Double Indemnity opened on September 6, 1944 and was an immediate hit with audiences – despite a campaign by singer Kate Smith imploring the public to stay away on moral grounds. As James M. Cain recalled, “…there was a little trouble caused by this fat girl, Kate Smith, who carried on a propaganda asking people to stay away from the picture. Her advertisement probably put a million dollars on its gross.”
Reviews from the critics were largely positive, though the content of the story made some uncomfortable. While some reviewers found the story implausible and disturbing, others praised it as an original thriller. In his mixed review of the film in The New York Times, film critic Bosley Crowther called the picture "...Steadily diverting, despite its monotonous pace and length." He complained that the two lead characters "...lack the attractiveness to render their fate of emotional consequence," but also felt the movie possessed a "...realism reminiscent of the bite of past French films."
Howard Barnes at the New York Herald Tribune was much more enthusiastic, calling Double Indemnity "...one of the most vital and arresting films of the year," and praising Wilder's "...magnificent direction and a whale of a script." The trade paper Variety, meanwhile, said the film "...sets a new standard for screen treatment in its category."
Influential radio host and Hearst paper columnist Louella Parsons would go even further, saying, "Double Indemnity is the finest picture of its kind ever made, and I make that flat statement without any fear of getting indigestion later from eating my words."
Philip K. Scheur, the Los Angeles Times movie critic, ranked it with The Human Comedy, The Maltese Falcon, and Citizen Kane as Hollywood trailblazers, while Alfred Hitchcock himself wrote Wilder that "Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are 'Billy' and 'Wilder'".
The film's critical reputation has only grown over the years. In 1977, notably terse critic-historian Leslie Halliwell gave it an unusual 4-star (top) rating, and wrote: "Brilliantly filmed and incisively written, perfectly capturing the decayed Los Angeles atmosphere of a Chandler novel, but using a simpler story and more substantial characters." In his 1998 review, film critic Roger Ebert praised director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz. He wrote, "The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings."
Double Indemnity is an important (and some say the first) example of a genre of films called film noir. According to Robert Sklar, a former chairperson of the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University, classic film noir is marked by major thematic elements: a plot about how a crime told from the point of view of the criminal, psychosexual themes are explored, and a visually "dark and claustrophobic framing, with key lighting from sources within the mise-en-scène casting strong shadows that both conceal and project characters’ feelings.” Double Indemnity includes all of these traits.
Double Indemnity has been compared with Wilder's other great film noir, Sunset Blvd. The narrative structure in both films begin and end in the present, but the bulk of the plot is told in flashback narrated by their protagonists. Sklar explains, “[T]he unusual juxtaposition of temporalities gives the spectator a premonition of what will occur/has occurred in the flashback story. … Besides Double Indemnity and Detour, voice-over is a key aspect of Mildred Pierce, Gilda, The Lady from Shanghai, and Out of the Past … as well as many others.” Wendy Lesser notes that the narrator of Sunset Blvd. is dead before he begins narrating, but in Double Indemnity, "the voice-over has a different meaning. It is not the voice of a dead man … it is … the voice of an already doomed man.”
Academy Award nominations
At the 17th Academy Awards on March 15, 1945, Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars, but did not win any.
|17th Academy Awards||Best Motion Picture||Paramount Pictures||Lost to Going My Way – Leo McCarey Producer|
|Best Director||Billy Wilder||Lost to Leo McCarey for Going My Way|
|Best Actress||Barbara Stanwyck||Lost to Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight|
|Best Writing, Screenplay||Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler||Lost to Frank Butler and Frank Cavett for Going My Way|
|Best Cinematography – Black and White||John F. Seitz||Lost to Joseph LaShelle for Laura|
|Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture||Miklós Rózsa||Lost to Max Steiner for Since You Went Away|
|Best Sound, Recording||Loren Ryder||Lost to Edmund H. Hansen for Wilson|
Wilder went to the awards ceremony expecting to win even though the studio had been backing their other big hit of the year, Leo McCarey's Going My Way and studio employees were expected to vote for the studio favorite. As the awards show wore on and Double Indemnity lost in category after category, it became evident that it was going to be a Going My Way sweep. McCarey beamed as his picture won award after award and when he was named Best Director, Wilder could no longer take it. When McCarey got up to make his way to the stage to accept the award for best picture, Wilder, sitting on the aisle, stuck out his foot and tripped him. "Mr. McCarey...stumbled perceptibly," he gleefully recalled. After the ceremony while he and his wife Judith were waiting for his limousine to arrive, he yelled out so loudly that everybody could hear him, "What the hell does the Academy Award mean, for God's sake? After all – Luise Rainer won it two times. Luise Rainer!"
American Film Institute recognition
- 1998 AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies #38
- 2001 AFI's 100 Years…100 Thrills #24
- 2002 AFI's 100 Years…100 Passions #84
- 2003 AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains:
- Phyllis Dietrichson, villain #8
- 2007 AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #29
Double Indemnity was adapted as a radio play on two broadcasts of The Screen Guild Theater, first on March 5, 1945 with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, then five years later on February 16, 1950 with Stanwyck and Robert Taylor. It was also adapted to the October 15, 1948 broadcast of the Ford Theatre with Burt Lancaster and Joan Bennett and the October 30, 1950 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with MacMurray and Stanwyck.
Other films inspired by the Snyder-Gray murder include The Postman Always Rings Twice (also based on a Cain novel) and Body Heat (1981). Both Postman and Double Indemnity were remade: Double Indemnity was a telemovie in 1973 starring Richard Crenna (who also starred in Body Heat), Lee J. Cobb, and Samantha Eggar; it is included on a bonus disc in the American DVD release of the original film. The Postman Rings remake was a 1981 theatrical release directed by Bob Rafelson and starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. An Indian film, Jism (2003), was also inspired by the film.
Double Indemnity is one of the films parodied in the 1993 film Fatal Instinct; the hero's wife conspires to have him shot on a moving train and fall into a lake so that she can collect on his insurance, which has a "triple indemnity" rider. Carol Burnett parodied the film as "Double Calamity" on her TV show.
Imitators, rivals, reflections
After the success of Double Indemnity, imitators of the film's plot and style were rampant. In 1945, Producers Releasing Corporation, one of the B movie studios of Hollywood’s Poverty Row, was set to release a blatant rip-off titled Single Indemnity starring Ann Savage and Hugh Beaumont. Paramount quickly slapped an injunction on the cut-rate potboiler that remains in force to this day. PRC eventually edited its film down to 67 minutes, re-titled it Apology for Murder, and sold it to television in the early '50s as part of a syndicated half-hour mystery show.
So many imitations flooded the market, in fact, that James M. Cain believed he deserved credit and remuneration. Unfortunately for Cain, he could not copyright the market on murder. Instead he led a movement within the Screen Writers Guild to create the American Author's Authority, a union that would own its members' works, negotiate better subsidiary deals, and protect against copyright infringement on behalf of its members. This was, however, the depth of the Red Scare in Hollywood and Guild members rejected the socialist notion and ran from the attempt.
It was not uncommon at the time for studios to take out ads in trade journals promoting the virtues of their own films. David O. Selznick, no stranger to self-aggrandizement, frequently sought to put a high-culture patina on his pictures with "trade-book" ads. At just the time Double Indemnity was released, Selznick's latest tearjerker, Since You Went Away, was enjoying some box office success. In his ads, Selznick quoted various dignitaries claiming it was the finest picture they had ever seen, how it served such a noble purpose, how it elevated humanity to new levels – no high-toned platitude was too lofty to invoke. Indeed, the ad averred, the words Since You Went Away had become "the four most important words uttered in motion picture history since Gone with the Wind." The petulant Wilder despised such ostentation, so he placed an ad of his own: Double Indemnity, it claimed, were the two most important words uttered in motion picture history since Broken Blossoms, thus comparing D. W. Griffith's artistic 1919 classic with his own sordid story of iniquitous murder. Selznick was not amused and threatened to stop advertising in any of the trades if they continued to run Wilder's ads.
Wilder himself considered Double Indemnity his best film in terms of having the fewest scripting and shooting mistakes and always maintained that the two things he was proudest of in his career were the compliments he received from Cain about Double Indemnity and from Agatha Christie for his handling of her Witness for the Prosecution.
Wilder was not only proud of his film, he was plainly fond of it as well: "I never heard that expression, film noir, when I made Double Indemnity... I just made pictures I would have liked to see. When I was lucky, it coincided with the taste of the audience. With Double Indemnity, I was lucky."