A key scene from the classic 1944 thriller Double Indemnity [screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, novel by James M. Cain.
Setup: An insurance rep [Neff] lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme by his lover [Phyllis] that arouses the suspicions of an insurance investigator [Keyes].
In the open door stands Keyes. NEFF Hello, Keyes. Keyes walks past him into the room. His hands are clasped behind his back. There is a strange, absent-minded look in his eyes. Neff closes the door without taking his eyes off Keyes. NEFF What's on your mind? Keyes stops in the middle of the room and turns. KEYES That broken leg. The guy broke his leg. NEFF What are you talking about? KEYES Talking about Dietrichson. He had accident insurance, didn't he? Then he broke his leg, didn't he? NEFF So what? KEYES And he didn't put in a claim. Why didn't he put in a claim? Why? NEFF What the dickens are you driving at? KEYES Walter. There's something wrong. I ate dinner two hours ago. It stuck half way. He prods his stomach with his thumb. KEYES The little man is acting up again. Because there's something wrong with that Dietrichson case. NEFF Because he didn't put in a claim? Maybe he just didn't have time. KEYES Oh maybe he just didn't know he was insured. He has stopped in front of Neff. They look at each other for a tense moment. Neff hardly breathes. Keyes shakes his head suddenly. KEYES No. That couldn't be it. You delivered the policy to him personally, didn't you, Walter? And you got his check. NEFF (Stiff-lipped, but his voice is as well under control as he can manage) Sure, I did. Keyes prods his stomach again. KEYES Got any bicarbonate of soda? NEFF No I haven't. Keyes resumes his pacing. KEYES Listen, Walter. I've been living with this little man for twenty-six years. He's never failed me yet. There's got to be something wrong. NEFF Maybe Norton was right. Maybe it was suicide, Keyes. KEYES No. Not suicide. (Pause) But not accident either. NEFF What else? There is another longer pause, agonizing for Neff. Finally Keyes continues: KEYES Look. A man takes out an accident policy that is worth a hundred thousand dollars if he is killed on a train. Then, two weeks later, he is killed on a train. And not in a train accident, mind you, but falling off some silly observation car. Do you know what the mathematical probability of that is, Walter? One out of I don't know how many billions. And add to that the broken leg. It just can't be the way it looks, Walter. Something has been worked on us. NEFF Such as what? Keyes doesn't answer. He goes on pacing up and down. Finally Neff can't stand the silence any longer. NEFF Murder? KEYES (Prods stomach again) Don't you have any peppermint or anything? NEFF I'm sorry. (Pause) Who do you suspect? KEYES Maybe I like to make things easy for myself. But I always tend to suspect the beneficiary. NEFF The wife? KEYES Yeah. That wide-eyed dame that didn't know anything about anything. NEFF You're crazy, Keyes. She wasn't even on the train. KEYES I know she wasn't, Walter. I don't claim to know how it was worked, or who worked it, but I know that it was worked. He crosses to the corridor door. KEYES I've got to get to a drug store. It feels like a hunk of concrete inside me. He puts his hand on the knob to open the door. C-11 CORRIDOR - APARTMENT HOUSE - NIGHT - LIGHTS ON The hallway is empty except for Phyllis who has been standing close to the door of Neff's apartment, listening. The door has just started to open. Phyllis moves away quickly and flattens herself against the wall behind the opening door. Keyes is coming out. KEYES Good night, Walter. Neff, behind him, looks anxiously down the hallway for Phyllis. Suddenly his eye catches a glimpse of her through the crack of the partly opened door. He pushes the door wide so as to hide her from Keyes. NEFF Good night, Keyes. KEYES See you at the office in the morning. He has reached the elevator. He pushes the call button and turns. KEYES But I'd like to move in on her right now, tonight, if it wasn't for Norton and his stripe-pants ideas about company policy. I'd have the cops after her so quick her head would spin. They'd put her through the wringer, and, brother, what they would squeeze out. NEFF Only you haven't got a single thing to go on, Keyes. The elevator has come up and stopped. KEYES Not too much. Twenty-six years experience, all the percentage there is, and this lump of concrete in my stomach. He pulls back the elevator door and turns to Neff with one last glance of annoyance. KEYES (Almost angrily) No bicarbonate of soda. Keyes gets into the elevator. The door closes. The elevator goes down. Neff stands numb, looking at the spot where Keyes was last visible. Without moving his eyes he pulls the door around towards him with his left hand. Phyllis slowly comes out. Neff motions quickly to her to go into the apartment. She crosses in front of him and enters. He steps in backwards after her.
Here is the movie version of the scene:
There are several small, but important changes Wilder made in directing the scene that greatly add to the dramatic tension. See if you can spot them.
One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.