Double Indemnity Set Standard for Film Noir

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. Courtesy of Universal.

Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity set the standard for film noir when the seven-time Oscar-nominee was first released in 1944.

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is having an affair with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray).  Murder is on the horizon because Walter wants Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) to sign a double indemnity policy.  The trick will certainly come in making it look like an accident.  This is easier said than done, right?  Of course, no matter what happens, neither will get away with committing a crime.  It’s how Hollywood worked in 1944.  You can’t commit a crime on screen and get away scott-free.  The Code would simply not allow this at all.

The film starts Walter dictating his confession for a fellow co-worker, claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).  At this point in time, Walter already has a gun wound.  Knowing the Code rules of the era, he’s not going to survive this film.  I can’t stress this enough.  As we later learn in watching the film, Keyes doesn’t buy into Mr. Dietrichson’s death being accidental.  Keyes was a big part of the novel and in their script, Wilder and Raymond Chandler wisely make him a bigger character in the film.

This film could never have been adapted as it was written in James M. Cain’s novella.  The Production Code simply would not allow it.  It was rejected when the story was first sent to the Hays Office in 1935.  It would take some eight years before a script could be approved.  One such changes included the film’s ending.  Code Administrators wouldn’t allow a criminal to get off with a free pass–including suicide.  Another problem is the whole fact that this film describes two adulterers committing a crime.

Never before was a murder displayed on screen in this sort of manner.  Hollywood was still a long way from the end of the Code but Wilder isn’t messing around here.  Sure, some changes are made from book to film but they really have no choice in the manner.  It’s either change the script for approval or throw out the project.

Thankfully for film audiences, Billy Wilder hears about the story and takes a chance.  We would have probably lost out on a great film noir otherwise!  There are so many amazing things to enjoy about this film–the acting performance from Barbara Stanwyck.  She was the first choice for the role and really, nobody else could be considered.  Cinematographer John F. Seitz’s brilliant cinematographer would become iconic in the sense that this film would set the standard for how noir is shot.

When actor Fred MacMurray was approached for the role, he thought it was career suicide.  He had a certain image on screen and certainly thought Paramount wouldn’t let him take on the role.  Wilder originally wanted George Raft but Raft turned down the role.  Looking back on the film almost 80 years later, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

DIRECTOR:  Billy Wilder
SCREENPLAY:  Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
CAST:  Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber

Paramount Pictures opened Double Indemnity in theaters on July 3, 1944. Grade: 5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.