With very few exceptions, film noirs were B movies filmed on a budget, even the ones that we now consider classics. They couldn’t afford lavish settings and mise-en-scène as other more funded Hollywood productions would, they had limited possibilities in terms of actual tools, props and times of productions. Very seldom they could rely on stars. In their collective effort of meeting specific standards of quality investing as little money as possible, film noir was less of a ‘director’ movie and more of a team effort.
Postwar economic boom produced the most significant revival of cinema attendance since the transition to sound at a time when Hollywood was facing several commercial and artistic limitation. Studios actively encouraged their teams to find alternative forms of production values and experiment with new techniques achievable with a smaller investment of money and fewer risks of being censored.
Innovative as we consider them to be today, these were films produced by the studio system for commercial purposes and for the mainstream cinema rather that within the oppositional space of avant garde.
German Expressionism was a great inspiration. Thanks to the influx of technicians and directors from Germany before, during and after WWII, Hollywood could count on an army of professionals who were accustomed to coping with a small investment of money but could still produce quality films.
Practices such as chiaroscuro not only offered a strong mood to the film but also allowed to use shabbier settings that would be hard to distinguish on-screen in the semidarkness. Dark, sharp shadows helped create an ambience where sometimes only a white wall stood. The ever-present Venetian blind shadow created atmosphere while also giving a sense of entrapment and enhance the camera work.
Unusual camera angles allowed to strengthen the sense of unbalance so vital to these stories. Paranoid, grotesque dream sequences, often constructed with light more than any props, became an essential part of the plot.
Psychoanalysis was another essential tool. Because it was impossible to openly address the issues that were at the very core of film noir (murder and sexual manipulation above all), noir scripts used psychological innuendo so to suggests rather than show even significant passages of the film.
One of the most iconic examples of this form of suggestion is the scene of the murder in Double Indemnity. The crime is acted out in the car. Phyllis is driving, and her husband sits beside her. Neff assaults the husband from the backseat and strangles him. But we don’t see any of this. All we see is Phyllis’s face as she drives on never looking at what’s happening in the seat beside her, the same way we never see what’s happening, but the expressions that pass across her face tell us everything we need to know, on so many levels. Dictated by the limitations of the Hays Code, this sequence where nothing is openly shown is possibly one of the most chilling in the history of thriller movies.
Double indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder
Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) meets a beautiful woman named Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of one of his clients, and they soon embark on an affair. In order for them to be together, Phyllis proposes to kill her husband, which will make her the beneficiary of his accident insurance policy, and Walter devises a scheme which will earn her double the insurance amount based on a double indemnity clause. When Phyllis’ husband is found dead on the train tracks, the police accept accidental death as an explanation. However, Walter’s best friend and fellow insurance agent Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) suspects that Phyllis has murdered her husband with the help of another man and begins to investigate… (Hollywood Theatre synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Schrader, Paul. Note on Film Noir. Filmex (First Los Angeles International Film Exposition), Los Angeles, 1971
The Artifice – An In-depth Look at a Film Noir Classic
ScreenPrism – Why is Phyllis in “Double Indemnity” hailed as one of cinema’s greatest femme fatales?
Pop-Verse – Nostalgic Impulse: Double Indemnity