Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, America was obsessed with a relatively new kind of fiction. Hard-boiled novels inspired by the short stories in pulp magazines became wildly popular amongst the masses. Often, these tales involved violent crimes, a little romance, and seedy locales. Characters in these types of novels were unlike any other. The detectives were tough men, short on words and not afraid to get their hands dirty. The anti-hero archetype rose to prominence once again.
At the same time, filmmakers in Europe were also exploring “the dark side.” The German expressionism movement dominated cinemas in the 1920s. Movies like Metropolis, Nosferatu, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari all probe darker themes including betrayal, madness, isolation (particularly in the big city) and the rapid modernization of society. Near by, French poetic realist films dominated the 1930s. Filmmakers such as Jean Renoir made movies with characters often living on the fringes of society. These films were fatalistic and showed the darker side of life, often ending in disappointment. Combined, these two popular styles of film no doubt made their way to American audiences, where the foundations of the noir genre were formed.
American authors of the time such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain created their own variations on the hardened, but still-seeking redemption, archetype. The adventures of well-known detective characters like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade were read voraciously by the public in serialized stories. Eventually, Hollywood took notice of their popularity. Many of these authors were hired as screenwriters for films. As WWII ended and the postwar era of cinema began, the time was right for a new film genre to take shape.
All film noir has the same basic set-up to their story: an individual (a male-protagonist, usually a detective) investigates some sort of crime, looking for his shot at redemption. More often than not, that detective falls for the charms of a scheming femme fatale character. There’s romance, betrayal, moral corruption, paranoia, and a bit of murder or violence thrown in for entertainment. The Maltese Falcon became one of the first films in to fit this style when released in 1941. The public grew hungry for more, and Hollywood turned to James M. Cain’s 1943 novella Double Indemnity, hoping to turn it into the next big noir hit.
Double Indemnity fits all the conventions of the noir genre. The story concerns an insurance salesman named Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) who begins an affair with one of his clients, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). She cooks up a scheme to kill her husband and receive a large sum of money from an accident insurance policy. Neff helps her come up with a plan to receive twice the amount of money due to a double indemnity clause in the policy stating that the insurance company must pay the amount if the death is ruled accidental.
Director Billy Wilder took the story, considered by many Hollywood executives to be unfilmable at the time, and turned it into one of the most memorable films noir ever made. Although the Hays Code was in effect, Wilder was still able to create a brutal, arresting film with the help of his co-writer, Raymond Chandler. Many of the conventions of film noir such as voice-over narration, dark external street shots, and low-key lighting are seen in Double Indemnity. The classic lighting-through-Venetian-blinds shot was popularized in the film and went on to be used many times over in others. Double Indemnity succeeds as a look at how human beings respond to the often random, chaotic existence that is life. The film set the standard for all other noir that came after it.
Although it was praised by critics at the time of release and nominated for seven Academy Awards, Double Indemnity did not win any.
Raymond Chandler’s cameo in the movie is the only known film footage that exists of the famed writer.
Silver dust was mixed in with the smoke effects to create the fading sunlight effect in Phyllis Dietrichson’s house.
In 2007, the American Film Institute named Double Indemnity the 29th greatest film of all-time.
What’s your favorite film noir? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.