The nice thing about our Manifesto is that it allows us to cheerfully jump from the horrors of WWII weapons of terror to light-hearted reviews of science fiction anthologies without batting an eyelash. Perhaps the move we are making today is conceptually much smaller (although, admittedly, the last time we discussed films we went on and on about crazy Russians), but it does take us back to somewhat darker themes.
Film noir has often been analyzed from an aesthetic standpoint, and with good reason. The darkness and visual cues (such as venetian blind lighting) are signature moves. But today, in analyzing a film that is often credited with creating the noir look, we’re going to be contrary and look at the characters, a sordid little bunch.
Let’s begin by saying that 1944’s Double Indemnity is a film with a bunch of unforgettable scenes and plot devices – perhaps the most memorable of which is the dictation of the story into a recording device by the main character. Having said that, it’s not actually an enjoyable film. One doesn’t watch this one with the same pleasure as, say, The Maltese Falcon. Though the characters are equally down-on-their luck, and often just as self-serving as the ones surrounding Sam Spade, they don’t have that touch of black humor or dogged streak of hidden nobility.
What I applaud most is that they managed to get it past the Hays code – even if they had to make some compromises (notably the size of Barbara Stanwick’s towel)
Despite not being enjoyable, that’s probably what has made this film so respected even seventy years later. Think back to 1944. There was a war on. The public was thinking of heroism, of sacrifice – and so many films of the time reflected that. The ones that didn’t at least attempted to give the audience some sense of humanity’s redeeming qualities… and along comes Billy Wilder with an unflinching look at the seamier side of human nature.
This is a film where the main character is a heel, where the girl is worse than he is, and where even the supposedly pure younger woman’s innocence and decency can very easily be called into question by cynical viewers. It looks at the real world, a world in which Sam Spade is as likely as a flock of flying unicorns.
It moves along at a decent clip, piling intrigue upon intrigue until, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, we are back where we started, but we now know why the man is dictating into the machine.
It works, it’s powerful, it’s much more true to life than most of the hardboiled genre… but you won’t like it as much. On a scale of one to five, we give it three Schlemmons.*
*For an explanation of the Schlemmon system, see here… now we just need to get someone to create a Schlemmon icon for us.