Although James M. Cain's memorable novel of crime and passion, The Postman Always Rings Twice, predated his equally potent, similarly themed Double Indemnity by almost a decade, it is Indemnity that has proven the more influential, due largely to the uncompromising and suspenseful film writer-director Billy Wilder made from it. Wilder's film remains the model for just about every film noir of this type (Born to Kill, The Prowler, The Pushover, Body Heat, et al.) to come our way since.
Cain's novel was translated to the screen with the full force of the author's ugly tale of lust, greed, and murder intact. In fact, the film version is in many ways tougher than its source. Wilder's intention to make it so prompted his longtime partner, writer-producer Charles Brackett, to back away from the project even though he and Wilder were one of Hollywood's most successful teams. Brackett found Cain's book distasteful and felt the film would be little more than a "dirty movie." He told Wilder to get another collaborator. Wilder tried to get Cain himself, but the author was busy on another project, and Wilder opted for Raymond Chandler instead.
Chandler detested working with Wilder and disliked the final film. Cain on the other hand totally approved of what Wilder had done to his book, even considered it an improvement. The two works are certainly different. In addition to changing the names of Cain's main characters (in the book they are Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger), Wilder changed the ending and altered other aspects of the story as well. Whereas Cain unfolded his tale in a linear manner, Wilder revealed the fate of his protagonist in the opening scene. Insurance investigator MacMurray arrives at his office mortally wounded and confesses into the dictaphone of his colleague, Robinson, the murder plot and insurance scam gone awry that led to MacMurray's downfall. Wilder cuts back to the dying MacMurray several times, but for the most part the film unfolds as a series of flashbacks showing how MacMurray got embroiled with femme fatale Stanwyck in a scheme to murder her oilman husband, make it look like an accident, collect a bundle on the husband's double indemnity claim, and run away together. But when their scheme began to unravel, their relationship fell apart, and they wound up shooting each other. (In the book, the lovers get away with the crime because the Robinson character who is hot on their trail has no proof, but are doomed anyway due to their growing mistrust of one another.)
Cain loosely based his novel on the real-life Roaring Twenties case of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray who conspired to murder Snyder's husband for $100,000 in insurance money. Snyder and Gray were caught and went to the chair. An enterprising newspaper reporter smuggled a camera into the execution chamber and snapped a shot of Snyder moments before the juice was turned on. The ghoulish shot caused a furor when it was published in the paper. Wilder wanted to end his film with a similar scene showing MacMurray's execution in California's gas chamber. The scene was shot, but Wilder decided against using it; he felt it to be too strong and anticlimactic as well. He replaced it with the trenchantly written and beautifully performed final confrontation scene between the self-destructive MacMurray and the fatherly Robinson that movingly concludes this exceptionally fine and biting film noir. As MacMurray slumps to the floor, he tells Robinson how he'd been able to elude the dogged investigator. "Because the guy you were looking for was too close, Keyes. Right across the desk from you." "Closer than that," Robinson responds emotionally as the film fades to black.
Release Date: 1944
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber, and Clarence Muse
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Source Citation: McCarty, John. "Double Indemnity." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 346-348.