Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, slick insurance salesman
Los Angeles, May through July 1938
Film: Double Indemnity
Release Date: July 3, 1944
Director: Billy Wilder
Costume Designer: Edith Head
What’d you think I was, anyway? A guy that walks into a good-lookin’ dame’s front parlor and says, “Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands. You got one that’s been around too long, one you’d like to turn into a little hard cash? Just give me a smile and I’ll help you collect?”
Let’s finally kick off Noir-vember with the quintessential film noir, Double Indemnity, the quotable masterpiece from the pen of James M. Cain, adapted for Billy Wilder’s screen direction by pulp writer Raymond Chandler and photographed by inventive cinematographer John F. Seitz. Double Indemnity is the one that has it all: the seductive femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck), the wisecracking protagonist willing to murder for her (Fred MacMurray), and the intrepid investigator, though in this case it’s not a trench coated private detective but an energetic, experienced, and irascible insurance claims manager played by Edward G. Robinson at his best.
In addition to its first-rate cast, Double Indemnity boasts all the usual elements of noir from sordid murder and sexual innuendo (mostly to skirt the Hays Code) to shadowy, Venetian blind-filtered cinematography and smoking… plenty of smoking, from Fred MacMurray’s smooth single-hand match-lighting for Robinson’s “two for a quarter” cigars to his own endless Chesterfields that dangle from his mouth throughout.
Though Chandler’s novels like The Big Sleep were respected in the industry, he was a relative newcomer to Hollywood that needed considerable guidance writing a screenplay as opposed to a novel. He resented how closely he needed to collaborate with Wilder, disliking the Austrian-born director’s approach to work though Wilder wisely worked to keep Chandler happy, well aware that the talented writer’s gift for language and dialogue would take Double Indemnity to the next level. At Chandler’s initial urging, both men eventually recognized that Cain’s dialogue would need considerable finessing, and Cain himself was quite pleased with how his novella was adapted for the screen, explaining that “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.”
Cain based his source material on several real-life crimes from the era, notably the famous case of Ruth Snyder, the housewife who conspired with her lover to kill her husband, though the homely Mrs. Snyder was considerably less sultry and far less effective than Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson as it reportedly took eight attempts for Ruth and her paramour, a married corset salesman named H. Judd Gray, to kill the man. As in Double Indemnity, there was an insurance angle as Mrs. Snyder was able to enlist the help of an unscrupulous insurance salesman—though without any promise of romantic involvement—who sold her a policy that would pay double indemnity should her husband fall victim to an act of unexpected violence. Finally, Ruth and Judd successfully garroted Albert Snyder in March 1927, a week before Ruth’s 32nd birthday. She wouldn’t live to be 33 as he suspicious behavior landed both she and Gray under surveillance and eventually in custody, where the two turned on each other not unlike MacMurray and Stanwyck’s tempestuous couple at the black heart of Double Indemnity. Ruth Snyder and H. Judd Gray were both convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Mrs. Snyder’s 1928 execution at Sing Sing was famously photographed by Tom Howard by the New York Daily News and would become one of the most famous photos of the roaring ’20s, emblematic of the increased sensationalization of crime during the era.
Ten years after Judd Gray followed Ruth Snyder to the electric chair in real life, our fictional anti-hero Walter Neff is riding the elevator up to the 12th floor of the Pacific Building for a late night visit to his employer, Pacific All Risk Insurance Company, which “knows more tricks than a carful of monkeys.” Bleeding from the shoulder, Neff knows he has some explaining to do—though he doesn’t like to call it a confession—as he prepares to illuminate his boss on “that Dietrichson claim.”
Office memorandum. Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, claims manager. Los Angeles, July 16, 1938…
What’d He Wear?
Legendary costume designer Edith Head continued her collaboration with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, dressing the seductive femme fatale in a manner both appropriately suburban and just suggestive enough that no man—or audience member—could resist her devious charms. (Read more about Missy’s wardrobe in this fantastic analysis from Girls Do Film!)
In contrast to Mrs. Dietrichson who never repeats an outfit across the two months depicted on screen, Walter Neff cycles through four different outfits: his everyday herringbone striped flannel suit, a heavy herringbone tweed sports coat, a navy three-piece suit worn when disguising himself as the doomed Mr. Dietrichson, and the light tweedy flannel two-piece suit that gets ruined by a bullet to the left shoulder. While all of these pieces are worthy of discussion, let’s start with the latter.
Neff’s light-colored napped woolen flannel suit has a ventless three-button jacket styled with sporty details like a patch breast pocket and patch hip pockets. The shoulders are wide and padded with heavily roped sleeveheads, and each sleeve ends with three-button kissing cuffs. The black-and-white cinematography hides the color, though some contemporary promotional artwork shows MacMurray wearing what appears to be this suit colorized to a light brown, though light gray would also be a reasonable contender given his frequently wearing it to the office.
The suit’s matching trousers have an appropriately long rise for the era, rising to MacMurray’s natural waist where he wears a medium-colored leather belt—likely tan or light brown but possibly also gray—that closes with a curved metal single-prong buckle. The double forward-pleated trousers have side pockets and turn-ups (cuffs) that break high over his shoes.
In addition to the framing scenes of a wounded Neff recording his confession (sorry, Walter, but it is) in his office, this suit makes two earlier appearances in Double Indemnity. The first is exactly a month before on the afternoon of June 15, 1938, the day that he and Phyllis would kill her husband. Neff is loitering in his shared office—his hat on, true noir protagonist that he is—when Barton Keyes bursts in, simultaneously congratulating Neff on his second consecutive office sales record and offering him a $50 cut in salary to be his claims assistant. The phone rings, not that Keyes lets it interrupt his flow, handing the headset to Neff after making his pitch: “There’s a dame on your phone!” Of course, it’s Phyllis, sharing the update that the murder will occur that evening, but for Keyes’ benefit, Neff claims it to be a date named Margie (“Margie! I bet she drinks from the bottle,” Keyes memorably exclaims.)
For this day in the office, Neff wears a solid off-white shirt with a large semi-spread collar, plain front, and button cuffs. Neff’s tie is patterned in a balanced “downhill” block stripe of three repeating colors, though each dark shade is too low of a contrast for easy differentiation in the black-and-white movie, so it could be mistaken for a solid-colored tie.
Later that night, Neff changes out of the navy suit he wore to pose as Dietrichson on the train and back into this tweedy flannel clobber, sans tie, for a late-night meal at his favorite local drugstore. This shirt appears to be more of a pure white than the shirt he wore to the office, likely the same shirt he wore with the navy suit in the preceding scenes.
A few weeks later, Lola Dietrichson (Jean Heather), has started making waves after sharing with Neff that she witnessed her stepmother trying on her black veil two days before the suspicious death of her father. To keep the young woman distracted, Neff begins escorting Lola on dates around the city including a Sunday drive to the beach, where he wears this suit for a brief vignette in his ’38 Dodge coupe.
Neff wears another widely striped tie, though the two colors of this horizontally ribbed tie are light and dark for a much clearer visual contrast.
Which brings us to… late afternoon on Friday, July 15, 1938. Neff is leaving the office and runs into Keyes in the lobby, where the excitable claims manager shares that he’s all but solved the Dietrichson case, identifying Phyllis’ co-conspirator… as Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr), a hotheaded former medical student who had been dating Lola until the seductive Phyllis realized what an asset his affection could be to her nefarious ends.
Neff wears a light-colored shirt—possibly light gray, taupe, or blue—with a spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and button cuffs. He again wears a dark, low-contrast striped tie with two colors of very wide repeating block stripes.
“Hang on to your hat, Walter!” exclaims Keyes, no doubt aware of his colleague’s penchant for keeping his lid on inside, even at the office. “That Dietrichson case just busted wide open!”
Keyes doesn’t need to ask twice for Neff to hang onto his hat as the insurance salesman makes a habit of almost always wearing his hat, even when hanging around his office, echoing one of Raymond Chandler’s numerous complaints about Billy Wilder: “I can’t work with a man who wears a hat in the office. I feel he is about to leave momentarily.”
Neff appears to wear the same hat throughout Double Indemnity, a dark felt fedora with a high and sharply pinched crown. The band is a dark ribbed grosgrain that matches the trim along the edges of the hat brim and is detailed with a large bow on the left side.
Neff attempts to use his Friday evening to tie up loose ends but finds himself to be someone’s loose end himself when Phyllis puts a .38 into his left shoulder. She may not be able to fire that second shot, but he doesn’t hesitate, dropping her with two and pocketing the revolver in his suit jacket.
Whether it’s a futile attempt to conceal his bloody bullet wound or to warm himself against the chill of his rapidly approaching death, Neff—”looking kinda all in at that”—has caped himself with a heavy wool raglan coat as he returns to the Pacific Building, depositing the coat by the door as he slumps into his chair to dictate his confession. The three-button coat has notch lapels, a narrow single-button tab on each cuff, and a single vent.
Neff wears dark leather cap-toe oxford shoes. The shade of leather is dark enough to suggest black, through a rich brown or burgundy leather could be very complementary with Neff’s rugged napped suit, sport jacket, and trouser fabrics.
An interesting detail of Neff’s wardrobe throughout Double Indemnity is the large wedding ring on the third finger of Fred MacMurray’s left hand, undoubtedly the actor’s own ring from his then-marriage to Lillian Lamont as Walter Neff was an obvious bachelor with no suggestion or a current or past wife.
What to Imbibe
“Come on, I’ll buy you a martini, Walter,” offers a celebratory Keyes on what would be the last day of Phyllis’ and Walter’s lives. Walter declines, but Keyes is insistent: “with two olives!”
Though Walter Neff rejects Keyes’ suggestion of martinis, it’s not because our antihero has anything against drinking. Far from it, in fact, as he tends to spend any idle moment drinking when he isn’t smoking (or murdering.) He muses about rum, beer, and pink wine, though it’s bourbon that stars as Neff’s drink of choice when it’s the only spirit he has in the apartment for Phyllis’ evening visit.
Phyllis prepares for Neff’s arrival by placing a nickel-plated revolver under the cushion of her usual lounge chair in her living room. The small-framed revolver with its ivory grips has been identified by IMFDB as a Smith & Wesson .32 Hand Ejector, Third Model, a small but reliable six-shooter built on what would be known as Smith & Wesson’s I-frame.
After several iterations of the Smith & Wesson .32 Hand Ejector, the Massachusetts-based manufacturer introduced the “Third Model” in 1917 and would go on to produce more than a quarter of a million before ceasing production in 1942 when the majority of American weapons manufacturing refocused on weapons for the war effort.
This early generation of the Smith & Wesson .32 Hand Ejector, Third Model, was offered in barrel lengths of 3.25″, 4″, and 6″, though the short 3.25″ barrel was most common. The revolver carried six rounds of .32 S&W Long ammunition, an accurate but relatively anemic cartridge that could explain how Neff would be able to survive for a few hours with a round in his chest until, left untreated, he would bleed out.
Smith & Wesson would revive production of this .32-caliber revolver after the war with an I-framed revolver that would be known as the Smith & Wesson Model 30. In 1960, this weapon was reconfigured on the slightly larger J-frame and re-designated the Smith & Wesson Model 30-1, which would be produced until 1976. By then, the .32 S&W Long round was 80 years old, having been introduced by Smith & Wesson in 1896 when it was standardized by then-New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt as the authorized cartridge for the NYPD’s Smith & Wesson and Colt New Police revolvers.
I own a blued Smith & Wesson .32 Hand Ejector, Third Model, manufactured in 1932 and with a 3.25″ barrel. The .32 S&W Long round is easy to fire and, even in double-action, there is very little recoil and the accurate round hits right on target with every shot.
How to Get the Look
Unlike Clark Gable’s well-traveled tweeds in It Happened One Night, Walter Neff keeps his clobber looking pressed and perfect for sales calls to potential clients… and fateful encounters with platinum blonde femmes fatale with a penchant for anklets.
- Light napped woolen flannel sport suit:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 3-button “kissing” cuffs, and ventless back
- Double forward-pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Off-white cotton shirt with spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Dark block-striped tie
- Medium-colored leather belt with curved metal single-prong buckle
- Dark leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Dark socks
- Dark wool raglan coat with single-breasted three-button front, notch lapels, single-button tab cuffs, and single vent
- Dark felt fedora with dark ribbed grosgrain ribbon and edges
- Wristwatch on leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
I’m all through thinking, baby.
When Neff is dictating his confession for Keyes, he shares that the date is July 16, 1938, which would have been Barbara Stanwyck’s 31st birthday. The frequent and consistent use of dates throughout Double Indemnity got me interested in constructing a timeline, for anyone who may be interested:
- Tuesday in late May 1938 (likely May 24): Walter Neff meets Phyllis Dietrichson when he stops by the Dietrichson home for a routine auto insurance renewal
- Thursday in late May 1938 (likely May 26): Walter returns to see Phyllis in the afternoon, per her call, and they hatch a plan that evening to murder her husband
- “a couple of nights later”: Walter pitches an accident policy to Dietrichson with Phyllis and Lola at witnesses
- around June 8, 1938: Walter and Phyllis meet “accidentally on purpose” at Jerry’s Market
- Wednesday, June 15, 1938: Keyes pitches the claims assistant position to Walter; Walter and Phyllis murder Mr. Dietrichson and place his body on the train tracks
- Friday, June 17, 1938: After Phyllis’ confrontation with Norton, Keyes starts “digging into” the Dietrichson murder
- Saturday, July 9, 1938: Having moved out of the Dietrichson home, Lola goes to Walter’s office and he escorts her to dinner that night; also, Nino’s first recorded visit to Phyllis’ home
- Sunday, July 10, 1938: Walter takes Lola out for a Sunday drive to the beach…and Nino returns to Phyllis’ home (again, off screen)
- Monday, July 11, 1938: Walter and Keyes meet with Mr. Jackson, the proud son of Medford, Oregon, and Walter meets with a sunglasses-wearing Phyllis at Jerry’s Market
- Thursday, July 14, 1938: After “three or four” dates that week, Walter and Lola go into the hills above the Hollywood Bowl
- Friday, July 15, 1938: Walter and Phyllis’ shadowy final meeting leaves her dead and him mortally wounded
- Saturday, July 16, 1938: Walter leaves a confession on his dictaphone for Keyes, who arrives at the office in time to find his wounded colleague attempting to make a futile escape