Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Double Indemnity (1944)

Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. 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.

Phyllis 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 √©migr√© 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?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Niagara (1953)

“Obviously ignoring the idea that there are Seven Wonders of the World, Twentieth Century-Fox has discovered two more and enhanced them with Technicolor in Niagara…For the producers are making full use of both the grandeur of the Falls and its adjacent areas as well as the grandeur that is Marilyn Monroe.”
A.H. Weiler, NYTimes January 22, 1953
In a similar fashion, the trailer starts like this: “A raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control! Niagara! And Marilyn Monroe!”

Neither review nor trailer were exaggerating. It’s hard to figure out who’s more magnificent. The mighty Niagara Falls with their unstoppable power or Marilyn with her uncontrollable passion. Two forces of nature. Directed for Fox by Henry Hathaway, Niagara was made first and foremost to promote the studio’s fastest rising star Marilyn. And she turned in a star-making performance. The poster for the movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen hitting home its message none too subtly. It depicts a larger-than-life Marilyn seductively draped across the cascading Falls with the water flowing over her scantily-clad body.

Niagara is gorgeously vibrant candy color Noir with visuals that literally jump off the screen. The heightened idealization of Technicolor makes this movie look sensational. There’s no reason why Noir has to be in black and white. Eddie Muller stated that Noir is a state of mind and I couldn't agree more. Marilyn Ferdinand of the wonderful blog Ferdy on Films put it like this: “Technicolor in the right hands fits noir like a blood-stained glove”. Color works perfectly within the framework of Noir. It can paint a world as black as the darkest night. Evil doesn’t need dark alleyways to flourish, it can lurk in bright daylight.
Niagara is a movie where the darkness is interior. Inside the mind of a woman with murder in her heart and inside the mind of a man with shell-shock who’s completely shut in by his misery.

The picture is another Noir beyond the Mean Streets of Megalopolis. No snazzy nightclubs, seedy roadside motels, gambling dens and beatings in dark back alleys. Instead we get beautiful sights, wide-open spaces and nice simple clean cabins with a magnificent view of the Falls. Niagara is a happy spot for lovers and honeymooners.

The Falls play an important role in the unfolding events. Big parts of the movie come off like an advertisement for holiday makers as the attractions of Niagara Falls—the Maid of the Mist, the Cave in the Winds etc.—are prominently displayed including signs so we know what’s what. Joseph MacDonald was the cinematographer and he doesn’t just capture the majesty of the landscape for its own sake. In Noir - as indeed in most genres - there is always a co-relation between environment and crucial elements of the film. The landscape not only sets the stage for the players to interact and play out the drama. Niagara’s beautiful attractions become essential to the plot. A setting turned into a character, a landscape turned into a metaphor.

Before passengers go on the Maid of the Mist they have to leave their shoes behind. This plot point will later become relevant in the identification of a corpse. The Falls themselves with their swirling mists and choppy waters are an image for the destructive power of out-of-control and sometimes murderous passions that nothing can stop. Fittingly we see Rose and her lover kissing passionately under the Falls.

The story is barely more than routine. Young sexy wife wants to do away with aging hubby. Name all of the movies which Niagara pilfers elements from and the usual suspects are all there. In fact I expected the postman to ring twice to pick up his slightly stale plot.

Belated honeymooners Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams/Max Showalter) - Mr. and Mrs. Everyman - arrive at their Niagara Falls cabin only to find that Rose (Marilyn Monroe) and George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) have not vacated their cabin. Polly soon discovers that Rose isn’t the devoted wife she pretends to be. She has a boyfriend on the side. She’s bored with her life, her husband, her marriage. Rose and her lover boy Patrick (Richard Allan) are planning to kill George and make it look like suicide. Another one of Noir’s ironclad plan. What could possibly go wrong? Just when they think they’ve covered all the bases the plan goes sideways. It is Patrick who gets killed, in self-defense. Now George is on the lam and he still has a score to settle with Rose. He finally tracks her down in a bell tower.

Niagara isn’t the best thriller I have ever seen. The romantic drama is less than spectacular which has a lot to do with the fact that Rose’s scenes with lover boy are fairly underdeveloped and leave something to be desired. Their relationship is never fully explored. If the movie has a weakness it’s Richard Allan who was an ill-advised casting decisions. He’s a charisma-free zone. It’s no wonder he never had much of a career. Yet none of that really matters. Two stars in this picture do is the heavy lifting, Technicolor and Marilyn. They’re the glue that hold the movie together.

Niagara so often gets slapped with that fuzzy and tired blanket label Hitcockian. I don’t quite agree with it myself, unless you consider every good thriller Hitchcock-inspired. Niagara has a blonde but not Hitchcock’s preferred icy-cool patrician goddess. The suspense is there but Hitchcock’s psychological complexity is missing as is his deliciously twisted perversity - always so latently obvious (not an oxymoron) in his films. It was the Voodoo that he did so well. 

The bell tower scene however would have done Hitchcock proud and he must have at least taken a little peak at it before he made Vertigo. The visuals are simply breathtaking. Indeed, Technicolor can produce Noir shadows too. In this scene the colors are ever so slightly desaturated. When George finally has Rose cornered the shadows let the tower appear like a prison cell.

The dark roots of Hollywood’s most famous platinum blonde bombshell.
Even nowadays most people would be able to put a name to a photo of Marilyn Monroe though they may have never seen any of her movies. She is synonymous with the term sex symbol. The ditzy, flouncy and bouncy nitwit, for all her obvious assets oddly innocent and vulnerable, she was and still is the most iconic blonde bombshell the world has ever seen. Most of her films were comedies where she - without even wanting to - simply sets the hearts of the entire male population on fire with her guileless exhibitionism. (I say hearts because I’m trying to be delicate). She was seemingly unaware of her sex appeal and oblivious to her own potent effect though as any woman can tell you it takes a lot of strategic planning to be so oblivious. Lorelei Lee or Pola Debevoise were manipulative but essentially good-natured. There was a certain lovable goofiness about them. In Marilyn’s comedies she played her persona for laughs. 
Yet before her screen image solidified into the naive temptress there was a different Marilyn, one we’ve never seen before and sadly would never see again. The Marilyn of Noir where her sex appeal was much more dangerous. In Don’t Bother to Knock she plays a mentally disturbed babysitter. She’s psycho Marilyn, the blonde bombshell’s evil twin sister. 

With Niagara Marilyn gained entry into the Bad Girls’ Club. Here she isn’t hampered by the knowledge that she is Marilyn, the naive sexpot. Rose Loomis isn’t a cuddly sex kitten (not that there’s anything wrong with it), she’s all grown-up in every way. In a deliciously slutty turn she’s introduced laying in bed smoking, wearing nothing but that impossibly bright red lipstick, writhing seductively under the sheets, legs apart. This is an image as boldly sexual as anything she’s ever done in her career. Her glow leaves no doubt as to what must have transpired not too long ago. The post-coital cigarette is another giveaway. I’m a bit surprised Joe Breen and his holy crusaders against wickedness let this one slide. Rose puts the cigarette out when she hears her husband come in and pretends to be asleep so she doesn’t have to deal with him. He most certainly wasn’t the lucky guy. Rose despises her husband and withholds sex. She changes her mind about that only once, on the morning he’s supposed to be murdered. Sexual favors are supposed to get him into a compliant mood.

A similar erotically-charged scene occurs when at an impromptu party at the hotel Rose requests her favorite record Kiss to be played. The song reminds her of her lover. The way she sits there enraptured and sings along Rose is clearly wrapped up in some steamy memories of lover boy. Not surprisingly her husband storms out of the room and breaks the record with his bare hands in a fit of fury. He knows she doesn’t put on that show for him. The tune will play a role again a bit later. The bell tower is supposed to play it as the agreed signal between Rose and Patrick that the deed has been done. When Rose hears the bells she walks away smiling wickedly. Little does she know the murder didn’t quite go as planned.

I have to take a little detour here and talk about Marilyn’s outfits. They’re not just to die but to kill for. There is that dress. You know which one I mean. THAT dress. THAT fuchsia dress. Yes, it needs and deserves its own introduction. It’s the sexy dress to end all sexy dresses. It’s a law unto itself. Of course you have to know how to wear a dress like that. Marilyn does. As Polly says: “For a dress like that, you’ve got to start laying plans when you’re about thirteen.” To paraphrase Paul Newman, this is the kind of dress you wear when you want to wake up in the morning and smile.
There is also THAT red lipstick which always stays on. In bed, in the shower, even in hospital in a coma! That boys and girls is determination I admire.

No matter what you think about Monroe, her persona or her acting, there’s no denying that she was one of the sexiest women ever. The way she sashays, wiggles and jiggles her way through the movie is something to behold. Like Jell-O on springs! In fact Niagara is the film usually credited with the birth of THE WALK. As Ray says when Rose walks by: “Get out the firehose.” But it’s hard to put out the fire when she’s constantly adding fuel. Rose is a woman on a mission and her every intention is in her walk, her smile and her body.
Considering she was the sexual icon of her day, the studio unfortunately never again tapped into her talent to play a Thoroughly Rotten Dame.

Because she is so absolutely gorgeous we can’t believe she as bad as she at first seems. A definite miscalculation. She comes with a little twist though. Rose is undoubtedly calculating and duplicitous but she’s not just out for herself. Sex is not merely a means to an end. Rose isn’t looking for a disposable sucker to bump off her husband so she doesn’t get blood on her mink. Here is one femme fatale who is purely and solely motivated by lust. Not greed, not power, not money, but simply sexual desire. She can barely control her own libido. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to believe that Rose would always go where the boys are. That’s how she gets her kicks. One has to see the look of naked lust on her face when she meets her lover in the souvenir shop.  Her lover in turn is so besotted that he’d commit murder for her.

In most Noirs, the femme fatale uses sex to gain power or wealth. In Niagara, sex isn’t a tool to get something else. It’s the crux of the matter. Rose herself is firmly caught in the web. 
Though George is supposedly the mentally unbalanced half of the couple, there is something vaguely unsettling about Rose’s single-minded pursuit of sex.

Rose possesses another trait necessary to the femme fatale. On top of looks she possesses cunning reasoning. Rose is a dangerous woman who has at least enough brains to concoct a plan to murder her husband and involve the Cutlers as unknowing witnesses in her little charade to paint her husband as unstable. It is necessary for the suicide ruse to come off. Ray and Polly are like pawns in her game. When George breaks the Kiss record, the Cutlers empathize with Rose, assuming she’s in danger of becoming a victim to her husband’s volatile temper, but she’s far more in control of the situation than they suspect. It’s just all part of the setup. 
Still, in the end we do feel sorry for her when George kills her simply because she was such an intensely alive creature who was desperately grasping at life.

As for people who say Marilyn was not an actress, well they’re probably right. The jury is still out. I never considered her much of an actress myself. In Niagara she uses the same tricks in the book that she always does. The wide-eyed innocent come-hither look, the breathy little girl voice, the half-opened mouth. It’s just this time around they have a darker undercurrent. Marilyn’s greatest achievement on film was being Marilyn.

If this sounds like a slight it isn’t meant to be in the least. The jury - that would be me - has decreed that it’s absolutely beside the point if she was a good actress or not. She plays certain roles very well because they fit her like a glove. There are many actors who have a limited range, but within that range they are unbeatable. Just as Joan Crawford had roles taylor-made to suit her persona and image, so did Marilyn. If the role suited her she was very effective and instinctively and naturally knew what to do. She didn’t so much seem to play a role but live it. On screen she just IS. Her sheer magnetism beats great acting every time.

Many people have bemoaned the fact that Monroe’s sexuality was exploited. Cow patties I says. I settle for showcased. Beautiful people are always “exploited”. It comes with the territory. Here Rose’s entire demeanor and her in-your-face sexuality demonstrate her effect on men. Her physical attributes express her character.

Monroe exits the movie about two thirds of the way through and her absence causes a problem. The movie loses some steam however the exiting climax makes up for it later.

One wonders how Rose and George ever ended up together. They’re the perfect picture of a dysfunctional marriage. We only get to know that George rescued her from a life as a waitress in a crummy little joint. George Loomis is a wreck of a man, a failed sheep farmer who was sent home from Korea with battle fatigue and spent some time in a mental hospital for soldiers. Unfortunately the PTSD aspect of the story is never further explored as it very likely would have been just a few years earlier. One wonders though where most of his battles were fought, on the battlefield or closer to home.
After he came home from Korea he went wrong though somehow it's easy to believe he’s the type who would always draw the short straw. A perfect patsy. Another Noir sucker who is a hapless pawn in the game of an evil woman until he turns the tables.

Cotten conveys a sense of utter weariness and desperation very well. He’s a guy who’s hit rock bottom and he’s not likely to go much farther up because all he has is his own sense of inadequacy. We simply have to feel sorry for him in his brooding unhappiness and bitterness. He’s trying to battle his demons but somehow he can’t stop himself. He can’t control his love and in the end he can’t control his hate.
George is entrapped by his misery, loneliness and fury. It’s a prison he cannot escape from because the most confining prison cell is the darkness of one’s own mind.

The opening sequence features a nihilist voice-over by Cotten that is quickly dropped right after. Traipsing around early in the morning at 5 am George is visiting the Falls but he has no idea why. It is as if they were calling to him. 
“Why should the Falls drag me down here at five o'clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am? To remind me they can get along without any help?” 
Right away there is the implication of serious mental problems. The magnificent Falls contrast sharply with his insignificance but their tumultuous restlessness resonates within him. Later he will tell Polly something about love and marriage using the metaphor of the Falls:
“You’re young. You’re in love. Well, I’ll give you a warning. Don’t let it get out of hand like those falls out there…Did you ever see the river up above the falls? It’s calm and easy, and you throw in a log, it just floats around. Let it move a little further down and it gets going faster, hits some rocks, and in a minute it's in the lower rapids, and nothing in the world -including God himself can keep it from going over the edge.” 
It is no surprise that in the end he goes over the Falls to his death. Once he’s killed the thing he loved the most, there’s nowhere else for him to go. “I loved you Rose, you know that.”

Jean Peters as Polly actually has more screen time than Monroe. She’s no slouch in the looks department herself, but it’s hard to compete with Monroe. Peters has a thankless role. She’s supposed to be “the plain one” and I find it admirable that she actually took the role. Anne Baxter turned it down because she didn’t want to compete with Monroe.
Ray and Polly are the normal couple, they're the foil for Rose and George. Polly - though “just” a housewife - is levelheaded and gutsy and would deserve a better husband than Ray. The guy is clearly punching above his weight. Polly tries to be a friend to George but he’s beyond help.
That Peters herself could be very sexy she would show with her next movie Pickup on South Street. In her own words, playing the siren didn’t come naturally to her and she always credited Monroe with showing her the ropes.

Now for the negatives. Just one actually but it’s the elephant in the room. Eager beaver Max Showalter, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and cornier than an Orville Redenbacher factory. As an actor he’s a blunt object. He’s more irritating than a persistent rash in a very delicate place. He takes books on his honeymoon and goes on fishing trips with his boss. The ultimate company man. Anything for a raise, sir!

It’s never quite clear if this portrayal of bungling dopiness is all Showalter’s doing or if there was intent on the producers’s part. But as Billy Wilder’s frequent collaborator Charles Bracket was one of the screen writers/producers on the film, there’s a good chance the little stab at corporatism was intentional.

I wouldn’t call Niagara a bona fide classic but it’s incredibly watchable despite its shortcomings.