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Billy Wilder's Double Idemnity Essay

1759 words - 8 pages

Double Indemnity - Scene Analysis

Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is one of the best representatives of the film noir era in Hollywood as it contains all the main characteristics of the genre. The general darkness present throughout the movie is embodied in the plot which reveals the moral bankruptcy of the main characters. It is also present in the mise-en-scene choices such as the dark costumes and modest lighting with the great emphasis on shadows (Allyn 1978, p. 117). The main character’s voice-over, another important film noir characteristic, brings this darkness to life and communicates it to the audience with brutal honesty. One of the scenes of the film which contains all of these features is the one where the two main characters, Neff and Phyllis, meet for the first time. This scene will be analysed with respect to the main film noir elements and techniques that were used in the making of it – mainly mise en scene, the voice-over and the screenplay.

This scene introduces the femme fatale character Phyllis Dietrichson and starts a relationship between her and Neff – a relationship which sets out the plot for rest of the film. The scene focuses on Phyllis’ use of sexual appeal to gain control over Neff and try to use him to fulfil her twisted of murdering her husband. Wilder uses several filming elements characteristic to film noir in the scene in order to display the nature of Neff and Phyllis’ relationship from the very moment they met.
The scene starts with a bright shot set outdoors as Neff is heading to Mr. Dietrichson’s house – a shot uncharacteristic to film noir standards. However, the next shot contrasts the initial one greatly, as Neff walks in and is instantly swallowed by the darkness and shadows of the stuffy, isolated house. The lighting change follows the change Neff is about to experience and gives the audience an indication of what follows – Neff is about to abandon the comfort of his mediocre yet safe and morally sound life and be lured in much darker, dangerous and morally bankrupt world.
Phyllis is introduced in the next shot. Wilder created a setting which allowed him to place Phyllis on the staircase, physically above Neff. Initially he showed this spatial disproportion using a wide lens and a low camera angle thereby showing Neff at the bottom of the staircase and Phyllis at its top in a single frame. This is followed by a series of shots which follow the conversation between the two and show mid close-ups of Neff looking up to Phyllis and Phyllis looking down to Neff. The respective positions of the two main characters in the given setting give away the influence and the power Phyllis has over Neff just a few seconds after they met (Bordwell 2006, p. 117). The double-entendre filled dialogue confirms this as well as it confirms that Phyllis is aware of the power she possesses over Neff which gives an indication that she is planning to use, or rather misuse, it. Wrapped in a white towel, instantly suggesting...

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