Showing posts with label Fred MacMurray. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fred MacMurray. Show all posts

Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

Double Indemnity
by James M. Cain
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
Paperback ISBN: 9780679723226
128 pages

When asked to define film noir, one movie often comes to mind as the most representative of the cinematic movement: Double Indemnity (1944). Not only is it the most noirish of the noirs, it’s one of the best films ever made. With Billy Wilder’s direction, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson portrayals and key filmmaking elements such as expert pacing, lighting and set design, the whole movie comes together as a veritable work of art. Double Indemnity also paved way for other noirs, especially The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both novels were written by James M. Cain and the battle to get Double Indemnity past production code guidelines allowed for negotiations to finally bring Postman to the big screen.

I read The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years ago to compare it to the movie and I was really intrigued by how lustful, violent and even racist the original story was in comparison to the movie adaptation. Then I wondered: how would Double Indemnity hold up with a novel-to-movie comparison?

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is a novella that was originally serialized by Liberty Magazine in 1936 before it was published in book form as one of three stories in a collection. The book packs a punch in just 115 pages. Like the film, the story is told from insurance salesman Walter’s (Fred MacMurray) perspective. Through his first person narration, Walter relates the details of how he and his lover Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) plotted to murder her husband and commit insurance fraud for a big payout. Instead of relating his story to a dictaphone like MacMurray does in the film, Walter is writing a long letter to his work colleague Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) while traveling on a vessel.

I was quite captivated by Cain’s novel. It’s short enough that you can lose yourself in it and read the whole book in one sitting. The novel portrays Phyllis as a much more sinister character, Keyes becomes important only at the very end of the book, and Lola (Jean Heather), Phyllis’s stepdaughter, and her boyfriend Nino (Byron Barr) have a more distinct present in the story. The novel is heavy on the dialogue—Walter’s dictation and his conversations with the other characters. But there are also some interesting descriptions of the location settings including Glendale and Hollywood, California.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.” — Walter 
“I was standing right on the deep end, looking over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, and get quick, and never come back. But that was what I kept telling myself. What I was doing was peeping over that edge, and all the time I was trying to pul away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look.” — Walter 
“Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness…” — Phyllis 
“Walter—I’m so excited. It does terrible things to me.” — Phyllis 
I don’t often like somebody. At my trade, you can’t afford to. The whole human race looks—a bit crooked.” — Keyes

While James M. Cain was originally hired to adapt his own novel, ultimately Billy Wilder and fellow noir novelist Raymond Chandler were responsible for the final screenplay. Here are some of the changes they made:


  • Character names get a makeover. Walter Neff is changed to Walter Huff, Phyllis Nirdlinger (yes you read that correctly) was changed to Phyllis Dietrichson and Nino Sachetti was changed to Nino Zachetti. Phyllis’ maid Belle becomes Nettie and the original Nettie, Norton’s secretary, isn’t given a name at all.
  • Phyllis is described as having a lust for death. She’s driven by that more so than by freedom and money. Part of her backstory includes being a killer nurse. Like in the film, she’s responsible for killing Lola’s mother. In the novel she’s also responsible for killing three children which led to a malpractice suit that ultimately affected the Sachetti/Zachetti family.
  • Asian characters in the novel, Walter’s Filipino “houseboy” and Walter and Phyllis’s mutual acquaintance Mr. Ling are not included in the film adaptation.
  • The Keyes character is brought to the forefront giving Edward G. Robinson more screen time. In the film, Keyes is the moral center of the story. In the novel, Keyes orchestrates a getaway plan for Walter. That would not fly during the Hays Code era when all murderers depicted on screen had to pay for their crime.
  • Phyllis shoots Walter but Lola and Nino are blamed for it. Walter is fixated on clearing Lola’s name. They had both stopped seeing Phyllis and Nino respectively and started dating each other.
  • The final scenes in Double Indemnity are some of the most memorable. It depicts Walter confessing to Keyes at their place of work with Walter making a weak attempt at a getaway. IN the novel, Walter and Phyllis are on a boat grappling with the future that lays ahead of them. They make a suicide pact and the suggestion is that they jumped off the vessel and were eaten by sharks. Phyllis goes as far to dress up for her “bridegroom” Death, whom she describes as her one true love. She puts chalk on her face to look paler, creates dark circles around her eyes, puts on red lipstick and drapes herself in red silk for this upcoming “wedding.” Eek!


Ultimately, James M. Cain was happy with the changes Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler made to his story. He even commended them for some scenes he wish he had thought of in the first place. This is one of those rare cases in which the movie improves on the book.

Have you read the novel? If so, what did you think of it?

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Kino Lorber Studio Classics: Arise, My Love (1940) and No Time for Love (1943)


Check out my latest YouTube video where I review two Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-rays: Arise, My Love (1940) and No Time for Love (1943). Both are Paramount films directed Mitchell Leisen and starring Claudette Colbert. Arise, My Love (1940) is a light romantic drama set in WWII starring Ray Milland. No Time for Love (1943) is a hilarious screwball comedy starring Fred MacMurray and also featuring Ilka Chase and June Havoc.

Monday, April 4, 2016

On honoring my father's wishes and The Miracle of the Bells (1948)

Timing is everything.

My father passed away in August and since that time I have been in charge of his settling his affairs. Recently I took a day off to get a few errands done including delivering my parents' tax forms and paperwork to their lawyer. He's been in the business for 52 years and still does everything with pen and paper. When I entered his office I was struck by the lack of technology. He had a simple fold out desk, a basic chair, and paperwork scattered everywhere. There was no computer. He did everything the same way he had been doing it for the last half century. I delivered my parents' paperwork knowing that this is what my father would have wanted. He would have wanted his taxes to be done by the same lawyer who had been doing them for the family since the 1980s. He would have wanted them to be done with pen and paper. He would have wanted a paper check for his tax return. As my father's daughter I saw to it that his final tax forms were done the way he would have wanted because honoring the wishes of the dead is the responsibility of the living.

Later that same day I watched the RKO film The Miracle of the Bells (1948). It had been recorded on my DVR in December when TCM had their Frank Sinatra month and I forgot about it. I picked a film at random from my DVR and wouldn't you know it it's a film about carrying out the wishes of someone who has passed away. It's like the universe was waiting for this exact day for me to watch this movie.

It's a bizarre little film. Fred MacMurray plays press agent Bill Dunnigan. He brings the body of deceased actress Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) to her hometown. She left him very specific instructions on what to do after she died. Olga wanted a funeral service held at St. Michael's church, 6 girls dressed as angels surrounding her casket, ringing of church bells and a burial at the top of a hill where her parents were laid to rest. Coaltown is aptly named because of the thriving mining business. The town is also the reason why Olga's parents died and why she died, the coal dust weakened her lungs and tuberculosis set in. Dunnigan's first encounters with the people of Coaltown is disheartening. No one remembers Olga, they speak ill of her father who was known as a town drunk and the funeral director (Harold Vermilyea) wants to squeeze every penny out of Dunnigan. His faith in humanity is restored when he meets Father Paul (Frank Sinatra, yes that Frank Sinatra) of St. Michael's church. Father Paul's humility, patience and willingness to listen allows Dunnigan to open up about Olga's story which the audience see through flashbacks.

Publicity photo of Fred MacMurray, Alida Valli and Frank Sinatra from The Miracle of the Bells (1948).

She's determined to become a star and knows she has very little time to achieve her goal. Dunnigan steps in as her savior in more ways than one.  As it turns out Dunnigan has discovered a wonderful new talent in Olga and works to get her the role of Joan of Arc in a film produced by Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb). Olga turns out a marvelous performance only to die the day after the film is finished. Harris threatens to shelve the film and reshoot it with another star. Dunnigan is determined to save Olga's legacy. He wants to make her funeral a national story. How does he do it? He pays 5 churches of Coaltown to ring their bells continuously for 72 hours hoping this will bring national attention to Olga and change Harris' mind about shelving the film. In order to make a difference Dunnigan will have to go big or go home.

The Miracle of the Bells (1948) might have an odd plot but this quirk film will draw you in and hold your attention. You can't help but root for the main characters even while you're scratching your head with confusion. The first scenes of the film show Dunnigan (MacMurray) bringing Olga's body to Coaltown and this sets a morbid tone to the film. It's not a weepy nor is the film overly sentimental. Which is odd because I think that was the intention in the first place. Because this film is so strange its quirks make it seem more genuine despite of itself. There are religious overtones but it's not heavy handed. Flashback scenes give us plenty of time to learn about Olga and to watch as her relationship with Dunnigan develops. They also give us a respite from the somber tone of the present day's situation.

This movie did not fare well despite it being based on the best-selling novel by Russell Janney. It suffered a financial loss at the box office and it was released when Frank Sinatra's career was on a downward spiral. Most people give this film unfavorable reviews however I liked it despite its flaws. Maybe you just have to be in the right mood to enjoy it.

The Miracle of the Bells (1948) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films.

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