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The (Very Polite) Letters Behind “Double Indemnity”

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A colorful movie poste for "Double Indemnity," featuring stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck
“Double Indemnity” was so daring by 1944 standards that some lobby cards tried to make the crime noir tale look more like a romantic comedy. Paramount Pictures.

Double Indemnity” is one of Hollywood’s classic films, the standard-bearer for noir cinema and a career highlight for stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. With the Oscars being handed out Sunday, it’s good to keep in mind that the Billy Wilder-directed “Double,” with a legendary script by Wilder and crime-writer icon Raymond Chandler, was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1945.

It’s also good to keep in mind that it won exactly zero.

In Hollywood lore, it’s one of the all-time snubs, joining cultural touchstones such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Vertigo” as films that won a place in history but not at the Oscars. It was, however, inducted into the Library’s National Film Registry in 1992, recognized as a film of national cultural importance.

The Library has a fascinating exchange of letters between the “Double stars and novelist James M. Cain, whose book was the basis for the film. (Cain also wrote “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” also made into a noir classic that also won no Oscars.)

The letters, contained in Cain’s papers at the Library, give us a glimpse into Hollywood history, how scandalous the movie was at the time and at the manners of a bygone era. Today, stars tag their peers in tweets; in the 1940s, they sat down at a typewriter or picked up a pen and wrote letters. There was a formality, a way things were done, that has been obliterated by changing times and technology. It’s almost impossible to imagine the following exchange taking place today.

“Dear Mr. MacMurray,” Cain typed on Feb. 4, 1944, after they both attended a Los Angeles premiere of “Double” from which MacMurray had ducked out early, meaning Cain had missed him at the ensuing reception. “Your portrayal of that character is simply terrific, and the way in which you found tragedy in his shallow, commonplace, smart-cracking soul will remain with me a long a time … (if) I ever weaken and begin to pretty my characters up, I shall remember your Walter and be fortified.”

Scanned image of a yellowed, one-page typewritten letter
Cain’s congratulatory note to MacMurray, Feb. 4, 1944. Manuscript Division.

This was more than Tinseltown gushing.

“Double” was outrageous and dangerous, the kind of fare that gave stars pause about lending their names to it, particularly in the era when Hollywood was governed by the censors at the Motion Picture Production Code.

First published as a magazine serial in 1936, “Double” is the tale of lusty Los Angeles insurance agent Walter Neff (MacMurray), who makes a house call on a rich client, the scent of honeysuckle in the air, only to find the husband absent and his bewitching spouse, Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), clad in nothing more than a towel and a smirk.

Swilling bourbon and trading double-entendres, the pair soon kill the husband, framing it as an accident so they can collect a fat insurance payout. It ends in double-crosses, gunfire and regret.

“I killed (the husband) for money and a woman,” MacMurray’s character says in the movie’s most famous line. “I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”

Black and white movie still of MacMurray at on open door, Stanwyck hiding behind it.
“I killed a man for money and a woman….” MacMurray and Stanwyck in a key moment from “Double Indemnity.” Paramount Pictures.

Few mainstream stars wanted to play such a role, and MacMurray, a straight arrow if ever there was one, seemed spectacularly unfit for it. He grew up in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, for heaven’s sake, and spent the 1930s in the studio system playing nice guys in lighthearted pictures. By the early’40s, he was one of the highestpaid actors in the trade, making $430,000 (about $7 million today), according to his biography on the Internet Movie Database.

We can deduce that MacMurray was a polite man who observed social courtesies because he answered Cain’s letter immediately, with a space of just five days between the two letters. But he responds to Cain’s typewritten missive with a handwritten note — a personal touch. He was a big star, after all, and perhaps didn’t want Cain to think he’d had a secretary knock this out.

“Dear Mr. Cain — I want to thank you for your very nice letter,” he began, in keeping with the social graces of beginning a thank you note with well a thank you.

Then he politely addressed the elephant in the room.

“As you’ve probably been told, it took a lot of persuading by a number of people to get me to tackle the part. I was crazy about the story but having never done anything like it, I was afraid to take a crack at it. Even after seeing the finished picture, I was sure I’d given an Academy performance in underacting! But if you, the author, liked it that’s good enuff for me!”

A scanned image of a yellowed letter.
Excerpt of MacMurray’s note to Cain, with the intentional misspelling of “enuff” in the final line. Letter dated Feb. 9, 1944. Manuscript Division.

Here, we pause to note the aw-gee-shucks intentional misspelling of “enough,” and you can see that while Fred MacMurray was indeed a big-bucks Hollywood movie star, he had not forgotten his humble roots in dear old Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and wanted Cain to know that he was still a regular fella.

I happened across this letter a couple of years ago in Cain’s papers. It was unmarked, just another letter among his correspondence, in a folder headed “Miscellaneous — M.” It was so unexpected, so absolutely charming, such a valentine from one of the most famous movies in Hollywood history, that I was transfixed.

Then, wondering if lightning might have struck twice, I went to the folder of Cain’s letters marked “Miscellaneous — S” to see if there might be something from Stanwyck.

Bingo! On personalized stationery, even, a thing which serious people had back then.

“Dear Jim,” she began in her flowing penmanship, on Feb. 23, 1950, not only dispensing with the formality of a typewriter but also with the “Mr. Cain” business. Six years had passed since the movie had been a critical and commercial hit. She’d been nominated for an Oscar as best actress for her portrayal.

"Barbara Stanwyck" on letterhead of a handwritten note
“Dear Jim, Thanks so much for your letter regarding our ‘Indemnity’ broadcast. Believe me, it’s my favorite and always a joy for me to do…” the first lines of Stanwyck’s letter to Cain, Feb. 23, 1950. Manuscript Division.

“Double” had proved such an enduring hit, in fact, that she had reprised her role in a nationally broadcast radio play of the tale in 1945 with MacMurray, and then again in 1950 opposite actor Robert Taylor. Cain, who had moved back to his native D.C. region, sent her a complimentary note after hearing this later version.

She responded quickly, writing him that playing the wicked Phyllis was “my favorite” and “always a joy.” She then noted that he’d promised to write a new book with a tailor-made role for her to perform on film; was that what he was working on now? “If not Jim remember your promise before I get too bloody old. Good luck my friend and I hope to see you when you return here. Fondly, Barbara.”

Cain went on to write more than a dozen novels, but nothing ever matched his previous intensity and there was never another part for Stanwyck. He later said he should have never left Hollywood. He spent his last years in Hyattsville, Maryland, writing grandfatherly like columns for The Washington Post.

MacMurray, with the exception of “The Apartment,” returned mostly to playing Mr. Nice Guy roles, anchoring a series of Disney films in the ’60s (“The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Happiest Millionaire,”) and as the cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking dad on television’s “My Three Sons” for more than a decade.

Stanwyck worked in films until the late 1950s, then switched to television, becoming a small-screen star on “The Big Valley” in the ‘60s and in the ’80s nighttime soap, “Dynasty.”

But there’s no doubt the most enduring work of all three was in that hot, sexy, dangerous film of 1944, when they all stepped out of themselves to play mean little people doing mean little things and then wrote each other such nice, polite letters about how fun it all had been.

A photo of the last lines of Fred MaMurry's letter
“I hope I may sometime have another opportunity to do one of your very interesting characters — Thanks again — Fred MacMurray” The close of MacMurray’s thank-you note to Cain. Manuscript Division. 

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Comments (13)

  1. Delightful blog entry today! It reminds me of why I love (and miss) archival research—one finds such gems. And one finds them often in the LOC collections. I live next door to James Cain’s former home in Maryland. Neighbors say that in his elder years, all the women in town vied with one another, bringing him baked goods and treats. The woman who lived in my house (mother of a dozen children) took special care of him.

    • Hi there,

      I wrote a piece about him in the Washington Post several years ago, and was delighted by the readers who remembered him in Hyattsville. I believe he grew mint in his yard to assist in making his own juleps!


  2. This is a great blog post. I enjoyed it so much. I enjoy Hollywood history. A wonderful treat.

    • Thank you!

  3. I’m a retired journalist and critic, and in 1984 profiled the great Oscar-winning writer-director Billy Wilder for The San Diego Union-Tribune and subsequently served as onstage host of “An Afternoon With Billy Wilder” to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his film “Some Like It Hot,” which was partially shot in the San Diego area. Our discussion turned out to be wide-ranging, covering many of his other films as well, including “Double Indemnity.” Here is a portion of what he had to say:

    “I’m against any form of censorship, but it’s being taken advantage of,” continued this man who fled the Nazis as a young screenwriter to come to America.

    “We’ve lifted the cycle of violence. Instead of crashing a car once, we do it 114 times per film. We show everything when someone dies. We make pictures about people taking the law in their own hands, and if you continue to remake all the hits of yesterday, you’re standing still. What’s important in making film is what you leave to the audience’s imagination.

    “In ‘Double Indemnity,’ I focused on Barbara Stanwyck’s face while Fred MacMurray is in the back seat of her car strangling her husband. I will tell you it’s better to film the back of a person’s head when some human crisis is taking place. Let the audience think what is going on _ they know, they know. No actor can act better than the audience can imagine.”

    Wilder’s mentor was Ernst Lubitsch, a director whose films included 1939’s “Ninotchka” with Greta Garbo and 1938’s “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” with Claudette Colbert. Wilder, who co-authored the scripts for those movies, believed young filmmakers would do well to study Lubitsch’s deft touch.

    “Lubitsch was the first filmmaker who could subtly make a point, he didn’t hit you over the head with something. He supposed the audience was intelligent, and everything he did was innuendo. He played a game with the audience. They loved that and played along with him. His movies were more fun and more erotic than all the movies with nudity now.”

    I might add that Wilder had a n unusual and somewhat contentious relationship with novelist Raymond Chandler in co-writing the screenplay for “Double Indemnity,” an experience which served as the basis for the play “Billy and Ray.”

    I learned just how tormented, and sad, Chandler’s life had been when I was asked to write a story commemorating the 100tha anniversary of his birth by the editor of The San Diego Tribune, who as a young writer had been a protege of Chandler’s and had helped him through some tough times. For his trouble, Chandler based one of his characters in “The Long Goodbye” on my boss, who supplied a sidebar to my story recalling his time with Chandler.

    “Double Indemnity” remains a fascination on the screen and behind the scenes.

    • What a great comment/observation! Talking w Billy Wilder had to be something. In Hollywood terms, he didn’t just know where the bodies were buried; he knew where to bury the bodies.

  4. Thank you, Neely, for a delightful and insightful story about a classic movie and those who made it. We got to meet James Cain at an AFI event when its theater as still at the Kennedy. He was as gracious in person as he was in these letters!

    Thanks again,
    Tom and Marie O’Day

    • Hi Tom,

      Would have loved to have met him. He was quite the character — started out with H.L. Mencken in Baltimore!



  6. Another clean cut actor in who’s starring role played a depraved egomaniac was Andy Griffith in “A Face In The Crowd”. He should have won an Oscar for playing Lonesome Rhodes. But it was 1957 just after the McCarthy Era and it was a miracle that film was made at all. It still stands the test of time as a social mirror.

  7. He also played out of the good guy character in the Caine Mutiny. He was excellent.

  8. Fascinating, Neely! Keep posting.

    • Thank you!

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