No one can argue that Double Indemnity (1944) is not a wonderful film noir classic. It is the very definition of the genre. The only thing I didn’t like about the film is Barbara Stanwyck as a blonde, and I don’t think I’m alone. According to legend, director Billy Wilder realized his mistake in assigning her the wig, but it was too late in production to go back and reshoot. A story was later brought forward to say that he wanted that look to underline the sleaziness of the character. I doubt that story. Stanwyck’s portrayal was much more intelligent than that.
But I don’t want to discuss the stars here. Leads Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson don’t need any of my words. Who else was part of making this film so good? Let’s look at the Bit Parts.
Tom Powers (1890 – 1955) was in over 130 other titles. His career spanned work at the Vitagraph Company, starting in 1911, all the way into the television era. Powers made over 40 silent films, including an uncredited part in Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), an early live-action/animated short. He worked in silent films until 1917, and then went to the theater, becoming a playwright and actor.
In 1944 he was asked to be Mr. Dietrichson, Stanwyck’s husband and eventual murder victim, in Double Indemnity. That started another film career for him. He made 26 films in the 1940s alone. Look for Powers in The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Angel and the Badman and The Farmer’s Daughter, both from 1947.
Powers worked with James Cagney and William Bendix in The Time of Your Life (1948), an unusual film for Cagney. Other great stars were in many of his films (or was it the other way ’round?) but for some reason, almost all of his films just missed the mark and never became big box office hits, including Destination Moon in 1950.
He had a small part in We’re Not Married (1952) starring Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, and worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Scared Stiff (1953). His television work was never regular, but he had gigs on The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Superman, among several others. Tom Powers’ last movie role of note was in Double Jeopardy (1955) opposite Rod Cameron.
Porter Hall (1888 – 1953) played the witness, Mr. Jackson, who saw Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff on the train. It is interesting that Hall was in Going My Way the same year as Double Indemnity. Going My Way won seven Oscars while Double Indemnity didn’t take home any, and both pictures were made by Paramount.
Hall was an actor on the stage and gave movies a try late in his career. He usually played a villain, or at least just a grump. His first two movies starred Claudette Colbert and then Tallulah Bankhead. His third was MGM’s The Thin Man (1934), an early pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Off to a good start, I would say.
Many westerns and many prison films followed. He played a senator in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and appeared in the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday and a western with John Wayne, Dark Command, both in 1940. In Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Hall is another bad guy, the twitchy Macy’s store psychologist trying to put Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle in a mental hospital.
It comes to mind that it would be a good thing to search out the lesser known films of some of these great Bit Actors. In 1949 Porter was in Chicken Every Sunday with Celeste Holm, Dan Dailey and Alan Young (from Mister Ed). His next film the same year was The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend starring (listen to THIS cast) Betty Grable, Cesar Romero, Rudy Vallee, Hugh Herbert and Sterling Holloway. That has to be a good movie, but neither of those titles is available on DVD.
Some TV time started for Hall in 1950, and another Edward G. Robinson film, Vice Squad, came in 1953. Porter Hall had 79 roles on the screen and in TV. The people he worked with were truly incredible.
Back to Double Indemnity and Jean Heather (1921 – 1995) who played Phyllis Dietrichson’s step-daughter Lola, much more loved by her father than by Stanwyck’s Phyllis. Jean only made eight films, and her next role was in, you guessed it, Going My Way. The following year she re-teamed with MacMurray and Hall, plus Marjorie Main, in the comedy Murder, He Says. The rest of her pictures weren’t much to write about, but she did get to act with some great stars. including Dorothy Gish, Beulah Bondi, Charles Ruggles, Olivia de Havilland, Gene Autry and others, all in a five-year acting career.
Byron Barr (1917 – 1966) played Nino, Lola’s boyfriend. He didn’t play much else, with only 19 titles listed to his credit.
Richard Gaines (1904 – 1975) played Edward Norton, Jr. Gaines is the real father of Virginia Holden, who was later adopted by William Holden. With almost 70 titles on TV and in movies, Richard always seemed to appear in less-than-top-notch films. Again, in the era of large production studios controlling their stars, he was able to work with some great actors and actresses. In the 1960s he frequently appeared as a judge on TV’s Perry Mason.
Another Going My Way and Double Indemnity alumnus is Fortunio Bonanova (1895 – 1969). He has over 90 titles on his resumé, and may be best known as the vocal coach to would-be opera singer Dorothy Comingore in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). In 1957 he appears in An Affair to Remember, but his is a name you probably won’t.
Don’t forget to look for Raymond Chandler (1888 – 1959) sitting in the hallway at the insurance office as Neff walks past. It was the only cameo filmed for Chandler, who is renowned as a novelist (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) and wrote the screenplay for Double Indemnity. He’s the one reading a paperback.
And finally, there is the Dictaphone. It plays a key role in this movie, and as our younger generation starts watching film noir, we can only hope they learn something about history and how things worked in the early half of the 20th Century. Neff uses multiple cylinders to record his story, and these can be seen in the final few shots when Keyes (played by E. G. Robinson) confronts him in his office. If some youngster asks what that thing is, please fill them in. A Dictaphone is way cooler than an iPhone, just not quite as versatile.
I have spoken before about how Bit Actors help to make great movies. In the case of Double Indemnity, it appears that the Bit Actors played second fiddle to the incredible story. I just watched the film a few weeks ago, and while writing this I was struggling to remember who played which part.
This movie belongs in the 100 Best Movies list, and I am glad it was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry.
Allen Hefner has been interested in movies since an early age, attending the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA for every Saturday Matinee during his youth, when 50 cents bought you a two-reeler (usually The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy), a few cartoons, and a feature film. As a member of The Sons of the Desert,he was privileged to enjoy the company of many film buffs, and to meet many stars of the past. Write to him anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit Bit Part Actors.