Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

A 1944 film noir, Double Indemnity starred Fred MacMurray as a murderous insurance salesman, Barbara Stanwyck as a scheming wife accused of killing her husband, and Edward G. Robinson as a claims adjuster. The movie is unusual in that MacMurray, as the narrator, reveals most of the plot in the opening scene.

Double Indemnity was co-written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (pictured) from a James M. Cain novel, which started life as an eight-part serial in Liberty magazine, 1936. Chandler realised that Cain’s dialogue did not translate well to the screen, so most of the dialogue in the movie was written by Chandler. Chandler made a brief appearance in the film, sitting outside an office, reading a newspaper.

Barbara Stanwyck, at the time the highest-paid actress in Hollywood and the highest-paid woman in America, played Phyllis Dietrichson. Given the nature of the role, and its potential affect on her career, Barbara Stanwyck was reluctant to take the part. Later she stated that she was “very grateful” she did. 

Barbara Stanwyck’s sultry first appearance in Double Indemnity. Stories vary about her blonde wig. Some sources describe it as a ‘mistake’, others as a deliberate attempt to make her look ‘false’ and ‘sleazy’.

The character of Walter Neff was largely unlikeable, so many leading actors of the time rejected the role. Enter Fred MacMurray, an actor accustomed to playing happy-go-lucky nice guys in light comedies. When approached to play Neff, initially, MacMurray had his doubts. In 1943 he was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, so he could be choosy about his parts. 

Eventually, MacMurray agreed to play Neff, imbuing him with human, likeable qualities, so much so that the audience sides with him, even though he’s a double murderer. Later, MacMurray said, “I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made.” Then he reverted to type and made a small fortune playing nice guys.

A key element to Double Indemnity, some might argue it’s the main element, is the relationship between Fred MacMurray’s character, Walter Neff, and Edward G. Robinson’s character, Barton Keyes, pictured. Because these characters say “I love you” to each other, some interpret their relationship as romantic, others see it as a father-son relationship, while the consensus is the movie is about friendship, a friendship betrayed.

1920s – 1960s