Created by James M. Cain
"I don't often like somebody. At my trade, you can't afford to.
-- Keyes to Neff in Double Indemnity
BARTON KEYES is the dogged, determined investigator for General Fidelity of California who puts it all together in Double Indemnity, James M. Cain's classic 1936 tale of lust and murder and insurance .
Still, as far as the book goes, he's a relatively minot character.
It's in the classic 1944 film noir, directed by Billy Wilder, with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, that Keyes really comes into his own. The film garnered numerous Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (it lost to Going My Way), Best Director, Best Actress (for Barbara Stanwyck) and Best Screenplay (for Raymond Chandler).
Do I even have to tell the story? Although wilder and Chandler basically deconstructed the novel and re-wrote it from the ground up, the basic story stands up: Insurance man and love-struck sap Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets drawn into the web of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who wants him to bump off her no-good husband, while Edward G. Robinson plays the hard-bitten insurance dick (and Fred's boss and friend) Barton Keyes, who smells a rat.
Not to take anything from MacMurray or Stanwyck, but check out Robinson in the film -- he makes the most out of his limited time onscreen, delivering a powerful but nuanced performance, carrying all the agony and pain of a man caught between duty and friendship, and idealism and cynicism. His relationship with Neff is almost as integral to the film's overall emotional and thematic impact as the one between Neff and Phyllis. The doomed friendship between the two men is pure Chandler, all banter and unspoken affection, and in fact Keyes displays more than a passing similiarity to Marlowe, particularly in his discussions of the "little man" in his chest who won't let him sleep until he sets the world right. A bit more screen time, and Keyes could have been one of the all-time great cinematic eyes.
And evidently, I'm not alone in that opinion. Due to the film's popularity, Robinson himself had high hopes of spinning off Keyes into a continuing character. So, in 1946, Cain wrote Nevada Moon, intending to sell it for serial publication to the slicks and from there to the movies. The story focussed on Keyes, but it failed to sell to either market so Cain tucked it away.
Eventually, he dusted it off, reworked it (eliminating all references to Keyes and Double Indemnity), and sold it to Avon, who published it as a 1950 paperback original, re-titling it Jealous Woman.
Black Lizard reprinted it in 1989 under that title, with Keyes once again, if not the central character, at least very much the dominant force in it, and re-insterting the jettisoned references to Double Indemnity. Keyes is now head of the claims department of the General Pan-Pacific of California Life Insurance Company, with a rep for sniffing out any "twisted, cock-eyed, queer angle that could be found on (a claim), and about two dozen of his own that nobody else could find in it, but that he had to see just to show what a genius he was at it."
Meanwhile, in 1973, ABC television had taken another crack at it, airing a made-for-television flick scripted by Steve Bocho and starring Richard Crenna and Samantha Eggar as the treacherous lovebirds, with Lee J. Cobb as Keyes. It's an interesting remake for fans of the original, but it's hardly essential viewing, and was pretty much forgotten until it was brought back to life as a bonus feature on the long-awaited DVD release of the original 1944 classic.
Just what it says: the complete screenplay Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on Cain's novel, plus the original -- and quite different -- ending, and an introduction that boasts several tales out of school about the collaboration (did Chandler get along with anyone?), and other inside dope on the making of the film..
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