Noir Nook: Unmistakable Noir

Unmistakable Noir

One of the most interesting – and challenging – aspects of classic film noir is the fact that it’s not a hard and fast, clear-cut genre. There are countless films that are staunchly considered by some to fall in the category of noir, and just as vehemently believed by others to be anything but noir.


There are some features that are undoubtedly, irrefutably, unmistakably noir – they’ve got more femmes fatales and flashbacks than you can shake a stick at – and this month’s Noir Nook kicks off a new limited series that looks at these features, beginning with Double Indemnity. This first-rate feature, released by Paramount Pictures in 1944, was directed by the great Billy Wilder and co-written by Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler.

Double Indemnity
Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler.

I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but in case I haven’t, Double Indemnity is my favorite noir. In a very succinct nutshell, it tells the story of a married woman who teams with her insurance salesman lover to murder her husband – and might have gotten away with it if not for said insurance salesman’s supervisor, who had the instincts and determination of a bloodhound.

Double Indemnity Fred MacMurray Voiceover
Insurance Agent, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray)

Two archetypal noir characteristics are revealed in the first few minutes of the film: voiceover narration and flashback. We see these after the insurance agent, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), careens his way through the deserted, early morning streets of Los Angeles, on his way to his office. Once there, his Dictaphone – on which he records a letter to his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) – furnishes the means for the flashback that will last until close to the film’s end. Similarly, that same recording to Keyes provides the viewer with the thread that connects crucial scenes in the film, from Walter’s first visit to the home of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and his introduction – via photographs on the piano – to Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) and his daughter, Lola (Jean Heather); to the step-by-step plan that results in the slaying of Phyllis’s spouse; to the paranoia, suspicion, and distrust that ultimately leads to the downfall of both Phyllis and Walter.

Double Indemnity Fred MacMurray Low Key Lighting

In addition to the voiceover narration and flashback device, Double Indemnity is rife with a painterly use of lights and shadows, courtesy of seven-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Seitz. Seitz achieved the film’s oppressively somber effect through the use of low-key lighting which, unlike high-key lighting, places an emphasis on shadows, contrasted with intense brights radiating from solitary sources. We see this throughout the film, beginning in the opening scene; we see the dusky street of Los Angeles, cloaked mostly in shadows, but with conspicuous lights coming from the streetlights, safety lamps, traffic lights, and a railway maintenance sign. The film’s shadowy look is omnipresent; one of the most notable comes in the scene where Walter enters the Dietrichson living room as he’s waiting for Phyllis to join him. (Even Walter notices; in his recording to Keyes, he recalls: “The windows were closed and the sunshine coming through the Venetian blinds showed up the dust in the air.” Seitz achieved this effect by mixing aluminum dust and smoke into a shaft of light.) Other effects included shadows from the steel railings in Walter’s office building, electric fans, floor lamps, hat racks, and tree branches. The shadows in Double Indemnity are so prevalent and pervasive that they all but represent another character.

Double Indemnity 4 Barbara Stanwyck
Femme Fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)

The most significant prototypical noir trait in Double Indemnity is the presence of the femme fatale, Phyllis. Before we see her, we hear her voice calling for her housekeeper, Nettie (Betty Farrington), an when she makes her appearance, she’s clad in a large towel – she’s been taking a sun bath, and that’s the most innocent act that Phyllis will undertake for the rest of the film. We get a few minor hints that Phyllis might be someone to reckon with when we hear her sultry voice and see the lingering look she gives Walter when she tells Nettie to show him into the living room. But our first concrete clue to Phyllis’s persona is the gold anklet she wears and the way it captivates Walter as she descends the stairs. And only scant minutes pass before Phyllis is acknowledging Walter’s intelligence and asking him about accident insurance. You can practically see the wheels turning in her head.

Early on, Walter is completely oblivious to Phyllis’s machinations (he’s too captivated by that anklet) and, to his credit, when he catches on that she’s interested in bumping off her husband, he beats a hasty retreat. But Phyllis isn’t one to take “no” for an answer – when at first she doesn’t succeed, she changes her tack (and her outfit); by the time she’s finished, she’s got Walter eating out of her hand and single-handedly planning Mr. Dietrichson’s murder. (And thinking it was all his own idea.)

Double Indemnity 5 Barbara Stanwyck

Not only does Double Indemnity contain these emblematic film noir tropes, but it also serves up a perfect ending. Originally, the movie concluded with Walter’s execution in the San Quentin gas chamber, but (luckily) that ending was scrapped, in favor of the confrontation between Walter and Keyes in Walter’s office. Here, we’re able to witness the profound disappointment and pity on Keyes’s face and the way Walter can barely look his boss and friend squarely in the eye. We hear Walter’s pathetic last-ditch effort to escape, with plans to flee across the border, and Keyes’s accurate prediction that he wouldn’t make it as far as the elevator. And, finally, we experience Keyes providing the match to light Walter’s blood-soaked cigarette and Walter’s final words to close out the proceedings: “I love you, too.” Want to see a pure, unmistakable noir? Check out Double Indemnity. And join me here in the coming months as I take a look at more entries in this shadowy, distinctive category of films.

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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