Life and Death in L.A.: Ripped From the Headlines: True Crimes Explode onto the Screen in Noir Movies

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Ripped From the Headlines: True Crimes Explode onto the Screen in Noir Movies

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, “Double Indemnity” (1944)

By Paul Parcellin

It’s no wonder that Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s scooped up lurid true crime stories and made hard-hitting, gritty dramas out of them. Following the war, the public’s appetite for rough textured tales could not be surpassed. Cold, savage murders that bled off the front page of tabloid scandal sheets was the stuff that fueled screen dramas full of deceit, adultery and homicide — in other words, film noir. 

The pulse of noir is driven by morally complex characters who land in deep existential trouble sometimes by accident, other times due to hubris and their own unsavory choices. The line between truth and fiction is not always cut and dried in fact-based noir. But the characters who inhabit the real world often have a lot in common with classic noir anti-heroes. Both live in a shadowy world of crime, mystery and ethical ambiguity. Miscreants caught up in true crime stories and those in fictional film noir fit together like bullets and a revolver.

More compelling still, fact-based noirs may seem more plausible than purely fictional yarns because in the back of our minds we know that the tale we’re watching is, at least in part, objectively truth based. Real people made these choices, acted reprehensibly and perhaps paid for their misdeeds. The weight of that knowledge helps keeps us engaged until the end. We want to see the protagonist’s fate play out even if we already know the “true” facts — will Hollywood’s version agree with the sensational headlines, garish news photos and breathlessly recounted real-life courtroom dramas that the media beamed across the nation for mass consumption? The answer is often yes and no. Exaggerations, embellishments and rewriting of the facts are not unheard of. Usually this is done in the spirit of enhancing dramatic tension and clarifying the story. See if you agree.

Here’s a sample of films based on pulp fact, usually with a chaser of fiction served up on the side — or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, “Double Indemnity.”

"Double Indemnity" (1944) 

Claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) has a theory about the murder plot that drives "Double Indemnity” and it fits together like a watch, he says. The same is true of this film. It’s crafted and assembled like the movement of a fine Swiss timepiece. In it, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) trick Phyllis’s husband into signing an accident insurance policy. They plan to do him in and collect the proceeds, but things don’t go exactly as planned.

The film was adapted from James M. Cain’s novel of the same title, which was loosely based on the 1927 murder of Albert Snyder. The real-life case involved a devious collaboration between Snyder’s wife, Ruth Brown Snyder, and her lover, Judd Gray.

Ruth and Albert’s marriage was on the rocks. She wanted money and financial independence, so she hatched a plot to murder her spouse and claim a big insurance payout. Much like the film in which Phyllis seduces Walter, Ruth manipulated Gray, persuading him to help kill her unwitting husband.

They chloroformed Albert, rendering him unconscious, staged his murder as a burglary gone wrong and positioned the body to mimic an accident. Like Phyllis and Walter, they were after a larger payout allowed by a double indemnity clause in the accident policy.

But the police saw through inconsistencies in Ruth and Gray’s stories. Evidence began piling up against them and the couple was finally arrested.

Unlike the film, they were tried and the proceedings became a media sensation. They were both found guilty and sentenced to death. 

In 1943, director Billy Wilder and writer Raymond Chandler adapted Cain’s novel into a screenplay. The film cleverly intertwines facts from the original case and adds layers of suspense, psychological tension, and intricate character development. Fred MacMurray’s portrayal of Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck’s embodiment of Phyllis Dietrichson further immortalized the characters inspired by Ruth and Gray.

The convergence of reality and fiction in “Double Indemnity” made an indelible mark on American filmmaking and helped set the pace for noirs that came after it.

Burt Lancaster, “The Killers.”

"The Killers" (1946)

Based in part on the 1927 short story of the same title by Ernest Hemingway, the film focuses on an insurance detective's investigation into the execution by two professional killers of a former boxer who was unresistant to his own murder.

A pair of hitmen, Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw), enter a small-town diner in search of ex-prizefighter Ole “Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster). They manhandle the locals to squeeze information out of them and finally leave, only to locate their quarry and shoot him dead.

The next day insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O'Brien) arrives in town to investigate Swede's death. He interviews the diner's patrons and staff and tracks down Swede's girlfriend, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), but no one knows much about the murder. Reardon's investigation eventually leads him to mobster "Big Jim" Colfax (Albert Dekker). We learn in flashbacks about a payroll robbery that Swede took part in. When it was time to divide the loot Swede realized that others were trying to grab his share.

Hemingway’s short story, on which the film is based, was modeled after a real-life killing ordered by the Chicago mob. Popular boxer Andre Anderson, who once defeated Jack Dempsey, was the target. His killer, Leo Mongoven, went on the run and was captured following a traffic collision that killed Chicago banker John J. Mitchell and his wife Mary Louise.

Apart from its compelling story and strong performances, “The Killers” is notable for its dark, moody photography — shadows and light create a deep sense of unease and dread. Cinematographer Elwood Bredell, who also shot classic noir “Phantom Lady” (1944), fills the frame with inky black shadows that project a palpable atmosphere of doom. 

In addition to its classic noir status, “The Killers” helped usher in the filmic era of the hitman, echos of which can be heard in films such as “Murder By Contract” (1958), “Murder, Inc.” (1960), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), and many others.

James Stewart, “Call Northside 777.”

"Call Northside 777" (1948)

“Call Northside 777” is a fictionalized account of the true story of Joseph Majczek, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of a Chicago policeman in 1932. 

In the film, crusading reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) risks his life to prove Majczek's innocence — Majczek is renamed Frank Wiecek in the film and is played by Richard Conte. McNeal is at first reluctant to pursue the story, believing that the convicted man probably is a cop killer. But his boss, Chicago Times city editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), prods the skeptical McNeal to dig deeper into the case. After chasing down down witnesses and attempting to interview uncooperative police officials, McNeal becomes convinced that the wrong man was imprisoned, and so begins his crusade to undo the injustices suffered by an innocent victim.

Veteran director Henry Hathaway, who previously shot many westerns, action pictures, war movies and thrillers, employed a documentary-style opening sequence for the film, much as he did with “The House on 92nd Street” (1945). Paying great attention to detail, he filmed most of the scenes at or near sites where the true events took place. A side note: the film is credited with being among the first to include the use of a fax machine, cutting edge technology at the time, which plays an important role in the plot.

The real-life events that inspired the film began on Dec. 9, 1932, when Officer William Lundy was shot and killed during a robbery at a delicatessen in Chicago. Two men, Joseph Majczek and Ted Marcinkiewicz, were arrested and convicted of the murder. However, there was significant evidence that pointed to their innocence, including eyewitness testimony that placed them elsewhere at the time of the crime.

Majczek's mother, Tillie, was convinced of her son's innocence and spent years trying to clear his name. In 1944, she placed a classified ad in the Chicago Times offering a $5,000 reward for information about the real killers. The ad caught the attention of Times reporter J. Watson Webb Jr., who began investigating the case and soon uncovered evidence that Majczek and Marcinkiewicz were innocent.

Webb's investigation led to the reopening of the case and in 1946 Majczek and Marcinkiewicz were exonerated. The real-life P.J. McNeal was a major factor in their release, and he was even present in the courtroom when they were finally declared innocent.

“Call Northside 777” was a critical and commercial success and it helped raise awareness of wrongful convictions. The film also earned James Stewart an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, “Rope.”

Rope” (1948) 

“Rope” is a fictionalized account of the Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb case, a cold, senseless murder that took place in Chicago in the early part of the last century. When the perpetrators were caught, a sensational, highly publicized trial followed. 

In the film, philosophy professor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) is drawn into the world of two wealthy young men, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger), who, unbeknownst to Cadell, have committed the “perfect murder.” The professor is initially fascinated by the two young men but eventually realizes that they are dangerous.

The real-life events that inspired the film began on May 21, 1924, when 14-year-old Bobby Franks was found strangled in a vacant lot in Chicago. Franks had been lured to the lot by Leopold and Loeb, who had planned the murder as an intellectual exercise.

The two were brilliant young men who were fascinated by Nietzsche's philosophy of the √úbermensch, or "superman." They believed that they were superior to other people and that they had the right to kill anyone they deemed inferior.

The pair were eventually arrested and convicted of the Franks murder. They were sentenced to life in prison, where they both died.

“Rope” was a critical and commercial success and was praised for its suspenseful plot and its psychological insights. The film was also controversial because it appeared to be filmed in a single take. Director Alfred Hitchcock cleverly choreographed camera movements, which allowed continuous filming of scenes up to 10 minutes in duration. Stage hands silently moved scenery and furnishings during filming to accommodate cast and camera movements. When spliced together the film, which takes place in a single location, appears to unfold in real time, much like the stage play on which it is based. James Stewart acknowledged that few director besides Hitchcock would attempt to shoot such an experimental film, however Stewart said he felt that the continuous-shot concept used in “Rope” didn’t really work. Many would disagree. As with any Hitchcock film there are always elements that make it a worthwhile viewing experience.  

This is Part I of True Crime Noirs. Read Part II and Part III.


  1. Outstanding post, Paul -- I enjoyed it immensely! And learned something, too -- I never knew that The Killers was based on a real-life incident. I look so forward to Part 2!

  2. Double Indemnity so overrated with a tortured plot, a wooden MacMurray, zero chemistry between him and Stanwyck, and that weird blond wig.

    1. I have to disagree with every point you made, with the exception of the one about the wig. Even Billy Wilder realized it was a mistake, but it was too late to change it. Just curious, are you a noir fan, and if so, which ones do you like?