Double Indemnity (film)

Double Indemnity (film)
Double Indemnity

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Billy Wilder
Produced by Buddy DeSylva
Joseph Sistrom
Screenplay by Billy Wilder
Raymond Chandler
Based on Double Indemnity by
James M. Cain
Narrated by Fred MacMurray
Starring Fred MacMurray
Barbara Stanwyck
Edward G. Robinson
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography John F. Seitz
Editing by Doane Harrison (sup)
Distributed by Paramount Pictures (original)
Universal Studios (current)
Release date(s) September 6, 1944 (1944-09-06)
Running time 107 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $980,000[1]
Double indemnity screenshot 10.jpg

Double Indemnity is a 1944 American film noir, directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and produced by Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom. The script was based on James M. Cain's 1935 novella of the same title 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. Robinson as 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 cases when death is caused by accidental means.

Praised by many critics when first released, Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards but did not win any. Widely regarded as a classic, it is often cited as a paradigmatic film noir and as having set the standard for the films that followed in that genre.

Deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1992, Double Indemnity was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1998, it was ranked #38 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century, and in 2007 it was 29th on their 10th Anniversary list.



Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a successful insurance salesman for Pacific All Risk, returns to his office building in downtown Los Angeles late one night. He is clearly in pain as he sits down at his desk and begins dictating a memo into a Dictaphone machine for colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a claims adjuster. The dictation becomes the story of the film, which is told in flashback:

Neff first meets the sultry Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) during a routine house call to renew an automobile insurance policy for her husband. A flirtation develops, at least until Phyllis asks how she could take out a policy on her husband's life without his knowing it. Neff realizes she is contemplating murder, and he wants no part of it.

Phyllis pursues Neff to his own home, though, and ups the ante — or at least the voltage — of her flirtation; Neff's gullibility and libido quickly overcome his caution, and he agrees that the two of them, together, will kill her husband. Neff knows all the tricks of his trade, of course, and comes up with a plan in which Phyllis's husband will die an unlikely death, in this case falling from a moving train. The "accidental" nature of his demise will trigger the "double indemnity" clause of the policy, forcing Pacific All Risk to pay the widow twice the normal amount.

The couple carry out their plan. Neff hides in the back seat of the car that Phyllis is driving, and kills Mr. Dietrichson. Neff, escorted by Phyllis, then boards the train, pretending to be her husband on a trip to Palo Alto for a college reunion. He uses a pair of crutches because Dietrichson has recently broken a leg. He also identifies himself as Dietrichson to a passenger from Oregon he encounters after the train pulls out of the station. Neff jumps off, safely, and he and Phyllis place Deitrichson's body on the tracks. Phyllis drives Neff home.

Mr. Norton, the company's chief, believes the death was suicide and is prepared to settle with Phyllis; but, Investigator Keyes dissuades him by quoting statistics indicating the improbability of suicide, to Neff's initial delight.

Keyes does not suspect foul play at first, but the "little man" in his chest keeps nagging that all is not right with this case. He eventually concludes that the Dietrichson woman and some unknown accomplice must be behind the husband's death. He has no reason to be suspicious of Neff, a colleague he has worked with for quite some time and actually views with considerable paternal affection.

Keyes, however, is not Neff's only worry. The victim's daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), comes to him, convinced that stepmother Phyllis is behind her father's death: it seems Lola's mother also died under suspicious circumstances — while Phyllis was her nurse. Neff's concern goes beyond his fear that Lola might blow the whistle on the murder; he is not such a heel that he doesn't begin to care about what might happen to the girl, whose parents have both been murdered.

Keyes, now suspecting Dietrichson was murdered, is prepared to reject the claim and force Mrs. Dietrichson to sue in order to expose her. Neff warns Phyllis not to sue and admits he has been talking to Lola about her past.

Then he learns Phyllis is seeing Lola's boyfriend Nino behind her — and his own — back. Phyllis's brazen unfaithfulness helps wake Neff from his romantic haze and he wants to save himself from his dire involvement with her and with murder. He reasons that the only way out is to make the police think Phyllis and Nino did the murder, which is what the tenacious Keyes now believes anyway.

Neff's Dictaphonic confession book-ends the story, which is told as a flashback

Neff and Phyllis meet at her house and she tells him she has been seeing Nino only to provoke him into killing the suspicious Lola in a jealous rage. Neff is now wholly disgusted and is about to kill Phyllis when she shoots him first. Badly wounded but still standing, he advances on her, taunting her to shoot again. She does not shoot and he takes the gun from her. She says she never loved him "until a minute ago, when I couldn't fire that second shot." Neff coldly says he does not believe her; she tries hugging him tightly but then pulls away and looks pleadingly at him when she feels the gun pressed against her side. Neff says "Goodbye, baby," then shoots twice and kills her.

Outside, Neff hides in the bushes and intercepts Nino as he approaches, ostensibly to visit his lover, Phyllis. Neff advises him to not enter the house, but to leave and contact "the woman who truly loves you" — Lola. Nino agrees and heads out, avoiding what would have been damning evidence against him if he'd entered the murder house.

Neff, gravely injured, drives to his office, seats himself at the Dictaphone, and starts explaining. Keyes arrives in mid-confession and hears enough to understand everything. Neff tells Keyes he is going to Mexico rather than face a death sentence — but sags to the floor before he can reach the elevator. With Keyes looking down at him, Neff says the reason Keyes couldn't solve the case was because Neff was "too close" as a fellow employee. Keyes tells Neff he was "much closer than that." Neff responds, "I love you too," and puts a cigarette in his mouth. Neff is unable to light the match with his thumb, as he has done throughout the film, so Keyes lights it with his.


1950s trailer for early TV broadcasts of Double Indemnity



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.[2] In that crime, Ruth Snyder persuaded her boyfriend, Judd Gray, to kill her husband Albert after having him take out a big insurance policy — with a double-indemnity clause.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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,[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]


Murderers' worst nightmare: Keyes drives the plot as he pursues the murderers

After Paramount purchased the rights to the novella for Wilder, the next step was a screenplay. The material was widely regarded around Hollywood as unfilmable due its iniquitous characters and the restrictions imposed by the Code. Although he had worked on the treatment, tweedy Charles Brackett decided it was too sordid for his uppercrust sensibilities and bowed out of the project, leaving Wilder to find another collaborator. His first choice, James M. Cain himself, was already working for another studio and unavailable (although Cain claimed he was never asked).[10] Producer Joseph Sistrom, an avid reader and an admirer of The Big Sleep, then suggested Raymond Chandler.

Wilder would later recall with disappointment his first meeting with Chandler. Envisioning a former private detective who had worked his own experiences into gritty prose, he instead met a man he would later describe as looking like an accountant. Chandler was new to Hollywood, but saw it as a golden opportunity. Not realizing that he would be collaborating with Wilder, he demanded $1000 and said he would need at least a week to complete the screenplay, to which Wilder and Sistrom simply looked at one another in amazement. After the first weekend, Chandler presented eighty pages that Wilder characterized as "useless camera instruction";[11] Wilder quickly put it aside and informed Chandler that they would be working together, slowly and meticulously. By all accounts, the pair did not get along during their four months together. At one point Chandler even quit, submitting a long list of grievances to Paramount as to why he could no longer work with Wilder. Wilder, however, stuck it out, admiring Chandler's gift with words and knowing that his dialogue would translate very well to the screen.[2]

Initially, Wilder and Chandler had intended to retain as much of Cain’s original dialogue as possible. It was Chandler, ironically, who first realized that the dialogue from the novella would not translate well to the screen. Wilder disagreed and was annoyed that Chandler was not putting more of it into the script. To settle it, Wilder hired a couple of contract players from the studio to read passages of Cain’s original dialogue aloud. To his astonishment, Chandler was right and, in the end, the movie’s cynical and provocative dialogue was more Chandler and Wilder than it was Cain.[12] Chandler also did a lot of fieldwork while working on the script and took large volumes of notes. By visiting various locations that figured into the film, he was able to bring a sense of realism about Los Angeles that seeped into the script. For example, he hung around Jerry's Market on Melrose Avenue in preparation for the scene where Phyllis and Walter would disceetly meet to plan the murder.[13]

Writer Raymond Chandler (seated) in the only film footage known to exist of him

The tumultuous relationship between Wilder and Chandler only enhanced the product of their collaboration. Wilder, in fact, believed that discord, a tug-of-war, was a vital ingredient necessary for a fruitful collaboration: "If two people think alike," he once said, "it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off of."[14] His tugging with Chandler did have a softer side, it seems: over 60 years after the film's initial release, it was discovered that Chandler had agreed to appear in a fleeting cameo at 16:12 into the film, glancing up from a book as Neff walks past in the hallway. This is notable because, other than a snippet from a home movie, there is no other footage of Chandler known anywhere.[15]

When Chandler came to work with Wilder he was already a recovering alcoholic. As Wilder noted, "He was in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I think he had a tough time with me — I drove him back into drinking...".[16] By the time the picture was released, Chandler was thoroughly disillusioned with the writers' lot in Hollywood; he published an angry piece titled "Writers in Hollywood" for The Atlantic Monthly in November 1945 in which he complained, "The first picture I worked on was nominated for an Academy Award (if that means anything), but I was not even invited to the press review held right in the studio." He neglected, however, to mention that the studio had kept him on salary during the eight-week shooting schedule and that no changes to the script were allowed without his approval — a very rare accommodation for screenwriters, particularly newcomers, in those days.[17] Offended, Wilder responded by saying, "We didn't invite him? How could we? He was under the table drunk at Lucy's," a nearby watering hole for Paramount employees. This relationship with Chandler is what drew Wilder to his next project, the Best Picture-winning The Lost Weekend, about an alcoholic writer. Wilder made the film, in part, "to explain Chandler to himself."[2]

Cain himself was very pleased with the way his book turned out on the screen. After seeing the picture half a dozen times he was quoted as saying, " ... It's 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, and 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."[18]

Wilder's and Brackett's estrangement during Double Indemnity was not a permanent one. Years later Wilder would characterize their time apart as just another kind of adultery: "1944 was 'The Year of Infidelities,'" he said. "Charlie produced The Uninvited...I wrote Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler... I don't think he ever forgave me. He always thought I cheated on him with Raymond Chandler." Brackett spun the breakup in a decidedly different light, saying, "Billy got so despondent at being without me that we did The Lost Weekend, a depressing film about a writer who has trouble writing."[19] Lost Weekend was a distinguished offspring for the reconciled couple — they left Oscar night with three Awards: Best Picture for producer Brackett, Best Director for Wilder, and a shared pair of statuettes for both for Best Screenplay. They worked together through Sunset Boulevard in 1950, then split for good.


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.[20] 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.

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.[2] (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.[21]) Given the nature of the role, Stanwyck was reluctant to take the part, fearing it would have an adverse affect 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.[22]

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 Frederic March passed on it.[23] 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.[23]

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."[25] 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.[26] 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. 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.[27] 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.[28]

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 added gas chamber ending was unneeded, Wilder realized, so he shelved it

The original ending to the Cain novella called for the characters to commit double suicide. Suicide, however, was strictly forbidden at the time by the Hays Production Code as a way to resolve a plot, so Wilder wrote and filmed a different ending in which Neff 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.[29] 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,"[30] despite its $150,000 cost to the studio.[29] Removal of the scene, over Chandler's objection,[28] also removed the Hays Office'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.[31] The footage and sound elements are lost, but production stills of the scene still exist.

The look of the film was achieved through the work of cinematographer John F. Seitz. At the time, Seitz was the premiere director of photography on the Paramount lot; his work extended all the way back to the silent era. Wilder had worked with Seitz on his previous film, Five Graves to Cairo, in which Seitz was nominated for an Academy Award and Wilder praised Seitz's willingness to experiment and fail.[32] Here Wilder taps into his 1920s Berlin roots, and he and Seitz give the film a look subtly reminiscent of German expressionism, with dramatic deployment of light and shadows.[33] "He was ready for anything," Wilder said. "Sometimes the rushes were so dark that you couldn't see anything. He went to the limits of what could be done."[34] They would contrast the bright sunny Southern California exteriors, shot on location, with dark, gloomy, rotten interiors shot on soundstages to give the audience a sense of what lurks just beneath the facade — and just who is capable of murder.[2] The contrast was heightened, in Wilder's words, by "dirtying up" the sets. Once the set was ready for filming, Wilder would go around and overturn a few ashtrays to give the house an appropriately grubby look. Wilder and Seitz also blew aluminum particles into the air so that, as they floated down, they looked just like dust.[35]

Use of "venetian blind" lighting would become a stock-in-trade film noir look

Another technique Seitz used was "venetian blind" lighting which almost gives the illusion of prison bars trapping the characters. Barbara Stanwyck later reflected, "...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."[36]

For Neff's office at Pacific All Risk, Wilder and set designer Hal Pereira conspired to create a little in-house joke, typical of Billy Wilder. In the opening scenes, as Walter Neff stumbles off the elevator on his way to his office to record his confession, the vast two-tiered office is empty and dark. With the camera following him, Neff lurches towards the balcony railing overlooking rows and rows of uniform corporate desks. Neff turns left, but the camera continues forward until it reaches the brink and stares down for an anxious moment into a colorless American business purgatory. Here, Pereira is said to have copied an existing office: the corporate headquarters of Paramount Pictures in New York City.[37][38]

Wilder also decked Stanwyck out in the blonde wig "to complement her anklet...and to make her look as sleazy as possible."[22] This wig has been cited by some as being the picture's biggest flaw claiming that it looks too “fake”.[2] According to Wilder, this was exactly what he was going for when he chose the wig wanting to project, "the phoniness of the girl — Bad taste, phony wig," with cheap perfume to match.[39] Unconvinced, Paramount production head Buddy DeSylva was overheard to say, "We hired Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington."[22]

Hired Stanwyck but got George Washington, grumbled Paramount boss DeSylva — until the receipts came in. 1944 press kit photo

The production was not without its lucky accidents: The company had just finished shooting the final segment of the sequence where Phyllis and Walter make their getaway after dumping their victim's body on the tracks. The crew was breaking for lunch before striking the set. In the script, the pair get in their car and simply drive away. But as Wilder got into his own car to leave, it wouldn't start. Inspired, he ran back and ordered the crew back. Wilder reshot the scene, only this time as Phyllis starts the car, the motor stalls and won't turn over. She tries several more times, but the car won't start and the two look at each other in growing panic. Walter desperately reaches over, turns the key and guns the motor, finally starting the car. Only then do they speed away from the crime scene. The result was one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film, but was not in the original script.[40] MacMurray was surprised when he first saw it onscreen: "...When I... 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."[41]

Wilder managed to bring the whole production in under budget at $927,262 despite $370,000 in salaries for just four people ($100,000 each for MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson, and $70,000 — $44,000 for writing and $26,000 for directing — for himself).[42]


The score to Double Indemnity was composed by Miklós Rózsa, whose work on Wilder's previous film, Five Graves to Cairo, had been his first real Hollywood engagement for a major studio. Wilder had praised that work and promised to use Rózsa on his next film. Wilder had the idea of using a restless string figure (like the opening to Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony) to reflect the conspiratorial activities of Walter and Phyllis against her husband which Rózsa felt was a good one. As work progressed, Wilder's enthusiasm about Rózsa's score only grew, but the studio's Musical Director, Louis Lipstone, was of a different mind; he and Wilder had previously clashed over some post-production cuts he had made to the Five Graves score which created problems with the music's continuity and logic. Now the two were coming to loggerheads again.[43][44]

When it came time to record the score for Double Indemnity, Lipstone made no secret that he despised what Rózsa had done, to which Wilder finally turned to him and snapped, "You may be surprised to hear that I love it. Okay?" Lipstone then disappeared and was not seen at the sessions again. He later summoned Rózsa to his office and reprimanded him for writing "Carnegie Hall music" which had no place in a film. Rózsa took this as a compliment, but Lipstone assured him it was not — and suggested he listen to the music from Madame Curie to learn how to write a proper film score. When Rózsa pointed out that Double Indemnity was a love story, Lipstone suggested his music was more appropriate to The Battle of Russia.[43][45] Lipstone was convinced that as soon as the studio's Artistic Director, Buddy DeSylva, heard the music he would throw it out. At a screening soon after, DeSylva called him over: expecting heads to roll, Lipstone eagerly huddled with his chief — only to have DeSylva praise the music, saying it was exactly the dissonant, hard-hitting score the film needed. The boss's only criticism: there was not enough of it. By this time Lipstone had an arm around DeSylva, asking unctuously, "I always find you the right guy for the job, Buddy, don't I?"[46]

The score would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award, and the success brought Rózsa offers to do as many films as he had time for.[46]


Southern Pacific Depot, Glendale, a "star" in 1944, now carefully preserved

Exteriors of the Dietrichson house in the film were shot at a 3,200-square-foot (300 m2), Spanish Colonial Revival house built in 1927. The house can still be seen today and is located at 6301 Quebec Drive[39] in the Beachwood Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. The production team copied the interior of the house, including the spiral staircase, almost exactly on a soundstage at Paramount.[47]

The exterior of the train station in the film was the Mission Revival Style Southern Pacific Railroad Depot in Glendale, California built in 1923. The station can now be seen as part of the Glendale Transportation Center and was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 2, 1997.[48]

Other locations around Los Angeles used in the film were an apartment building at 1825 N. Kingsley Drive in Hollywood where Walter Neff lived and the building on the southwest corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Western. That building still stands, but the Newman Drug Store originally on the ground floor is no longer there.[49]

On screens: 1944 and since

Critical reception

Audiences flocked to theatres urged on by positive notices despite sordid subject

Double Indemnity opened on September 6, 1944 and was an immediate hit with audiences — despite a campaign by singer Kate Smith imploring the public to stay away on moral grounds.[50] As James M. Cain recalled, “…there was a little trouble caused by this fat girl, Kate Smith, who carried on a propaganda asking people to stay away from the picture. Her advertisement probably put a million dollars on its gross.”[51]

Reviews from the critics were largely positive, though the content of the story made some uncomfortable. While some reviewers found the story implausible and disturbing, others praised it as an original thriller. In his mixed review of the film in The New York Times, film critic Bosley Crowther called the picture "...Steadily diverting, despite its monotonous pace and length." He complained that the two lead characters "...lack the attractiveness to render their fate of emotional consequence," but also felt the movie possessed a "...realism reminiscent of the bite of past French films."[52]

Howard Barnes at the New York Herald Tribune was much more enthusiastic, calling Double Indemnity " of the most vital and arresting films of the year," and praising Wilder's "...magnificent direction and a whale of a script." The trade paper Variety, meanwhile, said the film "...sets a new standard for screen treatment in its category."[52]

Influential radio host and Hearst paper 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."[53]

Philip K. Scheur, the Los Angeles Times movie critic, ranked it with The Human Comedy, The Maltese Falcon, and Citizen Kane as Hollywood trailblazers, while Alfred Hitchcock himself wrote Wilder that "Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are 'Billy' and 'Wilder'".[53]

The film's critical reputation has only grown over the years. In 1977, notably terse critic-historian Leslie Halliwell gave it an unusual 4-star (top) rating, and wrote: "Brilliantly filmed and incisively written, perfectly capturing the decayed Los Angeles atmosphere of a Chandler novel, but using a simpler story and more substantial characters."[54] In his 1998 review, film critic Roger Ebert praised director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz. He wrote, "The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings."[55]

Academy Award nominations

At the 17th Academy Awards on March 15, 1945, Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars, but did not win any.[56]

Award Category Nominee Result
17th Academy Awards Best Motion Picture Lost to Going My WayLeo McCarey Producer
Best Director Billy Wilder Lost to Leo McCarey for Going My Way
Best Actress Barbara Stanwyck Lost to Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight
Best Writing, Screenplay Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler Lost to Frank Butler and Frank Cavett for Going My Way
Best Cinematography — Black and White John F. Seitz Lost to Joseph LaShelle for Laura
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture Miklós Rózsa Lost to Max Steiner for Since You Went Away
Best Sound, Recording Loren Ryder Lost to Edmund H. Hansen for Wilson

Wilder went to the awards ceremony expecting to win even though the studio had been backing their other big hit of the year, Leo McCarey's Going My Way and studio employees were expected to vote for the studio favorite. As the awards show wore on and Double Indemnity lost in category after category, it became evident that it was going to be a Going My Way sweep. McCarey beamed as his picture won award after award and when he was named Best Director, Wilder could no longer take it. When McCarey got up to make his way to the stage to accept the award for best picture, Wilder, sitting on the aisle, stuck out his foot and tripped him. "Mr. McCarey...stumbled perceptibly," he gleefully recalled.[57] After the ceremony while he and his wife Judith were waiting for his limousine to arrive, he yelled out so loudly that everybody could hear him, "What the hell does the Academy Award mean, for God's sake? After all — Luise Rainer won it two times. Luise Rainer!"[58]

Others awards

American Film Institute recognition

  • 1998 AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies #38
  • 2001 AFI's 100 Years…100 Thrills #24
  • 2002 AFI's 100 Years…100 Passions #84
  • 2003 AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains:
  • 2007 AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #29
Darkly sparkling Chandler dialogue inspired 4 radio plays and a TV-film remake


Double Indemnity was adapted as a radio play on two broadcasts of The Screen Guild Theater, first on March 5, 1945 with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, then five years later on February 16, 1950 with Stanwyck and Robert Taylor.[59] It was also adapted to the October 15, 1948 broadcast of the Ford Theatre with Burt Lancaster and Joan Bennett[60] and the October 30, 1950 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with MacMurray and Stanwyck.[61]

Other films inspired by the Snyder-Gray murder include The Postman Always Rings Twice (also based on a Cain novel) and Body Heat (1981). Both Postman and Double Indemnity were remade: Double Indemnity was a telemovie in 1973 starring Richard Crenna (who also starred in Body Heat), Lee J. Cobb, and Samantha Eggar;[62] it is included on a bonus disc in the American DVD release of the original film. The Postman Rings remake was a 1981 theatrical release. An Indian film, Jism (2003), was also inspired by the film.

Double Indemnity is one of the films parodied in the 1993 film Fatal Instinct; the hero's wife conspires to have him shot on a moving train and fall into a lake so that she can collect on his insurance, which has a "triple indemnity" rider. Carol Burnett parodied the film as "Double Calamity" on her TV show.

Imitators, rivals, reflections

After the success of Double Indemnity, imitators of the film's plot and style were rampant. In 1945, Producers Releasing Corporation, one of the B movie studios of Hollywood’s Poverty Row, was set to release a blatant rip-off titled Single Indemnity starring Ann Savage and Hugh Beaumont. Paramount quickly slapped an injunction on the cut-rate potboiler that remains in force to this day. PRC eventually edited its film down to 67 minutes, re-titled it Apology for Murder, and sold it to television in the early '50s as part of a syndicated half-hour mystery show.[63]

So many imitations flooded the market, in fact, that James M. Cain believed he deserved credit and remuneration. Unfortunately for Cain, he could not copyright the market on murder. Instead he led a movement within the Screen Writers Guild to create the American Author's Authority, a union that would own its members' works, negotiate better subsidiary deals, and protect against copyright infringement on behalf of its members. This was, however, the depth of the Red Scare in Hollywood and Guild members rejected the socialist notion and ran from the attempt.[64]

It was not uncommon at the time for studios to take out ads in trade journals promoting the virtues of their own films. David O. Selznick, no stranger to self-aggrandizement, frequently sought to put a high-culture patina on his pictures with "trade-book" ads. At just the time Double Indemnity was released, Selznick's latest tearjerker, Since You Went Away, was enjoying some box office success. In his ads, Selznick quoted various dignitaries claiming it was the finest picture they had ever seen, how it served such a noble purpose, how it elevated humanity to new levels — no high-toned platitude was too lofty to invoke. Indeed, the ad averred, the words Since You Went Away had become "the four most important words uttered in motion picture history since Gone with the Wind."[65] The petulant Wilder despised such ostentation, so he placed an ad of his own: Double Indemnity, it claimed, were the two most important words uttered in motion picture history since Broken Blossoms, thus comparing D. W. Griffith's artistic 1919 classic with his own sordid story of iniquitous murder. Selznick was not amused and threatened to stop advertising in any of the trades if they continued to run Wilder's ads.[50]

Wilder himself considered Double Indemnity his best film in terms of having the fewest scripting and shooting mistakes[66] and always maintained that the two things he was proudest of in his career were the compliments he received from Cain about Double Indemnity and from Agatha Christie for his handling of her Witness for the Prosecution.[53]

Wilder was not only proud of his film, he was plainly fond of it as well: "I never heard that expression, film noir, when I made Double Indemnity... I just made pictures I would have liked to see. When I was lucky, it coincided with the taste of the audience. With Double Indemnity, I was lucky."[67]


  1. ^ Sikov, Ed (1998). On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-6194-0. p. 211
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Shadows of Suspense". Double Indemnity Universal Legacy Series DVD (Universal Studios). 2006. 
  3. ^ While the story certainly used the Snyder case as a framework, it lacked an important ingredient of the Double Indemnity structure: the "inside-guy accomplice" to the murder — the Walter Neff character. Cain later recalled this key innovation stemmed from a conversation he had years earlier with reporter Arthur Krock about Krock's days at the Louisville Courier-Journal. An ad for ladies underwear was typeset to read: IF THESE SIZES ARE TOO BIG, TAKE A TUCK IN THEM. But when the paper hit the street, the T in tuck had been changed to an F. A furious Krock reset the ad for the next edition and demanded an explanation on how it happened. After two days of bullying the printer, the man finally confessed, "…you do nothing your whole life but watch for something like that happening, so as to head it off, and then, Mr. Krock, you catch yourself watching for chances to do it." Cain also recalled another conversation he had with some insurance men in Los Angeles while verifying facts for Postman. Said one: "[People] think this stuff all comes from the police. That’s wrong. All the big crime mysteries in this country are locked up in insurance company files, and the writer that gets wise to that... is going to make himself rich." And thus was born Neff, who jumped the tracks after fifteen years playing it straight in the insurance business. Armed now with a sense of his hero-gone-wrong, Cain sat down to begin writing the story in 1934. (Source: Hoopes (1982), Cain.)
  4. ^ Gallo, Bill (2005). "When 'Dem Bums' Were Kings," New York Daily News, October 4, 2005.
  5. ^ Lally, Kevin (1996). Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. New York: Henry Holt and Company. pp. 125–126. ISBN 0-8050-3119-7. 
  6. ^ Lally, p. 126
  7. ^ Phillips, Gene D. (2010). Some Like it Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 54. ISBN 978-0813125701. 
  8. ^ Lally, p. 127
  9. ^ Hoopes, Roy (1982). Cain. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 347–348. ISBN 0-03-049331-5. 
  10. ^ McGilligan, Patrick (1986). Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age. Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05689-2. p.127
  11. ^ Lally, p. 128
  12. ^ Phillips, Gene D. (2000). Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 170. ISBN 0-8131-2174-4. 
  13. ^ Phillips, Creatures, p. 170
  14. ^ Phillips, Some Like, p 17.
  15. ^ Wooton, Adrian (June 5, 2009). "Chandler's double identity". The Guardian. Retrieved June 7, 2009. 
  16. ^ Lally, p. 129
  17. ^ Phillips, Creatures, p. 181
  18. ^ McGilligan, p. 125
  19. ^ Sikov, pp. 197-213
  20. ^ Muller, Eddie (1998). Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-18076-4. p. 56
  21. ^ Flint, Peter B. "Fred MacMurray Is Dead at 83; Versatile Film and Television Star." The New York Times, November 6, 1991. MacMurray made $420,000 in 1943.
  22. ^ a b c d Lally, p. 135
  23. ^ a b Lally, p. 134
  24. ^ Zolotow, Maurice (1977). Billy Wilder In Hollywood. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 399-11789-X. p. 117.
  25. ^ Phillips, Some Like, p. 61
  26. ^ Sikov, p. 202
  27. ^ Sikov, p. 203
  28. ^ a b Zolotow, p. 118
  29. ^ a b Lally, p. 137
  30. ^ Phillips, Creatures, p. 180
  31. ^ Lally, p. 138
  32. ^ Lally, p. 124
  33. ^ Lally, p. 136
  34. ^ Sikov, p. 206
  35. ^ Phillips, Some Like, p. 63
  36. ^ Muller, p. 58
  37. ^ Sikov, p. 207
  38. ^ Sixteen years later, Wilder would score notability again with the design of an insurance company office: in 1960's The Apartment, he and art director Alexandre Trauner constructed a huge office made even more intimidating by bending "parallel" lines inward and using progressively smaller and smaller desks — and smaller and smaller extras to populate them — farther back from the camera, to make the cavernous, harshly-lit space seem even more vast. (Source: Ebert, Roger. The Chicago Sun Times, film review.)
  39. ^ a b Phillips, Some Like, p. 62
  40. ^ Phillips, Creatures, pp. 175-176
  41. ^ Zolotow, p. 116
  42. ^ Sikov, p. 211
  43. ^ a b Sikov, pp. 210-211
  44. ^ Rózsa, Miklós (1982). Double Life: The Autobiography of Miklós Rózsa. New York: Hippocrene Books. ISBN 0-88256-688-X. p. 119
  45. ^ Rózsa, pp. 121
  46. ^ a b Rózsa, pp. 122
  47. ^ Prinzing, Debra. "Mae Brunken's Beachwood Canyon Home in the Hollywood Hills." Los Angeles Times. September 4, 2009.
  48. ^ Sandell, Scott (November 7, 2008). "Sex, death and architecture: an L.A. noir tour". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on July 14, 2010. Retrieved July 14, 2010. 
  49. ^ Cress, Robby (May 17, 2009). "Double Identity: Film Locations". The Guardian. Retrieved July 24, 2010. 
  50. ^ a b Sikov, p. 213
  51. ^ McGilligan, p. 128
  52. ^ a b Lally, p. 139
  53. ^ a b c Hoopes, p. 347
  54. ^ Walker, John (ed.) Halliwell's Film Guide, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994, p.344 ISBN 0-06-273241-2
  55. ^ Roger Ebert "Double Indemnity (1944)", Chicago Sun-Times, December 20, 1998. Last accessed: December 29, 2007
  56. ^ "The 17th Academy Awards (1945) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-15. 
  57. ^ Lally, p. 140
  58. ^ Zolotow, p. 123
  59. ^
  60. ^
  61. ^
  62. ^ Double Indemnity (1973) at the Internet Movie Database. Passenger travel by train was so passé by 1973 that the latter-day scripters had to add an exchange where Phyllis asks Neff about the role of the train in his plan, and Neff answers that there is still a passenger train that runs up the West Coast.
  63. ^ Dixon, Wheeler. "Senses of Cinema". Retrieved July 26, 2010. 
  64. ^ Muller, p. 59
  65. ^ Sikov, p. 212
  66. ^ "One Head Is Better Than Two," in Films and Filming (London), February 1957.
  67. ^ Chandler, Charlotte, (2002). Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-1709-8. p. 114

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