Film director Billy Wilder left his native Austria to evade the Nazis, and after emigrating to the U.S., became the quintessential American director. He started as a screenwriter for Ernst Lubisch and others then began directing with The Front Page, later re-filmed as His Girl Friday.
Double Indemnity (1944) was Wilder’s third, but first stylistically serious film, and is given credit for the birth of film noir, literally “night film”. This term describes a visual style and moods of a type of dramatic film, usually crime, that’s much more gritty and realistic than most films prior to this era.
Film noir was mostly shot at night or in dark interiors; there’s lots of use of shadows, dimly lit edges, light from Venetian blinds which simulates bars across characters who may be headed for the real thing, and backlit smoke. Indemnity uses both cigars and cigarettes, characters smoking whenever it gets tense, or even to relax after sex.
Film noir got its origins in 30’s detective stories, often called pulp fiction after the cheap paper it was printed on; these were seamy stories with sex, violence and seedy characters. Even the heroes were common people with street wisdom, often with a tough upbringing and one parent at best.
Soldiers returning from World War II and a cinematic audience that had survived the Great Depression demanded more adult films in theme, subject, and style. Wilder was impressed by author John Kain’s pulp novella of “Double Indemnity”, the same author of the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, but it was considered unfilmable due the Hayes Code, the censorship autocracy. The script went through years of re-writes and applications before filming was allowed in 1944. The Hayes Code first suppressed sex in films, then violence, later socialism, and was used to pass judgment on over 28,000 works of art!
Wilder then had a difficult time casting the lead parts, two murdering adulterers. He wanted Barbara Stanwyck all along, but eventually had to challenge her to get her to take the image-shattering role, asking her “are you an actress or a mouse?” After several refusals by actors, including George Raft, who had a knack for turning down breakthrough parts like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, he convinced Fred McMurray to break his screen image of light romantic comedies to attempt something serious. His first scene with Stanwyck, when he meets her at her home and she’s in a towel from her bath, uses his comedic skills along with some terrific dialogue and timing.
Wilder also convinced leading actor Edward G. Robinson to take a non-starring character role, meaty enough for at least two important speeches that Robinson absolutely nailed. Crime novelist Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) was brought in for his realistic dialogue, plenty evident here especially the opening scenes between Stanwyck and McMurray. However, Chandler was an introvert, and Wilder an extrovert, so they didn’t get along at all and never worked together again. Ironically, they were nominated for an Academy Award together for their screenplay. Wilder later used Chandler as his model for his best picture winner The Lost Weekend, about a serious alcoholic who is destroying his life.
Double Indemnity was nominated for these 7 Academy Awards (but won none, as Going My Way won picture and seven total):
- BEST MOTION PICTURE – Paramount
- DIRECTING – Billy Wilder
- ACTRESS – Barbara Stanwyck
- CINEMATOGRAPHY (Black and White) – John Seitz
- MUSIC (Music Score of a Drama or Comedy) – Miklos Rozsa
- WRITING (Screenplay) – Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
- SOUND RECORDING – Loren L. Ryder, Sound Director
Other classic film noir: Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, Panic in the Streets, D.O.A., The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai
Modern film noir: Wait Until Dark, Diva (France), Chinatown, Shoot the Piano Player (France), Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Blood Simple, Body Heat, House of Games, and The Silence of the Lambs.
The style is also clearly evident in parts of other classic films such as In the Heat of the Night, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Batman, The Hustler, The Departed, and No Country for Old Men.
Billy Wilder’s filmography includes: Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Spirit of St. Louis, Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, The Fortune Cookie. Wilder was nominated for 21 Academy Awards, 12 in writing, 8 in directing, and won six. He won for directing, producing, and writing The Apartment; for directing The Lost Weekend; and for writing Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard.