Billy Wilder’s film noir Double Indemnity is one of the most well-regarded movies of all time, especially in its genre. And like many movies, its story originated from a book. The novel was written by James M. Cain, an author who’s written a handful of crime fiction classics. Among his bibliography are The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce and both novels received the Hollywood treatment soon after Double Indemnity.
The film follows Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a California insurance salesman who becomes involved with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a client’s wife. Soon after their affair begins, Phyllis convinces Walter to kill her husband so they can receive money from an accident insurance policy. Though the police determine the crime they committed as accidental death, insurance claims manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) grows more suspicious of foul play being involved and begins investigating the case.
Double Indemnity was adapted to the screen by director Billy Wilder and crime novelist Raymond Chandler, author of the Philip Marlowe stories and a contemporary of James M. Cain. As the Hays Production Code was in full effect by the time Double Indemnity was made, some changes had to be made in adapting the sordid novel. The biggest change came in the ending; the film ends with Walter killing Phyllis and getting caught while the novel ends with the two living and evading arrest. I won’t say any more about how the book ends as the way it concludes is worth reading, and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re a fan of the film like I am.
Other notable changes that Wilder and Chandler made for the film were last names and the significance of a few supporting characters. For the film, Walter Huff became Walter Neff and Phyllis Nirdlinger became Phyllis Dietrichson. Though Phyllis’s stepdaughter Lola and her boyfriend Nino have minor roles in the film, they’re much more present in the novel and have more complicated relationships with the main characters than the film shows. Barton Keyes on the other hand plays a much more pivotal role in the film than he does in the novel.
Despite the changes Wilder and Chandler made to Cain’s novel, the film adaptation of Double Indemnity is faithful to the overall cynical tone of the source material and follows its plot closely up until the final act. Though the screenwriters had to abide by the code, I think their changes made the story even better, and it’s one of the rare instances where the film surpasses the source material. Most people seem to agree with this sentiment, including Cain himself. He was so pleased with how the film turned out, that he saw it half a dozen times. The author was quoted as saying: “It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it.”
Along with praise from the author, Double Indemnity also received positive reviews from critics and was a hit with the public. The film received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Barbara Stanwyck, and Best Screenplay. The love for the film has only grown since, and Double Indemnity is viewed as the prototype film noir with its flashback narrative structure, low-key lighting, and the most memorable femme fatale of the genre. Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson was even voted the #8 greatest villain of American cinema on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains list in 2003.
In later years, Wilder claimed that “the two things he was proudest of in his career were the compliments he received from Cain about Double Indemnity and from Agatha Christie for his handling of her Witness for the Prosecution.” It’s not an easy task translating written text to the screen, as filmmakers run the risk of disappointing the author, the audience, or both. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for Wilder and Chandler when it came to Double Indemnity, and the two screenwriters did more than a commendable job in adapting Cain’s beloved novel into a memorable film.
I wrote this entry as a part of the Beyond the Cover Blogathon, where many are discussing book-to-film adaptations. Click the banner below to check out more posts!