Sunday, January 11, 2015

James M. Cain's Double Indemnity

James M. Cain’s novels have not always been well treated by Hollywood. They were just too sleazy, but his 1943 classic Double Indemnity is one of the rare exceptions where the 1944 movie version is every bit as good as the book.

Which is not to day it isn’t a great book. It is. It’s typical Cain. Sleazy people committing sleazy crimes for sleazy reasons. An insurance salesman has the opportunity to sell some accident insurance on a man to the man’s wife, a certain Mrs Phyllis Nirllinger (Phyllis Dietrichson in the movie) . Only she doesn’t want the husband to know about the insurance. The salesman, Walter Huff (Walter Neff in the movie), thinks it all sounds very suspicious, but he doesn’t care. He wants Phyllis, he wants her so badly he doesn’t care what he has to do to get her. Even murder. 

Only, as he explains later, he committed murder to get money and a woman and he didn’t get the money and he didn’t get the woman.

It’s typical Cain cynicism, and it’s told in typical Cain style style - deceptively simple, but with all sorts on nuances and emotional complications.

What has always surprised me about the movie, and surprises me also about the book, is the number of people who see it as the tale of a basically decent guy led astray by the feminine wiles of an evil spider woman. This is absolute nonsense. Walter is as corrupt as Phyllis right from the start. He might not have had the opportunities she’s had, but once the opportunity is offered he’s more keen than she is.

Like the equally good The Postman Always Rings Twice  it’s a novel about shared depravity, about two people who meet and the combination is disastrous, awakening dark sexual passions that can only lead to destruction.  

The core of the story is identical to that of the movie, although the ending differs somewhat. But unusually the movie’s ending is every bit as bleak and cynical as the ending of the novel.  

It’s a great book. Highly recommended.


  1. I don't generally look forward to reading books about depravity (or watching movies on that subject either). Probably why I have put it off for so long. But I do plan to read the book and watch the movie. Very nice post on this book.

  2. That's a great point about Walter being as corrupt as Phyllis. I remember he denies it (in the movie, I don't remember about the book) and says she's worse than him, but I think he's just trying to justify himself because she's smarter and better able to manipulate him. :) I love the movie and read the book because of it and really liked Caine's style; as you called it, "deceptively simple." Really enjoyed your post!

  3. The novel's ending is startling if you haven't read the book in a while. We tend to remember the (to me, superior) ending that Raymond Chandler crafted for the film, the scene between Walter and Edward G. Robinson's Keyes. But Cain's ending is surprising in its own way.

    Be aware that while the film sticks closely to the *plot* of the book until the final scene, you won't find much if any of Cain's dialogue in it. Chandler worked with Cain on the first draft of the screenplay. He realized that Cain was an absolute dog when it came to screen dialog. His dialog looked great on the page, but it wouldn't play when spoken by actors. So Chandler threw out most of the dialog and wrote similar lines for MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson. Keyes's "little man" remarks in the film, for instance, are not in the novel.

    That's not to say that either one is poor. They are both examples of the crime story done exceptionally well.