The Real Life Double Indemnity Murder

The Real Life Double Indemnity Murder

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Release date: February 12th 2007
Certificate (UK): PG
Running time: 105 minutes

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

Double Indemnity isn’t just the most iconic of all film noir classics; it’s the essence of film noir itself with an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) being talked into by a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck).

Nominated for 7 Oscars® at the 1945 Academy Awards® including Best Picture®, Best Screenplay®, Best Director® and Best Actress®, it’s the film which most movie fans will list when talking about all-time cinema greats, but the movie has a history rooted in an infamous 1920’s murder as well.

Based on the 1935 story by James M. Cain which is in turn based on a real life murder. In 1927 a New York woman, Ruth Snyder managed to persuade her lover, Judd Gray, to kill her husband after he takes out an insurance policy on his life with a double indemnity clause. They set up the room as if a robbery had taken place but were unsuccessful, their crime was quickly identified and they were arrested and convicted with Arthur Synder’s murder.

The image of Ruth’s execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing was splashed all over the front pages declaring “Ruthless Ruth” dead, it’s been called the most famous news photo of the 1920’s.

At first the studios were reluctant to buy the rights to the story fearing that it was unsuitable for a screen presentation. There was also the Motion Picture Code of Production (also known as Hays Office) to be adhered to and many of the story’s elements were in danger of pushing the boundaries of cinema too far too soon. When Billy Wilder’s treatment for the screenplay was submitted it was passed with only a few objections: the portrayal of the disposal of the body, a proposed gas-chamber execution scene, and the skimpiness of the towel worn by the female lead in her first scene.

As a film from the 1940’s Double Indemnity is certainly adult-themed and it’s easy to understand why many people were nervous about it, including Barbara Stanwyck who was at the time the highest paid woman in America. Stanwyck was apprehensive about the role, although she loved it she worried what it might do to her career to play a ruthless killer until Billy Wilder asked her, “Are you a mouse or an actress?”

Double Indemnity

The character she plays, Phyllis Dietrichson, is anything but a mouse. Enticing Walter from the moment they meet, luring him into a murderous trap so she can get rid of her husband, she plans her work and works her plan all while wearing a frightful wig.

Unlike the ending of their real life counterparts, Cain’s ending originally had Walter and Phyllis finishing off in a suicide pact, but due to the Code of Production, this was strictly forbidden for cinemagoers to see. Instead they came up with a different ending where Walter goes to the gas chamber but once Wilder had filmed the final exchange between him and Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the boss at the insurance firm, he realised that was the real ending the film needed. The decision to leave out the gas chamber scene which had already been shot at a cost of $150,000 to the studio also meant they eliminated the film’s biggest problem for the Hays Office which they had deemed “unduly gruesome”. The deleted footage is now lost but stills remain in existence.

Double IndemnityDouble Indemnity - Ruth Gets FriedDouble Indemnity - Deleted Scene

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So, although it might not have ended well for Ruthless Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, and it certainly didn’t end well for Arthur Snyder either, we do have them to thank for this movie which gives us the essence of film noir and has endured so many decades.

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