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Noir Anti-Hero

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The Noir Anti-Hero:
How Walter Huff Reflects Depression-Era Society The anti-hero of Double Indemnity, Walter Huff, is a reflection of the greed, lust, and corruption of the evils of society during the Great Depression. The anti-hero must navigate his way through the external landscape of depression-era Los Angeles in an attempt to survive the urban wilderness in perhaps some very non-conventional ways. Despite this, the anti-hero is relatable to the reader since he is not seen as a typical hero, but rather a flawed moral character. Ambiguity is a key characteristic of noir and surrounds the love triangle of the anti-hero, femme fatale, and the crime committed. Noir is a genre of hard-boiled crime dramas, which originated in America in the 1930s and 1940s, during and post WWII. The films and novels that were associated with this genre reflected how the world was viewed during and after the war⎯cold, heartless and cruel. A noir anti-hero is the main character of a story that lacks the characteristics of a typical hero, but is relatable to the audience. He usually functions outside social norms and challenges the system. Hardboiled detective is a tough, cynical style of writing that brought an aspect of realism to the genre of detective fiction. It is often a gritty detective story set in a world overrun with violence and corruption. The way that Cain describes depression-era Los Angeles is a reflection of society during that time period. The anti-hero is morally compelling because he does whatever it takes to find justice. Anti-heroes are often morally ambiguous low-lifes that have a first person perspective of crime and corruption. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, takes place in depression-era Los Angeles. Throughout the novel, Huff struggles to survive in the external landscape of post-depression era Los Angeles. The insurance company that Huff works for is extremely corrupt. They are basically betting against what their clients think. For example, a person may bet their house will burn down and the insurance company thinks it won’t. If one tries to trick the system to get the insurance money, the company knows immediately. If something happens and the client is honest as they go about trying to collect the money, then the company will pay them will a smile on their faces. At the end of the day, all the insurance company wants to do is to pay the least amount of clients with their insurance money. Huff compares this ideology to a roulette dealer at a casino:
If you don’t understand that, go to Monte Carlo or some other place where there’s a big casino, sit at a table, and watch the face of a man that spins the little ivory ball. After you’ve watched it a while, ask yourself how much he would care if you went out and plugged yourself in the head. His eyes might drop when he heard the shot, but it wouldn’t be from worry whether you lived or died. It would be to make sure you didn’t leave a bet on the table, that he would have to cash for your estate. No, he wouldn’t care. (Cain 24)
Just as the roulette dealer would not care if one lived or died, the insurance company works much the same way. They do not care about the people themselves because they only see them as dollar signs. Another way that the insurance company is corrupt is that they try in every way possible to not pay their clients their insurance money. They go to great lengths to prove that the death of a client was either suicide or murder, which results in the client getting no money from the company. This is because accident insurance only covers accidents, not suicide or murder. In the case of Mr. Nirdlinger’s death, the insurance company really wants to prove it was not an accident because it would be classified as double indemnity, meaning the client gets double the money because it was an extremely unusual accidental death.
When a man takes out an insurance policy, and insurance policy that’s worth $50,000 if he’s killed in a railroad accident, and then three months later he is killed in a railroad accident, it’s not on the up-and-up. It can’t be. If the train got wrecked it might be, but even then it would be a mighty suspicious coincidence. A mighty suspicious coincidence. No it’s not on the up-and-up. But it’s not suicide. You know what I mean. I mean murder. (Cain 60)
Keyes examines the death of Mr. Nirdlinger and is extremely confident that his death was murder, and not an accident or suicide. He has been in the insurance business for many, many years and knows how the game goes. He could tell there was something wrong with this picture. If Keyes could prove it was murder, then the insurance company would not have to pay the $100,000 due to double indemnity. The setting of Los Angeles plays a key role in Huff’s struggle for survival. “The city serves first as a physical maze of networks, roads, and buildings; it stands second as a metaphor for the human condition in which characters intersect and interact; third, a city reflects a hero’s mental and psychological struggles. “ (Hausladen 48) The city affects the anti-hero in many aspects both externally and internally. It is a metaphor for the interaction of the characters and how they all tie in together at the end. In the beginning Lola seems to not serve a huge purpose other than being Huff’s love interest, but in the end, we see that she was the one that Phyllis was going to murder next. Everyone in the story was linked to each other somehow. The city reflects Huff’s internal struggles because everything is not as it seems. Los Angeles is seen as this perfect city but the reality is quite the opposite. The same goes for Huff. The anti-hero is relatable since he is not seen as a typical hero but rather a flawed moral character. At the end of the novel, Huff gets shots by Phyllis but rather than kill him right then and there, she leaves him for dead. He ends up in the hospital and awakens to Keyes telling him that he has the whole case figured out and that the police were blaming Lola, the nineteen-year-old stepdaughter of Phyllis. Overwhelmed, Huff tells everything to Keyes. “He sat there staring at me. I had told him everything he needed to know, even about Lola. It seemed funny it had only taken about ten minutes.” (Cain 102) Huff could not take the guilt of what he had done any longer and wanted to protect Lola since he loved her. His confession cleared her name and her boyfriend’s name so they could lead a peaceful life. This shows that he was still a good person despite what he had done because he sacrificed himself for Lola. Huff falls in love with a married woman, Phyllis Nirdlinger. Together they plot the “accidental” death of her husband so that they can collect on the insurance money and be happy together. Huff knows she is bad news, but his feelings for her trump any rational thoughts. He knows that Mr. Nirdlinger’s death has to appear as an accident, which is a near impossible feat to pull off, to be able to collect double the money. What he does not realize is that both Phyllis and the insurance company are one step ahead of him. “Frequently, the hero displays ambivalent feelings toward both women and society, both of whom threaten his survival, or at least the survival of the hero on his own terms.” (Porter 413) Because of these two entities, Huff meets his ultimate demise in the end. Huff gets caught in the whirlwind that is Phyllis Nirdlinger and commits murder out of love. Huff later recognizes that what he did was horribly bad, which shows the reader that he still has some sort of moral compass telling him right from wrong. “Thus [Huff] emerges as sympathetic-a marginally decent human being who makes bad decisions.” (Orr 58) The fact that Huff is not perfect and makes mistakes makes him relatable. The reader understands to some point, what challenges he faces and what obstacles he must overcome. Ambiguity is a key characteristic of noir and surrounds the love triangle of the anti-hero, femme fatale, and the crime that is committed. The criminals are not completely evil. Huff killed Phyllis’s husband for all the wrong reasons and in the end, knew he did wrong. “I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.” (Cain 80) Huff reflects upon the fact the irreversible action he carried out did not have the ending he pictured. He is not an evil person, because a pure evil person would feel no remorse. The anti-hero is not always good. This is very clear for Huff, who has many pitfalls. He goes from an honest, hard-working insurance salesman to a love obsessed murder in a short span of time. He admits to Keyes at the end of the novel, “I killed Nirdlinger.” (Cain 101) Huff makes the decision to not internalize the gory truth anymore. He rode it out as far as he could and finally came clean. Even though he shows some sort of honesty, he is still a cold blooded killer. The main woman of the story is both vulnerable and predatory at the same time. Keyes understood this at the end and told Huff, “After she got you out of the way for what you knew about her, Lola was next.” (Cain 107) Phyllis played Huff as this housewife that was being treated horribly by her husband, who she didn’t love anymore. Yet in fact, she really had a secret agenda where she wanted her husband and Lola dead so that she could have their money. Huff was fooled by his feelings for her and her false feelings for him. In conclusion, we have seen how the anti-hero navigates through depression-era Los Angeles in some unconventional ways, while simultaneously acting as a relatable figure to the reader due to his character flaws, and how ambiguity is a key characteristic of noir and, more specifically, surrounds the anti-hero, femme fatale, and the crime committed. As a result, Walter Huff is a reflection of the greed, lust, and corruption of the evils of society during the Great Depression. Noir is still prevalent in today’s society since it is universal. Noir investigates the dark side of man and the world as a whole. Every person has that side to them and has to face it in their lives. Noir is a platform for studying the inner workings of the human soul and being able to see the world as it really is. Work Cited

Cain, James M. Double Indemnity. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.

Hausladen, Gary, and Paul Starrs. “L.A. Noir.” Journal of Cultural Geography. 23.1
(2005): 43-69. Print.

Porter, Joseph. “The End of the Trail: The American West of Dashiell Hammett and
Raymond Chandler.” The Western Historical Quarterly. 6.4 (1975): 411-424. Print.

Orr, Christopher. “Cain, Naturalism, and Noir.” Film Criticism. 25 (2000): 47-64.
Print.…...

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