Double Indemnity (1944)

double indemnity
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

'Double Indemnity' is a dramatic thriller made in 1944, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. It is consistently praised as a triumph of the art of filmmaking, and with good reason. It is generally classed as a 'film noir', and indeed many aspects of it belong to that school but it holds it own as a classic movie in its own right.

Although the movie received no Academy Awards, it was nominated in seven categories including Best Picture, Best Actress (Barbara Stanwyck), Best Director (Wilder), and Best Screenplay (Chandler and Wilder). It is an injustice why both Robinson and MacMurray were denied Academy Award nominations.It would appear that its dark undertones, and cynical, and sleazy subject matter at a time of wartime national crisis affected its chances of a top prize, the major competition coming from the 'happy' film 'Going My Way'. Nevertheless in 2007 'Double Indemnity' was ranked at number 29 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century and in 1992 it was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The screenplay was co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and was based on James M. Cain's 1935 novella of the same title which originally appeared as an eight part serial in Liberty magazine, and which, in turn, was based on a real-life murder case in New York in 1927, when a wife and her lover killed the husband for his insurance money. The movie title refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies which doubles the claim in cases when death is accidental.

When Walter drives away from the Dietrichson household, he muses in voice-over, 'How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?' This striking juxtaposition of the foul and the sweet is not a bad emblem for film noir generally. Even though, noir is difficult to define precisely, we could call it beautiful film-making about ugliness.

'Double Indemnity' is most certainly beautiful filmmaking. It is a flawlessly constructed masterpiece created by the genius of Billy Wilder, an extraordinary example of just how good a movie can be.

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Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, is a successful insurance salesman who falls in love with the seductive housewife, Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck. The pair conspire to murder Phyllis's husband and make it look like an accidental fall from a train in order to trigger the "double indemnity" clause in his life insurance to double the insurance payout.. Edward G. Robinson plays Keys, the insurance investigator who suspects foul play.


James M. Cain's novel, "Double Indemnity", was based on the 1927 murder of Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, a married man called Henry Judd Gray. Ruth Snyder hoped to benefit from a $100,000 insurance policy on her husband's life. She and Gray were found guilty and executed for the murder in 1928.

The novel was first published in serial form in 1936 in "Liberty Magazine" and at that time all the major studios were competing to buy the movie rights for $25,000 but all interest evaporated when the Hays Office ruled that it considered the novel unsuitable for filming. Paramount eventually bought it for Billy Wilder for $15,000. Wilder's normal writing partner, Charles Brackett, thought the novella too sordid and refused to collaborate so Paramount instead hired local Los Angeles author, Raymond Chandler because his hard-boiled writing style was similar to James M. Cain's writing.

Stormy Writing Partnership
The thirteen weeks that Wilder and Chandler worked together on the script were turbulent, to say the least. Chandler was fifty-five and hated to listen to lectures on writing from the much younger Wilder and Wilder, for his part, detested Chandler's blunt rudeness and his constant drinking and smoking. However, each saw something in the other which they admired and they stuck it out, producing in the end a masterpiece, altering much of Cain's dialogue which did not translate well to the screen, and replacing it with Chandler's brilliant street slang.

Casting Problems
Casting the movie also caused problems. The lead role of the murderer, Walter Neff, was turned down by many leading actors of the day including Gregory Peck, Alan Ladd, James Cagney, George Raft and Fredric March, for fear of damaging their image. Fred MacMurray also was hesitant at first but was worn down by Wilder and later said it was the best role he ever played.

Barbara Stanwyck was always Wilder's first choice for the key role of Phyllis Dietrichson. At the time she was at the peak of her career and was the highest paid woman, not just in Hollywood, but in the whole country. She, too, had reservations about the nature of the role of a murderess, but she, like MacMurray, was convinced by the persuasive Wilder.

The third main character, the insurance investigator, Keys, was given to the veteran character actor, Edward G. Robinson. He was persuaded to take on a third lead part by the fact that he got paid the same as Stanwyck and MacMurray for less work.

Filming began on 27th September, 1943 and finished on 24th November, 1943, although there were some retakes in December and January due to scratches in the negative. Wilder wanted the film to look as seedy as its content and opted to shoot on location in Los Angeles whenever possible.

Cinematographer John Seitz blew aluminum particles in the air to make the Dietrichson house seem like a dusty tomb. Barbara Stanwyck was dressed by costume designer Edith Head in a garish platinum blond wig and an ankle bracelet to make her look sleazy and cheap.

The Ending
Wilder believed that his original ending, a sequence where Neff chokes to death in a prison gas chamber, to be one of his most effective scenes. Nevertheless he took the brave decision to cut it, against the wishes of everyone involved in the production, in favor of the final elegant scene which remains, with a moving and powerful exchange between Keyes and Neff.

Main Cast

The casting was brilliant and was of a kind that changed Hollywood. The three main protagonists play roles which are completely different to their normally perceived movie personas.
Fred MacMurray ... Walter Neff
Barbara Stanwyck ... Phyllis Dietrichson
Edward G. Robinson ... Barton Keyes
Porter Hall ... Mr Jackson
Jean Heather ... Lola Dietrichson
Tom Powers ... Mr Dietrichson
Byron Barr ... Nino Zachetti
Richard Gaines ... Edward S. Norton, Jr.
Fortunio Bonanova ... Sam Garlopis
John Philliber ... Joe Peters
Raymond Chandler ... man reading book (cameo)

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-90) Barbara Stanwyck was at first reluctant to play such a nasty piece of work as Phyllis Dietrichson, the provocative housewife who wishes her husband were dead, but then she saw that it made her a better all-round actress. After a short but notable career as a stage actress in the late 1920s, she made 85 films in 38 years in Hollywood, before beginning a highly successful television career. Barbara was nominated four times for Academy Awards but, surprisingly, did not win any in competition. In 1982 she received an honorary lifetime achievement award from the Academy for her "creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting." In 1987, aged 79, she was also the recipient of an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.
Fred MacMurray (1908-91) Fred MacMurray normally played a Disney, genial nice-guy but he looked a better and better actor as the years passed, and here, as Walter Neff, the insurance salesman, he plays to the hilt a complete heel, his smooth salesman's talk a cover for lechery, larceny and murderous intent. MacMurray was a talented and versatile performer who had a long and extremely successful career in movies and television. During his movie career MacMurray consistently worked with some of Hollywood's biggest names, such as actors Humphrey Bogart, Claudette Colbert, and Katharine Hepburn and directors Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Time and again he proved himself to be more than a one-dimensional actor as in his magnificent portrayal of Walter Neff.
Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) The film is really held together by the wonderful Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, the claims adjuster whose job it is to find phony claims. A good guy, and not a gangster for a change, he is a fussy little treat, nagging away at detail and looking for his matches. Robinson was a forceful and versatile character actor and had great comic talent but he is best remembered for his gangster roles, particularly the gangster Rico in the ground-breaking movie 'Little Caesar'. He had a long 50 year career in which he made 101 films and although he was, surprisingly, never nominated for an Oscar, he was awarded a special "Lifetime Achievement" Oscar two months after his death. The American film Institute ranked him at number 24 in their list of Greatest Screen Legends.


Director ... Billy Wilder
Producer ... Joseph Sistrom
Producion Company ... Paramount Pictures
Screenplay ... Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler
Story ... Based on the novel by James M. Cain
Music ... Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography ... John Seitz
Format ... B & W
Release date ... April 24, 1944
Running time ... 106 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Seven Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Paramount Pictures
Best Director ... Billy Wilder
Best Actress ... Barbara Stanwyck
Best Cinematography (B & W) ... John Seitz
Best Music (Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) ... Miklós Rózsa
Sound Recording ... Loren L. Ryder, Sound Director
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler