October 18, 2007
Out of the Past
Bernie R. Goler, M.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
Bernie R. Goler, M.D.
In the aftermath of the events of World War II a movie genre came into vogue. French critics, cut off from wartime American film production, viewing these wartime American films for the first time in 1946 described a new kind of American picture that boasted “an unusual and cruel atmosphere…one tinted by a very particular eroticism.” The French coined the term film noir.( black film)
"We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, , erotic, ambivalent, and cruel…..” Most noir productions will not include all of these elements, however; this is the first of th many attempts to define film noir made by French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their 1955 book A Panorama of American Film Noir. The genre is difficult to categorize. The most poignant description in my mind is the moral ambiguity and sexual innuendo portrayed in the films.
The hallmark of noir film, the private detective and the femme fatele,t universally present. Unlike styles such as Westerns or Musicals, noir is not really a genre but describes a mood prevalent in films in the decade after World War II.
Techniques imported by German immigrant film makers were the impetus for a new kind of movie featuring dark lighting, stark angles and high-contrast scenes. This technique arose contemporaneously with style in photography painting, theater and architecture. The form was reminiscent of 15th and 16th century painting associated with the Baroque era known as churiascuro. Noir featured moving cameras, severely angled shots, low key photography, and taking place in city streets largely at night making use of rooftops, alleys and quiet streets.
The main tenor of noir is melancholy, moral ambiguity, conviction, lack of concentration overt evil, moral corruption, sexual motivation guilt and paranoia.
Heroes were detectives, loose down and outers, often sleazy gangsters, or killers. They were conflicted, ambiguous, sociopaths, tarnished and cynical. They struggled to survive and ultimately-----lost.
Film noir emanated first from the hard boiled school of detective stories, introduced by Raymond Chandler in his 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. Chandler distinguished himself as a screenwriter also in adapting James Cain’s Double Indemnity tothe screen as a screenwriter. Cain, himself; was a distinguished mystery writer first penning Double Indemnity in a style different from Chandler. Rather than focusing on the private detective, Cain focused on the psychological aspects of the characters within the crime. This more complex style was known as” noir fiction.”
Storylines were elliptical, non linear and twisting. Narratives were complex, convoluted, and maze-like typically told with flashbacks, first person voiceovers, with witty sexually provocative and razor-sharp acerbic dialogue. Dialogue featured voiceovers in which the main character, often in first person told the audience confidential information unbeknownst to the other film characters.
Any attempt to define noir film has been largely unsuccessful and tend to oversimplify this complex phenomenon. Indeed many of the film makers of the era were unaware they had created a new film form.
Classic film noir developed during and after World War II, taking advantage of the post-war ambience of anxiety, pessimism and suspicion. These films reflected the resultant tensions of the time and counterbalanced the happiness of musicals and comedies. They were often low budget black and white productions taking place in big cities characterized by angled shots, shading and stilted language. The noir film rechanneled earlier patriotic crime to depict the corruption of the American city-usually, Los Angeles, the film industry’s home front.
Flashbacks were also used to induce plot complications.
In the 30s crime films depicting cops and robbers G men and gangsters was a natural predecessor to noir movies. Throughout popular culture-radio dramas, hard-boiled crime novels, magazine serials, short stories, comic books, dime novels and gangster films-artists and hacks alike portrayed Jazz Age crime with gritty realism that relied on tabloid and pulp fiction sensation.
It has been suggested that there were four conditions in Hollywood in the Forties which brought about film noir.
First was war and post-war disillusionment. The acute downer which hit the U. S. after the Second World WarThe post war acute downer, was, in fact, a delayed reaction to the economic depression of the Thirties. Movies in the Thirties were needed to keep people’s spirits up and for the most part they did. Noir arose post World War II against a background of images of firebombing of London, pounding of Stalingrad and Nanking, devastation of Dresden (by incidentally by Americans) and finally a single B 29 dropping a 200 pound Seen in today’s era noir shows us a world of intricate textures bomb called Little Boy on Hiroshima. The resultant death of 60 million people with the devastation of Europe and Japan primed postwar America for a dark film genre.
Returning servicemen returned having lost buddies, finding his sweetheart unfaithful or dead or his business partner cheating him or the whole society something less than worth fighting for.
Second was the resurgence of realism. Scenes were filmed in the actual location depicted. This realistic movement suited America’s post war mood. Melodrama was replaced with drama on the streets of everyday people.
Third was the influence of many German and other European directors and cameramen expatriates in the Twenties and Thirties Notably was their use of expressionist, dark lighting used by Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger . It was said they could make Times Square at midnight appear noon . Many scenes are lit for night. Gangsters sit in offices at midday with shades pulled and lights off. Film noir cinematography is characterized by constant opposition of light and dark. Small areas of light seem to verge on being overwhelmed by darkness that threatens them from all sides. Vertical and horizontal lines predominate and there is a greater depth of field. Complementing noir films are angled shots often with the cameraman on the ground or on a roof. Darkness emphasizes the ominous aspects of a scene and close-ups emphasize fear or hopelessness in a character.
In noir the scene is moved around the actor which portrayed a tension preferred to physical action.
The last element of noir was the influence of the “hard-boiled school of writer such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and John O’Hara . These writers had their roots in pulp fiction or journalism. Raymond Chandler who wrote the screen play for Double Indemnity, was the most characteristic of the noir period.
There was a Freudian attachment of water. Even in Los Angeles the streets were often moist because of a recent rain.
There is often a convoluted time sequence to intensity the hopelessness of the characters. By 1943 and 1944 the true noir film emerged. . Filmed during the blackouts and rationing and amid the fear and anxiety of wartime Los Angeles, Double Indemnity is the quintessential noir production.
Despite all the previously mentioned explanations movie historians put forth, the truth is that hard reality of economics drove the production of noir film. Responding to extensive wartime cost-cutting measures, creative economizing affected noir style. Scenes were shot on site rather than costly studio shots. Some films were shot in six days.
By 1943 material restrictions including rationing; government-mandated $5,000 set-construction limits and constraints on lighting, electricity,gas,tires, rubber dictated shooting on locations.Noir male leads were portrayed by corrupt, villains, dncluding down and out conflicted hard-boiled detectives. cops, agents, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals or murderers. They were lone wolfs obsessed with hard drinking smoking low lifes. They were cynical, tarnished, andBor flawed.
The rise of the “hyphenate” writer-director, producer-director, and writer-producer coincided with unique conditions in 1940s Hollywood and independent production accelerated during the war. The independents production allowed creative “hyphenates” to negotiate more freedom over filmmaking that allowed filmmakers to avoid a steep 90 percent wartime income tax. Noir simply was a more profitable genre than war film now that the war was winding down.
Instead of the highly paid “above –the-line creative and executive talent, the “hyphenates” could be taxed at a capital gains rate amounting to25 percent rather than a higher taxable salary.
Also negotiating a percentage of the gross receipts, this lead to higher quality, first-run A-film product which is one of the reason now sixty years later we are still interested in this genre.
There were three broad phases. The first, the wartime period (1941-46) was the phase of the private eye and lone wolf of Chandler, Hammett and Green, of Bogart, Bacall ,Ladd and Lake.
The Billy Wilder/Raymond Chandler Double Indemnity provided a bridge to the next post war phase featuring the less romantic heros including Richard Conte and Burt Lancaster and directors like Jules Dassin and Elia Kazan. During this phase the Production Code Administration (PCA) which I will discuss later in detail, loosened restrictions largely due to World War II exposing the evil in the world.
The third and final phase of noir from 1949-53 was the period of psychotic action and suicidal impulse. This third phase is the cream of the film noir period. After ten years of steadily shedding romantic conventions, the later films get down to the basic causes of the period: the loss of public honor, heroic convention, personal integrity and finally psychic stability.
Like society in general, film noir changed forever when the public expected crime to move to the suburbs. The era of Eisenhower and Senator McCarthy The cop on the beat was replaced by the mobile swat unit.
This dark cinematography accentuated the dark vision portrayed in noir movies. Existentialism has been associated with film noir. As a philosophical school of thought existentialism has been included in both Christian and atheist, conservative and Marxist movements.
Noir tragic characters exemplify existentialism in that they are placed in a world without transcendental values. The noir victim is placed in a world without transcendental values or moral absolutes, where there are no values or absolutes except the ones the man creates for himself.
It can be argues that existentialism goes against the grain of the optimistic American ideal, however; in a world unrecovered from an economic Depression, totalitarianism and Communism and nuclear warfare, existentialism reflected in film.
Noir heroes find themselves in a violent and incoherent world and attempt to create some order out of this world . Artistic expression is drawn to existentialism’s dark side emphasizing man’s alienation: its catch-words include “nothingness,” sickness,” loneliness,” and “dread.” For example in the 1941 film I Wake up Screaming, the heavy police Lieutenant Ed Cornell is asked while interrogating the sister of the murdered girl played by Betty Grable “What’s the use of living without hope?” he replies, “It can be done.”
Ostensibly men are the heros of noir film, but there is nothing heroic about the male leads. Most commonly they are men with an indiscretion in their past and unpleasantness in their future toward which the present rapidly carries them. The noir protagonist is alienated from a combustible, hostile world, driven by obsessions transcending morality and causality.
To a large degree the noir hero is an alienated man. His meaninglessness is flows from existentialism’s emphasis on chance with denial of any sort of cosmic design or moral purpose. Life depends on blind chance: a car parked on a manhole cover prevents the protagonist’s escape and he is shot down by police in the sewers (He Walked by Night) ; or a youth is hypnotized into becoming the instrument of a murderer’s devious plans because he accepted a cough drop in a crowed elevator(Fear of Night).
Set down in a violent and incoherent world the film noir hero tries to deal with it the best way he can, attempting to create some order out of chaos.
The medium focused on the femme fatale,a female vampire, who ensnared her man, a sweet female often not part of the drama and the male captured in a labyrinth he did not understand. The noir hero is drawn in by chance, or because he has been hired for a job specifically associated with her to whom he is sexually attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is the natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached. This is certainly true in Double Indemnity, The Woman in the Window and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The female lead is often a femme fatale noted for trechery, stealth and changeability. Lana Turner as Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example, exhibits a large number of character switches becoming a sex bomb,loving,fearful girl, victim, murderess, and mother-to-be. She first appears in long stockings coming down the stairs with an anklet or in shorts.
The first femme fatale was actually portrayed in the 1930 German epic Der Blaue Engel or The Blue Angel.
John Garfield who plays Frank Chambers, in contrast remains linear guiding us thru the story. The male lead is often in the dark about how he is being manipulated. He remains linear in his character.
This is a great departure in American Cinema where so often women’s sexuality has been depicted negatively as a source of weakness and uncertainty. In comparison to the housewife or other maternal figure traditionally found at the nucleus of family wife, the femme fatale is nearly always the more intriguing and energetic figure in the films imbued with intelligence guile charm and sexual electricity.
It is amazing to me that these core elements of sex, alienation and violence could depicted in an era of the Hays Office. William Harrison Hays was the first President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America after a distinguished career as a politician most notably as Chairman of the Republican National Committee and US Postmaster General.
As Postmaster General, Hays was an outspoken opponent of sending obscene materials thru the mails.
The Hays Office was established as an oversight committee by the White House after Hollywood was embarrassed by scandals in the 1920s. Most notorious of these was initiated by the events of September 3, 1920 at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. As a precursor to noir film Roscoe “ Fatty” Arbuckle, the first film actor to be paid $1 million annually(in the silent era yet) was accused of raping a naïve young actress puncturing her bladder during forced sex with a beer bottle causing her to die a painful death of peritonitis. Arbuckle was acquitted after two trials left a hung jury At the third trial he was acquitted but his career never recovered.
The Hays office took control of the movie production in 1922 and ruled with an iron hand for more than two decades. It was felt necessary in the transition from silent to talking movies that control must be absolute to protect the public. The highly restrictive Hays Code in 1934 stated “that motion pictures may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress and correct thinking”.
- It was specifically stated that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
Prohibited were crimes against the law depicting murder, revenge,theft,arson, and use of firearms. Excluded was adultery, excessive lustful kissing, seduction or rape and perversion. Outlawed was obscenity in word, gesture, joke or suggestion as well as profanity including using the Lord’s name in vain. Undressing, decedent exposure, dancing and ridicule of religious faith also made the list. not be detailed in method ItMethods of crime including theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines or buildings, should. is interesting that none of the freedoms we consider so important since Brown versus the Board of Education were mentioned in the code.
It was specifically stated the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Excluded were adultery, excessive lustful kissing, seduction or rape and perversion it. Outlawed was obscenity in word, gesture, joke or suggestion as well as profanity including using the Lord’s name in vain. The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste. Undressing, indecent excessive exposure, dancing and ridicule of religious faith also made the list.
Most of the politically incorrect comments that today cause public figues to loose jobs were not excluded by the Code.Indeed terms such as “Chinks” “Spiks” and “the N word were scattered thru out noir films.
- As a result of the Hays Office, many noir films such as Double Indemnity were delayed many years. By the late 1940s, however the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that films were protected under the First Amendment and Hays power stated to slip.
As Raymond Chandler stated in the New York Times in 1945 “The studies have gone in for these pictures because the Hays office is becoming more liberal…okaying treatments now which they would have turned down ten years ago, probably because they feel people can take the hard-boiled stuff nowadays..” The code has long since disappeared but its influence is still felt in the rating codes enacted in 1967.
The genre of film noir evolved under the shadow of another malignant onerous censorship. In 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) studies the penetration of Hollywood film industry by the American Communist Party.(CPUSA) The most famous victims of the blacklist were the original group of “unfriendly” witnesses, known at the “Unfriendly Ten or “Hollywood Ten” . Mostly screenwriters this group refused to give information about their political beliefs before the HUAC in October 1947. These artists careers were essentially ruined. There arose a devious “fixer” system under which blacklisted actors could obtain work if pardoned by anti-Communist organizations and managers. “Fronts” were offering scrips ghost written by blacklisted writers in return for a percentage of the profits.
From this black smudge of entertainment history, some humor emerged. Screenwriters Norma and Ben Barzman, who were Party members, were blacklisted and follwed by the FBI and local police. Their neighbor Groucho Marx warned them of police surveillance waving his famous cigar, his eyebrows twiddling. Marx cautioned: “Hot today! But for you, two kinds of heat, know what I mean? “Goucho was immediately followed by Marilyn Monroe, getting out of an old Cadillac convertible and sashaying up the Barzmans’ drive-way to warn them in her famous breathy little-girl voice, “Gosh, did you know there are cops watching your house? Did you guys commit a murder or something? Oh, gimme a gin and tonic.”
The females in film noir were either of two types, either archetypical dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women or the femme fatale mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, gorgeous, unloving, predatory, tough, sweet, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women. The male hero often a is trying to forget his past and attaches to the femme fatale.
The hero is drawn in to the web of the femme fatale and manipulated into a life altering situation usually involving a major crime such as murder. The hero does not even know he is being so used.
Film noir films were mostly slot in gloomy parts of big cities and showed the sleazy underside of life. Low class hotel rooms or apartments houses were used.
The set was gloomy with dark lighting and cigarette smoke was ubiquitous.
This situation can be summarized by a hero who see a women at a sleazy bar and imagines the best sex he has ever had. Later he ends up guilty of murder, the femme fatale goes free. His last thoughts as they strap him in the chair is that he is thankful for meeting the woman, loved the sex and experience and is happy to die. The hero is trapped in the labyrinth.
submerged turmoil and magnified manifestations of the urban life.
This labyrinth occurs in the American city with special consideration to the years of 1945-1959.
The hero often talks to the audience bypassing the other characters. The technique known as voice over delivered in calm calculating manner. This is in contrast to the confusion and turmoil existing in the film action itself.
This is a great departure in American Cinema where so often Women’s sexuality has been depicted negatively as a source of weakness and uncertainty. to the housewife or other maternal figure traditionally found at the nucleus of family wife, the femme fatale is nearly always the more intriguing and energetic figure in the films imbued with intelligence guile charm and sexual electricity.
- It may be helptul to explore some of the noir films in detail. Casablanca, was a microcosm for wartime Hollywod demonstrating the important actual wartime life and daily constraints in filmmaking. Shortages dictated more more striped production with decreased lighting , hard-hitting style of realism emulating war related front line scenes. Casablanca , which won the Best Picture Oscar for 1943, revolved around illegal activity in a smoky bar in French Morocco and its cynical, mysterious American-exile owner.It would be difficult for todays film industry to find clones for Humphrey Bogart, Claude Raines and Ingrid Bergman not to mention the urban jungle of the cramped, crowed, claustrophobic underworld nocturnal wartime Casablanca. er
Howard Hawks, one of the first hyphenates had independent control at Warner Brothers. Unsatisfied with Ingrid Bergman as a foil to the sexuality of Bogie, discovered Betty Bacall. Originally signing the renamed Lauren Bacall for $100.00 a week, Hawks cast her opposite Bogart in Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Hawks, as an independent producer sold three hot properties to Warner, (these two movies and Betty Bacall) The practice of capitalizing on the sexuality of this couple, Hawks started a trend of capitalizing on the young starlet coupled with the male superstar.
- In this vein during the filming of The Big Sleep Bogie in a perpetual druken stupor,so taken with Bacall left his wife, Mayo Methot and moved into the Beverly Hills Hotel. The created tension between Hawks and Bogart since to Hawks it was a business deal and he had discovered Bacall.
Jules Dassin, the blacklisted director of Night and the City, was sent to London by Daryl Zanuck of 20th Century. Knowing he could not use Dassin in the United States since he had been blacklisted as a communist by his fellow director Edward Dmytryk, himself a member of the “Hollywood 10”.The HUAC undeterred by constitutional niceties, ruined Dassin’s career based only on the word of Dmytryk.
Filmed entirely on site in London, Dassin mirrors Harry Fabian the tragic hero of Night played by Richard Widmark. Fabian is run through a particularly odius labyrinth. Filmed in a great city recovering from bombing of the war Night created a British scandal since they did not to be depicted as a recovering city. Like the Dassin’s real life, Widmark’s Fabian is run thru a labyrinth of vapor and smoke sewers or construction sites and vacant lots rotting wharves and flotsam of both sea and the city.
Action takes place in the bombed out streets of London augmenting the squalor and hopelessness of the situation. Fabian is thrown into the seedy world of wrestling and tries to defraud Kristos who controls wrestling in London by establishing a rival wrestling network. Fabian bungles things badly borrowing money from Nosseross played by Francis L. Sullivan, the obese night club owner. Fabian also hits up Norceross’ wife obtaining more money by getting her a forged liquor license (so she can open her own bar and leave her oppressive husband).
Richard Widmark’s Harry , the proverbial con man and his lover Mary played by Gene Tierney are both exploited Fabian’s betrayal of both his lover, his enemies and friends amidst a background of beggars, wrestlers and other seedy characters lead to the mantra throughout the London underworld “Get Harry”. Dead for all intents and purposes Fabian has a bounty on his head and perishes at the hands of a memorable Mike Mizurki who plays the hired killer, “The Strangler” who throws Fabian’s body into the Thames..
On February 4,1945, screen critic Joan Lester of London’s Reynold’s News wrote an article “Professor in Love with Picture.” She acknowledged a number of new films coming out of Hollywood. “It is not only the quality of films which varies,” :Lester explains “butr the tastes of film-goers. Now and then comes a well-directed, well acted thriller which has universal appeal. Double Indemnity and Laura were outstanding examples.
Films were more violent and masculine. Simulating combat the recently released GI’s tapped into the psychic identity of tough “destabilized” males.
When Otto Preminger immigrated to avoid Nazism in 1936 little did he know he would be chosen to direct the noir classic Laura, starring Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price and the ravishingly beautiful, Gene Tierney. The film opens with Detective Mark McPherson investigating what is an apparently brutal murder assumed to be Laura in her own apartment. . Laura is known only thru her portrait displayed in her apartment another copy of which is in Vincent Price’s apartment.
Her ever present image reinforces the disparity between the projected female personalities unraveling the layers of who she is. Her character and persona unravel in the minds of her suitors. Much more than a murder mystery, Laura, was a tug of war between Preminger and studio Chief Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. Preminger, one of the early hyphenates ( producer-director)great deal of creative control in the project.
“I do not welcome advice from actors, they are here to act’”, said Preminger. He met his match, however; with Zanuck., who urged Preminger to expand Laura’s character insuring this work in the pantheon of film history. Preminger intended Laura, to be a femme fatale, a lady of the night, but the creative tension between the two giants added to her depth.
Tierney captures the everywoman quality of Laura’s character, tapping into issues important to home-front working women, while simultaneously appearing otherworldly. It is unclear if she is the sweet, warm all-American girl-next-door or the secretive femme fatale who commits murder and lies to detectives.
The film talent of Preminger and Zanuck fuses a gothic thriller narrative with hard-boiled detective story procucing in Tierney a noir heroine who emerges all things to all people: bad girl, good girl, working woman and male fantasy.
Laura’s mystery and myth, mystified by her ever present image in the painting, reinforce the disparity between a projected female persona and the unraveling layers of who she is.Laura survives as a noir hero with flaws, virtues and dimensions exceeding the classic mold of film fatale.
We learn about Laura thru the minds of her suitors, we see little of her true personality.
Tierney’s real life mirrored her complexity in the film. Married on again off again to her first husband, Oleg Cassini she suffered from depression much life attributed to the retardation deafness and near blindness of their daughter.
While separated from Cassini, she had affairs with Tyrone Power and a young John Kennedy. Kennedy told here he could never marry her because of his political
Returning to Cassini, to whom she was ultimately divorced, Tierney then fell for Prince Aga Khan whose family was opposed to their marriage.
Director Preminger’s life also mirrored the complexity of his characters. An actor in Vienna, he was offered at 27 the opportunity to become the Director of the Vienna State Theater. .Preminger tuned it down. After working under Zanuck in Laura, Preminger had many other landmark productions including Anatomy of a Murder and Exodus,
His characters are often left to work out their own dilemmas and audiences are left with a frustration in understanding what he was saying. Preminger wanted the audience to participate in his dilemma.
Like his films his personal life was beset with turmoil. While married he had an affair with Dorothy Dandridge and wanted to leave his wife to be with her. He also had an affair with the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee with whom he had a child.
Double Indemnity, my personal noir favorite, was a landmark work when it was released in 1944 was based on a James Cain novel directed by Billy Wilder and adapted for the screen by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.
Cain’s reputation as a racy writer and the PCA code made adaptation of the Double Indemnity to film a sticky issue in 1934 when Cain first tried.
By 1944 the Code realized that real crime took place every day and makes good movie drama. The change in policy, partially relate to wartime production circumstances. The film industry boomed during World War II escalating profits from the early 1940s. With the Allied gaining control of the European and Pacific war zones by 1942-43, Hollywood looked to non wartime themes in movies.
Billy Wilder, who collaborated with Chandler on the screenplay and directed Double Indemnity, was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany entered the US via Mexico unable to obtain a direct visa.
He arrived without speaking English but an early associate with Peter Lorre and an ability to learn rapidly “Americanized “ Wilder very early.
Describing his English as a mixture of Arnold Schwartznagger and Archbishop Tutu, Wilder wasted no time in Hollywood. Directing classes such as Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie and Irma La Douche, Wilder established himself as an icon of the American film.
To byass the Code, Wilder and Chandler maximized the use of innuendo and verbal wit while minimizing overt sexuality and violence. Raarely had so little been directly stated yet so much implied.
For example the following scene very little is said but the imagery is clear.
The poetry in the descriptions of Los Angeles was an indelible contribution of Chandler who also had a “gut feeling for the killer instinct of a blonde.” Few can forget Barbara Stanwyck walking down the stairs in her platinum blond wig and an ankle bracelet.
Chandler also contributed the voice over of Walter Neff dictating late at night alone.
Double Indemnity also feataures flashbacks. This technique plus voice overs superimpose the voice of morality on the very immoral act of murder. This helps comply with the Code’s requirement of redeeming values. This film breaks the 1940s icon, the sanctity of the family coupling destruction of the marriage bond coupled with murder of the husband. Wilder and Chandler presented the impossibility of this act in attempt of which lead to the destruction of both of the perpetrators.
The plot of Double Indemnity has a simple plot: a smart, sharp toun gued insurance salesman, Walter Neff, is seduced by Phyllis Dietrichson, whose husband is a wealthy oil wildcatter. Neff is drawed in by Dietrichson in a plot to kill her husband for a large life insurance policy.
Los Angeles in midsummer is a perfect setting for the crime encompassing lust, sex and betrayal. Neff played by Fred McMurray uses voice overs to convey hidden elements of the plot to the audience. Double Indemnity gets its title from the feature of the insurance policy that pays double is death is by accident.
The other staple of noir, flashbacks, are introduced by Neff after voice- overs dictated into his office Dictaphone. These techniques added an element of morality to reprehensible acts such as murder condemned by the code. The rigid framework of specific taboos about individual words and actions enabled a writer or director to paint a portrait of criminality without using prohibited words and without showing censorable deeds. The soliloquy of Neff dictating into his machine appealed to the macho psyche of the combat veteran.
The cinematography is also characteristic of noir creating a dark corrupt, mysterious setting that emphasized the dark character of the theme. For example the pitch-black night-for- night exterior shots of the railroad tracks where Neff and Phyllis drop her husband’s body after they murder him adds to the murderous theme of the movie. The film is shot in newsreel form with which wartime audiences identified.
The dark lighting and shadowy visual design that today is considered to characteristic of noir was in large measure a savvy aesthetic response to the Code and the war. The corrupt nature of the American city is portrayed.
To avoid recriminations from the Code, Wilder employed off screen action with sound and visuals to convey taboo material.
Using sexy females in their new emerging positions by 40s standards cab driver
The significance of Double Indemnity exceeds its importance as a film noir. Its acting, casting, cinematography and direction guaranteed it in the pantheon of film history. In fact Double Indemnity had seven Academy Awards nominations including Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Music, Best Picture, best Sound Recording and Best Writing.
As Fred McMurray said “the two films I did with Billy Wilder, “Double Indemnity” and “The Apartment” are the only two parts I did in my entire career that required any acting.”
Noir films also were the first to feature dramatic scores to emphasize the action. Double Indemnity, for example, was scored by the best, Miklas Rozsa. Between 1944 and 1950 Rozsa scored most of the great noir films.
Dramatic background music often composed by Hollywood’s best composers added to the drama. Miklos Rozsa, a Hungarian born conductor composer dominated the scores and arrangements during the golden age of noir from 1945-50.
Rozsa started and ended the great films givng the audience a musical as well as a visual experience. The Hungarian born Rozsa was a conservatory classically trained composer and arranger. Immigrating to London after three quick English lessons in 1935, Rozsa composed a ballet Hungaria,which brought him to the attention of the famous Hungarian movie producer, Alexander Korda resulting in Rozsa’ immigration to the Hollywood .in 1940. After some early lighter Hollywood scores, Rozsa became famous for “psychological melodrama” first introduced in the score of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound in 1945. His film noir hits continued with Double Indemnity and ended with The Asphalt Jungle in 1950.
Rozsa then split his time between an academic career as Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California composing important pieces for Jascha Heifetz and creating big production scores for Hollywood hits including Ben Hur. Rozsa received three Academy Awards for Best Film Score.
In his 70’s thriller Time after Time. Rozsa’s score is phenomenal. This excerpt from a scene titled Dangerous Drive takes place in San Francisco is representative of Rosca’s best “psychological melodrama”.
There is a definite renewed interest in Hollywood today in film noir. Some of this is undoubtedly nostalgia, but there are real social factors. Near the close of the seventies, there were many social-cultural factors present, ranging from post-Vietnam War disillusionment with the Feminist movement and an alarming wave of international terrorism, which mirrored many of the factors present in post-World War II America. Added to that, the eighties ushered in the era of leveraged buyout on Wall Street. This was described by Bryan Burrough as a “time when virtually everything-old standards, morals, sometimes even the truth—was sacrified in the almighty hunt for The Big Deal.”
In addition to these various socio-cultural influences, there are three principal factors which have stimulated the resurgence of noir in contemporary American cinema.
- Technical Advancement made with color film stock which allows the shadowy, high contrast images familiar to film noir can now be realized with color film.
- The pervasiveness of crime and the public’s fascination with sensational crime stories manifested by today’s constant media bombardment of crime pursuit, video surveillance and the coverage of terrorism.
- Today’s film makers, because of their education in film schools have a basic knowledge of filming technique understand its techniques and are hopefully that it may sell.
Film noir and this contemporary descendent, neo-noir offer some of the most fascinating insights the cinema has provided on topics such as including ambition, corruption, redemption, greed, lust and loyalty. Body Heat made by Laurence Kasdan in 1981 is a prime example of neo-noir depicting a femme fatale who seduces a Florida lawyer to kill her husband.
As we emerge from the darkness of the cinema and the nightmarish darkness of the noir film into the light of the real world, we breathe a sign of relief and contemplate our tense encounter with the flip side of the American Dream. By vicariously confronting the noir world on the screen, whether through the film noir or its modern offshoot, neo-noir, we are able to validate the patterns of order and continuity we seek to establish in our lives. Since neo-noir has become firmly established in the American cinema, it is reasonable to assume that audiences will continue to be fascinated by the genre because noir film communicates to us about our fears and desires tore realistically than other film formula.
Film noir and its contemporary descendent, neo-Lnoir, offer some of the most fascinating insights the cinema has provided on topics such as including ambition, correction, redemption, greed, lust and loyalty.
More precisely yet, “by means of the night. we see the light of day”
Alain Silver and James Ursine Film Noir Reader Limelight Edition January 2005
Sheri Chinen Biesen Blackout World War II and the Origins of Film Noir The John Hopkins University Press 2005
Nicholas Christopher Somewhere in the Night Film Noir and the American City The Free Press 2006