Many critics and film historians point to April 24, 1944 as the birth date of film noir, for it was on that date that Double Indemnity premiered. As is the case with so many other things to come out of Hollywood, film noir may be shaving a year or two off its age. Whether the corrosive portrait of greed among the middle class of L.A. rightly lays claim to being the first film noir or is really beside the point. The creation of any movie genre is a process, and wherever Double Indemnity may fall in the line of succession between film noir’s birth and death, one thing is beyond argument: it was the key film in developing many of the genre’s most familiar tropes and signatures, both because it contained soon-to-be iconic representations of those generic elements and because it exposed those elements to the largest audience yet in the weeks and years to follow.
Double Indemnity is a black-and-white crime story that combined a number of elements now known as film noir hallmarks: low lighting, expressionist use of shadows symbolizing a morally ambiguous universe, morally weak men and predatory women, urban environments filled with dissolute criminals, and voice-over narration combined with a flashback structure. While previous films had combined some or even most of these elements, Double Indemnity fused them together with unprecedented sharpness, coherence, and originality, likely owing to the directorial stewardship of Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler's talent as a wordsmith.
Few character types are as immediately identifiable with a specific genre as the femme fatale is with film noir. How good can a film noir be unless it has a memorable femme fatale? The truth is that a number of classic examples of the genre exist which feature no femme fatale at all. Nevertheless, the two terms will always remain inextricably linked, which makes it all the more impressive that the highest ranking femme fatale on the American Film Institute’s list of great American movie villains is Phyllis Dietrichson, the cold-blooded platinum blonde who drives insurance salesman Walter Neff into a spiral of self-destruction.
In the ten year interim between releasing its two rankings of the 100 Greatest American Movies of all time, Double Indemnity leaped from 38th to 29th on the American Film Institute's list. The film inarguably inaugurated one of the most critically revered genres in cinematic history, and continues to be one of the most paradigmatic examples of the film noir genre that populated American cinemas in the postwar years, and continues to influence the style and content of contemporary crime dramas.