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  • Writer's pictureThomas Duncan

Double Indemnity (1944)


What is this movie is about?/Elevator Pitch: Attraction, deceit, and getting in to something over your head.


Plot Summary: Late at night, an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) stumbles into his office, bleeding from a wound to his left shoulder. He starts to record a memo for Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) a claims investigator for Neff’s insurance company. The memo recounts how Neff fell for a client’s wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and how the two plotted to murder her husband and collect his accidental insurance policy. Knowing that a clause in the contract pays double if he is killed on a train, Neff plots the murder and the method to make it look like it fell from the train. However, things soon start to unravel as Keyes figures out the plot, and Phyllis proves more than Neff’s lover. Will the two get away with murder and will they collect the double indemnity?


Cast:

  • Billy Wilder, Director/Writer

  • Raymond Chandler, Writer

  • Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson

  • Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes

  • Porter Hall as Mr. Jackson

  • Jean Heather as Lola Dietrichson

  • Tom Powers as Mr. Dietrichson

  • Byron Barr as Nino Zachette

*Recognition:

  • Double Indemnity was released on July 3, 1944. It grossed roughly $5 million on a budget of $980,000, and was a popular hit that year.

  • Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director (Wilder), Actress (Stanwyck), Screenplay (Wilder and Chandler), Cinematography, Music, and Sound, but did not win any. Best Picture went to Going My Way (1944) w/ Bing Crosby.

  • Widely regarded as a classic, it often is cited as having set the standard for film noir.

  • In 1992, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

  • American Film Institute included the film on these lists:

    • 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:

      • Phyllis Dietrichson, Villain #8

    • 2007: AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #29

  • Wilder considered Double Indemnity his best film in terms of having the fewest scripting and shooting errors, and always maintained that the two things he was proudest of in his career were the compliments he received from James M. Cain, the novel writer of Double Indemnity, and from Agatha Christie for his handling of her Witness for the Prosecution.

  • Double Indemnity current holds a 97% among critics on RT, a 95 score on Metacritic, and a 4.2 out of 5 on Letterboxd.

Did You Know:

  • 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 whilst working as a journalist in New York. 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. 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 news photo of the 1920s.

  • Author James M. Cain later admitted that if he had come up with some of the solutions to the plot that screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did, he would have employed them in his original novel.

  • Raymond Chandler hated the experience of writing the script with Billy Wilder so much that he actually walked out and would not return unless a list of demands was met. The studio acceded to his demands and he returned to finish the script with Wilder, even though the two detested each other. Wilder claimed that he flaunted his womanizing ability at the time just to torment the sexually-repressed Chandler.

  • The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but lost out to Going My Way (1944). Billy Wilder was so seriously annoyed at Leo McCarey's sweep that when McCarey's name was called for Best Director, Wilder stuck his foot out into the aisle, tripping McCarey up. Wilder would get his revenge the following year when The Lost Weekend (1945) won four Oscars, while McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) only picked up one.

  • Edward G. Robinson's initial reluctance to sign on largely stemmed from the fact he wasn't keen on being demoted to third lead. Eventually, he realized that he was at a transitional phase of his career, plus the fact that he was getting paid the same as Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray for doing less work.

  • The house used as Barbara Stanwyck's character's home still stands today at 6301 Quebec Drive.

  • The blonde wig that Barbara Stanwyck is wearing throughout the movie was the idea of Billy Wilder. A month into shooting Wilder suddenly realized how bad it looked, but by then it was too late to re-shoot the earlier scenes. To rationalize this mistake, in later interviews Wilder claimed that the bad-looking wig was intentional. On viewing the film's dailies, production head Buddy G. DeSylva remarked of Barbara Stanwyck's blonde wig, "We hired Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington".

  • When Walter Neff first meets Phyllis Dietrichson, much attention is paid to her ankle bracelet ("anklet"). Urban legend states a married woman wears an anklet to indicate she is married but available to other men.

  • This film came out in 1944, the same year David O. Selznick released "Since You Went Away." Part of the campaign for the latter film were major ads that declared, "'Since You Went Away' are the four most important words in movies since 'Gone With the Wind'!" which Selznick had also produced. Billy Wilder hated the ads and decided to counter by personally buying his own trade paper ads which read, "'Double Indemnity' are the two most important words in movies since 'Broken Blossoms'!" referring to the 1919 D.W. Griffith classic. Selznick was not amused and even considered legal action against Wilder. Alfred Hitchcock (who had his own rocky relationship with Selznick) took out his own ads which read, "The two most important words in movies today are 'Billy Wilder'!"

Best Performance: Fred MacMurray (Walter)/Billy Wilder (Director/Writer)

Best Secondary Performance: Billy Wilder (Director/Writer)/Edward G. Robinson (Keyes)

Most Charismatic Award: Fred MacMurray (Walter)/John F. Seitz (Cinematographer)

Best Scene:

  • Opening

  • First Visit

  • Dietrichson Visits Walter

  • Night of the Murder

  • On the Train

  • Suicide?

  • Keyes Starts to Figure It Out

  • All the Way

  • Zachetti

  • Final Confrontation

  • Keyes Finds Walter

Favorite Scene: All the Way (oh, you're that girl?)

Most Indelible Moment: Keyes Finds Walter


In Memorium:

  • Jim Bohannon, 78, American broadcaster (America in The Morning, Larry King Show, Face the Nation), hosted the "Jim Bohannon Show" on Westwood One for 30 years, and was in the Journalism business for 50 years. Was the backup to Larry King when he was only on radio, and then assumed his slot when King moved to TV in 1993.

  • David English, 76, British actor (A Bridge Too Far, Lisztomania), "Godfather of English Cricket" helped start the careers of thousands of cricketers with his Bunburry School Festivals and also worked on A Bridge Too Far to teach Robert Redford cricket. He was also the manager for both the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton in the 70s.

  • John Aniston, 89, Greek-born American actor (Days of Our Lives, Love of Life, Search for Tomorrow), he just received earlier this year a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on “Days of Our Lives"; father of Jennifer Aniston.

  • Sven-Bertil Taube, 87, Swedish singer and actor (The Eagle Has Landed, Puppet on a Chain, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

  • Kevin Conroy, 66, American actor (Batman: The Animated Series, Search for Tomorrow, Ohara) from NYTimes: "His distinctively deep and raspy voice helped define the character in nearly 60 different productions, including 15 films, 15 animated series that spanned almost 400 episodes, and two dozen video games..."

Best Lines/Funniest Lines:

Walter Neff: Do I laugh now, or wait 'til it gets funny?


Walter Neff: You don't know Keyes. Once he gets his teeth into something he never lets go. He'll investigate you, he'll have you shadowed, he'll watch you every minute from now on. Afraid, baby?

Phyllis: Yes, I'm afraid, but not of Keyes. I'm afraid of us. We're not the same anymore. We did it so we could be together, but now its pulling us apart, isn't it, Walter?


Phyllis: We're both rotten.

Walter Neff: Only you're a little more rotten.


Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?


Edward S. Norton: That witness from the train, what was his name?

Barton Keyes: His name was Jackson. Probably still is.


Barton Keyes: This Dietrichson business. It's murder. And murders don't come any neater. As fancy a piece of homicide as anyone ever ran into. Smart, tricky, almost perfect. But... I think papa has it all figured out. Figured out and wrapped up in tissue paper with... pink ribbons on it.


Barton Keyes: ...A claims man is a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor all in one. And you want to tell me you're not interested. You don't want to work with your brains. All you want to do is work with your finger on the doorbell for a few bucks more a week.


Phyllis: I'm a native Californian. Born right here in Los Angeles.

Walter Neff: They say all native Californians come from Iowa.


Jackson: These are fine cigars you smoke.

Barton Keyes: Two for a quarter.

Jackson: That's what I said.


[Norton, Keyes's boss, has just tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a client that her husband's death was a suicide]

Barton Keyes: You know, you, uh, oughta take a look at the statistics on suicide some time. You might learn a little something about the insurance business.

Edward S. Norton: Mister Keyes, I was RAISED in the insurance business.

Barton Keyes: Yeah, in the front office. Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they've got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by *types* of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from *steamboats*. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we'll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.


The Stanley Rubric:

Legacy: 7

Impact/Significance: 8.75

Novelty: 8.75

Classic-ness: 9.5

Rewatchability: 8

Audience Score: 9.25 (90% Google, 95% RT)

Total: 51.25


Remaining Questions:

  • Does Walter die?

  • What was Phyllis' plan all along?

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