‘I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.’ Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

September 17, 2011 at 1:31 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I’d seen the film several times but never read the book. So I was pleased that Chris of our Usual Suspects discussion group selected Double Indemnity for our September meeting. She got us started with some fascinating background on James M. Cain and his celebrated novel. This done, the discussion took off running (albeit dodging from time to time through a thicket of digressions and non sequiturs!).

My feeling is that this novel of lust, greed, and betrayal packs the same powerful punch today as when it first appeared. (Double Indemnity was initially serialized in a magazine called Liberty; it was not published in novel form until 1943, when it was included with two other works in a collection of Cain’s fiction called Three of a Kind.) I gathered that others in the group were largely of the same opinion.

We talked about the way in which people who are leading seemingly blameless lives can, almost without warning and when exposed to the powerful negative influence of another person, sink into the mire of depravity. This is what happens to Walter Huff (Walter Neff in the film) .

At their first meeting, there’s an instant attraction between Walter and Phyllis Nirdlinger (Phyllis Dietrichson in the film). A simple transaction concerning insurance becomes something else altogether. For his part, Walter gradually becomes aware that Phyllis has a whole other agenda. It involves insurance all right, but it involves other things as well, among them the use of insurance as a means to very sinister end:

A reputable agent don’t get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.

These thoughts and sensations are coming at Walter fast and furious when Phyllis suddenly  queries him about accident insurance. Talk about sending up red flags!  Walter observes succinctly that “…there’s many a a man walking around today that’s worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he don’t know it yet.”

Yes, the beautiful Phyllis Nirdlinger is destined to bring about Walter’s downfall, as well as her own. The inevitability of this outcome seems foreordained.  Anne said it put her in mind of a Greek tragedy. Her comment interested me, as I myself had been thinking of MacBeth: “I am in blood /Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, /Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

No sooner is the deed done then Walter develops a powerful aversion to Phyllis. He would do anything to escape from her clutches. But it is too late. The reality of his dire situation and its inevitable consequence is borne in upon him:

I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a a finger at me, and I would have to die. I had done all that for her, and I never want to see her again as long as I lived.

That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.

Barton Keyes, the claims investigator who utters so many truths unknowingly and who could never believe his friend Walter capable of such depraved  behavior, sums it up more prosaically but arrives at the same conclusion:

‘They’ve committed a *murder*! And it’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.’

Walter is well and truly “stuck” with Phyllis. Her stepdaughter Lola, whose father they had murdered, belatedly awakens in him a yearning for the simple goodness that she embodies. No matter; it is too late: “I thought about Lola, how sweet she was, and the awful thing I had done to her.”  Walter is acutely aware of the savage and implacable irony of this outcome:

I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.

(Cain got the idea for this tale of murder and retribution from a real life case that he had covered as a journalist. In 1927, Ruth Snyder, a bored housewife living in Queens, New York,  convinced her lover Judd Gray to assist in the murder of her husband Albert. The previous year, Ruth had talked Albert into purchasing a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause. Judd and Ruth went to considerable lengths to make Albert’s death look like a robbery gone wrong, but their flimsy staging of the scene and other clumsy maneuvers gave the game away almost at once. Click here for more on this stranger-than-fiction tale.)

Between the short, punchy sentences and the longer ones that seem to wind around a desperate fear at dead center, the writing shows Cain’s mastery of the hardboiled style. There’s not a wasted word anywhere. My Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition of Double Indemnity runs to just 115 pages. Carol praised the novel’s brevity, and I’m with her there. I’ve read too many overstuffed crime novels recently with Byzantine plots I could barely follow and a cast of characters so large that it was hard to feel empathy for any one of them.

There’s no question in my mind that this novel is worth reading. That said, it has to be conceded that it’s very hard to talk about the book without discussing the movie at the same time. As with The Maltese Falcon, the film Double Indemnity has attained an almost iconic status in American film history – in American history, period. Images from films like these burn themselves into your brain and seem to supersede the works of literature on which they’re based. In many cases – certainly in the case of Double Indemnity – it’s both edifying and gratifying to return to the source.

That said, Double Indemnity is a terrific film, which Ron and I recently had the pleasure of viewing once again. Plenty has been written about it; Wikipedia has a comprehensive and fascinating entry.

Reading the book, I was surprised to find that whole sections of the movie’s dialogue did not originate with the novel. The screenplay was  written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Their collaboration was apparently fraught with conflict, but one instance where Chandler won out was when he insisted that the portions of the dialogue composed by Cain would not work on film. (He had a couple of actors read it in front of Wilder in order to drive  the point home.)  Thus, much of the snappy repartee exchanged by Phyllis and Walter as the film gets sunder way was actually written by Chandler:

The passages of introspection, the plumbing of the soul, the evocation of the descent into a kind of Hell on Earth – these came from the pen of James M. Cain. 

*********************************

In 2009, it was discovered that Raymond Chandler appears in a cameo in Double Indemnity. The scene occurs sixteen minutes into the film. Here it is:

It seems rather amazing that film scholars missed this for decades. Apart from a brief snippet from a home movie, it’s is the only film footage of Raymond Chandler known to  exist.

Our group spoke  for a while about the characteristics of noir, both in film and in fiction, where the style is usually referred to as hardboiled. A cogent analysis of these features as they appear in both the movies and the novels and stories can be found in the book A Girl and a Gun by David  N. Meyer

Here’s how Meyer describes the “fortuitous clash of cultures” that gave birth to noir:

As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style….The hard-bitten, American pulp energy of James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Raymond Chandler, and others was filtered through the refined, ironic sensibilities of cultured European directors.The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.

Meyer sums up: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

The title of Meyer’s book is taken from a quote by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.”

So – Does that mean that a girl and two guns would be even better?

1 Comment

  1. Beth Schmelzer said,

    Fascinating blog about James M. Cain, etc. My grandfather penned a novel, sort of a parody of crime fiction. Just read it this last year and bought used copies for my children. Try “Murder Steals the Show” by Lee Hirsch, Parsee publications, 1946. As a former school librarian and fan of Kathy Ackley and her trips to GB, I would love to meet you in Annapolis sometime. Do you answer personal email?

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