Noir Nook: Just the Facts on Double Indemnity

Noir Nook: Just the Facts on
Double Indemnity

Not long ago, I was interviewed on a podcast about my very favorite film noir – Double Indemnity (1944). I had an absolute ball talking about the superb writing and direction, the distinctive cinematography and music, and the first-rate performances by Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, and the rest of the film’s perfect cast.

In case you don’t know the story (not The Philadelphia Story!), it focuses on a steamy affair between insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) and L.A. housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), who team up to murder Dietrichson’s husband and collect the proceeds from his accident insurance. Also on hand is insurance claims manager and Walter’s best pal, Barton Keyes (Robinson), who tosses a monkey wrench into their best-laid plans. The film’s title refers to the insurance policy clause that pays double for certain fatal accidents that rarely occur.

Billy Wilder directs Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)
Billy Wilder directs Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

I’m still basking in the glow of my recent deep dive into this classic, so I’m devoting this month’s nook to sharing some of my favorite Double Indemnity trivia and fun facts. Enjoy!

  • An early version of the Double Indemnity screenplay contained a line in which Walter advises Phyllis to wear gloves when she handles the insurance policy. Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration – to which films had to be submitted to receive a stamp of approval – objected to this sentence because he felt it would give the heads-up to would-be criminals that they could be traced through their fingerprints. The line was removed.
  • Indemnity’s director, Billy Wilder, was the first to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay for the same film – The Apartment (1960). Only eight directors have earned this honor.
Jean Heather and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)
Jean Heather and Barbara Stanwyck
  • Barbara Stanwyck was initially reluctant to take on the role of the murderous Phyllis. Up to that time, she’d never played what she termed “an out-and-out, cold-blooded killer.” According to Stanwyck, Billy Wilder asked her, “Are you a mouse or an actress?” Stanwyck responded that she was an actress and Wilder said, “Then take the part.”
  • Cinematographer John Seitz was nominated for an Oscar for Double Indemnity, although he lost to Joseph LaShelle for Laura (1944). During his career, Seitz was nominated for a total of seven Oscars, including nods for two other Billy Wilder-directed features, The Long Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
  • The luckless Mr. Dietrichson was played by Tom Powers, who started his career in silent movies and appeared in stage and radio productions for nearly 30 years. Double Indemnity was his first big-screen appearance since his last silent film in 1917. Speaking of Mr. Dietrichson, his first name is never spoken in the film.
  • Double Indemnity is set in 1938, but in the scene where Walter and Phyllis first meet, he makes a reference to The Philadelphia Story, which didn’t open on Broadway until a year later, in 1939, and was made into a film in 1940.
Tom Powers with Fred MacMurray, Jean Heather, and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)
Tom Powers with Fred MacMurray, Jean Heather, and Barbara Stanwyck
  • The film was inspired by the real-life 1927 murder of Albert Snyder, who was killed by his wife, Ruth, and a traveling corset salesman named Judd Gray. Prior to the murder, Ruth had taken out an insurance policy on her husband’s life that contained a double indemnity clause. Unlike Phyllis and Walter’s intricate, well-designed scheme, the murder plot hatched by Snyder and Gray was so inept that famed newsman Damon Runyon labeled it “the dumb-bell murder case … because it was so dumb!”
  • Phyllis’s stepdaughter in the film was played by Jean Heather, who had roles in only nine movies during her five-year Hollywood career. Ironically, one of her films was Going My Way, which beat out Double Indemnity in the Oscar race in three categories: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. (Insert massive eye-roll.)
  • James M. Cain, the author of the novel on which the film was based, was pleased with the adaptation penned by Wilder and mystery writer Raymond Chandler. He said that “it’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish had thought of.”

What do you think of Double Indemnity? Leave a comment and let us know!

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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3 Responses to Noir Nook: Just the Facts on Double Indemnity

  1. Patrick M Keenan says:

    Cain’s comment is high praise for Wilder.And also points out that there is literature and there is ‘cinematic language'( which Scorsese has insightfully written about). Vapid to hear people complain that the movie wasn’t like the book.Of course not.They are two different art forms,

  2. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    DOUBLE INDEMNITY has always filled me with a tense feeling of dread and looming disaster, right from the braceleted ankle on the staircase. It’s rather like watching dying flies struggling in a pool of honey. It’s a ultra-stylish morality tale about where lack of character will lead you. It’s a wonderful movie but the discomfort it causes me means that I cannot say I love it.
    I do love James M. Cain’s novels. His prose style has the simplicity and ease of a person walking.
    Thanks for this post. I especially enjoyed Joseph Breen’s anxious concern over giving tips to criminals, which elicited my “massive eye-roll.

  3. Mary Mallory says:

    The novel starts out by describing the house as one of the old Spanish ones falling down the hill in Hollywoodland, which is where Cain lived when he wrote the novel. The house used in the film, on Quebec Drive, is just outside the border of Hollywoodland.

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