Billy Wilder: Double Indemnity

The USPS recently issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We shall explore the lives and work of these directors. In this post LR Simon discusses The Double Indemnity (1944).

James M. Cain’s 1935 novella Double Indemnity centers on a murder plot by a woman (Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck) and an insurance agent (Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray) with whom she has an extramarital affair. They meet when Neff makes a house call for a routine renewal of an automobile insurance policy. Dietrichson asks him how she could take out an insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge; he realizes she’s plotting murder and wants nothing to do with it. She shows up at his apartment and persuades him to help her. He goes along with the plot, beginning with getting Mr. Dietrichson to sign an insurance policy that includes a double indemnity clause that doubles the insurance payout for accidental death.

The complicated plot is handled deftly by co-writers Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Wilder and Chandler had a prickly relationship during the writing of the screenplay. Chandler had assumed that he would write the screenplay alone, and asked for a sample script for use as a formatting reference. Wilder thought the result was largely unusable with the exception of some lines of dialogue, and explained that they would have to work together. Wilder considered the collaboration to be helpful and that “[w]hat we were doing together had real electricity”. He considered Chandler a great writer, but not a great screenwriter. Chandler’s view of Wilder was considerably less charitable.

Double Indemnity drew great interest from several studios shortly after its publication, but when Joseph Breen of the Hays Office sent a message to the studios that the nature of the characters and plot would render the story unfilmable, all offers on the story were withdrawn. Of concern to the Hays Office were plot elements dealing with adultery, depicting the method of committing a murder, and the original ending, which involved the two main characters committing suicide. When Wilder took on the task of adapting the story to film, he altered the story to have Neff sent to the gas chamber for murdering Dietrichson and conspiring with her to murder her husband. The Hays Office considered the gas chamber scene too gruesome to pass muster with the local censorship boards; Wilder realized, however, that the film really ended at the familiar scene at the elevator, with Neff dying in colleague and mentor Barton Keyes’ (Edward G. Robinson) arms.