“I stared into the darkness some more that night. I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman. The woman was a killer, out-and-out, and she had made a fool of me. She had used me for a cat’s paw so she could have another man, and she had enough on me to hang me higher than a kite. . . . I got to laughing, a hysterical cackle, there in the dark.” -James M. Cain’s character Walter Huff reflects on his crimes in the classic arc of the Double Indemnity novel.
It’s been 70 years since James M. Cain wrote the emblematic novel Double Indemnity, which was published in 1943 in the volume Three of a Kind (the story originally appeared as an eight-part serial in Liberty magazine in 1936). Double Indemnity was filmed in 1944, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson.
Walter in the book is portrayed as a man who is already a criminal by inclination and an acute sociopath. In contrast, in the film he’s made out to be a man who feels disappointed with his humdrum work, morally cracking, and only in hindsight he sees he should not have gotten involved with Phyllis Dietrichson.
Wilder managed to create one of the most iconic cinematic entries of the noir genre, with the inestimable help by legendary scribe Raymond Chandler (who collaborated with Wilder on translating Cain’s novel into an incendiary screen script for which he received an Academy Award nomination.)
Walter Huff (Walter Neff played by Fred MacMurray) doesn’t think of his victim, Mr. Nirdlinger (in the film Mr. Dietrichson) as a living human being, but only as an imaginary construct who obstructs his way to wealth and his object of desire. Cleverly, Cain does not allow the reader to know much of Nirdlinger (being mentioned only twice in the novel)
This theme reveals one of Cain’s main motifs in the novel, the latent instinct man harbors to kill without logical forethought. The irrepressible attractions of sexuality and greed are part of Huff’s motivation to kill, but Cain realizes that an ordinary working man with no outward criminal tendencies can allow himself to be driven to murder — certainly one of the most nightmarish visions of modern man found in literature.
Cain’s other major theme in Double Indemnity is guilt and how it operates in the minds of his characters.
Barbara Stanwyck (who had played one of the most heartless femme fatales in 1933’s Baby Face) molds her character into a blend of remorseless seductress and the Chandlerian ideal of the romanticized dame who is dangerous despite herself, less of the mentally ill character of the novel (Phyllis: “Maybe I’m crazy. But 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. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness….”) and more reminiscent of bad girl Velma who commits suicide in Farewell My Lovely (written by Raymond Chandler in 1940).
Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger live in a society where one’s wish can come true fairly quickly and with fairly little effort, a society where furniture is bought on easy-payment plans, where bungalows are rented in the Hollywood Hills for $15 a week, where single professional men can hire a maid and still afford to drive a new car. This is not the waste land of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) — it’s a more civilized world, but because of its orderliness, the murder is far more devastating.
The film amplifies the sensuality from Cain’s pages: “Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts,” recreating a suffocatingly muggy atmosphere with veiled allusions to the honeysuckle fragrance and an ankle bracelet, escalating into a bleak malaise scenario. One of the peculiarities of Cain’s narrator is his unwillingness to divulge certain details of his chronicle, such as the grisly aspects surrounding the murder. This technique served Cain’s brand of selective realism, thereby allowing the reader to invent at least part of the story.
James Naremore saw Pushover (1954) directed by Richard Quine — which was called by The New York Times ‘a mild facsimile’ of Double Indemnity — as belonging to the same mood of obscure fascination that Double Indemnity had generated ten years earlier. The movie also starred Fred MacMurray, this time playing a jaded cop who is investigating a robber’s moll (Kim Novak) and plans to get away with her and the stolen money. The plot advances in a similar structure than Double Indemnity, although we can appreciate remarkable differences, the most important being the factor of disillusionment that plagues Pushover throughout its forlorn urbane set.
Walter Neff is a self-assured insurance salesman who knows all the tricks to deceive his company (fatally clashing with his boss Barton Keyes, played adroitly by Edward G. Robinson) and coldly falls in the perverse Phyllis’s arms (their embraces spark heat but their passion is ice cold), whereas Paul Sheridan (the aging cop from Pushover) is tired of his work routine and the phony ‘decent’ aspirations of his boring partners. The oneiric effect in Double Indemnity allows us interpret it as a dream, one in which Lola (Jean Heather) represents Walter’s actual wife (ironically MacMurray wears a wedding ring although he’s supposed to be single in the story) threatened by Phyllis (his fantasy woman) and Nino Zachetti stands for the young Walter at the time he fell in love with Lola. Phyllis can be seen as a projection of his dark side, which will lead him to suicide by killing Phyllis — she can’t do that second shot because she isn’t real– and the dictaphone scene is his final confession to Keyes after betraying his trust. In this alternate take, Mr. Dietrichson would be Walter’s father in law (whom he’d conned using his daughter Lola’s help). Also, Walter dies in order to escape the corporate business city and arising homosexual culture Keyes symbolizes. Double Indemnity is one of the most definitive allegories of the ‘double indentity’ of the American common man that paradoxically so well befitted Fred MacMurray (whose portrait feels uncomfortably subversive due to the actors’ affable image).
Pushover is a reverse tale despite of its similar structure and hardboiled tone. Paul Sheridan looks for that special woman of his dreams, he’s a damaged romantic (his sensitivity was harmed by his parent’s unhappy marriage) who detests the typical housewive-types pursued by his cop partners. The irony is he’ll be brought down by the decent nurse in the film (played by Dorothy Malone) which will definitely seal his doomed romance with Lona (Kim Novak), a lonely vamp who is as lost and broken as Paul in an increasingly hostile policial state America was becoming in the ’50s. “I thought I told you to go,” Paul recriminates Lona when she decides to stand by him in the wake of his death. “We really didn’t need that money, did we?”, is the defeated cop’s last heartbreaking line.