10 Fascinating Facts About Double Indemnity

By Matthew Jackson

In the mid-1930s, journalist-turned-novelist James M. Cain wrote a novella about an insurance salesman who falls for another man’s wife, and agrees to help her kill him so they can be together. The story quickly made its way to Hollywood, where the strict moral guidelines of the Production Code placed it on the back burner. Eventually, the story made its way into the hands of then-fledgling director Billy Wilder, who saw something special in it.

Double Indemnity had to fight objections to its content, two screenwriters who hated working together, two stars who weren’t sure they could handle their respective roles, and an ending that had to be changed. But when it finally got released in 1944, film history was made.

The film is a masterpiece in the filmographies of Wilder and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and is arguably the first true example of film noir.

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1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL MURDER.

Before he began making serious headway as a writer of fiction, “Double Indemnity” author James M. Cain worked as a journalist in New York, and it was there that he stumbled upon the real-life murder case of Albert Snyder, who was killed in 1927 by his wife, Ruth Brown Snyder, and her lover, a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray. Before committing the murder, Brown took out a $100,000 life insurance policy on her husband, then tried to kill him several times, but was unsuccessful. She ultimately turned to Gray for help in the murder plot, and both were ultimately executed for the murder in 1928.

2. IT FOUGHT THE PRODUCTION CODE FOR YEARS.

“Double Indemnity” was first placed before the Production Code Administration in Hollywood in 1935, the year before it was serialized in Liberty, and the story was immediately met with resistance from PCA head Joseph I. Breen, who noted that a film version would likely be rejected according to the code. Among Breen’s concerns in a 1935 letter that eventually made its way to various studios interested in the property were that "the leading characters are murderers who cheat the law; the story deals improperly with an illicit and adulterous sex relationship; and the details of the vicious and cold-blooded murder are clearly shown."

It took eight years for someone to come up with a version of the story that Breen could finally approve, and he wrote to Paramount Pictures—the studio that eventually made Double Indemnity—in 1943 with a few final notes to ensure that the apparently “acceptable” script would pass muster.

3. BILLY WILDER’S WRITING PARTNER AT THE TIME TURNED IT DOWN.

It was producer Joseph Sistrom who first brought “Double Indemnity” to Wilder, believing the filmmaker would respond well to Cain’s hard-boiled story of deception and seduction. Wilder did indeed respond well to the film, and took it on as what was, at the time, only his third Hollywood effort as a director after years of mostly screenwriting work. Wilder, a firm believer in two heads being better than one during the screenwriting process, wanted to work on the Double Indemnity script with collaborator Charles Brackett. Brackett declined to work on the film, though, citing the scandalous and amoral nature of its story as reasons for his reluctance to take it on.

When searching for a new collaborator, Wilder initially thought of hiring Cain, who was by then already working in Hollywood, but he was occupied at another studio. A friend of Wilder’s suggested Raymond Chandler, whose writing style and knack for dialogue was similar to Cain’s, and Wilder agreed. After Double Indemnity, Brackett would continue to collaborate with Wilder, and the two produced classics like The Lost Weekend (1945), A Foreign Affair (1948), and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

4. WILDER AND RAYMOND CHANDLER HATED WORKING TOGETHER.

Wilder agreed to work with Chandler after reading some of his prose and finding he had a knack for clever lines of dialogue and description. Chandler had never written a script, though, and according to Wilder the pulp legend did not understand that the screenwriting process was one that took several months.

Once the two legends settled into close quarters, they found that they quickly got on each other’s nerves. Chandler, an alcoholic, was sober at the time the collaboration began, and was annoyed that Wilder would drink around him. Wilder, for his part, kept excusing himself ostensibly to go to the bathroom, but in reality he simply wanted to take frequent breaks from Chandler’s presence. At one point, Chandler drafted a memo to the studio listing his various grievances with his writing partner, including the fact that Wilder wore his trademark hat indoors.

Somehow, though, after several months of work, the pair produced an Oscar-nominated script, and Wilder was pleased with Chandler’s contributions, even though the process was strained.

5. NO ONE WANTED TO PLAY WALTER NEFF.

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According to Wilder, “everybody turned [him] down” when he was looking for a leading man to play insurance salesman-turned-killer Walter Neff, including crime drama stars Alan Ladd and George Raft.

Wilder then approached Fred MacMurray, an actor then best known for lighter fare. MacMurray protested that he was the kind of actor who made “little comedies,” but Wilder talked him into it, and MacMurray ultimately looked back on Neff as one of his greatest roles.

6. BARBARA STANWYCK WAS SCARED TO PLAY PHYLLIS DIETRICHSON.

Neff was not the only role Wilder ran into difficulty with. He wanted Barbara Stanwyck—then the highest-paid actress in Hollywood—to play the role of seductress and murderess Phyllis Dietrichson. Stanwyck was a serious, acclaimed actress with two Oscar nominations to her name already, but the idea of playing such a dark role was intimidating to her. Wilder appealed to her competitive nature, and asked, "Well, are you a mouse or an actress?" Stanwyck wasn’t about to let a remark like that drive her away from a part, so she took the role, and earned her third Best Actress nomination—and a place as one of cinema’s greatest femme fatales in the process.

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7. STUDIO EXECUTIVES HATED STANWYCK’S WIG.

Stanwyck’s performance in Double Indemnity was hailed as one of her best even in 1944, when critics and executives were finally seeing the completed film, but there was one complaint that kept going around, and that some viewers still notice: her hair. Though it may seem like an immovable part of the film now, the blonde wig Phyllis wears was a noticeable change to Stanwyck’s overall look at the time, and some viewers complained that it looked too cheap and fake. One executive at Paramount, after seeing some early footage, commentted: "We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington."

Having Stanwyck go blonde for the film was Wilder’s idea, and while he told people for years that the wig was chosen to intentionally convey something showy and even trashy about Phyllis, he later admitted that was just the answer he made up after realizing he made a mistake with the choice of wig a bit too late.

8. THE ORIGINAL ENDING FEATURED NEFF’S EXECUTION.

Cain’s original novella ends with the two lovers committing suicide together, but since suicide was forbidden by the Production Code, Wilder and Chandler had to develop an alternate ending

9. WILDER WAS VERY FRUSTRATED BY THE FILM’S OSCAR LOSSES.

Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars in 1945, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress. It won none of these awards, and lost several to eventual Best Picture winner Going My Way. When Leo McCarey was announced as that year’s Best Director winner for his work on Going My Way, Wilder had had enough of losing. As McCarey passed him, Wilder stuck out his foot and tripped him, sending him sprawling in the aisle before he collected himself and went up to claim his trophy.

10. THERE ARE THREE OTHER ADAPTATIONS.

Though its journey to the screen was long, Double Indemnity was critically acclaimed upon release, and quickly developed a reputation as a classic. Today it stands as an essential film for fans of Wilder, Stanwyck, and MacMurray, as well as a seminal piece of film noir. That didn’t stop other adaptations of Cain’s novel from trying to replicate some of that success, though. Stanwyck and MacMurray returned to their respective roles for a radio broadcast of the story in 1950, and Double Indemnity was adapted for television twice, first by NBC in 1954 and then by ABC in 1973. When the latter was broadcast, Wilder called up Stanwyck after it aired and said, “They didn’t get it right.”

SOURCE: Mental Floss (SPOILER ALERTS)