Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Noir Cool?

Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff certainly look cool in the above picture, but in Double Indemnity(1944) they may not be as cool as they appear. At the beginning of the film, the dim lighting with lots of shadows is quite compelling. Even the plan to beat the establishment by committing murder and filing a fraudulent insurance claim is cool and appealing in the same fashion as heist movies. However, the purpose of film noir is not to be cool. Darkness, evil, and no happy endings are the main characteristics of film noir.

One aspect that almost all noir films contain is the femme fatale character. The femme fatale is a stronger woman that has the ability to pull the trigger, unlike Ilsa from Casablanca. Phyllis’ criminal side is first revealed when she suggests that she wants to kill her husband and cash in on an insurance claim. By the end of the movie, it is obvious that Phyllis is pure evil. She also killed the first Mrs. Dietrichson, and planned to kill Lola, Walter, and Nino. Phyllis’ only motivation is money and the joy that she finds in being evil. Such wickedness is not cool. The character of the femme fatale is quite different from the typical female role in earlier movies.

Walter Neff has his own inner evil that allows him to be convinced to murder Mr. Dietrichson. Walter has been an insurance salesman for several years and has seen how many people have failed in the attempt to file fraudulent claims. Walter thinks that he has a perfect plan to reach success with a false claim. Walter loses his cool in the end because his plan fails.

In the end, Phyllis and Walter have lost their cool, and the only remaining cool character is Mr. Keyes. Mr. Keyes plays the role of a detective in the form of the claims manager for the insurance company. Mr. Keyes is determined to solve the mystery of what really happened to Mr. Dietrichson, in order to keep up his reputation and to save the company money. Although Mr. Keyes is essentially the good guy in this film, he is not motivated by justice or morals, which adds to the hopelessness and lack of morality. The film noir style revolves around the darkness not only in lighting, but in theme. Mr. Keyes’ face is lit much brighter than the other characters, but if was a truly good and moral character, it would ruin the noir style.


  1. I'm with you--Phyllis and Walter were very uncool at the end of the movie. The way Walter was still trying to flee at the end of the movie after the jig was up was pathetic.

    I like that you said that Keyes couldn't be motivated by morals or justice because that would ruin the film noir-ness of the movie--I don't think the movie would have been nearly as cool had Keyes been motivated by justice; it would have been almost cheesy. Can you picture it? "Oh, Mr. Keyes, how could we ever thank you for catching the murderer?" "No, no thanks is needed, good citizen. All in a day's work for Mr. Keyes!" LAME!

  2. It is an interesting idea that you brought up; was film noir supposed to be cool? Or was it supposed to show people how they shouldn't be criminals like in Public Enemy?

  3. The problem with asking if something was meant to be cool or a warning about cool is that often times it is actually both.

  4. I understand what you're saying about cool - that it's hard to find it in these rough, undesirable characters. At the same time, they still have elements we want to assimilate into our own lives, or characteristics we wish we could have as gracefully. Do you see anything redeemable in the characters of Neff and Dietrichson?