Page to Screen: Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity
based on the novella by James M. Cain


I’m stepping up my efforts to watch more films. I made so much progress last summer, but, naturally, my last year of school got in the way, to the point that I recently turned around and realized I’d only seen movies with my film depreciation crew during the spring. Fun, to be sure, but one can only watch The Story of Film for so long (I mean, it’s fifteen hours long, c’mon) before itching to watch the things proper. I’ve got a fancy spreadsheet now, complete with color-coded directors and availability, and I’m ready to watch. First up: the paradigmatic (what a great word!) film noir Double Indemnity, because I read this article about Barbara Stanwyck at the Awl.

Double Indemnity opens with a wounded man making his way to an office, recording his confession on a dictaphone. Walter Neff is one of the best insurance salesmen in California, but, despite his close friendship with his boss, Milton Keyes, he wants something more. Something more presents itself in the form of Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of a man Neff is visiting for business. The two begin to flirt, and then hatch a plot: trick Mr. Dietrichson into taking out a life insurance policy without his knowledge, then kill him in a way that’ll trigger the “double indemnity” clause in the life insurance, giving them double the payout. Neff, with his knowledge of insurance fraud, thinks he can do it. But is Phyllis all she appears to be? And how can they trick Keyes, a man with an eagle eye for the truth?

I’m thinking of drawing up an “Twentieth Century American Culture 101” media list—the Beatles and The Lord of the Rings for starters, of course, although that’s quite sixties centric. And Double Indemnity would be on that list, as the film noir that both captures the genre and creates the genre. All the trappings roundly mocked on Whose Line Is It Anyway when I was a wee lass can be found here—Neff’s natty narration (peppered with such usage of the word “baby” I was a little startled), the femme fatale, and the stark lighting. Sometimes it can be difficult to go back to genre-defining works and appreciate them as they are, because we’re post-zeitgeist. (I run into this problem a lot in my eternal mission to consume all media.) But Double Indemnity still pulls it off, almost seventy years later, because it all feels organic. In one scene, Barbara Stanwyck prepares to murder her accomplice; the only lighting comes through blinds, framing her in bars. I’ve seen this before, but it still feels fresh here. I sometimes have difficulty with the pacing of older films (see my experience with the James Bond canon of the late sixties and early seventies), but I was riveted here.

While Double Indemnity is based on a novella by James M. Cain, the voice that emerges from the film is singularly Raymond Chandler’s. I’ve never read Chandler myself, although he’s certainly on my reading list. When director Billy Wilder picked up the novella’s film rights (widely regarded as unfilmable in the era of the first Hays Code, due to its sexuality and violence), he started looking for a collaborator and ended up with Raymond Chandler. The two did not get on at all—but Wilder loved that, and his next picture, The Lost Weekend, is said to have been created for Chandler (it’s about an alcoholic). The novella went through a lot of changes on its way to the screen; Phyllis is renamed, for one, and the murder is totally changed. But Cain loved it and its various changes: “It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of.” I’m starting to get very sick of people stating that the book is universally better than the film (they’re two different mediums!), so seeing an author wholeheartedly embrace a very pragmatic adaptation seven decades ago is heartwarming.

Fred MacMurray, who is probably familiar to some viewers as the father in My Three Sons (which I have never seen), plays Walter Neff as a very cocky man. The film takes a little long to introduce the plot point of Neff itching to cheat the insurance system since he knows it so well, but MacMurray carries it off nicely, heavily invested in the perfection of the crime, almost moreso than his investment in Phyllis. Barbara Stanwyck is… well, she’s kind of a vision. I loved her in The Lady Eve, and here, her beauty and physicality is darkly muttering, leaving room for all kinds of insinuations and implications. (She, in fact, never verbalizes her desire to kill her husband; she lets Neff fill that in for her.) She’s graceful, rotten (“to the core”, as she says late in the film), and electrifying, the kind of femme fatale a man would (and does) kill for. But I think my favorite actor in this whole film is Edward G. Robinson, whom I’d never encountered before. His Milton Keyes is warm, witty, and smart. A great deal of tension is derived from the fact that Keyes is investigating the claim with Neff in the room with him. He and Neff have a wonderful running bit of Neff lighting Keyes’ cigars as a token of affection—and, of course, at the end, when Keyes realizes what happened, it’s Keyes who lights Neff’s last smoke. Neff has fought against the system and lost, but the system is personified in someone that he loves and respects, and that disappointment ending the film is just haunting. Another ending, with Neff about to be executed, was filmed, but cut, since that ending is perfect.

Bottom line: Double Indemnity is the classic film noir, capturing the genre and creating it all in one go. Well worth a watch.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.

3 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Double Indemnity (1944)

  1. Double Indemnity is utterly amazing ( and that Barbara Stanwyck article is part of an amazing series). If you’re looking at Chandler, I’d go with The Big Sleep but I’d read the book first before watching the movie. It’s famous for insane plot construction but the book makes a little more sense since it’s all on the page.

  2. My favorite Chandler novel is The Long Goodbye. I prefer the movie version of Double Indemnity to the book myself, but then I’m not a huge fan of James M. Cain.
    For film adaptations of Chandler’s novels, I think Murder, My Sweet (based on Chandler’s book Farewell My Lovely) is better than the Big Sleep. It “feels’ closer to Chandler’s books to me.
    As far as classic Noir films go, I’ll recommend Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

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