Spot the Difference: Double Indemnity as Book and Film

by tigermanifesto


Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s influential 1944 film noir, is adapted from James M. Cain’s hardboiled novel of the same title, and manages to retain most of the plot elements and basic themes of the story while infusing it with a fresh burst of cinematic energy due to its engaging noir style. Though most of the novel’s situations and characters find their way to the screen relatively intact, Wilder and screenwriting partner Raymond Chandler made several notable changes to the story in adapting the material for the screen. They remove all references to prayer and religion, make the narration audible to accommodate the film medium, and add a sense of predetermined fate to the proceedings, and completely remake the ending. These changes were made for various reasons, but all contribute to a tighter product that takes the blunt Cain novel and refashions it into something more elegant and tense.

Wilder and Chandler made many incidental tweaks to names and plot elements in the transition from page to screen, which are worth mentioning only in passing. Characters’ names are different and there is less time dedicated to the character of the company director, for instance (Wilder). However, the removal of all reference to religion from the story is a far weightier matter. Two significant references to religion appear in Cain’s text. The first involves part of Walter and Phyllis’ plan to cover their tracks after the murder of the latter’s husband. She brings a minister to the inquest to stop the jury from ruling that the death resulted from suicide (Cain, 64). Additionally, Walter is portrayed as stumbling into prayer on more than one occasion. The first time, just after the murder, he falls into a pit of guilt and begins to mumble it, only getting through it a couple of times before he forgets how it goes (53). The second time is triggered by his discovery that Keyes suspects murder as the cause of Phyllis’ husband’s death (70). While both the book and film are incisive explorations of guilt and human weakness in the face of evil, but the guilt that manifests in Cain’s novel is at least tangentially connected to Christianity, while this association is scrubbed from the film. These changes, like the decision to leave the murder unseen in the film while it is described in cold detail in the novel, were probably made to accommodate the Hays Code, which takes a dim view of portraying members of the clergy or religion as complicit in evildoing (The Motion Picture Production Code).

One of the most important overall changes made in the adaptation was partly made to facilitate more fidelity to the novel. In the book, the entire story is narrated from Walter’s point of view, giving us access to his thoughts through a report he delivers to Keyes (Wilder). The film keeps the confessional aspect of the narration, but changes the proceedings by revealing that Walter is a murderer from the beginning, casting a pall of doom over the story from the very beginning rather than allowing it to unfold more organically as in the book. This serves to orient audiences as well as emphasizing the fatalism at the heart of the story. The characters shrink into the shadows as the world around them waxes, inexorably guiding them to their final ends.

Whereas in the book any sense of moralizing is kept to a minimum, being focused on the internal breakdown of Walter’s composure and his psychological state, the film’s story offers both halfhearted redemptions at the end–Walter’s refusal to make Sachetti the fall guy and Phyllis’ refusal to murder her partner in crime–and uses its characters’ sins to condemn them in a more dramatic and obvious fashion. Revealing the ending at the beginning allows spectators to situate themselves in the midst of a bleak and ambiguous world, as characters are slow to emerge from the murk in trustworthy forms. At the same time, in both cases the narration is deeply subjective, which proves disorienting even in the film.

The most obvious plot-related change made to the story is the film’s treatment of the ending, which compresses the events of the book into a tighter space and time. In the book, the two murderers are on a boat bound for Mexico and it is implied they commit suicide by throwing themselves to the sharks (Cain 114-115). Rather than permitting Walter and Phyllis to effect a false escape to Mexico before throwing themselves to the sharks, the film starts with Walter bleeding from a gunshot wound and ends with both him and Phyllis dead (Wilder). The ending in the film is far more conducive to budget constraints, keeping the action confined to houses and the clinical offices of the insurance company. It also keeps the tension of the story taut until the end without a break, making Keyes into a more straightforwardly moral character  since he does not permit Walter to go to Mexico. In the essentials, however, the film’s ending retains the thematic emphases of the novel, showing how the murder united the two perpetrators and forced them to go all the way “straight down the line,” their fates already sealed by the act. In the original, there was some irony to the fact that their deaths were suicidal, considering the suspicions of the insurance company director. In the film, however, their lives are ended with bullets from each other’s guns, their passionate love having curdled into hate.

Between the two stories, it is difficult not to prefer the film, as it is a masterpiece of style as well as storytelling, conveying its themes with a sophisticated visual look that obviously cannot be replicated in print. The guilt and confinement of the characters becomes more palpable and immediate in the chiaroscuro shots and claustrophobic compositions Wilder employs, and the script keeps enough of the book entirely intact so that not much of this short hardboiled novel is lost or changed in transition. Even excisions made for the sake of censorship–the way the film obscures the murder, for example–only serve to heighten the tension and mystery that intrigue in the book but truly captivate in the film. To conclude, the film adaptation of Double Indemnity not only honors the story and mood of its antecedent but actually demonstrates that the story is more suited to film.