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The road to Double Indemnity (1944)

 

James M.Cain was born in 1892 in Maryland into an academic environment (his father would become president of Washington College), a milieu where he felt "like a pygmy among giants". The geography of his origins is significant, for Cain would go on to be, along with Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West, one of the first authentic chroniclers of the peculiar reality that became Southern California.

After graduating from university he drifted from job to job, often in positions associated with the love of singing which would later be reflected in his writings (see Serenade especially). This aimlessness came to an end in what is sometimes referred to as an ‘epiphantic moment’ when, sitting on a park bench on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House (!), his own voice enunciated the words "you’re going to be a writer", a mysterious portent which he puzzled over endlessly, but never questioned (Hoopes, p3).

Various stints in the writing profession followed, including several as a reporter, editing a military paper during active duty in WWI France, and even a short-lived period editing the august New Yorker, his failure at which convinced him to accept an offer from Hollywood which followed some minor publication successes, primarily writings associated with another well known Maryland iconoclast, H.L.Mencken, in his Mercury magazine.

Cain found fame in California with the success of 1934’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, its multimedia dissemination as serial, hardback, paperback, syndication, play and film (this latter delayed over ten years in the U.S. due to censorship) being a forerunner of today’s vertically-integrated blockbusters.

Double Indemnity was originally published in 1936 in eight installments as a serial in the magazine Liberty, which was best known for preparing its readers by having each story’s reading time listed just below the title!  Seven years later one of these readers would be film director Billy Wilder, then at the start of his legendary Hollywood career but already with successes under his belt as co-screenwriter of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) and director of The Major and the Minor (1942).

Double Indemnity would have a troubled translation to celluloid, the first sign of which came when Wilder’s usual writing collaborator, Charles Brackett, refused point blank to touch it on ‘moral grounds’. Paramount producer Joe Sistrom was instrumental in moving things along at this point (mid-1943), being a fan of the hardboiled school of crime fiction then in its ascendant. Since Cain himself was tied up writing a John Ford western, the search for a screenwriting collaborator turned to Raymond Chandler, who (inexplicably) surprised studio people by living in L.A., the very city he’d been writing about in his increasingly popular Philip Marlowe series of private eye novels.

The tetchy Chandler bristled at being associated with the hardboiled style (notwithstanding being an alumnus, like so many other soon-to-be-household names in thriller writing, of the pulp periodical Black Mask): "I hope the day will come when I don’t have to ride around on Hammett and James Cain", he moaned to his publisher after The High Window’s publication (MacShane, p.101). Cain felt likewise: "I belong to no school, hardboiled or otherwise, and I believe these so-called schools exist mainly in the imagination of critics... I have read less than twenty pages of Mr Dashiel Hammett in my life... " (O’Brien, pp 71-2). Ironically Chandler was contemptuously dismissive of Cain: "It has always irritated me to be associated with Cain...I’m not in the least like Cain... Cain is a writer of the faux naif type, which I particularly dislike" (Zolotow, p112).

The story of the ‘marriage made in hell’ between Wilder and Chandler is justifiably legendary but needs no repeating here (see Clark p.29, Zolotow pp113-115, MacShane pp 108-9). Suffice to say, Paramount were so worried about the novelist’s naiveté to the ways of Hollywood they organised an agent to protect him from the studio itself! This rocky partnership initially took the novella (barely 190 pages) at face value, but soon found problems being so literal. When actors read the words off the page it sounded "like a bad high school play", Chandler complained. "The dialogue oversaid everything and when spoken sounded quite colorless and tame". The book’s atmospheric feel and apparent ‘realism’ seemed to derive from technical strategies – straight speech with minimal descriptive passages and little attribution to the characters.  It was dialogue written for the eye, not for the ear, as Chandler said later (MacShane, p.107)

Maintaining the sense of the written page in a different medium put the emphasis on the story’s construction. Wilder: "I would just guide the structure and I would also do a lot of the dialogue, and he (Chandler) would then comprehend and start constructing too" (Moffat, p.47). Wilder always acknowledged that the ramped-up dialogue which makes the film so memorable was largely Chandler’s.

This unsurpassed prose stylist came to understand just how different the two media are. "If you really believe in the art of the film…", wrote Chandler later, "you ought to forget about any other type of writing. A preoccupation with words for their own sake is fatal to good film making… the best scenes I ever wrote were practically monosyllabic. The hell of good film writing is that the most important part is what is left out. It’s left out because the camera and the actors can do it better and quicker, above all quicker, but it had to be there in the beginning…" (Zolotow, p.122). This caveat - that substance is a prerequisite for successful reduction - underlines the writer’s preoccupation with a good story, and is reflected in any comparison between written and filmed versions of Double Indemnity, both of which succeed brilliantly.

Oscar nominations for the screenplay and Best Picture followed and at the awards ceremony that year the combative Wilder famously tripped up the winning director Leo McCary on his way to pick up the gong Wilder felt was deservedly his. (Perhaps some tangible acknowledgment came in 1968 when an actual case came to trial in California for an insurance scam which cited the book and film of Double Indemnity as its inspiration!)

For the stars, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, it would be the high point of their careers, yet each had to be bluffed and cajoled into accepting their part. The moral climate at the time made Double Indemnity a dangerous project. Cain’s reputation for trawling the seamier side of life didn’t help and the story’s unflinching point of view - seeing the crime through its perpetrator’s eyes - blinded many onlookers to the film’s overall impact, largely delivered through the Edward G.Robinson character whose paternal affection for MacMurray’s Walter Neff is betrayed. Barbara Stanwyck had a similar view, though apparently for different reasons: "The picture is very moral. It’s anti-crime and anti-sweater. It shows what happens if you fall for a gal who wears a sweater" (Uncut, p.60).

With its representation of a dark, depersonalised urban environment, devoid of communal values, through which we go on a journey that is doomed from the outset, Double Indemnity also became one of the basic templates for a new genre, film noir, whose attractions and opportunities have long since outgrown its original inspirations.

- Roger Westcombe

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