A Film Analysis: Comparing Double Indemnity and Memento

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Translated from French, “film noir” means black film. The term was first coined in the 40’s and, in fact, Double Indemnity (1944) is thought, by many, to have set the bar for film noir (Caldwell 2008). When compared to Memento (2001), considered by some to be a complex neo-noir film, there are similarities between the two films because of the genre. However, it is the stark differences in presentation that provide the movie-goer with two completely different film noir experiences with this genre at differing points in American culture. The differing time periods are best represented through the use of visual elements.

There are a few similarities between the films. First, both films begin with the end. In the beginning of Double Indemnity, the movie-goer meets Fred McMurray, who plays the primary character Neff, with a bullet in his shoulder. While using a Dictaphone, he tells us that he has killed a man and why, “Yes, I killed him (pause) for money (pause) and for a woman; but I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” The entire move is told as a flashback by Neff until the final scene which places Neff back in the present moment. As a clever trick by director Chris Nolan, Memento begins with a Polaroid picture of a man lying face down in blood. As the picture dries, however, it begins to fade away rather the come into view. Once the picture fades, we meet the primary character Lenny, played by Guy Pearce, and the first scene is played in reverse as we watch Lenny kill the character we come to know as Teddy. The entire movie is played in backward elements of 15 minutes until the final scene which brings the end back to the beginning and we know why Lenny killed Teddy.

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Both movies tell their stories from a parallel perspective; the primary characters narrate the entire movie. As above, Neff uses a Dictaphone to relay his story; Lenny primarily uses phone conversations in his hotel room and his pictures to tell his tragedy. Prior to their tragedies, each man worked in insurance and, by all accounts, were average guys in life; Lenny, a claims adjuster, and Neff, an insurance salesman.

Each film uses a leitmotif in character presentation and development. Neff is always lighting his boss’ cigar with single matches that he carries and lights with a single thumb action. With this repetitive action, the movie-goer feels the bond between Neff and his boss, Keys; they are closer than both realize. In Memento, Lenny is always taking pictures and repetitively says, “I have this condition.” which gives the movie-goer his sense of confusion and chaos. Here is where the movies’ similarities end.

As stated earlier, the American culture of the films is best represented with the visual elements of the film. Double Indemnity uses low-key lighting to set the film’s dark tones. The only scene that contains any light and sunshine is the scene in which Neff meets the film’s femme fatale, played by Barbara Stanwyck. Neff is shown getting out of his car at Stanwyck’s house; he comments on the house’s expensive cost as he approaches the front door. All of the scenes in Double Indemnity represent quality in life; a large office building, an expensive home, Neff bowling in one scene; there is no grittiness in the environment. This fairly represents America post World War II; the only sense of grittiness from the film is through character dialogue. Memento uses low-key lighting throughout the film but adds to the noir aspect with a gritty urban physical environment; many would consider this representative of life in today’s America; there runs a physical grit throughout American cities today known as the urban core. In Memento, Lenny stays in a roadside discount motel which is actually called Discount Motel. There are scenes in a diner and Teddy is killed in a depilated large warehouse building.

As mentioned above, Memento has a complex presentation. The movie-goer gets Lenny’s story through incremental flashbacks; each flashback telling a bit more of the tragedy and why Lenny ends up killing Teddy. Memento also uses a combination of black and white footage juxtaposed with color footage. The color footage takes the movie-goer back in time while the black and white focuses in the present. The juxtaposition of black and white against color helps the movie-goer transition from flashback to present but the complexity remains. With this non-linear and complex presentation, the movie-goer must search for and connect the “aha” moment of each increment to get to the entire plot.

Taking from some of the film’s dialogue, Double Indemnity, on the other hand, is a thriller that is “straight down the line”. The movie-goer knows the plot within the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Neff and Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Phyllis Dietrichson, are going to kill her husband for the insurance money. The suspense of this movie is how the killing happens, how Neff comes to be shot, how Neff appears to be dying before the movie-goer’s eyes. Double Indemnity creates this suspense with clever dialogue versus straight physical action. In Memento, Lenny spends several scenes fighting to create suspense; such as when he hits Natalie or chases after Dodd only to discover he is being chased.

The clear linear sequence of Double Indemnity, and greater use of dialogue, allows the movie-goer to focus on the suspense of the film versus trying to connect the “aha” moments of the film. These differences of the non-linear versus linear story line and the use of dialogue versus physical action outweigh the similarities within these two movies. As a result, each movie provides a very different genre experience that offers a reflection of life within these very different movie years in America.

  • Caldwell, Thomas. 2008. Notes on a film: Double Indemnity retrieved from http://blog.cinemaautopsy.com

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