Sunday, September 19, 2010

Double Indemnity (1936)

The second novel by James M. Cain is almost as slender as the first, but if anything it's even more propulsive about hitting its plot points and moving along. That's something I chalk up to the fact that it was published originally in serialized form. It's absolutely terrific stuff, one of the most essential mystery novels of all, not just of the noir subgenre where it might be the single one best. It's likely familiar to many as Billy Wilder's 1944 film adaptation with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, the screenplay for which Wilder collaborated on with Raymond Chandler. Cain's background as a screenplay writer in his own right made his fiction uniquely adaptable to movies, and perhaps nowhere is it so evident as here—I rank this movie pretty high too, making it one of those unique and happy occurrences that should be enjoyed when they happen: great novel, great movie. The story is pretty simple. Insurance man Walter Huff throws in with femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger (perhaps the most unlikely name ever for a femme fatale) on an elaborate plot to off her husband for insurance money; for him it's about the dame as much as the money. For her, it's not as clear. It's set again in southern California, and if the movie can boast the talents of the amazing Stanwyck (and, yes, MacMurray is pretty good too), the book has the advantage of color, by which I mean the language itself as much as anything. You can open this to practically any page and get prose as dense and compact as heavy metals, or sparkling dialogue, or both. It's purely a treat and even more worth savoring than Cain's first. Here's an obligatory sample, offered partly as a taste for you of what the book has in store, and yet perhaps even more as an opportunity for me to type this language and enjoy the fleeting sensation of having actually written it: "The furniture was Spanish, the kind that looks pretty and sits stiff. The rug was one of those 12 x 15's that would have been Mexican except it was made in Oakland, California. The blood-red drapes were there, but they didn't mean anything. All these Spanish houses have red velvet drapes that run on iron spears, and generally some red velvet wall tapestries to go with them. This was right out of the same can, with a coat-of-arms tapestry over the fireplace and a castle tapestry over the fireplace." Thanks, that felt good.

In case it's not at the library.

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