James M. Cain (right) had written an eight-part serial, “Double Indemnity,” for Liberty magazine in 1936. Part reworking of Postman, part recollection of his youth selling insurance, the novel Double Indemnity (1941) portrayed a corporate/legal control of life that amounted to “double jeopardy” and appealed to Depression readers’ sense of helplessness. (Hoopes 1982: 248).
This time Cain stayed even closer to the Snyder-Gray trial, making his protagonist an insurance salesman. Walter Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger just as Ruth Snyder met her beaux, when he comes to her door selling insurance. She asks questions that make him suspicious, but her intentions complement his desire to dupe his employers, and he joins her in a plot to murder her husband. Huff explains his plan to collect on the double indemnity feature offered in case of death on a railroad journey. But after the two commit the perfect murder, a faked suicide, they are estranged, because Huff’s employers – led by Keyes, the claims chief – shadow Phyllis’ every move. Like Frank Chambers, who pursued Madge, Huff moves on to a new lust object – Phyllis’ stepdaughter Lola. But Lola reveals makes known Phyllis’ complicity in a series of grisly murders and that Phyllis also reveals that she is secretly dating Lola’s former boyfriend Nino Sachetti. Since Huff is the only father-figure left in the narrative, he grows appropriately paranoid: have Phyllis and Nino duped him into committing murder on their behalf? Will Nino, the new prodigal son, kill him? Has he been a sap? He plots to murder Phyllis, but she ambushes him first. Waking in a hospital with police about to blame Lola, Huff confesses. After some ends are wrapped up with Keyes in boy-to-boy fashion, he then commits suicide with Phyllis.
For Double Indemnity Cain scaled back his religious motifs, but the central features of confession remain. Huff begins on the word I and addresses the reader directly a dozen times in the first forty pages. His references to “this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers” establish a degree of anteriority, and his asides – “Getting in is the tough part of my job, and you don’t tip what you came for till you get where it counts” – give his account the retrospection and moral weight of confession (Cain 1936: 29). The final pages reveal it to be just that – a notarized testament he has traded for temporary freedom.
As in Postman, lust is the sin by which other sins gain admission: sexual desire persuades him Huff to stay and draw out Phyllis’ proposition of murder. But Huff’s his desires constantly change: he wants Phyllis, he wants to outwit the system, to have Lola, to save himself, and then to kill Phyllis. This continually renewed consumptive capacity seems to be what made Huff an appealing film noir hero: he’s an existential rebel in a consumer economy. But his lust is actually less important than his desire to outwit the statistical system of the insurance industry: “I’m going to put it through, straight down the line,” he says, “and there won’t be any slips” (Cain 1936: 23).
I’m a croupier in that game. I know all their tricks, I lie awake nights thinking up tricks, so I’ll be ready for them when they come at me. And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet. (Cain 1936: 29)
Huff be is the first high-tech, white-collar criminal in American literature. But the emerging post-Depression economy needed to limit his kind of aggressive rationality rather than to have insiders use what usually did not happen against it. That Huff works in one of the Depression’s growth industries may have offended intellectuals, for reviewers of 1936 treated him as reviewers might treat a Wall St. arbitrager of 2008. But popular audiences seem to have sympathized with him more, and a glance at the issues of Liberty magazine in which the novel was serialized shows how widespread was the reach of the system that Huff problematizes. Each article in Liberty has a suggested reading time, statistics pepper the pages, and the ads celebrate the mechanical icons of the novel – cars, trains, and ships. To be certain, Cain still used religious imagery. Huff’s early confession that he stands fascinated at the edge of a precipice “looking over the edge” (18) recalls Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards’ use of the image 195 years earlier in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Later when Huff returns home so rattled he cannot think, he recites the Lord’s Prayer. On discovering his fear of Phyllis, he says, “I did something I hadn’t done in years. I prayed” (79). But these his prayers have a wooden quality: religion doesn’t have much role in the life of a protagonist who chooses to commit suicide, actual or economic.
The movie of Double Indemnity (1944) became one of the masterpieces of film noir, but Cain had little to do with it. As a conjunction of eccentric talents, however, it is probably unrivaled: James M. Cain’s novel as co-scripted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (who said that Cain was “every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk.”) (McShane 1981, 23). Billy Wilder in turn called Chandler a “virtuoso alcoholic.” 14. But Wilder’s casting — he hounded Fred MacMurray, who had never played any but personable parts, until he consented to portray Walter Huff — and his outsider’s eye for the unique in California settings, combined in a work of genius. It is a distinctly Los Angeles film, as well as one that exhibits film noir’s central motifs.
The opening shot shows a car running a red light – a metaphor for all that follows – and the rest of the night-time urban montage leaves no doubt where we are. Only five minutes into the movie does Wilder allow the sunny Hollywood hills of Cain’s first page to appear. The outside of the Nirdlinger house is as Cain described it, but inside it is cool and gothic, rather than the tacky Tijuana decor that Cain satirized. The initial meeting between Walter Huff and femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger lasts much longer than in the novel, and when MacMurray departs he stops first at a drive-in, where he orders a beer, and then at a bowling alley to “roll a few lines and calm my nerves.” These scenes are not in the novel (Cain sent Huff to his office) but are brilliant additions, expanding on a minor theme in Cain, the extent to which Huff is a consumer. For Wilder (and Chandler), California was the epitome of marketing; Huff lives in a consumer setting that has anticipated even his leisure needs. For Cain, on the other hand, a good “California setting” was a nationally-known oddity, such as a moonrise over the Pacific. Wilder discarded such scenes, indeed he dispensed with nature altogether. He substituted a super-market, where MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck meet repeatedly to discuss their crime amid pyramids of cans and boxes of baby-food. Murder, the movie suggests, is a series of marketing decisions combined with lucky breaks, such as whether your product appears at eye-level. A passing patron, in fact, complains to MacMurray about her difficulty in reaching what she assumes is his line of baby food.
Wilder also discarded Cain’s ending (Huff and Phyllis commit suicide on a cruise ship) and made the technological theme overt: first he filmed MacMurray dying in the Folsom gas chamber, a set that cost Paramount $150,000 and took five days of shooting. Then he decided to make the same statement less emphatically: Huff completes his confessional Dictaphone roll just as his boss and pursuer, Keyes, walks in. Keyes allows Huff to flee, predicting that he “won’t make it as far as the door,” where indeed the salesman collapses. Wilder, following the predictive, statistical portrait of life underlying Cain’s novel, simply extends the novel’s underlying theme of technological determinism.
Most earlier film noir offered some way out of technological determinism. Double Indemnity does not. Instead of man creating himself from/against a landscape, technology composes or reduces character on the field of its possibilities.
References and Further Reading
Hoopes, Roy. (1982) Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain . New York: Holt.
Madden, David. (1970) James M. Cain. Boston: Twayne.
____________. (1977) Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
William Marling (1995). The American Roman Noir. Athens: U George P.
McShane, Frank, ed. (1981) Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler New York: Columbia UP.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Man Under Sentence of Death,” in Madden, Tough Guy Writers (111-12).
Sikov, Ed. (1999) On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder.London: Hyperion.