ESSAY: Users and Losers of Film Noir
At first, I was going to write about femme fatales in film noir and how they represent smart, strong and alluring women, albeit with dubious intentions. I wondered if film noir would be the same if such characters were absent. For decades, many have lamented the lack of great roles for women, but back in the hard-boiled films of the 40s and 50s, there were plenty. Having watched 1947’s “Out of the Past” and 1944’s “Double Indemnity “recently – both of which include manipulative femme fatales – what I’ve come to notice is how the genre also consists of men who give in to weakness and are suckered into a tangled web, due to a soft spot in their hearts or a hard one in their pants. In my experience with the genre (so far), I’ve come to observe that film noir is full of users and losers.
Such an observation actually makes the genre more intriguing and entertaining to watch. The dark side of humanity is always more interesting and more relatable in any medium – not because the behavior or action we see on the screen resembles who we are or what we do, but because it conveys how we would like to be if we gave into our compulsions or desires and ejected our own moral convictions. Yet, what these stories wind up doing is teaching us, or reminding us, of the outcome of certain morally corrupt behavior. We see the dark side – the allure and repercussions of it all – in both of these Hollywood movies from the 40s that are now deemed classics.
In Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”, co-written by Wilder and Raynond Chandler (from a novel by James M. Cain of the same name), we follow Los Angeles insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred McMurray), a bored bachelor who works for Pacific All-Risk, along with long-time colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Walter pays a visit on a client one day to offer a renewal on an auto insurance policy. The client isn’t home and instead Walter meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), his client’s alluring wife and it’s all over from there. One look at the blonde in a towel at the top of her stairs with her anklet as she traipses down the steps and Walter was hooked. In zero to sixty, the two go from double entendre flirting to falling in lust, which finds Walter setting up an accident policy on Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) for Phyllis – without his knowledge – something that would pay out double (hence the title), if her husband were to succumb to an accidental death. But things don’t go as planned after the murder and Walter isn’t prepared for the revelations Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola (Jean Hatcher) provides as he tragically realizes there’s no turning back and he’s just another chump.
Is Phyllis Dietrichson the classic “dame to kill for” – the kind of femme fatale that film noir is known for? Portrayed by the fantastic Barbara Stanwyck she is and hits all the right notes for McMurray’s Walter. She may not have the looks of Rita Hayworth (then again, McMurray is no Cary Grant, either), but the attitude and disposition Stanwyck brings to the role makes up for any exterior expectations we’ve come to expect from femme fatales. But, what is it about these two? Neither of them seems to have been in need of one another – until they meet inadvertently meet up with one another on a change visit. Walter’s arrival certainly presents an opportunity for Phyllis to follow through with an agenda she was already entertaining, while the tantalizing introduction by Phyllis, finds Walter entertaining his carnal desires – it’s in his body language and his narration, “I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she had looked at me, and I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us.” Such narration, which takes place within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, gives viewers an idea what’s really going on underneath his image of a stand-up businessman.
Still, there’s something about Phyllis that turns Walter, this seemingly stand-up guy, into a murderer. He’s held down a job in the insurance business for over ten years and has an obvious bond with seasoned claims adjuster, brilliantly portrayed by Robinson (a great supporting role, which often steals the movie that the actor was reticent to play) and I’m sure he’s encountered a hot dame – so what was it about Phyllis that made him compliant to murder. It could’ve been the money or the woman – of which, he confesses in his narration – he received neither, but maybe there was something already in him, buried underneath his professional exterior that was capable of taking a life. He apparently knows the ways in which to dispose of a life, based on his work experience, but in the end, he’s fooled. Despite his wise-guy, smooth-talking demeanor and knowledge in his field, there’s a certain naiveté about how he sees people, especially someone like Phyllis. He’s not into her just because he’s attracted to her; it’s that she’s reciprocating his advances – playing along and stringing him along, which he doesn’t see until it’s too late.
It’s obvious that Stanwyck’s Phyllis is a manipulator, a user, like so many femme fatales in film noir, typically using men to get whatever they want – revenge, power, sex or money. At the same time, McMurray’s a loser, “a male pushover”, as film critic Pauline Kael referred to him in her book The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, but we nevertheless associate him as a victim, regardless of his partnership with Phyllis. That happens when we start to see Walter’s conscious surface after the murder, in one of the movie’s many great lines, “And yet, Keyes, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, suddenly, it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy Keyes, but it’s true, so help me, I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man,” as an injured Walter confesses to his colleague via Dictaphone.
What’s interesting about the narration in “Double Indemnity” is where, when and why it happens. After getting shot by Phyllis, he makes his way back to his office to leave a recording for Keyes, disclosing everything. He could’ve gone for medical attention, but what’s more important to him is coming clean to his dear friend Keyes. (There’s the real love relationship of the movie). It’s that act that frames the entire film, using it to kick off a flashback that recounts how Walter got into his mess. The flashback sequence is a tool often used in film noir, one that is used prominently and effectively in Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past”, which found Robert Mitchum’s character telling his shady past with his girlfriend as the drive to meet his past. Therefore, the narration in both movies serves as a function to inform the story, not just a gumshoe voice-over designed to add an element of cool to the movie.
Mitchum’s Jeff Markham tried to settle down and walk away from the private eye business that found him associated with crooked gambler, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). He tried to make the quiet life work for himself, running a gas station in a small town nestled in the central California mountains where he found an honest gal, Ann (Ann Miller), but one day a former goon comes knocking and pulls him back into his past, where femme fatale, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) awaits. It’s around this time in the movie where we hear Mitchum’s narration – as Jeff tells Ann what is drawing him back into the part of his life he’d rather forget (since he knows those pursuing him won’t let that happen). Like in “Double Indemnity”, the narration in “Out of the Past”, written by novelist/screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, is the way in which we learn more about the male lead – it’s a confessional and reflective device (respectively) – and it’s through tone and inflection that we learn more about their characters.
The lead male characters in “Out of the Past” and “Double Indemnity” may be losers, but that’s not to say they aren’t easy (or fun) to follow. It’s just an observation, but I want to be clear – when I use the term ‘loser’, it means they’re losing out – both of them are morally compromised and neither of them are protagonists to look up to, but they do know better. They just choose to give in to their desires, which is nothing foreign to the genre. In fact, it makes them more fascinating to watch, leaving the audience to wonder what they’d do if they were in the character’s situation. Both Robert Mitchum and Fred McMurray’s character come to a point where they see the true colors of the dame they’ve fallen for, which is also when they realize they’re in too deep.
Author Nicholas Christopher makes a note of this in his book Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, where he breaks down the lead male’s typical trajectory:
“Often in film noir, men veer along a zigzag path with regard to the femme fatale, from reverence to loathing, in truth reflecting (and projecting) more than anything else their feelings about their own condition, their own entrapment, as the walls seem to close in around them. While many times serving as the agent of that entrapment, the femme fatale is always its dark mirror.”
In a way, the femme fatale is often only accentuating or drawing out what was always inside the male lead. Sure, she’s using him for her own dubious agenda, but she’s only using what’s already there. This can certainly be seen when we watch the amoral Walter Neff decide to go along with the murder, after prodding and pleading from Phyllis. She’s trapped him once he agrees and he can see his dark side just by gazing into her eyes.
What’s interesting about both the relationships in these two movies is how eventually they both come to terms with whom and what they are – and none of it is good. In “Out of the Past”, we find the couple played by Mitchum and Greer try to explain themselves, Greer’s Kathie states, “I think we deserve a break,” which is immediately followed by Mitchum’s Jeff’s reply, “We deserve each other.” Since both of them were involved in the murder of Jeff’s old detective partner, he realizes there’s no turning away from each other – that, although they are in love with each other it’s a doomed and complicated relationship. In “Double Indemnity”, we see Walter and Phyllis both admit what they are in the film’s third act, “We’re both rotten”, Phyllis proclaims and without missing a beat, Walter replies, “Only you’re a little more rotten.” We know he’s right, based on what we’ve seen and learned about her, but they’re both users and losers, either way. It’s ironic yet fitting to find the couples in both these movies come to terms with who they are, it may be too late for both of them, but at least they put the truth out there eventually.
The stories in the two movies have their incredulous aspects, especially when we see the murder play out in “Double Indemnity”. Too many investigative crime procedurals have been released for me to believe that no clues were found at the scene of the crime – not to mention dusting for prints. But alas, film noir isn’t concerned with the minutia, it’s more concerned with human behavior and what the response after committing bad deeds. We see in “Double Indemnity” how lust is eventually replaced by fear and that fear reveals how the two really never had a chance together as a couple (of course, committing a murder together is no way to start out a relationship), which distances them and causes them to react like wounded animals.
In both movies, the mise-en-scene is striking and dramatic, yet both directors refrain from getting in the way of the storytelling. What is most noticeable is the use of light and darkness in each movie. Almost every time we see Greer’s Kathie walk into a room in “Out of the Past”, she is illuminated by either daylight or moonlight. We see this in her introduction as she walks into a dark bar in Acapulco where Jeff is sitting, with a sunlight silhouette emphasizing her frame. It’s used to establish the importance she will play in Jeff’s life – as if an angel had just entered his life. Then there’s the use of pitch darkness in “Double Indemnity”, to evoke mystery and foreboding fatalities, like in the Dietrichson’s study or in the car as the camera closes in on Stanwyck’s face as her husband is dying next to her yet off-camera. Darkness envelops her and we realize there’s no turning back.
Wilder and Tourneur also employed the use of deep focus in much of their framing, keeping figures in the background and foreground in focus at the same time, a practice that would become recognizable in film noir. The cinematographers, Nicholas Musuraca (“Out of the Past”) from Italy and Chicago-born John Seitz (“Double Indemnity”), both used venetian blind lighting in offices and parlors, casting straight lines or dark bars across a room or a figure making for a dynamic aesthetic, but also making the characters feel imprisoned. All of this is used to serve the mood and tone of the story, which further builds the emotional impact of the characters viewers become acquainted with.
I learned of film noir from watching neo-noir 80s movies that paid homage to the genre, such as Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” and Taylor Hackford’s “Against All Odds”, to name a few. Both of those movies are actually loose remakes of “Double Indemnity” and “Out of the Past”, respectively, and are examples of good remakes that respect their source material, yet offer a modern update. Ironically, those remakes also portrayed men and women as users and losers, individuals who get caught up in their own weaknesses and manipulations, ultimately resulting in their own undoing – and that’s because it makes for great storytelling and entertainment.