Monday, February 18, 2019

Black Angel (1946)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weasel.
''I looked in the mirror and knew with my "puss" and 155-pound weakling body, I couldn't pass for a leading man. I had to be different. I thought the meaner I presented myself, the tougher I was with women, slapping them around in well produced films where evil and death seem to lurk in every nightmare alley and behind every venetian blind in every seedy apartment, I could find a market for my screen characters.” Dan Duryea, Hedda Hopper interview in the 1950s
This is as much a movie review as it is a tribute to one of Noir’s greatest heels. As we can see from the above quote, Dan Duryea was an actor who knew where his talents and his limitations lay and as such he was able to market himself admirably. With his lanky built, slicked-back blond hair and a distinctive nasal voice it was clear to him he wasn’t really leading man material. He wisely chose a different path.

One thing the audience could be sure of. They knew they were in for a good time when they saw his name in the opening credits. Duryea played pimps, gangsters, con men, smooth operators, snake charmers, scheming arch-louses, slime balls and varied other unprepossessing characters… he was a happy sinner and made no bones about it. In his movies he was forever on the make - lying, scheming, terrorizing women, all while utilizing the requisite stock-in-trade for his characters, the trifecta of contempt: sneering, smirking and sniveling. 

His characters’s veneer of civilization was thin at the best of times. Mostly remembered - and loved - for playing out and out SOBs (Scarlet Street), he didn’t restrict himself to that. He could play the good, the bad and the in-between. Pathetic oddly needy weaklings (The Great Flamarion and Another Part of the Forrest/The Little Foxes); men who weren’t quite as callous as they thought they were (The Underworld Story); men more sinned against than sinning (Too Late For Tears); or the rotter as a tragic figure as in Criss Cross where he’s doomed because of his soft spot for an even more rotten dame who cared for nobody but herself. He had pathos and was occasionally almost heroic in defeat. Not all of his characters were ruthless, but there was always a moral laxity and ambiguity about them. His ethics were dodgy. Rarely ever did he play straight-arrow guys. When he did, it didn’t go down well with the movie-going public.

He was charismatic and he made the bad guys look good. Even his most outright bastards possessed charm galore (Winchester 73, Ride Clear of Diablo). He never dropped the charm for long because it was the chief weapon in his arsenal. There was always something self-deprecating about him. Here was a guy who had no illusions about himself and didn’t expect other people to have any either. Much as we want to hate the guy we can’t, against our better judgment.

It’s hard to explain how his slithery charm worked so well. Suffice it to say it just did. Maybe it was because even his most outright villains had enough humanity in them that somehow made them sympathetic. Maybe it was because his sneer and contemptuous attitude always seemed to mask inner demons which he couldn’t fight, a pain and suffering he couldn’t alleviate. Or maybe it was that we always get the feeling that Duryea’s characters sense that under all their crookedness they could have been someone better if the cards had been dealt differently.

What sticks mostly in people’s head though is Duryea’s itchy backhand. A New York Times article called him “the heel with the sex appeal”. He sure had a way with dames. Slapper Dan knocked ‘em and socked ‘em, more than any other actor in Hollywood. It became his specialty. He had a hair-trigger temper and could erupt into violence at the slightest provocation. The gentle touch went down well with the ladies. Duryea received bucketloads of mail from adoring female fans.

By the time Black Angel rolled around, Duryea had determinedly made his mark as the sneering, slap-happy heel…an image that was fast beginning to solidify itself.

So it came as a bit of a surprise for the audiences when they got Duryea The Romantic Hero in Black Angel. This is not the Duryea we all love to hate, or hate to love. Eddie Muller mentions in his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir that the promotional material for the film specifically pointed out that - surprise! - for once Duryea doesn’t leave his fingermarks all over the dame:
“Something great has happened in Hollywood…Beautiful June Vincent met dangerous Dan Duryea and escaped unscathed. Prolific Dan…touches nary a strand of June’s blonde hair…”
Best advertisement I have ever read.

Black Angel may not be a landmark Noir but it’s a highly entertaining and effective psychological thriller/Noir/twisted romantic drama nevertheless. Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, the movie was directed by Roy William Neill, mostly known for his Sherlock Holmes films. 

Woolrich’s stories are not horror stories in the classic sense but everyday tales of horror, filled with existential angst, paranoia and the aura of claustrophobia and entrapment. His appeal as a writer lies not in his often convoluted, messy plots, but in his bleak worldview. His protagonists exist invariably on the razor edge of impending disaster. They spiral down a vortex into a nightmare from which there is no escape. In fact in Woolrich’s works reality and nightmare become interchangeable. Woolrich’s protagonists can try to fight against their ghastly fate but there is nothing like safe passage.

The picture barely resembles the Cornell Woolrich novel it’s adapted from. As with most of Woolrich’s stories, the adaptations are not pristine, they’re sanitized. They’re missing the abject Nihilism and desperation of the writer’s vision. 
The author had used and reworked the basic plot premise of Black Angel several times, but in 1943 he published the ultimate version as The Black Angel. A wife, here called Alberta Murray,  tries to save her philandering husband from execution for the murder of his mistress. Her quest leads her down a path of  corruption and destructiveness. She tracks down several men in the victim’s life and destroys them, making her the “black angel” of the title. But her ventures into sordid worlds have made her realize the staleness of her relationship with her husband. She’s fallen in love with one of her victims and has become a different woman. She enjoyed the depths of depravity she had plumbed to.
The PCA couldn’t let that stand. Breen’s sanitation crew got onto the job and consequently Woolrich was not happy with the film version. 

The movie dispenses with a lot of sordidness but keeps some twists and turns. It runs on similar lines as Phantom Lady, also based on a Woolrich story. There it is a secretary who’s trying to free the boss she’s in love with, here it is a wife trying to free her husband. Cathy Bennett is the avenging angel, the Girl Friday who has to solve the crime simply because there is no one else to do it. There’s definitively a wartime metaphor trying to get out - men were away fighting so the girls had to take care of business.
Catherine Bennett’s (June Vincent) husband Kirk (John Phillips) has been found guilty of the murder of his mistress Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) and he’s been sentenced to die for it. She was a shantoozy and gold-digger who had been blackmailing him, and many other men on top of that. Catherine is desperate, she can’t believe her husband would commit murder. She finds Mavis's ex-husband Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), an alcoholic songwriter, and begs him to help her clear Kirk as Blair saw a mystery man enter Mavis’s apartment on the evening of her murder. Together they set out to catch the real murderer. Blair agrees to help Catherine track down a brooch he gave to Mavis which it seems the murderer took with him. They reason that if they find the brooch, they find the killer.
The trail leads them to shady nightclub impresario Marko (Peter Lorre). His place, Rio’s, was the place of Mavis’s last employment. Catherine and Blair go undercover as a double act. But their search leads them down one blind alley after another.

June Vincent does her best with a role that doesn’t give her much leeway. She is a proactive heroine, not just a long-suffering wife who sits around moping at home while her cheating husband waits for the chair. The problem is that the film applies a liberal coat of whitewash to Cathy, to the point of blandness. There isn’t even the slightest hint of moral ambiguity about her and that makes her character a bit of a hard sell for me. She’s lamentably wholesome. As we’ve seen with Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner, Lizabeth Scott in Martha Ivers, Susan Hayward in Deadline At Dawn and especially with Ella Rains in Phantom Lady, the good girls of Noir don’t have to be boring. When Ella Rains goes to that questionable jazz club at night to meet Elisha Cook the audience can’t have failed to raise an eyebrow or two. The offbeat vibes in that joint weren’t just the haze from reefers. 
Cathy never even suffers a moment of doubt. Not about her husband and not about giving in to Blair. She’s Miss Goody-Two-Shoes throughout. She looks fabulous in her evening gowns but she’s so resolutely virtuous that it borders on tedious. Oddly enough it is exactly this virtuousness that brings pain and heartbreak to Blair.
Vincent had a considerably more interesting role as the femme fatale in Shed No Tears.

Black Angel isn’t helped by the presence of John Phillip as Kirk. We wonder why Cathy is so steadfastly loyal to her louse of a spouse. Frankly, this wouldn’t be an issue for me if Kirk had been played by a more charismatic actor. Phillips worked under a slight disadvantage. He had no personality. As it stands he’s simply a charisma vacuum. Yes, sexual attraction works in mysterious ways but Cathy’s overpowering passion for her husband is a tough lozenge to swallow and when she states that there will never be another man for her than Kirk, the audience collectively shake their heads.

Peter Lorre is always good value for the money but here he’s mostly wasted in a stock role. He brings his trademark sleazy “charm” to the table, but he isn’t given enough to do.

Broderick Crawford, an unlikely box office hit if there ever was one, is unfortunately relegated to playing barely there fourth banana. He’d do much better in Born Yesterday, Scandal Sheet and All the King’s Men.

Constance Dowling leaves quite an impression in her short scenes as Mavis. She has been supplementing her income with a little blackmail. It’s not a nice thing to do but then, a girl’s gotta make a living too. Mavis likes the good life. Her apartment reeks of garish splendor. Blackmail is a lucrative business. There’s no doubt that Mavis needed killing but it’s a shame she got bumped off so quickly. The film would have been a lot more fun had she stayed around a while longer, just for entertainment purposes. 

Dan Duryea is the one who effortlessly carries the movie. A full-time drunk and part-time songwriter, he’s a sympathetic figure and a tormented soul. Blair likes a drink…or ten. Night after night he can be found at his usual watering holes pickling himself in cheap hooch. Day in day out one drunken binge after another, to drown his sorrows. The man is not a sucker or loser per se, it’s just that he can’t curb the drinking habit he acquired because of a rotten dame. Blair is still stuck on his blackmailing cheat of a wife, try as he might he can’t get her out of his head. He wrote the song “Heartbreak” for Mavis which runs like a leitmotif through the entire picture. It’s entirely appropriate. It depicts the duality of romantic idealization and subsequent disillusionment. 

Blair is in self-destruct mode. It’s a nuanced and affecting performance on Duryea’s part, almost as good as Ray Milland’s in The Lost Weekend. True alcoholism is something rarely seen in classic film and Black Angel doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Addiction is ugly and Duryea doesn’t shy away from the ugliness. To the film’s credit Blair’s alcoholism is never played for laughs.
Duryea’s acting is really outstanding in the sequences where Blair wallows in drunken despair. The night of Mavis’s murder is a blank spot in his memory after one more all-night bender. To the best of his knowledge he slept off his hangover in bed after getting kicked out of Mavis's building by the doorman. When Cathy finds him the next morning he’s still in an 80 proof haze.

He lives in a lousy dump of a boarding house that is in stark contrast to Mavis’s swanky apartment. Blair’s flophouse pad has all the mod cons to be expected of such surroundings. Iron prison bed, peeling plaster where he strikes his matches, hot plate in the corner. The lifestyle of the poor and famous. Whatever aspirations to class he ever had long vanished in this hell on earth.
His friend Joe (Wallace Ford) literally has to nurse him through his drunken comas. Because of his memory lapses he’s dangerous to himself and others, so Joe locks him in his room when he’s on a bender. In Black Angel it’s not fate that Blair has no control over but alcohol and his own inability to cope with it.

Blair is an incurable romantic. Reluctantly he agrees to help Cathy but soon finds himself falling in love with her, as she is everything his wife was not. Kind, caring and loyal. Black Angel is just as much Noir as it is romance and a story of (almost) redemption. After Mavis broke his heart he fell deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of despair and booze but he kept on digging. Along comes Cathy and he thinks this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He lays off the bottle but he can’t catch a break. Cathy can’t return his affections. Through his love for her he becomes a better man but when she rejects him, he dives right back into the bottle.

The movie employs one of 40s Hollywood’s most cherished themes, amnesia, which had its roots in the plight of returning servicemen who came home desperately trying to forget what couldn't be forgotten. The unforgettable refused to let itself be summarily dismissed. Amnesia became a primary Noir metaphor. There was almost an epidemic of movies dealing with the disease. Somewhere in the Night, The Crooked Way, Twelve O’Clock Courage, The Locket, Crack up, The Chase, So Dark the Night, High Wall to name just a few. Protagonists delved deep into their suppressed memories, reliving horrors, picking up the pieces of a broken life and reconstructing the past from scratch. They didn’t always know what they would unearth. The mind had become unchartered territory. Careful. Here be dragons. 

It wasn’t always amnesia brought on by horrific war experiences that films focused on. Noir explored a further path using amnesia as a device for alienation and psychological entrapment taken to the extreme, often brought on by shock, other traumatic experiences or addiction, a condition Woolrich was very familiar with. A dark self - an alien doppelgänger - lurked within the protagonist, completely unbeknownst to him. Exorcising the demons of one’s own mind was fraught with terror because you never knew what you might find. Imogen Sara Smith writes in her Noir City Magazine article Lushly Lovesick, Dan Duryea in Black Angel:
“…not only are people incapable of knowing what they’re capable of, they don’t even know what they’ve actually done. They can never be certain of anything, except that things are probably worse than they appear”. 
And indeed they are. Blair stumbles through the entire movie with only the vaguest sense of (un)reality. There’s a great psychedelic scene towards the end of the picture when Blair finally remembers what happened that fateful night. It rivals Phillip Marlowe’s hallucinatory scene of in Murder, My Sweet. After yet another all-night bender Blair wakes up in an alcoholic ward. Through the boozy haze of his half-forgotten memory reality surfaces. He finally remembers - in a flashback scene - what the alcoholic blackout had erased from his mind. He killed Mavis. Just when we thought we had it all figured out, events take an unexpected turn, though there are clues throughout, for example the song “Heartbreak” that plays after the murder on the record player.
In a bleak little bit of irony Blair, who thought he had an alibi due to being locked into his room by his friend, had actually paid the flophouse attendant 25 cents to let him out of the room on the night of the murder. 25 cents decided a woman’s fate. Life is cheap.

As opposed to the novel, Blair turns out to be the black angel, not Catherine. Many viewers thought the ending too implausible and far-fetched - and not unjustifiably so - but it is Noir if anything is in the movie. The cruelty of fate. Here is a man who’s allowed a brief glimpse of hope and the possibility of love. But right around the next corner there’s yet another blind alley with a barred gate at the end. Love is an impossible dream. First You Dream, Then You Die is the title of Francis Nevins’s Woolrich biography. I’m hard-pressed to find a more fitting epitaph for the author’s life, or any of his protagonists for the matter.

The ending of course had to adhere to Code conventions. Blair does the right thing and confesses. He chooses self-sacrifice even if he’ll have to die for his crime. Duryea makes the last-minute twist convincing because he’s believable as both a deranged killer and a basically good man.

However, here’s a thought. It’s interesting and slightly subversive to note that the man who turns out to be the killer in the end would be a better choice of husband for Cathy than Kirk probably ever was.

In the Audie Murphy Western Ride Clear of Diablo Duryea utters the interesting line: “If I ever started feeling like a human being, I’d shoot myself.” In Black Angel Duryea acts like a human being, albeit a flawed one.

I’m not quite sure if Saint Dan sits well with me. He’s very engaging in Black Angel and plays inner turmoil well but I think I’ll have to go watch Scarlet Street now. I prefer my Duryea mean, not mawkish.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Double Indemnity (1944)

Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood are hosting The Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon on January 20-22, 2019. Here's my entry.

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money -- and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.” Walter Neff
Double Indemnity is one of the Essentials. A film that laid down the rules for the genre and set a benchmark for every Noir to come. Flashback structure, sucker who goes over to the dark side for a rotten dame, shadows of Venetian blinds reminiscent of prison bars, adultery, murder for profit, lust, greed, treachery, betrayal, moral corruption, fatalism…all there. Into the bargain the script has an abundance of witty banter copiously laced with acid.

Based on the eponymous novella by James M. Cain, the script was written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler as Cain was under contract to another studio. It was probably just as well as Chandler could write razor-sharp dialogue like nobody’s business. Wilder and Chandler basically deconstructed Cain’s novel and re-wrote it from the ground up. Rarely ever did a dream team of screenwriters get along as badly as Wilder and Chandler. For both by all accounts it was hate at first sight. Chandler was a recovering alcoholic and the story goes that it was his experiences with Wilder that made him fall off the wagon again. Wilder considered Chandler beyond hope in booze department anyway. Details vary, depends who’s telling the story. But Wilder believed that antagonism was good for collaboration. “If two people think alike, it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off.” Turns out he was spot on. Together Wilder, the sharpest tack in Tinseltown, and Chandler, the master of the slick double entendre, created something sensational.

Cain’s novella was based on the notorious 1927 Snyder/Gray crime in which housewife Ruth Snyder convinced her lover to murder her husband for the insurance money. It was to say the least a clumsy crime, easily found out. In his book Cain smartens up the criminals and the story considerably, infusing it with raw sex, cynicism and his patented bleak world view.

Most studios didn’t want to touch the novel, not only because of dicey subject matters such as lust, adultery and murder but because of the gleeful amorality with which they’re told. Many people expected the movie to fail at the box office. Both MacMurray and Stanwyck were afraid it might ruin their careers. But Wilder proved to be right once again. The film was a box office success and garnered seven Oscar nominations, though winning none.

To no-one’s surprise Joe Breen was breathing down Wilder’s neck and had to put his two cents in: “The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation….” He should have kept his spare change. This kind of high praise recommends it not only to any Noir fan nowadays but would practically guarantee contemporary audience’s interest.

Needless to say, Wilder had no problem getting all the salacious points across, making caustic comments about human nature while ostensibly endorsing the Ten Commandments. The screenplay has some nasty touches. The plan for the murder is hatched in the baby food aisle of a supermarket, an image that seems to drive home the banality of evil. The entire movie is an exercise in what I'd call "Breen baiting". Breen just didn’t have the brains to see that Double Indemnity wasn’t a morality play about the punishment the wicked reap for their dirty deeds, but an amusement park ride about the sheer joy of watching the shenanigans of two amoral people almost get away with their crime. Wilder rightfully believed the audience would delight in watching bad people do bad things (Eddie Muller, Noir Alley Intro). The entire picture has a marvelously tawdry feel to it and the intensity of lust is easily conveyed even if we don’t see all the details. There’s more than one way to skin Joe Breen.

The movie turned out to be a honey of a great Noir. As always in the best examples of the genre, the audience roots for the morally corrupt. It would have bothered good old Joe. 

The film is told in flashback by doomed protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), insurance salesman for the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s bleeding from a gunshot wound and while the lifeblood drains out of him, he confesses - via dictaphone - to his friend and mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), shrewd claims manager at the same company, how and why he became a murderer.
It all started when Walter stopped at a client's home one day to renew his auto insurance policy and instead met the client's wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). He falls for her like a ton of bricks, they become lovers and Phyllis proposes in a not too subtle move to bump off her louse of a spouse. She would like to take out an accident insurance policy over $50,000 without hubby knowing about it and then rigging the killing so it looks like an accident. The insurance policy even has a double indemnity clause to pay twice the amount if the death is caused by a freak accident.
The plan goes off like a clockwork. Walter kills Dietrichson before he’s supposed to go on a train ride, dumps the body on the train tracks and takes his place on the train to establish an alibi. The police accept the verdict of accidental death, initially. But Keyes doesn’t buy it and one look at Phyllis tells him everything he needs to know. So he goes to work like the good bloodhound he is.

Stanwyck gets one of the most memorable entrances in cinema history. Walter has come to call on Mr. Dietrichson. He’s not at home, but she is, wrapped only in a towel and standing at the top of a staircase, practically naked. It’s what the fashionable woman happens to model when greeting perfect strangers. And that’s a honey of an anklet she’s wearing. It's a piece of jewelry that is marvelously fetishized in the movie. It’s a dead giveaway. It’s the 40s version of the tramp stamp. Walter now has only one thing on his mind, and it’s not insurance policies: 
”I was thinking about that dame upstairs and the way she’d looked at me. I wanted to see her again. Close, and without that silly staircase between us.”
Husband? What husband? He knows her game, or so he thinks. We get the feeling he’s met his share of desperate housewives before. Just not ones quite so thoroughly efficient when it comes to crime. She’s all dolled up and ready for murder.

Both trade barbs with the ease of longtime pros. Nobody can say "baby" just like Fred MacMurray. She coos and purrs barely-veiled insinuating come-ons though she makes a floozy’s feint at good-girl morality when Walter puts the moves on her. "There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff." It’s perfunctory at best. Her off-hand seductive attitude makes her innocent act more than unconvincing. 
Conniving, manipulative and absolutely evil, she has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Phyllis is the opportunistic minx from Baby Face calcified into ice-cold ruthlessness and irredeemable amorality. Every one of her actions is coldly calculated, from her beach towel entrance to her  flirting to her kisses. And everything about her is artificial. Her red lips, her smile… and ooooh that platinum blonde hair, a dodgy wig that many people can’t look past. It’s cheap and obvious but then so is everything about her. She has a touch of trash about her. 

A honey of an anklet
We may safely call her game entrapment, a game she wrote the book on. There’s nothing coy about her. Walter sells insurance, she sells sex. A tramp from a long line of tramps.

Phyllis needs a sucker to commit murder for her so she doesn’t get blood on her mink. The conversation turns to crime surprisingly quickly. Could he help her out a bit? With her heartless  and cold husband? He's soooo evil. This would have been most people’s cue to run the other way but there’s one born every minute. Walter can’t get her out of his mind. 
“I knew I had ahold of a red hot poker, and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off...I was all twisted up inside and I was still holding on to that red-hot poker. And right then it came over me that I hadn't walked out on anything at all, that the hope was too strong, that this wasn't the end between her and me. It was only the beginning.” 
Trouble is knocking at the door, and in Noir this knock is never ignored.

Walter Neff is a successful insurance salesman, a smoothy who would gladly sell a corpse some life insurance. He lives an unattached life, clearly obvious from his spare apartment. He’s been quite content with his life so far but deep down there has been something nagging at him, a barely recognized boredom, a diffuse longing for something more than his mundane existence. He’s been selling insurance to little old ladies for too long. The driving force of many Noir stories is the urge to escape, from oneself, from the ordinary, from responsibility, from one’s failures… Walter is another Noir (anti)hero who feels trapped in the prison of his mediocre existence. Yes, he says he killed Dietrichson for money and a woman but the roots go much deeper than that. There’s nothing so dangerous as ennui. It's death in small doses.

In his confession to Keyes Walter admits that he’s been thinking about how to crook the house for years, long before he ever met Phyllis. Unbeknownst to everybody, he’s been waiting for a bigger payday. And not just that, he realizes that has no compunction about murder at all. Walter didn’t fight the urge to kill because the stakes were $50,000. Plus the life of a man. But that is negotiable. Moral integrity is something that has never really been part of his mental makeup. Ethics are a flexible thing. One gets the feeling that his fall from grace wasn't from a great moral height. Not quite your average upstanding Joe Citizen.
There was also the wish to put one over on his friend Keyes, whom he loves but whose stringent work ethics and narrow world-view - that reduces every human emotion to statistical demographics - he rejects, and who has always bragged that nobody could cheat him. 

Under Walter’s straight-laced facade a monster has always been lurking. It was just buried deeply under layers of accumulated boredom. Walter is another seeming paragon of virtue that is very believably transformed into a murdereous type. Noir punctures conventional assumptions about human behavior. People aren’t essentially good, in Noir under the right or wrong circumstances everyone was capable of almost anything. If life throws them a doozy of a chance.

That’s why he is easy pickings for Phyllis’s recruitment agency. The traditional reading of this film is that Walter is a hapless pawn in the game of an evil woman. It doesn’t stick at all. No doubt, Walter had the hots for Phyllis but that isn’t his incentive for murder. It's his incentive for sex. Crime is his quick fix for  mind-numbing boredom and dissatisfaction.

Walter is no weakling. At one time Phyllis says to Walter: “You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead.” There's a lot of truth in it. He masterminded everything. Walter comes up with the plan to kill Mr. Dietrichson, Walter does the actual killing and Walter is the actor on the train. After the murder, Phyllis is incapable of starting the getaway car. Walter has to do it for her. He does so without any difficulty. Without him she would have been caught in a very sticky situation.
It really does not bear out the oft-repeated narrative that Phyllis is the dominant force. Walter is a proactive not a passive agent in this whole plot. Phyllis didn’t corrupt him, the seeds of crime were already sown long before he set foot in the Dietrichson house. Phyllis just left the door open a little and he follows her down the honeysuckle path to destruction without looking back.

For MacMurray his role was a departure from his image. Mostly utilized as a light comedic actor and folksy nice guy, Wilder saw something in him that he obviously didn’t see himself. Wilder had offered the role to almost every actor in Hollywood. All turned it down, including George Raft who has the dubious distinction of having passed on more choice parts than any other actor in Tinseltown.
MacMurray’s casting was a revelation and he showed hidden depths in his characterization even he didn’t know he had. MacMurray would sort of reprise his role a few years later in the respectable Double Indemnity knockoff Pushover.

In his review Roger Ebert stated: 
“The puzzle of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity …is what these two people really think of one another… with the tough talk and the cold sex play. But they never seem to really like each other all that much, and they don't seem that crazy about the money, either. What are they after?”
Ebert is usually much more perceptive. No, they don’t like each other, they use each other. They’re not in love, they’re just in cahoots. They form a mutually beneficial murder society. This is Wilder’s cynicism at its best. There’s definitively primal lust there, but no love or warmth. It’s all hot passion with ice-cold disdain and contempt underneath. This is one love affair that is as cold as the grave.

Phyllis is clearly in it for the payoff. Her husband has lately not been too lucky in his business dealings and the payout from his life insurance would come in incredibly handy. As mentioned in other reviews, the femme fatale is never a working woman. Neither Phyllis, nor any other femme fatale, would ever dirty her hands with anything resembling work. That’s what other people - men - are for, to provide for her comfort. Phyllis is a lazy and languorous blonde who lives in an ornately-furnished oppressive mansion. She considers it a cage but the irony is that she did everything to get into that cage, including nursing her husband’s first wife - to death.
Phyllis is a pathological case. She’s made a career out of murder. It’s really the only “natural” solution for someone like her. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. She’s a woman who’s never felt any healthy emotion in her life. When Walter kills her husband - off-screen - she doesn’t even flinch. In that scene we only see Stanwyck’s face and it is a cold mask that allows itself only the tiniest of smirks. Just as for Walter, murder is her quick fix for all of life’s problems. 

Whatever lustful passions may have existed between Walter and Phyllis cool off very quickly after the murder. As so often the criminal couple’s relationship turns sour and mutual distrust rears its ugly head. It is the peculiar problem of murderers. They must trust each other, but as each knows the other is capable of murder, trust is impossible. Paranoia, no Noir can do without. Soon they’re thinking of killing each other. Lust and hate can exist in perversely close proximity. 

Walter learns that Phyllis has been seeing Nino Zachetti, her step-daughter Lola’s boyfriend, on the side. Walter can finally see the writing on the wall, that he was set up as a fall guy who’d end up on the trash heap. Walter wants out but Phyllis can't let him louse up their perfect crime: “Nobody’s pulling out. We went into this together and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us.” If one falls, so does the other. The “straight down the line” metaphor is used several times in the film. Keyes picks it up too: 
“They’ve committed a murder, and it’s not like taking a trolley ride together, where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride, all the way to the end of the line. And it’s a one-way trip, and the last stop is the cemetery.”
Little by little Walter feels the heavy pall of doom: “Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong…I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He knows his future is all used up.

Walter goes to have it out with Phyllis. She is a split second quicker and shoots Walter, though only wounding him. And then she has her two seconds of soppy remorse…if we believe her. 
“I never loved you Walter. Not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart… I used you, just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me… Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot.”
Walter doesn’t buy it either. Like Bart has to kill Laurie at the end of Gun Crazy, Walter needs to kill Phyllis simply because she would go on killing remorselessly. Strangely enough, he kills her because he still has a conscience. He lets her have it pointblank. “Goodbye, baby.” Man that was cold. Even Phyllis can’t gamble against the house forever and win.

The grieving widow
There are really no healthy relationships in this film, bar one. The Dietrichson home resembles the inside of a Sub-Zero refrigerator. Daughter Lola hates her life with her family and lies to her father continually about her no-good boyfriend. The Dietrichson family dynamics aren’t happy. Sylvia Harvey writes in her essay Woman’s Place: The Absent Family in Film Noir: “The family home in Double Indemnity is the place where three people who hate each other spend endlessly boring evenings together.”

The only positive relationship is between Walter and Keyes. Smart, shrewd and insightful Keyes is the moral center of the movie. He loves his job, cheap cigars, the statistics of murder and suicide and exposing crooked insurance fraudsters. He has a uncanny knack for sniffing out phony claims. His gut feeling - what he calls “the little man” - never fails him. It dawns on him pretty quickly that there’s something fishy about the Dietrichson case. He smells a rat. Or at least the cheap perfume that is splashed all over that Dietrichson file. That Keyes doesn’t come off as uptight or unpleasant is all down to Eddie’s wonderful portrayal. There’s something very lovable about him. Under all his blustering live-wire energy is a deeply forlorn man who, at the end of the day, always drinks alone. Keyes describes the many functions of his job. “An insurance manager is as surgeon, a doctor, a bloodhound; cop, judge, jury and father confessor.” It is perceptive foreshadowing. That is exactly what he’ll be for Walter. 

Much has been made of the supposed homosexual undercurrents between Walter and Keyes and Wilder stated that their relationship is the true love story in the movie. In today’s lingo I’d settle for bromance. Keyes functions as a surrogate father for Walter. Love has many faces and not all of them are sexual. What I see here is just genuine affection. But however we want to view it there’s no doubt that the Walter/Keyes relationship has all the sincere warmth and respect that the Walter/Phyllis one is lacking. There is a purity in it that is devoid of any kind of selfishness.

It’s interesting to note that in the end Walter goes back to his office to confess to Keyes instead of running for the border. Richard Schickel suggests in his DVD commentary that Walter almost willfully commits suicide by not taking care of his wound. It’s a good point. He is a broken man who didn’t quite understand the depth which people can sink to. Walter can’t bear the shame of having let his friend down. And for what? Absolutely nothing. Walter needs Keyes’s absolution. And Keyes, the father confessor, grants it. Walter has been lighting Keyes's cigars all during the movie, and now as last act of friendship Keyes lights Walter’s.

The ending is incredibly moving and recaptures some of the humanity that had been absent from the movie so far. There is nothing but sadness in Keyes’s face after he’s heard Walter’s confession. Walter’s betrayal cut him to the quick. Walter spells it out for Keyes. 
Walter: "Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. Because the guy you were looking for was too close – right across the desk from you."
Keyes: "Closer than that, Walter.”
Walter: “I love you too.
A beautiful tribute. Walter was always his blind spot. Keyes once investigated the dame he wanted to marry but neglects to do the same with his friend. The real tragedy of this film is that Keyes cannot dismiss Walter the way he dismissed all the other frauds and fakes. With Walter's death a part of him died too.

At the end of the day there’s no insurance for an agent who planned his own downfall. Walter wasn't smarter than the rest, he was just a little taller. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Killers (1946)

Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Ava Gardner Blogathon on December 23 and 24, 2018. Here's my entry.

"If there's one thing in this world I hate, it's a double-crossing dame.” Big Jim Colfax
Produced by Mark Hellinger’s production company and directed by one of Noir’s greatest directors Robert Siodmak, The Killers was a huge success upon release. Siodmak was one of Hollywood’s many European émigré directors. When he came to Hollywood he was absorbed by the studio system which was fine with him. He wanted to belong. His contemporaries often dismissed Siodmak as just another B director capable of nothing more than churning out solid studio assignments. For every Noir aficionado though he is one of the primary architects of the genre and his output in it is unparalleled. The man had a distinctly Noir vision.

Producer Hellinger was a former Broadway columnist/news reporter turned independent film producer. He was the embodiment of the hard-living, hard-drinking journalist so often seen in classic movies. Unfortunately his lifestyle caught up with him pretty quickly and he died at the young age of 44 after the release of Brute Force.

In every way The Killers is textbook Noir. It’s genre perfect. We can draw up a checklist and tick off every point. Themes of obsession, betrayal, disillusionment, greed, death and futility, all wrapped up neatly with a “double cross to end all double crosses”. Check.
Flashback structure, check. Expressionist cinematography, check. Sucker who goes off the straight and narrow for a rotten dame. A heist gone wrong. A past that doesn’t let go. Inescapable fate that leads to death. Check, check, check.
From a contemporary point of view the movie may tread overly familiar ground. So many Noir tropes have now become part of the everyday cinematic lexicon. The Killers has a setup straight out of "Let's make a Film Noir”. But the ingredients are still fresh because they’re served straight up, the right way. With no ice.

The opening of the movie sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. Two hitmen - Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) - walk into a diner. There the joke ends. They haven’t come for ham and eggs. They’ve come to fulfill a contract on a gas station attendant, the strangely unresisting victim Ole “The Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster). Ole’s insurance beneficiary for $2500 is an old chambermaid, Queenie, who saved him from suicide years ago, and insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) gets curious. 
“This isn’t a two-for-a-nickel shooting. Two professional killers show up in a small town and put the blast on a filling station attendant. A nobody…Why?” 
And why did the aforementioned nobody not try to run but passively accept his death? These questions haunt Reardon. He wants to know what happened to this man who had “8 slugs in him, nearly tore him in half.” He goes to work with the help of Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), Ole’s old boyhood pal. 

Turns out the Swede was involved in a factory payroll holdup where the money was never recovered. After his career as a prizefighter was cut short due to a hand injury Ole got in with the wrong crowd, Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and his gang consisting of thugs Dum Dum (Jack Lambert) and Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey). Ole works the numbers racket for Colfax. And he falls for Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), the boss’s girl, hard. Kitty convinces Swede to double cross Colfax, take the money and run so they can be together. The stakes are high in this game but of course the dame is low. Kitty pulls a fast one and clears out…with the money. Now Ole is in hiding but Colfax has a long memory. He never closes a book. He wants Ole dead and he has friends in low places who can make that happen.

The Killers is based on Hemingway’s 1927 minimalist short story of the same name. It’s barebones, without much plot, stripped of any unnecessary embellishment and only about ten pages long. Two gunmen are looking for a man named Ole Anderson. It is never explained who wants him killed, what he did or why he waits fatalistically for his death. Nothing is spelled out, nothing is resolved. Short stories never tell a journey, they only capture a brief moment in time. They’re a slice of life, or in this case a slice of death. Hemingway’s short story is a to-the-point redux of his bleak vision of life, delivering the perfect blueprint for Noir.

Though the film is billed on the poster as Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, the story it tells is not his. His story accounts only for the first 10 plus minutes of the picture which is faithful to Papa as far as dialogue and setup go. Hemingway’s story ends with the murder of the Swede and left it at that. The script takes it from there and delivers. It gives us the backstory Hemingway refused to supply.

Siodmak’s opening shot is an homage to Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks. Siodmak literally translated in onto film but it’s interesting to note that Hopper himself had been inspired by Hemingway’s original short story he had read in Scribner’s Magazine. A nice piece of cross-pollination.

The Killers has a splintered narrative structure with eleven flashbacks. Some viewers found the storyline convoluted but it’s anything but. The flashbacks are told with precision and logic and never loose focus. It must be said though that this is not a movie for 21st century attention deficit crowd. Put that phone down and stay with it, or you’ll miss a lot.

A flashback structure locks in a picture’s downbeat ending and the audience is cognizant of impending doom from the start. This is part and parcel of Noir’s fatalistic spirit. Usually the flashback is told by the ill-fated protagonist himself before he dies. Here the Swede is killed right in the beginning of the movie so others must tell his story. The mystery unfolds through the testimony of several witnesses who all contribute a part of the puzzle until Reardon has a whole. He fights for the guy who can't fight for himself anymore.

The Killers is a psychological exploration into the mind and motivation of a man who simply gave up on life. It was Burt Lancaster's screen debut, and he gives a strong performance playing a weak character. Lancaster’s screen image hadn’t solidified yet and his usual swagger and bravado are noticeably absent. This is Burt Lancaster before he became Burt Lancaster.

Ole’s introduction is interesting. Lying apathetically in bed in the dark, waiting for death to knock on the door, he barely moves or raises his voice when his friend Nick comes to warn him about the hitmen. He makes no move to save himself. The dialogue of that scene is worth quoting in its entirety.
Swede: There’s nothing I can do.
Nick: I could tell you what they look like.
Swede: I don't want to know what they're like. Thanks for coming.
Nick: Don't you want me to go and see the police?
Swede: No. That wouldn't do any good.
Nick: Isn't there something I could do?
Swede: There ain't anything to do.
Nick: Couldn't you get out of town?
Swede: No. I'm through with all that running around.
Nick: Why do they wanna kill you?
Swede: I did something wrong - once.
When we see Ole’s face it is expressionless, he’s detached to the point of numbness. Completely unresisting, he faces his killers stoically and without panic. He doesn’t fight or beg or run. He has no fight left in him. 
When Reardon and Lubinsky visit dying gang member Blinky in the hospital, the doctor assesses his situation dryly: “He's dead now, except he's breathing.” So is the Swede but that’s about to be fixed.

When Al and Max enter his room Ole is not only willing but absolutely eager to die. To Hemingway scholars this attitude is known as heroic fatalism. It is the dignified acceptance of one's circumstances in the face of impending disaster including death. A Hemingway man must be able to look his own mortality straight in the eye with honor and dignity. He realizes that life is essentially meaningless and that trying to outrun death is in essence futile. Ole Anderson embodies this attitude in its purest distillation. Hemingway did not consider this attitude a defeat. On the contrary, he saw it as an act of courage. And not only courage but as the last conscious decision a man has left whose life has lost its purpose and direction. Death as catharsis. For everybody who doesn't subscribe to this Nihilist philosophy it’s simply valuing your life at zero by committing suicide.

The Noir (anti)hero never travels light, he always has a heavy burden to carry. In Ole’s case his burden is his past and Fate demands that this debt be paid. Ole gives only a cryptic explanation of his predicament - “I did something wrong, once” -  but in Noir one mistake is all it takes. There are no second chances. The Swede double-crossed his cronies and absconded with the loot. In the Noir universe nobody gets away with that. That appointment with death must be kept. 

Sucker, patsy, dupe, perfect victim. Choose one, or all for Ole. Not a bright boy, not a bright boy at all. On the contrary, Ole is frankly dumb as a box of rocks. For Kitty he goes down Loser’s Lane and never looks back. 
It is a strange role for Lancaster to play. There is something disturbingly masochistic about his character. It’s a striking contrast to his impressive physicality. Ole looks like a tough but he’s a poky little puppy, not hardboiled but over-easy. A step away from Lennie Small. Frankly it's a sorry sight.

Of course there’s a dame to blame. Her name is Kitty Collins. She makes Ole lose his moral compass. So besotted is Ole with Kitty that he - out of misplaced chivalry - doesn’t hesitate to take the rap for her when she’s caught holding stolen jewelry. It earns him a three year stretch. She doesn’t even visit him in prison.

Once Kitty gave him a green scarf with golden harps on it and he holds onto it for dear life. It functions as a substitute for her. If he can’t have Kitty at least he can have her scarf.
Ole’s former cell mate Charleston - who has spent half of his life in the clink and doesn’t want to go back - tries to make him think straight: “Want a word of advice? Stop listening to those golden harps, they’ll land you in a lot of trouble.” Ole doesn’t listen. When trouble comes knocking on the door the Noir protagonist embraces it whole-heartedly, running into disaster with arms and eyes wide open.

When Ole’s illusions are finally stripped away, he has nothing left to live for. Lee Marvin remarks in the 1964 remake: “The only man who's not afraid to die is the one who's dead already”. Ole projected all his dreams and ideals of romance on the wrong dame. He died on the day she walked out on him. Dixon Steele’s quote from In a Lonely Place could be Ole’s epitaph: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” But Kitty’s was just the last in a long line of betrayals. Ole’s fate is foreshadowed in the scene where he takes a relentless beating in the ring in his last fight. He’s unable to fight back. He’s down and out, way down. And he’ll never get back up again because he doesn't have the brains to see he's being taken for a ride by everybody. 

In the end the audience understands what Swede meant by his cryptic words to Queenie: “Charleston was right.” He shouldn’t have listened to those golden harps and trusted a rotten dame. The mistake Ole made once was not only absconding with the loot of a robbery - he doesn’t regret that at all -  it was being a sentimental fool.

There’s nothing in this world we love more than a double-crossing dame and Ava is one of the best. She is at the height of her beauty in this movie, a liquid-eyed, pure as the driven vixen who’s devious, manipulative and up there with the most evil two or three-timing dames.

She’s introduced posing artfully at a piano, in that black dress, conscious of her power. Her enigmatic smile is as obvious as Phyllis Dietrichson’s ankle bracelet and just as hard to ignore.  It hits Ole like a mule. She sings her lovely siren song The More I Know Of Love. She knows a lot about that - or what counts for it in Noir - to the detriment of every man in sight.

Her name is very appropriate. She is like a slinky cat, graceful, playful and coquettish. In one scene she's literally lolling around like a kitten on the bed and Ole’s eyes almost pop out of his head. She also goes to the Green Cat Bar and has a glass of milk. Meow. But this is one black kitten that is bad luck for everybody who crosses her path.

Kitty is one of Noir’s most masked femme fatales. Nobody sees how evil she is until it is too late. She hides her rottenness better than any other deadly dame I’ve seen. On the surface she has a certain helpless appeal, “enacting a charade of feminine sweetness and frailty” (Imogen Sara Smith, Criterion Collection article Fatal Women and the Fate of Women). All smoke and mirrors but prize sucker that Ole is he falls right for it. She hates brutality, she purrs. “I couldn’t bare to see the man I really care about hurt”. Too cute for words. She then proceeds to do exactly that. Her soft demeanor hides an interior of steel. She’s intoxicating. Unfortunately she’s also just plain toxic. “Such women play the damsel in distress to appeal to men’s chivalry—as Kitty turns on the tears, getting Swede to take the rap for her when she’s caught with stolen jewelry.” (Smith, ibid.) A man taking the fall for her is incidentally something that Kitty takes as her rightful due. She looks out for No.1.
A slinky little kitten
Kitty’s ultimate goal is comfort. All she sees is dollar signs and she’d take any guy to the cleaners just for that. It’s interesting to note that the femme fatale is never a working woman. And why should she be as long as there are suckers who can foot the bill? All play and no work makes Kitty a happy girl.

She even gives Ole the obligatory I’m-no-good-speech full well knowing the guy doesn’t care. ”I'm poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me”. Her utter selfishness is fully revealed in the last scene when she crouches over her dying husband - Big Jim who she's been working with all along - demanding that he falsely exonerate her with his last breath. 
“Jim! Jim! Tell them I didn't know anything…Say, 'Kitty is innocent. I swear, Kitty is innocent.' Say it, Jim, say it! It'll save me if you do.”
It earns her one of the best rebukes I’ve ever heard: “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell.” Kitty always got away by letting others take the blame for her. Finally the last of her nine lives has expired.

The Killers is a movie that is rich with fascinating characterizations and protagonist. The characters are not only plot devices to move the story along, they have a life of their own.

There’s Lilly (Virginia Christine), Ole’s former sort-of girlfriend, who knows the ship has sailed the second Ole lays eyes on Kitty. She takes it like a real trouper. Her bone-dry reaction is to switch her order from ginger ale to hard liquor: “I’ve changed my mind. You can sweeten it now”.

There’s Jack Lambert who - together with Jack Elam, Marc Lawrence, Elisha Cook or William Tellman - invariably got called up for duty when Hollywood needed a tough hood. Whatever Lambert played he always looked as if he’d do odd jobs for the mob.

Edward Hopper
Edmund O’Brien - a vastly underrated actor - is an interesting (second) lead and foil for Lancaster. This role was tailor made for him. He had an everyman appeal and was easy to identify with. I’ve seen him described as a low-rent Sam Spade, but to me there’s nothing low-rent about him. Reardon is the guy who’s trying to make sense of Poisonville’s most twisted motivations. Far removed from the regular Noir sucker, Reardon is not a man tainted or tempted. He provides the incorruptible and rational center of the film. His humor keeps him from becoming too uptight. You’ve got to love a man who has his priorities straight. In the middle of a possible gunfight, he orders a steak sandwich and a beer. He’s smart enough not to let Kitty’s charm bamboozle him though she tries. 

Reardon needs to understand why a man would simply submit to his own murder. Reardon’s boss Kenyon isn’t interested in solving a puzzle or recovering the money from the payroll robbery. After Reardon has solved the case his boss comments sarcastically: 
“Owing to your splendid efforts the basic rate of The Atlantic Casualty Company – as of 1947 – will probably drop one-tenth of a cent.”
Thanks, Boss. The $250,000 of the bank roll heist were simply peanuts for Kenyon. A nice little offhand commentary on the insurance business.

Kudos have to go to McGraw and Conrad as the hitmen. Two wise-cracking but lethal jokers with a decidedly off-beat and clammy charm, they’re bickering over pork, apple sauce and mashed potatoes in the diner while viciously taunting and terrorizing the occupants and shattering any sense of security this little backwater ever had. It’s a Vaudeville routine gone sour, their wit hovers somewhere between perverse sadism and Absurd Theater. They have nothing but contempt for their fellow men. They don’t even try to be inconspicuous and keep a low profile when they come to town to kill the Swede, they literally take over the greasy spoon and state with complete impunity that they intend to murder him when he comes in for dinner. Like emissaries from another world, they’ve come to collect a debt. 

As always in the best Noirs in the end it was all for nothing. What’s the moral of Noir? Suckers don't stand a chance. Life is an exercise in futility. Ole didn’t get the money and he didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?