The Noir Loser
The debut of a number of distinctive personalities is one of the important features of film noir. Noir’s main character, for instance, may appropriately be labeled thenoir loser. He is a handsome, middle-aged man who seems to blur the line between protagonist and antagonist. Billy Wilder has very explicitly introduced such personalities as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard and, as such, defined a key aspect of the genre. Both are ordinary men who see an opportunity to advance their lives, albeit immorally, only to find themselves victims of fate at the hands of a female counterpart.
In both films, the noir loser compels the audience to sympathize for them. The films begin with a voice-over narration from both men at the culmination of their demise. Double Indemnity’s WalterNeff introduces himself in the opening minutes as he confesses his crime: “I killed Dietrichson. Me, Walter Neff, insurance agent, 35 years old, unmarried…I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” Without delay, we are acquainted with our main character and the storyline. The remainder of the film is devoted to the sequence of events and circumstances that drove Neff to corruption and misfortune, also revealing the characteristics of thenoirloser.
Joe Gillis has a similar introduction as the main character in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In the opening minutes, we are introduced to Gillis’ floating corpse along with his narrative explaining such an end: “…the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion, with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of b-pictures to his name. ” The introduction intrigues the audience, portraying these characters as ordinary in most respects, yet drawn into circumstances that inextricably lead to their dissolution.
As both narrations begin to unfold, we learn that fate lands both men at the doorstep of a female culprit. Ironically, before either of them is introduced to either woman, the weather is inviting; the frames are filled with the luminous unclouded skies of California. Wilder describes this day in the Sunset Boulevard screenplay as a “crisp sunny day.” In Double Indemnity, Neff reflects upon his initial stroll to the Dietrichson home: “It was mid-afternoon…I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that block” (Double Indemnity). In their regular lives, these men were perhaps already enjoying a certain sense of fulfillment and happiness sufficient for their station. By reaching beyond that station to become someone fundamentally different by design, they would succumb to their fate.
Neff’s female transgressor is a seductive mistress named Phyllis Dietrichson, who is in search of a man that can be manipulated. Neff, in the course of his work renewing an insurance claim, finds himself captivated by the lure of her sexuality and, as though by destiny, finds himself at her disposal. As an established real estate agent, he had committed himself to his work, attending to his responsibilities diligently.Neff is captivated by her beauty, driving him into a state of immorality. At their initial meeting, Phyllis is presented wearing only a towel over her “appetizing torso,” as Wilder describes it. Wilder purposely places her behind the vertical bars of a staircase railing, rendering her symbolically impervious. Seduced as he is, Neff rises to the challenge and submits himself to service her plan to murder her husband and reap the prize of the insurance claim. Moreover, he is exhilarated by the promise of a new life with such a woman and the substantial monetary reward. Throughout the unfolding of this tragedy, the audience bears witness to Phyllis’ control of Neff by feigning insecurity and the subtle promise of her sexuality. Neff’s rather blatant disregard of such manipulation distinguishes him as a noir loser.
In contrast to Neff, Joe Gillis, of Sunset Boulevard, is not captivated by beauty but by the promise of riches. The wealthy Norma Desmond, an aging, passé movie star, is the source of his downfall. Again, it is fate that brings Gillis to his benefactor when a flat tire leads him into the rundown garage of her mansion. Their common interest in the film industry, which, combined with Norma’s dominant behavior, brings about Gillis’ move into her house. However, like Neff, Gillis perceives himself to be in control of the situation: “I’d dropped the hook, and she’d snapped at it. Now my car would be safe down below, while I did a patch-up job on the script. And there would be plenty of money in it.”
Norma, unlike Phyllis, is directly controlling. She watches Gillis incessantly, with two adjacent holes in her bedroom doors to allow a visual conduit into his space. He finds himself sneaking out when the two holes darken as she turns off her light, as though her eyes are shutting, giving him a chance to escape: “It made me think of when I was twelve and used to sneak out on the folks to see a gangster picture.”
As Gillis’ stay becomes more comfortable, Norma cunningly spoils him with expensive clothes and accessories in her attempt to detain him.Blinded by the benefits of their relationship and his new artificial status, Gillis abandons his old friends for a commanding aging woman.When he departs the lonely mansion to attend a New Year’s Eve celebration, the contrast from dark to light symbolizes his changing existence. Gillis selfishly declares to a friend: “[Shall I go] back to a one-room apartment that I can’t pay for? I’ve got a good thing here – a long term contract with no options.” Gillis’ weakness is exposed with this inability to assess his circumstances.
Billy Wilder makes apparent the futility of both men’s objectives through foreshadowing images of fate and entrapment. First, in reference to Double Indemnity (after Neff and Phyllis finalize their scheme), we find Neff in settings that symbolize confinement. In his apartment, the curtains are always shut, creating a darkened, more claustrophobic environment – an unlikely place to seek comfort. Following his crime, Neff’s boss becomes increasing suspicious of the story being presented: “We know the Dietrichson dame is in on it, and somebody else […] I’ll be ready for her and that somebody else. They’ll be digging their own graves.” His boss’ investigation drives Neff back to reality. Later, we find him in the dismal, unlit room of Dietrichson’s house, the bright light shining from the moon through the Venetians, epitomizing Neff’s conscience.It is, however, too late for the noir loser, and Neff is driven to the confession of his crime.
As for Gillis, several features of his surroundings also foreshadow his fate.Stepping into Norma’s mansion, he is greeted coldly by Max, the butler. He enters through a door of vertical bars, stepping out of the bright light into the dimly lit mansion, as if being imprisoned. Walking into Norma’s room, he is again engulfed in shadow. Similar to Neff, Gillis is placed in the context of a claustrophobic environment. When Norma tosses him her script, we witness Max shut the curtains in the house, confining Gillis further within the dark foreboding presence of his apparent benefactor.Soon after, Wilder does a long take of a man entering the mansion holding a coffin-an eerily ominous shot of Gillis’ future.Max, the butler, is further evidence of what becomes of Norma’s past relationships: “You sees I was her first husband.” The loud, abrupt music that follows mimics Gillis’ surprise and the onset of his awakening. His salvation will come with his abandonment of Norma. Again, however, Gillis, like Neff, comes about this realization too late in the unfolding.
The main characters in both Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevardfind themselves suffering from the consequences of their actions. Both films lead to their respective beginnings: a point of no return, and reflections upon regrettable decisions. The creation of thenoir loser portrays the weakness of man. The attraction to material items, social status, and women, as well as their shared inability to distinguish right from wrong, smothers their morals, blurring the border between perpetrator and victim.
– Daniel Elisevich