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Resourcefulness (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

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.

Double Indemnity

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.

FilmNoir mastered the skill of achiving a good quality with very little money investment Share on X

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

1940s Film Noir - RESOURCEFULNESS (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - With very few exceptions, film noirs were B movies filmed on a budget, even the ones we now consider classics. They needed resourcefulness in place of money


  • Birgit
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 06:06

    I think one can say they lived by their wits. They had to be resourceful because they didn’t have much to go on or deal with and had to make things happen. This goes for the the characters in the film but also the people who made the film. I always think it is more horrifying when one doesn’t show the actual crime but we only see it in shadows or on the other person’s face. Stanwyck was brilliant in this film. This was my pick for the letter D

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:37

      I’ll say I haven’t watched the film yet. I read the novel years ago and wasn’t too impressed, that has put me off a bit, but I understand the film is different in many ways. I knew I had to showcase it.

      It’s unbelievable what they did with these films with so little means. I think there’s a life lesson in there, somewhere 😉

  • Cheryl
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 06:38

    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. Now THAT’S art!!!

    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter Q

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:38

      I absoutely agree.
      That’s a writing, acting and directing fit. There’s a lot to learn for any storyteller, there.

  • Sreesha
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 07:11

    It’s like the say about necessity. They worked with what they had, and very, very cleverly at that.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:39

      And they pulled off great results. That’s a lesson for all of us complaining we can’t do something because we don’t have the means 😉

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 08:38

    That car scene does seem pretty creepy. Honestly, I’ve always found suggestion of horror/terrible things to be so much scarier than outright seeing it. Love the ambient lighting in these films too. I find myself wanting to watch some film noir just to check out the cinematography.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:43

      cinamatography and the game with light is what first draw me to film noir when I was a kid. It’s just fascinating.

      I don’t much like today’s trend to show the most horrible things on screen. I find that most of time there’s no narrational (let alone artistic) need bahind it, it’s just for shock value. Not sure how that add to the story. It may end up disgusting the viewer to a point they will abondon the story. I knwo that’s what happens to me.

      Suggesting is a great way to draw the viewer/reader into the story. He has to take part, to put in some effert. that’s the way the story becames a part of him.

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 09:54

    Hi Jazz – Double Indemnity does seem particularly scary – and is one I’d like to see – though I don’t like being ‘frightened’ … I’m amazed at the films that came out once the silent movies had stopped being made … and they experimented as much as they could with their film making – fascinating .. thank you – cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:46

      Apparently, the 1920s and 1930s were the time of major output in featured films in all of Hollywood history. I’ll say no more.
      I don’t think Double Indemnity is a scary movy. I think it’s a thought-provoking one.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 13:07

    Budget constraints and censorship certainly do call for resourcefulness. That scene in the car sounds really powerful, a great example of drama and horror coming from what’s not shown.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:47

      It is brilliant. I’m in awe of the intuition that went into that sequnce. Just brilliant.

  • CD Gallant-King
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 14:30

    Any kind of art where limits are placed on resources tend to generate new kinds of creativity. The amount of ingenuity that went into the original Star Wars films, or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, to create and devise brand new special effects, on a small budget, was astounding. Something about that energy and creativity bleeds into the film itself, and gives it an earnestness. Compare that to modern blockbusters with massive budgets where 95% of the film is computer generated, and it just feels so flat.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:51

      You have apoint, you know?
      Maybe computer graphic is making things too easy for filmmakers today. I sure feel underwhelmed by the most recent films. Astaunding on a visual level, but so often they feel soulless.

      When you have limited resources and you’re still creating a story, at the very least it means you really really want to make it work. There’s motivation behind it.
      That may be the difference.

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 17:22

    Oh, and Double Indemnity is such a wonderful example of a film that managed to accomplish so much with such a comparatively small outlay of money. It goes to show, in my opinion, that the quality of a film is in the tension, the characters, the story, rather than in special effects or lush, lavish sets. Doesn’t mean those can’t add to a story, but they’re certainly not necessary.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:53

      “Tension, charachter and story” this is sure what should be at the heart of storytelling. If anything, film noir shows us that whene this is met, there’s a story that involves viewers/readers.
      I wonder whethert they still remember it in Hollywood 😉

  • Debs
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 17:52

    Totally agree. Big budget certainly does not necessarily equal best viewing experience.

    Using the viewer’s mind and imagination, was a particularly clever device. I don’t know about you, but my imagination runs riot. It’s way more scary/chilling/horrifying than much of what I’ve seen on screen. After all, gore is just … gory.

    Bunny and the Bloke

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:57

      When we’re forced to use our imagination, we of course draw upon our own experience. That means we will conjure things and events that involved us personally in a particular situation or emontion. We’ll know exactly what we’re talking about, we won’t lean on someone else’s experience as protrayed in the story.
      That, I think, is the power of suggestion.

  • Nick Wilford
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 22:18

    Fascinating stuff. I guess it means that a lot of the hallmark techniques that we now associate so strongly with these films only came as a result of the budget limitations. They definitely achieved a lot with a little.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 12:00

      I wouldn’t say they ‘only’ came about because of the limited budgets, but certainly, the resources limitations sharpened everybody’s mind, because there was no easy alternative to a cheap but effective solution.
      And of course, we’re talking about great professionals here.

  • Sharon M Himsl
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 01:55

    Interesting the use of lighting in creating a mood, as with the Venetian blinds. These films may have been low budget, but they were successful as films! (Attempting to catch up here, as I’m way behind. Congrats on making it this far…you are almost there!)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 08:42

      Don’t tell me about catching up. that’s the curse of the challenge!

      The more I study film noir, the more I’m in awe. The more I think that we, as storytellers, have a lot to learn from them, since they taped into essential feelings using very simple expedients. Sometimes we think arts is complicated. Not so 😉

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