On Monday 28 October, an attentive group of Sixth Formers, parents, governors, and staff gathered to listen to this year’s talk from governor Peter Evans, Professor Emeritus in Film Studies at Queen Mary’s, University of London. This is the third annual talk Prof Evans has given, and he has developed a reputation at the school for his insightful and accessible introductions to 20th Century film. His topic this year was ‘Kiss of Death: Double Indemnity and Hollywood Film Noir’.
He began with an introduction to the genre, or, as he explained some people think of it, the style of film noir. He explained to us how the interests of different film studios and the changing concerns of the post-war film audience shaped this era. He then introduced us to the film itself, skilfully giving those who had not seen it a sense of its shape, plot, and tone. For those who were familiar with the players of 1940s Hollywood, he gave some fascinating insights into the working methods of Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, and how the two clashed. He also explained the way in which the performance history of the film’s main actors played a part in their casting, because of the way in which audience expectations created an extra level of meaning.
Prof Evans used a clip from the film itself to give us a sense not only of its style and narrative, but also the symbolism of the cinematography and, in particular, the clever interplay of the dialogue. The focus of the extract was the relationship between the insurance salesman played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale who wishes her husband were dead. Contextualizing the relationship between the characters against the backdrop of 1930s film on the one hand, and contemporary film noir on the other, Prof Evans gave us a complete framework for interpreting what we were watching. It was fascinating to be drawn into the way in which the film uses its many strategies for conveying meaning.
One of these was the multi-level narrative, for which Prof Evans explained the significance of the initial Dictaphone scene in the context of the relationships between the two male protagonists, followed by the use of flashback. Another was the way in which costume, hair, and make-up were used to convey coldness and allure in the main female character, combined with the setting of her initial appearance, first framed by bars and viewed from below, then depicted through her ankles, descending the stairs, before she is seen buttoning her blouse in an erotically-charged encounter with MacMurray’s insurance salesman. Watching the scene several times helped us to understand the fast-paced American dialogue clearly, with Prof Evans on hand to interpret the more elusive references and explain how the characterization in this early scene, with its innuendo and complex subtext, plays out in the remainder of the film. We discussed the power dynamics between the male and female characters in particular, leading to some good conversations afterwards concerning their relative empowerment, her transgressive character in the context of contemporary misogyny and the post-war attitude to women, and the naivety (or not) of the man she leads on.
At the end, Prof Evans took a range of questions, which drew out yet more of his extraordinary knowledge from a life spent steeped in the study of film. It was yet another eye-opening lecture, and will have encouraged everyone present to look at film in a new light, whether as student of film, literature, music, or just lay viewer. We remain very grateful to Prof Evans for giving yet again of his time and expertise.
Dr Coombe, Assistant Head of 6th Form