It 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 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: