DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1943) by James M. Cain

Cain-Double-Indemnity-signetIt is possible that the public conception of Noir owes more to the success of this book than any other. On the face of it, author James M. Cain just rewrote The Postman Always Rings Twice (click here for my review of that one), telling a similar story of a wife and lover bumping off her husband, finishing up with a volume that is even shorter (just under 30,000 words). But this tart serial from the Depression era ultimately tapped in to the sour mood engendered by the war when collected in a book and in its scheming protagonist created one of the first true Femme Fatales of the genre. It also served as the basis for a movie that, as adapted by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, most think seriously outclassed the original.

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his unmissable Sweet Freedom blog.

“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort” – James M. Cain in his preface to Double Indemnity

The story (based on the real-life Ruth Grey and Henry Snyder case) originally appeared as an eight-part serial in Liberty magazine from February to April 1936, before coming out in hardback, initially in the collection Three of a Kind, before being published on its own in 1943 in the version most familiar to readers today.

But all of a sudden she looked up at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. “Do you handle accident insurance?”

The story is a classic of nihilistic Noir in which an insurance salesman falls in love with the wife of his client and the two conspire to murder the husband and collect on the insurance by making the death look like an accident. But although the murder is committed, things don’t go according to plan as the femme fatale has a really twisted history ...

Raymond Chandler: “Working with Billy Wilder was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it about as much about screen writing as I am capable of learning, which is not very much”

While Double Indemnity lacks the brutal vigour and sexual outspokenness of Postman, it still has plenty of punch, with a an operatic finale that is really, truly, thoroughly twisted. It was completely excised in the 1944 film version as it would never have got through the censors of the day – but the film is still a gigantic improvement over the novel, thanks to the fantastic dialogue by Raymond Chandler (practically nothing from the novel was used in this regard) and to the extraordinary atmosphere created by director and co-writer Billy Wilder with his cinematographer John F Seitz, who even went to far as to fill the air with metal shavings to get the right chiaroscuro look.

Walter Neff: “That was all there was to it. Nothing had slipped, nothing had been overlooked. There was nothing to give us away. And yet, Keyes, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, suddenly, it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy Keyes, but it’s true, so help me, I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

The opening, with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Huff in the book) returning to his office to dictate his confession immediately grabs your attention, as does a bewigged Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson (Nirdlinger in the book), who while not as evil and demented as her counterpart in the book is utterly beguiling and dangerous throughout.


The masterstroke by Chandler and Wilder is the creation of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, a character with no equivalent in the Cain original. As Walter’s senior colleague, who knows there is something fishy with the Dietrichson insurance claim, he provides heart and soul to a story that would be just too dark without it. It is only right and fitting that the final clinch is not with Phyllis but with him.

Walter Neff: “Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.”
Barton Keyes: “Closer than that, Walter.”
Walter Neff: “I love you, too.”

The book has been adapted many times for the film and TV, officially and unofficially. Here is a quick rundown of the official versions:

1944 – Double Indemnity (d. Billy Wilder)

1954 – Double Indemnity, Lux Video Theater (d. Buzz Kulik, US TV version)

1960 – Double Indemnity, ITV Play of the Week (d. Cliff Owen, UK TV version)

1974 – Double Indemnity (Jack Smight, US TV Movie remake of 1944 script)

Double Indemnity (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Joseph Sistrom
Screenplay: Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Hal Pereira
Music: Miklos Rozsa,
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Fortunio Bonanova, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines

I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘blonde’ category:


***** (4 fedora tips out of 5 [book + film average])

This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Billy Wilder, Film Noir, James M. Cain, Noir on Tuesday, Raymond Chandler, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1943) by James M. Cain

  1. Great review of such an iconic noir—iconic not just as a novel but as a movie, to boot. Cain was just so good at writing noir, it didn’t matter that the setup of Indemnity was so similar to Postman, they’re both such sharp stories.

  2. Colin says:

    Nice drawing together of the book and movie(s) there. I love Wilder’s film and have seen it I don’t know how many times now. But I’ve never read the book. I can’t say why either – I actually have two editions of the novel but they are unread!

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Sergio. It does have ‘punch,’ and I do like the chemistry between Walter and Phyllis. The reader can really imagine the cataclysmic series of things that happen, and that, to me, is the sign of a well-written book. Thanks, as ever, for an excellent, thoughtful review of both book and adaptations.

  4. tracybham says:

    I thought Double Indemnity would be too noir for me, but I liked it a lot. This may mean, based on your comments, that Postman will be too much for me, but I will read it anyway. It isn’t very long, I should be able to handle it.

  5. JJ says:

    For my tastes, Cain never quite came close to the brilliance of Double Indemnity ever again — Postman feels like a very slight attempt at the same tone that has too much interest in its characters to really succeed, and then Serenade, Mildred Pierce, etc. all goo in different tonal directions. There’s a concentrated hopelessness about DI that is just agonisingly compelling, and perhaps only matched by Jim Thompson when it comes to a range of works (as opposed to just the one book).

    Not seen the film, but then that seems to be the case of a vast majority of these sorts of movies. When I was younger, I lot of this kind of stuff would be on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon, but with the rise of digital channels very little of this kind of thing makes it onto mainstream TV any more (also, I haven’t owned a television for, like, a decade). To think of all the classics I got to watch without having to sign up for stuff — Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Ealing comedies; presumably this is even more accessible now, there are doubtless seven chanels dedicated to it, but there was something great about just seeing that something was on and it then happening to be a stone cold classic. Kids today, etc, grumble, ow my back, etc.

    • Thank for that JJ. I think POSTMAN is probably Can at his best (it predates DOUBLE INDEMNITY …) – but I say that because, deep down, I am not a huge fan once you get past his earlier short stories and early novels. There is a terrific Blu-ray of DOUBLE INDEMNITY – in fact there are two, as the US edition is also a corker. Get either, but get them. Just marvellous filmmaking. TV was a very different beast in the pre-home video age, I remember it well and remember with great fondness the curated seasons that the Beeb used to put on. But we move on – sorry to hear you haven’t got a telly – I have a 50″ plasma and sometimes it just doesn’t seem big enough … 🙂

  6. Mark Crozier says:

    Just picked up a copy of the film and after watching it had to re-read the book. While superb (especially the three leads) in my personal view it doesn’t quite attain the heights of Postman (original version) which I consider to be the all-time perfect noir. It is a fantastic film though and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is also a perfect gem. Not a word is wasted and the ending is gut-wrenching, heart-sickening stuff. Brilliantly black. Despite his limited output James Cain definitely belongs in the top three pantheon of the great pioneering vintage crime writers, along with Chandler and Hammett. If you watched this because you’re a Stanwyck fan I would highly recommend Clash By Night, which I think is one of her best ever.

    • Thanks for that Mark. Like you, deep down I prefer POSTMAN, but then it did come first! I am less keen on him as an author though – I love Chandler, Hammett, Ross Macdonald as well as Jim Thomson but have never quite been as keen on Cain. Thanks for mentioning CLASH BY NIGHT, well deserving of a shout out with its remarkable cast.

  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book and also seen the movie and undoubtedly the film is far better than the book. It is a brilliant film with not only a superb script but also superb acting, direction and cinematography. The elevation of Keyes from a minor character in the book to a major character in the film was a masterstroke. A classic film not to be missed.
    Incidentally, another film Sunset Boulevard also directed and co-written by Billy Wilder has a similar beginning. Here the hero narrates from a swimming pool where he floats dead.

    • Do you know, I didn’t even think Keyes really existed in the book – ha! Yes, SUNSET definitely has a similar feel and the opening is wonderful. I can only think of another movie, Fred Zinnemann’s THE SEVENTH CROSS which is also narrated by a dead person. Mind you, there are several films narrated by an inanimate objects … 🙂

  8. Steve says:

    What could possibly go wrong. Billy Wilder genius film maker + Raymond Chandler brilliant, influential crime writer = one of the finest films of the 1940’s.
    The book is good but the film is on another level. Brilliant dialogue and I agree that Edward G was perfect as Keyes.

  9. Nicely reviewed, Sergio. This crime novel has been on my wish-list for a while now. I wonder what prompted Cain to write two noir novels with similar themes and whether he minded that Chandler practically rewrote the dialogue for the film version.

  10. Mike says:

    I’ve never read the novella, Sergio, but it sounds as though there’s enough in there to make it worth a go. Who doesn’t like a femme fatale, after all, and in the book Phyllis sounds as fatalistic as it gets. The movie, well it’s among the best obviously, and I didn’t realise that Keys was conjured entirely by Chandler and Wilder, and of course perfectly played by Edward G. The more I hear about him, the more blunt Chandler comes across – an internal editor might have worked for him!

    • Thanks Mike. I am a huge Chandler fan but clearly he was a bit of a handful in private! Unusually, because so many of his private letters were printed after his death, we have much more info about this side of his character. As my English lit teacher used to tell me in high school: trust the text, not the author. He was talking about DH Lawrence, but good advice nonetheless.

  11. Pingback: “Was she getting sunbonnets on the brain?” #1943book roundup | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  12. neer says:

    Long back I read the book Sergio and so perhaps don’t remember it well but wasn’t there a daughter of the murdered man involved too? Thanks for the link to the trailer. The movie seems very compelling.

  13. Such an iconic film, as you say. And yes, it is better than the book in my view. That moment when Stanwyck first appears, and we see the ankle bracelet first. Unforgettable.
    And, totally agree with JJ above: no-one has the chances these days to see all the wonderful old films that filled the schedules in my youth. It was an education…

  14. Pingback: 2017 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Wrap-up | Tipping My Fedora

  15. Pingback: James M. Cain (1892-1977) – A Crime is Afoot

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