Understanding the meaning of ‘film noir’ with the great Billy Wilder
“Eighty per cent of a picture is writing, the other twenty per cent is the execution, such as having the camera on the right spot and being able to afford to have good actors in all parts.” – Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder, an auteur in the truest sense, began his career in the 1920s. He cannot be pigeonholed into a particular style; he transcends and experiments with all cinematic genres and subgenres. Wilder does not conform to the set cinematic patterns. He does not believe in having a “big overall theme” for his “oeuvre”; for him, developing cinema is like developing “a handwriting but you don’t do it consciously.”
As he once said, “I don’t make only one kind of movie, like say Hitchcock. Or like Minnelli, doing the great Metro musicals. As a picture-maker, and I think most of us are this way, I am not aware of patterns. We’re not aware that ‘This picture will be in this genre.’ It comes naturally, just the way you do your handwriting. That’s the way I look at it, that’s the way I conceive it. When you see movies, you decide to put some kind of connective theory to them. You may ask me, ‘Do you remember that in a picture you wrote in 1935, the motive of the good guy was charity, and then the echo in that sentiment reappears in four more pictures. Or, you put the camera…. ‘I’m totally unaware of it. You’re trying to make as good and as entertaining a picture as you possibly can. If you have any kind of style, the discerning ones will detect it. I can always tell you a Hitchcock picture. I could tell you a King Vidor picture, a Capra picture. You develop a handwriting, but you don’t do it consciously.”
During his Academy Award acceptance speech for the Best Picture, director of The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius paid tribute to Wilder by saying, “ I want to thank three person: I want to thank Billy Wilder. I want to thank Billy Wilder. And I want to thank Billy Wilder.” Such was the brilliance of the auteur, who was not only the master of film noir but also a prolific romance and comedy director as well.
Dynamic and versatile, Wilder produced seminal classics that have enriched the cinematic legacy over time. However, his two most well-known films Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), have been pioneers in film noir, while being groundbreaking cinematic masterpieces that lay way ahead of their time. While the world of betrayal and scheming murders in Double Indemnity makes it “one of the most important early film noirs”, the dark and absurd atmosphere exposing Hollywood’s megalomania in Sunset Boulevard makes it a “highly unusual work” that “announces itself as a bleak but irresistibly sardonic motion picture, a trenchant observation of Hollywood’s most bizarre human artefacts.”
Billy Wilder’s bizarre and shocking creations propelled forward the genre of film noir by brazenly and unabashedly representing sex and violence, guilt and punishment, greed and lust, a vicious femme fatale and an unsuspecting middle-class figure, in the most gruesome and raw manner that would shock the conservative audience.
Here, we have tried to decode the meaning of ‘film noir’ through Billy Wilder’s extraordinary masterpieces, referencing to his 1975 interview conducted by Robert Porfirio. The interview, published in Film Noir Reader 3, sees the director break down his role in the true formation go film noir, detailing how he approaches his cinematic creations with unerring accuracy.
One of Billy Wilder’s most popular films, Double Indemnity, is arguably one of the most important films of the film noir. The plot revolves around an insurance salesman, Walter Reff (Fred MacMurray) who gets involved in a sinister scheme when his client Mr Dietrichson’s (Tom Powers) wife, the seductive yet deceptive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) enlists his help to murder her husband. If they manage to stage her husband’s death as an accident, they will successfully dupe the insurance company to earn a huge sum of money out of the double indemnity bond. However, their efforts are thwarted by Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather) and insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who uncovers the truth, impacting Reff’s fateful arc with heavy consequences.
Sunset Boulevard is a 1950 noir-crime drama, one which is considered to be one of Billy Wilder’s finest works and decades ahead of its time. Sunset Boulevard uses cynicism and surrealism to confront Hollywood’s megalomania and the picture begins with the iconic shot of a nameless writer floating dead in a swimming pool. He is later revealed to be Joe Gillis, a struggling screenplay writer, neck-deep in debts, trying to make his mark in Hollywood. Having failed to achieve the American Dream, he almost returns to Ohio, his hometown, when he is employed by a long-forgotten silent film star of the bygone times, Norma Desmond, to improve her otherwise terrible script. What follows is a vicious relationship with obsession and abandonment issues.
Both his films’ mood and atmospheric anxiety is increased by the central character’s alienation and detachment from the world as well as his cynical lack of compassion.
The term film noir, quite literally, means ‘black film’ or ‘dark film’. Coined in 1946 by the French critic Nino Frank, this cinematic term is used to describe stylised Hollywood crime dramas that accentuate violence, cynicism and psychosexual motives. Although the post-World War II era of the 1940s and ’50s are regarded as the ‘classic period’ of film noir in Hollywood, they were referred to as melodramas. It was not before the 1970s that the film noir became a distinct genre to be studied and examined by cinephiles and film scholars. These dark, brooding themes coupled with the cold, claustrophobic and cynical atmosphere were reflective of the disillusionment and pessimism of the contemporary period, especially during the Great Depression and then the World War that closely followed.
One of the key elements in noir films was the low-key monochromatic and shadowy lighting inspired by German Expressionist cinematography. These effects would heighten the anxiety and sombreness of the films. Some of the quintessential noir scenes include “rain-soaked streets in the early morning hours; street lamps with shimmering halos; flashing neon signs on seedy taverns, diners, and apartment buildings; and endless streams of cigarette smoke wafting in and out of shadows” and more. The lighting adds to the atmospheric tension; the use of bright colours would cause the scenes to be less profound.
In Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, the experimental cinematographer John F. Seitz had reached the height of expressionism. Seitz had collaborated with Wilder earlier in Five Graves to Cairo and had received an Academy Award nomination. As Wilder himself commented on ‘Johnnys’ craft: “Johnny Seitz was a great cameraman. And he was fearless”. Cleverly dramatising the usage of light and shadows, Seitz contrasted the bright and sunny exteriors of Southern California to the gloomy and grotesque interiors to heighten the sense of anxiety and anticipation regarding the ugliness that is concealed by a facade; this exposed the darkness and madness within the characters. Seitz also used a ‘Venetian blind’ lighting to create an illusion of entrapping the characters within prisons; these are the prisons of their personal hell which has no release. Stanwyck later revealed, “for an actress, let me tell you the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter’s apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles – all that helped my performance. The way Billy staged it and John Seitz lit it, it was all one sensational mood.”
Archetypal film noir tropes comprise of narration via flashbacks as well. The presence of an omniscient narrator who spouts taut, no-nonsense dialogues peppered with metaphors. “Terse yet evocative”, the protagonist views and recounts the events with an exhausted and cynical eye. As seen in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, the climactic scene with the central character’s death occurs at the very onset of the film, followed by the intriguing falling action that reflects the events that led to the tragic climax. The pervasive tension, suspense and general gloom ominously forbode a sense of impending doom, increasing the apprehension and uneasiness in the audience.
This evocative first-person narration soon became a trend in the 1940s; Wilder, who is self-declaredly a “great man for narration” says that “it is not easy to have a good narration done well.” He further explained, “What I had in Sunset Boulevard, for instance, the narrator being a dead man was economical storytelling. You can say in two lines something that would take twenty minutes to dramatize, to show and to photograph. There are a lot of guys who try narration, but they don’t quite know the technique. Most of the time, the mistake is that they are telling you something in narration that you already see, that is self-evident. But if it adds, if it brings in something new, another perspective, then good.” While in Sunset Boulevard, the narrator is already dead, Walter Reff is a man who is fated to meet his doom.
The film noir screams murder and dangerous sexuality. Grotesque and duplicitous, the Femme Fatales in the films lead to the doom of the central character. In Double Indemnity, Reff is roped in by the sensual Phyllis to undertake an ethically incorrect scheme, while Gillis engages in a relationship with Norma to satiate his financial needs. All the central ‘heroes’ engage in appeasing personal interests but are not clever and pragmatic enough; they are incinerated and regurgitated by the vicious narrative which subsequently leads to their downfall.
Billy Wilder elaborated on this scheme of juxtaposing a middle-class man with a wealthy and dangerous woman who would be “seduced and sucked in on that thing. He is the average man who suddenly becomes a murderer. That’s the dark aspect of the middle-class, how ordinary guys can come to commit murder.”
The non-linear plot plays an important role in the film. Having adapted Double Indemnity from James Cain’s novel, Wilder wanted to rope in the author to write the screenplay. However, Cain was busy in a different project and Wilder worked with the “hardboiled” Raymond Chandler out of “happenstance”; despite Chandler being a former detective, he “looked like an accountant”, which failed to impress Wilder. Although they had disagreements over the script as Chandler, who vocally and vehemently expressed his distaste towards Hollywood and its showiness, used very little dialogues from Cain’s novel, Wilder gradually came round when he understood how much effective the grotesque and cynical deviations were.
Wilder was quoted saying, “Chandler was more of a cynic than me because he was more of a romantic than I ever was. He has his own odd rules and thought Hollywood was just a bunch of phonies. I can’t say he was completely wrong, but [he] never really understood movies and how they work. He couldn’t structure a picture. He had enough trouble with books. But his dialogue. I put up with a lot of crap because of that. And after a couple of weeks with him and that foul pipe smoke, I managed to cough up a few good lines myself. We kept him on during the shooting, to discuss any dialogue changes. The funny thing is, Chandler would come up with a good image, pictorial, and like I said I would come up with a Chandlerism, as it were. It’s very strange, you know, that’s the way it always happens. He was not a young man when we worked together on Double Indemnity for ten or twelve weeks, so he never quite learned it…the craft. And then he was on his own, with John Houseman barely looking over his shoulder. A screenwriter is a bum poet, a third-rate dramatist, a kind of a half-assed engineer. You got to build that bridge, so it will carry the traffic, everything else, the acting, the drama, happens on the set. Screenwriting is a mixture of techniques, and a little literary talent, sure; but also a sense of how to manage it so that they will not fall asleep. You can’t bore the actors or the audience.”
Double Indemnity would have never been this auteur’s masterpiece had he not roped in the characters who agreed to play the characters, as in Sunset Boulevard. However, finding actors to agree to star in his films had not been a cakewalk. “Everybody turned me down”, says Wilder, “I tried up and down the street, believe me, including George Raft. Nobody would do it, they didn’t want to play this unsympathetic guy. Nor did Fred MacMurray see the possibilities at first. He said, ‘Look, I’m a saxophone player. I’m making my comedies with Claudette Colbert, what do you want?’ ‘Well, you’ve got to make that one step, and believe me, it’s going to be rewarding, and it’s not that difficult to do.’ So he did it. But he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to be murdered, he didn’t want to be a murderer.”
While MacMurray turned down the role due to his habit of playing “happy-go-lucky guys”, Barbara Stanwyck was at the pinnacle of her career back then; she was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood and the highest-paid woman in America, highly accomplished and successful. She was hesitant to take up the role as she feared it would have an adverse effect on her career. She had said to Wilder, “I love the script and I love you, but I am a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out killer.’ And Mr Wilder – and rightly so – looked at me and he said ‘Well, are you a mouse or an actress?’ And I said ‘Well, I hope I’m an actress.’ He said ‘Then do the part’. And I did and I’m very grateful to him.” Similarly, MacMurray too was glad to have done the film, as he later said, “I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made”.
Wilder faced similar challenges while directing Sunset Boulevard. “We were going to get Mae West, but she turned us down. And then [Gloria] Swanson almost dropped out when Paramount asked for a screen test. There was a lot of Norma in her, you know. The biggest threat to the mood in Sunset Boulevard was when we lost the original actor, [Montgomery Clift], and went with Bill Holden. He looked older than we wanted, and Swanson did not want to be made up to look sixty. It would never have worked anyway. This was a woman who used all her considerable means to go the other way. Who knows what mood a younger actor, or at least younger-looking, would have given.” However, everything turned out to work for the best in the end as the auteur presented some of the best films of his career that went down as masterpieces in the history of cinema.
Wilder, despite being such a significant figure in film noir, was unaware of the cinematic term. “I never heard that expression film noir when I made Double Indemnity…I just made pictures I would have liked to see. When I was lucky, it coincided with the taste of the audience. With Double Indemnity, I was lucky.”
“Don’t be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also.”