On Wednesday, June 25th, at 6PM, we’ll be kicking off our Double Feature screenings. Each Double Feature will include a noir film based on a book, with discussion afterward. We’re starting with the classic early noir, Double Indemnity.
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is practically a blue print for noir in any medium. The story about insurance man Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger’s scheme of killing her husband for his policy money, barely over a hundred pages, provides a bare basics of the boy-meets-girl, boy-commits-murder-with-girl, (spoiler alert) boy-ends-up-dead-or-in-prison-because-of-girl tale that many writers and filmmakers have put their own spin on. One of the first was screen writer/director Billy Wilder in his 1944 adaptation.
Cain, a former newspaperman, had a clean writing style that stripped a story to its marrow. Indemnity was written as a follow up to his
successful novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. While both of those books share many similarities, Double Indemnity‘s propulsive quality and less-than-humane humanity, bring out a sharper, cynical edge.
And who could have been drawn to a cynical story more than Billy Wilder. He got hard boiled master Raymond Chandler to work on the
script with him. Chandler didn’t much like the book, finding it a sleazy story about amoral people. It appears he found an anchor in making
Neff’s friend and the insurance companies investigator, Keyes, into the conscience of the story. Keyes observations about life and murder
could easily be quoted by Chandler’s private eye, Phillip Marlowe.
There are several other major differences between film and novel, beside changing Keyes’ role and changing Walter and Phyllis’s last names to
Neff and Dietriechson. One is the relationship between Walter and Phyllis. With the novel, it deteriorates right after the murder with Phyllis kicking him of the car. Wilder’s direction and Fred MacMurray’s performance suggest Neff as something of a dupe, lured into the scheme of a femme fatale. The book had revealed early on that he was thinking about doing something like this for some time. Cain appears to have them drawn together more by mutual sin than passion, with little left after the murder is done.
The film follows close to the plot, until the third act. It may come as a shock to the reader more familiar with the movie. Wilder kept the corruption personal, between Walter and Phyllis. Cain, the cynical reporter, had all of society in on the scam in a way that Hollywood wouldn’t have been ready to express.
That said, Cain seemed very pleased with the adaptation, saying ” …It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in
it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it.”
Both book and film set the template for the look and attitude of noir. They both present a quality both stripped down and stylized that
contributes to the genre’s malleability. It’s about that short cut to the American dream, that questions the trip and maybe the dream
Double Feature Stats
Adherence To Book (Scale Of 1-5) – 4
Adherence To Quality Of Book – 5
Fun Fact- The supermarket scenes where Walter and Phyllis meet after the
murder had armed guards on the set. It was filmed during World War Two
and due to rationing, the market was afraid the cast and crew would steal
Other Films- The Prowler, Gun Crazy, Body Heat, and The Last Seduction