Film noir is characterized visually by dark shadows which are utilized as symbols of the shadowy ethical and moral world of society. Pure film noir tends to be shot in black and white, features a man who is somewhat less bright than the femme fatale who uses him as a sap, and disregards an easy construction of the world into a dualistic simplicity characterized by absolute good and bad. This description fairly well describes two films from writer/director Billy Wilder: Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd.
In the former, Walter Neff, portrayed by Fred MacMurray in his finest performance, is brighter than many film noir heroes, but is still dumb enough to not realize he’s being used right from the beginning. In fact, every character in Double Indemnity except Keyes acts as agents of amorality in a shadowy black and white world, even Phyllis Dietrichson’s daughter-in-law. Joe in Sunset Blvd. is perhaps dumber than Walter Neff, but that may be because William Holden was not as smart an actor as MacMurray. Tough to tell. Wilder wrote the main character in Sunset Blvd. specifically for Montgomery Clift and it is heartbreaking to consider just how much greater that already great film would have been had an actor capable of peering into the darkness of Joe been allowed to inhabit that character. Holden, alas, never penetrates the surface and winds up being merely cynical instead of tragic.
Norma Desmond might be more accurately termed the possessor of conceit rather than the pride which is often attributed as the cause of her downfall. What may have begun as pride at being a movie star devolved in a more degenerate sense of superiority engineered by the inferiority of becoming old and used up in Hollywood’s eyes. Since Norma has nothing else on which to hang her pride and self-esteem, being a movie star is everything to her. Norma Desmond achieves sympathy by the end because we feel sorry for her predicament and because Joe turns out to be such a louse.
Again, this is a flaw in the movie that can be laid at Holden’s feet; Monty Clift would not have made that character such a heel. Moral ambiguity is, after all, the keynote of film noir and Holden does not rise to the occasion in making Joe ambiguous; he is just simply too cynical despite being kind of an idiot. The most important scene used to establish moral ambiguity in Sunset Blvd. is Norma’s visit to the studio when she is clearly put forth as delusional in her dream of becoming a star again and we realize the studio merely wants her car.
Some have claimed that the real love story in Double Indemnity is not between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, but rather between Neff and his boss Keyes. The love story that takes place between Neff and Keyes is not romantic or sexual and the lack of this element is what gives the relationship its more profound aspect. Contrast that with the highly sexual relationship between Walter and Phyllis which has plenty of spirited dialogue, but no tangible emotional connection. By contrast, Neff and Keyes are more comfortable with each other through several layers of emotional content.
Barbara Stanwyck’s performance also lifts Double Indemnity above Sunset Blvd. because Phyllis becomes more subtle and complex. Gloria Swanson’s performance suffers a little from the same thing that Humphrey Bogart does in The Caine Mutiny : both are clearly crazed from the first time you see them. On the other hand, Stanwyck slowly builds up Phyllis into a demonic sociopath. In those first meetings with Walter Neff you can almost excuse him for not being a total sap because Phyllis really doesn’t seem off her nut. You can certainly excuse Walter more than you can William Hurt’s character falling for Kathleen Turner in Body Heat ; that chick screams evil from the moment he meets her.
It is interesting that Billy Wilder chose to structure both his excursions into film noir by beginning with the ending. Lesser directors have taken this path for reasons that they really don’t understand, but Wilder chose to use the beginning as the end in order to craft a sense of irony in both Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. Since we know something of how the story will turn out, everything that is said by the narrators contains a sense of irony in the literary sense of the audience knowing more than the characters. The structure of the films is effective because to have not done it this way would relieve the sense of irony and turn both movies into mere suspense film. By establishing what will happen in the audience’s consciousness, it creates a double sense of narrative by virtue of giving the audience the suspense of how things reached the point established at the opening, and also opening sense of ironic detachment from the dialogue.
Although not as clear-cut an example of film noir, Sunset Blvd. peers into the world of moral ambiguity just as much as Double Indemnity . The shadows in the hearts of the characters is appropriately reflected in the darkened tones of the cinematography. Joe is essentially even more of a sap than Walter and though Norma may not be quite the epitome of the sexy femme fatale that Phyllis is, ultimately she is just as destructive. The long slow takes, fades and dissolves are also characteristic film noir. Sunset Blvd. presents Hollywood as decadent in the form of Norma, yet idealistic in the form of Betty. Joe’s tragedy can be read as Wilder’s warning against drifting to decadence from idealism. Money is naturally associated with the grandeur of Norma as opposed to the almost archly middle class existence of Betty. What Wilder seems to suggest is that giving into the dreams of Hollywood always leads to tragedy. Interesting, one can also argue that is the suggestion made by Double Indemnity .