Double Indemnity • Film Noir and Postwar American Cinema

Greenscreening Series #15

December 2, 2022

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Double Indemnity (1942) directed by Billy Wilder

*Double Indemnity*


Has dialogue ever been more perfectly hard-boiled? Has a femme fatale ever been as deliciously wicked as Barbara Stanwyck? And has 1940s Los Angeles ever looked so seductively sordid? Working with cowriter Raymond Chandler, director Billy Wilder launched himself onto the Hollywood A-list with this epitome of film-noir fatalism from James M. Cain’s pulp novel. When slick salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) walks into the swank home of dissatisfied housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), he intends to sell insurance, but he winds up becoming entangled with her in a far more sinister way. Featuring scene-stealing supporting work from Edward G. Robinson and the chiaroscuro of cinematographer John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity is one of the most entertainingly perverse stories ever told and the standard by which all noir must be measured. - Criterion

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Why Double Indemnity?

  • Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir, the standard-bearer for the movement.

  • Film Noir emerged in the 1940s-50s as a loose subgenre of the thriller or drama, defined by stylish production, sordid tales of crime, and a gloomy, cynical view of human nature and postwar American society. Noir grew out of a new wave of pulp novels and detective stories that emerged during the Great Depression, with authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett morphing the Victorian era detective genre into darker, grittier territory. Film Noir was also highly influenced by German Expressionism, French Poetic Realism, and the gangster film, incorporating highly stylized visuals and dealing with dark, disturbing subject matter.

  • Coming on the heels of the Great Depression and WWII, Film Noir dealt with the psychological trauma of those years, as the world became acquainted with weapons of mass destruction, concentration camps, and mass unemployment. How to make sense of such a world? How were soldiers and men and women on the front lines of the war effort supposed to reintegrate into society? Film Noir provided a dark answer to these questions. Since many of the key directors of Noir films were European immigrants who fled during the 1930s, one can understand the desire to tell stories of the darkness within human nature threatening to spill over into postwar society.

  • Film Noir gave rise to the femme fatale, or fatal woman, who was sexually available and highly desirable, downright irresistible to the male protagonist, but who would use him and destroy him. Thematically, noir was dealing with gender and sexuality, particularly anxiety about post-war gender roles. During the War, nearly 16 million Americans served overseas, and 90+% of them were men. Women were called into the workforce, and had significantly more opportunities along with new responsibilities. In postwar society, gender roles would need to evolve, but to what?

  • Double Indemnity has all the trappings of great noir. The story is told in voiceover, with the male protagonist confessing a crime. The crime: a get-rich scheme between two lovers. The lovers: a lustful insurance agent and the blonde femme fatale who lures him into a plot to kill her husband. Throughout, we have the classic noir imagery - chiaroscuro lighting, venetian blinds, cigarette smoking, rain-slicked streets. And the classic noir dialogue - snappy, hard-boiled, rough language, from one of the greatest writers in film history, Billy Wilder.

*Double Indemnity*

  • Double Indemnity was the first directorial masterpiece by auteur Billy Wilder. Like Howard Hawks, Wilder worked across genres, producing classic comedies as well as dramas, and of course, film noir. Wilder was the bridge between classic Hollywood and contemporary Hollywood, working from the 1930s to 1980. Wilder is known for excellent writing, sharp dialogue, films that play with identity and loyalties, and cynical, biting critiques of human nature and capitalist bureaucracies, all of which are on display in Double Indemnity.

  • Barbara Stanwyck gives an iconic performance as Phyllis Dietrichson, becoming the ultimate femme fatale. Stanwyck became a star with racy 1930s Pre-Code films, and graduated to screwball comedies and dramas, becoming the highest paid actress in Hollywood by the early 1940s. Cast against type in this film, and taking a risk by going fully dark, she returns to the Pre-Code style, using her sexuality to lure an infatuated insurance salesman into a murder plot. Her expression during the murder scene alone is worth studying.

*Double Indemnity*

*Double Indemnity*

  • Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson are perfectly cast against type here as well. Fred MacMurray plays the ordinary man caught up in lust and murder, after previously playing the overmatched man in screwball comedies and other light fare. He's never fully believable as a tough guy, which makes Walter Neff an even more interesting noir protagonist. Robinson was the star of the original gangster film, Little Caesar, and had been a leading man for most of the 1930s. Here, he’s on the other side of the law, as the worldly insurance claims investigator sniffing out fraud and a murder, deftly making the shift from leading man to character actor.

*Double Indemnity*

Questions to Consider / What to Watch For

Keep an eye out for the Film Noir style throughout the film:

  • Chiaroscuro lighting and black and white cinematography
  • Dutch angles, or bizarre, unnatural camera angles and intense close-ups
  • Night time
  • Flashbacks and nonlinear narrative
  • Voiceover, often given by unreliable narrators
  • Dreamlike / nightmarish atmosphere
  • Hard boiled dialogue, with tough talking and innuendos
  • Antiheroes, including the femme fatale
  • Alienation or boredom with the drudgery of life

*Double Indemnity*

The film is narrated by Walter Neff, confessing his crime through an office memo to his colleague, Keyes. Why do you think Walter confesses his crime? And why to Keyes?

Do you trust Walter’s version of events? Why or why not?

Watch for the brilliant use of key themes and motifs throughout. First, the use of methods of transportation; both literally and metaphorically. Second, the body and body parts. There are tons of mentions of body parts - necks, hearts, legs, Keyes' suspicious stomach. What is Wilder getting at?

Pay close attention to what Double Indemnity says about gender roles in postwar America. How are men and women represented? Who has the power in the various relationships? Who controls the narrative, and how does that influence how others are portrayed?

Further Viewing

Film Noir is a rich genre full of classics. If you're interested in going further, consider the following as a starting point:

Out of the Past (1947) directed by Jacques Tourneur Another quintessential noir; this was my initial choice for the series. Also bears the standard for the genre, with a loopy nonlinear plot, pitch-black tone, and lots of betrayals.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston Considered the first true film noir, Humphrey Bogart stars in this excellent adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel.

In a Lonely Place (1950) directed by Nicholas Ray Humphrey Bogart again going noir, this time as a troubled screenwriter suspected of murder, who may have actually committed the crime.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) directed by Robert Aldrich I mean, the title alone is worth admission, right? This mid-50s noir follows detective Mike Hammer's pursuit of a mysterious briefcase and might end with nuclear annihilation.

Touch of Evil (1958) directed by Orson Welles Welles' last truly great film contains one of the greatest opening scenes in film history, amazing cinematography, and great performances from Welles, Janet Leigh, and Charlton Heston.

*Double Indemnity*

Read More About Noir and Double Indemnity

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