Double Indemnity, 1941, the novel, James M. Cain


Cain had written an eight-part serial, "Double Indemnity," for Liberty magazine in 1936. Part reworking of Postman, part recollection of his youth selling insurance, Double Indemnity 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 Phyllisalso 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’vere 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 noirfilm 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 unrivalled: James M. Cain's novel as co-scripted 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)

 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.