Hollywood Codebreakers: ‘Double Indemnity’ Slinks Past the Censors

From the moment Ruth Snyder arrived in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the spring of 1927, reporters covered her every move. The New York Times ran articles on how much sleep she got, her complaints that jail was too hot, and the letters she smuggled to her mother. One news item was just about her makeup. “Privilege for Mrs. Snyder,” the headline read. “Warden Rules She Can Use Face Powder — Smoking in Doubt.”

Snyder was an object of public fixation for almost a full year. It started with her arrest for the murder of her husband, Albert Snyder. After securing a lucrative life insurance policy in Albert’s name, Ruth killed him with her lover Henry Judd Grey in hopes of cashing in on the special “double indemnity” clause that paid extra for accidental deaths or murders. But Ruth and Judd’s scheme to disguise the murder as a burglary gone bad failed, and after a well-publicized criminal trial, they found themselves on death row.

The execution was set for January 12, 1928. Although cameras were not allowed in the chamber, a New York Daily News photographer managed to smuggle one in by strapping it to his ankle. He waited for the wardens to lead Ruth to the electric chair. Once the executioner had flipped the switch, he snapped a secret photo via a trigger release in his pant leg. It was the first known photo of an execution through electrocution.

The Daily News splashed the picture across their front page the next day, under the headline, “Dead!” This coverage was shocking and, to many, disgustingly opportunistic. But it insured no one would forget Ruth Snyder anytime soon — James M. Cain certainly didn’t. The New York World reporter returned to the Snyder case years later, after he had become a prominent crime novelist. He wrote a story about two lovers, much like Snyder and Grey, who conspire to collect insurance money on the woman’s dead husband. The title came from the crucial policy clause: Double Indemnity.

Hollywood tried and failed to make Cain’s violent love affair into a movie in 1935. But when Billy Wilder pitched it again in 1943, he not only managed to secure PCA approval, but set a precedent that would help similar movies into theaters.

Cain first published Double Indemnity as a serialized story for Liberty magazine. The first part ran in the February 15, 1936 issue, but studios expressed interest in the story long before that. MGM submitted the basic outline of Double Indemnity to the PCA for consideration in the fall of 1935, and Breen responded by effectively telling Louis B. Mayer to keep dreaming. “The story deals improperly with an illicit and adulterous sex relationship,” he wrote. “The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story make it… thoroughly unacceptable for screen production.” The central characters supremely offended Breen, who branded them “murderers who cheat the law,” and he was concerned with the story’s detailed description of their crime. He considered the story a “blueprint for murder” and sent identical rejection letters to other studios who inquired about Double Indemnity — including Paramount on March 15, 1943.

But Paramount didn’t give up. By 1943, Double Indemnity had been published as a novel and Cain’s new agent was shopping it around again. The book wound up in the hands of Joseph Sistrom, a Paramount producer who knew just the man for the job: Billy Wilder. Wilder, whom you might remember from his raunchy, pro-interventionist comedy Arise, My Love, was now both a writer and director. He was eager to helm this project, and with Wilder on board, Paramount pressed on. The studio submitted a revised story treatment from Wilder and his frequent partner Charles Brackett on September 21, 1943. Breen felt that the new material answered most of his objections. The murder details were better obscured and the affair was, apparently, fine. In his letter, Breen conceded that “adultery is no longer quite as objectionable” as it used to be in movies. Paramount could proceed.

Wilder brought another crime novelist, Raymond Chandler, aboard to finish the story. (The choice was a bit ironic, considering Chandler’s low opinion of James M. Cain. He considered his peer “a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk.”) The pair sketched out a film noir centered on insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and his married girlfriend Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Neff tells the story primarily in flashback to his colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), as he lays on the floor of their office, bleeding from a gunshot. Walter meets Phyllis when he drops by her home to inquire about her husband’s insurance policy. She first appears in a towel, then changes into a dress and heels, paired with an ankle bracelet that catches Walter’s eye. From that moment, it’s clear the two are destined for a messy affair. They flirt and smirk and before long, Walter is helping Phyllis draw up a life insurance policy for her husband. He knows her ultimate plan — kill the man and cash out — and although he initially objects, he’s soon helping her plan and execute the crime.

Breen was not into Phyllis’s saucy entrance, flagging it in his September 1943 letter. “This bath towel must properly cover Phyllis and must certainly go below her knees,” he wrote. He also noted some “flimsy house pajamas” and a loaded line about “park[ing] your south end.” He still felt the murder exposition was too lengthy, advising Paramount to cut down the details. To that end, he also instructed the studio to delete the seemingly innocent line, “And listen, don’t handle that policy without putting gloves on.” This was actually part of a “regular policy re fingerprints.” The censors felt the public shouldn’t know that criminals can be traced through their fingerprints, lest any aspiring murderers get wise. This all fell under the general Production Code guidelines on crime, which stated that methods and technique “should not be explicitly presented” or in a way that would “inspire others with a desire for imitation.”

The PCA did not win the battle over the bath towel, but Paramount made plenty of concessions, including a complete overhaul of the ending. Wilder originally wrote a sequence where Walter is caught and sent to the gas chamber. Upon reading this scene in the complete script, Breen replied on December 1, 1943, “As we advised you before, this whole sequence in the death chamber seems very questionable in its present form. Specifically, the details of the execution… seem unduly gruesome.” Wilder still filmed the scene, but it was cut from the movie before release. With PCA approval in hand, Double Indemnity was cleared for a spring 1944 premiere.

Double Indemnity attracted some bad press — most notably from singer Kate Smith, who organized a morality campaign against the movie — but the box office numbers were solid and most critics liked it, linking it to moody French art films of the era. Its critical reputation only deepened in the decades after its release; many modern critics consider it one of the best, if not the best, film noirs ever made. And what’s particularly amazing to contemporary audiences is the amount of wild dialogue it got away with. Consider this exchange, which is reprinted in just about every book on Wilder, Chandler, or the movie itself:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He’ll be in then.
Walter: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?
Walter: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around 90.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you trying putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter: That tears it.

This kind of wordplay became Wilder’s calling card. Viewers knew exactly what he meant, but he wasn’t technically breaking any of Breen’s rules, since he wouldn’t say the subtext out loud. Wilder’s deft approach to Double Indemnity helped get a lot more film noirs through the PCA. Mildred Pierce, The Big Sleep, and The Postman Always Rings Twice soon followed. The New York Times wrote on November 19, 1944, “The apparent trend toward such material, previously shunned for fear of censorship, is traced by observers to Paramount’s successful treatment of the James M. Cain novel ‘Double Indemnity,’ which was described by some producers as ‘an emancipation for Hollywood writing.’”

The precedent of Double Indemnity gave producers easy leverage over Breen when they pitched their movies. It became such a talking point that eventually some had to avoid the subject. When MGM producer Carey Wilson decided to lobby for another Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, he laid out his argument to Breen without mentioning the movie once. “Why don’t you say, ‘What about Double Indemnity?’” Breen asked. Wilson replied, “I know you’re just sitting there with your right [fist] all cocked and ready to shoot it down when I begin, and I’m not going to give you the chance.” He got the green light.

But film noir wasn’t the only genre provoking radical change. Overseas, a group of Italian directors was starting a movement, a means of coping with the grim realities of postwar life. The neorealists made bleak, frank movies, the kind that would never even get script approval if an American producer submitted them to the PCA. But thanks to a growing interest in arthouse cinema and a few determined distributors, Breen had to seriously consider these films for U.S. release. We’ll talk about one of those movies, Rome, Open City, next week on Hollywood Codebreakers.

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