper — an index of her indifference to her husband." Wilder also worked with cameraman John Seitz "to put dust in the air, to give the house a sort of musty look. We blew aluminum particles into the air, and when they floated down into a shaft of sunlight, their looked like real dust." (Real dust is invisible to the camera's eye.) "It was just right for that creepy house in the Valley," Wilder concluded. "I like that kind of realism."

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray
The production was not without its lucky accidents. The company had just finished shooting the sequence where Phyllis and Walter make their getaway after dumping Dietrichson's body on the train tracks when they all headed out to lunch. In the script, the pair get in their car and simply drive away, but as Wilder got into his own vehicle to leave, it would not start. Suddenly inspired, he ordered the crew back to the set and reshoot the scene, only this time the car stalls as Phyllis turns the ignition. She tries several more times, but the car will not start and the two look at each other in growing panic. Walter then desperately reaches over, turns the keys and guns the motor, finally starting the car. Only then do they speed away from the crime scene. MacMurray praised Wilder's superb sense of timing in that sequence: "Barbara and I sat in this dummy car. Just a car seat. No dashboard. No ignition key to turn. We faked it, pantomimed it. When I changed places with her and turned the key I remember I was doing it fast and Billy kept saying, 'Make it longer, make it longer,' and finally I yelled, 'For Chrissake Billy, it's not going to hold that long,' and he said, 'Make it longer,' and he was right. It held."

Wilder followed the basic plot of Cain's novel, but invented most of the film's distinctive elements: Walter's voice-over confession, the flashback to his involvement with Phyllis and his intense bond with Keyes. Wilder also devised a different ending for the film. The original ending called for the characters to commit double suicide while making a getaway on a boat to Mexico. Suicide, however, was strictly forbidden at the time by the PCA as a way to resolve a plot, so Wilder wrote and filmed a different ending in which Walter goes to the gas chamber while Keyes watches. This scene was shot before the scenes that eventually became the film's familiar ending, and once that final intimate exchange between Neff and Keyes revealed its power to Wilder, he began to wonder if the gas chamber ending was needed at all. "You couldn't have a more meaningful scene between two men", Wilder said. As he would later recount, "The story was between the two guys. I knew it, even though I had already filmed the gas chamber scene... So we just took out the scene in the gas chamber," despite its $150,000 cost to the studio. Removal of the scene, over Chandler's objection, also removed the PCA's single biggest remaining objection to the picture, since they regarded it as "unduly gruesome" and predicted that it would never be approved by local and regional censor boards. The footage and sound elements are lost, but production stills of the scene still exist.

Double Indemnity opened on September 6, 1944 and was an immediate hit with audiences and critics alike. Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune called it "one of the most vital and arresting films of the year," praising Wilder's "magnificent direction and a whale of a script." Variety agreed, saying that the picture "sets a new standard for screen treatment in its category." Influential radio host and newspaper columnist Louella Parsons would go even further, saying, "Double Indemnity is the finest picture of its kind ever made, and I make that flat statement without any fear of getting indigestion later from eating my words." At the 17th Academy Awards, Double Indemnity received seven nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Original Score and Best Sound. However, it did not win any awards. Wilder lost to Leo McCarey for Going My Way (1944), which also won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Stanwyck lost to Ingrid Bergman for her performance in Gaslight (1944).

This is my contribution to The Film Noir Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In. To view all entries, click HERE.

Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir by Sheri Chinen Bissen (2005) | Double Indemnity: The Complete Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler [with an introduction by Jeffrey Meyers] () | Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style by William Hare (2003) | James M. Cain: Hard-Boiled Mythmaker by David Madden and Kristopher Mecholsky (2011) | Some Like it Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder by Gene D. Philips () | Stanwyck: A Biography by Axel Madsen () | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) |


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