Film Noir Style in The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity
What elements of a movie make up a film noir?
According to many cinematographers, a film noir is a term used to describe Hollywood crime dramas, with emphasis on sex and violence. Never before in Hollywood had directors defied social norms to take a step towards the raw post-Depression American society. It was not until after the Second World War when Hollywood films began to portray the dark slick city streets, crime, and corruption of society. In early film noir cinemas, directors such as John Huston, of The Maltese Falcon, and Billy Wilder, of Double Indemnity, both incorporated different styles and elements to define the cinematic term that changed the film industry across the globe in the early 1940’s-mid50’s. The two films, with respect to different plots, both used similar cinematography ideals to create a new sense of film genre, better known as film noir. Films began to be painted black mainly due to the great influence of German Expressionism. Female characters changed from untarnished beauties to devilish divas smoking cigarettes and cocking a gun. Both Double Indemnity’s and The Maltese Falcon’s screenplays were top notch, and took the audience on a non-stop thrill ride of deception and lies, and the acting of both films were nothing short of remarkable.
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In Double Indemnity, director Billy Wilder doesn’t hesitate to bring drama and suspense immediately upon the audience. The film was the first of its kind that used film noir for what it in essence stood for, and became a hit from the day it was released. The movie begins with Walter Neff, a successful insurance salesman for Pacific All-Risk, first seen walking into his Los Angeles office. Walter, who is wounded, begins to record his story of his tragic downfall. The story starts with Walter meeting Mrs.Dietrichson to converse about life insurance. After deciding to purchase a Double Indemnity Clause, which ultimately pays the widow twice the normal amount if her husband was to die for whatever reason, Walter begins to realize that Mrs.Dietrichson plans to murder her husband for the clause. Phyllis then persuades Walter to be her associate in killing her husband. Their relationship becomes more than just work-related, as the lust between the two turn to an affair. When Mr.Dietrichson is found dead alongside the train tracks, everyone except investigator Barton and Lola, Phyllis’ daughter, accept it as an accidental occurrence. The daughter comes to Neff, and reveals to him that her mother had died suspiciously when Phyllis was her nurse. He then learns about Phyllis’ relationship with Lola’s boyfriend and confronts her. She tells him that she only saw the boyfriend to provoke him into killing Lola. In a rage, Neff attempts to shoot her, but is shot first. Phyllis then gives her gun up to Walter, who shoots and kills her. Walter flees the scene of the crime to his office where he is seen at the beginning of the film. Walter tells Barton that he is going to flee to Mexico and escape a death sentence, but only manages to make it to the elevator where he suddenly collapses to the floor and dies.
The Maltese Falcon opens with Sam Spade, a detective for the Spade and Archer Detective Agency in San Francisco, working in his office. A client, who goes by the name of Miss Wanderly, comes to Sam and asks him to follow Floyd Thursby, who supposedly has her younger sister. Later that night, Spade is informed that Archer, his partner, has been shot to death while following Floyd. Sam is soon an alleged suspect when the cops soon find out that Floyd has also been killed. The next day Spade is offered $5000 by Joel Cairo, if the detective can get hold of a small sculpture of a falcon. After a brief tussle in his office, Miss Wanderly (Brigid) contacts Spade, and mentions to her that he is with Cairo. Soon after, the three of them held a brief meeting, where they told Sam about “The Fat Man,” and how he is a danger to them all. The next morning, Sam is confronted by Casper Gutman, an extremely obese man, who wants to offer a large reward to Sam for the capture of The Maltese Falcon. Following the story of the falcon, Sam blacks out (unknowingly drugged by Gutman) and only wakes up later to a mortally wounded Jacobi with the falcon. Afterward, Sam presents the falcon to Gutman, only to find out that it’s a fake. Casper then demands his reward money back, only to receive nine of the ten thousand dollars, and tells Sam that he is going to leave to further search for the falcon. Immediately following the conversation, Sam informs the police of Gutman and Wilmer, the men connected to the murder of Jacobi and Thursby, and Brigid, the murderer of Archer. When the police arrive, Brigid is arrested, and Sam is informed by the police of Gutman’s recent homicide. The movie concludes with Sam handing over the leftover reward money and falcon to the police as evidence.
Before analyzing both movies, one must be able to fully grasp and understand the defining elements that make up film noir, which ultimately drew upon a reservoir of different film techniques. During the era when film noir was most popular, directors often associated their movies with a low-key black-white visual. Many of the lights portrayed in both Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon were hung low and floor lamps were infrequently high off the ground. Moreover, light tended to enter the rooms in jagged and odd shapes in due course creating a sinister motif and ideology. This could be rooted back to German Expressionism. Moreover, the key ideas in these films were derived from the raw school of crime fiction that emerged during the early 1900’s when the Depression tore apart America. Film Noir, or “Black Film” in French, had started out as melodramas, but eventually became a distinct genre of its own. While this term encompassed a range of plots, the main figures of the films typically included the detective or private-eye (Sam and Walter), police, slum portion of the city, law-abiding citizen gone corrupt, femme fatale character (Brigid and Phyllis), and victim. Both Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon associated with many classic noir ideologies such as the small town just outside of the city, dark lighting, the detective, and the sex-driven femme fatale woman. During this period of filmmaking, sex was often symbolized through the use of cigarettes. Throughout both Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, scenes that appeared to be action packed or romantic were often followed by either character satisfyingly smoking their cigarette. While noir films typically incorporated and were identified by their visual styles, movies commonly associated as film noirs revolved around genres such as the gangster film, gothic romance, or melodrama. Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon both contain issues of fate, moral laws, and destructiveness which are the basic characteristics of a film noir.
Nothing is more petrifying than a femme fatale character. The female’s raw outer beauty that covers her devilish thoughts and personality often seduces the most strong-willed of men. Private investigator Sam Spade and successful insurance salesman Walter Neff, both fell victim to the utter terror and attractiveness of femme fatale characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Ruth Wonderly) and Phyllis Dietrichson. In Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, the femme fatale characters used sexual innuendo’s to seduce and control Walter and Sam. For example, when Walter Neff first stepped into the Dietrichson’s stylish home in San Francisco, he was immediately welcomed by flirtatious Phyllis Dietrichson. As they conversed about insurance:
“Phyllis (in a robe): I’m Mrs. Dietrichson. Is there anything I can do?
Walter Neff: The insurance ran out on the fifteenth. I’d hate to think of you getting a smashed fender or something while you’re not… fully covered.
Phyllis (with a little smile): Perhaps I know what you mean, Mr. Neff. I’ve just been taking a sun bath.”
It is quite apparent that Phyllis was trying to gain control upon first introducing herself to Walter. Clearly, Phyllis flirted with Walter after he said how she and her husband needed to renew their insurance or something threatening may occur to them. She immediately related not being covered by insurance to herself and how she wasn’t clothed because she had finished a sun bath. An example of seduction in The Maltese Falcon, con artist Brigid O’Shaughnessy fakes her identity to use Sam Spade to apparently find her lost sister. Eventually, Sam learned about Brigid’s lies and confronts her:
“Brigid O’Shaughnessy: Help me.
Sam Spade: You won’t need much of anybody’s help. You’re good. Chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like be generous, Mr. Spade.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy: I deserve that. But the lie was in the way I said it, not at all in what I said. It’s my own fault if you can’t believe me now.
Sam Spade: Ah, now you are dangerous.”
“Sam Spade: All we’ve got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy: You know whether you love me or not.
Sam Spade: Maybe I do. I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over, but that’ll pass.”
In those scenes, Brigid’s failed attempt to manipulate and seduce Sam was due to his awareness of her lies and con artist personality. In the end, the femme fatale character in both Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon could be recognized by their personality traits that made them dangerous to any man that got in their way. Their sexy personality clouded the perception of many characters, including Sam and Walter. But by the end of each film, their ego and evil personalities led to their downfall.
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Furthermore, the most associated elements that draw the audience’s emotions out aren’t always the acting, rather the setting and background components. In Double Indemnity, the eerie background music was what greatly affected the overall tone of the film. While in certain scenes, the music was perceived as cheery and fast-paced, in darker settings, such as the introduction to the film, the heavy violin along with the drum and trumpets added much depth to the actual film, where the injured Walter Neff is seen limping ever-so-close to the audience. Not even a minute into the film, the viewer senses the pain coming from Walter as he struggles his way into his office, duly to the dark and heavy violin playing in the background. The music clearly added depth not just to Double Indemnity, but also to The Maltese Falcon. In one of the beginning scenes where Archer was seen walking down the street, the relatively soothing background music immediately changes to fast paced horror as he’s shot to death. The scene then transitioned to Sam’s house, which is shown engulfed in darkness, where he was seen sat down in his chair by his telephone. The music playing creepily in the background coincided well with the scenes tone as Sam is shown picking up the phone to be told the news of Archer’s death. While acting plays a key role in film noir, music and other background components play vital roles in creating the raw emotion and thrill of film noir.
In conclusion, the film noir style has made Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon one of the most highly respected films of our lifetime. The usage of dark lighting and heart pulsing music is just a fraction of the elements that portray film noir in the two films. Both Double Indemnity’s and The Maltese Falcon’s screenplays were top notch, and took the audience on a non-stop thrill ride of deception and lies. Moreover, the acting of both films was nothing short of remarkable. Film Noir has earned its spot in history as a life changing genre.
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