Monday, May 14, 2012

A Shark's Meal - James M. Cain's Double Indemnity

The story, Double Indemnity, written in 1944 by James M. Cain has great materiality to it. Its literary style reeking of film noir before its invention; the narrative is painted with brush stroked characters living large–or trying to–within a Hollywood lifestyle, bored with their average existences. There are the obvious elements of sex, insurance fraud, and murder, but then there’s love and innocence too, before the villain’s downfall, and it’s a very sharp incline. Servants, the ocean, the moon, and a shark appear as vivid accouterments to the plot and lighten the burden to stomach its depravity.

I had seen the classic 1944 film Double Indemnity, a decade or two or more, before I read Cain’s book on a recent Saturday. The suspense that I felt quickly uncovering the short 115 page fiction increased tenfold knowing that I would have to wait to watch the film and recall clearly any differences. I was tempted, seduced into wanting more, Cain wet my appetite–at the same time that I wanted to go ahead and see the film to quiet my anticipation, but I also did not want to spoil it, that suspense. I did not want it to end either, as if I were imagining what I might eat or drink if I could have anything, the dreaming as good, maybe better than the reality.
The film was made by the great Billy Wilder in 1944. It's after the depression years have gone by and Wilder introduces audiences to the style film noir. The characters involved get started almost immediately in their downward spiral. Watch them begin their dalliance in the clip below.

The story despite its taking place in the Hollywood Hills is full of darkly lit shots and shadows lurking with the femme fatale, played by Barbara Stanwyck, and the insurance agent, gone bad, played by Fred McMurray. McMurray known for being the big friendly guy (think My Three Sons) was cast against type in this role which was a turnaround and an under recognized performance.

In the clip above, you can see how Stanwyck's hair looks gruesome; this was done on purpose, adding to the image of predatory nature. In the middle of the day in sunny California in a grocery store, this shark [Stanwyck] has on dark sunglasses as she pulls this fisherman down into the depths with her. If I had to choose one word to describe the feeling for Double Indemnity, it would be uncanny for the thirst it gives the reader for its wickedness. If I had to choose one sentence to do a close reading - "That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate." Talk about spoiling a meal? Like a shark though I’m hungry for more, and Cain’s stories and their film adaptations will make quite a rich spread.

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