Classic Film Noir
Now that you are familiar with the concept of Noirvember, I thought it only appropriate to start with a review of one of my favourite noir films. “Double Indemnity” is a fascinating, tragic story of an insurance agent and a bored housewife.
No, really 🙂
The movie is a thrilling story about greed, heartbreak and human weakness. Walter Neff, an insurance agent, sits in his office, wounded, and records a story for his boss, Barton. It all started with the Dietrichsons. He recounts going to their house to discuss an insurance policy and instead of Mr. Dietrichson, he meets his wife, flirty, beautiful Phyllis. They both immediately take a liking to each other and Phyllis loudly wonders about the life policy of her husband. It doesn’t take long for them to come up with a plan that will not only free her from her married status, but also get them a nice lump sum of $100,000. With such an amoral plot, it can’t all end up happily, can it?
On rewatching the movie I was captivated by how the feeling of impending doom was conveyed since the very first scene. We know from the very first moment that this is not going to end well. Walter narrates his story bleeding from a gunshot wound, so we know there are going to be consequences for him. Wilder used this flashback device, telling us the ending from the very start, in his other famous film noir, “Sunset Boulevard”. I think it is a vital element of the gloomy mood of noir. What hooks us is how the plot to kill Phyllis’s husband is going to go wrong.
Another element of the film breaking up the convention is the lack of good – as in, sympathetic – characters in this film. Walter has no qualms about seducing a married woman and is quite ready kill her husband, both for love and the money. Cold Phyllis is almost a psychopath, motivated by little more than boredom. Barton, Walter’s boss is presented as the honest guy, dedicated to his work, but also kind of pretentious and charmless (although the father-son relationship between him and Walter is probably the one positive relationship in the movie). Phyllis’s doomed husband is rich, boorish and utterly dull. Nevertheless, the drama that ensnares them all is immediately captivating.
The movie itself is a collaboration of titans. Based on a novel by James M. Cain, with the script written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, and directed by Wilder, it truly set a standard for many films of the genre. The same goes for the look of the film. It takes place in the City of Angels, and if a scene takes place outside, it’s almost always night. If it’s inside, it’s dimly lit, with sunlight coming in through the blinds, exposing dust in the air.
The only exception is Barton’s office. That’s because Barton, despite his lack of charisma, is the moral center of the film. He is, however, too blind to see that the person he is looking for, the accomplice in the murder of Mr. Dietrichson, is his friend of 11 years, someone “close – right across the desk […]”. “Closer than that” he says to Neff quietly. Neff smiles, and struggles to light up a cigarette. Barton takes the lighter from him and lights up the cigarette. There is tenderness in this exchange that enhances the tragic heroism of the story.
Does it stand the test of time?
To me, absolutely. It’s a must-see for any fan of not just film noir, but classic cinema in general. The movie did not gain universal acclaim when it first came out. Despite its popularity, many people were uncomfortable with its theme and saw it as too immoral. At the 17th Academy Awards in 1945, “Double Indemnity” received seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Film, but did not win any. Its appreciation and popularity, however, grew in time. In 1992 the U.S. Library of Congress deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and thus selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Interesting tidbit about me – I once wrote a 10-page paper about just one scene from “Double Indemnity” for a film study class. It was about the first meeting between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, starting with her descending from the stairs. Remember when the camera first focuses just on her anklet? That’s an introduction of a sensual femme fatale!