Double Indemnity

From the Reading Room l Murder by the book

Before it was a great film, Double Indemnity was one of the great American crime novels of the thirties, capturing in an oblique and sexualised way the desperation of the Depression era.

With Double Indemnity, MTC goes back to the source. Most people nowadays know the title as a 1944 movie, considered a classic of film noir, directed by Billy Wilder from Raymond Chandler’s screenplay. But fine as that film is, there are good reasons why director Sam Strong and writer Tom Holloway have based MTC’s new stage version on the original 1936 novella by James M Cain.

A former journalist, Cain moved to California to write for the movies in the early thirties, but found greater success when he moonlighted in crime fiction. His novels and short stories were popular but they were never pulp. Taking his craft seriously, he was more interested in psychology than sheer sensation. Slick magazines took his stories, classy publishers brought out his novels. Nor did he write detective fiction, despite often being placed in a Californian triumvirate of thirties crime writers with Chandler (creator of detective Philip Marlowe) and Dashiell Hammett (creator of Sam Spade). Indeed, the first-person confessionals of his most popular novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity, bear a closer relationship to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment than to Hammett’s The Big Sleep. In the film of Double Indemnity, a great deal of Cain’s brooding interiority was lost and can only be restored by returning to the novel.

With a story about an insurance agent and his lover planning the murder of her husband, Double Indemnity was for a time much too hot for Hollywood to touch – though it dearly wanted to. Even before the story was published, MGM sent a copy to the Breen Office, the arbiter on the Motion Picture Code of Practice, to field its opinion. Their opinion was it was way beyond the pale, citing its two unscrupulous protagonists (one would have been bad enough) with their adulterous motivation, its detailed depiction of how to commit a murder, and its lack of suitable punishment for the killers at the end. Breen thought any film made from this material was apt to rend the moral fabric of Americans to tatters.

Eight years later, the code had loosened up enough for Billy Wilder to submit a treatment that the censors could accept. Although moderately bowdlerised and ending with justice served (a scene in the Californian gas chamber), the treatment managed to retain all the major plot and character points and the first-person narration. The green light given, Wilder went ahead, hiring Chandler to write the final script.

Raymond Chandler never cared for Cain’s writing. ‘He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking,’ is what he wrote (and more besides) to his publisher about Cain less than a year before accepting to work on the Double Indemnity screenplay. Once on the job, he set about ‘improving’ the material by giving it the Chandler touch, which at the level of dialogue meant replacing the lovers clean, direct exchanges for some standard Chandlerian banter, with the entendres doubling and redoubling with each exchange.

In the original, Cain is far more subtle in indicating the ignition of a sexual spark between Huff, the insurance man, and Mrs Nirdlinger, an unhappy wife with fair skin.

‘I believe you’re looking at my freckles.’ ‘Yes, I was. I like them.’
‘I don’t.’
‘I do.’

Walter Huff seems a more plausible character in the Cain novel, and admirers of the film over the years have had to overlook how an ordinary insurance salesman could sound so hardboiled and come on like such a wise-guy.

Double Indemnity is one of the great American crime novels of the thirties, capturing in an oblique and sexualised way the desperation of the Depression era. At the MTC Season Launch last year, director Sam Strong described the story as one that ‘thrillingly dissects just how far we will go to get what we want’. But the America Cain wrote about was not the prosperous America we see in the film, enjoying a wartime boom. By going back to the original period, playwright Tom Holloway can properly capture the undercurrent to all the action, the feeling of being trapped and wanting to break out.

*The world premiere production of Tom Holloway’s Double Indemnity is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne from 30 May to 2 July 2016.

Published on 2 May 2016

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