Double Indemnity (1944)
May 29, 2020 | by Shannon
Barbara Stanwyck is George Washington, Billy Wilder Defines Film Noir, Fred MacMurray Doesn’t Murder Husbands, and Edward G. Robinson Is NOT a Communist.
1944’s Double Indemnity was a trailblazing film. It is often credited with defining the film noir style, and consistently ranks among the best films ever made. Woody Allen would go so far as to call it the “greatest movie ever made.”
Director Billy Wilder would refer to his masterpiece as “near perfect,” an assessment hard to argue with. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and our Star of the Month Edward G. Robinson would each turn in performances that would list among the best of their respective careers.
If you missed Double Indemnity on TCM, it’s still available to watch on tcm.com. You can also rent or purchase the film here on Amazon [aff. link].
To the plot!
It’s 1938. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), nursing an injury, walks laboriously into the Pacific All Risk Insurance office to dictate an important message for his friend and co-worker, claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Keyes is investigating an insurance claim from Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman whose husband just died, supposedly by accident.
Tonight, recounting his story into Keyes’ Dictaphone, Walter Neff confesses that he killed Dietrichson. Here’s how and why he did it:
Phyllis Sets the Trap
Neff is out on a house call when he meets the stunning Phyllis Dietrichson. Neff’s intention was to meet Mr. Dietrichson, and get him to renew an auto insurance policy. But Mr. Dietrichson is not home, and after one look at Phyllis and her gold ankle bracelet, Walter forgets about the insurance business. The two flirt for a bit, then Phyllis drops a bomb.
She expresses interest in purchasing life insurance. For her husband. Without his knowledge.
Well, Walter has a pretty good idea what’s on this dame’s mind. He also has the distinct impression that Phyllis wants to enlist his help in not just getting her husband to sign for the insurance, but also in murdering him for the insurance money.
At first Walter is repulsed by the idea. But after a few more meetings with Phyllis, the game of outsmarting the insurance company begins to appeal to him. And plus, with her husband out of the way, Phyllis could be all his…
The Perfect Murder
So Walter works out the perfect murder: Phyllis will convince her husband to take a train alone to his college reunion. She’ll drive him to the station, with Walter hiding in the back seat. Phyllis will give Walter the signal, and Walter will strangle Dietrichson. Then Walter, disguised as Dietrichson, will board the train, make his way to the back platform, and jump off before the train has gone too far.
Phyllis will meet him at the train tracks with Dietrichson’s body, which they will dump on the tracks to make it appear that he accidentally fell off the train.
Phyllis and Walter will be long gone from the scene by the time Dietrichson’s body is discovered, and she can collect $100,000 from Pacific All Risk because of the double indemnity clause in the insurance policy, which states Phyllis gets double the payout if her husband dies in a freak accident. Like falling off the back of a slow moving a train.
Keyes Gets Suspicious
Walter and Phyllis pull the murder off with very slight complications, and now they just need to stick together “straight down the line” as Pacific All Risk attempts to find a reason not to pay Phyllis.
At first Walter is relieved when his buddy Barton Keyes, the insurance claim investigator, believes Pacific All Risk will just have to pay Phyllis. Walter and Phyllis begin to relax a little bit, beleiving they’ve pulled off the murder.
But then Keyes’ “little man”—his conscience—tells him that there’s something fishy about it all: Keyes concludes that Phyllis was in some way involved in her husband’s death, and it’s just a matter of finding her accomplice to put it all together.
Now Walter’s worried. He knows that when Keyes looks into something, he always finds out the truth.
The stress of the situation begins to tear Walter and Phyllis apart. Their lust turns into suspicion, and even hate once Walter finds out from Dietrichson’s daughter Lola that Phyllis was the first Mrs. Dietrichson’s nurse. And that Phyllis killed her. Walter begins to worry that he’s next on her list. So he decides to kill Phyllis before she can kill him.
“We’re both rotten,”
“Only you’re a little more rotten,”
Walter replies, just before Phyllis shoots him in the shoulder.
When Phyllis then professes her love for Walter, he doesn’t believe a word of it, and while Phyllis holds him in a tight embrace, he shoots her. Twice to the stomach. And she’s gone.
Walter makes the trek back to Pacific All Risk, the flashback ends, and we realize that the injury he’s been ignoring while telling his story into the Dictaphone is from Phyllis’ gun shot.
Just as Walter finishes up his confession, he sees Keyes standing there, listening.
Walter asks Keyes to give him a head start before calling the cops, but crumples to the ground before he can exit the building. Keyes lights a cigarette for his friend, and the two men wait for the police to arrive.
And that’s THE END.
A True Story
Double Indemnity was based on the James M. Cain novella of the same name. The inspiration behind Cain’s 1936 story was the real life Snyder/Gray Murder Case of 1927.
Housewife Ruth Snyder attempted to kill her husband Albert once unsuccessfully before enlisting the help of her lover, Judd Gray, a corset salesman. It was a sloppy job—Gray even told a friend when he’d be murdering Ruth’s husband, and asked this friend to cover for him as his alibi—so it was really only a matter of time before the two were brought to justice.
Journalist Damon Runyon would write that Snyder and Gray were
“on trial for what might be called for want of a better name: the Dumb-bell Murder. It was so dumb!”
That’s how clumsy Snyder and Gray were with their crime, which involved a window sash weight, chloroform, and a picture wire.
But the American public was absolutely fascinated with the case, even more so after photographer Thomas Howard snuck a camera–hidden on his ankle–into Ruth Snyder’s execution, and managed to snap the first the first photograph of an execution by electric chair.
James M. Cain picked up on the public’s near obsession with the Snyder/Judd Murder Case, and used it as the inspiration for both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. (Which would also be made into a classic film starring my girl Lana Turner in 1946.)
When Cain first peddled his story around Hollywood in 1935, before serializing it in Liberty Magazine the following year, MGM and most of the other major studios expressed interest. But one word from Joseph Breen in the Production Code Administration office, and all excitement for the story dropped. Breen called Double Indemnity a “blueprint” for murder, and warned that if a studio attempted to make it a film, it would result
“in a picture which we would be compelled to reject.”
So for eight years, Double Indemnity remained a dangerous, un-filmable property.
It would take the skill and daring of a young Billy Wilder to turn the story into a movie that lost none of the novella’s forbidden, immoral premise and suspense while still satisfying the PCA’s strict moral guidelines.
Wilder Takes A Risk
Double Indemnity would only be the third film Billy Wilder directed. He considered making a musical instead, having been impressed with Cover Girl (1944). But, as Wilder would say,
“I realized that no matter how good my musical would be, most people would say it was no Cover Girl. This Double Indemnity looked like a better chance to set Hollywood back on its heels.”
Whether Wilder actually considered making a musical initially or not, there’s no doubt that his Double Indemnity would “set Hollywood back on its heels.”
So much so, in fact, that Wilder’s writing partner, Charles Brackett, with whom he’d written the screenplays of such classic films as Ball of Fire (1941) and The Major and the Minor (1944), refused to work with him on the project. Brackett said the subject material of Double Indemnity was “immoral,” and told Billy to find someone else to write the screenplay with.
Enter renown detective fiction novelist, Raymond Chandler.
Writing was Chandler’s second career: he’d begun writing at age 44 after a business career as an oil company executive. Though he had several successful books to his name by this time, including The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity would be Chandler’s first screenplay.
Chandler and Wilder: A Tumultuous Pair
At the start of their collaboration, Wilder would say about Chandler that he was “crazy about this guy.” But it didn’t take long for that opinion to change: though the pair would turn out one of the best screenplays in Hollywood history, Wilder and Chandler soon found out that they basically hated each other…
Chandler couldn’t stand Wilder’s youthful energy with the ladies, which he saw as a distraction from their work. And Wilder couldn’t stand Chandler’s excessive drinking, which he saw as a distraction from their work. The two men were constantly at odds during the seven weeks it took to write Double Indemnity. Chandler would complain that working with Wilder:
“…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.”
Wilder would retaliate by saying that Chandler
“didn’t really like me—ever. To begin with, there was my German accent. Secondly, I knew the craft better than he did. I also drank after four o clock in the afternoon…All those things just threw him for a loop..he would just kind of stare at me. I was all that he hated about Hollywood.”
But the script they produced together was a knockout. Author James M. Cain would compliment the Wilder/Chandler screenplay as bringing such such depth, suspense, and nuance to his story on screen that it was:
“the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of..Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending…There are situations in the movie that can make your hands get wet, you get so nervous…”
So Wilder had his perfect script. Now it was time to find the perfect cast. And since this was a movie about murder by generally unlikeable characters, getting the cast just right was of the utmost importance.
Courting "The Queen"
Wilder already knew that no one but the great Barbara Stanwyck could play Phyllis Dietrichson. But Stanwyck, known as “The Queen” around Hollywood for her complete professionalism and kindness to all on her film sets—from the most highly respected directors to the lowest ranking grips—wasn’t sure she could accept the part. Barbara worried she’d lose her fan base by playing such an “out and out killer” with no “redeeming qualities.”
Barbara would recount in later years that,
“I was a little frightened of it [the film] and, when I went back to his [Wilder’s] office, I said, ‘I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out and out cold blooded 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.”
Billy Wilder’s dare was only part of the reason Barbara accepted the Phyllis Dietrichson role. The other reason was Fred MacMurray. Wilder knew that Fred and Barbara had worked together before, and capitalized on the mutual respect they had for one another to get both stars to agree to Double Indemnity. Wilder lied a little bit, and told Barbara that Fred had already agreed to play Walter Neff. Trusting that Fred was already in on the project was enough to get Barbara to say yes.
MacMurray was not the first actor Wilder approached to play Walter Neff. Alan Ladd and Brian Donlevy had already turned the role down out of fear that such an unsympathetic character would ruin their respective careers. Wilder also approached George Raft for the part, but Raft was disinterested as soon as he learned that at no point would Walter Neff turn out to be a heroic undercover cop:
“Where’s the lapel bit?”
Raft reportedly asked Billy Wilder.
“You know, when the guy flashes his lapel, you see his badge, and you know he’s a detective.”
Wilder told Raft that Double Indemnity was not that kind of film, and set his sights on Fred MacMurray.
MacMurray was also reluctant to star in such a lurid film, having solidified his reputation as a the good, boy next door type in light comedies. Like Barbara, he worried that “people aren’t going to like me if I kill somebody’s husband.” But Wilder thought the boyish, likeable quality MacMurray had in spades would make Walter Neff a sympathetic character, despite the fact that he was a murderer. Wilder would say that,
“I just wanted the audience to go with Walter, to make him a murderer all right, but with redeeming features…Perhaps he’d done it, but within that murderous act there is still an element of compassion and decency.”
Eventually, Wilder wore the reluctant Fred down, partly because he gave Fred confidence that he could stretch himself in such a difficult role, and partly because he used the same ploy on Fred that he’d used on Barbara: he told Fred that Barbara would accept the Phyllis role if Fred played Walter. And as Fred would say,
“There being nobody, then or now, whom I respect more, not only as an actress but as a person, I said ok.”
Wilder now had his two leads, and he already knew who he wanted for the Barton Keyes role. Keyes was the moral compass of the film, the character who would keep the Production Code Administration off Billy Wilder’s back. Wilder needed an actor who could deliver the morality of the film—that murderers don’t prosper—without being heavy-handed. There was no one else in town but Edward G. Robinson for the part.
Like Stanwyck and MacMurray, Eddie was initially reluctant to accept a role in Double Indemnity, but for an entirely different reason: he would be playing the third lead.
If you remember from my post on Kid Galahad, Robinson literally had it written into his contract that he would only play the lead in a film. Flash forward to the fall of 1943, and Eddie, pushing 50, was forced to rethink a few things when it came to his career expectations.
He and Jack Warner had agreed to part ways earlier that year when Eddie began turning down every script Warner sent his way. Sounds extreme, but Jack Warner was only sending Eddie terrible scripts. Warner kind of didn’t know what to do with his aging star who contractually could only play lead roles. So he paid Eddie $50,000 not to make the last two films on his Warner Bros. contract, and Eddie went freelance.
Not the nicest treatment for a star and friend who earned Warner and his studio millions over the last decade…
When Billy Wilder approached Eddie with the third lead in Double Indemnity, Robinson was torn between accepting a role in a film that he knew belonged to the other actors, and the necessity of changing with the times. Ultimately, Robinson realized it wasn’t such a bad deal [aff. link]:
“It was, in fact, the third lead. I debated accepting it; Emanuel Goldenberg told me that at my age it was time to begin thinking of character roles, to slide into middle and old age with…grace…I was never the handsome leading man; I could proceed with my career growing old in roles that would grow older, to. And (forgive me for being mercenary) there was, instead of a decrease in pay, a slight hike. The decision made itself.”
Though Eddie has less screen time than Stanwyck or MacMurray, he easily steals each scene he’s in. It may be the third lead, but Robinson’s powerful presence is still there, stronger than ever. He’s a leading man, no matter how tertiary the role.
Film Noir Photography
In addition to the flawless screenplay and cast, the classic status of Double Indemnity was further cemented by the amazing work of cinematographer John Seitz.
Seitz’s stunning photography is responsible for setting the film noir mood of the movie. Billy Wilder would compliment Seitz for his willingness to experiment during filming, saying that
“Sometimes the rushes were so dark that you couldn’t see anything. He [Seitz] went to the limits of what could be done.”
Seitz made brilliant use of the black and white stripes of light and shadow made by the Venetian blinds in the Dietrichson home. Barbara Stanwyck would credit Seitz and this lighting technique with enhancing her performance in the film:
“And for an actress, let me tell you the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter’s apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles—all that helped my performance. The way Billy staged it and John Seitz lit it, it was all one sensational mood.”
One of my favorite behind the scenes facts from Double Indemnity revolves around Barbara Stanwyck’s infamous wig in the film. Billy Wilder would defend choosing that loud, blonde, sausage bangs wig by stating that it was just the sort of thing his Phyllis Dietrichson would wear:
“The wig was not much good, I admit.”
Wilder would say. But it matched
“The phoniness of the girl—bad taste, phony wig.”
He wanted a “cheap” look for Phyllis, and
“I wanted her to look at sleazy as possible.”
Others disagreed, and found the wig a distraction, including Paramount’s production head at the time, Buddy DeSilva. After seeing the first day’s rushes, DeSilva announced
“We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”
While the wig isn’t the best hair Barbara Stanwyck ever had on screen, I think Billy Wilder has a point: the color and style of the wig match Phyllis Dietrichson’s tawdry cheapness. And let’s be honest, Barbara Stanwyck was one classy lady. Those sausage bangs were needed to diminish the class Barbara naturally emanated.
I actually don’t find the wig distracting, partly because it fits with the character, but mostly because Barabara’s inherent glamour and acting talent are so great, it wouldn’t much matter what she had on her head. Any costume imperfections become unnoticeable when Barbara Stanwyck is on screen.
Am I a little biased? Maybe.
History Made and Oscar Snubs
During filming, Billy Wilder seemed to know the cast and crew of Double Indemnity were creating something special. He reportedly began one day on set by shouting to some noisy people to
“Keep quiet! After all, history is being made.”
Filming completed in November 1943, but when Double Indemnity premiered the following summer, Wilder worried his earlier predictions of great success were wrong: just minutes into the film, there were wolf whistles.
“There goes my picture,”
Wilder thought, until he realized that the audience was whistling at the stunning Barbara Stanwyck, who, despite the George Washington wig, managed to heat up the screen with that little gold ankle bracelet (Which according to Paramount’s records cost $25 a pair.)
Double Indemnity was one of the highest earners of 1944. The film would receive 7 Oscar nominations, but no wins, mostly because Paramount heavily promoted Bing Crosby and the feel-good Going My Way (1944) that year over the dark Double Indemnity.
Wilder would take the loss badly, and brag that he tripped director Leo McCarey on his way up to the podium to collect his Oscar for Going My Way (1944). This may just be a Billy Wilder tall tale, but true or not, it underscores Wilder’s disgruntlement at his masterpiece being snubbed.
At first, Edward G. Robinson attributed the career slump he experienced in the mid 1940s to age. While Eddie’s advance into middle age may have initially been part of his struggle to find work, it wasn’t the whole story: rumors were beginning to spread that Hollywood was full of communists and “fellow travelers.” And Edward G. Robinson’s name was included among those suspect.
By 1946, when Eddie was included in Matthew Woll’s list of communist sympathizers in the New York Daily News, he could no longer deny the true reason behind his inability to find consistent film work.
How Eddie’s name came to be associated with communism is complicated, but the biggest contributing factor to the rumors was his membership in several organizations during the war years that later turned out to be communist fronts, or included many confirmed communists in leadership positions. The fact that Eddie joined and contributed to these organizations for their noble, stated goals—to bring down Hitler and fascism—didn’t matter once the communist witch hunts in Hollywood began.
In his autobiography [aff. link], Eddie describes his difficulty finding work at this time by recounting the “phases” of treatment he received from his agent:
“Phase 1: ‘…Eddie, I’ve read a lot of scripts submitted for you, and there isn’t one that’s right for you.’”
And finally down to…
“Phase 4: ‘There seems to be some opposition to you Eddie. I’m looking into it. Whatever it is, we’ll fight it with every penny we’ve got. You know that.’
Phase 5: (coming from the agent’s secretary): I’m sorry, Mr. Robinson, but Mr. B. is out of town. I’ll give him your message. He’ll certainly call you back at his earliest convenience.
Phase 6: no earliest convenience.”
Eddie's First Testimony
Even though his reputation in Hollywood was all but ruined by the rumors, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)–the committee responsible for the communist witch hunts in Hollywood–would not subpoena Eddie to come testify, which he wanted desperately to do so he could clear his name.
Eddie was eventually granted an audience in an executive session with the HUAC committee’s staff on October 27, 1947.
“I stand on my record or fall on it.”
Eddie would testify. But the session resulted in no official pronouncement from HUAC that Eddie was not, and never had been a communist. So Hollywood continued to shun him.
Solace in Art
In 1949, things got even worse for Robinson when the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities included him in their report of “known” communists in Hollywood.
Still, Robinson was not subpoenaed by HUAC. With no work, Eddie found solace in his art collection at home, read a great deal, and honed his own natural artistic talent. Though it was a skill he didn’t like to talk about, Eddie was a talented artist, inspired by the impressionists that he so loved. As friend and biographer Leonard Spigelgass would share,
“Throughout the Un-American Activities time, throughout his unemployment, he bought easels, brushes, oil paints, and palettes….The plain truth if you look at the pictures now is that Eddie possessed more than minor talent as a painter.”
Eddie's Second Testimony...And Third
After waiting years for a subpoena from HUAC, he was finally summoned. Eddie appeared before a HUAC subcommittee on December 22, 1950, pleading with them to
“Either snap my neck or set me free. If you snap my neck I will still say I believe in America.”
Still, Robinson was not cleared by HUAC: he realized that until he “named names,” the committee would do nothing to salvage his reputation, and Hollywood would not hire him.
By the third time Eddie appeared before HUAC on April 30, 1952, he’d all but given up.
But after yet again swearing that he was not, and never had been a communist, Eddie was officially cleared, once and for all.
As Eddie would say in his autobiography [aff. link],
“What the committee would have licked its chops over would have been names; I mentioned as few as possible, and never once (unlike others who testified in this period) did I name anybody—repeat, anybody—as being a member of the Communist party.”
The ultimate irony of this final hearing that officially restored Robinson’s good name was when Congressman Francis E Walter said at the close of the session that
“Well, actually, this Committee has never had any evidence presented to indicate that you were anything more than a very choice sucker. I think you are No. 1 on every sucker list in the country.”
Years of Eddie’s life and career had been stressed and strained, to say the very least, and HUAC readily admitted at the end of it all that they never actually had any evidence that he was a communist. And yet they would not clear his name until Eddie experienced nearly a decade of torment.
Eddie Gets His Life Back
After HUAC’s official pronouncement that Eddie was not a communist, he was finally able to renew his passport—which, because of the communist witch hunts, he had not been permitted to do after it expired in 1950—and travel to his beloved Europe.
Eddie also began to find work in Hollywood again, and entered what he would call “the ‘B’ picture phase of my career,” It wasn’t until 1956, when Cecil B. DeMille offered him the role of Dathan in The Ten Commandments (1956), that Robinson was finally back on top. Eddie would forever credit DeMille with “restoring” his self-respect.
Eddie would also find the peace, stability and love he’d always hoped for in second wife Jane, who he would marry in 1958, and spend the rest of his years with. Pivotal roles in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Soylent Green (1973) would end the final decade of Robinson’s career on the distinguished note he deserved. Jane would accept the honorary Oscar Eddie was finally awarded just two months after his passing in January 1973.
And that wraps up our month with Edward G. Robinson!
My admiration and respect for this man who personified the American dream is immense, and I’ve so enjoyed celebrating Eddie’s life and career this month. He was a man of principle and integrity, a one-of-a-kind talent and screen presence.
Be sure to come back next week as we usher in our new Star of the Month, an actress who was incredibly popular in her day, but who there is surprisingly little available information on today.
Join me in celebrating the spunky Ann Sheridan!