RARA-AVIS: Double Indemnity

From: DJ-Anonyme@webtv.net
Date: 22 Sep 2006

I recently re-read Double Indemnity to prepare the new DVD reissue of the classic noir film. Frankly, I found it one of those very few films that is better than the book upon which it is based. And, according to Richard Schickel's excellent short book of the same title in the BFI Classics series, even James M Cain agreed.

Although I enjoyed the book well enough, it was nowhere near as great as Postman, which I also re-read not too long ago. In many ways, DI is an expansion on the insurance angle that came late in Postman, with the flipped perspective from the insurance company side (admittedly, from the point of view of an insider trying to beat it).

I had two problems in particular with the book. First, I never got a sense of Huff's lust for the femme fatale, Phyllis, certainly not to the degree of committing murder for her. Part of this is the very different, more upright background of the first person narrator from the vulgar one in Postman, leading to a far more chaste description of the affair, little more than a few kisses and elapsed time. Perhaps Cain was censoring himself (or others were doing it for him) after the reaction to the earlier book (not to mention its being first published in a national magazine, Liberty, and not a pulp one). Without this
"lust overriding reason" motivation, it seems more an academic exercise on Huff's part to see if he's smart enough to beat the insurance company, particularly the company's investigator, Keyes. The motivation of the second murder is far more understandable. Second, there is a whole lot of backstory crammed into the last section of the book. This attempt to explain Phyllis's "love of Death" comes off as if Cain had just read a bit too much about Thanatos in one of those psychology books that provide Keyes insight into the minds of the defrauders he catches. This section almost brings the short novel to a dead stop.

Screenwriters Chandler and Wilder rightly dumped all of that, letting the actions speak for themselves. They also played up the cat and mouse aspect of Huff (Neff in the film) and Keyes. The book focused more on the machinations of Huff and Phyllis as their partnership erodes. Playing up the investigation really ramps up the suspense as we see Neff trying to hold it together as Keyes gets closer.

I still recommend the book, but mostly as a comparison point to see how the film improved upon it. Schickel's book is a fascinating analysis of the process that went into that adaptation.

By the way, isn't that Raymond Chandler himself sitting in the chair in the hall when Neff walks out of Keyes's office at 16:12 in the film?


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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 22 Sep 2006 EDT