Sunday, 1 November 2009

Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder, USA 1944: From James M. Cain's Book To Billy Wilder's Film Noir Classic

In this essay, I examine the changes James M. Cain’s book Double Indemnity, published in 1936, underwent while it was turned into a film by Billy Wilder in 1944. Wilder’s film is generally considered to be one of the greatest American films of the 20th century. It is also a prime example of film noir, a term coined by French film critics in 1946, and as such has influenced numerous films and film-makers to the very day. Film noir has its primary source in German Expressionism, and it is thus no coincidence that the genre’s main contributors were all German exiles, among them Wilder himself, who, although Austrian by birth, had worked at Berlin’s UFA studios before emigrating to the US. To quote Borde and Chaumeton, ‘the most marked and persistent influence (on film noir), however, is surely that of German Expressionism’ (Borde & Chaumeton 2002: 24). In fact, part of Double Indemnity’s significance as one of the chief examples of film noir, derives from its indebtedness to German Expressionism: the chiaroscuro lighting, the black shadows, the underlying feeling of claustrophobia and pessimism – all had its origins in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany 1919), The Student of Prague (Germany 1926), Nosferatu (Germany 1922) or Destiny (Germany 1921). Furthermore, it stands to reason that without the expertise of set-designer Hans Dreier -responsible for the film’s gothic interior- and Miklos Rosza -who composed Double Indemnity’s evocative score- and both of whom had worked at UFA in Berlin before they fled Germany, Double Indemnity would not be the undisputed masterpiece that it has become. But it is no doubt the finely wrought screenplay, crafted by Wilder himself in collaboration with Raymond Chandler, which stands as a considerable improvement to Cain’s novel, and which contributes significantly to the film’s iconic status. In fact, so impressed was Cain himself by Wilder’s film that he ‘complimented Billy and said it was the first time any book of his came to the screen in better shape than he had written it’ (Zolotov 1977:117).

By reading Cain’s novel it quickly becomes apparent that all that Wilder and Chandler have kept is the mere ‘framework’, the novel’s core of an insurance salesman who falls for a scheming seductress and agrees to murder her husband. The actual murder plot and some of the characters also made the transition from book to film. But that is literally were the similarities between the novel and the film end. Even most of the names were changed: Phyllis Nirdlinger becomes Phyllis Dietrichson, a change which can surely be attributed to Wilder, who as a former colleague at UFA, fellow émigré and friend of Marlene Dietrich, was bound to be more aware of the sexual as well as treacherous connotations of her name. Or to put it in Jean Cocteau’s words 'Marlene Dietrich - her name starts like a caress and ends on the crack of a whip'.

There can be no better way to describe the perilous allure of Stanwyck’s character. Walter Huff, the insurance salesman in Cain’s book turns first into Walter Ness, and later, into Walter Neff. A change due to the fact that 'they found out there was an insurance guy over in Palos Verdes named Walter Ness so Billy changed it to Neff' (Zolotov 1977:116). Belle, Phyllis’ maid, becomes Nettie, who, in the book, is Walter’s secretary, a character entirely deleted from the film. That again was a clever move, as an insurance salesman, not having his own secretary, says a lot about his status in the company, which, we must assume, is further down the pecking order than in the book, thus making his motivation to kill for money far more plausible. This is highlighted by the fact that Chandler and Wilder changed Walter’s home from a bungalow into an apartment. His Filipino houseboy was altered to a ‘coloured woman (who) comes in twice a week’ (Chandler, Wilder 1944:28). Again, I argue that both changes were also made to make Walter seem more gullible, more like a humdrum peddler who is far more likely to kill for money than the relatively successful insurance salesman he comes across as in Cain’s novel. Lola, Phyllis’ daughter, as well as Barton Keyes, the Claims Manager, both survived the transition from book to film, although their roles diminished in the case of the former and expanded in the case of the latter. One of the film’s key motifs is the rapport between Walter and Keyes, which can be read as a father-son relationship, but whose homoerotic subtext cannot be ignored, which is wholly missing in the book. In the film their friendship is marked by Neff continuously lighting Keyes’ cigars, until in the very last scene,

Keyes lights a match for Neff, a reversal of gesture
that symbolizes their close relationship all along,
and clear indication of the homoerotic subtext that
has underpinned Neff’s overwhelming desire to tell
all to Keyes…(Spicer 2002:77).

Nino Sachetti, Lola’s boyfriend, also survived the transition from novel to film. Although, his role, too, shrank considerably, as Wilder and Chandler wisely chose to remove a whole subplot from Cain’s book, which does little to further the narrative. Another, or perhaps the, key motif in Wilder’s film is, of course, Phyllis’ anklet. Non-existent in Cain’s novel, the anklet is the first thing Walter notices about her; an extraordinarily clever plot device in a time when the Hays Code was still very much active, to underline, albeit subtly, Phyllis’ fragrant sexual magnetism. Several references to her anklet are made throughout the whole first part of the film, and before we see her face in close-up we see a close-up of her high-heeled foot, wearing the famous anklet, coming down the stairs. ‘That’s a honey of an anklet you’re wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson’ (Chandler, Wilder 1944:9), ‘I wish you’d tell me what’s engraved in that anklet’ (Chandler, Wilder 1944:11), we hear the obviously aroused Neff, who can barely contain himself, say to Phyllis. As mentioned earlier, the Hays Code was still very much active at the time Double Indemnity was turned into a film, and although the film helped to loosen its tight grip slightly, screenwriters had to play by the rules if the film was to receive the approval of the Breen Office, named after Joseph Breen, who at the time was head of the Production Code Administration, and who presided over what and what could not be shown on screen. To quote Spicer,

However, Double Indemnity’s ‘adult’ treatment of
sex and violence and the degree to which it creates
sympathy for the adulterous, murdering couple, was
seen by both audiences and the industry as a watershed
that allowed further, even more explicit films to be
developed (Leff and Simmons in Spicer 2002: 38).

Hence, a great deal of subtlety was required from the respective screenwriters to get their point across. Thus, in another effort to make Phyllis’ lurid sexual allure visible on screen without getting punished for it, it was reportedly Wilder who came up with the idea of having Stanwyck wear a cheap-looking, platinum blonde wig. Even though Wilder later regretted the move, finding the wig too obviously looking like a wig, I argue that history has proven him wrong, for Stanwyck’s ‘unmoving blonde hair like a metallic hood’ (Spicer 2002: 100) is perfectly in line with her character and in fact, highlights it. A further modification was the change from the General Fidelity of California, the company Walter Huff works for in the novel, to the Pacific All Risk, a change, which again I deem justified as the name, Pacific All Risk, signifies and denotes accurately what he, Walter Neff, is about to embark upon: risking his job, his life, by getting involved with a dangerous and seductive femme fatale and subsequently agreeing to murder her husband. In terms of structure, things are far more complex for they are less obvious. This is confirmed by Maurice Zolotov who claims that

If you see it (Double Indemnity) on television or
in a revival house and you think of Cain’s novel
(in memory only) you may think the film is a faithful
translation of the novel (Zolotov 1977: 119).

This may be due to the fact that both, novel and film, are structured like a confession, told in flashback by Huff/ Neff, respectively. To be precise, in the film it is actually an intermittent flashback, ‘which creates a counterpoint between the confession itself and confessor’s present situation’ (Spicer 2002: 76). The similarity between novel and film in terms of the confession notwithstanding, upon closer inspection it becomes clear very quickly that the changes Wilder and Chandler deemed necessary to make Double Indemnity work as a film, are in fact quite severe. The crucial difference is that in the book the reader becomes the father-confessor, whereas in the film it is Keyes, who, as we have seen, with his dislike for women, is something more than a friend to Neff. Or, as Maurice Zolotov assesses the Keyes-Neff relationship: ‘the love of a father for his surrogate son’ (Zolotov 1977: 119). Moreover, Huff writes his confession which then becomes the novel we read. Since writing is not very filmic, Chandler and Wilder translated Huff’s written confession into Neff confessing to Keyes by speaking into his -Keyes’- dictaphone. But it is not quite as straight forward as that. In the novel Huff also confesses to Keyes, but the confession is more of an admission of guilt, a coming clean. The urgency of Neff’s confession with its homoerotic subtext is entirely missing from the book. To have Huff confess twice -once to Keyes in person and once in writing- simply emphasises my point that compared to the film the novel is far too clumsy.

Another point where novel and film differ completely is Chandler’s and Wilder’s not quite revolutionary but nonetheless unconventional idea to have the film begin with the end. Orson Welles had already used flashback before in his epoch-making Citizen Kane (USA 1941), which also begins with the end, Kane’s death, as it were. But unlike Double Indemnity, where the main character, Neff, is the narrator, telling the story in voice-over, in Kane the story is told by several people. Chandler’s and Wilder’s idea of a confessional, told in voice-over/ flashback narration, proved highly influential and subsequently became one of the trademarks of film noir as it was used in a whole string of films such as Detour (USA 1946), Mildred Pierce (USA 1945), Out of the Past (USA 1947), and was even reused by Billy Wilder himself for his other contribution to film noir, Sunset Boulevard (USA 1950).

I suppose that certainly one of the things that Double Indemnity is most remembered for today are the dialogues. Literally none of Cain’s dialogues were used in the film. Wilder once claimed that Cain’s dialogues didn’t work on film, and I believe it can safely be assumed that this is were Chandler’s contribution had the strongest impact on the finished film. Although it is now a well-known fact that Wilder and Chandler did not get on, and that Chandler even went so far as to present Joe Sistrom, the film’s producer, ‘with a list of complaints about Wilder’ (Zolotov 1977: 115), I cannot help thinking that the collaboration, the synergy, between the two men yielded one of the most ingenious screenplays ever to come out of Hollywood. Famous for his ‘Chandlerisms’ (‘She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket’ from Farewell, My Lovely; ‘I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion in a banana split’, from The Long Goodbye), Chandler, besides his finesse for atmospheric descriptions, had a skill for dialogue that was unmatched in Hollywood – or anywhere, for that matter. It is in my opinion a case of him having been in the right place at the right time, for Chandler’s unique writing -his cynicism, his hard-boiled style- lent itself to film noir. And I believe it is no coincidence that in spite of all the literary talent that had gathered in Hollywood of the time -names that included William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, no less- Chandler ended up with more screen credits, not to mention Oscar nominations, than the former two, although his stint in Hollywood was significantly shorter. For instance, the opening dialogue between Phyllis and Walter in Cain’s book is nothing short of conventional, if not boring:

‘Would you like me to talk to Mr. Nirdlinger about this, Mr. Huff?’.

‘That would be fine, Mrs. Nirdlinger’.

‘It would save time’.

‘Time’s important. He ought to attend to this at once’.

‘After he and I have talked it over, then you can see him. Could you make it tomorrow night?’

‘Tomorrow night will be fine’.

‘I’ll expect you’ (Cain 1936: 7)

By comparison, Chandler’s dialogue is witty, sharp and sexy, establishing the characters through discourse, leaving no doubt that Walter has run into Phyllis’s snare, and the viewer instantly comprehends why and in fact, identifies with him:

‘Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in by then’.


‘My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?’.

‘Sure, only I’m getting over it a little. If you know what I mean’.

‘There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour’.

‘How fast was I going, officer?’.

‘I’d say about ninety’.

‘Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket’.

‘Suppose I let you off with a warning this time’.

'Suppose it doesn’t take’.

‘Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles’. (Chandler, Wilder 1944:12)

Film and screenplay are full of sexual innuendo that is entirely missing from Cain’s book. In actual fact, the reader of Cain’s book has a hard time relating to Huff and understanding how he would have fallen for a woman like Phyllis, for Cain’s description make her sound like little more than a run of the mill tramp. If anything, Cain is the one who would have needed dialogue as razor-sharp as Chandler’s to make his characters come to life. One of the book’s chief weaknesses is the lack of fully fleshed out characters that allow the reader to create them in their minds. In addition to the excellently crafted screenplay, Wilder also had the visual image at his disposal, albeit a restricted one, for as stated earlier, a lot of things could merely be hinted at. But I would argue that Chandler and Wilder used the restrictions to their advantage for as we all know, ambiguity and allusion are mostly more interesting than spelling things out.

Then there are of course a whole string of subplots which Chandler and Wilder simply omitted from Cain’s novel, thus streamlining it and stripping it of its unnecessary and distracting baggage to draw the viewer’s attention to the main plotline with its three main characters, Neff, Phyllis and Keyes. For instance, in the book Huff ‘organized a little finance company of my own, had myself made a director, and spent about one day a week there’ (Cain 1936: 29). This is just one of many subplots in the book that luckily were deleted from the film. Upon reading Cain’s novel, Huff’s motivation to murder Phyllis’ husband becomes increasingly implausible and unconvincing for neither does he seem to need the money (as he does in the film), nor does Phyllis strike us as the irresistible femme fatale she is made into by Wilder and Chandler and exquisitely brought to life by Barbara Stanwyck, who has attained iconic status on the strength of her performance as Phyllis Dietrichson in
Double Indemnity (Spicer 2002: 100).

Between Chandler’s skill for dialogue, characters and atmosphere and Wilder’s infallible sense for structure, they must have realized from the start that by omitting all the subplots and boil the story down to the bare essentials would greatly benefit the finished film. Interestingly, there are, however, a few ideas and one-liners that Wilder and Chandler adopted for their screenplay, although not always in the same way or context it was used by Cain. ‘Straight down the line’, is directly lifteded from Cain’s novel, although, unlike in the film, it is said only once. Chandler and Wilder cleverly turned the line into Phyllis’ and Walter’s motto, almost like a creed they live by. In another example of Chandler and Wilder borrowing from Cain, one line in the book reads ‘…but Phyllis said she had to get the wool wound for a sweater she was knitting…’ (Cain 1936:26), this taking place the night Huff comes over to have Phyllis’ husband sign the insurance contract. How Cain could even conceive of the idea of having a woman like Phyllis -whom, at the same time, he wants us to believe is a vicious seductress- toiling in such a homely task as knitting, seems entirely perplexing. In contrast, Wilder and Chandler, obviously taking their cue from Cain, turned it around and used the ‘knitting theme’ in a far more plausible way, having Phyllis say, on her second encounter with Walter,

‘So I just sit and knit’.

‘Is that what you married him for?’

‘Maybe I like the way his thumbs hold up the wool’.

In those lines Chandler and Wilder make it quite clear that Phyllis has nothing but contempt for knitting, that she doesn’t even possess knitting needles, which is much more in keeping with her character. But the most striking change probably is the ending. Wilder and Chandler omitted the novel’s last three chapters that have Lola and Nino wrongfully accused of shooting Walter and of killing Lola’s father, prompting Huff to admit to having killed Nirdlinger himself in order to clear Lola with whom Huff has fallen in love. In the last chapter the Walter and Phyllis, whom he has come to hate, are reunited on a ship on their way to Mexico. Needless to say, what Chandler and Wilder did with the ending is far more interesting than the awkward, far-fetched cat-and-mouse game in Cain’s book. Having Keyes gradually cotton on to how the murder was conceived but never quite fully grasping who did it, ‘because the guy you (Keyes) were looking for was too close…’ (Chandler & Wilder 1944), proved a highly original idea and certainly superior to Cain’s conventional conclusion with its highly improbable, tacked-on finale. I fully agree with Borde & Chaumeton, who said that

Double Indemnity…scores through its tremendous
narrative sureness and through a conclusion that,
while moral, is no less logical, for all that
(Borde & Chaumeton 2002: 44).

In conclusion, I would like to stress once more that the screenplay and the subsequent film, are an improvement of Cain’s book in more than just one way. It might well be one of the rare examples were the transition from book to film worked in favour of the film. On the other hand, it can of course be argued that film and book are two entirely different entities that have to be looked at differently, and judged independently, as they operate with different means and also work on different levels: while the film presents us with pre-fabricated images, but in addition has language and music to support the images, the book ‘solely’ has language to rely on, leaving it up to the reader to create the images in our minds. That, however, can only be the case if the language is such that it allows and inspires the reader to create those images. In the case of Double Indemnity, it is the film and its screenwriters, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, rather than that literary source, that have to be credited with creating those indelible images and supporting them with an evocative and powerful language.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred Macmurray in the famous supermarket scene in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (USA 1944)


Borde, Raymond & Chaumeton, Etienne (2002): A Panorama of American Film noir. San Francisco: City Lights Books
Cain, James M. (1936): Double Indemnity. New York: Vintage
Chandler, Raymond & Wilder, Billy (1944): Double Indemnity. Los Angeles: Larry Edmunds
Chandler, Raymond (2002): The Long Goodbye. New York: Vintage
Chandler, Raymond (2002): Farewell, my Lovely. New York: Vintage
Spicer, Andrew (2002): Film Noir. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.
Zolotov, Maurice (1977): Billy Wilder in Hollywood. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons


Curtiz, Michael, Mildred Pierce, USA 1945
Galeen, Henrik, The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag), Germany 1926
Lang, Fritz, Destiny (Der müde Tod), Germany 1921
Murnau, Friedrich-Wilhelm, Nosferatu, Germany 1922
Tourneur, Jaques, Out of the Past, USA 1947
Ulmer, Edgar, Detour, USA 1946
Welles, Orson, Citizen Kane, USA 1941
Wiene, Robert, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), Germany 1919
Wilder, Billy, Sunset Boulevard, USA 1950