Double Indemnity

Raymond Chandler’s classic discussion of the noir genre, “The Simple Art of Murder,” includes the famous line

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story, Chandler says (thinking of Dashiell Hammett’s Marlowe) must be such a man. And the point of the story is not so much solving the murder as seeing how the character of the hero unfolds. His redemption is what makes the story work, what makes it art, as opposed to schlock.

Chandler was writing within a schlock genre, but he aimed to create art. “To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it,” he said, “is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.”

When Billy Wilder brought him in to write the screenplay of James M. Cain’s novella, Double Indemnity, Chandler got his chance. tumblr_okydzvPUWB1uybf9ro2_1280Cain’s hero, Walter (Fred MacMurray), is a smart guy whose talents are wasted in his job as an insurance salesman. He isn’t really played by Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), the lonely wife of a wealthy man who wants to cash in on her husband’s accident insurance policy. He plays himself:  the murder is a challenge, a high-stakes game that’s more of a turn-on than Phyllis.

When I met Phyllis I met my plant. If that seems funny to you, that I would kill a man just to pick a stack of chips, it might not seem so funny if you were back at that wheel, instead of out front.

Chandler took this motivation, but he made it more explicit by having Walter narrate the story of his crime to his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Walter was attracted to Phyllis from the get-go; he saw her standing at the top of the staircase, wearing nothing but a towel. “I wanted to see her again. Close, and without that silly staircase between us.”

But he went into the relationship — and the crime — with his eyes open. What makes him nervous isn’t the fear of getting caught. He thinks he has that little wrinkle figured out. All he has to do is to murder Phyllis, and pin the murder on the young man he believes she’s two-timing him with, the boyfriend of Phyllis’s step-daughter, Lola. His boss, Keyes, already suspects the two of them. Piece of cake.

Then Walter surprises us. He realizes the boyfriend is not in cahoots with Phyllis and sends him back to Lola, takes the rap after all. WHY?

It’s about redemption, Watson. Chandler told us that. He confesses the whole sordid tale to Keyes, and Keyes forgives him. Yeah, he’s going down. He doesn’t care, so long as Lola knows the truth. And as long as Keyes understands.

The Maltese Falcon

In appreciation of Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre: I love those guys! Bogey playing the kind of hard-boiled-on-the-outside-but-with-a-tender-center detective that he was made for. 968full-the-maltese-falcon-posterJohn Huston directing his own screenplay of the great Dashiell Hammett novel. No wonder Roger Ebert called “The Maltese Falcon” one of the greatest films of all time.

Ebert also said that the plot of this picture is the last thing you think about. (And I thought it was only me who had difficulty following the story…) What matters, what makes “The Maltese Falcon” worth watching again and again, are the stand-alone scenes. You hardly care what’s come before, or what’s coming next, you’re so caught up in the perfect moment.

Bogey’s classic line:  “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Wish I could say that the way he does, and mean it. Heck, he’s even plausible when he wants to talk about the bird.

 

“The movie is essentially,” Ebert noted, “a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It’s all style. It isn’t violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak, and embody their characters.”

Think about San Francisco and you think about Sam Spade. The shabby office with the frosted glass door. The city streets by night. I’ve walked that town with key scenes in my head, from the corner of Burritt Alley and Bush Street, where Spade’s partner was done in (there’s actually a plaque to mark the spot) to the fancier locales around Union Square. I’ve even stayed in Joel Cairo’s hotel, the Belvedere (now the Monaco, a Klimpton property with a delightful restaurant).

Indelible.

A Touch of Evil

When I heard that today is Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 96th birthday, I was motivated to finish my review of “A Touch of Evil,” Orson Welles’s fascinating swan song as a director. You can understand why this was the last film he was allowed to direct. Even in its restored version, it fails to follow through on the promise of that brilliant opening sequence with the bomb in the trunk of the Chrysler.

As I said, brilliant. But let’s get back to Zsa Zsa. Her little cameo epitomizes the problem I had with this film. I was taken out of the story by her brief appearance as a bordello mistress. A glamorous Hungarian in some seedy Mexican border town? Really? And some thought Eva was incongruous in “Green Acres!”

Dietrich was anotherdietrich matter. You feel she belongs in such surroundings. You understand that she’s fallen on hard times since “Blue Angel” and you’re just happy to see her again, playing opposite Welles and smoking that Tiparillo. (Sorry, couldn’t resist an age-revealing allusion…)

That’s the thing:  Dietrich is an audience-pleaser. Welles’s performance is superb in a depressing way. Dennis Weaver’s nervous night clerk at the eerily empty motel where poor Janet Leigh is terrorized puts Norman Bates to shame. But other name-brand actors are wasted in this picture. Janet Leigh, Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff (as a Mexican?) and Charlton Heston (another alleged Mexican). Maybe auteur directors like Truffaut and Godard got a kick watching Welles show-off, but audiences were left in the cold, their needs for a coherent story unmet.

Anyhow, happy birthday, Zsa Zsa.zsa zsa

Rebecca

You can’t blame Hitchcock for the kinky sexual subtext in “Rebecca” because it was in the novel. rebecca-1940-2Stuff like the sinister Mrs. Danvers showing the new Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) the old Mrs. de Winter’s underwear:  “They were made specially for her in a convent in St. Clair.”

In case you had any doubts, your suspicion that Mrs. Danvers is unhinged is confirmed when she pulls out Rebecca’s nightgown, marveling over how sheer it is (“Look, you can see my hand through it!”) And then, just for good measure, she goes the extra mile, suggesting that Rebecca comes back to watch her former husband and his new wife together. You know what “together” means.

Fontaine’s performance makes the picture memorable. You watch her harden as the story develops, taking on the responsibilities of her role as mistress of Manderley, rallying behind her unstable husband (Laurence Olivier). She comes across as natural, spontaneous, whereas Olivier strikes me as more studied, as if he’s watching himself playing the character of de Winter.

Hitchcock’s sure touch with the pacing and camera work perfectly conveys the gothic feel of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. The menace you feel from the moment you enter Manderley, the tension in every scene, which grows more unbearable as the film goes on — so much so that you’d like to stop watching because you fear the story cannot end well, but of course you can’t stop. You’re in too deep.

You won’t breathe until it’s over.

Suspicion

Even a die-hard fan of Cary Grant will find him hard to admire here. I blame the screenwriters. The novel on which “Suspicion” was based is psychologically complex, and quite dark. The heroine of the book (played by Joan Fontaine in the picture) strongly suspects that her husband Johnny (Grant) is trying to kill her, but she’s so in love with him that she drinks the glass of milk he gives her, believing that it is poisoned.

Milk

This scene occurs in the film, but Fontaine’s character leaves the milk untouched on her bedside table. You see her face as she contemplates drinking it; Fontaine does love Grant. Who wouldn’t, right?

Well, actually, he is not his usual lovable self in this vehicle. You get flashes of the charming rogue here and there. In one scene, as they drive away from a party and Grant’s character tries to steal a kiss, Fontaine asks him how many women he’s had. Far too many, it turns out. “Once, when I couldn’t go to sleep, I started counting them,” he tells her, “just like sheep jumping over a hedge, and I fell asleep at number 73.”

At moments, you believe that Johnny is truly as bad as Fontaine’s character fears. He seems to have no conscience, is quite manipulative, a pathological liar intent on his own pleasures. He takes advantage of his friend “Beaky” (played by the wonderful Nigel Bruce—imagine a slightly dissolute Watson, still thick but endearing as ever), embezzles from his cousin, threatens Fontaine more than once.

But the evil you begin to perceive is always deflected and in the end you are supposed to think that Johnny is hopeless at managing his finances but at heart a decent sort who can be saved by the love of a good woman. Too bad, because watching Grant abandon his leading-man goodness and embrace a truly immoral role would have been interesting.

Le Corbeau

Paris, StraßenszeneAll of France resisted the Nazis, if not actively, at least in their hearts. So argued Jean-Paul Sartre in “The Republic of Silence,” an uplifting little address he published a month after the Liberation. “Because the Nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest,” he wrote. “And here I am not speaking of the elite among us who were real Resistants, but of all Frenchmen who, at every hour of the night and day throughout four years, answered NO.”

Of course, Sartre knew better. In “Paris Under the Occupation,” published a few months later, he presented a different picture of the compromises that daily life under the thumb of the Germans entailed. Here he admitted that his countrymen, for the most part, were too demoralized to resist. And yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to acknowledge how eagerly many complied.

Millions of people denounced their neighbors in anonymous letters to the authorities during the Vichy era. You could say this was something of a patriotic tradition in France. During the ancien régime, secret letters led to the imprisonment of countless “enemies,” who would languish in jail, never knowing what crime they had been accused of, not even knowing the name of their accuser. The practice was stopped during the French Revolution, but the habit persisted. Under Napoleon Bonaparte it was said that half of France was paid to inform on the other half. Informers were also employed during the colonial struggles after the war.

Betrayal was an uncomfortable fact of life under the Occupation, and Henri-Georges Clouzot made it the subject of his 1943 suspense film, “Le Corbeau.” Remarkably, the film was produced by a German-owned company, Continental. More remarkably, early publicity for the picture highlighted the theme:  “Informing, the shame of the century!” Goodness, what were they thinking?Le_corbeau_release_poster

The film was a smash hit. The Catholic Church gave it a “6” on its moral scale—“1” being appropriate for all audiences, even children, and “6” being a film so pernicious that it deserved to be banned—ensuring that it would find an audience for decades to come. In fact, prominent critics on both ends of the political spectrum condemned “Le Corbeau.” Clouzot was accused of treason in the collaborationist newspaper Je Suis Partout; anonymous letters were “necessary” to maintain public order claimed fascist writer Lucien Rebatet. The Left, meanwhile, objected to the complete absence of admirable characters. Nobody comes off well. Not a single soul. Children, nuns, peasants, shopkeepers, teachers, workers: all are corrupted by the poison pen letters circulating in their small town.

“You think that the good are all good and the bad are all bad,” the head of the hospital, Vorzet, tells the film’s protagonist, Germain, in a famous scene. “The good is the light and the bad is the shadow.” (Here Vorzet swings a lightbulb that is dangling from a wire overhead.) Germain is having an affair with a woman in the town. He desires her, but says that he wouldn’t hesitate to turn her in if she were found to be the culprit sending the poison pen letters. “But where is the shadow, where is the light?” Vorget asks. (By now the zones of light and shadow are shifting crazily as the bulb swings back and forth.) “Do you know if you are in the light or in the shadows?”

It’s only natural to seek clarity, particularly during times of upheaval. Simone de Beauvoir argued in favor of the death penalty for war criminals for precisely this reason.  Salutary executions were the only means of restoring the moral certainties that were compromised during the Vichy era, she proclaimed in her essay, “An Eye for an Eye.” And yet both she and Sartre stood up for Clouzot when the postwar French government barred him from making any more films on account of his alleged ties with the Nazis. Sartre even worked with Clouzot on a screenplay during the two-year period before the ban was lifted.

clouzotFor his part, Clouzot seems to have been quite a piece of work. Germain’s intolerance for the hypocrisy of human nature seems to have mirrored the director’s own. He was not an easy man to work with; more than one actress complained of being slapped around on the set. On the other hand, he got fine performances out of his cast and is one of only three directors to have won the top prizes at Cannes, Venice and Berlin (the other two were Michelangelo Antonioni and Robert Altman).

So, where is the shadow and where is the light?

In a Lonely Place

I just wanted to haul Gloria Grahame’s character aside In_a_lonely_place_1950_posterand tell her in no uncertain terms: Honey, forget him.  He’s bad news, even if he’s not a murderer. Sure, he’s Humphrey Bogart, and a very vulnerable Humphrey Bogart at that, but he’s trouble from the get-go.

Imagine what a basket case Rick must’ve been right after Ilsa left him, before he opened that night club in Morocco. If he’d gone back to the U.S. and started hanging out with cynical Hollywood people instead, he might have turned into the mean drunk he plays in this picture, a guy who picks fights and gets into road rage incidents, beats women around and displays not a trace of emotion when the innocent hatcheck girl he was with the night before turns up dead.

It’s certainly a change, to see Bogart playing the line between alienated artist and psychopath — and coming out on the psychopath side. None of the people in his orbit know how to take him. They’re all walking on eggshells, bracing themselves for the next explosion and yet, inexplicably, they keep coming back for more abuse.

Grahame’s character is attracted to him, and you do see why.He gives off a dangerous allure and there’s an animal intensity to their first encounter. Bogart’s hot!lonely place Flash forward three weeks and he’s grown cuddly.  Nothing like the love of a good woman to turn a guy around. But soon it’s Grahame’s character who’s a basket case. She suspects Bogey of murder (with good reason) and he picks up on her doubts and gets paranoid and possessive.

The movie turns into a mess at this point, although you’ll keep watching. Stick with it and you’ll get the ironic twist on Bogey’s best line, from the screenplay he manages to finish with Grahame’s loving support: “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

The Razor’s Edge

Maybe it’s not possible to make a good movie from a mediocre book, particularly one as rooted in its time (1940s America, and Europe as they imagined it back then) as Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge. 20th Century Fox put more than a million dollars into the picture, and it had a stellar cast. But the story is so melodramatic, it’s impossible to take it seriously, and it just drags on and on.

Tyrone Power plays the intense, war-scarred searcher, Larry Darrell.  He can’t seem to settle down with the lovely Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), even when his rival for Isabel’s affections, the millionaire Gray Maturin, offers him a high-paying job.  Instead he heads off to Paris to find himself, living in a run-down hotel and doing menial jobs while consorting with authentic French people.

Power and Tierney are wonderful to look at, and then you have the delightful Clifton Webb as Isabel’s uncle Elliot, a variant on the character he played opposite Tierney in “Laura,” along with Anne Baxter as a nice midwestern girl gone bad — really bad (our last view of her is as a concubine to a dissolute sheik in an opium den) and John Payne (of “Miracle on 34th Street”) as the millionaire. There’s even a cameo appearance by Elsa Lanchester, who plays the Scottish secretary to some social-climbing American “princess.”

No, it’s not the cast.  It’s the story.  The cheesy sequence with the Indian holy man, who sends Larry to the top of the Himalayas to find enlightenment, was so bad it was almost good. Almost.

Chinatown

Wow. How did I miss this film? Thirty-six years it’s been out there and I’ve just seen it for the first time. No wonder it’s on everyone’s top-ten list.

Yes, the noir atmosphere is superblyStyle-in-film-Faye-Dunaway-in-Chinatown-9 conveyed. And yes, the acting is flawless. Faye Dunaway is stunning, and very compelling as the troubled femme fatale. I’d forgotten that Jack Nicholson wasn’t always demonic. Makes me want to see “Five Easy Pieces” again, not to mention “Easy Rider” and “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.” (Watch this space…)

But what really struck me was the tone of “Chinatown.” The film was released in 1974, my senior year of high school. In August of that year Nixon finally resigned over Watergate, after the evidence of his involvement in the conspiracy and the cover-up had become impossible to ignore.Right up until the day he did, though, it seemed as if he was going to get away with it and I graduated high school a hardened cynic.  I remember reading Orwell’s 1984 in English class and thinking that it didn’t seem far-fetched at all. Paranoia was the order of the day, to the point where even soap operas like “All My Children” used hidden tape recorders as plot devices.

Corruption in high places. Justice that is far from blind. Money running the show. Tell me something I didn’t already know.

jake

Unhappy endings? Funny thing. We used to be able to handle those in blockbuster movies.

Laura

The creepy parts of this picture are not what you’d expect. Yes, the murderer does sneak out of the kitchen at the end of the film, waving a gun at the heroine. But by the time he does this, we’ve seen him do worse. The way Clifton Webb’s character fawns over Laura, keeping tabs on her, chasing away all rivals, trying to get inside her head, to change her feelings: that’s scary!

Then there’s Dana Andrews’ character, the detective assigned to investigate Laura’s alleged murder. He ends up falling in love with her. If you can call it love. He goes through her drawers, practically sniffs her lingerie, hangs around in her apartment reading her diary and drinking her scotch. Laura calls him on it when she returns, then lets him haul her into the police station and interrogate her. Next thing you know, she’s in love with him.  That’s scary too!

Guess who comes off as the most affable of all Laura’s suitors? Vincent Price.

I’m not kidding. As the spoiled southern gentleman who was engaged to Laura before her alleged murder, he’s charming and has no illusions about himself. Suspecting that Laura killed the woman he was fooling around with in her apartment, he’s ready to sacrifice himself to keep her out of prison. Or, he’d like to be the sort of man who would do that, but maybe he’s not quite up to it? Or maybe Laura isn’t worth the sacrifice since it’s clear she doesn’t really love him.

The best noir shows people at their worst, and “Laura” gets to that place by the end. The story leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Too much honesty, yet it’s not quite enough to make you like these characters. All the performances are brilliant, pushing the boundaries of the genre but never over-the-top.