MattFloyd’s review published on Letterboxd:
Instructor's Note: Here's the question our professor asked us to consider whilst watching the movie - How does this film adhere to the conventions of Film Noir? Name some elements associated with Film Noir and give specific examples of how Double Indemnity uses those elements. [Mary Dutterer]
Initial Response: Double Indemnity has been often described as the first archetypal film noir, or at least "arguably the first to bring together all the major elements of the style" (Arnold 91). While there were certainly earlier films that invoked noir's mere concept, Double Indemnity was the first one to deliberately bring all the defining thematic elements together in order to successfully build up a foreboding atmosphere. The film's uncanny meditations upon modern cynicism turned out to be so influential upon subsequent films that according to Paul Schrader, "three years later, [copycats] were dropping off the studio assembly lines" (Schrader 12). How did such an immoral melodrama- the Hays Office along with Paramount Studios reportedly tried to block the film from appearing upon national screens due to its then salacious material- manage to strike a chord in audiences to the point they found themselves demanding for more "murder dramas" of the same degree (Schrader 12, Muller 8)? The answer relies upon closely examining all the noteworthy/recurring motifs that have appeared within the film itself: the urban setting, the hard-boiled dialogue, the expressionistic cinematography, the femme fatale, the adult situation and most crucially, the fatalistic mood employed whilst telling this particularly grim tale.
Double Indemnity certainly uses the stereotypical stylism to its full advantage. The moody cinematography and claustrophobic setting are used to convey an uninviting atmosphere within the film itself. Consider the fact that the film presents Los Angeles as being deceptive of its true nature. Neff (Fred MacMurray) works in a office building where he's confined to a small/dull office, tasked with selling life insurance- not an ideal place for selling such macabre material. Neff is further confined in terms of space whenever he meets Phyllis Dietrichson- the first time where they meet each other, he's too busy admiring her reception room to fully comprehend what's actually going on here- to the point that he can't rely wholly upon his own conscience. He only gets involved with her murderous plans once they're together in his limited apartment suite. If he wanted to meet her in public, then he'd best forget about it: he can only pass instructions along to her at a grocery store- a place constantly overflowing with hurrying consumers who always happen to bump into the two strangers whilst those two try in vain to have a conversation. By always being placed in closed spaces- whether cramped (Dietrichson's mansion), petite (the apartment suite), or congested (both the grocery store and the insurance agency), Neff finds his individuality severely limited as a result of feeling compressed by either his own animalistic emotions (his sexual awakening for Phyllis) or by social dictations (his working area's corrupted ethics system). The only places where he seems to showcase his inner humanity is where he is allowed to roam within an open space- it's no coincidence that he does the morally right thing for the struggling young couple when he's in a larger area, shown by his realization of Phyllis's true intentions when he takes her stepdaughter to the Hollywood Bowl's surrounding hills as well as by him telling that same truth to that young woman's jealous boyfriend. The environmental tragedy is that by allowing himself to be trapped in a suffocating urban prison, Neff's soul ultimately weakens to the point that he becomes immoral himself.
The cinematography doesn't help relieve audience members of their claustrophobia as John Seitz, the film's photographer, employs "sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings", along with "low-key lighting", to lure audience members "into a dark, seamy underworld" (Ebert, Arnold 91-92). Even though the film can be extremely hard to see- even poor Wilder noted that "the rushes were so dark, that you couldn't see anything", this reliance on darkness manages to instill an uneasiness within the audience to the point that basic human emotions come bubbling up from their psyches (Arnold 92). According to then-contemporary film reviewer Jane Corby of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, when audience members first saw the film upon its premiere, they were so involved with the doomed/figuratively marked couple that "at one point the audience, keyed up to the breaking point, finally let go with a long, drawn out 'Eeeek!' as the guilty pair escaped detection by a hair's breadth" (Vieira 55- Corby).
The hard-boiled dialogue, combined with a omnipresent cynically romantic love for voiceover, also helps direct Double Indemnity towards obeying noir conventions (Schrader 11). The script, written by an emotionally ill-fated collaboration between Billy Wilder and famed "novelist Raymond Chandler", contains so many brutal lines of dialogue that film buffs have trouble picking one favorite exchange. Just to keep this essay short, here's my personal favorite- it's when Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) finally uses his wickedly smart brain to figure out how Mr. Dietrichson’s corpse really ended up on the railroad tracks, ultimately confiding in his associate Neff: “This Dietrichson business. It’s murder, and murders don’t come any neater. As fancy a piece of homicide as anybody ever ran into. Smart, tricky, almost perfect - but… I think Papa has it all figured out” (Double Indemnity). Notice that the last listing subphrase, “Smart, tricky, almost perfect”, has a rhythmic meter to it, making such seemingly bland expressions fully pop out into bringing new life to it. All the dialogue comes fully loaded with “a wonderful flair" for perfect timing- an odd statement considering that Raymond Chandler was “taking his first stab at screenwriting” when he joined forces with Billy Wilder to write the film’s script (Arnold 91). It also helps that that same dialogue also has a very "nasty spin" to it, as murders, poison and suicide become just as familiar tokens as "I love you" (Ebert, Double Indemnity).
Film noir didn't play by the accepted rules as adult situations frequently crept in through these programmers, subsequently exposing society's hypocrisy as nothing more than a damaging lie. The critic Ty Burr once appropriately described film noir as being "the death-metal of their day", in order for him to fully explain that these films refused to "trust the governing culture of their time" (Burr 230). Whilst moviegoers flocked to musicals and romances for routine escapism, noir subtly showcased off what the American Dream was really like, often in "unflinching" terms (Schrader 12). Double Indemnity curses mindless capitalism for encouraging societies- heck, even individuals- to continually abuse each other's mere humanity for material dominance. At the same time, it gleefully gives censorship a middle finger as it exploits adultery and sex within barely legal limits. Considering that the film was made during the dictatorial Hays Code, it's amazing that Billy Wilder got away with showing a masochist Barbara Stanwyck off in all her tantalizing glory- she even wears an extremely tight sweater whilst secretly spending some quality time with her lover!
Of course, the filmmakers were very sly in their defiance against legalized censorship as they employed subtle measures to get their viewpoints across. Actors speak double entendres aloud with the same intense earnestness that one gives whilst doing a censorable activity. Directors imply that their amoral characters just had sex with each other by utilizing cuts in place of the actual thing- notice how Phyllis and Neff are chilling out on opposite ends of a sofa, even though they were last seen embracing in the previous shot.
To make their message even more subdued, these professionals would even rattle off brilliant excuses out in public just so they'd be able to get away with subversion. When Sidney Skolsky, a publicist writing for New York Evening Post at the time, "visited Barbara Stanwyck on the set [of Double Indemnity]", he reportedly asked the star: "'How did you ever get away with that role?'" "'Easy,' she answered. 'No objections. The story proves that crime doesn't pay.' 'But the sweater. The sweater! How did the Hays Office ever let that get by?' 'What's wrong with it? The picture is very moral. It's anti-crime and anti-sweater. It shows what happens if you fall for a gal who wears a sweater'" (Vieira 55- Skolsky).
Speaking of gals who unfortunately wear revealing sweaters, Double Indemnity also follows noir tradition by incorporating a deadly femme fatale into the mix- suggesting that cold femininity is socially more dangerous than it is for cold masculinity. Whilst Phyllis's coldness leads her to murder two people, exemplified much clearer when her stepdaughter informs Neff that it was Phyllis who practiced fatal malpractice on the first Dietrichson, Neff's coldness leads him to seek/achieve social justice by refusing to believe in Phyllis's genuine emotions for him. Phyllis is also more psychopathic than Neff ever is- whilst Neff's final requests for Keyes is for the elderly father figure to look after the orphaned Lola Dietrichson now that the wicked stepmother won't hurt her anymore, Phyllis's final words betray her inherent lack of sympathy towards her fellow human beings. The only positive aspect that Phyllis ever does in the entire movie, besides looking sexy for Neff's male gaze, is to admit that she couldn't fire any more bullets into him due to how sorry she felt for him. Too little, too late for Phyllis to be properly redeemed...
This pessimistic sense of doom and gloom brings us to what truly makes Double Indemnity remarkable is that it's perfectly frank in its fatalistic attitude. In order for a noir to be truly classified as a noir, it needs to have a dour sense of cynicism within its pumping veins, as if those occupying characters within those frames all rightfully know that they're marching towards "a predetermined fate" (Schrader 8). This intense feeling that all our plans will end up abandoned in the garbage dumps is brilliantly captured here when Neff first shows inner signs of guilt. Right after he and Phyllis have finished running away from the crime scene, Neff's conscience correctly foretells his nihilistic demise, causing him to later reflect whilst trapped dictating his last will/testament in a cluttered office room: "That was all there was to it. Nothing had slipped, nothing had been overlooked, there was nothing to give us away. And yet, Keyes, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man" (Double Indemnity).
Arnold, Jeremy. The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies And Why They Matter. Running Press, 2016.
Burr, Ty. The Best Old Movies For Families: A Guide To Watching Together. Anchor Books, 2007.
Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder, performances by Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, Paramount, 1944.
Ebert, Roger. Review of Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder. rogerebert.com, 20 December 1998, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-double-indemnity-1944 (Links to an external site.). Accessed 6 October 2016.
Muller, Eddie. Introduction. Into The Dark: The Hidden World Of Film Noir, 1941-1950, by Mark A. Vieira, Running Press, 2016, pp. 8-9.
Schrader, Paul. "Notes On Film Noir." Film Comment, vol. 1, 1972, pp. 8-13. Harvard iSites,isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1069028.files/Schrader%20on%20Notes%20on%20Film%20Noir.pdf (Links to an external site.). Accessed 6 October 2016.
Vieira, Mark A. Into The Dark: The Hidden World Of Film Noir, 1941-1950. Running Press, 2016.
Reflection: Easily my most qualified essay for one of the best films we watched in that class. If you haven't seen it yet, drop everything and go watch it. If you have seen it, drop everything and go watch it again. It's truly a masterpiece.