Man, what a ride!
Back when the giant “Hollywood” sign still ended in”Land,” Walter Huff, long time agent for a small time Los Angeles insurance company stops at the Nirdlinger home to get Mr. Nirdlinger’s signature on a routine renewal form. Nirdlinger’s wife Phyllis informs Huff that she’s alone. The two quickly begin an affair that ends with a plot to kill Mr. Nirdlinger and claim his 50,000 dollar accident policy for themselves.
Since Mr. Huff knows his business well enough to fool any insurance investigator, the police won’t be a problem. The two take their time, plan the murder to the smallest detail, wait for the right moment, and almost get away with it.
And that’s all I’ll tell you. Except to say that the book is different enough plot wise and ending wise to surprise fans of the 1944 Billy Wilder movie starring Fred McMurry and Barbara Stanwyck. It’s just as sexy, too, even if Mr. Cain does go places we might not rather he did.
Walter Huff narrates the novel in classic noir fashion with an attitude jaded from years in the insurance business, but it’s Phyllis Nirdlinger we want to follow. While Mr. Cain portrays Phyllis as softer in nature than Barbara Stanwcyk does in the Wilder movie, she’s still manipulative, cut-throat, willing to do whatever she needs to gain control of Nirdlinger’s oil money. She manages to conceal the complete extent of her criminal nature from everyone but Nirdlinger’s teenage daughter and Mr. Keyes, head of the claims department at the insurance company. To hear Keyes talk, no one ever died of natural causes or actual mishap. No one with life insurance anyway.
Because Double Idemnity‘s plot will rule the book in the end, Mr. Cain sketches in the setting and the characters with just a few key details. He manages to provide all we need to know about his Los Angeles setting with a few remarks: Nirdlinger’s Spanish style house with a red tile roof like all the others; blood-red draperies hanging from an iron rod; a Spanish looking tapestry of a castle, made in Oakland, over the fireplace; Spanish furniture “the kind that looks pretty and sits stiff.” When Huff first meets Phyllis he sees “a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair. She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas. She had a washed out look.” She has a washed out look, and the book has a washed out feel. The reader can fill in the rest of the details as needed; Mr. Cain moves quickly on to the action.
And action there is plenty.
James M. Cain was a failure in Hollywood before he was a success. Early in his career he worked as a screenwriter, but his name appears in the credits of only three films. However, three of his novels–Double Idemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce–became cornerstones in the film noir genre earning multiple Oscar nominations and placement on most top 100 films of the 20th century lists. Below is a clip from the first scene Fred McMurry and Barbara Stanwyck share in Double Idemnity. The dialogue is mostly by Billy Wilder’s co-writer, Raymond Chandler. The two felt that Mr. Cain’s dialogue worked only on paper.
This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2011. I’m currently reading a book about noir author’s in Hollywood called Heartbreak and Vine, just about to start the chapter on James M. Cain. So, no, I have not lost my love of noir thrillers.