Double Indemnity

Shadows play a critical role in Double Indemnity—the starkness between the dark black shadow and white bright light reminds the audience of the very critical question of morality in the film. Which characters do we trust—the one in the shadows or the lit-up character? And what happens—as Phyllis does in Double Indemnity—when the character we trusted, the very anti-thesis of shadows in our mind, might really be the ‘bad’ guy? Who should the audience trust then?

In one particular sequence, as Walter Neff and phyllis Dietrichson discuss murdering her husband so that Phyllis and Walter can be together, Walter faces his own shadow in the dramatic shot below. He slowly walks toward the curtain, as his shadow becomes larger and larger until it overtakes him. As he agrees to help Phyllis kill her husband, Walter faces his own dark shadow, his own lack of morality; he literally walks into his shadow and into the darkness of his own soul.

In several scenes, we see Walter shrouded in shadows while Phyllis’ face shines with light. Again, the light should indicate that Walter is the murderer, the character whom we should fear. By the end of the film though, it is clear that Phyllis was the true mastermind of this plot, the metaphoric killer if not the literal one. But the shadows trick us—making the audience trust Phyllis. Ultimately, confounding the answer to which character is the real murderer?

As the shadows confound who is moral and who is not, we also question our own morality. We contemplate if murder is ever justifiable—if there is a situation where we would commit a murder. Noir as a genre, and this film specifically, communicates that this immutable darkness does indeed exist in every American soul. That those who deny their dark morality are simply unaware of what exists within their own shadows.

“We’re both rotten.” –Phyllis
“Only you’re a little more rotten.” –Walter

Post-Reading Analysis

Lott questions why no one has confronted Film Noir’s association of the morality of the White self and racial darkness—successfully arguing that White moral darkness in noir is rooted in race. Even I, in the analysis above on the shadows of darkness and their association with darkened morality, failed to discuss the racial source of these visual representations of morality. Yet, as Lott explains, it becomes abundantly clear in Double Indemnity that non-Whiteness comes to signify the moral underbelly of society: Phyllis lives in a Spanish-style house, Keyes describes Neff’s job as “monkey work,” Neff’s alibi comes from the Black garage attendant in his building, the film ends with Neff wishing he could escape across the border, and so on. The moral decay of each character in the film is repeatedly associated with racial darkness. Noir utilizes non-normative Whiteness to define pure Whiteness; it preserves Whiteness by also preserving the idea that Blackness is equal to moral decay.

“Their post-murder kiss in a shadow that bisects their heads…confirm[s] their departure from social as well as stylistic norms.” (Lott, 549)

Murder, My Sweet

Murder My Sweet orbits around the search for a valuable jade necklace. As Leuwen Grayle explains, jade has long been valued in the East as the most precious metal—“the great rulers of the east however have treated it with a reverence accorded no other stone” (26:25-26:32). Jade comes to symbolize both the East and the foreign in the film. Later, a club scene centers around Asian female dancers; women who are meant to entertain and exoticize themselves for the White men of the west. Critically too, jade is associated with money in both its green color and monetary value.

This obsession with the East can likely be understood through a post-war lens. For many Americans, they became familiarized with Asia for the first time during the war. Their first memories of Asia will most certainly be associated with Pearl Harbor. Thus, Asia remains a foreign, scary yet almost sexy mystery for everyday Americans. Just as jade in the film is fleeting and cannot be captured, Asia and the east for many Americans is a vague idea shrouded in mystery, fear and allure. We—the audience—never learn exactly what happened to the missing jade necklace, just as the West never fully comes to dominate or understand the East.

Reading recap & analysis after second class:

Place and Peterson aptly describe why and how film noir engenders such instability and true cacophony for viewers. The visually unstable scenes are something that viewers—me included—feel but do not specifically understand. Place and Peterson explain the anti-traditional mis-en-scenes that define noir: off-angle and unbalanced compositions and scenes that focus on inanimate objects in the background as much as characters’ faces. Watching Murder, My Sweet, I never felt truly spatially oriented—always wondering where exactly a scene was taking place—but the authors manage to put into words that this lack of long shots of new locale is an intentional disruption by directors. Their essay helps to link films across time, genres, and themes by defining what makes film noir so claustrophobic.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon repeatedly places Samuel Spade physically above other characters. As Spade looks down on Brigid O’Shaughnessy or Joel Cairo or the Fat Man, the audience is made to believe that Spade is our moral touchpoint. While other characters lie, murder, and steal, Spade’s physical position above the others points to his righteous search for the truth.

Yet, this physicality is inverted at times. As Brigid O’Shaughnessy reveals that she told ‘a story,’ she stands above Mr. Spade. Critically too, O’Shaughnessy wears only a nightgown in this scene. In such a vulnerable position, the audience believes her to be trust-worthy again. To us, O’Shaughnessy is a scared, vulnerable woman who we yearn to protect. Her simple robe indicates a level of vulnerability we have not seen from her in past scenes. And by placing her above Spade, we identify with O’Shaughnessy—she is made into our moral touch point, we critically (and falsely!) trust her story.  

But of course, nothing is as it seems in Film Noir. By trusting both Spade and O’Shaughnessy, we as viewers are implicated in the dark murkiness of morality. We believe O’Shaughnessy to be a truth-telling woman, only to be told later that she murdered Miles Archer. We want Spade to be our moral high-ground—the righteous detective that finds the Maltese Falcon—yet we finish the film unsure of who really won in the end. Was Spade right to lock O’Shaughnessy away? Had he not done equally bad things? And a small part of us wonders: does Spade have the real falcon hidden away somewhere? Is he really the villain we were searching for all along?

After Class Additional Analysis

The intense obsession—even fetishization—with the falcon in The Maltese Falcon can be seen as a delayed response to the Great Depression according to Schrader’s stylistic elements of noir. Characters lust after the falcon for different reasons—some to become rich and some to just become richer. The Depression both soured everyday Americans’ view of the world and morality and also heightened American obsession with capital. As a phallic representation of patriarchy, the falcon also comes to represent everything right and wrong with money; it is aspirational, difficult to find for most people, and often disappointing if you are the lucky few with it.