Noiring L.A.: Double Indemnity, Black Dahlia, and the Fears of Postwar America


Last night marked the second season debut of HBO’s True Detective. If last year’s Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey tinged season one led the audience through a metaphysically drenched Louisiana swamp thriller while sparking a McConaissance and nostalgic longing for the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers’s “Yellow King”, season two seems to be a call back to the most American of films, the California noir. Judging from episode one pseudo kingpin Frank Seymon (Vince Vaughn), spartan Ventura County detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachael McAdams), damaged highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), and corrupt Vinci investigator Ray Velcoro (Colin Ferrel) appear destined to two step through a shadowy square dance of intrigue and murder with high stakes transportation infrastructure investment as the backdrop; modern 21st century SoCal envisioned through an early 20th century genre. Yet, whatever one thought of episode one, “The Western Book of the Dead,” it’s worth looking back at one of the defining noir films of the 20th century and how it too, depicted the America of its day through a prism of darkness and doubt and for better and worse, revealed some of the nation’s darker impulses and biases.

“Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours Keyes. I killed Dietrichson, me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars, until recently that is.” Fred MacMurray’s mortally wounded protagonist of “Double Indemnity” confesses to his supervisor Barton Keyes’ (Edward G. Robinson) via dictaphone. A suburban insurance salesman seduced by a married seductress, Neff represented one man’s “descent into moral blackness” as he lies, cheats, and murders to reach an illusionary objective. Indeed, MacMurray’s portrayal of the rakish Pacific All Risk insurance ace in Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir classic remains a precedent-setting standard of excellence in the genre and, more specifically, of the Los Angeles variety.

Yet, “Double Indemnity” and Los Angeles noir point to more than simply clever stories of intrigue, betrayal, and lust. Instead, L.A. noir represents fears about cultural alienation, changing gender roles, and interracial interactions. “Los Angeles noir deployed a contrast between the visual imagery of suburban normalcy and the narrative drama of vice and violence,” notes USC’s Eric Avila. “By focusing on the most cherished icon of Southern California’s low density landscape — the suburban home — [film noir] articulated the inability of suburban Los Angles to shield its occupants from the poisonous culture of the metropolis, shattering any lingering illusions of Los Angeles as the better city, but at the same time, dramatizing an imperative to fortify the boundaries between the suburbs and the ‘black’ city.” 1

Three years after Double Indemnity’s release, Leimert Park residents witnessed the gruesome and still unsolved Black Dahlia murder, symbolizing the very fears Avila pointed out. Though at the time a white, middle and working class, enclave, Leimert Park had begun to attract black homeowners, contravening spatialized racial boundaries. The pretty, fame seeking victim, Elizabeth Short served as a real life symbol of the perils of interracial mixing, the collapse of gender roles, and the dark corners of the noir metropolis. Taken with the movies of German émigré Billy Wilder, the aforementioned “Double Indemnity” and the Black Dahlia murder underscore white America’s discomfort with an increasingly diverse City of Angels, and noir’s role in securing this preconception.

The Heart of European Darkness in L.A.

Born in Austria, Billy Wilder immigrated to Los Angeles as the Nazis began consuming German and Austrian society in the 1930s. Some observers wondered if the experience had given Wilder a darker outlook on life. “Did your background being Jewish in a culture that was becoming rabidly anti-Semitic, create a darker attitude towards life,” asked Cal State Fullerton Film Professor Robert Porfirio, of the Austrian director in the 1970s. “I think the dark outlook is an American one,” Wilder succinctly responded. 2

Wilder’s impressions of America, based in great part on his time in Los Angeles, represent a wider opinion held by European émigrés of the period. Though many did not necessarily buy into what Mike Davis calls noir’s “anti-myth” regarding L.A. — a reference to the genre’s rejection of mythmaking by the city’s overzealous boosters — many nonetheless came to resent the metropolis, and viewed it with an unrelenting pessimism.

“Here was the ultimate city of capital, lustrous and superficial, negating every classical value of European urbanity,” Davis noted in his seminal “City of Quartz.” “Driven by one epochal defeat of the Enlightenment to the shores of Santa Monica Bay, the most unhappy of the exiles thought they discerned a second defeat in Los Angeles as the ‘shape of things to come’, a mirror of capitalism’s future.” 3 Noir, Davis argues, made L.A. the city intellectuals loved to hate, yet perversely for European intellects, notably those hailing from France and Britain, this only deepened the fascination.

As Davis, Avila, and others have pointed out, European émigrés, exiled from cosmopolitan Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, targeted Los Angeles as the whipping boy for cultural critiques that savaged mass culture and the Enlightenment-based West. While Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer channeled the tenets of Frankfurt School intellectualism and Marxism via the Institute for Social Research in Los Angeles, Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, Fred Zimmerman, and others harnessed the influences of German Expressionist cinema to create a L.A. film noir tradition that sketched a vision of urban decline and social disorder. 4

In “Double Indemnity,” the precedent establishing standard-bearer of the genre, MacMurray’s Neff, an upstanding white man, descends into moral darkness amid the outward sunshine of L.A.’s exterior. However, even the shiny suburban appearances belied the city’s lack of authenticity. “They say all natural Californians come from Iowa,” Neff tells viewers. Likewise, Phyllis Dietrichson exemplifies false exteriors. The Dietrichson house — “one of those Spanish numbers everyone was so crazy about a couple of years ago,” Neff narrates in classic noir fashion — represents lack of character, an expensive, popular trend that probably “cost $30,000” if it was even paid off. As numerous scholars have noted, the 1920s and 1930s fetishization of “Spanish Colonial” architecture in suburban development looked to whitewash the region’s Mexican history, thereby appealing to its European origins, and in essence ignoring both the exploitative structures of the colonial era and the state’s earliest non-native settlers. That Dietrichson resides in such a home, and smells of perfume from Ensenada, the kind of place where people drink “pink wine” instead of bourbon, only reinforces her perceived trangressions and lack of authentic whiteness. 5

Dietrichson's ''Spanish Colonial'' home
Dietrichson’s ”Spanish Colonial” home
Blonde as they come, Phyliss’ fair skin contrasts with her dark soul and racialized ethnic proclivities. She comes to embody the blackened postwar femme fatale. Amid the sexual upheavals, and the expansion of unsupervised sexuality in American cities during and after the war, Americans witnessed what they saw as unsteady amalgam of urban sexuality. “Ambitious, snide, and duplicitous, the white woman of film noir wielded the edgy disposition typically associated with urban life, but as the city appeared as the heart of darkness at the outset of the postwar suburban boom,” notes Avila, “the femme fatale of film noir assumed racial connotations not only through her actions, but also through her very image on screen.” 6

Due in part to this symbolic play of their social and racial transgressions, Wilder bathes the two characters in darkness, a technique that emerged as a metaphor for metaphysical blackness. 7 Moreover, Dietrichson and Neff do not limit their boundary crossings to image and metaphor alone; rather Neff depends on two non-white characters to pull off the murder of Phyliss’ husband. First, Charlie, a black janitor at Neff’s apartment complex, provides an alibi for the felonious insurance salesman on the night of the murder, while later that evening Neff depends on a timely phone call from Westwood Jewish lawyer Lou Schwartz — a name that is derived from the Yiddish word for “black.” Moreover, when the plan falls apart, Neff opts for literal border crossing as he attempts to abscond to Mexico.

The insurance agent’s dependence on Los Angeles’ non-white population undermines his abstract claim to whiteness. Additionally, sexually laced and inappropriate exchanges between the two conspirators, emphasizes their deviancy. When Neff oversteps the bounds of propriety, Dietrichson tells him:

Phyllis Dietrichson: “There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.”

Walter Neff: “How fast was I going officer?”

Phyliss Dietrichson: “I’d say around 90.”

That the two couch their playful sexual innuendo in the guise of a police officer and a careless driver only adds to the sense of impropriety and deviancy. The bonds of marriage won’t limit Dietrichson, and Neff never seems to acknowledge the institution at all, as his intentions appear transparently clear from their first encounter, only growing in lecherousness in later scenes, such as the uncomfortable attention he pays to Dietrich’s anklet bracelet.

If one doubts the conflation of blackness and white deviancy, consider that in its 1943 Fundamentals of Real Estate Practice, the National Association of Real Estate Boards suggested that agents be on the look out for individuals living on the edges of respectable society. The bootlegger, the madam, the gangster, and the “colored man of means,” as the pamphlet pointed out, all served as sources of “neighborhood blight.” 8FHA housing studies and mortgage loans, both of which marginalized heterogenous communities, or even those with a handful of minorities, provided the economic and political structure to protect against the kind of residents NAREB leaders believed sparked community decline. The unsupervised, sly, and cunning women of noir traversed these boundaries, and were often punished for their transgressions in the end. Ultimately, Dietrich dies at the hands of Neff, but only after taking her own considerable shot at the insurance salesman. Neff stumbles away from his second murder fatally wounded.

Dietrichson and Neff at the train tracks
Dietrichson and Neff at the train tracks
The Black Dahlia 

“Elizabeth Short was a pale pie faced blue eyed Protestant girl from the suburbs of Boston, MA,” writer James Ellroy told documentarians in 2006. “Her dream was entirely silly, and was the dream of countless other fatuous girls of the American 1940s. She wanted to be an actress. She wanted to be a movie star.” While Ellroy’s description of Short, aka The Black Dahlia, sounds fairly dismissive, the noir author confessed to his own fascination with the girl and her demise, as evidenced by his 1987 work “The Black Dahilia (L.A. Quartet #1).” Though Ellroy’s obsession with the case stemmed from his own mother’s brutal unsolved murder, Angelenos of the period feasted on the story as a result of many of the same issues at play in Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.”

Having migrated from Boston, Short might not have been the stereotypical Midwestern arrival, but her protestant middle class background aligned neatly with the city’s demographic image. Not that the gruesome killing needed much embellishment; Short’s assailant had bisected her body and carved a Jokeresque smile into the sides of her mouth. Los Angeles media saturated the public consciousness with lurid stories about the case. Despite the fact the city witnessed only 70 to 80 murders a year, with five newspapers and the blare of the radio, the media promoted an image of Los Angeles that reinforced those of early film noir.

Described in various accounts as imaginative, flighty, given to prevarication, and possibly a habitual liar, the unsupervised Hollywood hopeful symbolized the dangers of the postwar city and its corrupting influence. To be fair, these kinds of fears originated decades earlier as the nation’s industrialization in the late 19th century spurred increasing immigration from abroad and internal migration to cities. With the rise of Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, along with the various industries that expanded in the same period, Los Angeles emerged as an entrepot for young women intent on living the California dream, away from the watchful eyes of patriarchal families.

Last seen at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9, 1947, Short’s body was discovered by Leimert Park residents six days later on January 15. Many observers wondered where she had been, and with whom, over those fateful five days, but no answer came. Instead, police absorbed false confessions and leads, gumming up efforts to solve the case.

The discovery of her body in Leimert Park fit neatly into noir sensibilities. Though established in the 1920s as an upscale white “‘bedroom community”; by the late 1940s, black homeowners gradually infiltrated its boundaries and filled in its margins. This process of integration threatened to undermine perceived white middle class values and, as cities grew racially and ethnically darker, many white observers believed, they grew more dangerous. White hostility followed, such that when John Caldwell and his family moved into their Sixth Avenue home in 1951, “they awoke to the crackling sound of a four foot cross burning on their lawn,” notes Los Angeles historian Josh Sides. 9

Rows of ''Spanish Colonial'' homes in Leimert Park | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Rows of ”Spanish Colonial” homes in Leimert Park | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
The neighborhood’s emergence as a black middle class enclave in subsequent decades confirmed the kind of assumptions encapsulated by noir themes and NAREB and FHA guidelines: deviant whites and blacks of means were suspect characters. After all, while many American metropolises struggled with labor strikes and absorbed Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe in the 1920s, Los Angeles had established itself as the “sunny refuge of White Protestant America.” 10

Architecturally and aesthetically, the community aligned neatly with the kind of trends visible in “Double Indemnity.” Leimert Park’s Spanish Colonial homes, though more modest than the Deitrichson house, furthered the neighborhood’s noir connection, while appealing to white America’s faux European sensibilities, or at least their conscious/unconscious sublimation of the city’s Mexican history.

While African Americans had begun to migrate to Southern California during the Great Migration, their numbers expanded much more rapidly during what has became known as the Second Great Migration. During the Great Migration (1910-1940), roughly 1.8 million African Americans departed the South; during its later iteration from 1940-1970, more than 3.6 million blacks moved North and West. 11 In Los Angeles, this demographic change caused tensions. “Whites were now forced to interact with blacks to a degree unimaginable in prewar Los Angeles, a situation that generated unprecedented racial conflict and more frequent articulations of racist sentiment throughout the city,” Sides points out. “Both blacks and whites feared that the new population explosion would undermine the previous relative tranquility of race relations in Los Angeles, and male white residents openly protested the arrival of new migrants.” 12

Leimert Park’s transformation resulted directly from housing pressures brought to bear by this demographic change. The Black Dahilia murder unfolded within this context and noir framing.

“I killed for money, a woman,” Neff confesses in his last moments. “I didn’t get the money, I didn’t get the woman.” The lurid promises of the noir lifestyle never came to fruition, as evidenced by the fates of Phyllis and Walter. For the Black Dahlia, she found fame, but only in her demise, which of course confirmed the kind of race and gender based assumptions that undergirded L.A. noir. The genre channeled the fears of post war America, worried about damaged white male masculinity, directly threatened by those wayward women and minorities of the postwar city. “How was I to know murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle,” Walter Neff laments. Likewise, how were we to know cultural alienation, sexism and racism lay at the heart of noir and the soul of postwar L.A.?


1 Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: University of Berkeley Press, 2004), pg 80.
2 Billy Wilder, interview with Robert Porfirio in Film Noir Reader 3: Interview with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period, Eds. Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight Editions, 2002) pg. 101.
3 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (New York: Verso, 1990), pg. 21.
4 Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, pg. 75,
5 Ibid, 84.
6 Ibid, pgs. 83-84.
7 Ibid, pg. 82.
8 Ibid, pg. 80.
9 Josh Sides, L.A City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003) pg. 102.
10 Mike Davis, City of Quartz, pg. 30.
11 Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits, pg. 38
12 Ibid, pg. 44.

A version of this article originally appeared under the Intersections column at KCET Departures in September 2013.