Who’s up for a little classic intrigue?
Sometimes when a chance presents itself, there’s nothing to do but take it (Within reason, of course). In the early nineteen-forties, Fred MacMurray was a durable rom-com guy, but 1944 brought him a new kind of opportunity–a role in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Based on a story by James M. Cain, it opened up a new side of MacMurray to the public.
The film begins late at night, with a roadster careening through the streets of Los Angeles. It stops at the Pacific Building, where Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), wearing a trench coat over his shoulders, gets out of the car and staggers up to his supervisor’s office. No one’s around but the night watchman and the janitorial staff, who don’t think twice about seeing him there.
Once in the office, Walter lights a cigarette with great difficulty, using only his right arm. He also gets out a Dictaphone, and starts composing a memo to his supervisor, Mr. Keyes, dating it July 16, 1938, and talking about a recent insurance claim case where the holder, Mr. Dietrichson, died. Walter lays it all out: Dietrichson wasn’t killed by accident or suicide, but was murdered. Over a woman. By Walter.
The movie dissolves into flashback. It’s May of the same year, and Walter is striding up to the Dietrichson house to discuss some car insurance policies that are about to lapse. Only instead of Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers), he’s dealing with Mrs. Dietrichson, or Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), who greets him from the top of the stairs wrapped in a towel. She goes off to dress while Walter waits in the living room for her. When she comes down, the first thing we see is her foot with a tight ankle bracelet and heels that look more appropriate for lounging than for receiving guests.
Walter can’t hide his intrigue, but Phyllis puts him off, telling him to come back the next night at eight-thirty when he can talk to her husband. He agrees, and goes back to his office, where Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is dealing with a truck driver who tried to burn down his vehicle to collect the insurance money. Keyes goes with his gut, or what he refers to as “the little man inside,” and never misses a trick. He is so sharp that the truck driver folds like a TV tray and agrees to sign an insurance waiver. Cocky upstart Walter ribs Keyes for being too cautious.
Phyllis sends a note to Walter asking him to come in the afternoon instead. She wants to take out an accident policy on her husband without him knowing about it, especially once she hears there’s capital in it for her if he’s killed. Walter sees through what she’s after, and accuses her of wanting her husband to die. She throws him out, and Walter leaves gladly.
He might have done the honorable thing, but Walter feels all tangled up inside. Not even a beer at a drive-through or a round of bowling puts him to rights. Walter finally goes back to his apartment, and is staring out the window at the rain when Phyllis drops by, on the pretense of returning his hat. Yeah. Her see-through sweater says she’s really after other things. Phyllis gets them, but not before she tells Walter about how much she loathes her husband and his daughter. Walter answers that there’s no way Phyllis could knock off her husband without Keyes figuring it out.
Still, Walter is intrigued by the idea. This could be the perfect crime. And anyway, he’s now vested in it. He’s got as much of a hold on Phyllis as she has on him. There can’t be any slip-ups, either. “It’s got to be straight down the line,” he tells Phyllis.
A couple of nights later, Walter goes back to the Dietrichson house to see about the auto insurance. While Phyllis and Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather) are off to the side playing Chinese checkers, Walter tricks Dietrichson into signing the accident insurance policy. Phyllis watches him very carefully, and her eyes gleam like a viper’s when it’s done.
But wait, there’s more! Walter tells Phyllis about the double indemnity clause, which means that if Dietrichson dies in an unusual circumstance like a train accident, the insurance payout will be twice as much. Phyllis’s eyes get even bigger. She likes this idea.
Phyllis isn’t the only one who’s unhappy at home. Lola isn’t too keen on her dad because he doesn’t like her boyfriend, Nino (Byron Barr), and Phyllis hates her. Walter gives her a ride downtown, where Lola and Nino are meeting. Nino’s no knight in shining armor, though, just a jerk, and Lola makes excuses for him.
As luck, good or bad, would have it, Dietrichson breaks his leg right before he leaves for his class reunion at Stanford, and that means he has to take the train instead of driving like he usually does. Phyllis and Walter cook up a plan, killing Dietrichson before he’s even on the train, then having Walter pose as Dietrichson and get on the train in his place.
Phyllis’s face is a study during the murder. Walter is strangling Dietrichson off camera. Phyllis keeps driving. There’s just the barest flicker of satisfaction on her face, and she doesn’t break for a second. She is pure tramp, a serial femme fatale.
The final stages of the plan involve Walter acting like he’s fallen off the back of the train when he steps out for a smoke, at which point he and Phyllis leave Dietrichson’s body on the tracks. And voilá, Phyllis is now a widow.
Does the scheme succeed, straight down the line? Well…yes, and no. It’s one thing to murder Dietrichson, but it’s quite another to keep anyone from finding out about it, and everyone’s suspicious. Especially Walter’s insurance company, because they’re skeptical about Dietrichson’s death. It’s a little too neat that Dietrichson died after a fall off a train going fifteen miles an hour. Walter is in a much bigger pickle than he thinks, especially once Lola starts talking.
Double Indemnity has a basis in fact. In 1927, Cain sat in on the trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray in New York. Snyder, a Queens housewife, was an habitual adulterer, and Judd Gray was one of her paramours. The two of them forged Snyder’s signature on an insurance policy, then murdered Snyder’s husband, only it was much less discreet than the one in Double Indemnity. Their method was to hit the guy with a window-sash weight and then finish him off with chloroform.
Snyder and Gray were not as smart as Walter and Phyllis, as the people Gray had bought the window-sash weight from were able to identify him later. Snyder was described by one journalist as “a chilly-looking blonde,” and Gray was “a scaredrunk” who was asking to be set up by a blonde. Sound familiar?
This sinister incident, which became national news, was the basis for not only Double Indemnity, but The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain’s original Indemnity story was so trashy that the Hays Office banned it from production for eight years, starting in 1935.
Once it was green-lit, Wilder had to find actors who were willing to play such damaged people. James Cagney, George Raft and Alan Ladd were considered first, among others, but they all passed on the role because they didn’t like that Walter was a bit of a milquetoast. MacMurray was next in line, and he accepted the part because Wilder was a pest, bugging MacMurray everywhere he went, almost like Stewie from Family Guy. MacMurray finally gave in, even though he thought Wilder was making a mistake.
The funny thing is, MacMurray assumed the Paramount executives would put the kibosh on his participation, but just the opposite happened. They didn’t like that he was pushing for more money, and they figured they’d punish MacMurray by letting him take this atypical role. Welp, that backfired just a teensy bit.
MacMurray playing a murderer was definitely out of character for an actor who normally took happy-go-lucky “aw, shucks” parts, and it paid off. When Double Indemnity hit theaters, moviegoers absolutely loved MacMurray as Walter Neff. It was, though, a rare departure for him, as he went right back to his usual type after the film was released. Ironically, he considered the few dramatic roles he did play the best of his career. There may not have been many, but they were all memorable, and Double Indemnity started it all.
For more Fred MacMurray, please visit Laura at Phyllis Loves Classic Films. Thanks for hosting, Laura–this was fun! And thanks for reading, everyone. Another “Stage To Screen” is on the way…
This film is available on Amazon.
Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.