Yesterday’s ‘Double Indemnity’ Perfect Fit for Today
Let’s cast Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams and Jeff Daniels in the lead roles
By Todd Hill
It could very well be terrible, but I for one would be interested to see a serious, committed remake of the classic 1944 film noir “Double Indemnity.”
Is the time right for it? I’ve no idea, but I do feel that’s a dumb question. On a granular level, sure, movies can’t help but reflect the times in which they were made, but looking for connections between the kinds of films that manage to get made and the political, economic or cultural tenor of the country at the time is a fool’s errand.
Take, for instance, the film noir genre, of which “Double Indemnity” is a shining example, the title most responsible for ushering in the genre’s golden age, extending from the mid-1940’s through the late 1950’s. Not coincidentally, these years also constitute this country’s postwar boom, when economic advancement was available to more Americans than ever before, or since.
How can such a period of calm and contentment explain the vitality of film noir, which is defined by the darkest cynicism, twisted sexuality and desperate acts of crime? There’s no shortage of think pieces out there contorting themselves to find some kind of relationship between the two, none of which I find particularly convincing.
By the same token, I don’t know that today’s glut of superhero movies has anything meaningful to say about today’s America, although it speaks volumes on where the filmmaking industry is right now, all of which is to say that this is as good a time for a “Double Indemnity” remake as any other. Maybe it gets no further than some streaming platform, and maybe that’s just fine.
The original “Double Indemnity,” possibly the only gripping motion picture focused on the insurance industry ever made, was the first of a great many career highlights for the remarkably talented director Billy Wilder, one of Hollywood’s leading lights during the middle of the 20th century. He may not have been familiar with the term film noir in 1944, but it’s clear from this movie that during his pre-war years in Berlin he had soaked in the look and feel of German Expressionism, essentially film noir by another name.
“Double Indemnity” wasn’t the first movie in which scenes were lit through vertical blinds, making the characters look as though they were locked in a shadowy prison cell, although the visual trick would forever after be associated with this movie.
And certainly the hard-boiled dialogue uttered by the picture’s three main characters — insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) and femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) — was nothing especially new at the time.
By the close of World War II, potboiler novelist James M. Cain had already written, in addition to the novella that inspired this movie, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which reads an awful lot like “Double Indemnity.” The writing career of Dashiell Hammett (“The Maltese Falcon”) had already come and gone. And pulp novelist Raymond Chandler (“The Big Sleep”) was in his prime.
In fact, Chandler collaborated with Wilder on the script for “Double Indemnity.” Famously, they didn’t get along, something of a badge of honor for Chandler as Wilder frequently had run-ins with people as talented as he. Chandler groused that he hadn’t been invited to a screening of the film, Wilder countered that he had been invited but was likely drunk under a table somewhere (Chandler was an alcoholic), and then Wilder went on to make “Lost Weekend” a year later, about a drunk writer.
It’s impossible to know, of course, who was responsible for penning which scenes in “Double Indemnity,” some of which inevitably work better than others. Today, a story about a mild-mannered, ethically challenged and obviously horny insurance agent conspiring with a trashy blonde to murder the woman’s husband so they can make off with the money from his insurance policy, which features a generous double indemnity clause, would hardly shock anyone.
In 1944, however, the Hollywood censors tied themselves up in knots over the immorality emanating from this picture. Cain’s novella ended with a Walter-Phyllis double suicide, a big on-screen no-no at the time. On the page, the Wilder-Chandler screenplay concluded with Walter in the gas chamber, only to be watered down to a bonding moment between an injured Walter and Keyes, which actually works quite well.
Although it’s hard to imagine today’s audiences being disturbed by a body count limited to Phyllis’s unfortunate husband, maybe that’s simply their problem, and not something the makers of my hypothetical remake should fret too much about. Of course, the original film made it abundantly clear that crime doesn’t pay, which we’ve long since learned is not at all true. Should a modern-day Walter and Phyllis be allowed to get away with it?
As yet further evidence that this film made people nervous some 75 years ago, neither MacMurray nor Phyllis thought they were right for their parts, even though — or perhaps because — they were the highest-paid actors of their respective genders at the time. MacMurray was known exclusively for appearing in lighter fare, while Stanwyck was worried how playing a murderess would affect her career. They both got an answer to that fairly quickly. “Double Indemnity” was both a critical and commercial success, and came to represent a career high point for both actors.
Edward G. Robinson, on the other hand, was no stranger to dark characters, which Barton Keyes was clearly not. It was also the third lead, more appropriate for aging actors like Robinson, although he gets some of the best lines in the movie (“They may think it’s twice as safe because there are two of them. But it isn’t twice as safe. It’s 10 times as dangerous. They’ve committed a murder. And it’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. 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.”)
Who would I cast today? Ryan Gosling has Walter Neff written all over him. Phyllis isn’t a role for just any actress, but I’m sure Amy Adams could pull it off, and she’s certainly no stranger to bad wigs; I also like the dynamic of the woman being about six years older than the man. If Jeff Daniels is free, he could ease into the Barton Keyes part without lifting a finger, as could Sam Rockwell.
It’s distressing, however, and perhaps inevitable, that the more words I put down about Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” the more enamored I become of this classic film, and the less enthusiastic I am that my imagined remake could be anything but a disaster, or worse, just a dud.
Maybe if we gave everyone superpowers?
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.