1944’s Double Indemnity consistently ranks among the best films ever made. Its cinematography, style, and mood are often credited for lending definition to film noir.
Double Indemnity director, Billy Wilder, referred to his masterpiece as “near perfect.” With standout performances from Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and our Star Spotlight, Edward G. Robinson, Wilder’s assessment is hard to argue with.
You can rent or purchase Double Indemnity here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes of the film, and Edward G. Robinson’s gallant battle against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and his wrongful blacklisting.
It’s 1938. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), nursing an injury, walks laboriously into the Pacific All Risk Insurance office to dictate an important message to his friend and co-worker, claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Keyes is investigating an insurance claim from Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman whose husband just died, supposedly by accident.
Tonight, recounting his story into Keyes’ Dictaphone, Walter Neff confesses that he killed Dietrichson.
Here’s how and why he did it:
Phyllis Sets the Trap
Walter Neff is out on a house call when he meets the stunning Phyllis Dietrichson. Neff’s intention was to meet Mr. Dietrichson, and get him to renew an auto insurance policy. But Mr. Dietrichson is not home.
And after one look at Phyllis wearing a gold ankle bracelet, Walter forgets about the insurance business entirely.
Walter and Phyllis flirt for a bit, then Phyllis drops a bomb: she expresses interest in purchasing life insurance for her husband.
Without his knowledge.
Walter has a pretty good idea what’s on this dame’s mind.
He also gets the distinct impression that Phyllis wants his help not just in convincing her husband to sign for the insurance, but also in murdering him for the insurance money.
At first Walter is repulsed by the idea. But after a few more meetings with Phyllis, the game of outsmarting the insurance company begins to appeal to him. And of course, with Mr. Dietrichson out of the way, Phyllis could be all his…
Double Indemnity: The Perfect Murder
So Walter works out the perfect murder: Phyllis will convince her husband to take a train alone to his college reunion. She’ll drive him to the station while Walter hides in the back seat. When Phyllis gives Walter the signal, he’ll strangle Dietrichson. Then Walter, disguised as Dietrichson, will board the train, make his way to the back platform, and jump off before the train goes too far.
Phyllis will meet him at the train tracks with Dietrichson’s body, which they’ll dump on the tracks to make it appear that Dietrichson accidentally fell off the train.
Phyllis and Walter will be long gone from the scene by the time Dietrichson’s body is discovered, and Phyllis will collect $100,000 from Pacific All Risk because of the double indemnity clause in the insurance policy, which states that Phyllis gets double the payout if her husband dies in a freak accident.
Like falling off the back of a slow moving a train.
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Keyes Gets Suspicious
Walter and Phyllis pull off the murder with seemingly slight complications.
Now they just need to stick together “straight down the line” as Pacific All Risk attempts to find a reason not to pay Phyllis.
At first Walter is relieved when his buddy Barton Keyes, the insurance claim investigator, believes Pacific All Risk will just have to pay Phyllis. Thinking they’re in the clear, Walter and Phyllis begin to relax a little bit.
But then Keyes’ “little man”—his conscience—tells him that there’s something fishy about it all: Keyes concludes that Phyllis was in some way involved in her husband’s death. He’s now certain that it’s just a matter of finding her accomplice to put it all together.
Keyes is so close to the truth, it worries Walter.
The stress of the situation begins to tear Walter and Phyllis apart. Their lust for each other turns to suspicion. Walter even comes to hate Phyllis after he learns from Dietrichson’s daughter that Phyllis was the first Mrs. Dietrichson’s nurse.
And that Phyllis killed her.
Walter now worries that he’s next on Phyllis’ list. So he decides to kill Phyllis before she can kill him.
“We’re both rotten,”
“Only you’re a little more rotten,”
Walter replies, just before Phyllis shoots him in the shoulder.
When Phyllis then professes her love for Walter, he doesn’t believe it. While Phyllis holds him in a tight embrace, Walter shoots her, twice to the stomach.
And she’s gone.
Walter makes the trek back to Pacific All Risk, the flashback ends, and we realize that the injury he’s ignored while telling his story into the Dictaphone is from Phyllis’ gun shot.
Just as Walter finishes his confession, he sees Keyes standing there, listening.
Walter asks Keyes to give him a head start before calling the cops, but crumples to the ground before he can exit the building. Keyes lights a cigarette for his friend, and the two men wait for the police to arrive.
And that’s the end of the film.
Double Indemnity: A True Story
Double Indemnity was based on the James M. Cain novella of the same name. The inspiration behind Cain’s 1936 story was the real-life Snyder/Gray Murder Case of 1927.
Housewife Ruth Snyder had unsuccessfully attempted to kill her husband, Albert, before enlisting the help of her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray, for a second try.
Snyder and Gray made a sloppy, clumsy job of it, using a window sash weight, chloroform, and a picture wire as murder weapons. Gray even told a friend when he’d be murdering Ruth’s husband, and asked this friend to cover for him as an alibi.
It was only a matter of time before Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray were brought to justice. As journalist Damon Runyon wrote of the murder trial, Snyder and Gray were:
“on trial for what might be called for want of a better name: the Dumb-bell Murder. It was so dumb!”
But the American public was absolutely fascinated with the case. Especially after photographer Thomas Howard snuck a camera–hidden on his ankle–into Ruth Snyder’s execution, and managed to snap the first ever photograph of an execution by electric chair.
James M. Cain picked up on the public’s near obsession with the Snyder/Judd Murder Case, and used it as the inspiration for both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.
No Takers for Double Indemnity
When Cain first peddled his Double Indemnity story around Hollywood in 1935, before serializing it in Liberty Magazine the following year, MGM and most of the other major studios expressed interest. But one word from Joseph Breen in the Production Code Administration office, and all excitement for the story dropped.
Breen called Double Indemnity a “blueprint” for murder, and warned that if a studio attempted to make it into a film, it would result:
“in a picture which we would be compelled to reject.”
For eight years, Double Indemnity remained a dangerous, un-filmable property.
It would take the skill and daring of a young Billy Wilder to turn Cain’s story into a movie that lost none of the novella’s forbidden premise and suspense, while still satisfying the PCA’s strict moral guidelines.
Wilder Takes A Risk on Double Indemnity
Double Indemnity would be only the third film Billy Wilder directed. He considered making a musical instead, having been impressed with 1944’s Cover Girl. But, as Wilder ultimately decided:
“I realized that no matter how good my musical would be, most people would say it was no Cover Girl. This Double Indemnity looked like a better chance to set Hollywood back on its heels.”
Whether Wilder had actually considered making a musical initially or not, there’s no doubt that his Double Indemnity would “set Hollywood back on its heels.”
So much so, in fact, that Wilder’s writing partner, Charles Brackett, with whom he’d written the screenplays of such classic films as Ball of Fire (1941) and The Major and the Minor (1944), refused to work with him on the project. Brackett said the subject material of Double Indemnity was “immoral,” and told Billy he’d have to find someone else to write the screenplay with.
Enter renown detective fiction novelist, Raymond Chandler.
Writing was Chandler’s second career: he’d begun writing at age 44 after a business career as an oil company executive. Though he had several successful books to his name by the time he teamed up with Wilder–including The Big Sleep—Double Indemnity would be Chandler’s first screenplay.
Chandler and Wilder: A Tumultuous Pair
At the start of their collaboration, Wilder said that he was “crazy about this guy,” referring to Chandler.
But it didn’t take long for that opinion to change.
Though the pair created one of the best screenplays in Hollywood history together, Wilder and Chandler soon found that they basically hated each other…
Chandler couldn’t stand Wilder’s youthful energy and interest in the ladies, which Chandler saw as a distraction from their work. And Wilder couldn’t stand Chandler’s excessive drinking, which he saw as a distraction from their work. The two men were constantly at odds during the seven weeks it took to write Double Indemnity.
Chandler complained that working with Wilder:
“…was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it about as much about screenwriting as I am capable of learning, which is not very much.”
Wilder retaliated by saying that Chandler:
“didn’t really like me—ever. To begin with, there was my German accent. Secondly, I knew the craft better than he did. I also drank after four o clock in the afternoon…All those things just threw him for a loop..he would just kind of stare at me. I was all that he hated about Hollywood.”
Praise from the Author of Double Indemnity
But the script they produced together was a knockout. Author James M. Cain complimented the Wilder/Chandler screenplay for bringing such depth, suspense, and nuance to his story on screen that it was:
“the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of..Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending…There are situations in the movie that can make your hands get wet, you get so nervous…”
Billy Wilder had a perfect script. Now it was time to find the perfect cast.
Courting "The Queen"
Wilder already knew that no one but the great Barbara Stanwyck could play Phyllis Dietrichson. But Stanwyck, known as “The Queen” around Hollywood for her complete professionalism and kindness to all on her film sets—from the most highly respected directors to the lowest ranking grips—wasn’t sure she wanted the part. Barbara worried she’d lose her fan base by playing such an “out and out killer” with no “redeeming qualities.”
But Billy Wilder ultimately convinced her to accept the role. As Barbara later recalled:
“I was a little frightened of it [the film] and, when I went back to his [Wilder’s] office, I said, ‘I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out and out cold blooded killer. And Mr. Wilder—and rightly so—looked at me and he said, ‘Well, are you a mouse or an actress?’ and I said, ‘Well, I hope I’m an actress.’ He said, “Then do the part.’ And I did and I’m very grateful to him.”
Billy Wilder’s dare was only part of the reason Barbara accepted the Phyllis Dietrichson role. The other reason was Fred MacMurray.
Wilder knew that Fred and Barbara had worked together before, and capitalized on the mutual respect they had for one another to get both stars to agree to Double Indemnity. Wilder lied a little bit, and told Barbara that Fred had already agreed to play Walter Neff. Trusting that Fred was already in on the project was enough to get Barbara to say yes.
No "Lapel Bit"
Fred MacMurray was not the first actor Wilder approached to play Walter Neff. Alan Ladd and Brian Donlevy had already turned the role down out of fear that such an unsympathetic character would ruin their respective careers. Wilder also approached George Raft for the part, but Raft was disinterested as soon as he learned that at no point would Walter Neff turn out to be a heroic undercover cop:
“Where’s the lapel bit?”
Raft reportedly asked Billy Wilder.
“You know, when the guy flashes his lapel, you see his badge, and you know he’s a detective.”
Wilder told Raft that Double Indemnity wasn’t that kind of film, and set his sights on Fred MacMurray.
Fred MacMurray was also reluctant to star in such a lurid film, having solidified his reputation as the good, boy next door type in light comedies. Like Barbara, Fred worried that “people aren’t going to like me if I kill somebody’s husband.” But Wilder thought the boyish, likeable quality MacMurray had in spades would make Walter Neff a sympathetic character, despite the fact that he was a murderer.
As Wilder put it:
“I just wanted the audience to go with Walter, to make him a murderer all right, but with redeeming features…Perhaps he’d done it, but within that murderous act there is still an element of compassion and decency.”
Eventually, Wilder wore the reluctant Fred down, partly because he gave Fred confidence that he could stretch himself in such a difficult role, and partly because he used the same ploy on Fred that he’d used on Barbara: Billy Wilder told Fred that Barbara would accept the Phyllis role if Fred played Walter. And, as Fred would later say:
“There being nobody, then or now, whom I respect more, not only as an actress but as a person, I said ok.”
Billy Wilder now had his two leads. And he knew the actor he wanted for the supporting role of Barton Keyes, the moral compass of the film; the character who would keep the Production Code Administration off his back.
The actor Wilder had in mind could deliver the moral message of the film—that murderers don’t prosper—without being heavy-handed. There was no one else in town but Edward G. Robinson for the part.
Double Indemnity & Robinson's Reluctance
Like Stanwyck and MacMurray, Eddie was initially reluctant to accept a role in Double Indemnity, but for an entirely different reason: he would be playing the third lead.
It was literally written into Edward G. Robinson’s contract that he would only play the lead in a film. But in the fall of 1943, Eddie was pushing 50, and found it necessary to reassess some of his career expectations.
Eddie and Jack Warner had agreed to terminate Eddie’s contract with Warner Bros. earlier that year. Eddie was disappointed with the routinely underwhelming scripts Warner sent his way, and Warner didn’t know what to do with his aging star who contractually could only play lead roles.
So Jack Warner paid Eddie $50,000 not to make the last two films on his Warner Bros. contract. And Edward G. Robinson went freelance.
A Good Supporting Role
When Billy Wilder asked Eddie to play the third lead in Double Indemnity, Robinson was torn between accepting a role in a film that he knew belonged to the other actors, and the necessity of changing with the times.
Ultimately, Eddie realized it wasn’t such a bad deal [aff. link]:
“It was, in fact, the third lead. I debated accepting it; Emanuel Goldenberg told me that at my age it was time to begin thinking of character roles, to slide into middle and old age with…grace…I was never the handsome leading man; I could proceed with my career growing old in roles that would grow older, to. And (forgive me for being mercenary) there was, instead of a decrease in pay, a slight hike. The decision made itself.”
Though Eddie has less screen time than Stanwyck or MacMurray in Double Indemnity, his powerful presence is evident, stronger than ever. Edward G. Robinson is a leading man, no matter how tertiary the role.
Film Noir Photography in Double Indemnity
In addition to the flawless screenplay and cast, Double Indemnity benefited from the pioneering work of cinematographer John Seitz.
Seitz’s stunning photography is responsible for setting the film noir mood and tone of Double Indemnity. Billy Wilder complimented Seitz for his willingness to experiment during filming:
“Sometimes the rushes were so dark that you couldn’t see anything. He [Seitz] went to the limits of what could be done.”
Seitz made brilliant use of the black and white stripes of light and shadow made by the Venetian blinds in the Dietrichson home. Barbara Stanwyck credited Seitz and this lighting technique with enhancing her performance in the film:
“And for an actress, let me tell you the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter’s apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles—all that helped my performance. The way Billy staged it and John Seitz lit it, it was all one sensational mood.”
According to some, there was one element of Double Indemnity that not even Seitz’s cinematography could mask: Barbara Stanwyck’s wig.
Paramount’s production head at the time, Buddy DeSilva found Stanwyck’s blonde wig with the sausage bangs a distraction. After seeing the rushes from the first day of filming, DeSilva announced:
“We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”
But Billy Wilder disagreed, and defended his choice of wig. While he admitted it wasn’t the classiest wig, to Wilder, it was just the sort of loud hairstyle his Phyllis Dietrichson would wear. It matched:
“The phoniness of the girl—bad taste, phony wig.”
Wilder wanted a “cheap” look for Phyllis, which the wig delivered:
“I wanted her to look at sleazy as possible.”
Stanwyck’s wig in the film isn’t the most stylish or sophisticated, but Wilder’s right: it’s perfectly Phyllis.
History Made & Oscar Snubs for Double Indemnity
During filming of Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder knew his cast and crew were creating something special. He reportedly began one day on set by shouting to some noisy people to:
“Keep quiet! After all, history is being made.”
Filming completed in November 1943.
But when Double Indemnity premiered the following summer, Wilder worried his earlier predictions about the film’s merits were wrong: just minutes into the showing, there were wolf whistles from the audience.
“There goes my picture,”
But then he realized that the audience was whistling at the stunning Barbara Stanwyck, who, despite the George Washington wig, managed to heat up the screen with that little gold ankle bracelet. (Which, according to Paramount’s records, cost $25 a pair.)
Double Indemnity was one of the highest earning films of 1944. It received seven Oscar nominations, but didn’t win in any category, due at least in part to Paramount’s heavy promotion of Bing Crosby and the feel-good Going My Way (1944) that year over the dark Double Indemnity.
Wilder took the losses badly, and bragged that he purposely tripped director Leo McCarey on his way up to the podium to collect his Oscar for Going My Way (1944). True or not, the story underscores Wilder’s disgruntlement at the Academy’s snubbing of his masterpiece.
Despite the success of Double Indemnity, in the mid 1940s, Edward G. Robinson found himself in a career slump.
At first, Eddie attributed his dwindling film offers to age. But it wasn’t long before he realized what the real issue was: word was spreading that Hollywood was full of communists and “fellow travelers.” And somehow, Edward G. Robinson was among those suspect.
In 1946, when Eddie was included on Matthew Woll’s list of communist sympathizers in the New York Daily News, there was no denying that his career was in trouble.
Edward G. Robinson was not a communist. How Eddie’s name came to be associated with communism is complicated. Certainly the largest contributing factor was Eddie’s membership during the war years in several organizations that were later discovered to be communist fronts. Many of these organizations included confirmed communists in leadership positions. Eddie didn’t know any of this when he joined these groups. But that didn’t matter once the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its communist witch hunts in Hollywood. The fact that Eddie had joined and contributed to these organizations for their noble, stated goals—to bring down Hitler and fascism—didn’t matter either.
In his autobiography [aff. link], Eddie describes his difficulty finding work at this time by recounting the “phases” of treatment he received from his agent:
“Phase 1: ‘…Eddie, I’ve read a lot of scripts submitted for you, and there isn’t one that’s right for you.’”
And finally down to…
“Phase 4: ‘There seems to be some opposition to you Eddie. I’m looking into it. Whatever it is, we’ll fight it with every penny we’ve got. You know that.’
Phase 5: (coming from the agent’s secretary): I’m sorry, Mr. Robinson, but Mr. B. is out of town. I’ll give him your message. He’ll certainly call you back at his earliest convenience.
Phase 6: no earliest convenience.”
Eddie's First Testimony
Even though Eddie’s reputation in Hollywood was all but ruined by rumors that he was a communist, HUAC would not subpoena him to come testify.
Eddie believed that testifying before HUAC was the only way to clear his name. So Eddie was relieved when, on October 27, 1947, he was finally granted an audience in an executive session with the HUAC committee’s staff. It wasn’t a subpoena, and he wouldn’t speak before the actual committee members, but Eddie thought this executive session would clear his name.
As Eddie told the committee’s staff in the session:
“I stand on my record or fall on it.”
Unfortunately, the session resulted in no official pronouncement from HUAC that Eddie was not, and never had been a communist.
So Hollywood continued to shun him.
Solace in Art
In 1949, things took a turn for the worse when the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities included Eddie in their report of “known” communists in Hollywood.
Still, Edward G. Robinson was not subpoenaed by HUAC. With no work, Eddie found solace in his art collection at home, and honed his own artistic talent. As Eddie’s friend and biographer Leonard Spigelgass shared:
“Throughout the Un-American Activities time, throughout his unemployment, he bought easels, brushes, oil paints, and palettes….The plain truth if you look at the pictures now is that Eddie possessed more than minor talent as a painter.”
Eddie's Second Testimony...And Third
After waiting years for a subpoena from HUAC, Eddie was finally summoned. On December 22, 1950, Eddie appeared before a HUAC subcommittee. He pled with them to:
“Either snap my neck or set me free. If you snap my neck I will still say I believe in America.”
Still, Edward G. Robinson was not cleared by HUAC. Eddie’s refusal to “name names” in his testimony didn’t sit well with the committee. Unless he did, HUAC would do nothing to salvage his reputation, and Hollywood would not hire him.
On April 30, 1952, Eddie testified a third time.
But this time—after swearing yet again that he was not, and never had been a communist—Eddie was officially cleared [aff. link]:
“What the committee would have licked its chops over would have been names; I mentioned as few as possible, and never once (unlike others who testified in this period) did I name anybody—repeat, anybody—as being a member of the Communist party.”
The ultimate irony of this final hearing that officially restored Robinson’s good name was when Congressman Francis E Walter said at the close of the session that HUAC had never had any evidence that Eddie was a communist or communist sympathizer:
“Well, actually, this Committee has never had any evidence presented to indicate that you were anything more than a very choice sucker. I think you are No. 1 on every sucker list in the country.”
If only HUAC could have publicly said this in 1946, rather than wait six years to clear Eddie’s name of the wrongful accusations that caused immeasurable stress and damage to his career and personal life.
Eddie Gets His Life Back
After HUAC’s official pronouncement that Edward G. Robinson was not a communist, Eddie could finally renew his passport, which, because of the communist accusations, he had not been permitted to do after it expired in 1950. Once more, Eddie could travel to his beloved Europe.
Robinson also began finding work in Hollywood again, and entered what he referred to as “the ‘B’ picture phase of my career.”
Finally, in 1956, Eddie found himself back on top after Cecil B. DeMille cast him as Dathan in The Ten Commandments (1956). Eddie would forever credit DeMille with “restoring” his self-respect.
In 1958, Eddie found peace and stability in love when he married his second wife, Jane. The two remained happily married until Eddie’s death in January 1973. Pivotal roles in such films as The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Soylent Green (1973), and an honorary Oscar awarded just two months after his passing, ensured that the final decade of Edward G. Robinson’s career ended on the distinguished note he deserved.
More Edward G. Robinson
That wraps up my series on Edward G. Robinson.
Read the rest of my Edward G. Robinson series in the articles below:
Little Caesar (1931)
Bullets or Ballots (1936)
Kid Galahad (1937)
Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)