(This post is part of LA Plays Itself In The Movies, organized so awesomely by Julia)
— Walter Neff
For one of the last films in this LA Metblogs series, let’s look at one of the first to document the decadence and decay of the Los Angeles dream: Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, it stars Fred MacMurray as insurance agent Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck as femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, along with Edward G. Robinson as Neff’s best friend and claims investigating coworker Barton Keyes.
As a kid raised on TV reruns in the 1970s I got to know MacMurray mostly as Steve Douglas the even-keeled and level-headed, father to those three sons of TV’s long-running My Three Sons, Same with Stanwyck, who was familiar to me as Victoria Barkley the widowed, wealthy and strong-willed matriarch in the series The Big Valley. So when I finally got around to growing up and seeing them as the unholy alliance that drives this classic, I was quite delightfully taken aback to see them so different in such deliciously devious roles in so devilishly dark a film.
Threaded together via MacMurray’s flashback voice-over, Double Indemnity matches Stanwyck’s predatory housewife with MacMurray’s congenial everyman. Together they connive and scheme a murder of her husband for purposes of desire and dough, but ultimately are doomed in large part to the dogged detective work of Keyes, remarkably portrayed by Robinson.
“Murder’s never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it’s usually sooner. Now we know the Dietrichson dame is in it and a somebody else. Pretty soon, we’ll know who that somebody is. He’ll show. He’s got to show. Sometime, somewhere, they’ve got to meet. Their emotions are all kicked up. Whether it’s love or hate doesn’t matter; they can’t keep away from each other.”
— Barton Keyes
What’s never doomed is the wicked smart dialogue, as evidenced after the jump in one of my favorite exchanges between the dynamically deviant duo when they first meet (and dig on the awesome — and first — use of a noir staple: light through the venetian blinds):
Who’d you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good looking dame’s front parlor and says, “Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands… you got one that’s been around too long? One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?”
— Walter Neff
Set in 1938 Los Angeles, the screenplay was adapted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler from Three of a Kind, a 1943 novella from the novella of the same name that appeared in the 1943 anthology Three of a Kind by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce), which Cain drew from the real-life 1927 crime perpetrated by Queens, NY, housewife Ruth Snyder and her lover, a 32-year-old corset salesman named Judd Gray. Snyder persuaded Gray to kill her husband Albert after having her spouse take out a $48,000 insurance policy with a double-indemnity clause (which doubles the benefit amount in the event of accidental death). Judd garroted Albert, stuffed chloroform rags up his nose then badly staged the scene as a burglary gone way wrong. Ruth and Judd were eventually arrested, convicted, sentenced to death, and famously electrocuted at Sing Sing in 1928.
Phyllis: I’m a native Californian. Born right here in Los Angeles.
Walter: They say all native Californians come from Iowa.
Wilder wastes no time shifting things to the wild west, immediately establishing Los Angeles as the appropriate canvas upon which to paint this sinister and sleazy tale that starts at the end. In the film’s opening scenes paced by the urgency of Miklos Rozsa’s score a sedan speeds along a wet, dark street that could be 6th Street east of LaFayette Park past a crew of workmen identified by a sign reading “Los Angeles Railway Corp.” Speeding south in the next shot along Olive Street past Pershing Square and running a red light, the vehicle swerves, barely avoiding a collision with a westbound Los Angeles Examiner newspaper truck. Parking outside an unrecognizable downtown office building Neff emerges slowly from the car in serious physical pain that he tries with little success to hide from the doorman. Rozsa’s music descends gloomily as Neff ascends to his reckoning up to the 12th floor headquarters of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. Entering he stands momentarily before the dormant and dimly lighted secretarial pool a floor below him looking down into it like it’s his own personal pit of damnation before heading to his office where he had been an upright successful salesman before being consumed with lust and greed and turned into a cold-blooded killer by Stanwyck’s Dietrichson. He sits down at the company dictaphone and begins:
“Dear Keyes, I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it… Well, I don’t like the word confession, I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose. You think you’re such a hot potato as a claims manager; such a wolf on a phony claim… Maybe y’are. But let’s take a look at that Dietrichson claim… accident and double indemnity. You were pretty good in there for awhile Keyes… you said it wasn’t an accident, check. You said it wasn’t suicide, check. You said it was murder… check.”
— Walter Neff
A few other locations Wilder used throughout the greater Los Angeles area? Check:
- the Glendale train station
- the old Jerry’s Market once located in Los Feliz Village on Vermont near Franklin
- a Spanish-style house still at 6301 Quebec Drive in the Hollywood Hills off Beachwood Drive was used for the Dietrichson residence (mentioned as being in Glendale in the film), a duplicate of its interiors said to have been precisely recrafted on a Paramount Studios soundstage
- the apartment building that can be found at 1825 N. Kingsley Drive in Hollywood was used for exteriors of where Neff lived, though the shabby interiors were modeled at Paramount after an apartment at the Chateau Marmont that Wilder had once rented.
The film from Paramount was a sensation and not all in a good way. Its plot of a deliberate and brutal crime inspired by adultery and the promise of insurance money was considered by the righteous Hays Office to be innately amoral, objectionable and distasteful — coincidentally three ways to consider Los Angeles. Maybe it was to mollify the imperious censors that a purportedly gruesome execution scene at the end of the film was cut, in which Keyes watches Neff being led to the death chamber at San Quentin (perhaps done in homage to the real-life Snyder’s well-documented zapping). In its place came the decidedly less shocking (literally) ending.
— Walter Neff
Double Indemnity didn’t get the Oscars either, receiving not one of the seven academy awards for which it had been nominated: best picture, best actress, best director, best screenplay, best black & white cinematography, best sound recording, and best score. It’s an equal shame that MacMurray was not nominated for best actor, nor Robinson for best supporting actor.
Being so summarily shunned by the academy has been attributed to an unwillingness of its members to embrace such a controversial, cynical and hard-boiled film during wartime (the light-hearted Going My Way was the big winner that year). But a lack of statuettes doesn’t take anything away from Double Indemnity being both one of the most influential examples of American film noir and one of the greatest films ever made.
- Walter’s last name was originally “Ness,” but apparently there was a Beverly Hills resident at the time named Walter Ness who was also in insurance so Wilder changed it to “Neff.”
- Dick Powell lobbied hard for the role of Walter but was under contract at another studio who wouldn’t let him out of it.
- George Raft auditioned, but would only take the part if the script was written making Neff an FBI agent who entraps Phyllis. Oh that George…
- Wilder and Chandler are said to have come to detest each other during the process of writing the screenplay.
- Silver dust was mixed with some subtle smoke effects to create the illusion of waning sunlight in the Dietrichson house.
- The American Film Institute ranked this as the No. 29 Greatest Movie Of All Time.
- In the early 1970s Paramount planned a remake with Robert Redford as Walter. Oh that Paramount…
Noir Town — Other Los Angeles-based films of the genre (links are to those written about in this LA Metblogs series): Blade Runner (1982). Brother (2000), Chinatown (1974), Collateral (2004), The Crimson Kimono (1959), Criss Cross (1949), DOA (1950), Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), The Driver (1978), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), Gun Crazy (1959), Heat (1995), Hickey & Boggs (1972), Impulse (1990), In a Lonely Place (1950), Jackie Brown (1997), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), LA Confidential (1997), The Long Goodbye (1973), M (1952), Mildred Pierce (1945), Mulholland Drive (2001), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Pitfall (1948), Pulp Fiction (1994), Quicksand (1950), Shockproof (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), T-Men (1947), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), This Gun for Hire (1942), To Live and Die in LA (1985), Touch of Evil (1958), 2 Days in the Valley (1996), White Heat (1949).
Sources: AMC Filmsite, written and edited by Tim Dirks; IMDB; Wikipedia; LA Noir: The City As Character, written by Alain Silver and James Ursini; Conversations with Wilder, compiled and written by Cameron Crowe; Los Angeles Plays Itself, documentary by Thom Anderson.