Film Noir Series: Double Indemnity (1944)
My editor has gone back to school, which would normally mean fewer posts coming through, since his insignificant human brain requires time to process and edit my ramblings into something readers might care to see. Fortunately, however, he and I are enrolled in a Film Noir class for this month, which requires daily journal entries about the films we watch. They will be necessarily brief but hopefully with enough insight density to make them worthwhile. Just don’t tell my editor’s professors that a tiger is writing all of his journal entries, and we’ll be ready to begin.
Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s adaptation of the hardboiled novel Double Indemnity exists where American exuberance pulls everything askew. Scenes are often starkly lit and broken up by bars of light filtered through Venetian blinds, imprisoning the characters in their interiors. These stylistic tropes, endemic to film noir in all of its incarnations over the decades, almost seem to dictate the themes and textual storytelling as much as the other way around. Just as lines are a physical presence, imposing themselves on the characters, they almost seem aware of them, ruminating at length on railroad tracks, trolley rides, and other lines. However, despite the highly fatalistic narrative, where the audience is given the end ahead of time and can only follow the plot’s string until it runs out with the inevitable ruin of the murderers, the world of this film is more bent than straight. More than once, characters comment on the fact that whether a given statement is true or not is less important than how useful or harmful it is. Given that our protagonist, Walter Neff, is a salesman, this is altogether appropriate.
From here, I would like to comment on three critical threads–”tracks” if you will–that caught my attention throughout Double Indemnity.
1. The film’s setting in Los Angeles places it in a place that is at once civilized and within living memory of wilder times. As Walter remarks to Phyllis, people in those days said that all native-born Californians were from Iowa. Los Angeles is a perfect backdrop for this sordid drama, both because of the nearness of Hollywood –put to more explicit effect in another noir, Sunset Boulevard–and its placement on a place that is only freshly civilized. Like Walter himself, whose walls play host to images of tribalistic and exaggerated masculinity, Los Angeles is not quite tame.
2. African American characters are rarely seen, especially in the hermetically-sealed corporate workplace Walter and his coworkers inhabit. However, they do appear to wash Walter’s car and guide him onto the train. Though these depictions are of a piece with a far more explicitly racist time, and reflects the way class in America is often structured according to race, the general psychological and visual instability of the film, and of its central characters, renders even these racial hierarchies suspect within the narrative. Walter, after all, embodies so much that is traditionally thought of as entwined with America’s golden years: virility, excelling in commerce, willing to solve problems at the point of a gun. Crucially, however, we are never meant to idolize him, and in fact understand him to be a complete villain, even outmoded. Murder on a train? How very Wild West!
3. Money is the lifeblood of the plot here in many ways. Consider that Neff’s job consists of commoditizing people’s well-being, or rather exploiting the insecurity of their private property and lives. Even people are easily exchanged for cash if the proper policies are taken out. I am not too reassured by the presence of morally eagle-eyed claims adjustors like Keyes, either. Of course, the money in this film becomes saturated with sexual desire, blood, and corruption, but the genius of the film is in how it shows the pursuit of money, the pursuit of women (which are twinned in the first part of our “hero’s” confession), and the pursuit of murder are all intertwined, not accidental partners.