By Drew Morton
What makes Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity the greatest film noir? First, and this is veering away from the text of the film itself for just a moment, Double Indemnity is significant for the very reason that it was amongst the films that originally inspired the French critics to coin the phrase. Throughout World War II, American films were not allowed to screen in the occupied country. In 1946, the floodgates opened and the simultaneous releases of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944), Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), Otto Preminger’s Laura (1946), and Wilder’s film hit the Parisian cinemas over the course of one summer. While the other films, with the exception of Laura, are inarguably noir, I would tend to agree with historian Eddie Muller’s proclamation that Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir. Wilder’s film contains nearly every trope of the genre that you can think of: the femme fatale, existential fatalism, murder, the threat of feminine sexuality, hardboiled style, and an aesthetic drawn from German expressionism. While many of the other films in this retrospective contain several of these characteristics, Indemnity could, with perhaps the exception of Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), best them all on the paradigmatic noir balance sheet.
Secondly, due to the film’s perfect assimilation of these elements, it refined and stabilized the mold for noirs to come. In fact, the cinematic legacy of Indemnity is so pivotal to the genre that the film has been paid homage in such successful neo-noirs as Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat(1981) and the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).
For Indemnity, his third film as a director in Hollywood, Wilder adapted James M. Cain’s novella with the help of hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler (who would also collaborate with Alfred Hitchcock on my number five pick, Strangers on a Train). The plot, unlike Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or, my number two pick, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), is actually quite straightforward: bored but successful insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is lured by sultry housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) into a murder plot. Neff sells Phyllis a life insurance policy for her husband (Tom Powers) that includes a “double indemnity” clause. In other words, if Phyllis’s husband were fall off a moving train, the insurance company would be required to pay double the insured amount. Together, Neff and Phyllis decide to help speed nature’s course by strangling Mr. Dietrichson and throwing his corpse from a moving train. Complications arise for the couple when Neff’s agency, led by his persistent colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), begins to suspect foul play. As the agency’s investigation intensifies, Neff and Phyllis begin to hatch individual plots to cover their own involvement. As you might have guessed, both plots involve deceit and murder.
If my statement that Double Indemnity is a paradigmatic noir will find any critics, it would probably be due to the fact that the film does not include a detective. Yet, the characters of Keyes and Neff both function as detectives. They both find themselves interpreting the evidence of Mr. Deitrichson’s death/murder. Yet, they both do so in a way that serves their own motives: Keyes wants to get the bottom of the case, as a traditional detective would, while Neff wants to re-route Keyes’s interpretive train of thought with the same evidence. Moreover, as film scholar Thomas Schatz has noted, Wilder and Chandler’s re-structuring of Cain’s novella (which was originally relayed in a linear fashion) onto a flashback structure “transforms the film into a detective story.” Yet, a noir is not quite the same as a detective story. While noirs often include detectives (official government officers or private investigators) as characters, a key characteristic of the genre is that it often pushes the viewer to identify with a character who is going through the process of becoming morally corrupted. That is the role Neff plays in Indemnity and, as Schatz notes, Wilder accentuates it through the flashback structure.
Wilder’s use of the Neff and the flashback, which also relies on the noir device of voice-over narration, emphasizes the trope of existential fatalism that we also found in Kubrick’s The Killing. Wilder begins the film with a car racing down the night soaked streets of Los Angeles. As the sequence progresses, we watch as Neff arrives at the insurance agency and begins to deliver his tale into Keyes’s Dictaphone. We see that he has been shot and he essentially delivers the climax of the film to the audience: “I killed Dietrichson. Me, Walter Neff, insurance agent, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars…until a little while ago, that is…I killed him for money and a woman and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” By structuring the narrative in such a way, Wilder undermines the outcome of the crime and plot in favor of providing Neff with the opportunity to assert his existence the only way he truly can: by taking command of the story. In doing so, Wilder pushes us down the path with Neff of coming to the realization of not who or what did him wrong but where he went wrong.
While Double Indemnity holds a substantial legacy for uniting many of the narrative and thematic tropes of the genre, it also helped solidify the aesthetic (thanks to cinematography John Seitz) that would be taken to extremes by Reed in The Third Man and Welles in Touch of Evil. Janey Place and Lowell Peterson visual analysis “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir” is helpful here, as they create a taxonomy of visual characteristics exemplified in the genre ranging from low-key lighting, greater depth of field, and the “antitraditional” use of mise en scène. Indemnity contributes two key conventions of noir iconography. These additions, which would fall within the realms of Place and Peterson’s definition of “antitraditional” mise en scène, are the film’s extensive use of Venetian blinds and the use of a prop to symbolize sexual fascination (exemplified here by Phyllis’s anklet).
The Venetian blinds are first seen in the Dietrichson household, their bold shadowed bars cast across Walter Neff’s frame. These lines function as cues to the audience that his actions could land him in prison or to a worse fate. Wilder even goes so far to compose scene in which Neff is covered by the shadow of the blinds while Keyes, who is standing next to him, escapes their impressions. Neff even empathizes the significance of the blinds, stating that “the windows were closed and the sunshine coming in through the Venetian blinds showed up the dust in the air,” giving the introduction of this particular piece of iconography an obvious edge. As I noted in my review of Strangers on a Train, obstructing shadows are a key aspect of the noir aesthetic. As for the use of a prop as a symbol for sexual desire, Wilder utilizes Phyllis’s anklet as the key point of attraction between the two doomed lovers. When she emerges at the top of the staircase, the first image both Neff and the spectator are given access to is her robe clinging to her legs, the sparkling anklet serving as a beacon. When she emerges from her room properly clothed and Neff tells her “that’s a honey of an anklet you’re wearing,” Wilder uses Neff’s interest in the piece of jewelry as another way of expressing the saleman’s sexual desire (after all, the film could not be sexually explicit due to the Hollywood Production Code). Both Otto Preminger and Joseph H. Lewis would utilize the device similarly, be it through a portrait of Gene Tierney in Laura or a pistol and a William Tell routine in Gun Crazy (1950).
In a nutshell, what makes Wilder’s film the number one noir is that it set the trend, it perfected the formula. While films as disparate as Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and Huston’s The Maltese Falcon all exhibit characteristics of noir, Double Indemnity was one of the first films to weave all those characteristics together. Wilder was one of the European directors that noir is so often associated with and he would, like fellow émigré Lang, produce additional films in the genre. Yet, neither Sunset Blvd. (1950) nor Ace in the Hole (1951) come close to the significance of Indemnity in the noir canon (I love Sunset, but it’s essentially a critique of Hollywood done in the noir aesthetic which nearly disqualifies it as a proper member of the noir genre). Double Indemnity is the quintessential noir, accept no substitutes.