When in 1946 the French, who thanks to the war hadn't seen an American movie in five years, finally caught up with the backlog, they noticed something that Hollywood had apparently missed—that such movies as The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet, were shot through with an anxiety and pessimism wholly uncharacteristic of the screwball comedies and glossy MGM musicals they had seen in the 1930s.
The French dubbed these dark movies "film noir"—and a genre was unwittingly born.
Which movie you would crown as the best film noir of all time depends in part on what you think of as film noir. The French didn't really define the term and Hollywood's studios never thought of themselves as producing something called film noir—they were just making movies that they hoped would sell tickets.
For me, the essence of noir is not about lighting or femme fatales or crime gone wrong, but simply a guy who ought to know better heading down a moral rathole anyway with the worst possible consequences. You see that over and over again in these movies—guys who think they're smarter than everybody else or who think they're luckier than everybody else or who, like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, just don't care. Watching film noir is a little like watching a train wreck—you can see it coming but you can't stop it and you can't turn away, all you can do is brace yourself for the impact.
In that sense, Double Indemnity might be the best of the noirs. Fred MacMurray commits murder, ostensibly for money and a woman, but in fact simply to see if he can get away with it. Boredom is a lousy reason for doing anything, but I'll bet you as many harebrained schemes have been hatched out of boredom as for any of the more conventional reasons.
In any event, Double Indemnity is a great movie featuring career performances from MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson.
(And before you ask—yes, I think the wig plays. It's just the sort of thing a half-smart floozy like Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson would think looks good. That and that "honey" of an anklet. It's the sort of thing women did in the 1940s in lieu of a tramp stamp.)
winner: Double Indemnity (prod. Joseph Sistrom)
nominees: The Curse Of The Cat People (prod. Val Lewton); Gaslight (prod. Arthur Hornblower, Jr.); Laura (prod. Otto Preminger); To Have And Have Not (prod. Howard Hawks)
winner: Meet Me In St. Louis (prod. Arthur Freed)
nominees: Arsenic and Old Lace (prod. Jack L. Warner); Going My Way (prod. Leo McCarey); Hail The Conquering Hero (prod. Preston Sturges); The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek (prod. Preston Sturges and Buddy G. DeSylva)
PICTURE (Foreign Language)
winner: Ivan Groznyy (Ivan The Terrible, Part I) (prod. Sergei Eisenstein)
winner: Charles Boyer (Gaslight)
nominees: Humphrey Bogart (To Have And Have Not); Charles Laughton (The Suspect); Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity); Laurence Olivier (Henry V); Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet); Orson Welles (Jane Eyre)
winner: Eddie Bracken (The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek and Hail The Conquering Hero)
nominees: Bing Crosby (Going My Way); Cary Grant (Arsenic and Old Lace); Bob Hope (The Princess and the Pirate)
winner: Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity)
nominees: Lauren Bacall (To Have And Have Not); Joan Bennett (The Woman In The Window); Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight); Claudette Colbert (Since You Went Away); Joan Fontaine (Jane Eyre); Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet); Gene Tierney (Laura)
winner: Betty Hutton (The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek)
nominees: Judy Garland (Meet Me In St. Louis); Priscilla Lane (Arsenic and Old Lace)
winner: Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity)
nominees: George Cukor (Gaslight); Sergei Eisenstein (Ivan Groznyy a.k.a. Ivan The Terrible, Part I); Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not); Otto Preminger (Laura); Robert Wise (The Curse of the Cat People)
winner: Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me In St. Louis)
nominees: Frank Capra (Arsenic and Old Lace); Leo McCarey (Going My Way); Preston Sturges (The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek and Hail The Conquering Hero)
winner: Edward G. Robinson (Double Indemnity)
nominees: Walter Brennan (To Have And Have Not); William Demarest (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail The Conquering Hero); Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way); Clifton Webb (Laura)
winner: Margaret O'Brien (Meet Me In St. Louis)
nominees: Josephine Hull (Arsenic and Old Lace); Angela Lansbury (Gaslight); Diana Lynn (The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek); Anne Revere (National Velvet)
winner: Preston Sturges (The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek and Hail The Conquering Hero)
nominees: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, from the novel by James M. Cain (Double Indemnity); Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, from the novel by Ernest Hemingway (To Have And Have Not)
John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity) (Cinematography); "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (Meet Me In St. Louis) music and lyrics by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin (Song); David Raksin (Laura) (Score)