DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) B/W 106m dir: Billy Wilder

w/Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Gig Young, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber

From The Movie Guide: "A seminal work in the emergence of film noir as an explosive movement in American film. Based on the notorious Snyder-Gray case of 1927, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is both a starkly realistic and a carefully stylized masterpiece of murder.

"Walter Neff (MacMurray), bleeding from a bullet wound, staggers into an office building. As he speaks into his dictating machine, we learn in flashback that he is an insurance salesman who becomes involved with the sleek Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Phyllis convinces Walter not only to help her take out a life insurance policy on her husband (Powers) without his knowledge, but also to help her murder him in order to collect on it. Staging an unlikely accident in order to qualify for the 'double indemnity' clause in the contract, the deadly duo must next face claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Robinson), whose instinct tells him that something suspicious is afoot. Their faith in their story and each other sorely tested, Walter and Phyllis finally square off in a fatal game of cat and mouse.

"Wilder's typically passionless direction fits beautifully with this sinister story. On his first studio assignment, screenwriter [Raymond] Chandler peppered the dialogue from [James M.] Cain's original [a short story in the book Three of a Kind] with his distinctive brand of hardboiled cynicism. The results, as when Phyllis and Walter flirt by using the extended metaphor of a speeding motorist, are terrific. [Miklos] Rozsa contributes a typically edgy score and [John] Seitz's cinematography makes great use of such noir trademarks as sharp camera angles, heavy, sculpted shadows and light slatted by venetian blinds. But it is really the starring trio which lends bite to this compelling crime classic. Stanwyck, in a deliberately phony blonde wig, remade her career with her striking portrayal of an icy woman whose boredom and desire fuel a plot of murder and intrigue. MacMurray, in a great change of pace, gives the performance of his career as the shifty loner excited by a challenge and a deadly dame's anklet. Robinson, meanwhile, beautifully gives the film its heart. His speech about death statistics, rattled off at top speed, is one of the film's highlights. Lifelessly remade for television in 1954 and 1973."

From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films : "This is perhaps the best example of the Hollywood film noir of the Forties --- a pitiless study of human greed, sex, and sadism. Since Raymond Chandler persuaded Wilder that Cain's dialogue needed reworking, the film's ambiance, tartness, and cynicism owe more to Chandler and Wilder than to the original novel. The sound track is effectively used, as in the scene where the car stalls after the husband's murder. Superb performances by the three leads...."

Notes collected for a lecture on the film:

DOUBLE INDEMNITY:       Richard Schickel

making of DOUBLE INDEMNITY: executives at Paramount: didn’t believe Wilder would ever “lick” novel:

before Chandler & Wilder started work: letter from Breen office: disapproving Cain’s novella but Paramount let them go ahead anyway

          notes from Breen office condemned piece: “the general low tone & sordid flavor makes it … thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation”

                        but: when they got finished script: reduced to nitpicking:

make sure Phyllis’ towel covers her: not too many details re: disposition of husband’s corpse

                        their comments: piddling: tribute to how clever script is:

            writers: lightened piece with dialog / added “love story” Neff & Keyes / psychopathic overtones removed from char of Phyllis

                         all these things: disarmed censors

            biggest remaining objection of Breen office: concluding sequence: in death house: Neff executed: “unduly gruesome”: just a warning:

                        but Wilder & Chandler changed it: film: greatly improved by it


Barbara Stanwyck: played plenty of low-class women early in career: BABY FACE / BALL OF FIRE / LADY OF BURLESQUE:

            still: hesitated over taking part of Phyllis but: knew good role when she read one:

                                    Wilder: “are you an actress or a mouse?” so: she accepted role: not knowing she was about to create:

            noir female: enduring archetype of US screen: 1941: MALTESE FALCON: Brigid O’Shaughnessy: Astor:

                     char: hinted at what was to come with Phyllis: affected genteel disguise to hide true motives

             but: bluntness & hardness of Stanwyck’s work: something new: imitated in film after film of 1940s: with much enthusiasm

                        reason for this: connected with freedom women claimed during war years:

                                    stirred nervousness in males: especially males at front: worried re: fidelity of women left at home:

                         women at home: working in factories / living alone / going to bars alone: hard to keep them behind picket fence after that

Phyllis: obviously: she’d been working woman: capable of high degree of self-sufficiency

Stanwyck: highly experienced actor before noir films: independent women: central persona as archetypal femme fatale:

            iconic status conferred: performance in DOUBLE INDEMNITY:

Phyllis in novel: explicitly vampiric: woman of death: silver blonde hair / pale complexion / sheath-like dresses

              Phyllis in film: Stanwyck’s performance: retains elements of this:

her pallor / hard, insistent voice: almost hypnotic / rigid body postures / steely smile

unmoving blonde hair / wig: like metallic hood

Stanwyck’s siren: erotic & implacable: tenderness towards Walter: only at moment of her death

George Raft: 1st choice to play opposite Stanwyck: but hard to get to commit to role: already turned down: MALTESE FALCON:

                 told Wilder: wouldn’t do role of Neff unless part rewritten: “where’s the lapel?” 

when guy shows badge: good guy: “no lapel, no George Raft”: Brian Donlevy: said same thing:

Wilder: ran thru roster of Paramount tough guys: then had inspiration: why not soft guy pretending to be tough?

              Fred MacMurray: since 1934: likable juvenile: 2nd tier star: no one thought he was actor: including MacMurray:

                            everyone thought Wilder was crazy: MacMurray: told Wilder so: but: Wilder persisted:

                MacMurray: “I didn’t want to admit that I was refusing the part because I was afraid of it”

                but: Wilder knew what he was doing: “I wanted a decent, bourgeois man”

                             MacMurray: had played in dance band: knew world of 1-night stands, shady nightclubs: same life Neff knew

            MacMurray & Neff: opposite sides of same coin: MacMurray: good man exposed to seamy values:

                        Neff: scuzzball: in some part of himself: part of himself Keyes hoped to develop into something better

knew better than to be what he was, do what he did

MacMurray’s performance: wonderfully shifty-eyed: trying to discern others’ motives: trying to pretend to be smarter, tougher, quicker

Edward G. Robinson: Keyes: lonely subtext to bachelor: touching aspect to him: something needy beyond competence & bluster

both Stanwyck & Robinson: had played parts like this before: not MacMurray: not many chances after this:

           MacMurray in Wilder’s APARTMENT: character: Mr. Sheldrake: to Wilder: “you’re not going to do this to me again”

his performance in DI: 1 of greatest in history of US cinema: but not acknowledged: no Oscar nomination

writing: Charles Bracket: Wilder’s longtime collaborator: 14 years: found novel by Cain “disgusting”:

didn’t want to work with Wilder on this project: Cain: contract @ 20th: couldn’t work with Wilder on screenplay

Chandler: brought in: coming off 4-year run of hit novels: complementary to Cain: writing style:

            toughness & speed to dialog: more baroque than Cain: talent: “unquestionably much larger than Cain’s”

screenplay: by Wilder & Chandler

  shooting: 1943: September 27 to November 24: less than 2 months: went well:

DP: John Seitz: key to creating right atmosphere in Dietrichson house: filled air with finely ground aluminum filings:

           reflected sunlight from windows: camera read particles

location shooting: bowling alley, drive-in, grocery story: all locations: isolated, unwelcoming

Wilder: knew when to take advantage of accident: finished shooting scene where Phyllis & Walter dispose of body, start car & head home:

             crew broke for lunch: Wilder: wanted to go to Brown Derby for lunch: got into car: it wouldn’t start: ran back across lot to stage:

                        grips had not dismantled set: retakes ordered: murderers: desperate to make quick getaway: momentarily stopped by faulty ignition:

                                    “nothing” scene: suddenly “something”

one problem: Stanwyck’s blonde wig: too much? still debated today

post-production: due for release in autumn of 1944: became Hollywood’s most talked-about film:

             technicians & executives: realized film like nothing before

score: Miklos Rozsa: most important element added during post-production: crucial to effect of film:

              insinuating rather than overpowering / unnerving & dislocating: like film itself

timing of film’s release: lucky break: wartime period: most films: sentimental patriotism

               contrasted with DI’s “hardness of spirit”: like slap in face with cold towel

preview: big theater in Westwood: Wilder’s peers in audience: gripped by what they saw:

Wilder walking out: saw Cain: Cain embraced Wilder: told him he’d greatly improved his original work:

                        “It’s the only picture made from my books that had things in it I wished I had thought of.  Wilder’s ending

was much better than my ending, & his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the

                                    office dictating machine --- I would have done it if I had thought of it”

Cain’s enthusiasm for film: echoed everywhere in the business: advertising line for film:

            “DOUBLE INDEMNITY: the 2 most important words in the motion picture industry since BROKEN BLOSSOMS”:

                                 curious association:

              Alfred Hitchcock: after seeing DI: wired director: “Since DOUBLE INDEMNITY: the 2 most important words are Billy Wilder”

            overnight: DI made Wilder important filmmaker

film industry’s sense of film’s originality & importance: did not carry over to public at large: reviews: tentative: respectful: puzzled

            not huge box office hit: not among year’s top grossing films: did not lose money: did not make much either:

            but: film showered with Oscar nominations: high hopes at ceremonies: March 15, 1945:

                      but Wilder’s own studio put money behind GOING MY WAY: ghastly, sentimental comedy: re: young priest & old priest

                                 block voting encouraged by studios: Leo McCarey won Best Screenplay, Director

                                             Ingrid Bergman: Best Actress / GOING MY WAY: Best Picture

                        not Wilder’s night: but: he tripped McCarey on his way to podium

1st great phase of Wilder’s career started: onward to SUNSET BLVD., SOME LIKE IT HOT, etc.

1 year later: Wilder collected prizes: LOST WEEKEND: Best Picture & Director

            but: no other film Wilder made has had influence that DI has had on US films

            Wilder: said it’s his favorite film: “It has the fewest mistakes”


DI: 2 great strengths: 1. screenplay: Wilder & Chandler: improvement over Cain’s novel: structure & characterization better in film

            2. imagery: Wilder: likes working in close, claustrophobic quarters / “night-for-day” shooting: rooms dimly lit:

                     chiaroscuro lighting: enters frame at strange angles

            2 strengths: screenplay & imagery: work well together:“air of doomy portent”: most potent part of Cain’s work

                        realistic substance added to story

film: has strong sense of place: sense of how Los Angeles of time looked: also: energizes reality of place with air of menace:

           landscape as character: L.A. as co-conspirator

            carries an “authority”: recognized immediately: some reviewers: hesitant with praise: had trouble categorizing film:

                         or were morally offended by film: still: film treated with respect: grasped that this was important film

             movie industry: same reaction: didn’t quite know what to make of DI: 7 Oscar nominations: no wins

original response to film: in those days: literary sources were everything in determining “seriousness” of film

DI: literary antecedents: disreputable: reactions to film tainted by this

            now: film & literary scholarship: recognize historical importance increases film’s authority

screenplay: many differences: name changes: Walter Huff = Walter Neff / Phyllis Nirdlinger = Phyllis Dietrichson

different from book in way it frames story: flashback structure: many advantages:

                      at start: establishes mood / prefigures everything that follows / sets up mood & premises: dramatically, suspensefully, efficiently

Walter’s voice-over narration: his confession: wry & weary

1st flashback: introduces Phyllis: in novel: maid announces Walter: Phyllis enters: dressed in lounging pajamas: tells him husband isn’t home

             in film: Walter forces way past maid: Phyllis: at top of stairs: wearing only a towel as Walter eyes her up & down:

“I’d hate to think of you getting a scratched fender when you’re not … covered”

“I know what you mean.  I’ve been sunbathing”

“Hope there weren’t any pigeons around”

                     she changes: as she comes down stairs: camera close on lower legs: the ankle bracelet

                                    subject of accident insurance comes up: erotic sparring begins:

                                    Phyllis: “There’s a speed limit in this state --- 45 mph”

                                     “How fast was I going officer?”

                                    “I’d say about 90”

                                    “Suppose you get down off that motorcycle & give me a ticket”

                                    “Suppose I give you a warning instead”

                                    “Suppose it doesn’t take”

                                    “Suppose I have to rap you over the knuckles”

                                    “Suppose I bust out crying & put my head on your shoulder”

                                    “Suppose you put it on my husband’s shoulder”

                                    Walter: “That tears it”

                        their dialog: thruout film: witty & full of double entendres: in Walter’s apartment: he asks what her perfume is:

            “I don’t know, I bought it in Ensenada”

            “We ought to have some of that pink wine to go with it.  All I’ve got is bourbon”

            “Bourbon will be fine, Walter”

                        he: wants to make tawdry affair romantic / she: just wants to get on with this phase of job

            dialog in film: fast & brittle & bright: lifts some of darkness off dark story


Film Noir Reader 4: James A. Paris: “The 2nd Mrs. Dietrichson”:

Phyllis Dietrichson: in Cain’s novel: Phyllis: not new to murder: before marriage: worked as nurse: in this capacity:

           killed:  husband’s previous wife & other patients, too: in film: Lola suspects something like this: but no time in film for backstory

film: we 1st see Phyllis: wearing nothing but bath towel: racy repartee between Neff & Phyllis: he’s hooked: obsesses re: her anklet

Phyllis: radiates both sexuality & danger: although after murder: what unites them: shared fear of being caught

scene in supermarket: they push separate carts & talk like zombies: avoiding insurance investigators: culmination: they can’t continue like this:

            Neff: meetings with Lola: reinforce negative feelings re: Phyllis / Phyllis: consoling herself with Nino Zaccetti:

all comes to head: final meeting at her house: they air mutual recriminations:

            Phyllis: pulls out handgun & shoots / Neff: asks her why she doesn’t shoot again: she doesn’t shoot: looks tortured:

                        he comes closer: takes gun from her: he asks if she didn’t shoot because she’s loved him:

                                  “No, I never loved you, Walter.  Not you, or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart.  I used you, just as you said. 

                                  That’s all you ever meant to me --- until a minute ago.  I didn’t think anything like that could ever

                                             happen to me.”

                                    “I’m sorry, baby.  I’m not buying.”: he shoots her: [with her help]: at this point: realizes he’s been wounded

ending of film: different from book: Neff & Phyllis on ocean liner: off Mexican coast: about to commit suicide

Walter Neff: his voice-over narration: somber & self-aware: contrasts with his dialog & actions in film:

if he was that smart: why become involved with Phyllis? not stupid man: untutored:

                    allowed himself to become: too smooth / too slick / too salesman-sleazy: allowed him to get along in world:

                             also: left him vulnerable to Phyllis / led him to believe he knew enough re: insurance to scam company / to scam Keyes

Keyes: turned into full-scale char in film: amusingly awkward: also: obsessed with“little man” inside him: imaginary creature:

          thrashes around when Keyes’ suspicions aroused: conceit of “little man”: humanizes Keyes: makes his paranoid nature comical

what also humanizes Keyes: fact that he always needs matches for cigar: need filled by Neff: strikes them on thumbnail

           Keyes offers Walter way out: healthy alternative to growing sickness: job as his assistant in claims department:

tells Walter: offering him work for smart man

in film: Keyes: “on site moral chorister for story”: keeps film from being condemned for immorality

            also: seeing Neff thru Keyes’ eyes: lets us see he has some redeeming virtue that's hidden from himself & us

                        Keyes’ reading of Neff: “wise guy” given redeeming possibilities

in scene where Keyes offer job to Neff: we see how ferocious he is: we see why Neff is afraid of him:

also: we see why Neff has to challenge Keyes: if he can outsmart Keyes: only father he’s ever known:

                    he’ll surpass Keyes: became man he hopes to be: or: more correctly: man he might have hoped to be:

                              if he had self-awareness he has as narrator

            but: this is just speculation: film: doesn’t insist on “crude psychologizing”: just hints at it:

                        just like it hints at fact that Walter has fallen in love with Lola: he can’t admit that love either

Voice-over / Flashback Narration 1: confessional:

voice-over: attempt to replicate 1st person narration of pulp fiction: many noirs: adapted from these books

flashbacks: can undermine apparent objectivity of images: can question reliability of narrator: narrator’s flashbacks: try to make sense of past:

            that past: strange, threatening or unfinished: DETOUR / OUT OF THE PAST / D.O.A.

SUNSET BLVD: Wilder: flashback narrative by man already dead

protagonist: appears to be in control of retelling of story: really: past events still controlling him: but he’d love to change them if he could

            male pronoun used: warranted: even though some female narrators: REBECCA / MILDRED PIERCE / RAW DEAL

                        male protagonist: dominates confessional narrative: seduced & betrayed by duplicitous femme fatale

            male protagonist: compulsive needs prompt retelling of story: to understand her motivations / to justify his own helplessness:

                         story: becomes plea for understanding or sympathy

DOUBLE INDEMNITY: came at beginning of noir cycle: use of confessional flashback: highly influential:

use of intermittent flashback: creates counterpoint between confession itself & confessor’s present situation

celebrated opening scene: both dramatic & disturbing: provides ominous context for narrative to follow

           Neff: near-death: tells all into office dictaphone: mechanical instrument: mundane function: has symbolic significance:

                               dictaphone: property of his boss: Neff: now realizes: boss: Keyes: only person Neff cares about

                        needs to put record straight: for Keyes: so: flashbacks have double purpose:

                                                to try to exorcise influence of Phyllis: femme fatale / to renew bond of loyalty with Keyes:

                                                            offers kind of redemption

opening: establishes audience’s sympathy: important because Neff not an innocent: smart young professional: has “explored all angles”:

            Neff: decides to use double indemnity strategy: his recollections: self-congratulatory: he details:

                         brilliance of scheme / self-pity: manipulation by seductress: also: characteristic noir fatalism:

                                    he just did what anyone would in same circumstances

           as Neff’s confession ends: Keyes arrives: Neff: begs for chance to make border: can’t make it to elevator: slumps in doorway:

Keyes bends over him, lights match for Neff: reverses gesture: symbolic of relationship:

clear indication: homoerotic subtext: Keyes: openly contemptuous of women

film's ending: strikingly different from novel’s: Walter: prepares to commit suicide with Phyllis:

           Wilder: uses counterpoint of past to present to produce story of female seduction that becomes: “a love story between the 2 men”: Wilder

  Wilder’s decision: to cut concluding death house sequence: shot at cost of $150,000: Wilder: 1 of best scenes he ever made: too weighty for film:

             to Wilder: Neff: “a victim, not a murderer”: wrong to emphasize his criminality:

instead: end of film: redemptive moment between 2 friends:

only a little writing & shooting required: much simpler ending:

              business of film reversed: Keyes strikes match for friend: Neff: dies in right arms: relationship he should not have spurned

DOUBLE INDEMNITY was nominated for seven Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Stanwyck), Screenplay (Chandler, Wilder), Cinematography (Seitz), Score (Rozsa), and Sound (Loren Ryder).