Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Double Indemnity: A Must-See Film for Crime Writers

Double Indemnity (1944) is my all-time favorite movie, one that I urge all crime writers to study. The superb dialog, with its emphasis on double entendres and provocative banter, not only entertains but it moves the plot along. The use of light and shadow create a virtual underworld that emphasizes the unsavoriness of the characters and plot. 

Double Indemnity is the ultimate film noir—it’s dark, steamy, loaded with atmosphere, and the characters are sleazy as all get out. In this story, originally penned by James M. Cain and adapted for the silver screen by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, discontented housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) bewitches insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into killing her husband. Together, she promises, they will collect on a double indemnity insurance clause.

Phyllis is film noir’s classic femme fatale, luring a man whose brain goes on hiatus the moment he sees her. Walter seems like a good guy, but he’s no match for the lovely and smoldering Phyllis. She doesn’t even seem good—she’s evil to the core. Since he’s only marginally good, ensnaring him in her web is child’s play. Indeed, Double Indemnity’s best lesson for writers may be its showing how easily someone can be led astray by promises of a lifetime of riches and passion. Consider this classic line delivered by Walter Neff:  

“I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.”     

That’s Double Indemnity in a nutshell. You can almost feel sorry for Walter—after all, if you go to all the trouble of murdering your lover’s husband, shouldn’t you reap some of the benefits?

Elements of Alfred Hitchcock are evident in Double Indemnity. You don’t see the murder but you know it’s happening just out of camera range.

Writers are frequently advised to show, not tell. Writers are frequently advised to show, not tell. Double Indemnity follows this advice to good effect in its depictions of the life styles of Phyllis and Walter. Phyllis lives in an elegant Spanish house in the hills overlooking the Loz Feliz section of Los Angeles. Walter spends his days selling insurance, operating out of a ubiquitous office building in downtown L.A. where the worker bees toil in a pre-cubicle bullpen desk arrangement. Evening comes and Walter returns to his cramped apartment not far from his office. The contrast of life styles is stark, but never verbalized, only shown.  

When it comes to sex scenes, the censorship of the day forced writers to show without telling, allowing them to achieve higher levels of creativity.  Sex was left to the imagination using suggestive dialog and longing looks. A scene in Walter’s apartment hints that Walter and Phyllis had just been intimate. You don’t know for sure … but you’re pretty sure.  

After the murder, things go downhill. For one thing, Walter’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is highly suspicious of Phyllis’s double indemnity claim and investigates it like a dog with ten bones. And Walter and Phyllis grow to distrust each other (no surprise there). By the time Walter realizes that murdering Mr. Dietrichson wasn’t such a good idea, it’s too late. But is he sorry that he killed the man? Or does he only regret that he’s left with nothing to show for his efforts beyond a bullet in his shoulder?

So far in my brief writing career my murderers have acted out of revenge—they have not been motivated by sex and money alone. But it’s early days in my writing career and I know I have a greed/lust story to tell.


James M. Cain took his inspiration for Double Indemnity from a real life case. In 1927 a New York woman named Ruth Snyder persuaded her lover, a corset salesman named Judd Gray, to kill her husband. She had recently convinced her spouse to take out a $48,000 insurance policy with a double indemnity clause. For more information on the case, read this article

Richard Crenna and Samantha Eggar starred in a made-for-TV remake of Double Indemnity in 1973. The dialog was virtually identical to the original. As for the bright seventies style of the set—in my view, the original black and white version with darkness and shadows is the only way to view Double Indemnity.

If you prefer sex in your movies I suggest Body Heat (1981). That film, starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, took its inspiration from Double Indemnity and heaped on the sex. 

View photos of Double Indemnity’s film locations. 


Sharon Ervin said...

You are right. I LOVE this old movie, but it's not my favorite mystery. My all-time favorite is "Witness for the Prosecution." Many of the same elements.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've not seen the movie. Need to read the book, I think.

Maggie King said...

I need to see Witness for the Prosecution again. Thanks for reminding me, Sharon.

Charles, The movie version of Double Indemnity is better than the book. Unusual, I know.

authorlindathorne said...

I loved the movie. I didn't watch it when it first came out (I wasn't yet born), but I grew up to many reruns of these old favorites and this one, I watched repeatedly. Edward G. Robinson has a conversation with Fred McMurray in the beginning, which kind of sets up for viewers what might go down in this story. McMurray is an honest insurance sales guy then. Robinson tells him something like "he can smell a dishonest claim" and you get that Edward G. puts the job first and he's excellent at it. It's sort of like the ending being the beginning and vice-versa. When the movie's over, you remember back to that initial conversation and think how canny that it turns out that Fred McMurray gets caught up in that web of sex and greed that Edward G. was talking about. Powerful movie.

Liane Spicer said...

I've haven't seen this classic film and I'm going to head right on over to YouTube and see if I can find it. Last week I watched "Notorious"--finally--so there's hope for me. I saw "Body Heat" and just thinking about it makes me feel the stifling effect of that viscous Florida heat wave again. That film was memorable.

I agree there's a lot we writers can learn from these classic films that had to rely on great writing, acting and filming rather than nudity and spectacular graphics.

Liane Spicer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maggie King said...

Thanks for commenting, Linda and Liane. More favorites: Tension, Detour, Out of the Past, Lady in the Lake. Enjoy!

Libby Hellmann said...

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this film. I agree it's much better than the novel. In fact, I use excerpts from it in my "Building Suspense" and "James Cain" workshops! Thanks for giving it some love, Maggie.

Maggie King said...

James Cain workshop? That sounds great. Do you offer them online?

Mark S. Bacon said...

This is one of my favorite noir films, too. As you said, the cinematography provided the "show not tell." One of my favorite scenes is right at the beginning. When Fred McMurray walks into Stanwyck's home, sunshine through the blinds in the sitting room windows casts bars of shadows, like prison bars, across McMurray's face.