Script To Screen: “Double Indemnity”

January 2nd, 2013 by

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.

3 thoughts on “Script To Screen: “Double Indemnity”

  1. Scott says:

    I’ll kick things off. The biggest change is to cut away to a shot of Phyllis as she emerges from the escalator before Keyes exits. This provides some foreknowledge for the audience: We know Phyllis is there, Neff and Keyes do not. This helps to build tension as opposed to revealing Phyllis for the first time as Keyes exits.

    That’s one change. There are several others that add to the drama. Can you pick them out?

  2. A huge editing choice comes right after the line “didn’t know he was insured.” Neff looks pretty cool but the big moment is the two seconds with the camera on Keyes. For just a moment he is suspicious of Neff but dismisses it very quickly because he knows Neff is a good guy. If you freeze the picture a second before he says his next line Keyes looks very suspicious. This is the first tension increasing moment.

    The next change is after “What else.” The script calls for another long pause but the movie gets rid of it. I think that this was a good choice. First it kept the scene moving and kept the rhythm of the words flowing. Also at this point we didn’t need a long tension builder because the tension is so high. Finally Keyes has been thinking about this for several hours so he should have an immediate answer to the question.

    I also noticed that Neff was the first person to point out the “little man”. It is his attempt to show how open and not guilty he is while at the same time probing for information. To my ears he sounds very guilty but a regular person like Keyes wouldn’t notice that.

    Of course having Phyllis walk in earlier was a great decision. First it adds more tension to the scene at an earlier time. Also this moment foreshadows the suspicion that will ultimately tear Walter and Phyllis apart. This is the second tension increasing moment.

    Finally just when we think everything is over Keyes moves toward the door and asks for light. That little moment is unspeakably brilliant. The audience has relaxed a little bit but then we are whacked with Keyes’ innocent request. The heart rate goes back up and we don’t relax till Keyes leaves.

    The little changes made this scene a classic story telling example. Tension rises, tension rises, tension levels off or goes down, then it quickly goes back up.

    There were a few other minor changes but I don’t think that they had a huge effect on the scene.

    I am really glad you chose this movie. It is in my all-time top ten. Double Indemnity provides lessons in every aspect of movie making. Editors, directors, actors, cinematographers, and writers can learn a lot.

    The writing is fantastic. The move has great dialogue. Even though many of the phrases are dated it flows so well and with the great actors it is almost musical. The two men are sitting and talking about insurance and statistics but it still sounds interesting.

    1. Scott says:

      Great work, Satnam, catching those changes from script to screen, and especially that wonderful bit of business where Keyes returns for a light. You are right: a brilliant touch in a brilliant movie.

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