Double Indemnity: Billy Wilder Vs. James Cain–Part One

In prepraration for the HBO’s Miniseries Mildred Pierce, directed by Todd Haynes and premiering March 27, I have been reading the novel by James Cain, the popular pulp writer, who had authored many books, including Double Indemnity and The postman Always Rings Twice, both of which havd been made into great Hollywood movies, quintessential film noirs.
Over the Christmas holiday, I reread James Cain’s Double Indemnity and revisited Billy Wilder’s classic noir of the same title back in 1944, one of the few noirs to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  The following commentary, a two-part article, is a result of this most enjoyable endeavor.

How many times you have read or said to yourself after watching a film, “The book was better than the movie.” We tend to compare versions of the same story, as it appears on page and screen, and then choose the one that’s more to our liking. We often don’t tolerate any deviations from the source material, even if they are necessary to fit the specific properties of cinema as a distinctive medium.

I usually don’t take a literary approach to film. Yet upon rereading James Cain’s novella, upon which Billy Wilder’s seminal noir “Double Indemnity” is based, and after revisiting the film for the sixth time, I couldn’t help but notice again the substantial differences from the novella that make Wilder’s movie better and richer, more complex and resonant.

Raymond Chandler, the most hard-boiled of Hollywood writers, co-wrote the script with Wilder, based on Cain’s short novel. The plot of both novella and film centers on a fatal encounter of cynical insurance agent Walter (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), a heartless, scheming housewife, who talks him into murdering her husband and collect double indemnity. (See my review)

Names Changes

The working title of Billy Wilder’s movie was “Incendiary Blonde.”

The most obvious change in the transfer from page to screen is the name of the characters. In Cain’s novella, it’s Phyllis Nirdlinger, not Dietrichson. (Was Wilder playing a joke on Marlene Dietrich, his exiled compatriot) Similarly, in the book, Walter’s last name is Huff, not Neff. Perhaps more significant is the change of the company’s name for which Walter works: Cain’s ironic “General Fidelity Insurance Company” becomes the more fatalistic “Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company” in the film.

Narrative Structure

Cain’s novella is a relatively simple, a chronologically straightforward, two-character plot. The Wilder-Chandler version is a complex narrative, which not only adds a third major character (Keyes), but also interrupts the flow of events with Walter’s personal commentary.

Except for brief opening and closing sequences, “Double Indemnity” is a confession film, narrated by its protagonist, Walter Neff, in one long, interrupted flashback.

The movie begins with a sequence of establishing shots. A car veers along a dark street, runs through a stoplight, and then pulls in front of an office building. We follow Walter as he stumbles into his company’s building, rides up the elevator, and staggers to his office. Despite a gunshot wound in his shoulder, he slowly lights a cigarette, positions himself before his Dictaphone, and begins to confess: “Office memorandum. Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager, L.A. July 16, 1938.”

The rest of the film consists of Walter relating the story of how he and Phyllis came to murder her husband, giving Keys all the details of the crime whose general outline he (Keyes) had already figured out.

Voice-Over Narration

Voice-over plays a key role in the narrative in bridging between Walter dictating into the machine the recreation of the events, and in providing an interpretive, often ironic commentary on the events. Walter’s confession creates a coherent chronology of the crime. “It all began last May,” he says, after which there’s a slow dissolve to a long shot of Walter’s arriving at the Dietrichson’s house on a spring afternoon. A series of admissions follow: “You said it wasn’t an accident. Check. You said it wasn’t a suicide. Check. You said it was murder. Check.”

Much of the voice-over commentary is about how Walter was driven by an impossible desire for Phyllis. Note his fatalistic comment about how Phyllis drew him into her scheme: “I knew I had hold of a red-hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off.”

From a Couple to a Triangle

In the novella, the story unfolds as a two-person relationship between Walter and Phyllis. In the movie, it becomes a three-person relationship, Walter-Phyllis- Keyes, positioning Walter as a middle character (literally and figuratively), pulled in diametrically opposite directions. As I will suggest in another essay, the battle between Phyllis and Keyes over Walter is sexual (and in Keyes’ case homoerotic).