Barton Keyes (Double Indemnity)

Created by James M. Cain

“I don’t often like somebody. At my trade, you can’t afford to. The whole human race looks–a little bit crooked.”
Keyes in Double Indemnity

BARTON KEYES is the dogged, determined investigator for General Fidelity of California who puts it all together in Double Indemnity, James M. Cain’s classic 1936 tale of lust and murder and insurance .

Still, as far as the book goes, he’s a relatively minor character.

But the film is a whole other story.

In the classic 1944 film noir, directed by Billy Wilder, with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, Keyes really comes into his own, acting as the third side of the triangle between Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and straight arrow sap Walter Nef (Fred MacMurray. The film garnered numerous Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (it lost to Going My Way), Best Director, Best Actress (for Barbara Stanwyck) and Best Screenplay (for Chandler).

Do I even have to tell the story? Although Wilder and Chandler basically took apart the novel and rebuilt it from the ground up and a few surnames get replaced, the basic story stands up: affable insurance man and love-struck sap Walter Neff (MacMurray) gets drawn into the web of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), who wants him to bump off her no-good husband, while Edward G. Robinson plays the hard-bitten claims manager, Barton Keyes, Neff’s friend and boss over at the Pacific All Risk insurance company. But Barton smells a rat. There’s something about that Dietrichson dame…

Not to take anything from MacMurray or Stanwyck, but check out Robinson in the film — he makes the most out of his limited time onscreen, delivering a powerful but nuanced performance, carrying all the agony and pain of a man caught between duty and friendship, between idealism and cynicism and, arguably, love and disappointment. His relationship with Neff is almost as integral to the film’s overall emotional and thematic impact as the one between Neff and Phyllis. The doomed friendship between the two men is pure Chandler, all banter and unspoken affection, and in fact Keyes displays more than a passing similiarity to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, particularly in his discussions of the “little man” in his chest who won’t let him sleep until he sets the world right. A bit more screen time, and Keyes could have been one of the all-time great cinematic eyes.

And evidently, I’m not alone in that opinion. Due to the film’s popularity, Robinson himself had high hopes of spinning off Keyes into a continuing character. So, in 1946, Cain wrote Nevada Moon, intending to sell it for serial publication to the slicks and from there to the movies. The story focussed on Keyes, but it failed to sell to either market so Cain tucked it away for a few years in a desk drawer or filing cabinet.

Eventually, he dusted it off, reworked it (eliminating all references to Keyes and Double Indemnity), and sold it to Avon, who published it as a 1950 paperback original, re-titling it Jealous Woman.

It didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but in 1963  Kraft Mystery Theatre, a mystery anthology, aired an episode called “Shadow of a Man,”  a pilot for a proposed series built around Walter Neff and Keyes, although there was no mention of Cain in the credits. Jack Kelly played Neff, and Broderick Crawford was surprisingly effective as a tired, cranky Keyes with a bad stomach. In the episode, Neff insinuates himself into a small Southern town to investigate the local big shot, who’s quietly cashing in his assets. The insurance company wants to know why, and the always suspicious Keyes soon shows up to lend a hand.

Once again, however, nobody was interested. The pilot was never picked up.

Then, in 1973, ABC television had taken another crack at Double Indemnity, airing a made-for-television flick scripted by Steve Bocho and starring Richard Crenna and Samantha Eggar as the treacherous lovebirds, with Lee J. Cobb as Keyes. It’s an interesting remake for fans of the original, but it’s hardly essential viewing, and was pretty much forgotten until it was brought back to life as a bonus feature on the long-awaited DVD and Blu-Ray release of the original 1944 classic.

Black Lizard reprinted the book in 1989 as Jealous Woman, re-inserting Keyes who’s once again — if not the central character — at least very much the dominant force in it, and re-inserting the jettisoned references to Double Indemnity. Keyes is now head of the claims department of the General Pan-Pacific of California Life Insurance Company, with a rep for sniffing out any “twisted, cock-eyed, queer angle that could be found on (a claim), and about two dozen of his own that nobody else could find in it, but that he had to see just to show what a genius he was at it.”


James M. Cain was one of the most important authors in the development of American crime fiction. Born in Maryland, he became a journalist after giving up on a childhood dream of singing opera. After two decades writing for newspapers in Baltimore, New York, and the army—and a brief stint as the managing editor of The New Yorker, he moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s to write for the movies. He soon turned to fiction, penning the steamy little noir novella The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), which set the stage for Cain’s next few novels, including Serenade (1937), Mildred Pierce (1941), Double Indemnity (1943), and The Butterfly (1947).


  • Keyes: “Now get out of here before I throw my desk at you.”
    Neff: “I love you too.”



  • Double Indemnity: The Complete Screenplay (2000)Buy this book
    Just what it says: the complete screenplay Wilder and Chandler, based on Cain’s novel, plus the original — and quite different — ending, and an introduction that boasts several tales out of school about the collaboration (did Chandler ever get along with anyone?).


  • One visitor to this site has suggested that noir-loving filmmakers the Coen Brothers have placed several subtle references to Barton Keyes intheir films. Apart from the title of Barton Fink, of course, there’s the way the camera lingers on the name of the building where Bernie Birnbaum meets the man with no heart in Miller’s Crossing: “Barton Towers”. Meanwhile, there’s a small bit with cigars in The Man Who Wasn’t There that recalls the vaguely homoerotic cigar-and-cigarette-lighting scenes between Neff and Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Wilder’s film, while Suburbicon‘s slimy insurance investigator Bud Cooper (played by Oscar Isaac) was almost definitely inspired by Keyes. The visitor also says that he’s “fairly sure that Blood Simple also features a reference.”
  • Just can’t get enough? Check out Eruption, an X-rated 1977 cinematic offering that “borrows” the set-up and even lifts some of the dialogue from the 1944 film version.


  • DOUBLE INDEMNITY | Buy the DVD | Buy the BluRay
    (1944, Paramount)
    106 minutes
    Screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder
    Based on the novel by James M. Cain
    Directed by Billy Wilder
    Produced by Joseph Sistrom
    Executive producer: B.G. DeSylva
    Starring Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff (Huff in the novel)
    Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson (Nirdlinger in the novel)
    and Edward G. Robinson as BARTON KEYES
    Also starring Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr


    (1939-52, CBS, ABC, NBC, AFRS, AFRTS)
    30-minute episodes
    An anthology series featuring Hollywood stars performing (abbreviated) adaptations of popular motion pictures.

    • “Double Indemnity”(March 5, 1945)
      Based on the novel by James M. Cain
      Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck,


    aka “Kraft Suspense Theatre”
    (1958-65, NBC)
    Host: Frank Gallop
    A mystery anthology series.

    • “Shadow of a Man” (June 19, 1963)
      Story by James Patrick
      Teleplay by Frank Fenton
      Directed by David Lowell Rich
      Starring Jack Kelly as Walter Neff
      and Broderick Crawford as KEYES
      Also starring Ed Begley, Beverly Owen
    (1973, ABC)
    Teleplay by Steven Bochco
    Based on the 1944 screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder
    and the novel by James M. Cain
    Directed by Jack Smight
    Original Music by Billy Goldenberg
    Cinematography by Haskell B. Boggs
    Produced by Robert F. O’Neill
    Executive producer: David Victor
    Starring Richard Crenna as Walter Neff
    Samantha Eggar as Phyllis Dietrickson
    and Lee J. Cobb as BARTON KEYES
    Also starring Robert Webber, Arch Johnson, Kathleen Cody, John Fiedler, John Elerick, Gene Dynarski, Joan Pringle, Ken Renard, Arnold F. Turner


  • Raymond Chandler’s Secret Cameo
    Believe it or not, Chandler actually makes a cameo in the film, Double Indemnity. About sixteen minutes in, there’s the man himself, sitting on a chair outside Keyes’ office as Neff (Fred MacMurray) walks by. Chandler is reading a paperback — possibly one of his own?
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to James Stephenson and John Joseph Forry for the leads.

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