Double Indemnity: From Page to Billy Wilder’s Screen

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 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).

Walter Neff

There are also innovative elements in the thematic and visual portrayal of Walter, who is not a criminal, but kills for the money and women, though he needs neither It’s noteworthy that Walter is neither poor nor unsuccessful professional; he’s the firm’s top salesman whom Keyes hopes to promote. Walter compares his relationship to the insurance company as that of “the guy behind the roulette wheel” who has a sudden impulse “to crook” the house.

More importantly, Walter, unlike most Hollywood criminals, is tall and physically handsome. Walter is driven by a fatal and irresistible impulse, “red hot poker,” because he’s rotten. And while everybody is rotten, to some extent, some, like Phyllis are “a little more rotten.”

In Cain’s book, Walter confesses because of his growing attachment to Lola, when she and her boyfriend Nino Zachette are accused of plotting her father’s murder. In the movie, it’s motivated by the desire to give the yarn a clearer plotline.

In the movie, Walter no longer falls in love with Lola Nirdlinger, Phyllis’ stepdaughter. Genuinely touched by her position, he likes her and tries to console her. In Wilder’s conception, Walter develops a “parental” relationship toward Lola, particularly after murdering her father, turning him into a sort of surrogate father; the movie emphasized the age difference between them.

Phyllis Dietrichson

The movie omits Phyllis’s compulsively murderous streak and pathological devotion to death. Cain’s Phyllis is much more murderous than Wilder’s. In the book, she’s responsible for ten deaths; the additional eight are patients’ deaths, “arranged” by her as a nurse.

Keyes says in the novella, “Phyllis is clearly an out-and-out lunatic,” and Phyllis herself reaffirms that only death attracts her: “There’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night, I’m so beautiful then.” In the book, as Phyllis prepares to commit suicide by jumping overboard, she says: “The time has come for me to meet my bridegroom. The only one I ever loved.”

Barton Keyes

The movie expands the third character, Barton Keyes, elevated from a minor figure in the novella into a major player. In the movie, Keyes’ relationship with Walter is expanded to be as complex and as troubling as that between Walter and Phyllis.

Edward G. Robinson plays Keyes as aggressive adjuster, who attacks everyone who tries to fool him and challenge his knowledge of insurance business. Keyes can never dispense with the pushy tone in which he speaks to his boss and salesmen, including Walter whom he likes

In the novella, Keyes is a minor character, but he becomes a major player in the film, one leg of the triangle. Cain’s Keyes is described as “the most tiresome man to do business with, a gross physical specimen and a character whose acumen is obscured by this unpleasant personality.”

“He gets fatter every year, and more peevish, and he’s always in some kind of feud with other departments of the company, and does nothing but sit with his collar open, and sweat, and quarrel, and argue, until your head begins spinning around just to be in the same room with him.”

In the book, the only intimation of personal rapport between Keyes and Walter comes at the end, after Walter confesses to the murder. Keyes says, ” I’m sorry. I’ve kind of liked you, Huff,” to which the latter replies, “I know. Same here.”

In the movie, Keyes a different figure, stocky but not fat. He is about the same age as Mr. Dietrichson, and the movie contrast Keyes’ dark hair, appearance, and manners with those of the crass and cheap-looking Dietrichson.

The sexual overtones in Walter-Keyes relationship is established in their first scene together, when Walter says mockingly, “I love you too” to Keyes’ reproaching him. Walter then performs the ritual of lighting Keyes’s large cigar (a phallic image). It’s a gesture Walter repeats in every scene between them up to the very end. The film’s very last words are Walter’s declaration, “I love you,” after which he struggles to get a cigarette into his mouth and Keyes offers him a light, thus reciprocating the ritual that Walter has performed for him throughout.

Lola Dietrichson

Whereas Cain’s Lola is a sweet, decent woman with whom Walter falls in love and for whom he agrees to make his confession, the film’s Lola is more manipulative, Not above getting favors from Walter, such as ride to a date, or getting Walter to send Zachetti back to her.

In the movie, Walter develops a “parental” relationship toward Lola, particularly after murdering her father, turning him into a sort of surrogate father; the movie emphasized the age difference between them.

From Murderous to Sexual Relationship

In the book, the relationship between Walter and Phyllis lacks the continuous sexual attraction and battle that the movie describes. The relationship of Cain’s adulterous lovers is murderous. Phyllis is sickly attracted to death, while Walter’s desire is to cheat the system of which he has become bitter. In the film, the bond is sexual and fatal for both parties; Phyllis and Walter kill each other shortly after they’ve murdered her husband.

Cain’s Walter is not disturbed by Phyllis displaced sexuality, because he relates to her in a functional way, as a means to materialize his challenge to the insurance system that has made him cynical. In Cain’s book, Walter says: “When I met Phyllis I met my plant. If that seems funny to you, that I would kill a man just to pick a stack of chips, it might no seem so funny if you were back at that wheel, instead of out front.”

Plot Changes

The insurance company no longer arranges to send the guilty couple to Mexico. In the movie, Keyes accepts the confession of the wounded Walter and then calls for an ambulance.

The lovers are thus spared a joint suicide, the grave and the sharks. In the movie, when Walter learns about Phyllis’ lethal past, he goes to her home intending to kill her. Sensing his plans, Phyllis shoots once and wounds him in the shoulder, but she can’t shoot again, realizing in a sudden confession that she loves him.

Ending

The moral and emotional filial relationship of Walter to Keyes stimulates the best in him and also leads to his capacity for conscience. With the murder, Walter knows that he has betrayed Keyes and all the firm ideals of justice and moral values he stands for. In the end, if Phyllis’ final, true feeling is one of desire, Walter’s is one of conscience, asking Keyes to tell Lola of his misconduct before she finds out from other sources.

Though there is no explicit sex or violence, “Double Indemnity defies defied the Production Code Administration (PCA) in several significant ways. The movie depicts an attractive pair of killers who cheat the law and die at their own hands. It deals “improperly” with the taboo issue of adultery, and it’s replete with graphic details of planning and executing the murder.

Wilder originally shot a different ending, in which Walter Neff was put to death in a gas chamber, but was a controversial way to end a 1944 movie and he dropped it under pressure from the studio (Paramount), fearing public reaction. Wilder later said that he changed the ending because he felt that the execution was unnecessary, a claim that’s disputed by some critics.

Tone and Mood

Reflecting Wilder’s origins (born in Austria, escaped from Germany), background, and sensibility, the film’s cynicism exceeds that of Cain’s novella. The film presents an alternative homosexual relationship for Walter that’s also unattainable, allowing for a temporary misogynist bonding of the two men just before Walter dies in Keyes’ arms. Though the story is set in 1938, the film’s bitter ending is reflective of the pessimist mood that prevailed in the 1940s as a result of WWII.

Classic, not Cult Movie

Superior in every respect to its literary source, “Double Indemnity” is a film that became a classic due to sustained critical support. It’s also a model of collaboration: The efforts of three authorial talents: Cain, Chandler, and Wilder contribute to the final shape of the movie, with each author leaving his substantial and distinctive mark on the text.

Literary scholars agree that Cain’s Novella is not first-rate and not his best effort either, claiming that Cain sacrifices the emotional logic of personality to satisfy moral logic of plot, a result of his concern with telling with speed the sequential chain of events. Sex, crime, betrayal, and immolation follow each other with clarity and rapidity

Wilder’s movie boasts all the properties of a well-made noir: Sustained tension in the storytelling, proportion and balance in the narrative, emotional coherence in the characterization, and visual unity.