When Billy Wilder made Double Indemnity, his 1944 version of James M. Cain’s novella about an insurance salesman who conspires with his lover to murder her unwitting husband and collect his accident insurance, he had no idea he was giving birth to a new cinematic genre. The film was a box-office hit, in part because of the cynical candor with which Wilder (who co-wrote the taut screenplay with the novelist Raymond Chandler) portrayed the lead character, a basically decent man who succumbs to the temptation to do evil and whose choice sends him hurtling down the path to his own violent death.
Soon after, other Hollywood directors began making films directly influenced by Double Indemnity. In Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), and André de Toth’s Pitfall (1948), among countless others, the outlines of a new category of film took shape, one in which handsome but hapless fall guys (most notably Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum) lose their heads over scheming women and pay with their lives.
It was not, however, initially recognized as such here in America, where Hollywood categorized these types of movies as “crime pictures,” “crime thrillers,” and “murder stories.” What’s more, such films were regarded by the few critics who bothered to pay attention to them as inferior successors to the gangster and detective movies of the ’30s. James Agee dismissed Double Indemnity as “essentially cheap” in the Nation, while Manny Farber called it “slick, slight, arty, and visually synthetic” in the New Republic.
The phrase “film noir,” which is now universally used to identify the genre Wilder incepted, was coined in 1946 by a French critic named Nino Frank; it entered the lexicon in the 1950s only after Frank’s countrymen at small publications such as Cahiers du Cinéma became the most influential writers in the world on the subject of movies. Even despite their cachet, the term “film noir” first appeared in the New York Times decades later, in 1973.
One reason that film noir was so slow to emerge as a recognized genre is that many films now considered classics of the style depart from the now-familiar noir model in significant ways. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), for example, is the story of a psychologically disturbed screenwriter (played by Humphrey Bogart) whose fits of near-uncontrollable rage make it impossible for him to have a relationship with a woman and cause him to be suspected of a murder. John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is a “caper” movie whose subject is the planning and execution of a failed jewel robbery. Today, the term “film noir” is commonly used to describe any crime film made in the ’40s and ’50s that has an urban setting, mostly takes place at night, and is photographed in a high-contrast style.
This is the wide-ranging approach taken by Eddie Muller, who hosts TCM’s Noir Alley, a weekly series of noir and noir-like films. Mueller has just published a revised and expanded edition of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, the profusely illustrated 1998 book in which he surveyed the genre.1 Muller writes in a cheerful, often jokey way, an odd tack to take with so essentially grim a genre (“Where Spade pitted his antagonists against each other…Marlowe wearily prescribed himself another shot of wry”). But he is both knowledgeable and thorough, and Dark City is a useful introductory guide, one that helps to explain the most puzzling thing about film noir: Why was it so popular—and why has it remained popular?
Double Indemnity was released in a year when wartime moviegoers were flocking to sentimental dramas like Going My Way, frivolous farces like Arsenic and Old Lace, nostalgic musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis, and heroic combat movies like Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. They sought escape, and Hollywood gave it to them—but they were also well aware of the wearying realities of wartime. Roger Ebert once described film noir as “the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear, and betrayal unless it were essentially naïve and optimistic.” Perhaps, but wartime America was also a place where Ebert’s allegedly naive and optimistic wives betrayed their soldier-husbands often enough that the phrase “Dear John” was coined to describe the letters in which they asked for divorces.
As for Billy Wilder, a Jew who had fled Hitler’s Germany, he needed no one to tell him of the savagery with which human beings could behave. Not that Double Indemnity is in any way a political movie—it is a purely personal tale of faithless love—but it is still hard to imagine its having been made even a few years earlier.
Conversely, some early films noir, including Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), were made by left-wing writers and directors (some of whom were card-carrying Communists) whose purpose was to suggest that in capitalist America, the deck was always stacked. But the socially conscious films noir are blatantly obvious in their political purpose and heavy-handed to the occasional point of unintended comedy.
The films noir that remain watchable, by contrast, are the ones that concentrate on the dark crosscurrents of middle-class American life and revolve, as do the great Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s, around the problem of individual responsibility. To be sure, the tacit assumption is that the anonymous cities in which films noir are set are so corrupt that upright individual conduct is all but impossible. Nevertheless, every classic film noir hinges on a crucial moral choice made by the protagonist, as Walter Neff, Fred MacMurray’s character, admits to the audience in his voice-over narration for Double Indemnity: “I’m not trying to whitewash myself,” he says about the crime he commits out of love, lust, and greed. “I fought it…only maybe I didn’t fight it hard enough.”
It’s easy to see how such films would have appealed to Americans who had come home from a war in which many of them had not only seen but committed acts of violence (and in which some of them had additionally been unfaithful to their wives). Most of them had entered the war as young, unformed men, and their overseas experiences prematurely ripped the innocence out of them, thus predisposing them to take an interest in movies that were honest about the prevalence of evil in the world.
It is no coincidence that so many film-noir protagonists are veterans: That fact, even when it is mentioned only in passing, is often crucial to the plots of the films in which it figures. Take, for instance, Pitfall, in which Dick Powell plays John Forbes, a vet who spent the war doing clerical work in a stateside camp, after which he returned to his family in suburban Los Angeles and his job as a claims adjuster for an insurance company. Though John loves his wife and son, he is bored with the humdrum routine of his life and embarrassed about his lackluster war record, thus making him a prime candidate for film-noir trouble.
It comes when he is assigned to repossess a motorboat from Mona (Lizabeth Scott), the blond girlfriend of an embezzler who is in jail for having bought it with stolen money as a present. At once sexually alluring and unselfconsciously friendly, Mona has caught the eye of a brutish private investigator (Raymond Burr) who is determined to have her at any cost. She falls instead for John, who knows better but chooses not to resist her charms after she describes his life to him in a way that is less cruel than sad, even embarrassing:
You’re a little man with a briefcase. You go to work every morning and you do as you’re told. Today they told you to go to such and such an address and pick up some stolen goods. So here you are….If you were a nice guy, you’d cry a little bit with me, and feel sorry for a girl whose first engagement ring was given to her by a man stupid enough to embezzle, and stupid enough to get caught.
It is, of course, the wrong choice, and the result—two bullet-riddled corpses and a marriage in tatters—is a horrifically typical film-noir denouement, as characteristic as that of Double Indemnity.
The initial vogue of film noir was short-lived. After the end of the Korean War and the coming of postwar peace and prosperity, moviegoers were less disposed toward bleak, fatalistic screen entertainments. In 1953, the first year of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, the top-grossing film in America was White Christmas and the top-rated TV series was I Love Lucy. By the late ’50s, noir had all but died out, with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), generally regarded as the last “classic” film noir, providing an overripe swan song.
It was then that French directors started making their own films noir, a few of which, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960), were directly comparable in quality to the American films that had been their inspiration. But not until 1974 did Hollywood attempt to revive noir, though the results were worth the wait: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, at once a knowing homage to the genre and a film evocative of the mounting disillusion of Vietnam-era America, was no mere costume piece but one of the greatest American films of the postwar era.
Chinatown was followed by a string of “neo-noir” films, some of which, like Lawrence Kazdan’s Body Heat (1981), were far too obviously derivative of the original films noir on which they were too clearly based. Others, however, most notably Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple (1984), Robert Benton’s Twilight (1998), and Stephen Frears’s The Grifters (1990), found new ways to ring the familiar changes of fall guys, tempting women, wrong moral choices, and shadowy cinematography.
Whether neo-noir will flourish in the age of streaming remains to be seen. But the originals have not lost their power both to divert and—at their best—disturb. They are moral tales about the thinness of the ice on which human decency rests, told in a way so stylish that it remains fresh decades after the fact, and it seems probable that there will always be an audience for such stories of what can happen to well-meaning men and women who choose the wrong path at the wrong time.
1 Running Press, 259 pages.
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