Double Indemnity, 1944, the film


Double Indemnity is regarded by most as film noir's masterpiece. As a conjunction of eccentric talents, it is probably unrivalled: James M. Cain's novel as scripted by 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" and directed by Billy Wilder, who called Chandler "a virtuoso alcoholic." 14 But Wilder's casting -- he hounded Fred MacMurray, who had never played any but personable roles, until he consented to play 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 movie and one that exhibits the genre'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.

Link to James M. Cain's Tiger Woman, an article by William Marling in L.I.T. on the origins and ideology of Cain's narrative.

Link to page about the novel.