In the mid-1940s, Hollywood began to make a new kind of crime film. Combining sex and violence, lust and greed, the “noir” was distinguished by the darkness of its themes and photography. Double Indemnity (1944) was, as a critic noted in the New York Times, “the first of the new rough, tough murder yarns.” Fred MacMurray played Walter Neff, a solitary insurance salesman whose recreations include bowling alone. Unable to resist femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), he agrees to kill her husband.
Double Indemnity established the template shared by every pure noir: A well-meaning but weak-willed man meets a dangerously attractive woman. Preferring her company to any prior bond or higher duty, he becomes complicit with her in wrong. Death is the inevitable result. In some noirs, flashbacks are used to dramatize the inexorable way that death follows transgression, or voice-overs are employed to highlight the man’s knowledge that he is making a fatal mistake. Among the finest films of this type are Criss Cross (1949), Out of the Past (1947), and Scarlet Street (1945).
Detective films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946) are sometimes classed as noirs. Based on stories by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, they feature a latter-day knight errant who moves coolly from case to case and woman to woman. Double Indemnity was different. It was based on a novel by James M. Cain, who put perpetrators rather than investigators at the center of his crime stories. Cain’s heroes do not love and leave women. They stay with them “all the way to the end of the line.” They do not risk their lives by investigating crime; they forfeit their souls by committing it. Only stories with such high moral stakes provide a contrast between good and evil stark enough to match the high-contrast visual style of film noir.