James M. Cain based his novella on a 1927 murder perpetrated by a married Queens, New York woman and her lover whose trial he attended while working as a journalist in New York. In that crime, Ruth Snyder persuaded her boyfriend, Judd Gray, to kill her husband Albert after having him take out a big insurance policy – with a double-indemnity clause. The murderers were quickly identified, arrested and convicted. The front page photo of Snyder's execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing has been called the most famous newsphoto of the 1920s.
Double Indemnity began making the rounds in Hollywood shortly after it was published in Liberty magazine in 1935. Cain had already made a name for himself the year before with The Postman Always Rings Twice, a story of murder and passion between a migrant worker and the unhappy wife of a café owner. Cain's agent sent copies of the novella to all the major studios and within days, MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, and Columbia were all competing to buy the rights for $25,000. Then a letter went out from Joseph Breen at the Hays Office, and the studios withdrew their bids as one. In it Breen warned:
The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater. I am sure you will agree that it is most important…to avoid what the code calls "the hardening of audiences," especially those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and fact of crime.
Eight years later Double Indemnity was included in a collection of Cain's works entitled Three of a Kind. Paramount executive Joseph Sistrom thought the material would be perfect for Wilder and they bought the rights for $15,000. Paramount resubmitted the script to the Hays Office, but the response was nearly identical to the one eight years earlier. Wilder, Paramount executive William Dozier, and Sistrom decided to move forward anyway. They submitted a film treatment crafted by Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett, and this time the Hays Office approved the project with only a few objections: the portrayal of the disposal of the body, a proposed gas-chamber execution scene, and the skimpiness of the towel worn by the female lead in her first scene.
Cain forever after maintained that Joseph Breen owed him $10,000 for vetoing the property back in 1935 when he would have received $25,000.
After Paramount purchased the rights to the novella for Wilder, the next step was a screenplay. The material was widely regarded around Hollywood as unfilmable due to its iniquitous characters and the restrictions imposed by the Code. Although he had worked on the treatment, tweedy Charles Brackett decided it was too sordid for his uppercrust sensibilities and bowed out of the project, leaving Wilder to find another collaborator. His first choice, James M. Cain himself, was already working for another studio and unavailable (although Cain claimed he was never asked). Producer Joseph Sistrom, an avid reader and an admirer of The Big Sleep, then suggested Raymond Chandler.
Wilder would later recall with disappointment his first meeting with Chandler. Envisioning a former private detective who had worked his own experiences into gritty prose, he instead met a man he would later describe as looking like an accountant. Chandler was new to Hollywood, but saw it as a golden opportunity. Not realizing that he would be collaborating with Wilder, he demanded $1000 and said he would need at least a week to complete the screenplay, to which Wilder and Sistrom simply looked at one another in amazement. After the first weekend, Chandler presented eighty pages that Wilder characterized as "useless camera instruction"; Wilder quickly put it aside and informed Chandler that they would be working together, slowly and meticulously. By all accounts, the pair did not get along during their four months together. At one point Chandler even quit, submitting a long list of grievances to Paramount as to why he could no longer work with Wilder. Wilder, however, stuck it out, admiring Chandler's gift with words and knowing that his dialogue would translate very well to the screen.
Initially, Wilder and Chandler had intended to retain as much of Cain’s original dialogue as possible. It was Chandler, ironically, who first realized that the dialogue from the novella would not translate well to the screen. Wilder disagreed and was annoyed that Chandler was not putting more of it into the script. To settle it, Wilder hired a couple of contract players from the studio to read passages of Cain’s original dialogue aloud. To Wilder's astonishment, Chandler was right and, in the end, the movie’s cynical and provocative dialogue was more Chandler and Wilder than it was Cain. Chandler also did a lot of fieldwork while working on the script and took large volumes of notes. By visiting various locations that figured into the film, he was able to bring a sense of realism about Los Angeles that seeped into the script. For example, he hung around Jerry's Market on Melrose Avenue in preparation for the scene where Phyllis and Walter would discreetly meet to plan the murder.
The tumultuous relationship between Wilder and Chandler only enhanced the product of their collaboration. Wilder, in fact, believed that discord, a tug-of-war, was a vital ingredient necessary for a fruitful collaboration: "If two people think alike," he once said, "it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off of." His tugging with Chandler did have a softer side, it seems: over 60 years after the film's initial release, it was discovered that Chandler had agreed to appear in a fleeting cameo at 16:12 into the film, glancing up from a book as Neff walks past in the hallway. This is notable because, other than a snippet from a home movie, there is no other footage of Chandler known anywhere.
When Chandler came to work with Wilder he was already a recovering alcoholic. As Wilder noted, "He was in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I think he had a tough time with me – I drove him back into drinking...". By the time the picture was released, Chandler was thoroughly disillusioned with the writers' lot in Hollywood; he published an angry piece titled "Writers in Hollywood" for The Atlantic Monthly in November 1945 in which he complained, "The first picture I worked on was nominated for an Academy Award (if that means anything), but I was not even invited to the press review held right in the studio." He neglected, however, to mention that the studio had kept him on salary during the eight-week shooting schedule and that no changes to the script were allowed without his approval – a very rare accommodation for screenwriters, particularly newcomers, in those days. Offended, Wilder responded by saying, "We didn't invite him? How could we? He was under the table drunk at Lucy's," a nearby watering hole for Paramount employees. This relationship with Chandler is what drew Wilder to his next project, the Best Picture-winning The Lost Weekend, about an alcoholic writer. Wilder made the film, in part, "to explain Chandler to himself."
Cain himself was very pleased with the way his book turned out on the screen. After seeing the picture half a dozen times he was quoted as saying, " ... It's the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder's ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it." In addition to changing the ending, the film made Robinson's character much more pivotal than in the book.
Wilder's and Brackett's estrangement during Double Indemnity was not a permanent one. Years later Wilder would characterize their time apart as just another kind of adultery: "1944 was 'The Year of Infidelities,'" he said. "Charlie produced The Uninvited...I wrote Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler... I don't think he ever forgave me. He always thought I cheated on him with Raymond Chandler." Brackett spun the breakup in a decidedly different light, saying, "Billy got so despondent at being without me that we did The Lost Weekend, a depressing film about a writer who has trouble writing." Lost Weekend was a distinguished offspring for the reconciled couple – they left Oscar night with three Awards: Best Picture for producer Brackett, Best Director for Wilder, and a shared pair of statuettes for both for Best Screenplay. They worked together through Sunset Boulevard in 1950, then split for good.
Having the two protagonists mortally wound each other was one of the key factors in gaining Hays Office approval for the script: the Production Code demanded that criminals pay, on screen, for their transgressions. In addition, Double Indemnity broke new cinematic ground on several fronts, one of those being the first time a Hollywood film explicitly explored the means, motives, and opportunity of committing a murder. It would take skillful performers to bring nuance to these treacherous characters, and casting the roles of Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson would be a challenge for Wilder.
Sistrom and Wilder's first choice for the role of Phyllis Dietrichson was Barbara Stanwyck. At the time, Stanwyck was not only the highest paid actress in Hollywood, but the highest paid woman in America. (Her eventual co-star MacMurray matched Stanwyck's prominence at the pay window: in 1943, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, and the fourth highest-paid American.) Given the nature of the role, Stanwyck was reluctant to take the part, fearing it would have an adverse effect on her career. According to Stanwyck,
I said, "I love the script and I love you, but I am a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out killer." And Mr. Wilder – and rightly so – looked at me and he said, "Well, are you a mouse or an actress?" And I said, "Well, I hope I'm an actress." He said, "Then do the part". And I did and I'm very grateful to him.
The character of Walter Neff was not only a heel, he was a weak and malleable heel – many Hollywood actors including Alan Ladd, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, and Fredric March passed on it. Wilder even recalls "scraping the bottom of the barrel" and approaching George Raft. Raft was illiterate, so Wilder had to tell him the plot. About halfway through, Raft interrupted him with, "Let's get to the lapel bit." "What lapel bit?" a bewildered Wilder replied. "The lapel," the actor said, annoyed by such stupidity. "You know, when the guy flashes his lapel, you see his badge, you know he's a detective." This was his vision of the film, and since it wasn't part of the story, Raft turned the part down. Wilder finally realized that the part should be played by someone who could not only be a cynic, but a nice guy as well.
Fred MacMurray was accustomed to playing "happy-go-lucky good guys" in light comedies, and when Wilder first approached him about the Neff role, MacMurray said, "You're making the mistake of your life!" Playing a serious role required acting, he said, "and I can't do it." But Wilder pestered him about it every single day – at home, in the studio commissary, in his dressing room, on the sidewalk – until he simply wore the actor down. MacMurray felt safe about his acquiescence since Paramount, who had him under contract and had carefully crafted his good guy image, would never let him play a "wrong" role. His trust, however, was misplaced: his contract was up for renewal at the time, and ever since his friend and co-star, Carole Lombard, had shrewdly and successfully taught him how to play hardball with the studio bosses, he wasn't the pliable pushover of old. Paramount executives decided to let him play the unsavory role to teach him a lesson. A lesson was indeed taught, but not the one Paramount had in mind. MacMurray made a great heel and his performance demonstrated new breadths of his acting talent. "I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made," he said.
Edward G. Robinson was also reluctant to sign on for the role of Barton Keyes, but not for the same reasons as MacMurray and Stanwyck. Having been a star since Little Caesar in 1930, this role represented a step downward to the third lead. Robinson would later admit, "At my age, it was time to begin thinking of character roles, to slide into middle and old age with the same grace as that marvelous actor Lewis Stone". It also helped, as he freely admitted, that he would draw the same salary as the two leads, for fewer shooting days. The notable Broadway actor Tom Powers was invited to Hollywood for the role of Mr. Dietrichson. It was Powers' first film role since 1917 and his start to a "second film career" with many supporting roles until his death in 1955.
The original ending to the Cain novella called for the characters to commit double suicide. Suicide, however, was strictly forbidden at the time by the Hays Production Code as a way to resolve a plot, so Wilder wrote and filmed a different ending in which Neff goes to the gas chamber while Keyes watches. This scene was shot before the scenes that eventually became the film's familiar ending, and once that final intimate exchange between Neff and Keyes revealed its power to Wilder, he began to wonder if the gas chamber ending was needed at all. "You couldn't have a more meaningful scene between two men", Wilder said. As he would later recount, "The story was between the two guys. I knew it, even though I had already filmed the gas chamber scene... So we just took out the scene in the gas chamber," despite its $150,000 cost to the studio. Removal of the scene, over Chandler's objection, also removed the Hays Office's single biggest remaining objection to the picture, since they regarded it as "unduly gruesome" and predicted that it would never be approved by local and regional censor boards. The footage and sound elements are lost, but production stills of the scene still exist.
The look of the film was achieved through the work of cinematographer John F. Seitz. At the time, Seitz was the premiere director of photography on the Paramount lot; his work extended all the way back to the silent era. Wilder had worked with Seitz on his previous film, Five Graves to Cairo, in which Seitz was nominated for an Academy Award and Wilder praised Seitz's willingness to experiment and fail. Here Wilder taps into his 1920s Berlin roots, and he and Seitz give the film a look subtly reminiscent of German expressionism, with dramatic deployment of light and shadows. "He was ready for anything," Wilder said. "Sometimes the rushes were so dark that you couldn't see anything. He went to the limits of what could be done." They would contrast the bright sunny Southern California exteriors, shot on location, with dark, gloomy, rotten interiors shot on soundstages to give the audience a sense of what lurks just beneath the facade – and just who is capable of murder. The contrast was heightened, in Wilder's words, by "dirtying up" the sets. Once the set was ready for filming, Wilder would go around and overturn a few ashtrays to give the house an appropriately grubby look. Wilder and Seitz also blew aluminum particles into the air so that, as they floated down, they looked just like dust.
Another technique Seitz used was "venetian blind" lighting which almost gives the illusion of prison bars trapping the characters. Barbara Stanwyck later reflected, "...and for an actress, let me tell you the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter’s apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles – all that helped my performance. The way Billy staged it and John Seitz lit it, it was all one sensational mood."
For Neff's office at Pacific All Risk, Wilder and set designer Hal Pereira conspired to create a little in-house joke, typical of Billy Wilder. In the opening scenes, as Walter Neff stumbles off the elevator on his way to his office to record his confession, the vast two-tiered office is empty and dark. With the camera following him, Neff lurches towards the balcony railing overlooking rows and rows of uniform corporate desks. Neff turns left, but the camera continues forward until it reaches the brink and stares down for an anxious moment into a colorless American business purgatory. Here, Pereira is said to have copied an existing office: the corporate headquarters of Paramount Pictures in New York City.
Wilder also decked Stanwyck out in the blonde wig "to complement her anklet...and to make her look as sleazy as possible." This wig has been cited by some as being the picture's biggest flaw claiming that it looks too “fake”. According to Wilder, this was exactly what he was going for when he chose the wig wanting to project, "the phoniness of the girl – Bad taste, phony wig," with cheap perfume to match. Unconvinced, Paramount production head Buddy DeSylva was overheard to say, "We hired Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington."
The production was not without its lucky accidents: The company had just finished shooting the final segment of the sequence where Phyllis and Walter make their getaway after dumping their victim's body on the tracks. The crew was breaking for lunch before striking the set. In the script, the pair get in their car and simply drive away. But as Wilder got into his own car to leave, it wouldn't start. Inspired, he ran back and ordered the crew back. Wilder reshot the scene, only this time as Phyllis starts the car, the motor stalls and won't turn over. She tries several more times, but the car won't start and the two look at each other in growing panic. Walter desperately reaches over, turns the key and guns the motor, finally starting the car. Only then do they speed away from the crime scene. The result was one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film, but was not in the original script. MacMurray was surprised when he first saw it onscreen: "...When I... turned the key I remember I was doing it fast and Billy kept saying, 'Make it longer, make it longer,' and finally I yelled, 'For Chrissake Billy, it's not going to hold that long,' and he said, 'Make it longer,' and he was right."
Wilder managed to bring the whole production in under budget at $927,262 despite $370,000 in salaries for just four people ($100,000 each for MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson, and $70,000 – $44,000 for writing and $26,000 for directing – for himself).
The score to Double Indemnity was composed by Miklós Rózsa, whose work on Wilder's previous film, Five Graves to Cairo, had been his first real Hollywood engagement for a major studio. Wilder had praised that work and promised to use Rózsa on his next film. Wilder had the idea of using a restless string fugue (like the opening to Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony) to reflect the conspiratorial activities of Walter and Phyllis against her husband which Rózsa felt was a good one (and the Symphony is actually used with a very melodramatic effect in the scene with Lola and Walter in the hill above Hollywood Bowl, 1:23-1:26). As work progressed, Wilder's enthusiasm about Rózsa's score only grew, but the studio's Musical Director, Louis Lipstone, was of a different mind; he and Wilder had previously clashed over some post-production cuts he had made to the Five Graves score which created problems with the music's continuity and logic. Now the two were coming to loggerheads again.
When it came time to record the score for Double Indemnity, Lipstone made no secret that he despised what Rózsa had done, to which Wilder finally turned to him and snapped, "You may be surprised to hear that I love it. Okay?" Lipstone then disappeared and was not seen at the sessions again. He later summoned Rózsa to his office and reprimanded him for writing "Carnegie Hall music" which had no place in a film. Rózsa took this as a compliment, but Lipstone assured him it was not – and suggested he listen to the music from Madame Curie to learn how to write a proper film score. When Rózsa pointed out that Double Indemnity was a love story, Lipstone suggested his music was more appropriate to The Battle of Russia. Lipstone was convinced that as soon as the studio's Artistic Director, Buddy DeSylva, heard the music he would throw it out. At a screening soon after, DeSylva called him over: expecting heads to roll, Lipstone eagerly huddled with his chief – only to have DeSylva praise the music, saying it was exactly the dissonant, hard-hitting score the film needed. The boss's only criticism: there was not enough of it. By this time Lipstone had an arm around DeSylva, asking unctuously, "I always find you the right guy for the job, Buddy, don't I?"
The score would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award, and the success brought Rózsa offers to do as many films as he had time for.
Exteriors of the Dietrichson house in the film were shot at a 3,200-square-foot (300 m2), Spanish Colonial Revival house built in 1927. The house can still be seen today and is located at 6301 Quebec Drive in the Beachwood Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. The production team copied the interior of the house, including the spiral staircase, almost exactly on a soundstage at Paramount.
The exterior of the train station in the film was the Mission Revival Style Southern Pacific Railroad Depot in Glendale, California built in 1923. The station can now be seen as part of the Glendale Transportation Center and was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 2, 1997.
Other locations around Los Angeles used in the film were an apartment building at 1825 N. Kingsley Drive in Hollywood where Walter Neff lived and the building on the southwest corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Western. That building still stands, but the Newman Drug Store originally on the ground floor is no longer there.