Double Indemnity: The Unseen Ending

Double Indemnity (1944)

The final draft of the screenplay of Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler in the Motion Picture Academy Library in Los Angeles – download from here – includes a final prison execution chamber scene and a line of dialog that was spoken by Walter Neff, just after he said “I love you.” to Barton Keyes. With sirens wailing in the background, Neff says: “At the end of that trolley line, just as I get off, you be there to say good bye. Will you, Keyes?” The story then shifts to the execution.

This sequence was filmed but cut (by the studio?) from the production release.

Double Indemnity (1944)

James Naremore in his 1998 book on film noir, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, offers this penetrating analysis and critique:

… the execution described in the longest version of the script greatly increases our sympathy for Walter, all the while raising questions about the criminality of the state. It also provides a tragic recognition scene for Keyes, who is shaken out of his moral complacency. This last point is especially important, because Keyes functions as a representative of the insurance company. Although he approaches his work with the intuitive flair of an artist and the intellectual intensity of a scientist, he remains a loyal agent of industrial rationality—a talented bureaucrat who, in effect, has helped to create the office building, the drive-in restaurant, the supermarket, and all the other landmarks of modern Los Angeles that the film relentlessly criticizes… One of the many virtues of Wilder’s original ending is that this complex, brilliantly acted character would have been made to confront his inner demon and to experience poetic justice. Keyes would have been brought face-to-face with the culminating instance of instrumental reason, the “end of the line” for industrial culture: the California gas chamber… For the original version of Double Indemnity, Paramount built an exact replica of the [San Quentin]  gas chamber, depicting it as a modern, sanitized apparatus for administering official death sentences. At considerable expense, Wilder photographed the step-by-step procedure of execution, emphasizing its coldly mechanical efficiency. There was no blood, no agonized screaming, and, for once in the movie, almost no dialogue. Much of the sequence was shot from Walter’s point of view, looking through glass windows at the spectators outside the chamber—an angle creating a subtle parallel between the chamber and the “dark room” of a movie theater. When the fatal pellets dropped, clouds of gas obscured the windows, and we could barely make out Keyes standing amid the witnesses, turning his head away. Soon afterward, a doctor entered the chamber to pronounce Walter dead. According to the script, the original film ended as follows:

… All the witnesses have now left except Keyes, who stares, shocked and tragic, beyond the door. The guard goes to him and touches his arm, indicating to him that he must leave. Keyes glances for the last time towards the gas chamber and slowly moves to go out. CORRIDOR OUTSIDE THE DEATH CHAMBER CAMERA SHOOTING IN THROUGH THE OPEN DOOR AT KEYES , who is just turning to leave. Keyes comes slowly out into the dark, narrow corridor. His hat is on his head now, his overcoat is pulled around him loosely. He walks like an old man. He takes eight or ten steps, then mechanically reaches a cigar out of his vest pocket and puts it in his mouth. His hands, in the now familiar gesture, begin to pat his pockets for matches. Suddenly he stops, with a look of horror on his face. He stands rigid, pressing hand against his heart. He takes the cigar out of his mouth and goes slowly on toward the door, CAMERA PANNING with him. When he has almost reached the door, the guard stationed there throws it wide, and a blaze of sunlight comes in from the open prison yard outside. Keyes slowly walks out into the sunshine, a forlorn and lonely man.

Until someone rescues this scene from the Paramount vaults, we will never know if it is superior to the current version, and even then there may be room for debate. One thing, however, is clear: Keyes’s lonely walk out of the prison would have thrown a shadow over everything that preceded it. It was not until Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole that Wilder would produce such a savage critique of modernity. Although the released version of his famous thriller remains an iconoclastic satire that challenges the censors, it is a lighter entertainment than the original and a much easier product for Hollywood to market. (According to the Paramount press book, photographs of Barbara Stanwyck in her wig and tight sweater were circulated to American soldiers overseas, and Edward G. Robinson’s performance enabled the studio to obtain a tie-in from the Cigar Institute of America.) No matter how much we admire the film that was exhibited in 1944, the form of cinema that the French described as noir is probably better exemplified by another Double Indemnity, which we have yet to see.

The rare (Spanish?) poster featured at the top of this post features a rendering of Neff from the gas chamber scene. Note also the nightmarish imagery which has a definite surrealist quality, making this perhaps one of the most intriguing film noir posters ever. I am unsure of its origin or the artist. Perhaps a reader of can help in tracing its origin? The signature seems to be “Lopez Riem”?

11 thoughts on “Double Indemnity: The Unseen Ending”

  1. I own an antiquated San Quinton gas chamber chair replica. Does anyone know what happened to the props used for this movie’s alternative ending?


  2. Great post. Artist is Lopez Reiz, Spanish poster artist who did a lot of great work. Very little biographical info on him online.


  3. Very interesting article. I hope that one day Paramount will produce a DVD with the alternate ending as it would be most interesting to compare both versions.


  4. Great! I think it’s unlikely that the scene was cut by the studio though. Quite the contrary. The studio likely insisted on the scene to appease the Breen Office, which was tasked with enforcing the Production Code — among its general principles was that crime should not be shown to go unpunished. That would explain the considerable expense that the studio sprang for. It’s a testament to Wilder’s artistic integrity that he got away with cutting it! That’s also why I find Naremore’s “savage critique of modernity” stuff a bit of a stretch (typical ’90s-era academia!). Wilder was an artist, and knew the punchier ending when he saw it.


  5. Fascinating. Thank you. It’s always interesting to consider the alternate paths a movie could have taken, with script changes, deleted scenes, and casting what-ifs. In this case I think that scene tacked onto the end might’ve been anticlimactic. Plus, we’ve been led to believe Neff’s gunshot wound is fatal. At any rate, it’s hard to second guess the end result of a director the calibre of Wilder, in a film as perfect as Double Indemnity.


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