From police procedurals to heists, American film noir and French policiers via South Korean serial killers, Criminal Record is a column delving into the rich and heady cinematic history of crime films. Over the next few entries: a look at how crime and location work together, beginning – where else? – in Hollywood.
Many of the best crime films out there are deeply tied to their location – the architecture and psychogeography of the world around them, filtering into the film itself, conversing with the script and the actors. And so, for the next few entries of this column, we’ll be taking a close look at how crime cinema and location have worked together. Few films are as evident of that relationship as Billy Wilder’s 1944 masterpiece Double Indemnity, the quintessential noir film, perfecting and laying down many of the tropes we associate with the genre: expressionistic lighting, lurid plots, femme fatales and all that good stuff.
The genre’s association with Los Angeles is key to its visual and spatial imagination – not just because of Hollywood’s presence, but in the layout of the city: wide and sprawling avenues, built for the car, large affluent houses hiding the secrets of Tinseltown. It may be a huge generalisation, but the history of LA film noir (and neo-noir once colour shooting became commonplace) is one of protagonists discovering and venturing into evil that was once hidden, whereas New York noir – a city cramped, gritty and grimy – is often one where the protagonist inherently understands that malice lurks around every corner. Hence, in Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) and LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997), the stories are often of corruption and dirt uncovered, hiding in civic institutions or within wealthy families. On the Eastern seaboard, in The Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander MacKendrick, 1957), Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1954) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1977), the protagonist treats the city as an enemy not to be trusted from the beginning.
The plot and details of Double Indemnity are deeply tied to the spatial world of 1940s LA. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) meets seductive housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and together they concoct a plan to kill her husband (Tom Powers) and run away with the insurance money. Meanwhile, Walter’s friend, insurance claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), smells something is up and starts to sniff around until events come to a head in a flurry of double-crosses and betrayal. The film is framed by Neff’s first-person narration, recorded for Keyes as he bleeds slowly to death overnight in the insurance office, pushing us from the first frame to a sense of doom. The screenplay, adapted from James M. Cain’s 1936 novella, was written by Wilder with famed noir author Raymond Chandler. Filtered through the literary bent of two writers renowned for birthing America’s ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction – Cain with novels such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Chandler with The Big Sleep – the dialogue is cutting and sharp, with a real respect for the rhythm of words when spoken. But it is how the world around Double Indemnity supports that dialogue that we’re interested in.
Three of the film’s key scenes take place in the Californian Spanish Revival House in which the Dietrichsons live. The interior, a studio replica of the real location, is a masterpiece of noir lighting and production design, and it is where we first meet Phyllis, with Neff gazing up at her from the bottom of the stairs, semi-nude post sunbathing, separated by the art noveau stair barrier – an iconic scene, heralded by Chandler’s quote-a-second dialogue.
These houses, popular in LA across the ‘30s and ‘40s (as remarked upon by Neff), distil the film’s thematic core of betrayal, secrecy and manipulation. With stone walls and white stucco to keep the interiors cool in the LA heat, the houses look opulent on the outside, but small windows conceal dark secrets inside. The house inside is stuffy, dusty and murky – the light struggling to get in past the Venetian blinds. Though I’ve not read the original novella, Cain himself was apparently dismissive of the Spanish houses – writing:
“It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in.”
To viewers at the time, these houses would have been associated with a certain type of upwardly mobile suburbia, soon to be part of LA’s infamous and never-ending sprawl. With Mr. Dietrichson an oil man, the film places the family as part of LA’s oil boom in the early part of the 20th century, part of the city’s rapacious growth-at-all-costs mentality. The house’s empty pretentions to an elegant colonial style also befit the man’s pretensions to his wealth, as it does to Phyllis’ greed and avarice, all often with little regard for taste – Stanwyck’s wig in the film, a famously cheap hairpiece that Wilder insisted on, doubles up for her own phoniness.
The house, then, is the veneer of the American Dream, beneath which we find a dysfunctional family tearing itself apart in the darkness due to a disinterested husband and a scheming wife, with only the good-natured daughter Lola (Jean Heather) a bulwark.
The flipside of the Dietrichsons’ house is Walter Neff’s apartment, which reinforces the film’s sense of claustrophobia. A small, narrow one-bed locale, it feels stuffy and aimless, precisely the kind of place you live in when you’re a bachelor without much to do other than work. As an actor, MacMurray spent much of his career playing light romantic comedies and suchlike, only rarely venturing into darker material. He was reportedly befuddled by being asked to play Walter Neff, and at times you can see his discomfort with the film’s tougher scenes – but his stiffness works to the film’s advantage by reinforcing the image of Neff as a weak, aimless man without much backbone. His comic ability to play light and easy comes through in his scenes with Robinson, a master motor-mouth of a character actor (“You’re not smarter Walter, you’re just a little taller” remains one of my all-time favourite lines and line deliveries). Neff’s waywardness and lack of anchor is suitably reflected in the apartment, which is devoid of personality and feels more like an office.
Whilst Double Indemnity makes use of location shooting (in particular the grocery store where Neff and Phyllis meet in secret to carve out the plan – identical products stacked high around them allowing them to blend in), the film is primarily studio-bound, as was the case with most Hollywood productions at the time. But the sense of an LA in which secrets abound behind every doorway – a noir standard trope – is firmly enmeshed in the fabric of the film, with the film taking its principle locations and making each one a key element of character. Wilder, Chandler and Cain were all career cynics, one way or the other, and that cynicism runs rife through the film’s sense of place.