Black Dahlia and ‘Double Indemnity’ – KCET Gets It Way Wrong

"Double Indemnity" "Black Dahlia"

Is it really possible to write about the film “Double Indemnity” without mentioning Raymond Chandler, who collaborated on the screenplay, or James M. Cain, who wrote the book that was the basis for the film?

Sadly, Ryan Reft (identified as a doctoral candidate in urban history at UC San Diego) proves that it is.  Just not very well.

Frankly, I didn’t get much further than his first paragraph:

“Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours Keyes. I killed Dietrichson, me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars, until recently that is.” Fred McMurray’s mortally wounded protagonist of “Double Indemnity” confesses to his supervisor Barton Keyes’ (Edward G. Robinson) memo recorder. A suburban insurance salesman seduced by a married seductress, Neff represented one man’s “descent into moral blackness” as he lies, cheats, and murders to reach an illusionary objective. Indeed, McMurray’s portrayal of the rakish Pacific All Risk insurance ace in Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir classic remains a precedent-setting standard of excellence in the genre and, more specifically, of the Los Angeles variety.

Statements like this makes me wonder if he has even seen the movie or done any research.

Anyone who knows anything about the production of “Double Indemnity” knows that the original ending had Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray not McMurray) in the gas chamber – so obviously Neff wasn’t “mortally wounded.”

Neff uses a Dictaphone, not a “memo recorder.” And there is nothing suburban about Neff – if you’ll recall from the movie, he lives in a large apartment house. The script says:  “The apartment house is called the LOS OLIVOS APARTMENTS. It is a six-story building in the Normandie-Wilshire district.” Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) isn’t Neff’s supervisor. Neff is a salesman and Keyes is the claims manager, one of the key elements of the plot.

There’s even an error in the quote from the film – but I’ll let you hunt for it.

But that’s not why I am taking Reft to task. It’s this paragraph:

Three years after Double Indemnity’s release, Leimert Park residents witnessed the gruesome and still unsolved Black Dahlia murder, symbolizing the very fears [Eric] Avila pointed out. Though at the time a white, middle and working class, enclave, Leimert Park had begun to attract black homeowners, contravening spatialized racial boundaries. The pretty, fame seeking, Midwestern victim, Elizabeth Smart served as a real life symbol of the perils of interracial mixing, the collapse of gender roles, and the dark corners of the noir metropolis. Taken with the movies of German émigré Billy Wilder, the aforementioned “Double Indemnity” and the Black Dahlia murder underscore white America’s discomfort with an increasingly diverse City of Angels, and noir’s role in securing this preconception.

No, the Black Dahlia wasn’t from the Midwest and her name wasn’t Elizabeth Smart. And there were no racial overtones or “collapse of gender roles” involved in this killing.


Even when he refers to the Black Dahlia by her correct name in a quote, he turns around and calls her “Smart” again and again:

“Elizabeth short was a pale pie faced blue eyed Protestant girl from the suburbs of Boston, MA,” writer James Ellroy told documentarians in 2006. “Her dream was entirely silly, and was the dream of countless other fatuous girls of the American 1940s. She wanted to be an actress. She wanted to be a movie star.” While Ellroy’s description of Smart, aka The Black Dahlia, sounds fairly dismissive, the noir author confessed to his own fascination with the girl and her demise, as evidenced by his 1987 work “The Black Dahilia (L.A. Quartet #1).” Though Ellroy’s obsession with the case stemmed from his own mother’s brutal unsolved murder, Angelenos of the period feasted on the story as a result of many of the same issues at play in Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.”

Not really. The plot in “Double Indemnity” involves a romantic triangle and murder for profit through insurance fraud. The Black Dahlia case is nothing like that whatsoever.

Every time I look at his piece I see more mistakes, but I’m going to quit. My head hurts.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1944, 1947, Black Dahlia, Film, Hollywood, LAPD and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Black Dahlia and ‘Double Indemnity’ – KCET Gets It Way Wrong

  1. Mary Mallory says:

    I hope you sent the mistakes to the LAT Reader’s Representative, or should one of us do that?


  2. LC says:

    That’s pretty bad, in this computer age mistakes like that are unacceptable. Someone should give the guy a proof-reading/history lesson. Although, it could just be a conspiracy, maybe they’re just trying to drive you crazy!


  3. I have a vintage Paramount still of the gas chamber scene in “Double Indemnity.” I would have shared it but I don’t see a way to do that here.


    • lmharnisch says:

      Thanks! You can email it to me at lmharnisch AT I have seen the photo in books about Billy Wilder, but I don’t recall which one… Wilder and Chandler actually wrote three endings for the movie. The one with the gas chamber was cut somewhere along the line but it’s in the shooting script.


  4. Travis Banton says:

    I hope this incredibly lazy writer Ryan Reft does read your astute criticism, Mr. Harnisch, and takes it between the eyes. One Google of “Black Dahlia” would have at least allowed him to get her name right. But then he might have run across S. Hodel and repeated all that malarkey….


  5. Benito says:

    So “film noir” means interracial. Who knew?


  6. Eve says:

    Have you read the book Double Indemnity? Yow! Makes the movie look like a two-reel comedy.

    (Added-attraction joke: Secretary: “Can I use your Dictaphone?” Boss: “Of course not–your your finger like everyone else.”)


  7. E. Yarber says:

    Not to mention that Cain’s “Double Indemnity” was loosely based on an infamous 1927 murder case… the killing of Albert Snyder by his wife Ruth and her lover Judd Gray. There’s even a book on the subject by Landis MacKellar titled “The ‘Double Indemnity’ Murder.” You’d think even the most basic research would have picked that connection up.


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