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Tag Archives: Friendship

Double Indemnity: Rivalry and Shakespeare

Edward-G-Robinson-%26-Fred-MacMurray-in-Double-Indemnity-1944-Premium-Photograph-and-Poster-1019454__96948.1432423378.220.290Last week I watched Double Indemnity with my good friend, Andrea. Double Indemnity might actually be my favorite film of all time, so I am always burbling away happily about the film and referencing it, but Andrea does not generally watch murderous stories. But I spoke of it so often, she was curious and after I sent her a few clips from the film, she was even more curious, so finally we decided to watch it. In turn, I was exceedingly curious to know what she would think. She has kindly given me permission to quote her extensively (or paraphrase, somewhat).

Her reaction? She liked the dialogue, which she found poetic (a word that would not have occurred to me to use in reference to a film noir, but she’s right about it – there is a cadence and rhythm and poetry to it). She also didn’t mind at all about the murder, because, she observed, the movie isn’t really about the murder. Instead, she compared Double Indemnity to a Shakespeare tragedy and “Macbeth,” (I once read someone describe “Macbeth” as the film noir of Shakespeare) with a frail man striving to achieve something great and failing spectacularly.

But what is it that Walter Neff is trying to achieve? I put it down to “money and…for a woman,” but Andrea has a unique perspective that changes the dynamics of how one views the film.

She sees the story as essentially a rivalry between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. As she observed, Keyes often belittles Neff’s job as an insurance salesman as a “peddler” and a “backslapper” and wants Neff to work with him as a claim’s manager, where it takes “brains.” And Keyes is the acknowledged brains, almost a colossus, a titan of brilliance and human insight. But, as Andrea points out, Walter already considers himself a smart man, quick on his feet, good at his work. He admires Keyes, he is a friend of Keyes, but he also subconsciously wants to best him and to work with Keyes in claims management would not only be a cut in salary, but would also make him subordinate to Keyes.

In that respect, he was ripe for a Phyllis Dietrichson to come along and give him a reason to match wits with Keyes. He tells Keyes in his memorandum voice-over that it was something he’d already been thinking about; how he could con the insurance agency because he’s inside the system and knows how it works. It’s basically a game to him, which is why he gets so uncomfortable every time he’s around Lola. She reminds him that murder is not a game. But this mentality of trying to pit wits against Keyes also causes him to underestimate Phyllis. She’s not playing a game, either.

Annex - Robinson, Edward G. (Double Indemnity)_NRFPT_01Andrea also noticed that after Keyes figures everything out (he can’t prove it yet, but he’s figured out how it was worked) Walter suddenly wants to pull out and tells Phyllis so. The money and lust for Phyllis isn’t really enough to keep him going. It was the rivalry with Keyes. But of course Phyllis has no intention of pulling out and threatens to take him down if he doesn’t go through with it. I used to assume it was fright that made Walter suddenly lose his nerve; he doesn’t have the psychopathic nerves of steel that Phyllis has. But Andrea has another theory. Walter loses his nerve because he’s lost the game. He’s lost his main reason for committing a murder. It is now clear that Keyes is smarter than Walter, he has figured it all out. The game is over and Walter is now stuck in a very awkward situation that could get him executed. But Phyllis has no intention of letting him out so easily.

Ironically enough, Walter fails because he is weak, both too moral and not moral enough. He can kill a man, but goes soft concerning Lola. He is caught between two titans of strength, who are strong because of their extremes of good and evil. In contrast, Walter is just a man, with the usual mix of good and bad impulses. If he’d been like Phyllis, then they might have been able to wait Keyes out, who didn’t really have any proof. But, as Andrea says, he’s just playing a game and when the game is over, he no longer has the will to try to outlast Keyes.

I still wonder – assuming Walter had been more hardcore – if Keyes could have exposed Phyllis. I’m not sure that he could. She would never crack under police pressure or under pressure from a lawyer and I’m sure would make a very good impression on the witness stand. Walter is the weak link for her. The poor guy is just too human.

I want to thank Andrea for giving me leave to write about her ideas and for giving me a whole new perspective on the film!

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

download (1)Of Mice and Men – published in 1937 by John Steinbeck – is only about 100 pages long, but I cried over nearly every one of them. I thought it was going to be a story about friendship and it is. The conclusion is that it’s no good to be alone, and yet no one can keep what and who they love. Everything inevitably, fatalistically, comes to naught: the dreams, the friendships, the brief hopes, the moments of human connection. But it’s a powerfully written book, simply told and yet bursting with feeling.

George and Lennie are friends traveling together during the Depression near Soledad, California.  A short, savvy guy, George has known Lennie for years. Lennie is a giant of a man with a child’s mentality who doesn’t know his own strength. But he trusts George completely and likes to hear George tell him things, like how most guys are alone, without family, but it’s different for Lennie and George, because they will always have each other. George sometimes complains about having to look after Lennie – and Lennie does need a lot of looking after – but he knows he’d never leave him.

Their dream is to earn enough money so that they can buy a place of their own and grow alfalfa, raise rabbit and be their own boss. Lennie loves to hear George tell him about it, especially the part about the rabbits. They arrive at a ranch to buck wheat and meet Candy, an old guy who sweeps and cleans and has a very old dog he loves, but who is arthritic and blind. Slim is the sympathetic, kind skinner, the man who drives the mules. Curley is the boss’s son, a small guy who is good at boxing, likes to pick fights and is always jealous of his wife. Curley’s wife (she never gets a name) is flirtatious and generally seen by the ranch hands as a tramp. Crooks takes care of the horses and is the lone black man on the ranch.

Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. in the 1939 film version

Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. in the 1939 film version

Lennie and George are unique, because they travel together. and characters frequently remark on it. Most guys travel alone, but George says it’s no good to be alone because it makes men mean, something that elicits sympathetic understanding from nearly everyone. People need companionship, but no one seems to be able to keep those they love. Candy’s beloved dog is shot, supposedly out of mercy for his old age, Lennie likes to pet soft things, but accidentally kills both his puppy and the mice he occasionally finds. Curley is jealous of his wife, which alienates her. It’s all leading up to the ending, with the ultimate tragedy for George and Lennie.

The other theme is how all the guys want a “stake” of their own, a home that belongs to them and that they belong to. When Candy hears George telling Lennie about what their ranch will be like, he is infected with their hope and offers to go in with them on buying it, since he has some money saved. Crooks remarks that he’s seen a lot of guys dream and talk of a stake, but it’s never happened. Not even George and Lennie fully believe in the reality of their dream, but suddenly, with a group of people going in together, it seems possible.

Lennie and George’s friendship is contrasted with nearly every other’s characters’ lonely and alienated status. Candy is old and afraid of being considered useless someday, without friends or family and he is enthralled by George and Lennie’s dream of their own home. Another character is Crooks, who has an added disadvantage in that he’s black. He can play horseshoes outside with the guys, but when they go into their bunkhouse at night and play cards, he is not allowed and he has grown bitter over the years. But when Lennie walks into Crooks room in the stable – something no one ever did before – Crooks begins to see why George hangs out with Lennie. It’s simply being with a guy that is so important and there is something about Lennie that makes people tell him things, even though Lennie doesn’t understand what they are saying.

OfMiceAndMenPosterAnd while Lennie and Crooks are talking, Candy comes looking for him. All the other guys are at a brothel, except these three outcast misfits. Candy has never been in Crooks’ room before, but though he is initially uncomfortable, soon he and Crooks and Lennie are talking about their stake and Crooks begins to dream that maybe he could contribute some money and have a place with them. For me, this scene was the highlight of the book; three guys making a human connection, dreaming of a home of their own. But the happy dream is snapped when Curly’s wife shows up. Since all the other men are gone, including her husband, she flirts a bit, even though they are what she calls “the weak ones.” When they try to get her to leave, she pulls rank and says she could have Crooks lynched and when Candy says he would tell the truth, she points out that no one would take his word over hers. Crooks and Candy are reduced to their previous, powerless position and when George returns and tells Lennie he shouldn’t be in Crooks’ room, Crooks gives up his brief hope of going in with them on a ranch.

The irony is that even Curley’s wife is lonely and alienated, which is why she flirts. She’s the only woman on the ranch and she used to have her own dreams about going to show business or the movies.That same quality in Lennie that gets Crooks to tell him things he’s never told anyone also gets her talking, too: her broken dreams, why she married Curley, who she doesn’t like. It is a simple moment of human connection between her and Lennie and yet it causes the ultimate tragedy of the story.

I have’t read much Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t count because it was so long ago I do not remember it well – but I was deeply moved. It’s powerful, evocative writing with a devastating ending, all the more devastating for the power of the portrayal of George and Lennie’s friendship and the deep response in the other characters to them and their dream. It’s almost uplifting, but ultimately just makes the whole thing more devastating. The way the characters fatalistically accept their fate is heartbreaking, because their stoicism does not mitigate the pain and longing they feel inside.

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2015 in Books

 

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The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

the-devil-and-miss-jones-robert-cummings-jean-arthur-1941I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this movie. I knew I’d like the actors, but sometimes movies about unions and business men can be a bit preachy and ridiculing the businessman has been a Hollywood sport for so long that it can get a little grating if not handled right. But I shouldn’t have worried; The Devil and Miss Jones is delightful.

Charles Coburn is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), a reclusive businessman who isn’t even aware that he still owns Neeley’s Department Store until he is burned in effigy outside the store. He’s tried his whole life to keep his picture out of the papers and considers even an image of his effigy to be an invasion of his privacy.

But when he meets the detective hired to infiltrated his store and root out the malcontents, he is unimpressed by the detective and gets the idea of taking his place, hearing what it is that the employees really want and exposing the people who are causing the trouble. The idea is somewhat prompted by his musing on how the agitators must be morons who’s arguments he could instantly deflate.

Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur at Coney Island

Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur at Coney Island

Sure enough, despite the protests of his flustered butler, George (S.Z. Sakall), he reports for work the next morning in the shoe department under the name of Tom Higgins. There he meets the condescending floor manager and small time despot, Hooper (Edmund Gwenn), who must be called “sir” and belittles J.P’s IQ as being the lowest in the department and puts him in charge of selling slippers (J.P. makes a note to get rid of the IQ test for employees). In the shoe department, he also meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), who instantly adopts him as her special charge and tries to help him settle into his new job. When he says that he doesn’t eat lunch (because he has a delicate digestion) she believes it’s because he does not have enough money to pay for it and gives him 50¢. When he meets fellow employee, Elizabeth (Spring Byington), she also takes an interest in Higgins/Merrick and makes him eat some of her lunch (tuna fish popovers – her own recipe). Since he’s generally on a diet of graham crackers and milk, this is quite a revelation for him.

And while he is experiencing for the first time what it is to be an employee – one of the crowd, obliged to be polite to Hooper (Mary and Elizabeth are always giving him advice on how to behave and keep his temper or interact with costumers, and who watch over his work like two mother hens) – he is also invited to the meeting organized by Mary’s boyfriend, Joe (Robert Cummings), who was fired for being the ring leader of the effigy incident, but has not given up trying to organize a strike protesting the company’s policy of firing people after years of service so that they can hire people with a lower salary. They want more company loyalty. J.P. is not initially impressed.

At Coney Island

At Coney Island

But gradually his attitude begins to change and the reasons are not cosmic reasons of justice or right and wrong, but simple friendship. He cares about Mary, Elizabeth and Joe and wants them to be happy. He doesn’t realize it at the beginning of the film, but he is a lonely man and they recognize it and go out of their way to make him one of them. It’s a friendship that is very well portrayed in the film. It begins simply with kindness from Mary and Elizabeth. As he spends time with them, it develops into caring. He doesn’t initially like Joe, but comes to see him as Mary sees him simply because Mary loves him.

When they all go to Coney Island (hilarious contrasted to his cavernous house where he lives alone – people are so squished together like sardines on the beach that they’re practically in each other’s laps) he gets lost and his three friends don’t give up until they find him…even braving the police and arrest to do so (he nearly gets arresting for trying to sell his gold watch for one dollar so he can make a phone call; they think he’s stolen it).

Jean Arthur gets her name billed above the title, but the film is more carried by Coburn and we see the story mostly from his perspective. But Arthur is excellent in the role, both warm and funny. She’s the heart of the film; the person who knows all the employees, who cares about all her friends and engages in a little matchmaking of her own between J.P. and Elizabeth, and is the person whose kindness initially thaws J.P. Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur were a great team on screen. In The More the Merrier, Coburn played the business man who stays in Arthur’s apartment during the WWII housing shortage in Washington DC, becomes fond of her and begins to play matchmaker. They play well off each other well and can convey genuine friendship. There is an adorable scene near the end of The Devil and Miss Jones, when Mary thinks that J.P. is a detective and has betrayed them. She gets him into the stock room and is going to hit him over the head with a shoe because she wants to get back a list Joe had of all the people in the store who are willing to strike. But even when she thinks he’s betrayed them, she still can’t bring herself to hurt him. He sits, oblivious, looking at shoes, while she stands behind him and tries to get herself psyched up to bean him over the head. 

Jean Arthur tries to bean Charles Coburn

Jean Arthur tries to bean Charles Coburn

I always enjoy Spring Byington in all her movies. She usually played mothers, but in The Devil and Miss Jones she is J.P.’s love interest – though he must compete with the loathsome Hooper. I am used to Edmund Gwenn as the kindly Santa Clause in Miracle on 34th Street, but he’s about as un-Santa Claus-like as possible here. One totally shares J.P.’s dislike. Robert Cummings as Joe is perhaps not particularly shining (Arthur had better romantic chemistry with Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier), but he’s supposed to be just a regular guy. He’s not a hero, just a man who rises to heroism when he stands against injustice, despite being immature in his private life.

It’s an extremely satisfying movie, a comedy with heart, where friendship can overcome any prejudice or class barrier and where human relationships are more important than anything else.

 

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2015 in Movies

 

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