By Andrew Harwood
Film exists as a rather expansive medium, considering the plethora of genres that persist in this day and age. From comedies to avant garde, French New Wave to German Expressionism, or even something as simple as family animation, film is perfectly versatile.
A personal favorite genre of mine, which is quite a popular favorite, is film noir, a genre directly responsible for the resurgence of and praise for criminal dramas during the 1940s and ‘50s.
Now, I know I have already written a piece on film noir, so to save you the time and energy, I won’t be divulging on the genre here. Instead, I’ll be focusing on one of the most popular examples of film noir, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.”
Released in 1944 and based on the novella of the same name by James Cain, the film tells the story of Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who, after meeting the elegant Phyllis Dietrichson, devises a plan to muder her husband to initiate the “double indemnity clause” on his life insurance. Neff and Phyllis soon find themselves engrossed in a lot more mystery and trouble than they initially presumed.
Filled with film noir classics such as cigarettes, fedoras, stark lighting, menace, mystery, murder and, of course, the “femme fatale” character type, where this film shines is in its simple, yet compelling story. The basis of the film can be boiled down to lust and attraction, as evidenced by Neff and Phyllis’ romance, which stems from Neff’s chance meeting with Phyllis while trying to meet her husband.
From here, Phyllis confides in Neff, proclaiming her lack of love and inquiring about taking a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge. Right away, Neff is aware Phyllis is contemplating murder, but surprisingly, Neff is pulled into the scheme rather easily. Phyllis’ beauty serves as a trap, roping Neff into her ploy on the basis of love, though really, Phyllis desires only wealth.
What is most interesting about this film is just how a simple attraction between two people can create such a criminal and dastardly plot. Phyllis is by far the more intelligent character compared to Neff, because she recognizes Neff’s infatuation with her beauty.
From here, Phyllis is able to latch onto Neff in order to get her way, letting Neff figure out how to handle everything else at his insurance company. A true femme fatale character, Phyllis is manipulative, deceitful, mysterious and, above all, beautiful — the one thing she is able to employ to her benefit in getting her way.
Another feature of “Double Indemnity” is the plethora of long takes during which characters talk for an extensive period. These takes, popular in classic Hollywood films to display skill and save money, form the skeleton of the film. Serving at pivotal moments of discussion, as well as in confessions, the long takes proceed rather fluidly.
Though the film does indeed progress smoothly, such extensive dialogue creates a barrier between what you see and what you hear. After all, you are watching a film, not necessarily listening to one. But, who’s to say what you should focus on when it comes to experiencing a film?
A film — especially a classic Hollywood picture like “Double Indemnity” — is created for the purpose of art and entertainment. When the filmmaker immerses their audience into the film world, the art manifests in the “film noir” of the classic crime drama. At the end of it, a viewer has watched a film and not necessarily felt it, especially in this case of “Double Indemnity,” where no characters deserve sympathy.
This philosophy coexists with the very notion of how “film noir” persists today, re-labeled as “neo-noir.” A cluster of art and style, “neo-noir” hones its roots to the work of Wilder and many others.
In all, “Double Indemnity” is a perfect example of “film noir,” and it is a criminal drama unlike any other in how its simple yet devastating structure helps unravel even greater morals.