Category Archives: Film Noir

Pushover (1954)

downloadIf Phyllis Dietrichson had really loved Walter Neff, you might have a movie somewhat like Pushover, with a dash of Rear Window just for good measure. Pushover is more than just an imitation, but it is impossible to watch without making comparisons. Pushover is a B film noir. It’s not great, not perfect, but interesting in its own way.

The movie also marks the official debut of Kim Novak. It wasn’t her first movie, but as the credits say, it was “introducing Kim Novak.” The film also stars Fred MacMurray ten years after a similar role in Double Indemnity.

After a bank robbery that ends with the murder of one of the bank guards, the police know the identity of one of the two robbers, Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards). Their only lead on him, however, is a woman they believe is his girlfriend, Lona McLane (Kim Novak). To make sure she really is Wheeler’s girlfriend, though, they have cop Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) get to know her and afterwards the police, including Sheridan, set up a stakeout on Lona’s apartment, waiting for Wheeler to show up. They tap her phone, follow her everywhere she goes and rent the apartment across from hers so that they can spy on her movements.

This is where the Rear Window elements come into play. The police are basically hanging around the apartment, watching her through a pair of binoculars. But of course, not only can they see Lona, but the other people who live in the apartments next to Lona, including a pretty nurse, Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone). The police are watching Lona in shifts, two in the day and two at night. They expect Wheeler to show up at night so they put their best cops on the job during that time: Paul Sheridan and his partner, Rick McAllister (Philip Carey). Paul and Rick are very different guys, however. They both come from a poor background, but while Rick’s parents loved each other despite the lack of money, Paul says his parents fought all the time about money. His conclusion is that though money alone wouldn’t make you happy, it is still necessary. He is also strongly attracted to Lona. Rick, on the other hand, thinks she’s just another broad and finds himself drawn to the pretty nurse in the room next to Lona, who he keeps watching instead of Lona.

Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak and Philip Carey

Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak and Philip Carey

But Lona is not an idiot. She figures out that Paul was a cop all along and one night, while Paul is tailing her, she drives to his house. He gets out of the car and she asks him for an explanation. He admits being a cop and she admits that Wheeler is her boyfriend, though she maintains that she did not know he was a crook. She then suggests that since Wheeler is a murderer, it wouldn’t really matter too much in the long run if Paul were to somehow get the money. When he accuses her of being willing to use Wheeler’s dirty money she replies, “Money isn’t dirty, just people.” Of course Paul says no, but just as in Double Indemnity, you know he’s going to kick the idea around and eventually do exactly as she asks. And just as in Double Indemnity, he’ll do all the planning (Fred MacMurray really should keep away from scheming blondes).

Where Pushover is different from Double Indemnity is that while Phyllis Dietrichson (as played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a murderous psychopath who, despite claims to the contrary, never really cared for Walter Neff, Kim Novak’s Lona does care for Paul. It’s not entirely clear until the end, but there are enough clues to make the ending make sense. After all, although Paul meant to pick up Lona at the beginning of the film, Lona practically picked him up instead. She saw something in him she liked. Many people have commented that it is not believable that she would have fallen for craggy Fred MacMurray, but I disagree.

She said she noticed him in the movie theater and wondered why he was alone. I think she saw something in him, something that resonated with her. They’re both alike, lonely, dissatisfied and bitter with life, wanting things they don’t have. They understand each other. They fill a hole in each other’s lives; they need each other. They just think they need money, too. It’s rather tragic when, after everything’s fallen apart and Paul finds that Lona did not leave him, he realizes, “We didn’t really need that money, did we?”

images (2)One problem with Pushover is that it loses steam after Paul has committed the crime (he shoots Wheeler). Unlike Double Indemnity, which derives all its tension from watching how the crime is committed and how the two criminals subsequently self-destruct, there is not much tension after the murder. Everything starts to go wrong for him instantly and you know he is toast the moment the nurse sees him in Lona’s apartment. MacMurray does an admirable job playing a desperate man whose plans are going increasingly more awry and who finds himself resorting to crimes beyond his original intention, but the tension in the script is just not there anymore.

Fred MacMurray is a very fine actor with an under-appreciated range. He is today best remembered for his Disney films like The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog and also for being the foil in many a screwball comedy with Carol Lombard and Claudette Colbert; but he could also play weak, smarmy or un-principled men. I’d always heard of MacMurray’s three heel roles – Double IndemnityThe Caine Mutiny and The Apartment – but I think we could add Pushover to the list, although it is his most sympathetic heel. You almost wish he and Kim Novak could make a new life together (without the money), but alas his principles are not strong enough.

Pushover can currently be viewed here on youtube.

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Posted by on March 30, 2015 in Film Noir


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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

MV5BMTc3NDYzODAwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODg1MTczMTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Sunset Boulevard defies categorization. It’s a film noir, gothic, horror, melodrama, suspense, tragicomic romance. It’s surreal, but properly grounded in reality. You laugh, you cry, you cringe, but you never look away. It’s absolutely spellbinding. And has there ever been such a weird, yet utterly compelling ending as when Norma Desmond descends the staircase, now completely lost in her delusions, believing that the media cameras are really the cameras of Cecil B. DeMille and that he is shooting her as Salome, descending the stairs of the palace? When watched in isolation on youtube, the scene looks melodramatic, but when seen as the climax of the film, it is shiveringly effective.

I’m gushing a bit. I had very high expectations for this film and in one of those rare instances they were actually met. I even went out of my way to prepare for watching this. I wanted to see Gloria Swanson when she really was a big star in the silent era. I wanted to see some of the movies that Erich von Stroheim had directed during the silent era and also some of the movies Cecil B. DeMille made during the same time (some with Gloria Swanson). Fortunately, since the film is so iconic and most people have a general idea of the plot, it still feels fresh even though you know what’s going to happen. The drama is not in what happens, but how it happens.

Sunset Boulevard is often called a critique of Hollywood, which it certainly is, but this film is not limited to that. It’s about individual people more than monolithic Hollywood. It’s about obsession and ambition, wanting love (intimate love and also the more general and all embracing love of fans, people you don’t even know). It’s about wanting to be someone important, to be acknowledged, to earn money, to have a career that provides meaning and identity. These are universal themes that have meaning anywhere, it’s just that Hollywood magnifies these things, so it is an ideal setting.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden

Gloria Swanson and William Holden – surrounding by pictures from her lost glory days

The film manages the unique feat of having both an unforgettable beginning and an unforgettable end. The movie opens with the body of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a swimming pool, shot three times with a revolver. We then hear his voice narrating throughout the film, telling the story of how he got there, how Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, became involved with the fading, forgotten silent movie star who cannot accept that her time has passed.

On a side note, it seems incredibly cheeky of director Billy Wilder to have a corpse narrate our story, but somehow it doesn’t come off as macabre unless you think about it too much. There is a sharp, biting humor that pervades the entire film, especially in Joe Gillis’ narration, wryly commenting on the action in hindsight.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is borderline insane throughout the entire film and one of the things that impressed me is how Swanson never goes over the top. It seems like she does, multiple times, but it is believable and not just theatrics. It is like the character Norma Desmond is acting all the time. She cannot behave normally and naturally. She is always putting on a show for some invisible audience, using the people she interacts with as her props.

It is amazing, however, how much sympathy both she and William Holden garner for their extremely flawed characters. She is imperious, arrogant, commanding, childish, and manipulative. She has attempted suicide several times and is quite willing to threaten it if she thinks it will get her what she wants. But this fact is also tragic. Even if she is incapable of killing herself without grand gestures, she is still unhappy enough to be willing to die. If she can’t be Norma Desmond, a beloved and needed movie star, then she isn’t anybody at all.

Nancy Olson and William Holden

Nancy Olson and William Holden

William Holden’s Joe Gillis is also a flawed character and capable of a little manipulation of his own. When he first meets her, he thinks he can manipulate her into giving him a job to brush up her ridiculous script of Salome that she believes she will make her comeback with (though she hates the word comeback; “It’s a return!”). He doesn’t mind taking advantage of an extremely vulnerable and deluded woman. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem flirting with his friend’s fiance, Betty Shaefer (Nancy Olson).

Erich von Stroheim is fascinating as Norma’s inscrutable butler, Max. Max was once a promising director in the silent era who discovered Norma Desmond when she was sixteen and made her into a star. When her career was wrecked by sound, he asked her to take him on as her butler/jack-of-all trades – he can even play the organ like a regular cliched horror villain. It is not clear what his motivations are. Does he feel guilt over how he made her into a star and set her on the path that has so crippled her emotionally? Does he still love her madly, does he share in her obsession over her own greatness? It is never clear. The only thing that is clear is that he made things worse by feeding her delusions that she is not forgotten. He writes fake fan letters and requests for her autograph, confirming to the end her own image of herself. Is it the image he gave her at the beginning? Is he perhaps her evil genius? But he doesn’t play it like a moustache-twirling villain. There is pathos in his unwavering devotion to her.

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille

Joe Gillis’ love interest, the aspiring screenwriter Betty Shaefer, is played by Nancy Olson. It was only her second movie, but Wilder chose her because she could bring a breath of fresh air into a very gothic and cynical film. Cecil B. DeMille also does a fine job playing himself, the director who made so many pictures with both Gloria Swanson and, in the film, Norma Desmond. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised at how natural he seems; he did start his career as an actor on Broadway, though he quickly turned to directing plays and then silent movies.

Reality meets art so often in the film, it is astonishing, once again, how cheeky Billy Wilder was. Gloria Swanson’s career really did deteriorate after the coming of sound and when she made Sunset Boulevard she hadn’t made a movie in nine years, though she was not sitting around in a ruined home bemoaning her glory days. She was evidently a very busy woman, starting businesses, acting in summer stock, promoting health foods. Erich von Stroheim was also a promising director from the silent era, but because his movies always went massively over-budget, over long, and because he wasn’t a ‘team player’ and pushed the censorship envelope, his career was ruined and he was reduced to acting in bit parts, often as Nazis.

William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

When Norma Desmond shows Joe Gillis footage from one of her silent movies, it is footage from a 1929 silent film called Queen Kelly, that was never completed. It was directed by Erich von Stroheim and starred Gloria Swanson, but owing to censorship concerns and huge financial issues, Swanson and her backer, Joseph P. Kennedy, pulled the plug on the film. It was the end of his directing career and hers petered out soon after.

According to an interview with Nancy Olson, in one of the documentaries on Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection, Billy Wilder told her the movie was about people who were on the make, which makes sense with my idea that it is not a film exclusively about Hollywood, despite how often reality meets art in the film. These are people who are willing to sell themselves to achieve their goals.


Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir


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Double Indemnity (1944) – Reflections on a Perfect Noir

double_indemnity1Double Indemnity is for me one of the most perfect movies ever made. It has the perfect cast, direction, music, lighting, perfect story told perfectly. It is a taut movie, with no wasted motion and where every word spoken and hand gesture has a purpose. I never tire of watching it, proving that an unhappy story with an unhappy end can be just as satisfying as a happy one.

When I first saw it, I was watching it for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and they are superb, but I was completely blown away by Edward G. Robinson. I had never seen him before in a movie and I couldn’t understand why I had not heard of him previously. It seems like outside of the classic film world, he is undeservedly unknown.

The story is fairly straightforward: an insurance salesman and a psychopathic housewife plan the murder of her husband and the collection of $100,000 dollars from the double indemnity clause in his accident insurance they tricked him into buying. Fred MacMurray is the salesman and Barbara Stanwyck is the femme fatale to beat all femme fatales. Seriously, I doubt there is anyone more cold-blooded than she is. Edward G. Robinson is the claims manager at the insurance agency MacMurray works at, who is convinced that “something has been worked on us,” but does not see MacMurray’s connection in the case.

Double Indemnity is a film noir, though I haven’t found a satisfactory definition yet. Many people do not even acknowledge film noir as an actual movie genre. Whatever it is – dark shadows, human weakness, seediness, low passion and desire, crime, murder, filmed in black and white – Double Indemnity is one of the ultimate examples. I once read of somebody complaining that the movie was clichéd, but someone else rightly pointed out that that is because Double Indemnity wrote the clichés.


Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson

The score is excellent. It was composed by Miklos Rosza, who I knew best for his music in Ben-Hur. If you close your eyes during the opening credits of Double Indemnity, you can almost see Romans marching by. It is so portentous of doom and, at the end of the movie, the doom that has arrived. The music enforces another common film noir theme: fatalism. There is very little sense that people are choosing their actions. Walter Neff, as played by MacMurray, is going to succumb to Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson and he is going to be undone by it. It is a gloomy view of human nature, where temptation is always given in to and destruction is inevitably the result.

The movie isn’t all gloom, however. It is considerably lightened by the presence of Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, a man who may look irascible while chomping his cigars, but has a warm heart and real affection for Walter. I’ve read of the story described as a triangle, between Walter and Phyllis representing lust and Walter and Keyes representing genuine friendship.

One aspect of the movie I’d like to explore are the motivations of Phyllis Dietrichson at the end. There is much ambiguity regarding whether or not Phyllis Dietrichson really falls in love with Walter Neff. He is planning on killing her, but she is ahead of him and shoots him in the shoulder. She has him in her power, she could have shot him again and finished him off, but she doesn’t. She lets him walk up and take her gun away. Then she says that she couldn’t fire that final shot. She admits that she’s been using him all along, but now, somehow, she’s realized that she loves him. Walter doesn’t buy it and shoots her dead.


Hiding a gun in the chair, always a good place to hide one, if you have to

So the question is: was she speaking the truth or wasn’t she? I have puzzled over this one for many months now. She certainly sounds convincing, but it seems out of character for her not to shoot him. Even if she did love him, she seems like the type to bury her emotions and kill him anyway. But if she wasn’t in love, why didn’t she finish him off? I think I finally have the answer…or at least, an answer…or a theory. Speculation.

I always wondered what she meant to do with Walter Neff’s body after she shot him. She could blame the boyfriend of her step-daughter, but there would still be the problem of Walter’s body being found at her house and any connection between her and Walter would probably bring the whole house of cards down on her because their greatest asset is that Keyes doesn’t have any idea that Walter is in on the plot.

But my thought is that since she never says or does an un-premeditated thing in the whole movie, why assume that she is suddenly speaking spontaneously at the end? It’s a slightly kooky theory, but might she have been trying to win him back? She shoots him in the shoulder and then suddenly finds that, although she has never loved him (something she is safe admitting because he’s already figured it out) she can’t bring herself to kill him now. She has a sudden burst of ‘true’ emotion and tries to carry him away on that emotion. Since she had succeeded before in carrying him away on emotion, why not now? And she’s a nurse, so she could probably fix his shoulder so he need never go to a hospital (which would probably also give them away). This way, she gets him back without the fuss of having to take care of a body…until she decides later to do away with him.

Her mistake, in my theory, would be in underestimating how strongly Walter has recoiled from her. She knows he’s feeling guilty about her step-daughter Lola, but she doesn’t realize just how guilty he feels. After shooting Phyllis he could have hung it on Lola’s boyfriend Nino, but he chooses not to because Lola loves Nino and Walter wants to help her. This highlights the essential difference between Phyllis and Walter. She is amoral, but he is only immoral. He does have a conscience. If they had both been amoral together, then they would have probably gotten away with murder. The reason they fail is not because they are found out, but because Walter’s nerves aren’t as good as Phyllis’ and because he does feel guilty. And that’s partly why he shoots Phyllis at the end.


Phyllis is now very dead

It seems a travesty today, but although Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography of a black and white film, Best Music, Best Recording, Best Screenplay – it lost in every single category. And just as bad, Robinson and MacMurray weren’t even nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor respectively. Going My Way ran away with most of the Oscars – much to director Billy Wilder’s chagrin – and although it might seem like an injustice today, in retrospect there was just no way in 1944 – when America was fighting evil murderers like Hitler – that the Best Actress award was going to go to a cold blooded killer like Phyllis Dietrichson instead of the innocent victim played by Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Psychologically, it just seems wrong. But I still believe that Barbara Stanwyck’s was the stronger performance.


Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Film Noir


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