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. who can see the victorious light at the end of the long dark tunnel of war overseas has rightly earned the distinguished honor of giving birth to 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 successful between film noir’s birth and death, one thing is beyond argument: it was the key film in making the creation of many of the genre’s most familiar characteristics 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 following April 24.
Even if Double Indemnity were proven incontrovertibly not to be the first black & white crime story to engage non-realistic Expressionist use of shadows to symbolize its morally ambiguous universe inhabited by a poor sap who falls for the worst possible femme fatale in the worst possible way in the big city where even small-time dreams of making it out with life and limb intact seemed to be guided by a purely random sort of fate, there would no impact on its legacy, influence or power. While the process of the creation of film noir certainly contains movies produced prior to Double Indemnity which possess one or more or even all of those definitive traits usually invoked to describe the genre, none of them fuse all those elements together with quite the coherence and striking originality with which Billy Wilder endowed his film.
Few character types are so immediately identifiable with a specific genre the femme fatale is with film noir. How good can a film noir be unless it has a memorable femme fatale, after all? Actually, the truth is that a number of classic examples of the genre exist which feature either a sub-par bad girl or even—yes, it’s true—no femme fatale at all. Nevertheless, the two terms will always remain inextricably linked. Which makes it all the more impressive the highest ranking femme fatale on the American Film Institute’s list of great American movie villains of all time was none other Phyllis Dietrichson, the cold-blooded platinum blonde who drives insurance salesman Walter Neff—the poor sap—to do some incredibly stupid things just to get another look at the shiny anklet.
Speaking of AFI lists, in the ten year interim between releasing its two rankings of the 100 Greatest American Movies of all time, Double Indemnity leapt from 38th to 29th. Perhaps the more impressive list on which to find Double Indemnity is that unofficial list of movies that have gone to almost completely obliterate from the memory the film that somehow managed to beat it out for Best Picture at the Oscars. While Going My Way still manages to show up on TV thanks to the holiday season, nobody has ever debated over whether that movie gave birth to one of the most critically engaged genres in cinematic history. Heck, you might even want to take out an insurance policy offering a double indemnity rider against wasting too much of your life if you ever even try to find Going My Way on any of those AFI 100 Years 100 Movies lists.
By contrast, wherever someone is holding a film festival honoring film noir, or engaging in a viewing binge of film noir classics or just excitedly taking part in a discussion of film noir that the life insurance policy on Double Indemnity has yet to receive a claim from mourning benefactors.