Accepting the Academy Award for Best Picture for The Artist, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius closed with an homage to one of the great directors in film history: “I want to thank three person [sic]: I want to thank Billy Wilder. I want to thank Billy Wilder. And I want to thank Billy Wilder. Thank you very much.” The Artist was a heart-warming silent comedy with a healthy smattering of romance and melodrama, so one might wonder what Hazanavicius was doing thanking a master of Film Noir. Actually, Billy Wilder was an equally accomplished writer/director of comedy and romance; look no further than Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) for ample proof of this. Billy Wilder was such a dynamic, versatile filmmaker that he was responsible for a number of seminal classics in different genres. Acknowledging his range can help us to better appreciate his contributions to Film Noir, which are significant. This essay will focus on two of the most acclaimed noirs of all time, Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). The former is an admirable execution of genre conventions. According to Hillier and Phillips, “Double Indemnity is one of the most important early film noirs and one of the most influential 1940s Hollywood films.” (88) Sunset Boulevard is a more peculiar entry into the canon, the story of a hack screenwriter drawn into the dark and absurd world of faded silent star Norma Desmond. In the words of Silver and Ward, “This highly unusual work announces itself as a bleak but irresistibly sardonic motion picture, a trenchant observation of Hollywood’s most bizarre human artifacts.” (276)
Double Indemnity is a genre-defining work insomuch as few films better typify film noir. That is not to say the work is generic, that it is not exciting, or that it is somehow blasé about its craft and style. On the contrary, at the time of its release, Double Indemnity was quite ground-breaking and perhaps even shocking for conservative audiences: “It helped propel the film noir cycle forward by pushing the limits on representing sex and violence, with its relationship between a thoroughly sexualized, ruthless femme fatale and a male protagonist who, though guilty of premeditated murder—and punished accordingly—remains, if not likeable, then at least sympathetic on some level.” (Hillier and Phillips 88) Here is the femme fatale in action, meeting our protagonist for the first time wearing nothing but a bath towel.
What red-blooded man could refuse the luscious Barbara Stanwyck in her prime? Not health insurance salesman Walter Neff, who is drawn into a scheme to murder her husband and collect on his generous policy. Neff understands the risks, and his best friend is the man who investigates claims for the company, but his logic and his moral compass are no match for his libido. The depiction of the femme fatale, though misogynistic per noir conventions, does not preclude some degree of sympathy for the character. We cannot be sure that her husband is a completely innocent victim who has always treated her well, nor should we doubt the legitimacy of her affection for Walter. By a certain point near the end of the film, they are both doomed. With nothing to lose or gain, their mutual declarations of love seem sincere.
Double Indemnity is notable for its narration that frames and propels the film along. The first-person narration was one of Billy Wilder’s favorite techniques, and his successful use of it in this noir anticipated its adoption as a trademark of the genre. Dozens of noirs use the technique, including Out of the Past, The Killers, and The Lady from Shanghai. The past-tense narration contributes to a film that “relies very largely on a flashback structure that prioritizes the point of view of its leading male character, using a confessional mode that aims, in Paul Schrader’s words, to emphasize the ‘loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity’ of its anti-hero.’” (Cameron 165) For most of the film, Neff appears confident and cool, but his guilt-ridden voiceover testifies to a more unstable character than appearances suggest. The man is hurtling towards a violent demise, and the timbre of his narrations implies a part of him knew it all along. Neff is guilty. In hindsight, lust is a poor excuse for moral turpitude. There are plenty of attractive women out there—including married women if that is your style—who do not demand murder in exchange for sex. It seems the men of Film Noir are not really aware of this, and if they gain awareness, as Neff does upon meeting the husband’s sweet and pretty daughter, it is far too late. Here is the end of the film. Walter Neff says his last words to his best friend. Edward G. Robinson, himself an icon of earlier noirs, plays the friend with touching paternalism. Note Neff’s perverse humor. Robinson is a father figure, and, as Neff’s immediate superior at the insurance company, he represents the system. Through his crimes, Neff has perverted traditional morality—both through murder and through his sexual affair with a married woman—and he has perverted the system, attempting to defraud the very company for which he works. Poetic justice and the Hays Code would never allow such corruption to go unpunished.
Billy Wilder made Sunset Boulevard in 1950, six years after Double Indemnity. Wilder takes the noir into strange new territory with Sunset Boulevard, but it opens in standard noir fashion with a first-person narration drawing us in to hear the story of a murder on the titular street. We soon discover this picture is going to be quite unusual indeed, as the narrator is quickly revealed to be the dead man floating facedown in a swimming pool (watch that scene here). In the words of Silver and Ward, “It is the rare film that declares itself as immediately as does Sunset Boulevard.” (276) The dead man is the victim of Norma Desmond’s delusions of grandeur and possessive rage, but he is also the victim of his own cynicism and small-mindedness.
He believed he and Norma could use each other as long as it was convenient for him, and when a better opportunity arose, he could move on without consequence. He failed to respect Norma’s madness, never fully comprehending how the loss of celebrity and acclaim could drive a person insane. He allowed himself to become an integral part of Norma’s world when he should have known much better, so he must bear the brunt of responsibility for the violence that ensues. Maybe Norma mistaking him for her dead chimp’s coffin maker should have tipped him off that this dame was no ordinary femme fatale.
Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity are both films about artifice. This is more obvious in the former, given the themes of faded celebrity and insanity, but both films deal with delusions, perversions, and the social and psychological constructs that destroy men and women who have strayed from their strict designs. Many film scholars and historians point to European émigré directors like Billy Wilder as the direct link between German Expressionism and American Film Noir, but that argument is a bit shallow. John Huston did not have to flee Germany to make The Maltese Falcon. Neither was Orson Welles hiding Austrian roots when the cameras rolled on The Lady from Shanghai. The expressionist influences are clear, but German Expressionism made its way across the Atlantic before the German filmmakers themselves did. What the émigré did bring to America “was a certain cynical middle-European fascination with the brittle and ambiguous surfaces of material life that immediately lent itself to film noir’s obsessive tonal register of disenchantment.” (Hillier and Phillips 244) This is true of Wilder even outside of his noir work, but especially in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard he exposes artifice and toys with the material vagaries of a consumerist and celebrity-obsessed society.
by Jesse Lapin