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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags are used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Double Indemnity can be found here.
Late one night, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) stumbles into his office of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company in order to dictate a memo to claims manager, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), telling him how he and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of one of his clients, murdered her husband just days after they tricked him into purchasing a $50,000 accident policy with a double indemnity clause.
Double Indemnity is based on a novella of the same name by American crime novelist James M Cain [1892-1977]. The story first appeared as an 8-part serial in Liberty magazine in 1935. The novella was adapted for the movie by another American crime writer Raymond Thornton Chandler [1888-1959] along with director Billy Wilder [1906-2002]. A made-for-TV remake, Double Indemnity was released in 1973.
Apparently so. Novelist James A Cain based his novella on a 1927 crime in which a married Queens woman, Ruth Brown Snyder, persuaded her lover to kill her husband Albert after Albert had just recently taken out a large insurance policy with a double indemnity clause.
Double indemnity is a clause in an insurance policy that provides for double the face amount of the policy should the policyholder die of an accidental death (a death that is not intentional, such as murder, nor foreseeable, such as cancer).
As the film scholar Bernard F. Dick writes: "[Billy] Wilder regarded [director] Ernst Lubitsch as the unrivaled master of subtlety. ... In Double Indemnity, the camera dollies back from Phyllis and Neff as they sit snugly on the sofa in his apartment. 'We just sat there,' Neff's voice is heard saying. We no more believe him than we believe the Lubitsch heroine who closes the door of her lover's bedroom and in the next shot awakens in her own." ("Anatomy of Film," 1978, pp. 142-143). Roger Ebert seems to agree with this interpretation, but adds "in 1944 movies you can't be sure [if the characters make love or not], but if they do, it's only the once." That this is a question at all is due to the Production Code era, which film scholar James Naremore says forced the directors to learn "the art of omission". Had the film been made today, the writer and director probably would have spelled it out for us. Naremore feels Double Indemnity indeed implies that Walter and Phyllis go to bed: "At one point she puts her head on his shoulder and cries softly, like the rain on the windows. The camera tracks backward and we dissolve to the insurance office [...] After a few moments, another dissolve returns us to the apartment: time has passed, and Walter and Phyllis are at either end of a sofa; he is reclining and smoking a cigarette while she reapplies her makeup." ("More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts," 1998, pp. 99).
He's using 'strike anywhere' wooden matches, popular in the 1940s. Today's safety matches come with a striking board impregnated with a chemical that the match needs for ignition, so the match can only be lit by use of the striking board. In a 'strike anywhere' match, this chemical was in the white tip, so all you needed was a rough surface to strike it against. If your thumbnail was long enough, you could actually strike a match under it, as did Walter.
As morning approaches, Walter winds up his dictation, asking Keyes to break the news gently to Lola (Jean Heather) and to take care of her and Zachetti (Byron Barr). He turns his head to see Keyes listening in the doorway, having been alerted by the janitor that Walter was bleeding. Expecting a lecture with a lot of 'two dollar words', Walter is surprised when Keyes simply says, 'Walter, you're all washed up.' Keyes picks up the phone to call for a doctor, but Walter stops him, saying that he doesn't want to go through the process of healing only so that he can walk into the gas chamber at San Quentin under his own power. Instead, Walter decides to make a run for the Mexican border. He stumbles out into the main office but only makes it to the doorway before collapsing on the floor. Keyes phones for an ambulance then tends to Walter. Breathing heavily, Walter tells Keyes that the reason he couldn't figure this insurance fraud out was because he was too close...right across the desk. 'Closer than that, Walter,' Keyes admits. 'I love you, too,' Walter replies and reaches into his pocket for a cigarette. Keyes strikes a match to light it for him. Together, they wait for the ambulance.
The original ending to the movie continued after the present ending through Walter's trial and execution. However, the director eventually decided that the additional material was redundant and depressing, so he cut it for the theatrical release. All the film of the additional scenes has been lost or destroyed, leaving only some still photos, once of which can be seen here.
Walter knew that he was 'all washed up' and that he'd been used by Phyllis, despite her last attempt to convince him that she had fallen in love with him. He also felt guilty for duping Keyes, someone for whom he felt a real affection. Consequently, he needed to set things right at the end. He needed to confess so that Zachetti wouldn't be pinned as the murderer, thereby depriving Lola of the man she loved, and he needed to tell Keyes how the murder was accomplished and why he couldn't solve this case, perhaps to make him even better equipped as a claims manager...or perhaps just because he cared about Keyes and wanted him to know the truth.
Film noir (black film) is defined as a film with a dark and pessimistic outlook, usually involving crime, cynical attitudes, manipulative people, and doomed heroes. Those who have seen Double Indemnity also recommend seeing The Maltese Falcon (1941) in which murder and criminals surround the search for a gold-encrusted statue of a falcon, The Big Sleep (1946) in which a detective becomes embroiled in a rich family's problems (and their murders), and Out of the Past (1947) in which the past catches up with a private eye turned gas station attendant. The Lost Weekend (1945) follows an alcoholic on a four day drinking bout, and a woman is asked in Notorious (1946) to spy on a group of her father's Nazi friends. Other recommended film noir include In a Lonely Place (1950) in which a washed up screenwriter attempts to adapt a trashy novel to the screen, Sunset Blvd. (1950) in which a hack screenplay writer becomes involved with a demented former silent screen star, and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in which a sleazy press agent is hired by a powerful newspaper columnist to ruin his sister's love life. Not a film noir from the 40s and 50s but often considered amongst the better films of the genre is Body Heat (1981) in which a shady lawyer is convinced by a seductive woman to murder her husband.
The crutches Neff used in the train sequence that he ultimately took and threw down the track, were full of his fingerprints. This would have been easy confirmation for the theory that it had not been Dietrichson on the train, as Keyes had later expressed it to Neff. It is surprising that neither Neff nor Phyllis thought of this potential "hole" in their plan - even though the matter of the fingerprints became irrelevant once Neff admitted to the crime. Still, it seems a glaring oversight.
Phyllis is an iconic femme fatale, and she is unusual in that she doesn't bring about the destruction of a good man—she brings about the destruction of a bad one. But she displays other hallmark femme fatale characteristics, such as a total indifference to the feelings of others. Read more on the character here.
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