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Film Noir, James M. Cain, and Adaptations of a Tabloid Case
The Disappearing Death Chamber
The original conclusion to Billy Wilder's Academy-Award nominated film noir Double Indemnity (1944) depicted its protagonist entering the gas chamber for execution. Walter Neff, having helped his lover Phyllis Dietrichson kill her husband for insurance money, has come to the end of the line to meet his own fate in a fog of cyanide fumes. According to the shooting script, the film's last scenes followed the facial expressions of Neff's friend and former boss, Keyes, who registered horror at the state-sanctioned death.
Unfortunately, although Wilder claimed that this ending was one of the two best scenes he'd ever shot, scholars must rely on the shooting script, production file notes, and a few stills to picture it, for it was excised before the film hit the theatres and to this day remains locked in the Paramount archives.1 Wilder himself said many years after the film's release that he felt the execution was unnecessary, although correspondence in the Production Code files suggests that conflicts with the censors likely caused the scene's elimination.2 Paramount, of course, had the film's box-office promise foremost in mind, and as James Naremore notes, the final film, released with an ending that shows Neff dying from a gunshot inflicted by Phyllis, "is a lighter entertainment than the original and a much easier product for Hollywood to market" (More than Night 94–5).
The reasons for its excision notwithstanding, the disappearing death chamber scene graphically suggests the film's debt to a largely unacknowledged source: a sensational tabloid murder story from the 1920s that ended with its perpetrators' [End Page 211] execution in the electric chair. That story was capped, as Wilder well knew, in one of the most famous photographs in media history—a picture of husband-slayer Ruth Snyder, bound and masked in the chair at the instant of her electrocution, snapped by a journalist's hidden camera. Those familiar with the photo might be tempted to see it as a palimpsest beneath Wilder's death chamber, as if the latter image were superimposed onto the earlier one. In fact, the story of Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson is, in many ways, the story of Ruth Snyder, a middle-class Queens housewife who in 1927 convinced her lover, corset salesman Henry Judd Gray, to murder her husband for his double-indemnity insurance policy. The story sparked nearly a year of coverage in the three main New York tabloids, its narrative of sexual transgression and greed eagerly read by well over a million people each day. Despite the thirteen million words written about the case in the papers, however, what many people would come to remember about Snyder and Gray was that grisly execution photograph. Accompanied only by the glaring headline "Dead!" the photo filled the front page of the New York Daily News, the city's largest tabloid, in an edition that sold out within fifteen minutes.3
The significance of the Snyder-Gray case for Wilder's Double Indemnity has been completely obscured in cinema scholarship, however. In part this is because, until recently, adaptation studies have focused mainly on novels translated into film.4 Any consideration of Wilder's work as adaptation focuses on the James M. Cain novella the film draws from directly. Equally responsible for the neglect is the wide gap in prestige between film noir and tabloid newspapers. While film noir studies boomed in the 1970s and fascination with "neo-noir" grew through the 1980s and 90s, the tabloids have for the most part remained culturally marginalized sites of what Kevin Glynn calls "trash taste." And whereas knowledge of an invisible "other" ending to Wilder's Double Indemnity adds a mysterious cachet to this film, the inaccessibility of much tabloid material from the early twentieth century simply confirms the general perception that these absent...