Fred MacMurray - Walter Neff
Barbara Stanwyck - Psyllis Dietrichson
Edward G. Robinson - Barton Keyes
Jean Heather - Lola Dietrichson
Tom Powers - Mr. Dietrichson
Porter Hall - Mr. Jackson
Billy Wilder - Director
Joseph Sistrom - Producer
Billy Wilder - Screenwriter
Raymond Chandler - Screenwriter
John F. Seitz - Cinematographer
Miklós Rózsa - Film Score
Billy Wilder, the director, cowriter, and driving force in bringing James M. Cain's novel, Double Indemnity, to the screen had a terrible time getting people to work with him on it. His usual collaborator on screenplays, Charles Brackett, reportedly found the story so repugnant that he refused to have anything to do with it. Barbara Stanwyck agreed to star because she wanted to broaden her image from the usual "good girl" roles she'd had, but virtually every male lead walked away from the project, including George Raft, who made a career of walking away from one geat film after another (The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, to name two, had both been offered to him). Finally, Fred MacMurray, who had previously played lighthearted song-and-dance men, went against type and took the role that made him a star.
This hugely important film not only defined the noir genre, it was a milestone for Hollywood motion pictures in general. For the first time, audiences saw a murder planned and carried out as the two protagonists risked everything for greed and lust. The whopping sum of $25,000 had been paid to Cain for the novel, which had run in Liberty Magazine, even though the Production Code Administration, Hollywood's censoring body, had warned that it would never get on the screen. Wilder brought in Raymond Chandler, who had never before written a screenplay, to turn the amoral Cain story into a screenplay. Changing the overt sex into innuendo turned the trick and it was filmed.
Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler took an instant dislike to each other while working on the film. Chandler was quiet and dignified, reticent and shy, and married to a woman twenty years older than he (he was fifty-five at the time). Wilder was loud, arrogant, uncouth, and dated several beautiful young women at the same time. But Chandler learned from Wilder how to write a screenplay (getting two Oscar nominations within four years), and Wilder recognized the extraordinary talent of an author whose work mainly had been published in pulp magazines. The original ending had Neff going to the gas chamber and showed his execution in full detail. Wilder decided this scene was unnecessary and had him die in the arms of Keyes instead.
Oscar nominations went to the film for Best Picture, Billy Wilder for Best Director, Barbara Stanwyck for Best Actress, and Raymond Chandler for Best Screenplay. All lost. A television version of Double Indemnity was produced in 1973, adapted by Steven Bochco and starring Samantha Eggar, Richard Crenna, and Lee J. Cobb. In 1981 Lawrence Kasdan wrote and directed a loose remake, Body Heat, starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna and Ted Danson.
--OTTO PENZLER, from The 101 Greatest Films
of Mystery and Suspense, 2000
Self-confident insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) becomes romantically involved with the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while trying to sell her husband a routine automobile policy. It doesn't take long for Phyllis to reveal thoughts of murdering her husband. After a futile attempt to walk out on her, Neff agrees to plan the perfect crime. By switching contracts, he sells the husband a fifty thousand dollar life insurance policy with double indemnity provisions. But the film actually begins when Neff arrives at his insurance office to dictate a confession to his associate, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). This dictation serves as the first-person narration which accompanies the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film.
Identification with a murderer and his murder plot made Double Indemnity (1944) a groundbreaker in American film history. Consistent with this radical structure, the film displays a central theme which delves beyond the obvious treatment of an all-pervasive evil. Though the narrative seems focused upon the protagonist and his femme fatale accomplice, they are really no more important than their notorious nemesis, Barton Keyes. He is the self-appointed guardian of society's rules that Neff loves (like a father?) but must defeat. Keyes represents morality while Neff is seemingly motivated by ambition, desire and greed.
Wilder's emphasis on Neff's evil is carefully balanced by the crucial flaws of Keyes' guardianship of the law. He is intolerant, inflexible, self-righteous and incapable of sympathy or forgiveness. According to his own description, Keyes has a "little man" inside him who suspects everyone of wrongdoing. Whenever his intuitive stomach acts up, he knows that there is evil at hand which must be caught and punished. This "little man" has determined the course of Keyes'entire life. When he was young, Keyes planned to marry a beautiful girl who he thought he loved. The "little man" started acting up, and Keyes promptly had his fianede investigated. When he discovered her sordid past, Keyes broke the engagement and never became seriously involved with a woman again. This story, which Keyes tells Neff, further underscores the stringent, heartless intolerance which results from Keyes' obsessive absolutist morality.
Neff's motivation is directly linked to his relationship with Keyes in the important roulette wheel speech. Here Neff admits that it wasn't just desire and greed that prompted his decision to attempt the perfect murder. Like the man who runs the roulette wheel, Neff has learned the mechanics of the system to a degree impossible for the average gambler. Since the wheel itself is right under his hand, Neff feels that he has the power to beat the system, and the urge to do just that has been building in him for a long time.
In stark contrast to Keyes, Neff has no moral compunctions whatsoever. All his life he has followed the rules only due to fear of taking the criminal's risks. Keyes' emphasis on integrity means absolutely nothing to Neff. To him, you get whatever you have the guts to take, and that's all there is to it. Crime is just a dangerous game that you play with the social authority that Keyes represents. The structure of Double Indemnity is carefully calculated to get the viewer to take a similar step. One is encouraged to understand and even sympathize with Neff, without condoning his acts of murder. The result is a complex, deterministic attitude toward evil which places a great deal of blame on a hypocritical society that encourages immorality while still harshly punishing criminals.
--SPENCER SELBY, from Dark City:
The Film Noir
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