Double Indemnity (1944)

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Food: Last week, I tried Adrienne’s Pizza Bar on Stone Street for the first time, after many recommendations. My coworkers and I split a pizza – the lunch option with added prosciutto for $6 extra. We also split the mixed green salad with balsamic vinaigrette. It was a simple meal, but extremely tasty. The pizza comes in a bunch of square slices, and at risk of the pizza gods shaming me, is best eaten cut up into small bites and consumed with a fork.

Film: The film opens with a man stumbling into his office, covered in blood and sweat, exasperated and distraught, and begins to record his side of the story into a Dictaphone. From this point, the story is told in flashbacks. With the guilty beating heart of Edgar Allen Poe and the mental anguish of Dostoyevsky, “Double Indemnity” (1944) reveals a tale of a man who gets roped into a murderous scheme.

Directed by Billy Wilder (“The Apartment” and “Some Like It Hot”) and co-written by crime novelist Raymond Chandler, this film actually took years to make. It is based off of a short story that was published in the mid-1930’s by New York journalist James M. Cain. Based off a real murder at the time, he wrote about an insurance salesman who falls for another man’s wife, and agrees to help her kill him so that they can be together.

Cain came upon this idea after he stumbled upon the true-life case of the murder of Albert Snyder who was killed in 1927 by his wife, “Ruthless” Ruth Brown Snyder and her secret lover, a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray. Brown had taken out a $100,000 life insurance policy on her husband before attempting to kill him seven times – unsuccessfully. After all of the failed attempts, she enlisted the help of Gray, and together, they did the deed sloppily, getting caught quickly. The two were both executed for their crimes.

Further, it is worth mentioning that it was a highly publicized case as “Ruthless Ruth” was the first woman to be executed in 30 years at the time, the first since 1899. Not only that, but the photograph of her execution is infamous. There were strict rules against photographing the executions which were heavily enforced, but a man named Tom Howard slid in through security with a custom single-use camera neatly tucked beneath his pant cuff. A wired shutter release ran up his leg and he had the button within undetectable reach of his hand. The photo was instantly hailed as the most famous tabloid photo of the decade. 

The story made its way to Hollywood, where the moral guidelines of the Production Code placed it on the back burner because “the leading characters are murderers who cheat the law and die at their own hands (Cain’s original story features a double suicide); the story deals improperly with an illicit and adulterous sex relationship; [and] the details of the vicious and cold-blooded murder are clearly shown.” After several reworked versions, the script was finally approved.

Raymond Chandler (new to screenwriting at the time) and Billy Wilder worked long hours together, reworking the script until they came to the final version. They eliminated Cain’s complicated end-game and deepened the relationship between Neff and Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the claims manager at the insurance company.

In the series of aforementioned flashbacks, we meet Walter Neff (“two f’s–like in Philadelphia”), played by Fred MacMurray, who is a charming, but weary insurance salesman, as he is on his way to a clients home, when, instead of the client, he meets his wife. The seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a former nurse who is now an unhappy housewife. Arriving at the top of the staircase in a bathrobe, she beguiles Neff immediately and it is not long before their clever banter turns into a love affair.

These two characters engage in deft tête-à-tête throughout the film, and it often feels like a game of chess. As Roger Ebert put it best, “the enigma that keeps it new, is what these two people really think of one another.” The story shrewdly keeps the audience guessing each of the characters intentions, all while Neff’s own insurance office attempts to solve the murder case. It is a layered story with complicated characters, and historically, it is the first true example of film noir.

“Double Indemnity” was nominated for seven Oscars in 1945, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress, and rightfully so. It is brilliantly crafted, delicately portrayed, and expertly cold-blooded. It is intoxicating and stylish. Though, it is a story of love and betrayal, the real depth lies in the thoughtfully concocted friendship between Neff and his boss. And with that, in the films final scene, Neff concedes “You couldn’t figure this one … because the guy you were looking for was too close – right across the desk from you.” Keyes softly replies: “Closer than that, Walter.”

 

 

 

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