Click photo for high-definition enlargement.
This tinted production still (taken from an original 11
x 14 lobby card) may have been staged as a sly tribute to Stanwyck's stellar tootsies
as showcased in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, which were made three
years earlier. (Director and co-writer Billy Wilder, by the way, also co-scripted Ball
But the moment you see here never actually takes place in Double Indemnity.
The scene in the movie (which deliberately echoes the provocative first meeting of
Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, as seen in this still)
occurs in the dark, late at night, and the camera is placed farther back and to the right,
looking past Stanwyck at MacMurray. The actors take the same positions, but
MacMurray never touches her (and she, certainly, is in no mood to smile at this point in
the picture). Also, although both actors are seen here holding cigarettes, only
Stanwyck smokes during this scene in the film.
Directed by Billy Wilder.
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a short story
in the book Three of a Kind by James M. Cain.
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, Porter
Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Gig Young.
About Double Indemnity:
The only scene in movies that can rival this one for erotic wordplay and smoldering
star chemistry is from another film noir that came out two years later, The Big Sleep
(1946), in which Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall discuss sex as horseracing ("It
all depends who's in the saddle..."). That whole section of the picture, by the
way, was added after it had been finished and initially released to the military in 1945,
when the studio decided to do some reshoots to beef up rising star Bacall's part.
But there's more than wordplay going on in this first encounter between Walter Neff and
Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Yes, it's hugely
entertaining and tantalizing and so exquisitely played by the actors that it's almost like
listening to the hot/cool interplay between two great jazz soloists -- say, Miles Davis
and John Coltrane. But this exchange, coming early in the film, also helps to
establish the dangerous and deceitful shadow-world in which the whole thing takes place, a
Los Angeles where nothing is what it seems, and nobody -- except Keyes (Edward G.
Robinson), Walter's insurance mentor who has his own double, a "little man" in
his chest who unfailingly tells him when a claim is phony -- says anything without meaning
something else as well. How often Walter and Phyllis say things like: "I think
I know what you mean," or "I wonder if I know what you mean."
Remember, that title is Double Indemnity -- not just as in double insurance
payoff, but "double" as in the way Walter doubles for the victim in the murder
plot; and "double" as in two-faced, duplicitous, double entendre,
double meaning, double cross...
The background on these pages was made by sampling
Sugarpuss O'Shea's sparkling show dress from Ball of
|An excerpt from Double Indemnity
by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
plays the femme fatale wife of a man she helps murder for his insurance money --
which pays double if he dies in an accident aboard a commercial carrier (as, for instance,
by falling off a train). In this scene, she meets her husband's insurance agent,
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) for the first time. They've flirted already, he
standing at the door and she at the top of the stairs wrapped in nothing but a towel.
While waiting for her to get dressed and come down, narrator Neff says:
"I was thinking about that dame upstairs and the way she had looked at me. And
I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us."
This is my transcription of the last part of the scene, which is
also discussed in some detail in my obit/appreciation/essay, Barbara
Stanwyck: Working Girl, Movie Star.
Walter is perched on the arm of the couch; Phyllis, who has
been sitting across from him in an overstuffed chair, is now standing in front of the
fireplace. They've been discussing her husband's lapsed automobile insurance
policies, which Walter is trying to get the Dietrichsons to renew.
You handle just automobile insurance or all kinds?
All kinds: fire, earthquake, theft, public liability, group insurance, industrial
stuff and so on, right on down the line.
(She sits back down and crosses her legs)
Accident insurance? Sure, Mrs. Dietrichson. (beat) Wish you'd tell me what's
engraved on that anklet.
Just my name.
As for instance?
Phyllis, huh? I think I like that.
But you're not sure?
Oh, have to drive it around the block a coupla times...
Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30. He'll be in then.
My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
Yeah, I was, but... I'm sorta getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff -- 45 miles an hour.
How fast was I going, officer?
I'd say around 90.
Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Suppose it doesn't take.
Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
That tears it.
(He walks over to pick up his hat)
8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
That's what I suggested.
Will you be here, too?
I guess so, I usually am.
(Putting on his hat)
Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
I wonder if I know what you mean.
I wonder if you wonder.
He opens the door and exits
© 1944 by Universal Pictures. Used without permission for