Author James M. Cain later admitted that if he had come up with some of the solutions to the plot that screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did, he would have employed them in his original novel.
This film came out in 1944, the same year David O. Selznick released Since You Went Away (1944). Part of the campaign for the latter film were major ads that declared, "'Since You Went Away' are the four most important words in movies since 'Gone With the Wind'!" which Selznick had also produced. Billy Wilder hated the ads and decided to counter by personally buying his own trade paper ads which read, "'Double Indemnity' are the two most important words in movies since 'Broken Blossoms'!" referring to the 1919 D.W. Griffith classic. Selznick was not amused and even considered legal action against Wilder. Alfred Hitchcock (who had his own rocky relationship with Selznick) took out his own ads which read, "The two most important words in movies today are 'Billy Wilder'!"
Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did not get along whilst writing the script, a process that was apparently filled with arguments. Wilder claimed that he flaunted his womanizing ability at the time just to torment the sexually-repressed Chandler.
Barbara Stanwyck was the first choice to play Phyllis, but she was unnerved when seeing the role was of a ruthless killer. When she expressed her concern to Billy Wilder, he asked her, "Are you a mouse or an actress?"
In the scene where Phyllis is listening at Neff's door as he talks with Keyes, Keyes exits into the hallway and Phyllis hides behind the door. The door opens into the hallway which isn't allowed by building codes, even back then, but it does give Phyllis something to hide behind and increases the tension.
The blonde wig that Barbara Stanwyck is wearing throughout the movie was the idea of Billy Wilder. A month into shooting Wilder suddenly realized how bad it looked, but by then it was too late to re-shoot the earlier scenes. To rationalize this mistake, in later interviews Wilder claimed that the bad-looking wig was intentional.
One day during production Raymond Chandler failed to show up at work and was tracked down at his home; he went through a litany of reasons why he could no longer work with director Billy Wilder. 'Mr. Wilder frequently interrupts our work to take phone calls from women" . . . " Mr. Wilder ordered me to open up the window. He did not say please" . . . "He sticks his baton in my eyes" . . . "I can't work with a man who wears a hat in the office. I feel he is about to leave momentarily". Unless Wilder apologized, Chandler threatened to resign. Wilder surprised himself by apologizing. "It was the first--and probably only--time on record in which a producer and director ate humble pie, in which the screenwriter humiliated the big shots."
Edward G. Robinson's initial reluctance to sign on largely stemmed from the fact he wasn't keen on being demoted to third lead. Eventually, he realized that he was at a transitional phase of his career, plus the fact that he was getting paid the same as Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray for doing less work.
Raymond Chandler hated the experience of writing the script with Billy Wilder so much that he actually walked out and would not return unless a list of demands was met. The studio acceded to his demands and he returned to finish the script with Wilder, even though the two detested each other.
When approached about adapting the novel to the screen, Raymond Chandler told Billy Wilder that he had to get at least $150 a week in salary and was surprised when Joseph Sistrom told the writer that they had planned to give him $750 a week.
Due to strict wartime food rationing, policemen were stationed in the store where a scene with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck was filmed, to make sure nobody on the film crew was tempted to take away any of the food. Paramount released publicity stills showing four policemen in the store with MacMurray and Stanwyck.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but lost out to Going My Way (1944). Billy Wilder was so seriously annoyed at Leo McCarey's sweep that when McCarey's name was called for Best Director, Wilder stuck his foot out into the aisle, tripping McCarey up. Wilder would get his revenge the following year when The Lost Weekend (1945) won four Oscars, while McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) only picked up one.
When "Double Indemnity" was first published in 1935, offers of up to $25,000 were tendered, but nothing came of it at the time because the Hays Office considered the novel unsuitable for filming. James M. Cain was ultimately offered $15,000 by Paramount. He was to get half on signing and the other half if the script was approved by the Hays Office.
James M. Cain based his novella on a 1927 murder perpetrated by a married Queens, New York woman and her lover whose trial he attended whilst working as a journalist in New York. In that crime, Ruth Snyder persuaded her boyfriend, Judd Gray, to kill her husband Albert after having him take out a big insurance policy - with a double-indemnity clause. The murderers were quickly identified, arrested and convicted. The front page photo of Snyder's execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing has been called the most famous news photo of the 1920s.
The character Walter Neff was originally named Walter Ness, but director/writer Billy Wilder found out that there was a man living in Beverly Hills named Walter Ness who was actually an insurance salesman. To avoid being sued for defamation of character, they changed the name. In the novel, his name is Walter Huff, and Dietrichson is Nirdlinger
Raymond Chandler, who knew nothing about screenwriting or filmmaking and had never been in a studio before this film, did not care for Billy Wilder. He thought the director spoke too fast, was too jumpy and was disrespectful because he wore a baseball cap indoors.
Initially, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler had intended to retain as much of the book's original dialogue as possible. It was Chandler who first realized that the dialogue from the novella would not translate well to the screen. Wilder disagreed and was annoyed that Chandler was not putting more of it into the script. To settle it, Wilder hired a couple of contract players from the studio to read passages of Cain's original dialogue aloud. To Wilder's astonishment, Chandler was right and, in the end, the movie's cynical and provocative dialogue was more Chandler and Wilder than it was Cain.
The script was co-written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. Wilder didn't get on with the famous novelist, whose constant drinking irritated him. Wilder effectively exorcised his demons about dealing with alcoholics with his next film, The Lost Weekend (1945).
For Neff's office at Pacific All Risk, Billy Wilder and set designer Hal Pereira conspired to create a little in-house joke, typical of Wilder. In the opening scenes, as Walter Neff stumbles off the elevator on his way to his office to record his confession, the vast two-tiered office is empty and dark. With the camera following him, Neff lurches towards the balcony railing overlooking rows and rows of uniform corporate desks. Neff turns left, but the camera continues forward until it reaches the brink and stares down for an anxious moment into a colorless American business purgatory. Here, Pereira is said to have copied an existing office: the corporate headquarters of Paramount Pictures in New York City.
So many imitations flooded the market, in fact, that James M. Cain believed he deserved credit and remuneration. Instead, he led a movement within the Screen Writers Guild to create the American Author's Authority, a union that would own its members' works, negotiate better subsidiary deals, and protect against copyright infringement on behalf of its members. This was, however, the depth of the Red Scare in Hollywood and Guild members rejected the socialist notion and ran from the attempt.
Raymond Chandler did a lot of fieldwork whilst working on the script and took large volumes of notes. By visiting various locations that figured into the film, he was able to bring a sense of realism about Los Angeles that seeped into the script. For example, he hung around Jerry's Market on Melrose Avenue in preparation for the scene where Phyllis and Walter would discreetly meet to plan the murder.
In 1942 Raymond Chandler said that Cain was "a [Marcel Proust] in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking . . . everything he touches smells like a billygoat".
Raymond Chandler was kept on a writer's retainer during the film's eight-week shooting period. This was a highly unusual occurrence for any writer at any studio at the time, signifying the high regard that Chandler was held in by Paramount and Billy Wilder.
One of over 700 Paramount productions, filmed between 1929-49, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. Its earliest documented telecast took place in Omaha 7 March 1959 on KETV (Channel 7) and its popularity on local television stations immediately began to spread like wildfire, with sponsors assuring it the best movie slots usually during rating weeks. In Milwaukee it first aired 22 April 1959 on WITI (Channel 6), in Asheville 26 April 1959 on WLOS (Channel 13), in Minneapolis 3 May 1959 on WTCN (Channel 11), in Phoenix 9 July 1959 on KVAR (Channel 12), in Grand Rapids 5 August 1959 on WOOD (Channel 8), in Los Angeles 19 September 1959 on KNXT (Channel 2), in St. Louis 26 September 1959 on KMOX (Channel 4), in Chicago 3 October 1959 on WBBM (Channel 2), in Detroit 23 October 1959 on WJBK (Channel 2), in Pittsburgh 12 November 1959 on KDKA (Channel 2), in Philadelphia 14 November 1959 on WCAU (Channel 10), in Johnstown 9 December 1959 on WJAC (Channel 6), in Seattle 11 December 1959 on KIRO (Channel 7), and in Baltimore 27 February 1960 on WBAL (Channel 11). It was first released on DVD 28 January 1998, again 28 August 2012 as part of the Universal Vault Series, again 10 November 2014 as part of Universal's Film Noir Movie Spotlight Collection, and again in Blu-Ray 26 May 2015. For over a decade, it's also enjoyed frequent airings on cable TV on Turner Classic Movies.
The notable Broadway actor Tom Powers was invited to Hollywood for the role of Mr. Dietrichson. It was Powers' first film role since 1917 and his start to a "second film career" with many supporting roles until his death in 1955.
Interestingly, the only two times Fred MacMurray played disreputable characters were both in films directed by Billy Wilder. When MacMurray hesitated to accept the part of the cheating executive Sheldrake in The Apartment, his experiences making this film played a part in persuading him that take that role.
Curiously, given how well they've stood the test of time, neither Fred MacMurray nor Edward G. Robinson were Oscar nominated for their roles in this film. In Robinson's case, it's possible that Academy voters split their votes for him between Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, resulting in his not being nominated in either category.
In 2001 singer Durrell Babbs (a.k.a. "Tank") released his debut album. One of the songs, "Kill 4 U", tells a story that almost perfectly expresses the plot of "Double Indemnity", told from the perspective of the lover Neff's character, though it is unlikely that the song was written with any connection to the film or novel.
Raymond Chandler: About 16 minutes into this movie, Chandler is sitting outside an office as Fred MacMurray walks past. Chandler glances up at MacMurray from a paperback he is reading, a great clue of his identity.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
A different ending was shot, with Neff being caught by the police and executed, whilst Keyes looks on in despair. Billy Wilder decided it would be poignant and fitting for both characters if, instead, Neff were to die in his office, with Keyes by his side as he expressed his regret.
The part of Walter Neff was originally offered to George Raft. He insisted that he would only take on the role if his character turned out to be an FBI agent at the end, entrapping Barbara Stanwyck's character. As this ran completely counter to James M. Cain's original novel, he naturally didn't get the part.