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  • Posted 5 years ago

The Making of a Classic - Double Indemnity

           Possible Spoilers

     James M. Cain's novella Double Indemnity was based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, who got her boyfriend Henry Judd Gray to kill her husband for the insurance money.  Snyder and Jud Gray were convicted.  One of the most famous news photos of the 1920's was that of Ruth Snyder being executed in the electric chair.

      It was believed that Double Indemnity was impossible to film since adultery was central to the plot and the two main characters were cold blooded killers. 

     Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett developed a film treatment that was accepted by the Hays Code.  But Brackett decided the story was too sordid for his taste and bowed out.

     It is obvious that Brackett should be replaced by James M. Cain.  But Cain said that he was never asked.  Producer Joseph Sistrom suggested Raymond Chandler, famous for writing stories like The Big Sleep.  Billy Wilder was expecting to work with a Phillip Marlowe type character and instead got an accountant type of person instead.

     Wilder and Chandler did not get along at all.  In fact the two men detested each other.  But Wilder did have respect for Chandler's talent.  But disagreed with Chandler when he said that the original dialogue from the novella would not translate well to the screen.  Eager to prove Chandler wrong, Wilder hired two contract players to read passages from the novella and realized that Chandler was right.  Chandler also added realism to the screenplay by visiting the locations that figured in the film, like the supermarket where Walter and Neff met to discuss their murder plot.

     In the original novella, the two main characters committed double suicide.  But that was forbidden by the Hays Code.  So a scene where Walter Neff is executed in the gas chamber was filmed.  But Wilder believed that the last scene between Neff and Barton Keyes were more meaningful.  So he took out the gas chamber scene costing the studio $150,000.  Chandler himself was not happy with the gas chamber scene being cut.  But this time Wilder was right.


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16 Dec 10, 03:29 PM

For those that are b-noir lovers, there is another film based upon the same Ruth Synder event, "Apology for Murder" (1945) (original title: "Single Indemnity"), which is really just a crude rip-off of "Double Indemnity." In fact, the producers of the latter even threatened with legal action because the similarities between the two films were so striking.


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15 Dec 10, 05:02 PM

Didn't know about the gas chamber scene... lots to learn here! Bet Paramount executives were just overjoyed that such an expensive scene was cut. As Joel mentioned, this was partly based on a twenties botched murder case involving adulterous lovers. I first read about it in a book titled Sex In America... or was it The American Way Of Sex? Books like that make good reading, not just for all of the "spicey" stuff. You learn a lot of history too. Oh... back to Double Indemnity, the "Double"-sized DVD version also has the 1973 TV version. Obviously that one can't hold a candle to the original any more than the 1976 version of King Kong does with that original... but it might be fun reading a "comparison" blog if you happen to run out of noir-ish ideas to post. 


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15 Dec 10, 02:05 PM

Thanks wewink for adding this excellent blog to the REEL MURDER: Mystery Inc. site. Your blogs are always a welcomed addition.


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15 Dec 10, 01:13 AM

Makes me want to see this even more!!!!!


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14 Dec 10, 11:45 PM

The front page news photo was taken for the New York Daily News in 1928 by a Chicago Tribune photographer who sneaked a camera into the electric chair witness gallery.  The Chicago Tribune was the parent company for the Daily News.  


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