Great class. Film Noir. All we did was watch old gangster movies and write about them. I was introduced to Bogart here. Good times. Title from the essay was taken from a Wu-Tang song.
23 November 2004
Walking Through the Darkness
The world of film noir is one that embraces stereotypes of all kinds. The name of the genre, for instance, describes the film as ‘black’ – a title Africans were given by their ‘white’ oppressors. Apart from the race relation, dictionaries often define the word black as gloomy or ominous; evil; wicked; dirty; or as indicating disgrace or discredit. ‘Whites’ knew what they were doing when they first encountered ‘blacks’ and decided to name them thusly. After all, it would be hard to believe that Caucasians described themselves as being ‘white’ before they met what they believed to be their exact opposites. Therefore, Caucasians distinguished themselves from what they saw as evil while creating a dichotomy of human nature whereby white was good and black was bad. This particular stereotype has proved to be one of the strongest ever forged. Negroes are still referred to as being ‘black’ and Caucasians are still referred to as being ‘white’. Even in political debates, where correctness is most often upheld, politicians find themselves too lazy to say ‘African American’ and settle for that belittling word with less syllables. The stereotype continues to thrive in the movie industry as seen in the rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, especially in a scene where we see the mighty white wizard leading the charge of a cavalry of white men down a hill where a sea of black, demon-like, creatures awaited their judgment from upon high. Modern cinema, much like the film noir, or ‘black film’, portray blackness as a type of disease plaguing society; a portrait that may have not attracted such negativity if the word in question had not been used already to describe a section of humanity. But the stereotyping did not stop there. Among the negative associations the name of the genre brought to mind, also posited in the public eye was the view of life for men and women if it were to be consumed by blackness; that is, integrating the false values of the ‘black’ world into the good ‘white’ world.
In the noir world, women often became like the venomous black widow spider. The conventional female attire was dropped for the fancy or burlesque dress of the noir’s femme fatale. While men found themselves teetering constantly along the line between the law and crime; a balancing act that created three different type of men in the noir world. Lurking in the shadows of the noir city were the sheep (law abiding citizens), the shepherds (police), and the wolves (private detectives and criminals). The latter grouping was the only one of the three that was willing to do whatever it takes to get what they wanted out of a system determined to keep them uninformed and underpaid. In the noir world, men and women are seen at their ultimate highs and lows, proving that the genre relied heavily upon stereotypes of each at their best and their worst. But why create a genre that embraced the dark side of human nature? Film noir may be seen as a genre that manifested the fear imbedded within conservative minds of a fall from moral grace after World War II – a time of “volatile social and economic conditions” in America. Integration with African Americans, not being a popular notion, was included in this moral decline among other things that conservatives feared would drag the whole of America into the blackness. Corruption and crime, motivated by greed and anxiety, were chief among the apprehensions because times were so desperate that people sometimes had to break the law a little to make any kind of substantial profit gain. This is why you often hear that behind the greatest fortunes amassed in the world, lay they greatest crimes. The question remains however, whether the makers of these films had this fear or if they were consciously exposing the ridiculousness of such a notion by exaggerating the supposed effects of a fall into blackness so extremely. With specific reference to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and a couple critical essays exploring the aforementioned issues, this essay aims to prove that these amplifications of effect represented both a genuine fear and an acute fascination of the dark.
There are many dangerous things lurking within the dark shadows of the noir world. However, of them all, the femme fatale is inexorably the deadliest. Using her sexuality against men she is able to “lead the noir hero from the sunlit exterior into a nocturnal world of transgressions, betrayals, and, ultimately, his demise” (p.106 Heather K. Love). This is exactly the case in Double Indemnity. The film begins with words of confessional tone in a monologue from Wilder’s protagonist Walter Neff – an “insurance man” from Los Angeles. He is recording a guilty plea indicting himself as the murderer of one Mr. Dietrichson on a Dictaphone in the office of his boss, Mr. Keyes. Walter factually proclaims his motivation for murder being that he “killed him for love and for a woman”; the woman being Mr. Dietrichson’s wife, the conniving Phyllis. Her name in itself garners negative associations because it is so close to ‘syphilis’ the venereal disease; something no man would want in a woman. Knowing the conventions of film noir, the audience at once identifies the villain in the story. Yet as Walter tells us in the voice over, he was drawn to her the instant his eyes betook her, and the audience can already detect his weakness by the way he stares at her in her, dressed in nothing but a towel and sexy jewel anklet. Phyllis is unhappily married, and wishes her husband was dead so she could collect and insurance payoff, but she wants someone to commit the murder for her. She makes this intent quite clear to Walter, who happens upon her door one day selling just what she needs; accident insurance. She figures him a mark for her scheme after he generously pays her three compliments, all about that sexy little anklet. Phyllis, smiles, knowing she has caught the insurance man in her web. The next time they meet, Walter exposes her real intentions and storms out of her house. Here we see him teetering along that thin line between good and bad. A side of him knows that getting mixed up with this woman would be nothing but trouble for him, which is why he left her apartment after revealing her devious plan. He opted to do the right thing initially, but no sooner did he part from her, did he feel inevitably drawn to her and willing to do anything to be with her. At their next meeting, Walter kisses Phyllis, and says “I’m crazy about you baby”, describing himself more accurately than he could have figured at the time. Phyllis’ sexuality is her only weapon, but it is overwhelmingly powerful and entrancing. Its effects are seen plainly when she simply sits on a couch in Walter’s apartment and lets her body do all the work for her. To her left on the love seat is Walter, and to her right is a lamp – the only light in the room. She wears a tight white turtle neck sweater, and as she moves slowly on the couch, the shadows cast by the lamp dance on her chest, accentuating the presence of her breasts and thus her sexuality. Walter is utterly blinded by her beauty. He cooks up the entire scheme himself and even gets greedy by fixing the plan so they get paid the double amount. She is the “figure of male fantasy, articulating both a fascination for the sexually aggressive woman, as well as the anxieties about feminine domination” (p.106). Here we see the fear and fascination of the black world. A world where the “colored woman comes twice a week to clean” and the black valet greets you with a “yes sir” before he parks your car; insinuating that at least one seed of evil has been planted. This was a world where the white woman as opposed to the white man has the most power and wielded it ruthlessly. The fear was that women would gain too influence over men, dragging them into false realities where getting rich quick with the girl of your dreams was possible if just a small crime was committed. The fear was that greed and anxiety would grip the post-war man and that he would let his guard down, forgetting the morals which made him who he was in the first place. The fascination was a blind hope for fantasy fulfillment. In Double Indemnity, both Phyllis and Walter are deluded, thinking that this murder plot can bring them together. In the end, it tears them apart, one threatens the other, until finally Phyllis is dead and Walter is ready for the big house.
Unmasked, the fear of a fall into blackness comes off very misogynistic, but the fear was not entirely of women. Men of the 40’s and 50’s were readily prepared to do anything for a buck, as is seen in the historical rise of organized crime. Money was power then and it is still power today. The character of the private detective, seen in almost all film noirs exists only to cut out the government middle man in collecting money for investigations. In Double Indemnity, Walter would have become a claims investigator, a position his boss Keyes explains as being “the doctor, blood hound, cop, judge and jury all in one”. If he did not get mixed up with Phyllis he could have been a rich and powerful man. Anyone who has seen the film and observed Walter as a man would surely surmise that had he obtained such a job it would not be long before he found some insurance scam to corrupt himself.
In conclusion, it seems safe to say that Billy Wilder did genuinely fear reality becoming too much like the noir simply because he was a man and in the noir world, the man is the prime prey of everything lurking within the shadows. Walking through the darkness, he is the most afraid and the most vulnerable. Ann Kaplan said it well when she described the situation thusly:
“Hollywood capitalized ‘on the surplus symbolic value of blacks, the power to make African Americans stand for something besides themselves’ … [and] the visual style of film noir – the dark shadows, ominous lighting, disturbing architecture and awkward visual compositions, etc. – represented white male culture’s dis-ease with femininity, with the Otherness of woman: it marked male fear of the not-male…the fear of the order of heterosexuality being reversed, leaving the female dominant…” (Kaplan p.184)
The fear of the world essentially turning upside down on the white man can not be seen in any other light other than the authentic. A ridiculous fear in some ways – the stereotype that African Americans were evil – and yet a valid apprehension and reluctance for change; something that is always scary. However, at the heart of this matter is the male’s hatred of his own nature. A nature that reveals a dark side of him that lusts for both sex and money. So as he walks through the sullen shadows of the noir city streets, all he truly has to fear is himself.
Dickos, Andrew. Street With No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir. Kentucky University Press, 2002.
Bronfen, Elizabeth. “Femme Fatale – Negotiations of Tragic Desire”. New Literary History. Vol. 35, No. 1. University of Virginia, 2004.
Kaplan, E. Ann. “The Dark Continent of Film Noir: Race, Displacement and Metaphor in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and Wells’ The Lady From Shanghai (1948)” Women in Film Noir.183-201. British Film Institute, 1998.
Wilder, Billy. Double Indemnity (1944)