Before Brokeback: Homosexual Undertones in Double Indemnity and Classic Film Noir

Essay by will2434University, Bachelor'sA+, March 2008

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Context: The "film noir" as we know it is a world of hard-boiled crime drama with conventions that are, for a genre itself outside convention, rather consistent, especially in the realm of its major players: the sleazy smooth-talking criminal and the femme fatale. The ever-present sexual dynamic between these two provides the basis for much of the criminal action and, therefore, the ultimate ignominious downfall of the man (and the woman herself might get dragged down in the scheme as well). Often, manipulative ulterior motives (often resulting in a double-cross being double-crossed) and legitimate sexual attraction are at the very least ambiguously intertwined and at the most, inseparable. Billy Wilder's 1944 film Double Indemnity, the flagship of the noir genre, embodies this perverse psychosexual formula to an extreme. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), the insurance salesman-gone-wild whose ethical shortcomings purposely defy PCA Moral Code (a drastic step that was a major component of this burgeoning genre), meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the blonde bombshell wife of a Pacific All-Risk policyholder and a conniving sex machine who can ultimately bend Walter to her desire.

From the beginning, their relationship is founded on both malice and strong sexual attraction, at least on the part of Walter, and the complexities continue until the "kiss kiss bang bang" finish.

What is to become, then, of interpersonal relationships in film noir? The answer lies within a sphere whose importance is easily overlooked in much of cinematic history: certainly as much as the male-female sexual paradigm is pointedly scrutinized, the relationship between two males, alluded to in James Naremore's "Modernism and Blood Melodrama," is defended as the last bastion of humanity. In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff, the embattled antihero and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), his conscientious boss share what historians and queer theorists alike...