Born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, New York, Stanwyck was orphaned at four and raised by her sister, who was a showgirl. By her 16th birthday, she had followed in her sisters footsteps, becoming a member of Ziegfield's Follies in Times Square for the 1922 and 1923 seasons. She then performed on Broadway, where her success as the lead in Burlesque (1927) led to her first film role, in The Locked Door of 1929. In 1930, she starred in Frank Capra's Ladies of Leisure; from there, her film career took off. Stanwyck became was a true Hollywood icon. Along with Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe, she was one of the towering figures of the Golden Age of Hollywood. So iconic is Stanwyck’s particular performance as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity that it becomes one of those defining roles where it is almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. Then there is Phyllis herself: the prototype for what would come to be known as one of the quintessential elements of film noir, the femme fatale. Stanwyck’s performance is such that Phyllis became the highest ranking femme fatale on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie villains of the first 100 years of film, edging in just ahead of little Regan McNeil from The Exorcist. Or, in other words, Stanwyck managed to make an otherwise common little 1940s housewife into a character more evil than the Devil himself, while still making her one of the most sensually enticing characters of the 1940s!
Fred MacMurray enjoyed a long career in Hollywood due in large part to his ability to play both really nice good guys and really despicable bad guys with equal aplomb. With Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, he did something the equal of Barbara Stanwyck: he set the template for so many classic film noir protagonists to follow in his wake. Walter Neff is not stupid, and he is anything but a moon-faced innocent easily tempted into the trap set for him by the soon-to-be black widow Dietrichson. Walter Neff carries the requisite combination of world-weary acceptance of his place in the world and the indefatigable ambition for something better that describes the film noir equivalent of its femme fatale perfectly. Neff is also a sap when it comes to allure of Phyllis, and if any one word best describes the film noir “hero” it is sap. Few would ever succeed in giving their film noir sap the depth that Fred MacMurray manages to give Walter Neff, though many quite obviously tried.
Edward G. Robinson
Barton Keyes is Walter Neff’s immediate boss at the insurance company where he works. Since he is played by Edward G. Robinson, who made a name for himself in Hollywood through a series of gritty Warner Brothers crime flicks in which he played a variety of larcenous gangsters, those only familiar with that aspect of Robinson’s career might expect that Barton Keyes would become a partner-in-crime to Walter Neff. Like MacMurray, Robinson also excelled at playing both good guys and bad guys, and in Double Indemnity, Robinson is called upon to become the moral compass in a world where the magnetic pull of immorality threatens to spin out of control. Barton Keyes is not exactly the kind of character we would describe as a hero, but his basic human decency may well be what drives Neff to the Dictaphone he uses to record his confession.
The actor playing Phyllis' ill-fated husband had actually begun his career in film at the very birth of cinema, but then abruptly stopped in 1917 to focus exclusively on his stage career. Powers would not appear on film again until Double Indemnity was released in 1944.
Heather plays Lola, the step-daughter of Phyllis Dietrichson. The climax of Double Indemnity will eventually turn on the revelation to Barton Keyes (and the audience) that Phyllis came into the lives of the Dietrichson clan originally as a nurse hired to care for Lola’s mother. Much of Lola’s suspiciousness that her father’s death was perhaps something less than a mere accident stems from the fact that her mother also died under rather murky circumstances…while under the care of Phyllis. In a rather strange sort of near-coincidence, Heather herself was involved in a rather serious transportation-related accident; a car wreck in her case. Shortly after, she retired from the film industry for good.
Double Indemnity was Byron Barr's film debut, and his most famous performance.His only performance as a lead came two years later, in the B-movie Tokyo Rose; he had supporting roles in Love Letters, Pitfall, Down Dakota Way, They Made Me a Killer, and The File on Thelma Jordon.
Double Indemnity Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Double Indemnity is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.