Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity is one of the “grand-dads” of the wonderfully rich film noir genre. This picture has all the classic film noir elements: a detective (in the person of claims investigator Barton Keyes, played memorably by Edward G. Robinson), an anti-hero in the protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray in his pre-“My Three Sons” days), a twisted murder plot, and one of the most duplicitous of the genre’s many femmes fatale, the ‘40s star Barbara Stanwyck as the platinum-haired Phyllis Dietrichson.
Beyond these key character and plot elements, the picture is a near textbook demonstration of the way the German Expressionist style emigrated to Hollywood after World War II. Wilder himself fled the Nazis, and his film reveals the murky, shadowy visual style as well as moral tone of German cinema from the 1920s. It also cast a dark eye on the American scene that Wilder and others encountered in Hollywood and elsewhere, and Double Indemnity raises thorny questions about a homegrown “group think” if not potential for native fascism in the seemingly sunny world of L.A. It posed several challenges to the Hays office and its famously restrictive code around depictions of crime, sexuality, or a presumably wholesome American corporate scene.
Told in voiceover and through multiple flashbacks, Double Indemnity was the first of a cycle of films that broke openly with classical Hollywood’s straightforward narrative mode. As such it initiated a pattern of film production that became increasingly marked (and notably darker) as the postwar era advanced. (And that reached one apex – or is it nadir? – with another film noir the this month, Orsen Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil). Fatalistic in tone, bleak in outlook, the movie’s nigh-existential dread showed a version of Hollywood that the country had never before seen. Its influence is hard to overstate. “Neo noir” can be applied to films and directors as varied as David Fincher’s Se7en, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, or several Quentin Tarantino titles. The noir tradition in many ways began with Double Indemnity. Come see what this seemingly inexhaustible genre is all about.