DOUBLE INDEMNITY: Making an Audience Love a Killer

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Image is in public domain)

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Image is in public domain)

Noir at Its Darkest and Finest

Some view Double Indemnity (1944), the dark, suspenseful adaptation of the James M. Cain story, as one of the best, if not perfect, noir film. A June 1944 film review in Time magazine called it the "nattiest, nastiest, most satisfying melodrama."

Chandler and Wilder: A Tumultuous Writing Team

Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay over approximately 12 weeks, a volatile writing partnership that Wilder thought drove Chandler back to drinking. However, Wilder believed their discord enhanced their collaboration. "If two people think alike," he said, "it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off."

Billy Wilder also wrote and directed other film classics such as NinotchkaThe Lost WeekendSunset BoulevardSome Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch.   

Stanwyck and MacMurray Turned Down the Roles

Barbara Stanwyck, at the time the highest paid actress in Hollywood as well as the highest paid woman in America, at first turned down the role of the psychopathic killer Phyllis Dietrichson. In a later interview, she said after reading the script: "I went to his office, and I said to him, I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid, after all these years of playing heroines to play the part of an out–and–out cold–blooded killer." Wilder responded, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" She answered that she hoped she were an actress. He said, "Then take the part." Years later she said she had been grateful ever since for taking the role.

Numerous actors turned down the role of Walter Neff, the bored insurance salesman tempted to commit murder: Alan Ladd, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and others. Eventually Wilder realized he needed an actor who could play a cynic and a nice guy. In 1943 Fred MacMurray was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, known for playing easy-going, happy-go-lucky characters. When Wilder asked him to play Neff, MacMurray said, "You're making the biggest mistake of your life!" Later MacMurray said, "I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made."

Wilder Changed the Sweet Boy-Meets-Girl Situations

Wilder broke the mold early on with the standard, sweet boy-meets-girl situations. In the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn, the suave French actor Charles Boyer played a refugee who marries a woman so he can enter the United States. He wrote a sweet-sour romance in The Apartment, where a young woman (Shirley MacLaine) has an ongoing tryst with an executive at her office, where a young man (Jack Lemmon) also works. He has a crush on the Shirley MacLaine character, and has no idea she's the one warming his bed with his boss. Critics called it a "dirty fairy tale," and audiences loved it.

Double Indemnity: Making an Audience Love a Killer

Billy Wilder chose a cheap wig to emphasis Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson's, "sleazy phoniness" (Image is in public domain)

Billy Wilder chose a cheap wig to emphasis Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson's, "sleazy phoniness" (Image is in public domain)

How did Wilder make the mysterious, deceiving, insidious Phyllis sympathetic to viewers? He added a dash of sympathy, offered deeper glimpses into her character, and cranked up the heat:

  • Phyllis is trapped, unprotected in a marriage where her emotionally-distant husband prefers the well-being of his blood-family daughter over his trophy wife.
     
  • She is more than a one-dimensional cold, calculating murderer. She is driven, at times charming, tarnished yet eerily beautiful and diabolically shrewd.  If she had only been cold and calculating, viewers would have been bored.
     
  • Phyllis and Walter have a complicated, compelling chemistry that drives the story.

A Film About Relationships

The late film critic Roger Ebert had an interesting take on Wilder's characterizations in Double Indemnity:

[Wilder] doesn't go for the obvious [character] arc. He isn't interested in the same thing the characters are interested in. He wants to know what happens to them after they do what they think is so important. He doesn't want truth, but consequences. 

Wilder showed us how a couple of psychologically shallow people betray, cheat and murder, but he fascinated us by revealing the repercussions of their acts.

He also made sure Phyllis and Walter didn't come across as one-dimensional by such techniques as:

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, confessing into Dictaphone (Image is in public domain)

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, confessing into Dictaphone (Image is in public domain)

  • A nasty spin on dialogue. Don't forget we have Chandler co-writing this story, and if anybody can write cynical, sharp, memorable dialogue, it's Chandler. Roger Ebert wrote: "Chandler turned up drunk, smoked a smelly pipe, didn't know anything about screenplay construction, but could put a nasty spin on dialogue."
     
  • High stakes conflict of emotions. This film pits the fixation of passion versus the enticement of evil.  
     
  • The probing of human weaknesses. Neff and Dietrichson are driven by the dark side of their weaknesses: greed, desire, even helplessness.

Other Articles About Billy Wilder and Double Indemnity

The Paris Review: "Billy Wilder, the Art of Screenwriting No. 1"

An Analysis of Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" by Kathryn Blakeney

10 Tips from Billy Wilder on How to Write a Good ScreenPlay (Open Culture)

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