**WARNING: This post will contain some spoilers for both the novella Double Indemnity and its film adaptation. I’m sure most of you have at least seen the adaptation, but in the event that you haven’t, or have seen the film but would like to keep the book shrouded in mystery, read with caution!
Double Indemnity is a film that needs no introduction. One of Barbara Stanwyck’s best, one of film noir’s best, one of classic Hollywood’s best… it’s a much-loved film, and worthy of every bit of praise heaped upon it.
We have James M. Cain to thank for the film’s existence. Credit, of course, must be shared with screenwriter Raymond Chandler and co-writer/director Billy Wilder, but Cain’s eight-part novel in Liberty magazine was the story’s origin.
Originally published in 1943, the serialized tale of insurance and murder would later be published in paperback. I was elated to come across an Avon pocket paperback at an antique shop in March, and jumped at the chance to read the source material of one of my favorite films.
I had high expectations for the novel not only due to my long-time love of the film, but also my previous experiences reading this author, James M. Cain. His bibliography also includes The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce. And, I’m happy to say, this little book Double Indemnity (which can be easily read in an afternoon) is every bit as suspenseful and enjoyable as its adaptation.
One of the film’s most famous bits of dialogue originates not from the minds of Chandler and Wilder, but Cain’s novella. As it appears in the book:
“I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money, and I didn’t have the woman.”
As it appears in the film:
“I killed him for money, and for a woman. But I didn’t get the money, and… I didn’t get the woman.”
The book also has a fantastic opening:
“I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That’s how I came to this House of Death that you’ve been reading about in the papers.”
This is the “voice” of Walter Huff, the book’s version of Walter Neff, writing his story down on paper rather than dictating it into a machine. So much information is gleaned from these few short sentences: Walter’s profession, the story’s sunny California setting, and most importantly, the fact that things aren’t going to end well. Nothing points to crime and destruction more than a description like “House of Death!”
The story that follows this opening matches the film pretty closely, with exception of an ending that is every bit as grim, but executed quite differently. Walter is shot not by Phyllis but by Nico, the boyfriend of Phyllis’ step-daughter. Walter confesses his own crime to Keyes while recovering in the hospital. Walter and Phyllis wind up on a ship, on the run from the law. Presumably, they’ll both be dead soon (either of double suicide or murder-suicide, before the law catches up to ’em).
And then there’s the small matter of killer Phyllis’ body count! If memory serves, Mr. Dietrichson and the first Mrs. Dietrichson were her only victims mentioned in the film. In the book she’s killed her husband, her husband’s first wife, three children, Nico’s father… and those are just the deaths we know about!
Just different enough from the film to offer something unique to those of us who have seen the story play out a million times over, James M. Cain’s novel is very much worth reading, whether you’re a long time Double Indemnity fan or simply a fan of crime novels. Hard to put down and quick to read, I would highly recommend tracking down a copy of this book and spending a couple of hours with it — and giving the film another watch afterward!
Interested in the film version of Double Indemnity? Check out my “Favorite Things About…” celebration of the adaptation. And for more Stanwyck, check out my quest to watch every one of her films: The Stanwyck Filmography Project.
I saw and loved the film many years before I read the book. What I remember from the book is how deeply disturbing and creepy Phyllis was, with her death obssession. Can’t imagine her having the change-of-heart moment that Stanwyck has at the end. The movie is great. Wilder was the best (though I’m not sure I would have wanted to encounter his acerbic self).
Yes! Phyllis was so much creepier in the book. That’s no discredit to Stanwyck’s performance or the script — Cain just took the character a step further into madness. I adore both versions and will gladly continue to revisit them.
I heartily agree…both the movie and book were great! One of my favorite noirs, and I loved the very last line of the book; so much said with so little.
I was surprised how tiny the book was when I found it. “So much said with so little” kind of sums it up on the whole! Cain uses language very efficiently, but powerfully.
I never knew that was based on a book and I thought Raymond Chandler wrote the original story. Will have to seek this baby out.
Shouldn’t be too hard to find. I know it’s been re-printed several times, and if I remember correctly it’s even available as an ebook now!
Very interesting! I’ve only ever seen the movie (one of my very favorites), been wanting to read the book for years.