The Femme Fatale—one of the most recognizable motifs in the pulp universe, and the inspiration for an extensive current repertory series at Film Forum—is as essential a component of American noir as jazz, black and white photography, and urban hopelessness. The series showcases a great range of films, from hidden gems like Andre de Toth’s Pitfall, Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears, and John Berry’s Tension, to more well known “prestige noir” classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Maltese Falcon. The crown jewel of the series is Double Indemnity, one of the most discussed films in the noir canon.
With all that has been said about Double Indemnity, it may seem rather redundant that Film Forum has dusted it off again and scheduled it to play for a week at the climax of their latest retrospective. But perhaps the best response for this minor qualm can be found in the notes for one of Indemnity’s past screenings at Film Forum, where it was called the “ne plus ultra of film noir.” Not necessarily the best noir, and certainly not the first noir either (that title deservedly goes to Boris Ingster’s Stranger on The Third Floor), but without a doubt the definitive noir.
Evidence for this can be found at the climax of the film, where Fred MacMurray’s character confidently leers into the living room of Phillis Dietrichson, the Femme Fatale at the heart of Double Indemnity, deftly played by Barbara Stanwyck. MacMurray is ready to end everything (straight down the line), but in a bit of suspense—Hitchcock famously said at the time that the four most important words in Hollywood were “Double Indemnity” and “Billy Wilder”—Stanwyck is waiting for him, quicker to the draw and ready to end things herself. The scene that plays out will clear up any questions about what noir is. Along with Wilder’s signature crackling dialogue, all of the essential noir motifs are present–jazz plays on a nearby radio, light slips beautifully into the smoky room through venetian blinds (courtesy of cinematographer John F. Seitz), and Dietrichson is there on the settee doing what Femme Fatales do best: lighting a cigarette, looking cool, and playing innocent.
Now eminently classic, this treatment of the Femme Fatale was different from what we might see in a pre-Indemnity noir. Mary Astor’s character in The Maltese Falcon, for instance, is most certainly a Femme Fatale, seducing Sam Spade into the plot and lying to him throughout, but she is much weaker than Stanwyck’s character in Indemnity: Dietrichson lies and seduces, but always remains in total control. Perhaps the key difference between the characters can be found not in the Femme Fatale herself, but in her foil: the sap. In the case of The Maltese Falcon, this is Bogart as Sam Spade. Director John Huston handles Spade with the kind of masculine vibrato that is laced throughout all of his films, making him stronger than Astor, and ultimately above her morally and physically. Spade solves the mystery and turns her to the gallows, an ending more akin to a Charlie Chan detective picture than a played-for-a-sap noir. (That’s not to knock The Maltese Falcon, which is undeniably a noir masterpiece—or Charlie Chan movies, for that matter, which I often watch three or four at a time.) Wilder, however, makes Stanwyck a stronger character and writes MacMurray as a kind of fool who only figures everything out when it is too late, a different approach even from the novella on which the film is based. According to one grand piece of old Hollywood lore, director Billy Wilder gave the reluctant Stanwyck an ultimatum that insured she would want the part, and know how to play it: “are you an actor or a mouse?”
Aside from Double Indemntiy, the standout moment of the series is the double feature of Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy and Edgar Ulmer’s Detour. Both films are legends on their own, great examples of the best that poverty row production companies had to offer in the postwar era. It is because of their lack of prestige that we see the untamed auteur at work. And it is because of this creative freedom that Detour is one of the few films that can compete with Double Indemnity’s place as the definitive noir. In fact, Detour offers something that Indemnity doesn’t: a director with a budget low enough ($20,000) to keep the looming eyes of studio executives out of the picture. Because of this we have an unfiltered noir without movie stars and without soft focus close ups to get in the way.
But movie stars or no movie stars, one thing is inarguable: they are both damn good movies. Time has proven this and will continue to. When future generations look at these films—hopefully on 35mm prints, if we take care of them as we must—Double Indemnity will be there to explain most eloquently what we meant when talking about “film noir.” That is what it does best, and what makes Double Indemnity’s lofty place in the canon of film noir, and in this Film Forum retrospective, entirely deserved.
The “Femmes Noirs” series is currently playing at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) and ends on August 7. Double Indemnity has a weeklong run at the theater from August 1-7. Visit Film Forum’s website for the complete schedule (www.filmforum.org).