Aura of inevitability: The Film Noir flashback in Double Indemnity and Out of the Past

The flashback is one of the great Film Noir tropes. This Film Noir feature is not unique to the style/genre, but it is synonymous with it. Indeed, it is just as synonymous as Chiaroscuro lighting. Used in another film genre, be it drama or comedy, the flashback could be used to portray something happier from the past. Whereas in Noir it almost always tells a lamentable tale in which someone loses out. It may be the flashback of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) from The Killers (1946), where she shows us the sad end of her romance with Ole ‘Swede’ Anderson (Burt Lancaster) at the hands of the Femme Fatale Lilly Lubinsky (Virginia Christine).[1] Or it could be the famous flashbacks of Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) – the two films that will be explored in this essay.[2][3]

Maureen Turim has said that flashbacks give an “aura of inevitability [to] bathe…the action” of film noir”, and she is entirely correct.[4] The flashback adds to the immediate intrigue because by starting nearer to the end, the story often opens with a dramatic flourish. This naturally piques interest as to how the characters got there, and what could have led to their (oftentimes) downfall. In the two examples to be explored in this essay, they both start rather differently from each other. In the case of Double Indemnity, the story begins with the injured protagonist in a clearly bad situation. Whereas, in Out of the Past the story begins in a serine and idyllic way. This provides interesting counterpoints in relation to two classic Film Noirs that share a common fatalism thanks to the use of flashback.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Figure 1: Double Indemnity (1944). Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) begins his confession which leads to the flashback.

For Double Indemnity the beginning sets the tone for the whole film and by its very nature demands a flashback to explain how Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) has ended up in the very bad situation. The mise-en-scène shown in Figure 1 (above) compounds the negativity of the situation in which Walter finds himself. Neff is shrouded in shadow and darkness, sweating and disheveled while looking almost dirty. As if the journey he has been on has dirtied his face and hands as much as his conscience.[5] All these elements, alongside his Hard-Boiled style dialogue, demand a flashback to inform of what has led to this. Walter teases with ‘I did it for money, and a woman. I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman’.[6] All of this renders a flashback utterly essential.

With the foundations set for the flashback to fill in the sordid details, it is obvious that Walter is doomed. Mere minutes into the film there is near complete inevitability about Walter’s eventual fate as he sits wounded and now confessed to have committed murder and insurance fraud. Without these details the flashback scenes would simply have told an unfolding story rather than one which would have a fated ending aware to all from the outset. It would have left ambiguity and potential for the protagonist Walter to get away with it or be redeemed. Instead, the flashback renders every step fated to Walter’s downfall, and the death of the Femme Fatale. More than that, however, is that this French Poetic Realist fatalism makes finding out the meaning of who the characters are an important new layer that deepens the story and the film. There is a need to discover the truth of why people such as Phyllis and Walter can do the things they do. It poses a new philosophical level to the film.[7]

Therefore, this inevitable fatalism sets out a striking tone for the film and it is hugely responsible for its ongoing popularity and critical acclaim. Indeed, the way the story is observed is fundamentally changed because of the use of the flashback technique. Instead, with the flashback the fascination is not about what will happen next, but instead is about how Walter and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) interact with each other. The driving mystery becomes their strangely cold seduction of each other, and just what it is love or the money that truly motivates them. While that no doubt would had still held some of the appeal without being a flashback, it is so deliciously played out in the form of flashback with the narration because the fate is known.[8] It is French Poetic Realism at its best. It is classic Film Noir in which everyone is doomed to fail and experience a high risk of death. Turim’s ‘aura of inevitability’ is utterly crucial in what makes Double Indemnity more than just another melodramatic crime caper.[9]

Thanks to the ‘aura of inevitability’ it is also set out that everything could be the trigger point for it all to go wrong. This bathes the film not just in an ‘aura of inevitability’, but also an aura of extreme tension. There any number of moments that things could unravel for the doomed pair. In many ways it is very similar to that inevitability shown in proto-Noir Le Jour Se Lève (1939).[10] In this beautifully constructed and executed film, François (Jean Gabin) shoots and kills Valentin (Jules Berry) at the outset. Therefore, the outcome for François and Valentin is known. Throughout the flashbacks, anything could be the trigger point. This is also the case in Double Indemnity. In Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic, the fated nature is the crux of what makes the story work so very well. Wilder has commented in the past saying that Double Indemnity was his best work because it has the fewest mistakes.[11]

Out of the Past (1947)

Figure 2: Out of the Past (1947). A resigned Jeff (Robert Mitchum) knows his past has caught up with him and sealed his fate.

Out of the Past begins in an altogether different way to Double Indemnity, albeit both flashbacks are a confession to an innocent confidante. Here the action begins with present mystery. No-one is shot or dying yet, however there does appear to be some sort of impending threat in the shape of Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine). The opening is as much about exposition as anything else. Jeff Bailey/Markham (Robert Mitchum) starts out off screen, described by other characters, yet already it is clear that Jeff is fated to face some sort of drama. Therefore, in very different opening few minutes to Double Indemnity, Out of the Past has found a unique way to setup the future flashbacks with fatalism still on the screen. When Robert Mitchum first appears on screen it is in a very uncommon setting for a Film Noir. The open and idyllic countryside is not the usual setting for a Film Noir, and particularly in daytime also. At face value there appears to be no threat, but from the opening scene Mitchum’s Jeff is guaranteed to face his fate. The fatalism hangs over the idyllic scene that so easily could have been the opening to a cheerful Western, but the result is one of the natural world about to be dirtied by the grime of Jeff’s past.[12] In Le Jour Se Lève there are also idyllic scenes of a similar fashion to this, however the murder is already known at the outset like in Double Indemnity also, and so for Le Jour Se Lève these idyllic scenes come with a knowledge of impending doom. For Out of the Past a mystery is known to await, there is Turim’s ‘aura of inevitability’, but it is more nuanced than cliched. Of course, the scene also introduces Jeff as likeable protagonist, and despite Jeff’s best attempts at redemption, he knows that his past is waiting to dictate his future at some point.

Director Jacques Tourneur uses flashback in a unique way in that all the action does not happen in the past. Yes, the confession opens this until now untold and unseen world to Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), but it does not run the full length of the film. For Out of the Past the inevitability is that Jeff is to be thrown back into the world he tried to leave behind. The French Poetic Realism and fatalism is what hangs over the film once the flashback is established. Yet despite knowing that Jeff has done bad things in the past through his association with his Femme Fatale, unlike Walter Neff, Jeff is a more sympathetic character.[13] His flashbacks underpin his regret, and he becomes the possible hero of his own story. Of course, being a Film Noir his love affair with the Femme Fatale means that he cannot succeed in any normal way. Albeit he succeeds to the best extent possible amongst the nihilism of Film Noir’s philosophical outlook. He succeeds in making sure that Kathie (Jane Greer) pays in some way for her wicked ways.[14] For a male audience of the time, Jeff is a martyr for sacrificing himself to punish the femme fatale. Jeff exacts revenge on behalf of the male fear of female agency shown through Kathie. In a sense the ‘aura of inevitability’ is one of Jeff going down with his dignity as oppose to losing absolutely everything as Walter Neff did.[15]

Bathed in poeticism

Turim’s ‘aura of inevitability’ theory certainly holds true. From Walter Neff to Jeff Markham, the fate is sealed for them from the outset. Although both use their own unique setups to the flashback, once they begin, both characters are resigned to what has happened and what will happen. They know that they cannot possibly truly be redeemed from their pasts. For Walter the fate is known immediately, but with Jeff there is always that tantalizing hope for everyone but Jeff that he can find some way out of his predicament. The truth is of course set, as in Film Noir there can be no escape from the impending doom. Of course, there are examples of films in which the protagonists subvert this such as in Laura (1944), but those are the exceptions setting out to challenge expectations within the Film Noir world.[16] By having this inevitable fatalism, and nihilism setup from the outset. These two examples of Film Noir portray a sense of deeper intrigue. If it had been a simple crime caper, then there would have been a lack of real depth to read into Phyllis and Walter’s strange coldness towards each other despite their apparent lust. How could Jeff become a truly sympathetic character despite his past, and become a hero for people to root for? The flashback bathes the films not just in inevitability, but in a poeticism. Unsurprising of course thanks to the clear influence of French Poetic Realism, but nonetheless the characters of these two Film Noirs are endowed not just with a poetic fatalism. They are endowed with layers that enrich them and the stories in which they feature. It would be easy to have these characters become two-dimensional, but with the flashback generating a poetry for them, they are given something deeper which gives far richer dimensions to explore.

Bibliography

Connor, Michael, ‘MY NOIR: Double Indemnity’, Film International, 11 (2013).

Gelly, Christophe, ‘Film Noir and Subjectivity’, in A Companion to Film Noir, ed. by Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackford, 2013), pp. 337 – 352.

Luhr, William, Film Noir (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackford, 2012).

Malcolm, Derek, ‘Billy Wilder: Double Indemnity’, The Guardian, 14 October 1999, < https://www.theguardian.com/film/1999/oct/14/3 > [accessed 5 March 2020].

Tyrer, Ben, ‘Film Noir as Point de Capiton: Double Indemnity, Structure and Temporality’, Film-Philosophy, 17 (2013).

Turim, Maureen, Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History (New York: Routledge, 1989).

Wolffolk, Alan, ‘The Horizon of Disenchantment: Film Noir, Camus, and the Vicissitudes of Descent’, in The Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. by Mark T. Conrad (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky 2006), pp. 107 – 124.

Filmography

Double Indemnity, dir. by Billy Wilder (Paramount Pictures, 1944).

Laura, dir. by Otto Preminger (20th Century Fox, 1944).

Le Jour Se Lève, dir. by Marcel Carné (AFE 1939).

Out of the Past, dir. by Jacques Tourneur (RKO Radio Pictures, 1947).

The Killers, dir. by Robert Siodmak (Universal Pictures, 1946).


[1] The Killers, dir. by Robert Siodmak (Universal Pictures, 1946).

[2] Double Indemnity, dir. by Billy Wilder (Paramount Pictures, 1944).

[3] Out of the Past, dir. by Jacques Tourneur (RKO Radio Pictures, 1947).

[4] Maureen Turim, Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History (New York: Routledge, 1989), pps. 170 – 171.

[5] Michael Connor, ‘MY NOIR: Double Indemnity’, Film International, 11 (2013), p. 6.

[6] Double Indemnity, dir. by Billy Wilder (Paramount Pictures, 1944).

[7] Ben Tyrer, ‘Film Noir as Point de Capiton: Double Indemnity, Structure and Temporality’, Film-Philosophy, 17 (2013), p. 97.

[8] Christophe Gelly, ‘Film Noir and Subjectivity’, in A Companion to Film Noir, ed. by Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackford, 2013), pp. 337 – 352 (p. 341).

[9] Turim, Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History, p. 170.

[10] Le Jour Se Lève, dir. by Marcel Carné (AFE 1939).

[11] Derek Malcolm, ‘Billy Wilder: Double Indemnity’, The Guardian, 14 October 1999, < https://www.theguardian.com/film/1999/oct/14/3 > [accessed 5 March 2020] (para. 7 of 7).

[12] Alan Wolffolk, ‘The Horizon of Disenchantment: Film Noir, Camus, and the Vicissitudes of Descent’, in The Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. by Mark T. Conrad (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky 2006), pp. 107 – 124 (p. 112).

[13] William Luhr, Film Noir (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackford, 2012), p. 129.

[14] Wolffolk, ‘The Horizon of Disenchantment: Film Noir, Camus, and the Vicissitudes of Descent’, in The Philosophy of Film Noir, p. 109.

[15] Gelly, ‘Film Noir and Subjectivity’, in A Companion to Film Noir, p. 341.

[16] Laura, dir. by Otto Preminger (20th Century Fox, 1944).

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