Life and Death in L.A.: ‘Double Indemnity’: Two On a Conveyor Belt Toward Doom

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

‘Double Indemnity’: Two On a Conveyor Belt Toward Doom

Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, 'Double Indemnity' (1944).

This article contains many SPOILERS, so if you haven't seen the film yet be forewarned.

By Paul Parcellin

In “Double Indemnity” (1944), housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) seduces insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and gets him to kill her husband. She’s after a big payout from a policy that Neff sold him under false pretenses. It’s a classic noir — maybe THE classic noir. The story’s got all the right stuff — murder, sex and the promise of a bundle of cash for the two lovebirds. Naturally, it all goes horribly wrong and they both pay dearly for their misadventures. 

Neff and Phyllis swear allegiance to one another, repeating several times throughout the film that they’ll stick together “straight down the line” — words that prove all too prophetic. For a while, the scheme seems to have come off without a hitch, but later Neff realizes that a double-cross is in the works. Worse still, his co-worker and friend, claims supervisor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), is doggedly working to crack the case, and for Keyes, this case is like red meat to a lion.

When Keyes begins to suspect that Phyllis and an unknown man are behind her husband’s death, he also invokes a train trip. When two people commit a crime together it’s not twice as safe, it’s ten times more dangerous. "It's not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops,” he says. “They're stuck with each other and they've got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it's a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”

Like the rows of canned goods in Jerry’s Supermarket where the two conspiring killers meet clandestinely to plot their moves, Neff begins to realize that he’s been used by Phyllis and is nothing more than a commodity on a conveyor belt whose ultimate destination is a meeting with the executioner.

It’s all rather dire, but beneath the surface of a crime film lies a satire of modern day life — can the drudgery of the workaday world that Neff slogs through be enough to transform a morally challenged worker bee into an adulterer, embezzler and a killer? The answer is a resounding yes, here in Neff’s world, at least.

Also just beneath the surface is the film’s extremely subtle comments on big Hollywood and its tendency to crush the creative spirit of its faithful servants — it’s there but you might need a magnifying glass to see it. 

Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder.

Director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the screenplay, were not fans of the City of Los Angeles, and the film echos their disdain for the metropolis. They thought of the place as hyper-capitalized, highly industrialized and morally bankrupt. Chandler once said that Los Angeles has “no more personality than a paper cup.” He viewed the City of Angels as a modern day Sodom filled with greasy burger joints, phony spiritualist and fast-talking hustlers trying to make a dishonest buck.

James Naremore in his book “More Than Night” lays out some of the film’s underpinnings. Putting aside the heinous crimes Neff commits, the author views him as a cog in a machine, namely the insurance industry, and his foray into a murderous scheme is a doomed effort to break away from the shackles of his job and a rootless existence. After years of faithful service he wants to crook the system and go far away with his newfound lady love. 

Wilder’s satirical portrait of the drab assembly line that is modern industrialized civilization is that of a wasteland teeming with alienated masses. And the insurance business is not much different from the movie industry. Naremore points out that the insurance company offices where Neff works, which we see in the film’s opening sequence, is a near duplicate of Paramount Pictures’ New York offices. And Neff’s Hollywood apartment is a carefully constructed copy of Wilder’s suite at West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel, where he lived while shooting the film. Wilder’s in-joke is that, like Neff, he’s become an automaton for the big money people. 

We see both Neff and Keyes suffer through a painful meeting with their oafish boss, Mr. Norton (Richard Gaines). A self-righteous airhead with little hands-on experience in the insurance industry, Norton tries to worm out of making good on the Dietrichson insurance policy only to have his clumsy maneuvers blow up in his face. It’s not hard to imagine that Norton is a stand-in for the executives the director was forced to report to — the kind that offer unwelcome and usually unhelpful advice all in the name of putting their imprint and a project that would do just fine without them. In this environment one could imagine upper management quoting Samuel Goldwyn when he implored his screenwriters to “Come up with some new cliches.” 

Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson. The end of the line for Walter Neff.

Wilder faced studio pressure both when trying to put his script into production and after filming got under way. The Breen Office complained about an initial script, which was closer to the James M. Cain novel on which the film is based. That one had the two murderers die at each other’s hands instead of being arrested, tried and punished appropriately by the courts and penal system as the Hays Code strongly suggested. Wilder revised the screenplay to include an execution scene with Neff in the gas chamber, which he shot. It was reviled by studio brass as too gruesome. Ultimately, Wilder cut the scene, saying that it was unnecessary, but Naremore speculates that it would have played an essential role in the film. 

Stills of the scene show Neff, the condemned man, through the death chamber’s plate glass window as he’s obscured by clouds of cyanide gas and Keyes is one of the execution witnesses. 

The payoff scene after the execution, which was cut from the final print, would have added an even stronger ending to the film. After the execution is done, Keyes, alone, obviously grieving at the loss of a friend, is emotionally conflicted. He’s a straight shooter who is pained by the whole ordeal. Throughout the film we’ve seen a repeated ritual between Neff and Keyes, who smokes cheap stogies. He’s never got a match to light his cigar, but Neff comes to the rescue, flicking a wooden match to light up Keyes’s smoke. As a somber Keyes files out of the death chamber he takes out a cigar and pats his pockets looking for a match. He comes up empty and we see in his eyes the void that Neff’s death has left in his life. Too bad that such a touching moment ended up on the cutting room floor, especially since Wilder said it was one of the best scenes he'd ever filmed. But Naremore is hopeful that the excised film is sitting in a Paramount vault and will one day be restored to the film, although there’s no reason to think that this will ever happen. 

It’s open to question whether Wilder cut the scene due to pressure from his studio bosses or if he decided that the scene was truly unnecessary as he claimed. It’s all speculation because few people have actually seen the footage. But if Naremore’s description of it is accurate it would add an additional layer of emotional complexity to Keyes — his friendship with Neff being at odds with his dedication to doing the right thing. It’s an intriguing proposition.

Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck.


  1. Would have been a lot stranger if it went by the book where Barton Keyes was signed on to the insurance scam....

  2. "The Breen Office complained about an initial script, which was closer to the James M. Cain novel on which the film is based. That one had the two murderers die at each other’s hands instead of being arrested, tried and punished appropriately by the courts and penal system as the Hays Code strongly suggested."

    It's been a long time since I've read Double Indemnity but I do remember that Cain's sentences were like punches. And, if I remember right Phyllis and Walter get as far as somewhere South of the border, they are on a ship, it may be a coastal steamer, something happens that causes them to jump off the ship, basically committing suicide. The end. I have the novel somewhere near by and I'll report back.

  3. I would love to have a combination of the two with them killing themselves accidentally while fighting in a car about what to do as the law is closing in on them in a car chase, and the agent not having a match when he gets the news.