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Film Appreciation FIL2000
Directions: Please ensure that you have seen the film ‘Double Indemnity (1944), which
was screened in the class and is also available on YouTube and other streaming channels.
Then read the article ‘Double Indemnity: An In-Depth Look at a Film Noir Classic’ by Rachel E.
Bitoun. After reading the article, answer the following questions. Your assignment must be
typed over two to three pages, double space, spell and grammar checked. Title your
assignment as ‘Paper 3 – Film Noir. Add your name in the top left hand corner and
underneath your name type: Film Appreciation – 9:00 AM or 1:00 PM class.
This assignment is due at the start of the class as indicated in the syllabus.
Q 1. What are the elements and traditions of film noir, successfully exhibited in
‘Double Indemnity’? (Hint: For example use of lowo key lighting among others).
Identify three other such elements and discuss their symbolic use in film noir.
Q 2. By what means is the narrative told in ‘Double Indemnity’? Is it in the 1st person
or 3rd person storytelling? Who tells the story?
Q 3. What is the greatest achievement of the film according to the author, Rachel
Bitoun and how does the director, Billy Wilder accomplishes this?
Q 4. In her article, the author points out that objects are used as metaphors and the
audience is given clues symbolically. List and discuss three objects used as
metaphors in telling the story.
Please Note: The article on ‘Double Indemnity’ is given below:
Double Indemnity: An In-Depth Look At A Film Noir Classic
ByRachel Elfassy Bitoun
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, Director: Billy Wilder (1944)
‘It has all the characteristics of the classic forties film as I respond to it. It’s in black and white,
it has fast badinage, it’s very witty, a story from the classic age. It has Edward G. Robinson,
Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and the tough voice-over. It has brilliantly written
dialogue, and the perfect score.’ Filmmaker Woody Allen
In many ways, Woody Allen’s quote encompasses all the main elements that make
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (Paramount Pictures, USA, 1944) a masterpiece.
Anchored in the film noir’s aestheticism, its low-key lighting, oppressive music,
sharp dialogues and breathtaking performances achieve to make this film an
It is essential to understand the characteristics of film noir’s aesthetic to
appreciate Double Indemnity‘s richness. The term has first been used in 1946 by
French critics, to describe the rise of crime dramas in Hollywood that explored
sexual motivations and growing cynicism. Its low-key black and white style is
significantly recognizable, influenced by German expressionism and 1930s’ gangster
movies. In a good film noir, we expect to encounter feverish desire and
transgression, portrayed by sympathetic anti-heroes who remain outside society, in
an underworld of misdeeds.
Double Indemnity adopts film noir’s and crime fiction’s properties, and responds to
these anticipations. The plot is based around a crime of passion and adultery. The
men wear dark suits, gangster-like hats and smoke cigarettes endlessly. The women
wear elegant dresses and luxurious jewelry; they move around fluidly to display
their sex appeal. Everything is meant to convey American lifestyle, and Los Angeles
transmits a constant air of menace. Richard Schickel writes in his BFI Classics that
Wilder has ‘deliciously proved the writer’s adage that landscape is character. You
could charge LA as a co-conspirator in the crimes this movie relates.’ Thus one of the
greatest achievements of Double Indemnity is to create a specific film noir mood of
danger and attraction. An atmosphere that echoes the character’s immorality, and
that is brilliantly conveyed through the particular use of low-key lighting as a visual
representative of the protagonists’ psychological states.
Much has been said about the use of low-key lighting in film noir. Like painters,
cinematographers create an effect of chiaroscuro, and darkness tends to dominate
the shot composition. Double Indemnity seems to be sculpted by light (and absence
of light), anchoring the movie within the film noir tradition. The credits and the
opening sequence of the film set the general tone and are representative of the film’s
whole aesthetic. The shadow of a man on crutches, in backlight, walks towards us
and plunges the screen into darkness. It fades to a deserted street in Los Angeles, at
nighttime. A speeding car appears completely out of control as the haunting, heavybeat music of the credits changes to a fierce symphony, stressing the urgency of the
situation. The car can be seen as a metaphor for the impatient Walter (Fred
MacMurray), who has run all the spotlights in his relation with Phyllis (Barbara
Stanwyck). In the foreground, workers fix the road and scatter lanterns of fire on the
ground. Flames indicate danger, passion and damnation, themes directly addressed
by the film. A luminous sign stating “Los Angeles Railway Corp.” ironically
foreshadows what will be a major space in the storyline, the train station. The car
runs a red light and finally settles in front of a dark building. The only apparent
sources of light are the street lamps and the car’s lights, which stay visible during
the transition between shots: they allow the dissolves to occur. They remain on
screen up to the last second and haunt the audience’s vision, like a guilty man’s
consciousness… Hence, the audience is given clues about the themes, the setting,
and the character’s state of mind and what will happen later, in the space of twenty
Double Indemnity Opening sequence
In film noir, lighting implicitly develops key points around the story and the
protagonists. It hides them from the audience’s sight, and wraps the plot in enigmas
and secret crimes. Yet Double Indemnity adds in an extra layer of complexity –
lighting also reveals the hidden evils within the characters. Thus, it is used as a
narrative feature, which puts aspects of the story and of the characters into visual
form. Wilder and his director of photography John Seitz play with light to portray
the characters’ conflicting emotions. The juxtaposition of brightness and shadow
parallels the unsteady moral consciousness of Phyllis and Walter, who both wobble
between good and evil, love and lust, virtue and crime. As Schickel claims, Double
Indemnity is ‘a drama about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the
shadows’. At the beginning of the film, sun covers the city of angels and shines
through the blinds of the insurance’s offices and the Dietrichson’s house. It is in this
sunny ambiance that Walter meets Phyllis, wrapped in a white towel after
sunbathing. Everything shines about her: her jewels, her white dress, and her
nudity. Walter has been blinded by her, a bright artificial sun, and from there rain
and darkness reign. He has literally been taken out of the sunshine into the shadows.
Walter walks into the insurance office at nighttime
In many scenes, Walter’s shadow takes an unusual and meaningful space within the
frame, acting as a constant menace. If Walter succumbs to his desire, then his
shadow – his guilty consciousness – will follow him all his life. Again in the opening
sequence, Walter walks into Pacific All Risk buildings at night, and the darkness of
the hall envelops him completely. He crosses the balcony and walks side by side
with his enormous silhouette constantly reflected on the walls, which overpowers
his large body. In Keyes’ office, it is very difficult to distinguish between Walter and
his shadow, as if they had become equals. Without further plot details, we already
know that Walter is lost: he has embraced his evil counterpart and remains confined
in a world of obscurity.
This world of obscurity is also conveyed through the sharp-witted dialogues and the
neurotic soundtrack that contribute to the film’s grandeur. Wilder and Raymond
Chandler produced jazzy dialogues, with a dark sense of humor. The actors say their
lines promptly: they fight each other through speedy cross talks. Yet Walter and
Phyllis both use speech for different purposes, which reveal their diverging
intentions. Walter stereotypically calls Phyllis ‘baby’, as if he wanted to possess her.
Walter Neff in the Dietrichson house
In his apartment, after they have decided to kill Mr. Dietrichson, Walter wishes they
had pink wine to celebrate, to create a more romantic atmosphere, but Phyllis
dismisses him by saying Bourbon is fine. While his intention is clearly sexual, she
wants to get on with the job in the most pragmatic and efficient way. Her intentions
are murderous and greedy, and her relation to Walter is purely manipulative.
The voice-over is common in film noir (Wilder uses the same process in Sunset
Boulevard) and parallels Cain’s use of the first person narrative. Within the
flashback, Walter’s wry voice guides the audience throughout the entire film.
Looking at the past, he acknowledges his fatal sexual attraction to Phyllis and is
aware of the mistake he has made. ‘I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t
get the money and I didn’t get the woman.’ The voice-over builds suspense as we are
directly drawn into the story and wonder what has happened. And let’s not forget
the music, crucial to the building of the atmosphere. Artfully repetitive, it
accompanies the spectator through his investigation of the Dietrichson affair.
Wilder’s direction is impeccable, and actors play their role with dexterity and
intelligence. The choice of cast has contributed to the film’s popularity: Barbara
Stanwyck was the highest paid actress in America at the time, and Edward G.
Robinson had been a star since the successful Little Caesar. Fred MacMurray was
more famous in light comedies, but the role of Walter allowed him to show the full
variety of his acting talent. But it really is Stanwyck’s sophisticated performance
that stands out, still memorable after seventy years. Wilder has said of her that “she
was as good as an actress as I have ever worked with. Very meticulous about her
work.” At the time, few actresses agreed to play evil women, but Stanwyck took
risks and made of Phyllis the perfect femme fatale. She is attractive, alluring,
powerful and in control of the situation. Wanting her is fatal. Also, the relationship
between Walter and Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is fundamental, and warmer than
in the novel. ‘It’s the love story of the picture’, stated Wilder. Both men complement
each other, such as the matches symbolize. Keyes acts as the moral monitor of the
story, a figure that Cain could never bring himself to write. Yet it allows the audience
to sympathize with Walter, and creates a poignant new ending: he dies in the arms
of his friend after confessing, and gets a sentimental farewell from the audience,
whereas Phyllis dies alone.
Fred MacMurray, Edward G Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck
Wilder’s ingenious craftsmanship of lighting, sound, dialogue and performance
succeeds in making the film a real chef d’oeuvre. All the cinematographic qualities
of Double Indemnity contributed to its enormous impact on film history: everyone
remembers these beautiful black-and-white shots, like lonely Edward Hopper
settings, and the actor’s brilliance. The techniques used are more than simply
aesthetic choices: each one is meant to remind the audience of the danger of desire.
The means of the film can be seen as cathartic and purgative; by bringing out the
worst in the characters, it teaches us to resist to our cruelest cravings.
– Blakeney, Catherine, ‘An Analysis of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”‘, StudentPulse
(2009) accessed the 13/02/2014
– Gemünden, Gerd, A foreign affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films (New York: Berghahn
– Hanson, Helen and O’Rawe, Catherine, The femme fatale: images, histories and contexts
(Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.)
– Lax, Eric, Woody Allen: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1991) pp. 37-8.
– Mills, Michael, ‘Double Indemnity: An in-depth look at the classic’, Moderntimes (2007)
accessed the 13/02/2014 <http://moderntimes.com/double/>
– Schickel, Richard, BFI Classics Double Indemnity (London: British Film Institute, Palgrave
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