Director: Billy Wilder
Production: Paramount Pictures; 1944; black and white, 355mm; running time: 107 minutes. Released 7 September 1944. Filmed 27 September-24 November 1943 in Paramount studios, and on location in Jerry's Market in Los Angeles.
Producer: Joseph Sistrom; screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, from the novel 3 of a Kind by James M. Cain; photography: John F. Sitz; editor: Doane Harrison; sound: Stanley Cooley; art director: Hal Pereira; supervisor: Hans Dreier; set decoration: Bertram Granger; music: Miklos Rozsa; costume designer: Edith Head.
Cast: 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 Zachette); Richard Gaines (Mr. Norton); Fortunio Bonanova (Sam Gorlopis); John Philliber (Joe Pete); Clarence Muse (Black man).
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* * *
Although James M. Cain's memorable novel of crime and passion, The Postman Always Rings Twice, predated his equally potent, similarly themed Double Indemnity by almost a decade, it is Indemnity that has proven the more influential, due largely to the uncompromising and suspenseful film writer-director Billy Wilder made from it. Wilder's film remains the model for just about every film noir of this type (Born to Kill, The Prowler, The Pushover, Body Heat, et al.) to come our way since.
Cain's novel was translated to the screen with the full force of the author's ugly tale of lust, greed, and murder intact. In fact, the film version is in many ways tougher than its source. Wilder's intention to make it so prompted his longtime partner, writer-producer Charles Brackett, to back away from the project even though he and Wilder were one of Hollywood's most successful teams. Brackett found Cain's book distasteful and felt the film would be little more than a "dirty movie." He told Wilder to get another collaborator. Wilder tried to get Cain himself, but the author was busy on another project, and Wilder opted for Raymond Chandler instead.
Chandler detested working with Wilder and disliked the final film. Cain on the other hand totally approved of what Wilder had done to his book, even considered it an improvement. The two works are certainly different. In addition to changing the names of Cain's main characters (in the book they are Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger), Wilder changed the ending and altered other aspects of the story as well. Whereas Cain unfolded his tale in a linear manner, Wilder revealed the fate of his protagonist in the opening scene. Insurance investigator MacMurray arrives at his office mortally wounded and confesses into the dictaphone of his colleague, Robinson, the murder plot and insurance scam gone awry that led to MacMurray's downfall. Wilder cuts back to the dying MacMurray several times, but for the most part the film unfolds as a series of flashbacks showing how MacMurray got embroiled with femme fatale Stanwyck in a scheme to murder her oilman husband, make it look like an accident, collect a bundle on the husband's double indemnity claim, and run away together. But when their scheme began to unravel, their relationship fell apart, and they wound up shooting each other. (In the book, the lovers get away with the crime because the Robinson character who is hot on their trail has no proof, but are doomed anyway due to their growing mistrust of one another.)
Cain loosely based his novel on the real-life Roaring Twenties case of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray who conspired to murder Snyder's husband for $100,000 in insurance money. Snyder and Gray were caught and went to the chair. An enterprising newspaper reporter smuggled a camera into the execution chamber and snapped a shot of Snyder moments before the juice was turned on. The ghoulish shot caused a furor when it was published in the paper. Wilder wanted to end his film with a similar scene showing MacMurray's execution in California's gas chamber. The scene was shot, but Wilder decided against using it; he felt it to be too strong and anticlimactic as well. He replaced it with the trenchantly written and beautifully performed final confrontation scene between the self-destructive MacMurray and the fatherly Robinson that movingly concludes this exceptionally fine and biting film noir. As MacMurray slumps to the floor, he tells Robinson how he'd been able to elude the dogged investigator. "Because the guy you were looking for was too close, Keyes. Right across the desk from you." "Closer than that," Robinson responds emotionally as the film fades to black.
Double Indemnity (1935) is one of the classic, tough-talking murder stories of the late 1930s. Written by controversial mystery novelist James M. Cain (1892-1977), Double Indemnity is based upon a true story about a weak-willed insurance agent, Walter Huff, who falls for sultry blond, Phyllis Nirdlinger. Nirdlinger's inconvenient husband has to be eliminated so that his wife and her lover can collect on his life insurance, a policy which doubles in value if the holder dies by accident.
Like The Postman Always Rings Twice, upon which it is modeled, l'amour fou, or sexually charged obsessive love, is at the heart of this psychologically realistic novel. Cain, along with, for example, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett have been called, perhaps unjustly in Cain's case, members of the hard-boiled school of detective novelists. Edmund Wilson has referred to them as "the poets of the tabloid murder" because of their interest in the low life aspects of American culture, and the often sordid stories of murder, eroticism, and adultery that fascinated them.
Unlike Chandler, with whom he has been compared (and who wrote the screenplay for the film version of Double Indemnity), Cain's writing is deeply pessimistic and far less romantic. His characters are terribly flawed yet very human in their failings, and the eroticism of many of his novels made them controversial in their day. Cain's interests and lean writing style also made him stand apart from much of the popular writing of his time. His gritty, downbeat, stories, like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity had a pictorial quality which made them attractive for adaptation to the movies. All, however, underwent considerable sanitation before the more censorship-plagued Hollywood studios could make them into films.
In the case of Double Indemnity, the novel ends with Huff and Phyllis on a freighter going nowhere in particular, unable to return to the United States because of their murderous pasts, and contemplating suicide by jumping off the boat into shark infested waters. As Phyllis says, "There's nothing ahead of us, is there Walter." And Walter replies, "No, nothing." This existential gloom did not survive in the film version where Walter, after narrating his sordid tale of adultery and betrayal, lies dying from a gunshot wound inflicted by, perhaps, Phyllis, who he has murdered a few hours before.
Billy Wilder turned the novel into a convention-setting film noir in 1944, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. Told in a confessional flashback by the dying insurance agent, Wilder's more cynical, but less gloomy version, helped establish flashback—first person narration as a convention in film noir. The unconventional casting of Fred MacMurray, who was noted for his roles in comedy, helped the audience identify with the amoral, but ruthless Huff, who is now called Walter Neff.
In the film version, the first person narration helps to draw the audience into a morally complex position where they viscerally experience the amoral world in which Neff and Phyllis operate—we see the events unfold through his eyes. To put the spectator on edge, Wilder sets the rigid and righteous Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), an insurance investigator and Neff's boss and friend, up against the Neff character, giving the audience a choice between identifying with a slippery, ruthless, and greasily charming insurance salesman or his cold and obsessive nemesis. As in Alfred Hitchcock films, the audience becomes ethically involved with the criminals hoping that they will elude the ever present, relentless Keyes. With its raw, more naturalist flavor, and serious, unsentimental prose the novel makes identification with the characters more difficult. Thus in the film when Neff sets out to kill Phyllis, the audience is uncomfortably aware that they have identified with a hero who is a callous and brutal loner.
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Double Indemnity ★★★★ 1944
The classic seedy story of insurance agent Walter Neff (MacMurray), who's seduced by deadly blonde Phyllis Dietrich-son (Stanwyck) into killing her husband (Powers) so they can collect together from his company. But the husband's “accident” invites suspicions from claims adjustor Keyes (Robinson) and Walter and Phyllis begin to turn on each other. Terrific, influential film noir, the best of its kind. Based on the James M. Cain novel. 107m/ B VHS, DVD . Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Tom Powers, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Byron Barr, Fortunio Bonanova; D: Billy Wilder; W: Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder; C: John Seitz; M: Miklos Rozsa. AFI '98: Top 100, Natl. Film Reg. '92.
A term of an insurance policy by which the insurance company promises to pay the insured or the beneficiary twice the amount of coverage if loss occurs due to a particular cause or set of circumstances.
Double indemnity clauses are found most often in life insurance policies. In the case of the accidental death of the insured, the insurance company will pay the beneficiary of the policy twice its face value. Such a provision is usually financed through the payment of higher premiums than those paid for a policy that entitles a beneficiary to recover only the face amount of the policy, regardless of how the insured died.
In cases where the cause of death is unclear, the insurance company need not pay the proceeds until the accidental nature of death is sufficiently established by a preponderance of evidence. A beneficiary of such a policy may sue an insurance company for breach of contract to enforce his or her right to the proceeds, whenever necessary.