She was big, blonde, and buxom, and she called him "Lover Boy" and "Bud." He was small, pale, and bespectacled, and he called her "Mommie" or "Momsie" (accounts differ). Together they must have looked like one of those mismatched couples James Thurber would make famous a few years later in his New Yorker cartoons. There was nothing about Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, two drab, adulterous suburban New Yorkers, which suggested they would become the two most infamous murderers of the 1920s, much less that they would inspire the most famous film noirs ever made. Newspapers in 1927 labeled it "The Crime of the Century." Damon Runyon was much more accurate when—taking account of both the murder weapon and the mentalities of the killers—he dubbed it "The Dumb-Bell Murder."
Ruth, a secretary-turned-housewife, and Judd, a corset salesman, met in a Manhattan restaurant in 1925, and were drawn to each other at once. For Judd, married and with a daughter, it seems to have been a straightforward case of infatuation that blossomed into erotomania. For Ruth, also married with a daughter, it was more complicated. She had dated Albert Snyder, a man thirteen years her senior, only four months when he presented her with an enormous engagement ring. She fell in love with the ring, but realized only days after the marriage that she could never love the man. Albert was cold and surly, an unsociable homebody whereas Ruth loved parties and nightlife. He refused to take down pictures of a former sweetheart who had died, or to take much interest in Lorraine, the daughter Ruth bore him a year after their marriage.
Ruth envisioned staid, timid Judd as the knight in shining armor who would rescue her from the boredom of life with Albert. Their meetings, of course, were furtive—sometimes at Ruth's house when Albert was away, but mostly at various hotels where nine-year-old Lorraine was forced to wait for her mother in the lobby.
Intent on escaping with Judd, Ruth tricked Albert into signing insurance policies that would pay her nearly $100,000 in the event of his death. She tried poisoning his desserts and bootleg whiskey; when that didn't work, she enlisted the reluctant Judd in a murder plot.
In the early morning of March 20, 1927, police arrived at the Snyder home in Queens Village, N.Y., to find Albert dead in one of the twin beds in the master bedroom. He had been strangled with picture wire and bludgeoned with a sash weight. Ruth said she had been awakened in the night by noises in the hallway. Opening the bedroom door, she had been attacked by a brutish man who beat her unconscious. She awoke to find her husband dead, her house ransacked, and her jewelry gone. An Italian newspaper left on the kitchen table, Ruth said, indicated the intruder was an Italian anarchist, possibly in league with Sacco and Vanzetti.
To the police, the details didn't add up. There was no sign of forced entry, and the bump on Ruth's head wasn't enough to have rendered her unconscious. Also, her bed was neatly made, and why would a thief have brought a newspaper to the scene of a crime? The turning point, however, was when a policeman lifted Ruth's mattress and found the missing jewels.
Police also called on Judd in his room at the Hotel Onondaga in Syracuse, N.Y. Judd claimed to have spent the night in his room, more than 200 miles from Queens Village. He stuck to that story for the few seconds it took the police to find in his wastebasket the ticket for a late-night train trip from New York to Syracuse.
Once cornered, Ruth and Judd each claimed the other had planned the murder, and stuck to their stories throughout their joint trial. From Ruth and Judd's conflicting stories, this version of the crime emerged: Judd took the train to Syracuse and rented a room at the Onondaga, making sure several witnesses saw him. Then he sneaked out the back to the railroad station and caught a train back to New York. Ruth let Judd into the house soon after Albert was asleep. They moved quietly up to the second floor so as not to disturb Lorraine, who slept through the murder.
Once in the bedroom, Judd hit Albert in the head with the sash weight, but too timidly. Albert woke and grabbed Judd by his necktie.
"Mommie, Mommie, for God's sake help!" Judd cried. Ruth immobilized Albert with another blow of the sash weight, then she and Judd finished the job with the picture wire. Judd gave Ruth a corroborative blow to the head. Together they dumped out all the desk and bureau drawers, and left the Italian newspaper—which they both considered a masterstroke of misdirection—on the kitchen table. Then Judd took a taxi back to Penn Station, where he boarded the train back to Syracuse.
Ruth and Judd were doomed from the start of the trial. If the train ticket and the jewelry under the mattress hadn't condemned them, the taxi driver whom Judd stiffed on his tip for the ride back to Penn Station certainly would have. They were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing on January 12, 1928.
No cameras were allowed at the scene, but when the executioner pulled the switch on Ruth, a reporter from the New York Daily News snapped the miniature camera he had strapped to his shin. The picture appeared on the front page of the Daily News the next morning, representing a high (or low) in tabloid sensationalism that has never been exceeded.
The sordid banality of the Snyder-Gray murder has fascinated writers for the last 85 years. The earliest dramatization of the case was Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, an Expressionist play whose protagonist was inspired by Ruth Snyder; it premiered on Broadway only eight months after Ruth's execution. The most recent book concentrating on the case was Ron Hansen's novel, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, published in 2011. Ruth and Judd also figured in One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson's 2013 nonfiction book. However, the most famous stories arising from the murder were written by James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934, and Double Indemnity, serialized in Liberty magazine in 1936 but not published in book form until 1943.
As famous as Cain's novels are, they are eclipsed today—at least in public recognition--by the film versions of his work. For sheer number of screen adaptations, The Postman Always Rings Twice has few rivals among crime novels. The most famous version, Tay Garnett's 1946 film starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, was preceded by the 1943 Italian adaptation Ossessione, which was Luchino Visconti's first film. Visconti's film exceeds Garnett's in its bleak power, but Garnett's is still an efficient film noir that memorably portrays the downfall of two ordinary people ground into the dust by their desires.
In Garnett's Postman, drifter Frank Chambers (Garfield) answers a Help Wanted sign at the hamburger joint owned by dumpy, middle-aged Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) and almost immediately begins an affair with Nick's unexpectedly beautiful wife Cora (Turner). Cora married Nick for security, only to find him a miserly, morbidly suspicious drunk. She and Frank try to run away together; when that fails, she broaches to Frank the idea of killing Nick.
The screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch contains several recognizable elements from the Snyder-Gray case: the hateful husband, the woman taking the lead on the murder, the botched early murder attempt, the successful but inept actual murder, and the lovers turning on each other as soon as they are caught. Possibly as a sop to the tastes of Forties moviegoers, there is a greater tenderness in Garnett's film than in other Cain adaptations, and a vulnerability in both Garfield's and Turner's performances that underlines the essential haplessness of Frank and Cora. I have never been a fan of Turner's acting, but she was never better cast than here, her character all confused longing and even more confused anger. (Of course it is impossible now to watch the Garnett film and not think of the film noir events in Turner's own life.)
In remaking Postman in 1981, director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter David Mamet said Garnett had missed the atmosphere of Cain's novel. The Rafelson-Mamet version, starring Jack Nicholson as Frank and Jessica Lange as Cora, is truer to the Cain original in capturing the frenzied, animal lust between Frank and Cora.
Nevertheless, Rafelson's film is much less enjoyable than Garnett's. The pace is haphazard, the ending is unsatisfying, and Frank and Cora often act less sex-crazed than just plain crazed. A cameo by Anjelica Huston, Nicholson's girlfriend at the time, as a lion tamer seems out of place, and there are no supporting performances in Rafelson's film to match those of Kellaway or Hume Cronyn, playing a sly defense attorney, in Garnett's. Garnett, Ruskin and Busch provide a brilliant symbolic device in the character of District Attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames), who essentially becomes Frank's angel of death. It is Sackett who, at the beginning, drops hitchhiker Frank at Nick and Cora's diner, and Sackett is there all the way through to Frank's cell on Death Row. In the Rafelson-Mamet version, Sackett screams through a couple of scenes at the trial, and then is seen no more.
If there have been fewer film versions of Double Indemnity, it is because Billy Wilder got it so right the first time. (Steven Bochco tried to improve on perfection in a 1973 TV remake. The result can best be described by the first syllable of Bochco's surname.)
But oh, the pitch-black glory of Wilder's version, which premiered in 1944. The DVD version from Turner Classic Movies contains a fascinating "Making Of" documentary that shows how Double Indemnity very nearly didn't get made. Joseph Breen and the Hays Office were ready to condemn the film before it even began production, and all the stars in Hollywood were terrified to be even declared in the running to play the murderous Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff. Even Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, who eventually played Phyllis and Walter, were nervous that the roles would be career-enders.
Edward G. Robinson was also reluctant to play Barton Keyes, the movie's dogged, cigar-chomping insurance investigator, but for a different reason. Keyes was a supporting role, and Robinson had always been the star of his movies. Finally, he decided it was better to choose to play supporting parts than to be forced into them.
In any case, Stanwyck, MacMurray and Robinson placed their trust in Wilder, and he rewarded them by directing what is arguably the greatest film noir ever made. They in turn rewarded him with three of the greatest performances ever recorded on film.
The greatness of Double Indemnity is based solidly on its screenplay, though Wilder and co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler might willingly have forgone the honor of writing it, simply for the joy of never having met. Wilder and Chandler could barely stand to be in a room with each other. (Chandler, the TCM documentary tells us, sent a running stream of complaints about Wilder to the front office; one was that Wilder wore his hat indoors in a deliberate attempt to annoy Chandler.) That the screenplay was finished at all, let alone that it was a masterpiece, is one of the great miracles of the cinema. Wilder and Chandler's dialogue is of lapidary excellence, such as this exchange between Phyllis and Walter on their first meeting:
PHYLLIS: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
WALTER: How fast was I going, Officer?
PHYLLIS: I'd say around ninety.
WALTER: Suppose you climb down from your motorcycle and give me a ticket?
PHYLLIS: Suppose I let you off with a warning?
WALTER: Suppose it doesn't take?
PHYLLIS: Suppose I rap you over the knuckles?
WALTER: Suppose I burst out crying and lay my head on your shoulder?
PHYLLIS: Suppose you try laying it on my husband's shoulder?
Double Indemnity is the movie that emphasizes the insurance fraud angle of the Snyder-Gray legend. (An insurance policy also figures in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but only as a late plot twist.) It runs counter to Ruth and Judd in the meticulousness of Walter and Phyllis' plot, neatly worked out and nearly perfect except for one tiny detail Keyes uncovers, causing the slow but inexorable unraveling. (For those who haven't seen Double Indemnity, I will not reveal the flaw; even after seventy years, that surprise must be preserved.)
Double Indemnity also marks, in the character of Phyllis, the first clear sighting of a film noir femme fatale. Phyllis is in charge from the time she meets Walter, and her reptilian character is apparent from the time she first descends the stairs, her honey of an ankle bracelet jangling. "You're a smart insurance man, aren't you, Mr. Neff?" she purrs to Walter soon after she meets him, knowing full well she's much smarter than he is. She's been planning to get rid of her husband for some time, and Walter is just the man who can realize that plan to her maximum benefit. Walter is smart enough to realize how dangerous Phyllis is, but not smart or strong enough to resist her.
From there, the film unfolds in an ever-growing atmosphere of doom. Robinson provides both comic relief and a moral center in the role of Keyes, a man who finds wisdom and romance in an actuarial table. His lecture on the statistics of suicide, shot in one take, is an astonishing piece of bravura acting. It would qualify as the standout scene in Double Indemnity if there weren't so many others.
There is the scene at the beginning in which the gravely wounded Walter starts to record his confession on a Dictaphone: "I did it for money, and for a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman." There is the conspiratorial glance between Walter and Phyllis as Phyllis' husband (Tom Powers) is gulled into signing the double indemnity policy. There is the look of triumph on Phyllis' face as Walter strangles her husband. There is Walter walking down the street just after the murder, noting that he couldn't hear his own footsteps—the footsteps of a dead man. There is the film's running cigar-lighting gag, underscoring the friendship between Walter and Keyes—a gag that returns, with poignant irony, at film's end.
Subsequent movies and actresses created variations on the femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck created in Double Indemnity, each one going a little further in cunning and moral rot: Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. But Stanwyck was the first and the best, just as Fred MacMurray was the first and best patsy. Roger Ebert made a salient point about Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff: that they were in love not with each other, but with their self-images. I would add that their self-images included overestimating their own intelligence—a trait they shared with Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, just as Frank Chambers and Cora Smith shared their heedless lust with Ruth and Judd.
Like so many people in history, Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray were more interesting for what they inspired than for who they were. Had they never met, they likely would have spent their lives in quiet but anonymous desperation. Having met, to use the slang of three generations past their time, they went viral, their mutual corruption spreading first to newspapers, then to books and movies. It is entirely appropriate to the spirit of film noir that Ruth and Judd had an amazing afterlife they never lived to see.