In what ways can Double Indemnity be defined as a film noir? Can film noir be classified as a genre?

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Eassy written as part of my Film and Media course at Uni. This was about film noir and if the film Double Indemnity be defined as a film noir and if film noir itself could be classed as a genre.

In what ways can Double Indemnity be defined as a film noir? Can film noir be classified as a genre?

By Stefan Davenport

 

Before I can define Double Indemnity, I will first need to define what Film Noir is.

Genre critic Steve Neale says “As a single phenomenon, noir, in my view, never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it (Neale 2000: 173-174) however I will discuss what I feel is Film Noir.

 

The main characteristics which identify Film Noir is the visual style, the classic style is black and white, high contrasts of light and dark or Chiaroscuro lighting along with low key lighting and night for night shooting, the use of smoke and rain to highlight the mood and tone, the bad weather may act as a foreshadow of bad things to come.

The use of shadows to make the sets look more claustrophobic and gloomy and Venetian blinds can add visual tension to a scene.

 

Then there is the narration and structure device, the use of flashbacks help with the non-chronological storytelling, more so if there is a complex story line, this and the use of a voice over help to explain background history or to help move the plot forward.

The voice overs are commonly made by the main protagonist of the story and can be in the first or third person and can be aimed at the viewer or to another character in the film.

 

Next is are the characters, the strong male lead who is commonly a police detective, a private eye or just an business man who ends up as the film’s anti-hero, who will have a major character flaw which leads to his downfall.

 

The femme fatale who tricks or betrays the main protagonist by seducing him. The male lead often falls for the femme fatale or antagonist who uses her womanly charms in order to manipulate him for her own means.

The tough gangster who controls his world of corruption and drugs , the corrupt policemen who usually works for the gangster and there is always a dead body involved.

 

Film Noir films are often set in the bigger American cities, like New York or Los Angeles, most of the time it is set at night and is raining, the more seedy or sleazily side of these cities are shown, this helps to make a more moodier or depressing tone to the story, more so if crime is the main plot device.

 

Double Indemnity has most of the characteristics which identify Film Noir. Fred MacMurray plays the main protagonist, Walter Neff the smooth talking, hard boiled, middle class insurance salesman, who falls for the strong but soft femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson played by Barbara Stanwyck, they both come up with a scheme to sell life insurance to the husband of Dietrichson without him knowing and then murder him and make it look like an accident so they can get the insurance money. The policy of the life insurance contains a double indemnity cause which grants more money if he dies.

This black and white film starts with the confident Neff,  confessing to murder of Mr. Dietrichson, this then led to the story telling flashback, from here all the traits of Film Noir is exposed to the viewer. The characters are just as dark and lonely as the city they live in. The way LA is lit with black shadows and the contrasting light gives the feeling of depression

The well written characters which are seen in Noir films can be seen there. The tough man who is quickly overpowered by lust and love, which becomes paranoid within his own world and everyone around him. A man who chooses a grocery store to rendezvous with his lover so he is not seen, a man who is driven to kill for the women he loves. Then there is the femme fatale, the scheming, sultry Phyllis who with the promise of sex and money is able to lure Neff to commit murder for her in the name of love, however because of her lies and betrayal she is murdered by Walter who has been crafted into a down wood spiral for her own hands, however like most Film Noir films there is no happy ending and Neff ends up a broken man both mentally and physicality.

Professor of English, William Marling says that “Double Indemnity is regarded by most as film noir's masterpiece and it has also been said to be the template of Film Noir.” But can Film Noir be classified as a genre?

William Park says that “Some people consider Film Noir a genre; other think it is a style” (Park  2011)

 

In Frank Krutnik’s book  In A Lonely Street, Krutnik says that Film Noir is a genre. He says that films are more referred to as being in the Noir style rather than being seen as its own genre. ( Krutnik 1991 ) however he also states that “the definition of film noir as a genre is often seen as problematic because of its association with 1940s Hollywood – genres tend to cross periods rather than be bounded by them,” (Krutnik 1991).

 

Famous film critic Robert Ebert acknowledges Film Noir as a genre, he even has a Guide to Film Noir Genre on his website, and even the Internet Movie Database website has Film Noir listed under genre.

 

Film Noir may not of existed in the 40’s or 50’s when these films were being viewed for the first time nor were the studios making them knew about the Film Noir style, however it is only when we look back that we can see what this style has become, we can see the techniques used to create this world of good and bad mixed in with the light and dark.

 

Even video games based on the Film Noir genre have been released over the years with one released this year called L.A Noire, which was a homage to the Film Noir films of the 1940’s and 1950’s. It captures the same visual style and themes of the more classic noir film. The player controls a Los Angeles Police Department detective in 1947, who deals with crime, sex, and moral ambiguity. There is even the option to play the game in black and white and the Max Payne series of games released in 2001 were also based on the more hard-boiled detective noir films.

 

Film Noir may not of existed in the 40’s or 50’s when these films were being viewed for the first time nor were the studios making them knew about the Film Noir style, however it is only when we look back that we can see what this style has become, we can see the techniques used to create this world of good and bad mixed in with the light and dark.

 

I don’t see why Film Noir could not be classed has a genre, there are so many films released now which cross the genres to such a degree that they then become a genre of their own. New genres like Torture Porn, Zombie Apocalypse, Chick Flick and Super Hero / Comic Book films have been invented to describe a subgenre of film which covers those different genres in one. These will go along older subgenres like Spaghetti Westerns, Disaster, Spoof and Road.

 

There is no reason why Film Noir cannot sit along the more well know genres like Drama, Horror and Comedy. There can never be too many genres; there may be an occasion where you may want to watch a film which spans some different genres. A good example of this is the film Shun of the Dead which was marketed by the makers as a"Rom Zom Com" which was there way of saying a romantic comedy with Zombies.

 

You could argue that Double Indemnity was a Romantic Crime thriller but in order to do the film justice it would be right to class Double Indemnity has a Film Noir

 

 

Bibliography

 

Neale, S (2000). Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge. 173-174.

 

Krutnik, F (1991). In A Lonely Street. London: Routledge.

 

Park, W (2011). What is Film Noir?. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield.

 

Marling, W. (2009). Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir. Available: http://www.detnovel.com/filmnoir.html. Last accessed 12 Dec 2011.

 

Ebert, R. (1995). A Guide to Film Noir Genre . Available: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19950130/COMMENTARY/11010314/1023. Last accessed 11 Dec 2011

 

Genres. Available: http://www.imdb.com/genre/. Last accessed 12 Dec 2011

Further Reading

 

Evans, P.W. (1992) Double Indemnity (or Bringing Up Baby). In:

Cameron, I. (ed.) The Movie Book of Film Noir. London: Studio Vista. pp 165-173

 

McLean, C. (2006). Film Noir. Available: http://www.resnet.trinity.edu/wmclean/filmnoir.htm

 

Blaser J. J and  Blaser S.L.M. (2008). FILM NOIR AND THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE HERO. Available: http://www.filmnoirstudies.com/essays/detective_hero.asp

 

 

 


Submitted: July 02, 2014

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