Double Indemnity (lost alternate endings of film noir; 1944)

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Dblindemnity chamber.jpg

A still from the cut alternate ending.

Status: Lost

Double Indemnity is a 1944 film noir directed by Billy Wilder, co-starring Fred MacMurray as a likeable but cynical insurance salesman, Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale who convinces him to help murder her older husband for the payout, and Edward G. Robinson as the senior investigator of the insurance firm, who doesn't realize that in hounding Phyllis he's also closing in on his best friend. The film put Wilder's name on the map as an innovative director, and in the years since has not only set the genre standard but transcended it to earn a spot among the all-time cinema classics.

It is also notable for the amount of material that did not make it to screen. As it happened, Double Indemnity had two alternative endings: one of which was filmed, another which never made it past the scripting phase.

Alternative endings

A notorious perfectionist, Wilder had a reputation for ruthlessly removing/reshooting vital scenes even from final prints of his films if he felt they weren't working - notably redoing the entire opening of his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard after preview audiences did not react as he wanted them to. In the case of Double Indemnity, he toyed both with an alternate ending and a significant extension of the one that was used.

The alternate ending was the one used in the original novel. The two main characters, Walter Neff and Phyllis Nirdlinger, flee together after Walter's friend and investigator Barton Keyes tells him that the insurance company, fearful of bad publicity, will drop the investigation on condition the culprits disappear. They are accordingly onboard a steamship to Europe when Phyllis (who in the book is less seductive than flat-out psychotic) decides they must drown themselves, and guilt compels Neff to acquiesce. Several elements of this ending would have very obviously conflicted with the puritanical Hays Code imposed on the industry at the time, and it was probably never intended to be filmed.[1]

By contrast, the extended end sequence was not only filmed but nearly included in the final print. In the canonical ending, a badly wounded Neff - who has been narrating the film in flashback from his office via a recorded confession to Keyes - is caught just as he concludes by the police, with Keyes in tow. Neff makes a last desperate run for it but can only stumble a few steps before collapsing. He and Keyes exchange a final, bittersweet goodbye, and we fade out there.

Originally, however, the film then cut to Neff being led into and executed in a gas chamber while a heartbroken Keyes looks on from outside. Neff turns and locks eyes with him, just before the chamber door is closed. This sequence was shown to test audiences and was actually received quite well, but a Hays Code review deemed it "unduly gruesome"[1]. Wilder decided it was also unnecessary, since the previous scene had already ended with Neff captured and Keyes expressing his regret.


The filmed sequence hasn't been seen since it was removed, shortly before the film's release. Efforts to find it have only served to confirm that the footage has been lost completely, apparently mishandled by Wilder's estate. A few production stills survive, along with a few versions of both scripts.


Director Billy Wilder talking about the cut alternate ending.