Saturday, August 27, 2011


“I stared into the darkness some more that night. I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman. The woman was a killer, out-and-out, and she had made a fool of me. She had used me for a cat’s paw so she could have another man, and she had enough on me to hang me higher than a kite. . . . I got to laughing, a hysterical cackle, there in the dark.” So James M. Cain’s character Walter Huff explains his dilemma in the crime noir classic Double Indemnity.

Following up on his run away commercial success with The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity was written as a serial for Liberty Magazine. According to The Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers, Double Indemnity “. . . was meant to be a quickie job that Cain vowed would never be reprinted as a book. While researching Postman, Cain had talked to some insurance investigators, and with another real-life crime for inspiration he wrote a story about a woman conspiring with an insurance salesman to kill her husband and collect on his policy.” Double Indemnity originally appeared as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1936, and, despite Cain’s initial reservations, was published in hardcover with two other of Cain’s novellas in 1943.

Although Cain has been accused of merely writing a re-hash of Postman, I found Double Indemnity to be a much darker tale. The main characters of Double Indemnity, Walter Huff and Phyllis Nordlinger, are much more evil than Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, the murdering adulterers of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Whereas Postman’s Frank Chambers just kind of falls into murder, Walter Huff knows that Phyllis wants to kill her husband and is more than willing to cooperate for a cut of a $50,000 accidental death policy. Frank and Cora murder solely for love/lust. Walter and Phyllis murder for money. Whereas Frank Chambers is a drifter and a loser and Cora Papadakis is a bored house wife, Walter Huff is a successful insurance salesman with a desire to cheat the insurance company and Phyllis Nirdlinger turns out to be a serial killer.

Walter Huff met Phyllis Nirdlinger when he went to the Nirdlinger home to see oil company executive H.D. Nirdlinger about renewing his automobile insurance. Huff makes his sales pitch to Mrs. Nirdlinger who has come downstairs in her pajamas:

“Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts . . .

But all of sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. “Do you handle accident insurance?”

Maybe that don’t mean to you what it meant to me. Well, in the first place, accident insurance is sold, not bought. You get calls for other kinds, for fire, for burglary, even for life, but never for accident. The stuff moves when agents move it, and it sounds funny to be asked about it. In the second place, when there’s dirty work going on, accident is the first thing they think of. . . . there’s many a man walking around today that’s worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he don’t know it yet.”

Walter and Phyllis conspire to have Phyllis’ husband take out an accidental death policy and murder him for the insurance money. Nirdlinger believes that he is signing a renewal for his automobile insurance when he is really signing an application for accidental death insurance. The $25,000 policy has a double indemnity clause for dying in a railroad accident, so Walter devises a plan to make it look like Mr. Nordlinger fell off of a train and broke his neck. When Nirdlinger has a real accident and breaks his leg, he can no longer drive to a class reunion he planned to attend and Phyllis convinces him to take the train. Walter kills Mr. Nirdlinger by breaking his neck and then, posing as Nirdlinger and wearing a cast on his foot and hobbling on crutches, Walter boards the train and jumps off the observation platform. Phyllis drives the body to the spot where Walter jumped off the train where they deposit the victim’s body. Phyllis and Walter have iron clad alibis and it appears that Nirdlinger genuinely broke his neck falling off the train.

However, Barton Keyes, the claims investigator for the insurance company (brilliantly played by Edward G. Robinson in the 1944 movie version), is convinced that Nirdlinger has been murdered. Keyes, however, is also convinced that Walter Huff is a dedicated insurance man and confides in him. Huff, of course, uses the information to avoid detection.

Walter is redeemed when he falls in love with Nirdlinger’s step daughter, Lola. Phyllis was a nurse. Lola’s mother was related to a child which Phyllis was caring for in the hospital. The child was the heir to a large sum of money and property. This child and two others died in mysterious circumstances in the hospital under the care of Phyllis. Lola’s mother then inherited the fortune. Lola tells Walter that she suspects that Phyllis murdered her mother. Shortly after her mother’s death, Phyllis married Lola’s father.

The plot is rather complex, with Lola’s boyfriend being the son of a doctor who was ruined by Phyllis who pretends to dump Lola and seduce Phyllis seeking to get evidence against her. Walter decides that he must murder Phyllis in order to protect himself but is double crossed when Phyllis shoots him in the chest and Lola and her boyfriend are wrongfully accused of the crime.

Because of his love for Lola, Walter decides to confess to his friend Keyes, the insurance investigator. There is then an elaborate plot by the insurance company executives and lawyers to minimize bad publicity by avoiding a criminal trial. Walter and Phyllis flee the country on board a ship paid for by the insurance company.

The ending of Double Indemnity is chilling as Walter and Phyllis join each other in a suicide pact:

“There’s nothing ahead of us, is there Walter?

No. Nothing. . . .

“. . . Walter, the time has come.”

“What do you mean, Phyllis?”

“For me to meet my bridegroom. The only one I ever loved. One night I’ll drop off the stern of the ship. Then, little by little I’ll feel his icy fingers creeping into my heart.”

“. . . I’ll give you away.”


“I mean: I’ll go with you.”

“It’s all that’s left, isn’t it?”

. . . I’m writing this in the stateroom. It’s about half past nine. She’s in her stateroom getting ready. She’s made her face chalk white, with black circles under her eyes and red on her lips and cheeks. . . . She looks like what came aboard the ship to shoot dice for souls in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis and Fred MacMurray as Walter

The 1944 movie version of Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray as Walter and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, is considered to be a classic of the film noir genre. It was directed by legendary director Billy Wilder who co-wrote the screenplay along with famed “hard-boiled” detective writer Raymond Chandler. As a personal note, the first time I saw Double Indemnity, I was home sick and watching it on AMC. There was a real estate closing involving some investment property that was scheduled for that day. My wife showed up with a secretary to get me to sign a power of attorney to allow her to act for me at the closing. After just watching Fred MacMurray obtain the signature of his victim on an accidental death policy he thought was his car insurance renewal, I was just a little reluctant to sign.

The novella Double Indemnity is a classic of the Crime Noir genre and should continue to be read and enjoyed well into the future.


From the Foward “James M. Cain - Father of Noir” in James M. Cain: Hard-Boiled Mythmaker by David Madden (Scarecrow Press, 2011):

“So now we come to the term "noir". Originally this was a word used by French film critics to discuss American crime films whose subject matter was dark and whose lighting effects, courtesy of German expressionism, was darker. Many of these were cheap B movies, where a master of cinematography like John Alton could hide the lack of proper art design and set direction by “painting with light.” Among the most influential of the bigger-budget films noir was Wilder’s "Double Indemnity".

French film critics using the term film noir were referencing the "Serie noire", a line of crime novels published by Gallimard - black covered paperbacks reprinting Cain and other American writers, many of whom were his imitators. Gallimard began the "Serie noire" in the forties, and it continues to this day. . . .

In the sixties, American film critics . . . began using the term film noir, and in the subsequent decades it has been so basterdized as to be almost meaningless. Most critics agree that noir films date from around 1941 to 1955, have dark subject matter and atmospheric lighting, and are in black-and-white. Subsequent crime films of a noirish nature - like the definitive Cain patische, "Body Heat" - are usually called neo-noir.

In recent years, in American publishing the term "hard-boiled" has become tarnished due to its old-fashioned ring (it’s a World War I term, after all, pertaining to tough top sergeants), and “tough guy” is even more unpopular and antiquated. . . .

Just as American film critics co-opted the term film noir from the French, American book critics (and editors and publishers and even authors) appropriated it to describe that which mustn’t be termed "hard boiled". . . .

Vague as it is, noir as a definition or perhaps category has pushed out “hard-boiled,” a term Cain hated. So it’s time to remind everyone that James M. Cain, in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and his next several novels, defined and perfected the dark crime novel, which gave birth to the films named after the French book series of which Cain was a major part and prime influence.

Without Cain, there is - no matter how you define it - no noir.

He is its daddy.

And he was very, very strict.”

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