Wednesday, December 12, 2012

PWR Fall Webby Runner-up: Revisiting the Hollywood classics

Phyllis Dietrichson: And you don't really care if we see each other or not.
Walter Neff: Shut up, baby.

Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity is considered by many as the original film noir, the picture that established the genre for so many to follow. It is preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry and is named among the American Film Institute’s 100 best American films. Images from the film are iconic, imitations are rampant, and it is a bonafide cult classic.
Yet when screened for contemporary audiences, it is met in many instances with laughter.
This is a common fate of the classics with modern moviegoers. Today’s audiences often describe old, iconic movies derisively-- campy, cheesy, hammy. In a film criticism or film-buffs-talking-classics context, these films are treated with respect and admiration for setting paradigms. But when people actually sit down to watch, audiences just can’t take the “I’m crazy about you, baby” lines and motif cigars of grandaddy films like Double Indemnity seriously.

 Popular children’s cartoon The Fairly
 OddParents spoofed film noir in an episode
          This is especially a problem with film noir, as it is one of the most popular genres from the Golden Age of Hollywood, so its characteristic elements-- the femme fatale, the blonde wigs, the cigars, the backlit settings-- are rife in the history of cinema. Their frequency across multiple decades of classic films makes these aspects cliché, simply out of the immense popularity of the film noir genre. Coupled with the fact that noir is one of the most obviously parodied genres in contemporary entertainment, ranging from cartoon to sketch comedy platforms, the genre is nearly impossible for the modern viewer to take seriously in its own right. The original, intended earnestness with which Double Indemnity’s leading man and lady clutch each other and plan the murder of her husband is often lost, as today’s audiences come to it after being inundated with parodies. When the remake is played for laughs, how can the pioneer employ these same cinematic tools to effect suspense and palpable tension? 
The inability of the modern viewer to truly lose himself in the film is a great loss, because this is a film to be admired. It is officially noted as one of the nation’s best for good reason, after all. Of all his award-winning works, unparalleled Hollywood legend Billy Wilder said Double Indemnity was his favorite project. It tells the story of insurance man Walter Neff, who teams with gorgeous housewife Phyllis Dietrichson to murder her husband. They scheme, using his industry knowledge to portray the death as an especially unlikely accident and to, under the titular double indemnity clause, get rich from the death insurance payout. Neff’s motives are the emblematic classics of Hollywood: he wants the money and the girl, and to get them he’s willing to kill. 
The clichéd sexiness of smoking, taken to an
absurd level for laughs.
          As the film unfolds, it literally establishes the genre of film noir. All of the key ingredients that will be remade, adapted, and twisted for the next three decades in all earnestness (and the subsequent three decades in satire) are introduced for the first time ever on the silver screen. The character premises reveal themselves dramatically-- Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis is a serial killer, a cold-blooded femme fatale who has killed previous husbands and has now manipulated Fred MacMurray’s handsome Walter into helping her dispose of her current one. The classic film noir themes make their grand entrance: the equation of sex and murder, the idea that everyone is corrupt. In the end Walter can’t get away with the plot. As he says in the voiceover technique that will come to define the genre, “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?”
          The witty banter and clever dialogue, the cinematic skill, the suspenseful score-- all of these aspects make the film an objective masterpiece. Double Indemnity defined the film noir genre for the prodigious number of movies to follow in its footsteps. Because it came first, it created the canon, requiring subsequent films to provide a twist on the characteristics of genre to make themselves interesting. However, people now view it last-- and its lack of twist on the very genre conceits it created makes Double Indemnity seem campy. 
          It can be understandably difficult for the modern viewer to appreciate the original noir, but he should try to rise to the challenge and not give in to any apparent cheap laughs. After all, the works we now think of when we think of “good movies” owe everything to the classics of their genres; this includes the modern mystery or film noir’s debt to Double Indemnity. Out of respect for Billy Wilder and other original cinematic artists, we need to be aware of the cultural divide between our time and theirs and do our best to bridge it. We must remember that our Hollywood wouldn’t be our Hollywood without the ingenuity of its forefathers and their murderous femme fatales. 

- Kelsey Dayton

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