Double Indemnity (1944)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Double Indemnity is a 1944 film noir directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and produced by Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom. The screenplay was based on James M. Cain‘s 1943 novella of the same name, which originally appeared as an eight-part serial in Liberty magazine.

The film stars Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman, Barbara Stanwyck as a provocative housewife who wishes her husband were dead, and Edward G. Robinsonas a claims adjuster whose job is to find phony claims. The term “double indemnity” refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies that doubles the payout in rare cases when death is caused accidentally, such as while riding a railway.

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Background

James M. Cain based his novella on a 1927 murder perpetrated by a married Queens, New York woman and her lover whose trial he attended while working as a journalist in New York. In that crime, Ruth Snyderpersuaded her boyfriend, Judd Gray, to kill her husband Albert after having him take out a big insurance policy – with a double-indemnity clause.The murderers were quickly identified, arrested and convicted. The front page photo of Snyder’s execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing has been called the most famous newsphoto of the 1920s.

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Double Indemnity began making the rounds in Hollywood shortly after it was published in Liberty magazine in 1935. Cain had already made a name for himself the year before with The Postman Always Rings Twice, a story of murder and passion between a migrant worker and the unhappy wife of a café owner. Cain’s agent sent copies of the novella to all the major studios and within days, MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, and Columbia were all competing to buy the rights for $25,000. Then a letter went out from Joseph Breen at the Hays Office, and the studios withdrew their bids as one. In it Breen warned:

The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater. I am sure you will agree that it is most important…to avoid what the code calls “the hardening of audiences,” especially those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and fact of crime.

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Eight years later Double Indemnity was included in a collection of Cain’s works entitled Three of a Kind. Paramount executive Joseph Sistrom thought the material would be perfect for Wilder and they bought the rights for $15,000. Paramount resubmitted the script to the Hays Office, but the response was nearly identical to the one eight years earlier. Wilder, Paramount executive William Dozier, and Sistrom decided to move forward anyway. They submitted a film treatment crafted by Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett, and this time the Hays Office approved the project with only a few objections: the portrayal of the disposal of the body, a proposed gas-chamber execution scene, and the skimpiness of the towel worn by the female lead in her first scene.

Cain forever after maintained that Joseph Breen owed him $10,000 for vetoing the property back in 1935 when he would have received $25,000.

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Casting

Wilder chose a bad wig for Stanwyck to underscore Phyllis’s “sleazy phoniness.

Having the two protagonists mortally wound each other was one of the key factors in gaining Hays Office approval for the script: the Production Code demanded that criminals pay, on screen, for their transgressions. In addition, Double Indemnity broke new cinematic ground on several fronts, one of those being the first time a Hollywood film explicitly explored the means, motives, and opportunity of committing a murder.It would take skillful performers to bring nuance to these treacherous characters, and casting the roles of Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson would be a challenge for Wilder.

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Sistrom and Wilder’s first choice for the role of Phyllis Dietrichson was Barbara Stanwyck. At the time, Stanwyck was not only the highest paid actress in Hollywood, but the highest paid woman in America. (Her eventual co-star MacMurray matched Stanwyck’s prominence at the pay window: in 1943, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, and the fourth highest-paid American. Given the nature of the role, Stanwyck was reluctant to take the part, fearing it would have an adverse effect on her career. According to Stanwyck,

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.

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The character of Walter Neff was not only a heel, he was a weak and malleable heel – many Hollywood actors including Alan Ladd, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, and Fredric March passed on it.Wilder even recalls “scraping the bottom of the barrel” and approaching George Raft. Raft was illiterate, so Wilder had to tell him the plot. About halfway through, Raft interrupted him with, “Let’s get to the lapel bit.” “What lapel bit?” a bewildered Wilder replied. “The lapel,” the actor said, annoyed by such stupidity. “You know, when the guy flashes his lapel, you see his badge, you know he’s a detective.” This was his vision of the film, and since it wasn’t part of the story, Raft turned the part down.[24] Wilder finally realized that the part should be played by someone who could not only be a cynic, but a nice guy as well.

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Fred MacMurray was accustomed to playing “happy-go-lucky good guys” in light comedies, and when Wilder first approached him about the Neff role, MacMurray said, “You’re making the mistake of your life!” Playing a serious role required acting, he said, “and I can’t do it.” But Wilder pestered him about it every single day – at home, in the studio commissary, in his dressing room, on the sidewalk – until he simply wore the actor down. MacMurray felt safe about his acquiescence since Paramount, who had him under contract and had carefully crafted his good guy image, would never let him play a “wrong” role. His trust, however, was misplaced: his contract was up for renewal at the time, and ever since his friend and co-star, Carole Lombard, had shrewdly and successfully taught him how to play hardball with the studio bosses, he wasn’t the pliable pushover of old.

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Paramount executives decided to let him play the unsavory role to teach him a lesson. A lesson was indeed taught, but not the one Paramount had in mind.  MacMurray made a great heel and his performance demonstrated new breadths of his acting talent. “I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made,” he said.

Edward G. Robinson was also reluctant to sign on for the role of Barton Keyes, but not for the same reasons as MacMurray and Stanwyck. Having been a star since Little Caesar in 1930, this role represented a step downward to the third lead. Robinson would later admit, “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.[22] The notable Broadway actor Tom Powers was invited to Hollywood for the role of Mr. Dietrichson. It was Powers’ first film role since 1917 and his start to a “second film career” with many supporting roles until his death in 1955

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One of the best films noir ever, Double Indemnity communicates with amazing effectiveness the depths of depravity, greed, lust, and betrayal of the seemingly innocent and beautiful.

10/10
Author: Michael DeZubiria (wppispam2013@gmail.com) from Luoyang, China
8 November 2000

This is one of the best films of all time, not necessarily because of its story but because of the acting, direction, cinematography, lighting, and just the way that the story itself was told. At the time the film was released, the idea of revealing who the killer was in the opening scene was virtually unheard of, but it ended up being very effective because it allowed the audience to concentrate more on other elements of the film, which was the goal of Billy Wilder, the director.

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Instead of trying to figure out who the perpetrator was, there is more emphasis on how the crime was pulled off, what mistakes were made during the murder, who betrayed who, how close Barton Keyes (the insurance investigator) was getting to solving the case, and, probably most importantly, what kind of person Walter Neff is and whether or not sympathy should be felt toward him.

Barbara Stanwyck, in one of the most remembered performances of her extensive career, represents (with nearly flawless ease) the cold and ruthless manipulator who has no difficulty in ruining other people’s lives in various ways (including death, if necessary) in order to get what she wants. Known in the film community as the `femme fatale,’ this is someone who uses her sexual prowess, seductiveness, and emotional detachment to drag an unsuspecting person (generally an interested man) into a scheme from which she is expected to benefit heavily and he is most likely headed for destruction. In these types of films, the man often either finds his life in ruins or ends up dead, as is often (but not always) also the case with the fate of the femme fatale.

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Barbara Stanwyck (as Phyllis Dietrichson, the murderous femme fatale in Double Indemnity) and Fred MacMurray (as Walter Neff, her ‘victim’), have amazing chemistry on screen. Their attraction is incredibly well portrayed, and the development of their relationship with each other is so convincing that what happens between them almost seems normal. Besides that, their mutually calculated interaction, although it seems at first like it has been rehearsed endlessly and ultimately brought unconvincingly to the screen, is exactly as it was meant to be, because it represents each character’s intentions, even very subtly foreshadowing their future betrayals against each other. Phyllis has gone through every word she ever says to Walter in her head.

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She has practiced what she wants to say when she brings up the idea of life insurance to Walter in the beginning and she knows what she wants to say whenever they interact with each other because she has been planning for quite some time the prospect of murdering her husband in order to collect his fortune. Walter, conversely, methodically makes amorous advances as though this is something that he does regularly, and then ultimately he also plans out his conversations with Phyllis because he begins to suspect her and is sure to tell her only what he wants her to hear. This seemingly stiff dialogue brilliantly represents Phyllis and Walter’s precise (and sinister) intentions, and it’s quick pace creates a feeling of urgency and restlessness.

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Probably the most fascinating and entertaining actor in the film, Edward G. Robinson, plays Barton Keyes, Walter’s friend and employer at the insurance company where he works. Keyes is a very suspicious man who closely investigates the insurance claims which come into the company, having a striking history of accurately isolating fraudulent claims and throwing them out. His handling of Phyllis’s (and Walter’s, technically) claim and the way that he gets closer and closer to the truth create a great atmosphere of tension and drama.

Double Indemnity is nearly flawless. From the shocking and unexpected beginning to the already known but still surprising end, the audience is held rapt by the excellent performances, the brilliant and imaginative direction, and the flawlessly created atmosphere. This is excellent, excellent filmmaking, and is a classic film that should not be missed.

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