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Seeing Double Indemnity on the Big Screen

dipst-lgOn Sunday, TCM presented Double Indemnity across the country at select theaters and I promised myself that come rain or shine, sickness or in health, I would be there. And so I was. It was the first time I had seen any classic film on anything other than my puny and unimpressive TV and the experience was exhilarating, even more so because Double Indemnity is one of those films I never grow tired of watching.

I’d like to say that seeing it on the big screen was a revelation, but since I already knew it so well, the affect was less revelatory than it was heightened. The sound was much improved, naturally, so the moment when the gun goes off and Phyllis shoots Walter had more impact, less a pop gun and an actual murder attempt that takes him unawares and even startled me a little. And apart from my initial viewing, the moment when they are in the car and about to make their getaway and Phyllis can’t start the car did not make me feel truly tense, despite my enjoyment and appreciation. But this time, I could feel the tension, palpably.

The theater was not even half full (which seems a pity for such a great film), but it was interesting to watch with a crowd of people and their reactions. I went with six other people, some of whom do not usually watch classic films and it is curious how the knowledge that other people are seeing it for the first time changes how I view it. I always knew that Double Indemnity contains dialogue that no one ever would speak, but this time I really noticed it. It didn’t bother me – I think it’s brilliant – but it did become apparent to me how stylized it is. It’s dialogue that fits together like a mechanical watch, so closely fitted that to remove anything might unwind the whole, each line inevitably leading to the next. There is no casual conversation going on in Double Indemnity.

MV5BMTgxMTI4MDc5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMTUxNjQ2._V1_SX640_SY720_I was once again struck with how brilliant Edward G. Robinson is. Almost every time someone laughed in the theater, it was in response to one of his lines. His energy partly is what propels this film.

I am delighted to say that everyone I went with enjoyed it. But in talking to people, I discovered that I have difficulty expressing why I love this movie so much. Talking about the plot or saying I like the dialogue or actors doesn’t seem to really capture it.

I once read someone describe watching Double Indemnity as listening to a Mozart symphony. That seems to best epitomize why I love the film. It is one of those perfectly plotted films, each scene leading inevitably and smoothly into the next, informing the next scene. I can revisit it the same way I keep listening to my favorite pieces of music. There is so much going on in every scene, characters playing on multiple levels of communication between each other and to the audience.

For example: Walter has just told Phyllis that he is going to kill her husband; he is going to plan everything and do it right without any weakness or sloppiness. He thinks he’s in control, calming an apparently hysterical woman who says she can’t stand living with her husband anymore, doing a good impression of someone who might run out into the night and reckless bump off her husband, come what may. But after Walter tells her what he is going to do, she stands up and there is a look of such supreme satisfaction on her face that you know she has just gotten what she wanted. Barbara Stanwyck is playing two parts, the part Phyllis is playing for Walter’s benefit and the part of Phyllis, the cold-blooded killer.

imagesAnother example: Walter is in Keye’s office and Keyes is telling him how he has figured out the murder was committed. Once again, he is acting on two levels. There is the part he is playing for Keyes, the friend and confident, and the part of the murderer, who knows the man Keyes is hunting for is him. It’s brilliant stuff and most of the scenes are like that.

When Lola goes to Walter to tell him that she suspects that Phyllis killed her father, now Walter has to react on three levels. He is talking to Lola and trying to calm her down, he is afraid that through her the entire plan could bust in his face and he is hearing from Lola a new and decidedly disturbing side to Phyllis’ character that he had not previously comprehended.

I also love watching the characters move and act and speak. The way Phyllis throws away her cigarette and reaches for her gun, expressive of so much control, contempt and determination. The scene where Keyes cites statistics and pretty much shows up his boss as a fool, the charged expressions Phyllis and Walter give each other during that scene, the endless lighting of cigarettes on Walter’s thumb nail and offering it to Keyes, the way Phyllis pointedly drops a piece of lemon into Walter’s tea and says “Fresh.”

Another great scene is when Keyes goes into his spiel about why Walter should become a claims manager, describing it as a combination of surgery, religion, detection, psychology, human drama and even the judicial system. His eloquence and passion flow on, pausing only to answer the phone, and then continues without skipping a beat. But what also makes the scene great is that he is describing his job as a calling, something he believes in, bolstered by his own moral sense. Walter is not interested because of the cut in salary – he does not view his work as a calling – and Keyes’ passion is contrasted with the phone call from Phyllis, who is telling Walter that her husband is taking the train after all, so they can go ahead with their plan to murder him.

double-indemnity-3To me this is the key scene of the film, where Walter could have chosen to back out and gone Keyes’ way, but does not. In fact, he never seriously considers it, but the chance is there.

Finally, what I love about this is film is that despite all the cynicism, violence, manipulation, weakness, and lust there is still warmth to be found in the film, especially between Walter and Keyes. Walter is capable of nobler feelings, for Lola and his friendship with Keyes, and it is these emotions that make you care what happens to the characters and make the ending all the more tragic.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2015 in Movies

 

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Film Noir

 

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