Crime novels, murder mysteries and detective books aren’t my forte. I usually catch sight of the huge mystery portion of book stores and shiver when overlooking the sheer mass of what’s churned out every month. Basically, my fear is that I won’t have any life if I’m reading about death all the time. For the sheer amount of stuff I’ve read, you’d be surprised by how little of it’s been mysteries.
My appreciation of the genre changed though not so very long ago when I stumbled across a book put out by the Library of America while perusing the library. Crime Novels of the 40s is the one I checked out, and later went and got the companion volume Crime Novels of The Fifties. While I’ve no great love for the murder mystery, I do love film-noir movies, and I was attracted to these volumes because most of the books were adapted into films.
The first book I read from the 40s one was The Postman Always Rings Twice. Good story, I thought, and I went out and found the film with John Garfield and Lana Turner and its become a favorite. It’s basically about a poor shlub who falls for a woman but succumbs to sexual frustration as his every advance is blocked by her dopey husband. Absurdly, a large portion of the story resembles slapstick comedy. Its said to have inspired Albert Camus to write The Stranger. The movie alterred the story a bit (not as much as I thought it would though, considering the suggestiveness of the material), and replaced the dark haired Hispanic woman with a leggy blonde. There’s been two remakes, one by the great director Luchino Visconti called La Obsessione and another with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.
From here, I went and read Double Indemnity. Now this is a better book that inspired a better movie. From a ridiculous premise comes a great read. I normally hate when people write un-put-downable in their review, but in this case, no better phrase applies. I started it one night and finished it the next morning, sleeping begrudgingly.
The book involves an insurance agent named Walter Huff coming across a cool customer in Phillis Nerdlinger. After seducing him rather quickly, she learns from him of Double Indemnity, a special claus in which, if a person dies in an unlikely way, the grievers can make more money. The two then begin to plot her husband’s death. At the time the book came out, it shocked people because it turned the story around. Here the main characters are the villains, while the detective hovers on the periphery.
The film by Billy Wilder is better than the book, and the book was good. The script was written by Raymond Chandler and Wilder. Wilder complained that Chandler was always drunk, and said he made the movie The Lost Weekend to show Chandler what a drunkard he was. Chandler complained that Wilder hogged all the credit for the movie. Whatever the case, their partnership yielded a great result. They managed to iron out the story, flesh out the dialogue, and craft a better ending. This is one of the few cases I’ve heard of where an author actually liked the adaptation of his book. James M. Cain is said to have watched the film 11 times.
It has star-turning roles for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Fred was a TV star at the time, playing the lead on Father Knows Best, a genial sitcom. After playing a muderer, Fred was approached by a woman on the street who actually hit him with her purse, saying he’d ruined the show for her because now she only sees him as a bad guy. As for Stanwyck, she’d go on to relive the success (it was the biggest hit of the year, and widely talked about) in several other crime films including No Man of Her Own (based on the good Cornell Woolrich novel) and Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a movie with a strikingly similar tone and conclusion to Double Indemnity. It also featues Kirk Douglas’ first performance.
If I hadn’t read Double Indemnity, I probably wouldn’t have seen the film, just as I likewise wouldn’t have read other novels from the Crime Novel series including The Talented Mr. Ripley (another great one) and No Man of Her Own (stylishtically superb). For that reason, I’m doubly indebted to double indemnity.
To read a post about another fine Barbara Stanwyck-Billy Wilder Film Ball of Fury, click here.