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In 1992, Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity was preserved by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It is clear that the difficult to produce film has had a major impact on cinema but was created to protest Los Angeles. However, Double Indemnity would effectively jump start the noir movement and influence cinema to this day. When Double Indemnity was first played in theaters, audiences and critics reacted in shock with the movie’s despicableness. However, the making of Double Indemnity had already been forged in the crime-obsessed 1920s to 1940s Los Angeles.
The crimes of Guy McAfee, Charlie Crawford and the deaths of Virginia Rappe and Desmond Taylor dominated headlines in Los Angeles prior to Double Indemnity. The detective or crime novel was the dominant style of fiction during this time and was championed by writers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett.
These men saw the headlines in Los Angeles and saw it as a way to capitalize on LA’s quick riches mentality and adapted true stories and actual individuals to fit into their stories.
James M. Cain based his book Double Indemnity after the Ruth Snyder case in New York, where Snyder convinced her lover to kill her husband to reap an insurance payout. Cain’s book was relatively successful and peaked the interests of an exiled German director- Billy Wilder. Billy Wilder’s personal experiences abroad and with Los Angeles played a central role in creating Double Indemnity. The Jewish Wilder, fled Europe in the midst of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of his mother, stepfather, and grandmother.
Wilder settled in Hollywood- a place that was both paradise and hell. While, Los Angeles offered ideal weather and an escape from Nazism, Los Angeles proved to be hell for these exiles like Wilder as it lacked the intellectual culture of Europe. Los Angeles was not a city of intelligence, but merely a commodity that could be sold on the screen. These factors drove Wilder to invent a new style of film that would push cinematic boundaries and portray the grimness of Los Angeles when he was offered to direct the “unfilmable” Double Indemnity. Battles in writing, casting, production, and compliance with the Hays code proved to be merely a nuisance for Wilder. Upon acquiring the rights to Double Indemnity Wilder teamed up with hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler for the screenplay.
The two men had an antagonistic relationship and frequently disagreed on the style of the movie. Chandler wanted to create new material from Cain’s novel and Wilder wanted to stay close to the novel. The men decided to follow Chandler’s approach and created a darker story. Wilder with a completed script now sought actors and was met with resistance. Wilder cast Barbara Stanwyck for Phyllis with little resistance, but found the role of Walter Neff tedious. Wilder approached Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, and James Cagney and all declined before casting the comedic Fred MacMurray. Both Stanwyck and MacMurray originally resisted Wilder’s request to appear in Double Indemnity over concerns that the film’s dark material could ruin their careers. Wilder and Chandler extensively visited Los Angeles locations like Jerry’s Market on Melrose Avenue to bring a sense of realism to the feature. Wilder used real Los Angeles locations like the Southern Pacific Railroad depot, the Newman Drug Store, and the Hollywood & Western Building in Double Indemnity to portray Los Angeles. Filming wrapped and Wilder sent Double Indemnity to the Hays Office to make sure the film complied with the Hays Code that put strict restrictions on material in film.
Surprisingly, the office only objected to a gas chamber scene, the disposal of a body, and the skimpiness of a towel. Wilder made these changes and released his creation onto the world. Reaction to Double Indemnity was mixed and its impact on cinema was not immediately realized. Singer Kate Smith led a campaign to protest the film on moral grounds and The New York Times found the material to be unsettling. However, audiences flocked to the film and some critics like Louella Parsons enjoyed the film, commenting, “”Double Indemnity is the finest picture of its kind ever made, and I make that flat statement without any fear of getting indigestion later from eating my words.” Double Indemnity was nominated at the 17th Academy Awards for seven Oscars including Best Picture, and Best Director but did not win any awards. Despite, the Academy’s decision to not award the film any Oscars Double Indemnity would open the floodgates for film noir and created its distinct style.
Various cinematic techniques used in Double Indemnity would come to characterize noir. Double Indemnity’s cinematographer, John F. Seitz, developed the venetian blind technique that would characterize noir. The venetian blind technique uses blinds to cast shadows on characters to simulate darkness and imprisonment. Wilder and Seitz also made all the sets of Double Indemnity as dirty as possible by blowing aluminum particles to stimulate dust and dirt in the air, and the men frequently broke objects on set to make the sets dirty. Wilder also insisted that Stanwyck wear a blonde wig to make her character appear fake. Double Indemnity also mainstreamed the idea of the anti-hero in cinema with the murderous Neff and Dietrichson. While the venetian blind technique, the femme-fetale, an anti-hero, flashbacks, and darkness came to characterize noir Wilder had more in mind. These techniques served as a way for Wilder to contrast the beautiful and sunny exterior Los Angeles with the dirty, dark, murderous interior of Los Angeles that lurked inside paradise. The impact of Double Indemnity ignited a film movement and would go on to impact modern entertainment.
Noir films began to become increasingly more common in cinema following 1944 with films like Sunset Boulevard, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Big Combo. However, noir wrapped up its reign over Hollywood in 1958 with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil due to cinema’s increased dependency on color which made the darkness and use of venetian blinds essential to noir, impossible. However, noir refused to die and it infected cinema with its tropes to the current era. The flashback that characterized noir is still used to this day, seen in films like Forrest Gump and Robocop. However, I feel that Double Indemnity’s popularization of the anti-hero, and murder concepts that were believed to be unfilmable would revolutionize entertainment. The emphasis on murder would allow directors to further push boundaries and become more graphic and horrifying leading to the execution of terrifying films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. We can further see Double Indemnity’s impacts with the popularization of anti-heroes like Tyler Durden, Hannibal Lecter and television’s Walter White, and Dexter Morgan. Double Indemnity would popularize film noir and its various techniques like anti-heroes, murder, and darkness. These aforementioned techniques continue to recur in various forms of cinema and prove noir has infected our cinema to this day. However, the effects of film noir would not have occurred without the darkness of 1940’s Los Angeles and the trailblazing efforts of the pessimistic exile Billy Wilder.
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