Fag: ENG 2575 Film and the tragic sense of American life

Oppgavetype: Hjemmeoppgave

Tidspunkt: Våren 2004



‘You can’t kiss away a murder!’: Typical and atypical handling of the film noir genre in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity


3. Use the following statement as a point of departure for discussing some aspects (characterization, theme, montage) of the film Double Indemnity: “The hallmark of film noir is its sense of people trapped - trapped in webs of paranoia and fear, unable to tell guilt from innocence, true identity from false. Its villains are attractive and sympathetic, masking greed, misanthropy, malevolence. Its heroes and heroines are weak, confused, susceptible to false impressions. The environment is murky and close, the settings vaguely oppressive. In the end evil is exposed just barely, and the survival of the good remains troubled and ambigous.” (Sklar, in Course Reader, 212)

Double Indemnity (1944) was celebrated auteur Billy Wilder’s third feature film as a director, and remains one of the most highly lauded films of American cinema. It was ranked 38th on the American Film Institute’s America’s 100 Greatest Movies list in 19971, and continues to receive very favorable criticism in film journals, film encyclopedias and film guides. It is a sinister film noir2 telling the story of an insurance scheme gone wrong, and focuses on the development of the relationships between its few, but memorable characters. In this essay, I will discuss whether and in what ways Sklar’s statement saying that “the hall mark of film noir is its sense of people trapped [etcetera]” is applicable to the most important aspects of this film, and also point out where it is not applicable.

            Discussing the characters of the film would be an appropriate starting point. The most central character of Double Indemnity, although not the protagonist in the traditional sense, is undoubtedly Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson. She is an archetypal femme fatale3, which means that she is a lying, conniving, double-crossing woman who does not hesitate to use people like tokens in a board game to get what she desires. She is the attractive villain who appears to be innocent and sympathetic, when in reality she is an opportunistic egoist who is not capable of real love and affection. She is the spider who spins the web that traps the others like flies (her only problem, of course, is that she also gets stuck in the end). When she first meets Walter Neff, she uses her sexual allure to entangle him, and later proceeds to lie about her life situation and her motives in wanting to get her husband an accident insurcance, playing innocent when Neff understands what she is up to. When Neff kills her husband in the car, her facial expression is hard as stone and cold as ice, and afterwards she shows no emotion whatsoever: “I was afraid she might go to pieces a little, now that we had done it. But she was perfect. No nerves, not a tear, not even a blink of her eye.”4 But Mr. Norton’s attempt to tell her he thinks the case is very suspicious brings out the hurt and offended feelings of the actress in her. As it turns out, she is also the one who killed the first Mrs. Dietrichson when nursing her. She continues to deceive Neff throughout the film, only in her very last scene does she expose to him the real her. Her arguable transformation in this scene will be more fully elaborated on later.

            Walter Neff, the story’s protagonist in the traditional sense, is a disillusioned loner who is fascinated and captivated by the challenge and the anklet of a lethal woman. He is not the typical film noir hero5 (like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe), who, though often disillusioned, morally ambiguous and cynical, at the end of the day really works against crime and corruption. Neff certainly embodies Sklar’s definition of a hero that is “weak, confused, and susceptible to false impressions”, but he is also very much a part of the crime, and also (to a large extent) fulfills Sklar’s demands of a villain as being “attractive and sympathetic, masking greed, misanthropy, malevolence”, thus meeting a double set of requirements, which makes him a sort of hero/villain6. Even though he says that he has played with the idea of cheating his company for years, Neff does not appear to have criminal - at least not murderous - intentions from the start, as we see from his initial reaction to Phyllis’s not yet explicitly articulated idea of murdering her husband: “Maybe you would have known, Keyes, the minute she mentioned accident insurance. But I didn’t.”7 When she approaches him about the idea more directly, he still tells her that it is impossible to go through with. But after a period of doubt and confusion, he decides to go along with her, probably at least as much for her as for the money. She has corrupted him, even trapped him, one could say. Now that he is part of the conspiracy, he must lead a life of lies and secrecy. He and Phyllis can only meet in a store, they cannot talk on the telephone, and always have to look over their shoulders. They are indeed “trapped in webs of paranoia and fear”. Furthermore, Neff is at first unable to see Phyllis for what she really is; even though he understands that she is far from innocent and good, only near the end does he realize that she does not care about anyone or anything but herself. When it becomes clear to him that her objective is to scheme against her stepdaughter Lola Dietrichson and Nino Zachette and everybody else that might get in her way, he kills her to put an end to this once and for all, and he also kind of frees Lola and Nino from the web by telling Nino to get as far away from the mansion as possible, even though he himself is inextricably caught.

            Lola, Nino and of course Mr. Dietrichson are also victims of Phyllis’s ruthlessness. Mr. Dietrichson is killed in cold blood without much further ado, but Lola and Nino are subjected to her scheming and lying and are even pitted against each other. Lola is the one who right from the start sees Phyllis for what she is, but Nino, like Neff, is unable to comprehend her wickedness. They both grow more and more frustrated and mentally imprisoned, and are quite fearful and paranoid, especially Lola. The difference between them and Neff is that they have not inflicted this upon themselves. They are merely victims, whereas Neff is an accomplice, and is responsible for his own situation. This may be the reason why the film lets Lola and Nino off the hook, and why Neff is doomed.

            If one can talk of a genuine hero in Double Indemnity, it is arguably reasonable to say that claims adjustor Barton Keyes fills this position. He is not a typical film noir hero, but he seems to be rather unsatisifed and unhappy with his life, and is inarguably very cynical, which are traits distinctly located within this tradition. However, he is not “weak, confused, susceptible to false impressions”; on the contrary, he is the most clear-sighted and rational of all the characters in the film. Besides, he is not trapped at all in Phyllis’s web.

            Because of its characterization, then, the classification of Double Indemnity as a film noir becomes somewhat problematic. A vital part of the genre’s structure is its almost stereotypical depiction of a villain on the one hand (usually a femme fatale) and a hero on the other (usually a troubled male). The former is in this film most certainly present, but the latter is absent, as neither Neff nor Keyes are credible candidates for this position. Although film noir heroes are expected to be confused and ambiguous, Neff crosses the border and truly becomes a villain, and Keyes is too peripheral and too atypical. Near the end, Neff seemingly reforms, but then it is too late anyway. This abnormality in characterization is, however, not enough to place Double Indemnity outside of the film noir tradition, but it shows how this film stretches the genre.

            Another example of how it bends the norms of the genre is found in the ending. According to Sklar, “evil is exposed just barely” in a film noir ending. This is not the case here, however, as the evils of both Neff and Phyllis are exposed quite clearly. There is no doubt about who has done what, and both suffer the fatal consequences of their actions. Although the ending of Double Indemnity is not as ambivalent and ambiguous as in some other classic film noirs, it is far from being entirely unproblematic either. When Phyllis and Neff are together for the last time in the Dietrichson mansion, she shoots him and hits him in his shoulder, then does not fire her gun again, even though he mockingly encourages her to do so. She apparently repents her former actions, as she holds him and with tears in her eyes says: “No, I never loved you Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart, I used you, just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago. When I couldn’t fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me.”8 Naturally, this could just be another one of her tricks, one of her little performances. If so, she has not changed, and one would feel that she more than deserves what is coming to her. The ambivalence, of course, exists in the possibility that it could be authentic: What if Phyllis has developed genuine humane emotions and is truly remorseful and wants to reform? Is it possible for her to be forgiven by the ones she has violated? We will never find out, since Neff shoots her dead nonetheless. Even though he helps Nino and Lola, he must also die, as he faces capital punishment for his crimes. The film’s main theme and message is perhaps that there is no mercy, no deliverance: You must pay for your actions, no matter what. They are trapped in their webs and there is no escape or salvation. If so, the film indeed has an ending in which “the survival of the good remains troubled”. One the one hand, one could say that the good prevails in that the criminals must die as a consequence of their actions and that the insurance company is not swindled. On the other hand, one could argue that the only true good lies in forgiveness and redemption, not in revenge, and thus conclude that the good has not been victorious.

            It is also very important to discuss the audiovisual environment, or the montage9, of Double Indemnity. Right from the beginning, a sense of entrapping doom is established by a musical score by Miklos Rozsa that fills one with sensations of death and destruction. This musical theme permeates the entire film, and has the same effect every time it is repeated. Contributing to this sense of doom is a very threatening image of a man on crutches approaching the camera (or the audience, if you will).

            Since film noir means dark (or black) film, it is not surprising that the genre employs many night scenes, effective in creating emotional responses from the audience whether they take place indoors or outdoors. This is also the case here. Not only is the narrative’s “present” in the middle of the night, but the story in general abounds with night scenes. The dark images created in this fashion serve to fortify the feeling of oppression and tension that pervades the plot. Furthermore, the genre and Double Indemnity show an abundance of rain and fog, and it could successfully be argued that all these natural phenomena that all make it harder to see clearly are used as analogies of how the characters have difficulties thinking clearly because of the “clouds” in their minds. The lighting of the film provides deep, dominating shadows and emphasizes the film’s fatalist atmosphere. Also, the retrospective technique of the story in itself helps to strengthen the sensations of doom, since it tells us that something is going wrong sooner or later; and entrapment, since this is a fate that the characters are unable to escape from.

            Finally, the windows are closed and the venetian blinds are always down in all the scenes in the Dietrichson mansion and in Keyes’s office, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere, reminiscent of a prison. This is analogous of the “prisons” that their minds are in.

            To give some conclusive thoughts, I would say that Double Indemnity to a large extent incorporates many of the characteristics that Robert Sklar ascribes to the genre. The sense of people being trapped is without a doubt penetrating the entire film, both its narrative and its cinematography. The film furthermore portrays perhaps the most quintessential femme fatale villain in all of American film history, and its environment and milieu are also very typical of the genre. The ending of the film also displays prominent trademarks of film noir, namely ambiguity and uncertainty, but is nevertheless clearer than what is usually expected from a film of this genre. Obviously, the most striking divergence from the genre formula is the film’s absence of a typical film noir hero and its portrayal of Walter Neff as a hero/villain.


1 Corey. 2002. p 376-377.


2 Ephraim Katz in his The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia Third Edition (page 456) defines film noir as


a term coined by French critics to describe a type of film that is characterized by its dark, somber tone and cynical, pessimistic mood. Literally meaning “dark (or “black”) film,” the term is derived from roman noir, “black novel,” which was used by French critics of the 18th and 19th centuries to describe the British gothic novel. Specifically, film noir was coined to describe those Hollywood films of the 40s and early 50s which portrayed the dark and gloomy underworld of crime and corruption, films whose heroes as well as villains are cynical, disillusioned, and often insecure loners, inextricably bound to the past and unsure or apathetic about the future. In terms of style and technique, the film noir characteristically abounds with night scenes, both interior and exterior, with sets that suggest dingy realism, and with lighting that emphasizes deep shadows and accents the mood of fatalism. The dark tones and the tense nervousness are further enhanced by the oblique choreography of the action and the doom-laden compositions and camera angles.


3 The femme fatale stereotype is one of the most easily recognizable characters from the world of noir fiction, and refers to an attractive and seductive - but at the same time deadly - woman.


4 Fred MacMurray, performer. Double Indemnity.


5 See the definition of film noir above.


6 The term hero/villain is used by distinguished film critic Leslie Halliwell in his review of Double Indemnity in Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide 2001 (page 232): “The hero/villain was almost a new concept.”


7 Fred MacMurray, performer. Double Indemnity.


8 Barbara Stanwyck, performer. Double Indemnity.


9 In this context, I have chosen to understand montage in the wider sense of the term, meaning all the audiovisual aspects of the assembling of a film, not in the narrower sense, referring primarily to the theories of Russian director and film theoretist Sergei Eisenstein.




·      Corey, Melinda and George Ochoa (editors). 2002. The American Film Institute Desk Reference. Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.


·      Fox, Ken and Maitland McDonagh (editors). 2000. The Virgin Film Guide Ninth Edition. Virgin Publishing Limited.


·      Karney, Robyn. 2002. Cinema Year by Year 1894-2000. Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.


·      Katz, Ephraim (editor). 1998. The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia Third Edition. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.


·      Pearsall, Judy (editor). 1999. The Concise Oxford Dictionary Tenth Edition. Oxford University Press.


·      Sklar, Robert. 1994. Movie-Made America. Vintage Books.


·      Walker, John (editor). 2000. Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide 2001. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.




·      Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Gig Young (Nino Zachette). Paramount. 1944.