Book vs Film: Double Indemnity

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I’ve been on a real film noir kick recently, probably because I signed up for TCM’s Summer of Darkness. It’s a free online course takes a close look at the genre over a nine-week period with daily emails and online discussions. I haven’t participated in the forums at all, and I haven’t even come close to watching all films on the schedule, but I’ve really enjoyed the course despite not being the best student.

On the long list of movies featured in this course is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Before watching the film, I knew I had to read the James M. Cain novel it was based on. I finished the book and watched the movie the very next night, which is the ideal timeline when doing a comparison. All the details of the book were so fresh in my mind, and it was kind of exciting to see everything play out on the screen so close to when it had first appeared in my mind.

There are, as usual, many differences between the book and the movie. For example, the book makes Phyllis a full-out murderer with ten kills under her belt. She comes across as being completely crazy on the page, but the movie doesn’t include her past murders so she’s not nearly as psychotic. Just a little psychotic. The relationship between Phyllis and Walter is also less complex than in the book, and things don’t end the same for either of them either.

Some of the changes made to the Double Indemnity screenplay were definite improvements on the book, probably due to the fact that Raymond Chandler was a co-writer on the movie. According to IMDb, Cain liked the plot solutions that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler came up with for the movie and would have used them in the book if he had thought of them himself. The ending of the film was completely different but I much preferred Cain’s ending to the one they ended up using in the movie. Oddly enough, I also wouldn’t have liked the other ending they shot for the movie, in which Walter was put to death in the gas chamber. Cain’s dramatic, poetic, and slightly odd ending still wins, in my opinion.
I’d definitely recommend both the book and the movie but it’s almost better not to compare them since they are both so good in their own ways (the movie was nominated for 7 Academy Awards). If you do watch the movie, keep an eye out for the only film appearance by Raymond Chandler at the 16:12 mark. He’s sitting down, reading a paperback. Blink and you’ll miss him but thankfully we have YouTube for the instant replay.

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