Double Indemnity is the perfect mix of talents that combined to create one of the best films of all time. The movie is based on a brilliant novella by James M. Cain, written for the screen by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, an enterprising film score by Miklós Rózsa and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. Double Indemnity was directed by Billy Wilder who used his movie making instincts to create a classic film noir all others would be measured by.
Wilder's first few films as a director in Hollywood showed no signs of the shadowy world of film noir he would help create. He was known as a comedic writer but he wanted to do more. He wanted to do a thriller. Wilder, working for Paramount Pictures, had the rights to Cain's novella and Barbara Stanwyck was to be the main attraction.
The plot is simple: A housewife plots to rub out hubby with the help of a nasty insurance agent.
Creating a screenplay from the popular novella was a challenge. Austrian-born Wilder wrote for many German films but his had yet to get total command of English. His American writing partner Charles Brackett refused to work on the film due to the racy content - Double Indemnity was a tale of adultery and premeditated murder for hire. Wilder and Brackett knew that a film like this would be nearly impossible to get past censors and a powerful film studio. Wilder, who previously directed two Hollywood films, felt he was up for the challenge but he needed a writing partner. Paramount and Wilder tried to get James M. Cain to co-write the screenplay but he was under contract for another studio. During the exhaustive search Wilder read The Big Sleep and decided that Raymond Chandler would be a good choice since his writing style was similar to Cain's. (interestingly Chandler detested Cain's writing one time writing “Do I, for God's sake, sound like that?)
Most importantly, Chandler could write amazing dialog. Wilder found out early on when reading Cain's characters words aloud – although effective on the page – sounded wrong when read aloud. Chandler and Wilder had their work cut out for them. To make the task of writing the script even harder was the fact that the pair hated each other from day one. Wilder and Cain locked themselves in a room together for weeks and what came out of Billy Wilder's office was pure genius. Cain's crime story was intact but now it featured witty dialog that was a combination of 1930's machine-gun chatter (especially Robinson's speeches) and the laid-back hip dialog that would be Chandler's trademark. The result is a screenplay that actually ends up being more sexual than the novella thanks to an almost non-stop delivery of slick double entendre-laced lines uttered by Phyllis and Neff:
When I was getting ready for this Noir of the Week, I tracked down and read Cain's novella. I poured myself a drink and ending up memorized - reading the story in one long sitting. Cain's story puts you inside the skin of two egotistical killers who will stop at nothing- and makes you care about them. Wilder keeps the spirit of the quick-paced novella as well as Cain's first-person perspective but strips the dialog almost completely. Wilder also no doubt contributed most of the humor to the script that was lacking in the book.
The ending is also very different. In Cain's story Neff and Phyllis Ditrichson (actually called the almost comic Huff and Nirdlinger in the book) end up on the lam on a cruise ship where they plan suicide by jumping ship and get eaten by sharks. Before that there are a few extra twists and turns similar to end of Cain's biggest novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Luckly, Wilder trims most of the fat and wisely ends the film with Neff's confession to Keyes (played by Robinson). Wilder actually shot another ending featuring Neff going to the gas chamber (you can see a still of the scene to the right) but Wilder – like his decision to cut part of Cain's ending – smartly edited himself and ended the tale when Keyes receives his friend Neff's confession late one night in the Bradbury building.
In the novella Keyes is not even liked by Neff. Wilder wisely has the two men admire each other- often telling each other “I love you.” Keyes is a fat obnoxious guy in the book. He's made more lovable just by hiring Robinson in the part – no small casting feat considering Robinson, past his prime, was used to being the lead actor.
The casting of MacMurray is one of the most interesting tales. According to legend the role of Huff was offered to every leading man in Hollywood they could find including George Raft. Wilder was reportedly very relieved that “wooden” Raft turned down the role because he didn't want to be killed in the end. The same reason he turned down another classic High Sierra. MacMurray, a saxophonist turned light comic actor, was eventually hired but never felt comfortable in the role. Most of his scenes with Stanwyck and Robinson made him feel like his was in over his head. Despite his self-doubt MacMurray is perfect. He not only nails the character but he adds something to Huff that wasn't in the novella. When he first meets the sunbathing Phyllis – wearing only a towel and anklet - he has a look of a man who's meet his share of lonely housewives before. He knows what Phyllis is all about and you can see in his face that he's quickly coming up with a plan to bed her before she even speaks. His flirting and laid-back line delivery would later be aped by every film noir to follow.
The casting of Stanwyck was a no brainer. The book called for a blonde with slightly buck teeth. Babs was also the biggest actress in the world. Having her in the lead no doubt made it easier for Wilder to get the film made.
Stanwyck and her director adds a lot to her role as Phyllis. Cain was known for his Hemingway-esque writing which didn't include a lot of details. Working with a mostly clean slate Wilder created Stanwyck's cheap but brassy look including a blonde wig and the worlds most memorable ankle bracelet. She plays the part of a cheap but sexy femme fatale with gusto but at the same time tones down her beauty by wearing that ugly wig and over lipsticked mouth – which ended up looking wonderfully black on screen. You can see why men would do anything for her. Her looks and body language made her a man trap that none could escape.
Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun writes: “Already proving her mettle in screwball comedy, Stanwyck took on the dark art of film noir with nasty brilliance. Creating one of noir's most inspired, iconic femmes fatales, Stanwyck's double-crossing, bitch-seductress Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder's seminal Double Indemnity remains unparalleled. Donning the now famous blond wig, a sexy, cynical smirk and (dear God!) that anklet, she oozes a snaky sex appeal that manages to be evil and, in flashes, vulnerable. After eyeing her mark in Fred MacMurray's insurance salesman, Stanwyck convinces the lovesick lug to help plot and execute the murder of her husband in the hopes of cashing in on the dead man's insurance policy and supposedly living happily ever after. But, as usual in these situations, nothing ever comes off without a hitch -- numerous hitches, in this case. All dolled up in pom-pom heels, creamy sweaters and dramatically lined lips, Stanwyck's Phyllis, who's not as young as she used to be and not quite as lush, can't hide the poison within her. And her chemistry with MacMurray sizzles as they swap barbs and coos with sleazy ease. They yearn for more, but Stanwyck, the prototypical noir siren, seems perfectly aware of how fatalistic this kind of dream really is. Sometimes murder really does smell like honeysuckle.”
Restrictions due to the Hayes code actually made Double Indemnity a better film. Not being allowed to show sex instead it was implied with clever editing– and I bet it was fantastic. Instead of showing the murder the camera pans to a smug Barbara Stanwyck while the killing takes place off camera - for the first time in the film revealing that maybe Neff isn't as smart as he thinks he is.
Double Indemnity was released September 1944 and it rocked the film world. The a dark back-and-white tale of lust, greed and murder told from the killers point of view – distinctly different when compared other noir born around the same time including The Maltese Falcon – was a box office hit. Double Indemnity competed against romantic thrillers and Hollywood melodramas at the 1944 Oscars – the film lost the Best Picture award to the Bing Crosby-starrer Going My Way. In fact was shutout in all Oscar categories. No one knew how influential this film would eventually become.
There's so much you can say about a film like this. From it's opening shot of a car speeding through a stop light foreshadowing things to come to Wilder's brilliant use of flashbacks (also used to great effect in Sunset Blvd.) the film is a piece of art that you can watch over and over again.
Wilder was inspired by Hitchcock films when he made Double Indemnity. But he ended up doing something much more than a Hitchcockian thriller. Thanks to the film's success Wilder became a movie maker that could take nearly any controversial subject and not only film it but earn big money at the box office at the same time. More importantly helped define an American style of film making that survives and inspires today.