"I killed him for money, and for a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"
— Walter Neff
A 1944 Film Noir, directed by Billy Wilder, written by him and Raymond Chandler, adapted from James M Cain's earlier novel of the same title. Considered by many to be the definitive Film Noir, and popularizer of many of its tropes.Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a successful but bored insurance salesman who encounters Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) when he comes to her house to discuss automobile insurance. After the two have traded some innuendo-laden banter, Phyllis reveals that her marriage is not a particularly happy one and the pair end up conspiring to trick her husband into taking out an accident insurance policy — and ensure that he then meets a tragic "accidental" end.Neff, who has eleven years' experience in the insurance business, believes that he has the brains to pull off The Perfect Crime. The only obstacle is his colleague and friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the brilliant claims manager who can spot a phony insurance claim a mile away.The story is told in flashback and narrated by Neff, who is making a confession into his office Dictaphone.
Provides examples of:
Adaptation Distillation: Mildly. The film hews very close to the book for the most part, but the ending (though it eliminates some revelations about Phyllis) is both spatially and temporally more compact. Its main differences are in the dialogue (Chandler believed Cain's dialogue wouldn't translate well to the screen) and the use of the Framing Device of Neff recounting the story into the dictaphone.
Adaptation Name Change: The novel's Walter Huff becomes Walter Neff in the film, for some reason. Mr. and Mrs. Dietrichson were Mr. and Mrs. Nordlinger in the novel; the latter choice was specifically because Chandler and Wilder thought that Nordlinger was too silly a name for such a serious story.
Played with Mr. Dietrichson. While certainly loudmouthed and obnoxious, it's hinted that a great deal of what Phyllis tells Neff about him is exaggerated or made up in order to get him to go along with her plan.
Also Phyllis herself.
Battleaxe Nurse: Three guesses on who was the nurse taking care of the late first Mrs. Dietrichson.
Better to Die than Be Killed: Walter and Phyllis commit suicide at the end of the book, rather than face prison and execution for their crime.
Contrived Coincidence: Dietrichson just so happening to injure his leg (and subsequently failing to file a claim under the insurance policy he didn't know he had) is what leads to Keyes Spotting the Thread.
Danger Takes a Backseat: Justified in that Phyllis, the driver, is part of the murder plot and Walter is hiding back there to kill the passenger.
Establishing Character Moment: Keyes' introductory scene, in which he tears apart a guy trying to claim insurance on his truck by revealing that the man had set fire to it himself. The scene is irrelevant to the plot, but it serves to thoroughly introduce Keyes, his methods, his quirks, and his relationship to Neff
Femme Fatale: Literally; Phyllis not only kills her husband and his first wife, but shoots Walter.
How We Got Here:The narrator gets shot prior to the movie's start, and retells everything before dying. In other words, he slowly bleeds to death for the whole movie, not kicking it until the end. The book begins with him on a ship, also suffering from a gunshot wound, shortly before his Suicide Pact with Phyllis.
Insurance Fraud: The plot of the film revolves around Phyllis' attempt to arrange her husband's murder and collect his insurance money, which pays double in the event of accidental death (i.e. double indemnity).
Mercy Lead: Subverted at the end, when Neff asks Keyes for a couple of hours to get away and Keyes points out, quite rightly, that with that bullet wound he won't get very far ("You'll never make the border, you'll never even make the elevator.")
Playing Against Type: Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were both reluctant to accept the roles of Neff and Phyllis respectively: MacMurray was principally a comedic actor, while Stanwyck was worried about what playing such a singularly nasty character would do to her career. Edward G. Robinson was also reluctant to accept a supporting role, until he saw the paycheck.
"The Reason You Suck" Speech: Subverted. Neff is sure that Keyes is going to hit him with one of these, full of "twenty-dollar words," but Keyes just looks at him with his eyes full of sorrow and betrayal and says:
"Walter, you're all washed up."
Revised Ending: One of the main areas in which the film differs from the book.
Running Gag: Keyes ends all his conversations by pulling out a cigar and patting all his pockets for a light. He never has one at hand, so Neff has to come to his rescue with a quickly-lit match. In the last scene, their roles are reversed: Neff, dying from his bullet wound, is too weak to light a match for his own cigarette; Keyes has to light it for him.
What Could Have Been: The original script had two possible endings — the one that ended up in the film, and an alternate ending which continued after that scene to show Neff's execution in the gas chamber. This gas chamber scene was actually filmed, but Wilder ultimately decided not to use it. The Media Watchdogs had objected to the scene as "unduly gruesome"; however, Wilder claimed that his reasons for cutting it were entirely artistic: it was already clear from the preceding scene that Neff was doomed, and actually seeing him die didn't tell the audience anything they didn't already know. The footage of this scene has unfortunately been lost, but some production stills remain.