Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Film #28: Detour (1945)

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about a year ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers)

Piano player gets mixed up in two accidental deaths and a vicious harpy of a woman.

Full Blow-by-Blow (A complete summary; spoilers included. Fair warning)

New York night club piano player Al Roberts has a decent life: he plays tunes in a calm night club and is in love with the club's beautiful young songstress, Sue. One night, she expresses her desire to head out to California and try to hit it big. Al doesn't like the idea, wanting to marry Sue and stay in New York, but Sue insists. Al sullenly accepts and watches her leave, promising to get out to the west when he can.

Before long, the separation gets to be too much and Al scrounges what little dough he has and hits the road, hitching his way across the country. In Arizona, he's picked up by Charles Haskell, a fast-talking quick-buck artist with big plans to score some cash in California, then head back to Miami for a bigger score on a horse race. Amidst his endless tales, Haskell tells the tale of his picking up a young girl around Louisiana - a girl who fought off his unwanted advances, leaving him with tell-tale scratches on his hand.

Farther down the road, Al takes the wheel while Haskell seemingly sleeps. Seemingly. In fact, Haskell has quietly died in his sleep. When the drifter Al realizes that he may be suspected of murder, he panics. Instead of waiting for police, he dumps Haskell's body, swaps his clothes, and takes his car, assuming his identity. His plan is to maintain the ruse until he gets to California and can ditch all of the Haskell's belongings, freeing Al to seek out Sue.

Things go even more awry when Al picks up the hitchhiking Vera. Once in the car, not two minutes pass before Vera reveals that she was the girl who fought off Haskell back near Louisiana. Vera knows that Al is not Haskell, and she assumes that he has murdered and robbed him. Despite Al's proclamations of innocence, Vera sees him as a meal ticket who she can blackmail for cash. Al tries to wiggle his way out of it, but is forced to submit to Vera's demands to hand over the cash and stay with her until they can sell the car.

Vera the banshee begins her verbal whippings of Al the schmuck early on.

Just as Al is about to sell the car and be rid of Vera's poisonous suspicion and greed, Vera discovers the dead Haskell's final secret - he was heading to California to milk his rich and terminally ill father for tons of money. Vera tries to force Al to pose as Haskell, in the hopes of squeezing money out of the old man. Al sees this as risky beyond all reason and refuses to do it.

The argument continues back in their motel room, with both Al and Vera threatening to turn one another in to try and get what they want: Vera the money and Al his freedom. The argument heats up, and ends with Al accidentally choking Vera to death with a telephone cord. Al is now connected to two deaths. He sees fleeing as his only choice, so he hits the road.

In the end, we see Al wandering along a dusty road, slowly heading back east. That is, until a police car pulls up and tugs him into it, apparently on suspicion of the two murders. We can presume that Al Roberts' next stop is likely to be death row.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any research):

Sometimes, going cut-rate ain't so bad.

You know what I mean. It's when you have a hankering for something, but can't be bothered to put forth a full emotional or financial commitment. You go to Taco Bell instead of an actual Mexican restaurant. You read a Dan Brown novel instead of picking up some Alexander Dumas. Sometimes, these lesser substitutes leave you satisfied (Taco Bell), and sometimes they leave you hollow and guilty (Dan Brown). Detour offers that former type of cheap satisfaction.

This movie is like a passable local dive bar. Sure, it's beat up and worn out, the people are a tad shady, and everything could use a refinish or another layer of duct tape. Still, the beer is cheap and there's an indefinable air of comfort. If Double Indemnity is the sleek speakeasy of film noir, Detour is the scuzzy, back-alley joint with dried blood on the floor.

In short, it's a pretty fun watch. I'm not altogether sure why it's proclaimed a classic. Everything about it screams D.I.Y. The acting, while not awful, is far from stellar. The visuals are a touch overdone at times, like when they went a little crazy with a fog machine to give the setting the standard murky quality of noir flicks. The dialogue comes off as a lame imitation of the masters like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.

And yet, it gets the big things right. The narrative is classic noir flashback, with Al Roberts drifting into a diner, agitation and anger radiating off of him. It's a perfect hook to draw you into his lurid tale of horrible luck. He may not be the brightest or most engaging character, but the story is interesting enough to follow through. How does this weary piano player get into such shape? The noir answer is always the same: a woman. Or, in this case, two women.

Al initially sets out from New York to L.A. to marry the girl he loves, a vapid lounge singer. Once he's on his way and he gets the fateful ride from Haskell, it's as if he's already standing on the gallows and just doesn't know it yet. Once Haskell has his heart attack and Al makes the fatal mistake of swapping identities with him, the wheel are set in motion and can't take him anywhere but the end.

Which brings up Vera. The woman is obviously the femme fatale, but not like any other that I've seen. Rather than the coy, subtle panthers like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, or even Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past, Vera is a spitting viper. There's nothing subtle about her in the least. She's a 24-going-on-50 road gal. A tattered, leaky bottle of cyanide. She's not in the film for two minutes before I came to hate her. Ann Savage plays her like she was seriously ready to rip out Tom Neal's eyes at any moment. It borders on overacting, but stays just on the right side of it to keep it from laughable.

Here's the scene when Al first picks up Vera. Start at 3:00 in and watch the rest to get the immediate "Do not touch" vibes that crush Al from the get-go:

Yeesh. Maybe he should have just plowed her over at that gas station when he had the chance.

Oddly, I lost my sympathy for Al early on. Once he makes the boneheaded mistake of ditching Haskell's body, I figured he was too stupid to make it through the whole thing. Still, he's such a sad sack that it's painful to watch Vera tear into him and use him as so much cannon fodder.

The story, while not nearly as complex, polished, or thought-provoking as noir classics, is also a case study in restraint. It never tries to do too much. The film is a mere 67 minutes and hustles along. Al's situation goes from sad to shocking, to desperate, to even more desperate, to fatal at breakneck speed. Once again, the film toes the line of moving too quickly, but manages to rein it in just when necessary by having relatively slower moments of argument/discourse between Al and Vera.

The final reminder of how fictional the world of noir is comes with the death of Vera. Yet again, it's almost humorous when Al accidentally strangles her with a telephone wire. I didn't really laugh, but if I had, it would have been laughter in self-defense rather than humor. By this point, the tragedy has reached its highest pitch, and I couldn't help but empathize with Al's desperation and fatalism. The man's goose was thoroughly cooked, and it was visible in every down-turned line of his haggard face. All that remained was the handcuffs.

Detour is a good little film that any fan of old-school noir, either film or literature, would like to some degree. Once more, I'll have to research just why it's held in high regard by critics these days, as I don't see anything particularly special about it. Then again, that's why I'm doing this little project of mine, eh?

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research):

Interesting to note that I couldn't find any original reviews, which speaks to the fact that back in '45, Detour didn't make much of a splash. It has only been after decades of people returning to it that it has emerged as a standard.

Roger Ebert has an interesting analysis of Detour, in which he readily points out that the technical shoddiness is a moot point. It all comes down to Al and Vera, particularly Al. Ebert points to the notion of Andrew Britton that the film's narration may actually represent the desperate attempt of a born loser to gain some kind of sympathy from the audience. This means we can see Al as an unreliable narrator who tries to paint himself as far less pathetic, masochistic and culpable than he may truly be. Interesting.

Richard Schickel's quick capsule take at TIME is rather sparse. He does, however, compare Vera and Al locked in a room to Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit Hell. In thinking back on the film, I can see his point.

A final notable discovery about the ending. In those days, films were not allowed to show criminals "getting away with it." This is why, rather than the film ending with Al simply drifting along the road into a fade-out, the cops come along in the last seconds and stuff him into their paddy wagon. Notable because, as I watched the movie, it struck me that a better ending may have been the mystery of Al's true fate. Here's the end of it all. Go to 5:00 to see just how censorship changed it, ever-so (?) slightly:

BONUS!! For anyone interested in taking a gander at the film, go no further than this link. The thing is public domain, so you can watch the whole thing. As mentioned, it's a short one, and you may find yourself intrigued enough to stay with it. I did. Twice. I won't be surprised if I get hooked into it again.

That's a wrap. 28 shows down, 77 to go.

Coming Soon: Notorious (1946):

Nice! Hitchcock makes his first appearance on the list. To boot, I get to see Cary Grant in something other than a screwball comedy, and the ever-stunning Ingrid Bergman.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Film #27: Les enfants du paradis (1945)

Title I Can Understand: Children of Paradise

Director: Marcel Carne

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: Once, about a dozen years ago. Quite frankly, I remembered virtually nothing about it.

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers)

Various characters, including circus performers, fall for the same woman. Love abounds and confounds.

Full Blow-by-Blow (A complete summary, with spoilers)

In 19th century (?) France, two young actors, the mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and the bombastic stage actor Frederick LeMaitre (Pierre Brasseur) are just starting to make their marks on the Paris stages in the lowlier quarters of the city. Simultaneously, they both fall in love with Garance, a mildly jaded though clever and loving woman who makes a living posing for nude paintings or being the object of desire in a circus side show. Added to this list of lovers for Garance is the misanthropic, cunning criminal Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, and later, the wealthy Count of Montray, Edouard.

The playful, charismatic Frederick makes one of his countless advances upon Garance.

While the ultra-sensitive Baptiste falls most deeply for Garance, his shyness and romantic propriety preclude him from simply giving himself to her. Thus, Garance takes up with the incredibly pretentious, though affable, Frederick for a time. Shortly after, the Count shows up and offers Garance a life of luxury, if only she commits to him. She refuses, but the love-stricken Baptiste finds out about it and erupts with emotion over his plight of unrequited love.

A short time after, Garance is arrested due to her casual associations with the nefarious criminal Pierre-Francois. Instead of allowing herself to be prosecuted, she calls in the favor of Count Edouard, thus abandoning her life in Paris and leaving the country.

Fast forward roughly six years. Baptiste and Frederick are the toasts of the Parisian stage, Baptiste due to his miming artistry and Frederick his unparalleled acting skills. Frederick is more rakish than ever, but Baptiste has married and had a son with Nathalie, a young fellow stage actor who has always proclaimed deep and true love for him. All seems relatively well.

Then Garance returns, throwing things into chaos again. Fredrick makes advances that are rebuffed, and Pierre-Francois is no longer interested in her affections but is plotting careful destruction of the love that he is incapable of feeling. Baptiste is hit the hardest upon learning of his true love's return, abandoning his wife and son, and Garance's sugar daddy, Edouard, challenges Frederick to a duel for having insulted his honor. (Dizzying, I know)

In the end, the assassin Pierre-Francois kills Edouard, thus saving Frederick. Nathalie discovers Baptiste and Garance together and demands an honest answer from her husband as to whether or not he ever loved her. Rather than answer, Baptiste instead leaves his wife standing in a room so that he might pursue Garance, who has fled the scene and jumped into a coach. She rides off, leaving Baptiste standing in the middle of a Carnival festival, love-stricken and emotionally alone.

Close curtain.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing & before any research):

A general summary doesn't do this film justice. It's great.

The movie is a monster epic - it's over 3 hours long and divided into 2 parts. And yet, it never felt tedious. Right from the get-go, we start in the middle of throngs of circus performers on the street, captivating the hordes of onlookers. Before you know it - you're one of the onlookers, hypnotized by the show. This has to be what would inspire the likes of Federico Fellini in films like La Strada and 8 1/2, as well as Terry Gilliam's fascination with the same, as evidenced in his recent The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The liveliness and lust for spectacle keeps these creators' films humming with energy, and Children of Paradise caught onto this early.

Not long after the opening, the actors start to show their chops, which are considerable. The playful, overwhelming arrogance of Frederick makes him more charming than annoying. Pierre-Francois is an Iago-like misanthrope who is almost soulless in his pursuit to make a mockery of the rest of humanity. Played by Marcel Herrand (who oddly looks like a shifty, French Charles Bronson), he is certainly the darkest, and maybe the most fascinating character in the whole tale. The final of the three "suitors" is Baptiste the mime, who may have been the most arresting to me.

Now, you may be saying, "A mime? Seriously, dude?" To which I say, yes. While the Baptiste character is rather pityable and childish in his hopelessly romantic love for Garance, his stage performances are incredible. I know, I know - the goofy, standard mime gear of the black skull cap, super baggy costume, and mascara may be laughable. Still, Jean-Louis Barrault's athleticism and body control are amazing. With agility and grace that may surpass the amazing Buster Keaton, Barrault conveys an immense array of powerful emotions. Even if this is too "touchy-feely" for you, I would challenge anyone who has ever attempted any athletic endeavor not to be impressed by the sheer skill of Barrault's movements.

Here's a perfect sample. Start it at about 2:00 and watch the full play, for the full effect. Keep in mind that this little play analogizes the dynamics between Frederick, Baptiste and Garance, who are all three in the play together. Even though there are no subtitles, you shouldn't have any trouble figuring out who each person is, or how they feel about each other:

The story may seem sappy on the surface, being a romance. Don't let it fool you, though. There is an incredible amount of depth here.

Garance is worth looking at first, though the character is an interesting enigma. She is obviously the source of all of the tension in the film - the object of the various men's desires. But she is almost a fleeting mirage. When pressed, she admits to no tangible past, and never truly commits to any one man. I suppose one could read into these things that she symbolizes the quixotic nature of love itself; ever inspiring action, but rarely satisfying the actor. This ambiguity is one of the things that I truly like about the story.

Each of the four men who desire Garance represent a certain philosophy of love, and each one lives and articulates it in different ways. Any person who has pondered the nature of love for another human will find something to chew over in this film's expositions; whether it's Frederick's devil-may-care hedonism, Pierre-Francois' selfish nihilism, Baptiste's starry-eyed dreamy romanticism, or even Count Edouard's cultured notions of honorable love, any viewer will likely find one or more of them empathetic, at the very least. Writer Jacque Prevert created an excellent script, weaving in appropriate literary references and creating many a memorable line about the nature of art and human relationships. They were so memorable, in fact, that I found myself wishing that I spoke French, as certain nuances are nearly always lost in translation.

Before one thinks that the entire film is merely a 190-minute jaunt through the tender fields of love, I need to point out that there is suspense and intrigue, supplied mostly by the criminal Pierre-Francoise. His nefarious nature results in more than a few robberies, fist-fights, duels and murder, though none of them seemed gratuitous to me. Just thought I'd add that, for those who like a little action.

The look of the film is also outstanding. While color film was gradually becoming more common, most films were still in black and white, and Children of Paradise was no exception. Despite the limitations of the two-tone technique, this movie doesn't lose much of anything by it. The framing, set and costume designs are so good that one can't help but come away with a very vivid impression of the tale's setting and characters. Each place and character has a particular look and feel, which is a testament to the work of the creative forces of the film.

While the movie is a commitment, in terms of time, I would suggest it to nearly anyone who doesn't mind reading subtitles and who has even a shred of the romantic in them.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research)

Apparently, the time that this movie was made is of significance. Filmed over three years, mostly during Nazi occupation, it has been posited that much of the film's narrative can be seen as allegory for the occupation with Garance as France and the suitors each representing some aspect of French ethos. Some analysts would say that this may be reading a bit too much into the script, but all agree that if it was meant as allegory, it was an absolutely masterful job of subtlety.

Of greater interest to me are the revelations about the historical sources for some of the characters, which Brian Stonehill explains in this essay, and Peter Cowie looks at as well. Baptiste was the preeminent mime of his day, and Frederick LeMaitre was a stage actor of such prominence that Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo themselves wrote plays just for him. Not exactly light-weights. As if those references weren't enough, the anarchist character Pierre-Francois Lacenaire was also a real figure; one who would meet the gallows and eventually be the inspiration for Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov character in Crime and Punishment. Apparently, 1830s Paris produced its share of memorable figures.

Don't let this guy's "pampered dandy" get-up fool you - he's stone cold enough to chill Dostoevsky.

The original TIME review is an interesting one that points to a certain lack of patience on the part of the reviewer. The review shows a quality of frustration with what they see as a lack of a coherent theme to tie everything together. I disagree with this, as I think many reviewers in the subsequent decades have. Funny to note that that original review uses the superlative "Frenchest" to describe the movie. True, that.

Nifty historical stuff aside, this film is, by most accounts, a national treasure of the French people. It has been described as "the French Gone With the Wind," for being constantly shown on big screens and consistently ranked within France as the greatest film of all time. While I personally think that the Gone With the Wind comparison does a disservice to Children of Paradise, I can easily see what makes this film a titan of French film.

That's a wrap. 27 shows down, 78 to go.

Coming Soon: Detour (1945):

A return to film noir. Awesome! As much as a liked the sublime theme of Eros in Children of Paradise, it'll be good to wallow in the gutter of lust and murder for a bit. Come on back and see how this little knuckle duster stacks up.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Film #26: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Director: Vincente Minelli

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers, not that it matters):

Well-to-do, cheery family sings their way through a potential move from St. Louis to New York in 1903.

Blow-by-Blow Summary (detailed plot outline, with spoilers):

It's 1903 and the World's Fair is coming to Saint Louis, Missouri. The four sisters in the Smith family, a wealthy, happy tribe, have concerns. The two eldest daughters, Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer), are pining to marry eligible bachelors. Esther has her sights set on the new dashing neighbor, John Truett (Tom Drake), while Rose awaits the proposal of another strapping young fellow. Their two much younger sisters are chuckling through the formative years of their innocent childhood.

Their father drops a bit of a bombshell when he arrives home one day and announces that the family will be moving to New York, so that he can take a new position. The family is greatly upset at the things that they will have to abandon in St. Louis: potential husbands, friends, and the fast-approaching World's Fair.

Here's Esther, regaling the riveted riders with her "Clang...the Trolley" tune.

The entire family sings their way through all of their joys and fears, with Mr. Smith finally making the decision not to move, in order to preserve his family's happiness and roots in their beloved city. His decision is rewarded in the end, when his daughters both become engaged and they all drink in the majesty of the World's Fair of 1904.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing, before any research on the film):

This movie can kiss my ass.

Up to this point, I would say The Awful Truth had been the most taxing on my patience. Now, there is a new, undisputed champion of insufferability: Meet Me in St. Louis.

It's going to take some research for me to figure out why this movie made TIME magazines list of 100 important films. I have my theories, which I'll expound upon below, but I don't need to ponder my feelings about watching this movie - I couldn't stand it.

I've made clear my feelings on musicals before. The only shot a musical has in entertaining me is if: (1) the story has enough substance to hold my interest, and (2) the music is well-woven into the fabric of the film. This is why a musical like Swing Time or Cabaret is enjoyable for me. Meet Me in Saint Louis contains everything that steers me away from the genre. It's pure fluff and a textbook case of style over substance.

The story is as edgy as a down pillow. I honestly couldn't have cared less about the privileged Smith clan and their "problems" of finding love and dealing with a possible move to New York. After watching Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Double Indemnity, three movies with a great amount of creative artistry and psychological sophistication and maturity, Meet Me in St. Louis was like watching an episode of The Wiggles. Actually, the Wiggles think the Smiths are a bunch of pansies.

Shocking factoid: Double Indemnity and Meet Me in St. Louis were released mere months apart, both to great success. This blows my mind and speaks to some kind of multiple personality disorder that U.S. culture was beginning to undergo.

The songs are bubble-gum fare of the highest order. The best-known cuts are "Clang Goes the Trolley" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the latter of which is actually a classic and a legitimately great song. Aside from that, however, the only thing I can say about the music is that it's infectious. That's not a complement - I mean infectious in the same way that Mad Cow disease is infectious. You can't shake it and it will melt your brain.

You may (or may not) ask, "How on earth did you make it through nearly two hours of a film that you so obviously hated?" Good question. The answer is that my girlfriend and I took the opportunity to persistently add our own snarky commentary and voice-overs, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. Two scenes in particular gave us some good ammunition. One was when a confused and enraged Judy Garland believes that her little sister has been roughed up by the neighbor, John. She promptly goes over and pummels the shit out of him. The second was when little "Tootie" Smith, after hearing her older sister attempt to sooth her sadness by singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," runs outside, grabs a massive stick, and commences to decapitate, eviscerate and disembowel the placid snowpeople in their front lawn. I'll save you the trouble and offer this latter little gem here (it is actually the one scene from the movie that I'd listen to and watch again):

That little chick's got a mean backswing.

Obviously, sarcasm was my only chance to survive through this piece of work. So, why is this movie touted so highly? My guess is that it was the first of its kind: a shockingly vibrant, well-shot formulaic musical. I'm not sure if there was a predecessor to it: Gone With the Wind type visuals, absolutely nothing controversial, and a string of snappy tunes, however sappy I think they may be. It's either that or simply the endurance of the Christmas song, which has become part of the American pop culture and holiday landscape.

I believe I've made myself clear. I do realize that many people love this type of film: The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Grease, and others could be put into the same category. I will say this though: even though I don't like any of these three films, either, at least they have a shade more edge to them. Meet Me in St. Louis is, to me, an absolutely G-Rated exercise in forgettable excess.

To paraphrase Leo from Miller's Crossing: if I never see it again, it'll be soon enough.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research):

Surprisingly, there's really not much out there to explain exactly what sets Meet Me in St. Louis apart from the others. Based on Richard Schickel's quick-shot review, I glean that this movie has a place in history for being the first film that offered the musical format using more down-to-earth characters (rather than high-minded, pure aristocrats, I assume).

The original review is an interesting little read, if only for two things. One is the line, "even the deaf should love this film." Oh, political correctness, where were you in 1944? While amusing, this little gag does point out that the visuals were impressive. The second thing the reviewer mentioned comes at the end - that the whole story and look of the film are too beautiful and attractive to be mistaken for the truth. These things, and the popularity of the songs, are seemingly what have dubbed this film a "classic."

And this, as stated before, is probably the bone that sticks in my craw. I don't mind heavy doses of complete fiction (I'm too big a fantasy and sci-fi nerd to try and argue that), but I can't take the froo-froo veneer of a film like Meet Me in St. Louis. Sorry.

That's a wrap. 26 shows down, 79 to go.

Coming Soon: Les Enfants du Paradis ("Children of Paradise"; 1945):

A 3-hour French drama set in a circus and revolving around a love triangle involving a mime. On the surface, it seems like a death sentence. Come on back and see if and how I survive this one.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Film #25: Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 3 (most recently about 2 years ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers)

Insurance salesman and black widow gold digger plot murder of husband; hope to get rich off insurance policy.

The Full Treatment (A complete summary, spoilers included. Fair warning):

In 1940s Los Angeles, clever insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) stops by the opulent home of rich client Mr. Dietrichson to get some signatures on an auto insurance policy. Instead, he meets Dietrichson's sultry younger wife, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). After some flirtatious fast-talk, Phyllis slyly inquires about getting a life insurance policy for her husband, but without his knowing it. The quick-witted Neff immediately smells something fishy and clears out, warning Phyllis that any plot she may have to off her husband and collect insurance money is bound to fail.

And yet, after leaving, Neff can't get Phyllis or her scheme out of his mind. Sure enough, she shows at his apartment later, and they fall into each other's arms. Then and there, Walter agrees to help Phyllis with her nefarious plot. He's sure that, with his knowledge of botched murders through the insurance claims business, they can commit the crime, avoid leaving any evidence, and spend the rest of their lives together off of a $100,000 "double indemnity" insurance policy.

Walter & Phyllis: future lovers and accomplices.

Neff carefully plots the murder and coaches Phyllis in assisting him. With calculated precision, the two get Mr. Dietrichson's unwitting signature on the life insurance policy, then lure him to his own murder, making it seem like an accidental fall from the observation car of a moving train.

At first, it seems as if they will get off scott free. Then, one person starts to smell a rat. Barton Keyes, the eagle-eyed, obsessive claims manager at Neff's office, senses something amiss. Following his instincts, which he refers to as his "little man," the long-time insurance man starts to become ever surer that Dietrichson's death was not accidental. Even more, he feels that Phyllis is the culprit. The only thing he doesn't see is Neff's involvement in the whole thing, but Neff senses Keyes getting closer to the truth.

As the pressure ratchets up, Neff discovers several unsavory things about his co-conspirator, Phyllis. She was, according to Dietrichson's daughter Lola, responsible for the death of the first Mrs. Dietrichson. On top of this, Phyllis has been secretly seeing Lola's boyfriend, Nino, at night for unknown reasons. Neff realizes that he's been played for a sucker.

When Walter goes to Phyllis's house to confront her with his revelations, he throws her deceptions in her face and explains how he plans to see that she will get locked up for the murder of Dietrichson. As a kicker, he plans to absolve himself by killing Nino, who Walter will claim was her accomplice. Phyllis, cornered, pulls a gun and shoots Neff in the arm. Neff clutches her tightly and shoots her dead, the two sharing one final, warped moment of attraction for each other. Nino shows up shortly after, but Neff abandons his plan to frame and kill him, rather telling him to leave and find Lola.

The wounded Neff manages to stagger back to Keyes's office and begins to record his own confession. Just as he reaches the end, Keyes shows up and looks on with sadness and disappointment as his former employee, and perhaps friend, lies bleeding on the floor. As they await the police, Keyes does Walter one final favor - he assists his now one-armed, former friend to light one last cigarette. Sure to be his last.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after the most recent viewing, before any research):

Now we get down an dirty.

After watching several artful cinematic master works and wading through the sophomoric humor of the screwball comedies on this list, I was ready for the downright nastiness of Double Indemnity. This film is a standard just as much as Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but for completely different reasons.

There are no heroes. You have to face this fact - the two main characters are murderers, one merely cold-blooded; the other ice-blooded. Rather than love being the force that attracts one to the other and gives the audience some semblance of a human connection, it's base lust. Walter is entranced by Phyllis' looks and attitude. It's almost like he refuses to realize that he's drawn to her based on the thing that makes her most dangerous - her viper-like magnetism and the promise of sensual delights, even if they're followed by his own destruction. It's this fatalism that's a hallmark characteristic of nearly all film noir protagonists (most notably in the classic Out of the Past - film #31 on the TIME list.)

"She didn't fool me this time." Oh, but she had you all along, Walt. She had you all along...

And yet, at one point, I was hoping that the killer Neff would succeed. This is not because his victim was an evil, or even a bad person. In fact, we don't know much about Dietrichson at all. He's just a pawn with a fat bank account as far as Neff, Phyllis and we viewers are concerned. I think it speaks to the movie writers' skill that there was a moment when, after the murder occurs, I actually wanted Neff to get away with it. How the hell did I become a cheerleader for a murderer?!

I chalk it up to a certain aspect of human nature, one that A-Team leader Hannibal put well: "I love it when a plan comes together." Whatever the plan is, we love to see if someone can pull it off. How else do you explain the appeal of crime movies? Well, Double Indemnity went all the way with it. Instead of giving you something slightly more palatable like bank robbers or a prison escape, you get two people who are going to kill someone for nothing more than greed and lust. Still, Walter's plan is so well-conceived and precise that you can't wait to see if it works, regardless of the motives. There was actually a moment when, as a monkey wrench is thrown into the plan and the risk of discovery increases, I felt nervous for Walter. I was actually sympathizing with a killer!

But more than this is that there is actually some form of redemption in the end. While his veins pump with 33-degree water throughout most of the movie, Walter's senses do return by the end, if only just barely. He sees Phyllis for the black widow that she is and even frees Nino from the frame job that was in place for the oblivious young man. This is what makes Neff more than just an unconscious killer.

Any viewer of this movie is getting treated to pure, unadulterated film noir. The rapid dialogue, the touch of '30s slang, the dark themes, and the deadly femme fatale are all in place. Someone who hasn't seen films in this genre may find them a bit ridiculous at first glance: no one really talks like that. No one could or would really pull these things off. No one place could have so many dynamic characters. All of these things are true. None of these things could or would exist, except for one place - the world of fiction. Whether it was books or film, the realm of noir fiction was a cohesive world all its own. This is why it was such a powerful force in American storytelling for at least two decades. Those broads, booze, and bullets tales had such a great appeal and impact that even as recently as Sin City, noir yet lives, albeit in a small corner of the cinema world.

To pull off such a twisted tale of deceit, you need good performances, and Double Indemnity has them. Fred MacMurray becomes a seminal noir man with his intense, slick talking dead pan. The amazing thing is that he's able to modulate his stoicism by the slightest of degrees, so that you can actually tell when his nerves are eating away at him, as opposed to when he's confident and relaxed. Billy Bob Thornton did this exceptionally well in the outlandish Coen brothers noir film The Man Who Wasn't There, and I suspect he may have studied MacMurray's turn as Neff in Double Indemnity.

I've made my feeling about Barbara Stanwyck pretty clear before. Her role as Phyllis Dietrichson is maybe her best-known role, but I actually prefer her roles in Baby Face and The Lady Eve. I suppose it's that, in Double Indemnity, her character is truly an irredeemable asp whose sex appeal thinly veils the venom stored in her fangs. I think I prefer when she played roles that have a heart, however tiny it might have been.

Edward G. Robinson is also incredible as the claims manager, Barton Keyes. He injects such passion into the character that you almost want to get into the insurance business, as laughable as that is; his enthusiasm is that intense.

Robinson injects so much pinched, focused energy in his role as Keyes that he nearly steals every scene in which he appears. The cantankerous, walking actuarial table does his best to keep Walt in line throughout the tale. Alas, it is to no avail.

All of these ingredients: a pitch-black plot (though a thoroughly entertaining one), engaging characters, and fantastic performances, create perhaps the first classic noir film. It helps to know what you're in for, but if you're ready for it, you'll most likely love Double Indemnity.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after further research):

"With Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder took that idea of Americans being a bunch of fast-buck motherfuckers and turned it into art." - Elmore Leonard

And with this statement, I think Leonard sums up a lot. Like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, Double Indemnity has been food for film critic analysis for almost 70 years now. The reason being that this was the first film that artfully told a completely sordid tale that cut right to a very palpable element of the American condition: underneath the attractive exterior lurks a murderous demon.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it took a foreigner to put this idea to film, skillfully. Billy Wilder, a German immigrant who had fled during the early days of the rise of the Reich, was a student of American culture. Apparently, he was riveted by the notion that, in the States, even the most seemingly pleasant and innocuous of people had a murderer slumbering deep inside. All it took was the right trigger to wake it up. In the case of Double Indemnity, the insurance salesman Walter Neff's trigger is the trashy seductiveness of Phyllis Dietrichson.

Hollywood was terrified of this film. The salaciousness. The lack of a hero. These things seemed like poison to major studios, despite the massive popularity of dark themes in the written stories of James M. Cain and Dashiel Hammett. Once Wilder convinced the studio to make it, it was hell to cast. Too many actors and actresses saw it as career suicide. It wasn't until Wilder essentially dared Barbara Stanwyck (with the line, "Are you an actress or a mouse?!"), verbally massaged former nice-guy actor Fred MacMurray, and soothed the pride of usual-top-billed Edward G. Robinson that he had the players he needed.

Once released, Double Indemnity was not dismissed as trash, as one may suspect. Quite the contrary - it was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning 1, and is today considered the movie that gave birth to film noir. Never before had such a sinister tale been told with such strong acting, stylishly dark cinematography (in a time when color was growing ever-more common), and with such indelible dialogue. This movie was the parent of many later classics: Out of the Past, The Killers, Wilder's own Sunset Boulevard, and a host of others, both American and foreign.

An interesting note about the writing: the film was co-written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novella by James M. Cain. Chandler adapting a Cain novella?! That's pulp fiction madness! The really curious thing is that Chandler, Cain, and fellow pulp master Dashiell Hammett all apparently thought the others' works were garbage. I guess there's more than one plumber to dig into the dark pipes of the human psyche, and those different plumbers do not like the looks of each other.

So, why did this film resonate with Americans at this point in time? Some theorize that the time of release, with the U.S. then being familiar to the darkness of man thanks to three years at war, was more receptive to a midnight-black, adult-themed movie. No longer did every movie have to be family friendly, a hero didn't always have to win, you didn't need a song or dance number, and there didn't need to be an overt moral. Double Indemnity was created at the right time and by the right people, released in the right place, and viewed by the right audience.

The descendants of Double Indemnity are many, a few of which were previously mentioned. Along with a host of others, ones of note would be the '80s remake, Body Heat, and of course, Chinatown, which echoes the tone and even some of the exact settings in Double Indemnity. There have been more recent filmmakers who have redone noir films, but not many have the brass to make the attempt, as there is virtually no chance for blockbuster commercial success. A shame, really, as film noir is another example of the kind of world that could only exist on the silver screen. When done right, as with Double Indemnity, it's as good as anything that's ever been put on celluloid.

In parting, it must be pointed out that the Coen brothers, in addition to the more direct homage to noir, The Man Who Wasn't There, based the ultimate cult film, The Big Lebowski on the entire pulp fiction & film noir genres. If you, like I, are a devoted Little Lebowski Urban Achiever, and have ever wondered why exactly the Coens made bowling such an integral part of the film, allow me to illuminate. Here's a still from a really brief scene in which Neff mulls over the possibility of killing for money:

F***ing Neff...that creep can roll, man.

That's a wrap. 25 shows down, 80 to go.

Coming Soon: Meet Me In St. Louis (1944):

I'm really not much of a musical guy. So much so that I'm calling in reinforcements for this one - my lady friend is going to be my copilot during this viewing, making it the first film that I won't be watching alone, like some film-obsessed hermit. We'll see if she can help me confront Judy Garland and...color!!!

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.