Sunday, 2 November 2008

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Billy Wilder, 1944)


I am currently teaching a course on American cinema here at the Korea National University of Art. It is a history of American film from the sound era up to the New Hollywood, relying heavily on the ideological reading offered by Robert Ray combined with more historical scholarship. The essay for the course is to analyze a film in relation to the course material. I decided to write a sample essay as a model and thought I would post it here in case it is of potential interest to anyone.

According to Robert Ray, most popular American films from the classical era followed both a formal and thematic paradigm. Formally, all techniques were meant to the “invisible” in order to conceal the choices necessary to tell the story. Thematically, incompatible values (such as individual-community) were felt to be reconcilable. These two tendencies in Hollywood cinema worked together to create a powerful ideological tool that reinforced the myth of America. But not all films shared this optimistic vision. During World War II, at the height of American optimism, there emerged a number of films that would later be dubbed “film noir”. The most popular of this group of films was Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). Rather than offering an optimistic view typical of Hollywood, Double Indemnity challenged both the formal and thematic tendencies of American cinema.

Formally, Double Indemnity differs in two ways. First, there is both a voiceover narration and a flashback structure that breaks with the “invisibility” demanded of classical storytelling. Instead of unfolding objectively from an omniscient point of view, Double Indemnity is a subjective story told from the perspective of the character Walter Neff. The opening scene tells the viewer who committed the murder. The rest of the story consists of the murderer telling us how it happened and why he did. This interest in the subjective character psychology of a murderer differentiates Double Indemnity from American films of the time. Second, Wilder uses expressionist lighting in many scenes. Usually American films make all stylistic decisions relate to the story. The lighting in Double Indemnity instead makes the character and the story less clear and more difficult to comprehend. The intent is to create a dark, pessimistic mood rather than simply advancing the story forward quickly.

Thematically, Double Indemnity is an even greater departure from the Hollywood paradigm. The film makes it clear that although Walter may be killing his lover’s husband for money and lust, he is also interested in the adventure of the crime. Walter is an insurance man, hardly an adventurous occupation. But the fact that Walter is thirty-five and unmarried (as we are told in the first scene) indicates a reluctance on his part to not be a domesticated family man. Instead, he wants the myth of adventure that is no longer possible in the modern world. He wants to prove his manhood. But why does he have to do this? The answer is in the traditional mythology that idolizes the outlaw hero adventurer as being the “ideal man”. Hollywood may confirm the ideology of marriage, but it also sees the domesticated male as emasculated and boring, not a romantic, mythical figure. Walter falls victim to this myth, and has to be punished for his transgression of the law. Walter is the outlaw hero/adventurer, but in film noir, this character cannot be redeemed. He is both a murderer and a disturber of the capitalist status quo. He not only murders his lover’s husband but he also attempts to rip off the insurance company he works for. The film punishes him for his misdeeds, but Walter is also a sympathetic figure for the audience simply because he is our identification figure. The film focuses on Walter’s psychology and asks us to identify with his desires. The audience knows, because of the conventions of the Production Code, that Walter is a doomed figure. But this only adds to his appeal. The phrase “straight down the line” keeps getting repeated in order to emphasize Walter’s inability to escape the assembly line of industrial production. Because the viewer is in a similar place in this same society, Walter cannot be simply dismissed as an “evil” character. Rather, he falls victim to the incompatible values that most American films try to reconcile.

A key scene in illustrating the thematic of the film occurs in Walter’s office (42:22). Walter is sitting on his desk when Keyes enters from the back of the frame. Wilder decides to shoot their extended dialogue exchange in a single long take lasting approximately 130 seconds, signaling its importance by breaking with the shot/ reverse shot convention that sutures the viewer into the cinematic story world. The content of the sequence consists of Keyes trying to convince Walter to become his assistant. Keyes argues that unlike Walter’s current salesman position, being a claims investigator is exciting, adventurous work. But before he finishes his argument to Walter, the phone rings. It is Phyllis telling Walter that their murder plan can now go ahead as planned. The next eleven shots alternate between Walter and Phyllis, with Keyes lingering in the background of Walter’s shots. Tellingly, the phrase “straight-down-the-line” gets used here again. After this dialogue finishes, Wilder shoots Walter and Keyes in another extended take as Keyes exits from the door in the back of the frame. Keyes asks Walter why he has never married and then tells the story of his own unwillingness to become domesticated (he could not stop investigating the woman). Walter decides not to take Keyes’s offer of adventure. Keyes exits by telling Walter that he isn’t smarter than the rest of the office workers, only a little taller. Of course, what Keyes does not know is that Walter is planning to prove him wrong. He does not want Keyes’s desk job because he recognizes that the adventure is purely in Keyes’s mind, not in reality. He wants the real adventure that Phyllis offers. Also, he does not want to be Keyes’s assistant. He wants to prove he is better than Keyes, that he can outsmart him. Committing a murder and stealing money from the insurance company is Walter’s way of accomplishing this goal.

In many ways, Double Indemnity is the dark mirror of classical films. It exposes rather than denies the contradictions inherent in the social structure. For example, compare Double Indemnity with the most famous Hollywood film, Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Ideologically, a film like Casablanca works at reconciliation. Rick is the outlaw hero/adventurer who works for the good of the community and is capable of love (potential husband). Laszlo is the domesticated male (husband) but is also a resistance leader (adventure). Ilsa is believed by Rick to be a sexually adventurous woman but is revealed at the end to be a domesticated wife/mother. Double Indemnity, on the other hand, reveals these contradictions. Walter is the outlaw hero/adventurer, but in film noir, this character cannot be redeemed. Similarly, the femme fatale in film noir cannot be saved by love. Both the outlaw hero and the femme fatale must die for their trangressions. The film can offer no happy ending to deny the contradictions inherent in the culture. Casablanca finally reconciles its lovers in a key scene of romantic embrace (1:19:20). Double Indemnity replays the scene, but instead of a reunion, the two lovers shoot each other (1:34:24).

As much as Double Indemnity differs from classical films, it is still a product of Hollywood. Despite its unusual storytelling devices and expressionist techniques, it still mostly conforms to the invisible style. Thematically, it forms a “good couple” at the conclusion (Lola and Zachetti) to try to provide some sense of optimism. Also, the Production Code would not permit the execution of Walter in the gas chamber that would have completed the “straight-down-the-line” motif. But the fact that the Production Code would not allow Walter to be executed is telling. In 1932, it was demanded that the lead character of Howard Hawks’ Scarface be hanged in order to provide the proper punishment and avoid a glamorous death scene. With Double Indemnity, however, the audience is attached to Walter psychologically and emotionally in a way not possible with the classic gangster film. This is the really subversive aspect of the film. Double Indemnity challenges the formal and thematic paradigms and shows that Walter is ultimately a victim of the very mythology Americans are taught to believe in.

Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985): 25-69.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Definitely, one of the most influential films of cinema. I'll be waiting for other essays!