Friday, July 20, 2018

Books: Double Indemnity

The 2018 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

Why do I keep coming back to Double Indemnity? I'm not sure. There's no doubt it's one of my favorite films, but in terms of the blog, I've dissected it pretty thoroughly. I've talked about Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson; later this summer I'll add Fred MacMurray to that list; I've analyzed a scene from the movie, and now I'm gonna discuss the book on which it's based. I don't think I can get much deeper than that.

I've mentioned before that the inspiration for DI was a real-life murder that happened here in Queens, in 1927. The essentials were the same: wife convinces lover to kill her husband after hubby signs a life insurance policy with a huge potential payoff. 

As murderers go, Queens Village resident Ruth Brown Snyder was notable as the first woman to be electrocuted by the state of New York. She had allegedly tried and failed to kill her husband Albert at least seven times before teaming up with corset salesman (seriously) Henry Judd Gray to seal the deal. The story goes that Albert still carried a torch for his previous wife, since deceased.

Snyder and Gray knocked him off, all right; it was everything that came afterward that did them in — and in less than distinguished fashion. Read here for the rest of the ridiculous story.

The "double indemnity" clause, as explained in the film, guarantees the beneficiaries double the amount in the original contract, in the event of the insurer's death, under certain specific conditions. This page goes into more detail if you're interested.

Okay, now that you're set up with all that...

James M. Cain
James Mullahan Cain is regarded as one of the greatest American crime novelists, on the strength of DI, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, three novels turned into great Hollywood movies.

The Maryland native originally aspired to be a singer before turning to journalistic writing at first, then fiction writing later, which also included theatrical plays and screenplays.

As a journalist, Cain had attended the Snyder trial. (Damon Runyon covered it as well, and among the other attendees included director DW Griffith.) Inspired, Cain moved the setting from New York to LA and changed the names, in addition to adding some extra plot twists, for his original work. DI has been compared to the Emile Zola story Therese Raquin, which follows a similar structure.

Ruth Brown Snyder and
Henry Judd Gray
In the book, Walter Neff is Walter Huff, and Phyllis Dietrichson is Phyllis Nirdlinger (seriously). The plot is basically the same except for the ending: Keyes is led to believe Phyllis' stepdaughter Lola killed Phyllis' husband, and Walter, fearing what will happen to Lola once the cops interrogate her, confesses he was the killer all along.

Keyes, however, fearing the scandal that would arise when the media learn of this and how it would impact the company, smuggles Walter out of the country in exchange for his written confession. There's a little bit more to the ending, but you can discover that on your own.

New York Daily News photo
of Snyder's electrocution
Cain's prose is remarkably lean, almost to a fault by modern standards (the Hemingway influence, no doubt), and as an aspiring novelist, I can't help but admire that. There's little of the sexy banter of the screenplay, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler; don't expect many lines like those in the "How fast was I going, officer" scene.

Phyllis and Keyes have smaller presences in DI the book than I suspected, especially Phyllis. In the second half, she's supplanted almost completely by Lola and isn't quite the femme fatale you expect her to be; as for Keyes, his relationship with Walter is more business-like. He's not the surrogate father figure he comes across as in the film.

Overall, I'd say Wilder & Chandler's adaptation of DI made it sexier and more humanistic, but the book works as a separate piece all its own and is worth reading.

(The version of DI I have, bought by and for myself and not a review copy, is the 1992 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition, with a dynamic horizontal cover. I think they were going for a cinematic look: the title is sprawled out inside quotation marks, like they used to do in old movie title cards, over an image of a train in close-up — in black and white, of course. It's very appealing if you're a classic film fan.)

DI the movie
one scene from DI

The Star Machine


  1. The ending of the book is crazy. As crazy as Phyllis. I've never been able to erase the memory from my mind.

    My favourite movie, The Thing from Another World, near the end when reporter Ned Scott wants to get a picture of the final attack on the the Thing. "I remember the first execution I ever covered. Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray." You never know when you're going to run into folks.

  2. Obviously I need to see THING again.

    If you mean the very very end of the book, then yeah, I agree. We definitely needed to see Walter and [SPOILER] one last time. Just not that way!

  3. Oh wow sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Great review and I appreciate the insight/information on the origin story that inspired the novel and movie.


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