Tonight: Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, with Edward G. Robinson in Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity.
Tonight’s film is based on a James Cain story, inspired by a true murder case that occurred in 1927.
It is similar in mood and motive to another Cain novel—The Postman Always Rings Twice—made into a movie starring Lana Turner and John Garfield two years later, which we ran a month ago.
Billy Wilder wanted to make a taut, tough, realistic film and for this he hired Raymond Chandler, the author famous for creating the Phillip Marlowe mysteries, Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep.
Wilder’s usual collaborator, Charles Brackett, had passed on the film because of its subject.
Chandler hated writing with Wilder—hated his Germanic manner, his drinking (Chandler was a reformed alcoholic), and his time spent seducing young starlets on the phone when they were supposed to be writing.
But, together they wrote a searing cynical screenplay—and Wilder turned it into a classic that influenced all the film noir movies that followed.
Casting the picture proved to be a bigger problem than expected.
Wilder first approached Alan Ladd, a Paramount star, who turned him down.
Wilder told George Raft the story and Raft said, “Where’s the lapel?”
When Billy Wilder finished the screenplay, Raft refused the role, repeating, “There’s no lapel.”
Wilder asked Raft what he meant by “lapel,” and Raft replied, “At a certain moment, the corrupt insurance salesman has to turn his lapel over and reveal a badge, so the audience realizes he’s with the FBI, or a cop, or someone who works for the government—a good guy. Without a hero, you got no story.”
That wasn’t the movie Billy Wilder wanted to make, but it did give him an idea. He decided to cast a good guy in the role—and have him play totally against type.
For this, he chose Fred MacMurray, who had always been a good guy in his movies.
And when Wilder told him about the role, Fred MacMurray hated the idea.
“Look,” he said, “I’m a saxophone player. I do little comedies with Carole Lombard.”
Fred thought the part was so unsympathetic it would ruin his career. But Billy Wilder persisted and Fred finally agreed.
Later, he conceded, “It turned out to be the greatest role of my career!”
For the female lead, Wilder chose Barbara Stanwyck, who had starred in his comedy hit Ball of Fire with Gary Cooper two years before.
Stanwyck wears a blonde wig as the amoral wife because, Wilder said, “I wanted her to look as sleazy as possible.”
She was nominated for an Oscar for Double Indemnity and so was Billy Wilder for his direction. The picture also earned Oscar nominations for the screenplay, cinematography, sound and the haunting musical score.
Woody Allen calls this, “The greatest movie ever made!”
Film historian John Douglas Eames states, “Double Indemnity has all the suspense of a hand grenade with the pin out… Ranks as one of the most brilliant examples of story telling in movie history.”
So now, from 1944, the Billy Wilder film noir classic