My article on Barbara Stanwyck and Double Indemnity is one of many excellent noir topics in the year-end issue of The Dark Pages.
The 1950s was such a rich decade in film that I found myself having a difficult time in selecting what films to eliminate. I could only select five films according to the blogathon rules of engagement. Once I narrowed my selection down the question or questions became how can you leave a film like Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest off you list? How can you not select Sunset Blvd. or Some like it Hot or Strangers on a Train or The Searchers or High Noon or Paths of Glory or Singin’ in the Rain or Vertigo or On the Waterfront or Rio Bravo or well you get the point. The 1950s was a great decade. Narrow a select down to five favorites was not easy.
One rule I made on my own was to list a film director no more than once. Otherwise I could have listed five Alfred Hitchcock films: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder and I Confess. Or I could have went with five Billy Wilder films: Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd, Ace in the Hole, Witness for the Prosecution and Stalag 17. I could also list five John Ford films but you get the point.
With that self set rule in place it became a little easier, however, I made one other rule. List a bunch of runner ups. Like I said the 1950’s was a rich decade. Anyway, here are my five favorite, not necessarily the bests, but favorites with a bit of an explanation followed by my runner ups.
Ace on the Hole
Manipulation, exploitation, opportunism, and hard-boiled vile, shaken, mixed and slammed into your guts by Billy Wilder. Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) is a lurid, take no prisoners portrait of the news media delivering a knock down nasty assault on journalism and the morbid character of the blood leeching public. No one is spared. A film made more than fifty years ago, yet more relevant today than ever. Opportunistic journalists pushing the limits of ethics is a recurring trend. The news media, in general has become more bipartisan and show business, making news more than reporting news objectively. So-called entertainment news shows, making “superstars” out of marginal personalities like Paris Hilton, the Kardasians on television almost ever night. Kirk Douglas’ Charlie Tatum would fit right in with today’s media world.
This is my favorite Hitchcock film, not an easy task in itself to select. It’s also one of my favorite films of all time. A permanent top-fiver on every list I ever made. It never gets bumped. Maybe not so surprisingly I have written about Rear Window twice before. Rear Window gets to the roots of movie watching, and still photography, for that matter. For anyone who is an avid film goer, it is no great revelation that watching movies is an extension of voyeurism; after all, what are we doing but looking into the lives of others. Observing, in a socially acceptable way, as opposed to peeping into the windows of neighbors or strangers. We are all, to an extent, curious to know what other people are doing, it’s human nature. However, most people can keep these voyeuristic tendencies limited to the socially accepted variety. Alfred Hitchcock was well aware of this trait in humans and he suckers us into compliance right from the beginning with the casting of James Stewart. Who better than Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Straight Lace to lure you into peeping in on your neighbors and making you think there is nothing weird about it. You may not like hearing it but yes, if you like watching movies you are a voyeur! Rear Window is also smart, funny, tense, meticulous and intriguing. Oh yeah, there is the gorgeous looking Grace Kelly too, and the excellent Thelma Ritter.
invasion of the Body Snatchers
An allegory on the infiltration of communism in America? A metaphor for people turning a blind eye to the McCarthyism hysteria that was sweeping the country in the early 1950’s? An attack on the potential dangers of conformity and the stamping out of individuality? Don Siegel’s 1956 gem of a film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has been said to “really be about” any and all of these themes since its debut now more than fifty years ago. Siegel, who should know, never mentions any of this kind of subtext in his autobiography, A Siegel Film, so one can assume, all the reading into this classic SF film is just that, critics and film goers reading their own thoughts and ideas into a work of pop art. After all, isn’t personal interpretation one of the elements and joys of enjoying art?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an expertly made science fiction thriller that slowly builds in tension and never lets up. Filled with perfectly composed cinematography, a pulsating music score, by Carmen Dragon, and top notch acting performances from Kevin McCarthy and the lovely Dana Wynters, in a gallant battle to save the human race from dehumanizing pods.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers cautions us on the problem of being complacent with our lives; falling asleep is a danger, we are vulnerable, one loses touch with the world, and pods can quickly take us over. This fear is as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago, maybe even more so, when the film was made, as pod like ideologues and followers swarm into the political mainstream.
The original title, Deadly Is The Female, says it all. A lethal woman and a chump of a guy whose life isn’t worth a plug nickel once the sexual sparks ignite and the bullets begin to fly. Gun Crazy is a compact, quick moving, finely tuned, low-budget piece of celluloid art. Brilliant in its minimalist approach, this small quickie accomplishes more visual beauty and excellent pacing than 99% of all high budget products that are excreted from today’s filmmakers. Note how director Joseph H. Lewis focuses entirely on the young lovers making all the other characters and their actions secondary. Even the police, as they close in on the couple in the swamp, are barely on-screen. The stunning bank robbery sequence, shot in one long take, sucks the audience, into the action practically making us all accessories in the crime.
Touch of Evil
The opening is one astounding continuous long running brilliant shot. It’s a spectacular beginning to one of the most interesting film noir’s ever made. Touch of Evil is also my own personal favorite Orson Welles work. It’s low budget film making that cannot be beat. Released on the top half of a twin bill, at least in New York, the film played at theaters around the city for only four days; scaled back to one theater for another three days and then quickly disappeared. Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan is an unkempt, overweight, beastly looking character. Visually, Welles made himself grotesque by placing the camera at a very low angles to emphasizes his character’s bulk. In one scene, we see Quinlan lifts he massive body up and out of a car, getting the full brunt of his size and hideous unkempt clothes right in our face. If there is a weak link in the film, it’s Charlton Heston playing Vargas, the Hispanic detective. Can anyone really believe Heston as Hispanic? Touch of Evil is a dark dirty, gritty noir.
Read more about the Five Favorite Films of the 50’s here!!!
And below are a few Runner Ups. I’m sure I missed a few.
Some Like it Hot
North by Northwest
Night of the Hunter
Strangers on a Train
The Asphalt Jungle
Paths of Glory
Dial M for Murder
Singin’ in the Rain
On the Waterfront
From Here to Eternity
Witness for the Prosecution
A Place in the Sun
Bridge on the Rive Kwai
12 Angry Men
Pickup on South Street
The first hard-boiled writer I ever read was James M. Cain. Early on I had watched the film version of Double Indemnity, more than a few times, and a then recently published paperback version drove me to Cain’s short novel and others. What was missing most from the Cain novel was the witty dialogue the characters possessed in the film. That’s due to screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler sprinkling a biting rhythmic quality to it. Maybe it’s not realistic dialogue, but it sharpens the film to the highest levels of wit and testosterone. Either way, actors Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray handle the dialogue with a snarky, edgy style missing in Cain’s novel.
I may be wrong, but as far as I can remember, the Billy Wilder film was my first exposure to Barbara Stanwyck. There was something mystical about her. She was not the ravishing, steamy beauty say of Ava Gardner in The Killers or Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Those two ladies were closer to the idolized fiery femme fatales that we are used to seeing. However, arguing that Stanwyck lacked sex appeal or could attract a steady stream of men would be futile. Barbara Stanwyck possessed high cheekbones, and eyebrows that mischievously arched upward. It was enticing. Then there were those legs or gams as they were called. They were her sexiest attribute. She may not have been the most beautiful of actresses, but she quickly drew you into her feminine sphere. When you see her in that first of many memorable scenes, a towel wrapped around her otherwise naked body or later when she is on the couch lifting her leg giving Walter Neff an enticing view as he takes off her shoe… well, you already know she’s got her pasty wrapped around those gorgeous gams. There was also a toughness about Stanwyck. You knew she wasn’t going to take bull from anyone.
Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is a user. She uses the come on of verbal sexual foreplay and sex itself as a means to an end. I don’t believe Phyllis enjoys the sex act itself; it’s the endgame that genuinely gets her off; the plan to get rid of her husband and the insurance money that’s her genuine desire. Walter, like her husband, doesn’t matter, he is just a pawn in her deadly game. Phyllis is a woman with no redeeming qualities.
For Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity was his third directorial effort, but the first to reveal his dark and pessimistic view of America and its people. We would see Wilder’s bleak take on society in future films like Sunset Blvd, The Lost Weekend, and especially in Ace in the Hole. Wilder’s world is filled with sordid lives of kept men (William Holden), alcoholics (Ray Milland) and bottom feeders (Kirk Douglas). Wilder’s co-writer was non-other than another hard-boiled writer, the great Raymond Chandler.
By setting the story in flashback mode, the filmmakers got the film approved by the overlords of cinema morality, AKA the Production Code. This compromise to the Gods told the audience there’s no use sympathizing with our characters since they are all ending up dead because of their dirty deeds. Surprisingly, James M. Cain liked the flashback idea even admitting he would have set up the structure of his novel that way if he had thought of it himself. Cain based his pulp fiction novella on the real life 1927 murder involving Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray. Like the Cain story, and the Wilder film, Ruth Snyder, the first woman executed in New York, convinces Gray to kill her husband after she took out an insurance policy on him with a double indemnity clause. The law quickly caught the two lovers. The murder became infamous when the New York Daily News published a front-page photo of Snyder strapped in an electric chair as the juice was about to be turned on.
Like oil and water, Wilder and Chandler did not mix. It was a tormenting experience for the hard-boiled author. Chandler said working with Wilder may even have shortened his life. He could not adjust to Wilder’s habits of constantly pacing while ‘writing’ or of his habit of always wearing a hat indoors, plus there was the constant stream of women he was involved with. The author did admit he learned a lot about screenwriting from Billy. Wilder found it just as frustrating working with alcoholic Chandler and his infuriating sour disposition.
From the beginning of the project, Wilder wanted Stanwyck for the role of Phyllis Dietrichson; however, Babs was concerned about playing an out and out despicable person with no redeeming values. She loved the script but was fearful her fans would hate or even desert her. Stanwyck always played tough, strong women whether on the right or wrong side of life.
Wilder wanted her to look like a cheap, low-level dame; thus the cut-rate blonde wig the director insisted she had to wear. One studio exec famously commented, “We hire Barbara Stanwyck, and here we get George Washington.” However, in the scenes where Stanwyck wears that tight white sweater, you know she’s a sexual magnet.
Double Indemnity was a huge hit. Stanwyck received a Best Actress nomination. Wilder earned nominations for both Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Chandler). The film also picked up a nod for Best Picture. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is one the screen’s great femme fatales: a user of men, seductive, money hungry, willing to ruin anyone who gets in her way, a hardened, unfeeling, cold-blooded dame. How good is Stanwyck in Double Indemnity? How alluring, sexy, and dangerous? Just watch the bland 1973 made for TV remake with Samantha Eggar in the role and you know how twisted and seductive Barbara Stanwyck could be.
This review is part of the Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Please check more films in the blogathon by clicking here.
John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir Point Blank is based on the novel, The Hunter, the first of twenty-three hard-boiled paperbacks about a career criminal who goes by the singular name of Parker. The series was written by Richard Stark, one of many pseudonyms used by Donald E. Westlake, one of the all-time great crime fiction writers our time. Westlake’s career spread across novels, screenplay, and television. Several of his many books have made it to the big screen including The Split (1968) The Hot Rock (1972), Cops and Robbers (1973), Bank Shot (1974) and Two Much among others. Westlake’s screenplay credits include The Grifters (2000), adapted from famed pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson novel, and The Stepfather. Two of my own personal favorite works of Westlake books are both standalone novels: The Hook and The Ax. Continue reading
Robert Mitchum may have been a little long in the tooth to play Philip Marlowe, and the film itself is no hipster revisionist tale like Robert Altman did with The Long Goodbye just a few years earlier. Farewell, My Lovely is a straight throwback to the classic days of Bogart, Powell, and Montgomery. Mitchum, of course, starred in many classic noirs: Out of the Past, Angel Face, The Racket and Where Danger Lives are just a few. This was Mitchum’s first time portraying the P.I. In 1978, Mitchum would again play Marlowe in the Michael Winner remake of The Big Sleep. That film was a bit of a misfire. While not as bad as its reputation, let’s just say Bogart and Howard Hawks have nothing to worry about. Continue reading
Like Florida, Out of Time is laid back and easy, at least it starts off that way. We meet Banyan Key Police Chief Matt Lee Whitlock, a smooth Denzel Washington, as he makes his rounds one hot evening in the small coastal town. Relaxing back at the office, he receives a phone call from one Ann Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan); there’s an intruder outside her small house, can he come over. At her home, he begins asking a series of questions. We soon realize they are both acting out a coquettish sexual game that ends up with them in bed. The playful sexuality is as hot as the Floridian temperature in the dead heat of summer. Continue reading
One of neo-noirs most underrated and little talked about films is George Armitage’s Miami Blues. The 1990 film is based on Charles Willeford’s 1986 novel, the first in his series featuring the dysfunctional detective, Hoke Moseley. Willeford was a prolific writer, and not just of crime fiction. He was a poet and biographer. His crime novels are darkly humorous tales juxtaposing violence and humor keeping you off balance all the way. Three of his novels have been turned into films: The Woman Chaser, Cockfighter and Miami Blues. All are unconventional, dark and eccentric which may account for why his work has not been mined for further screen adventures. Continue reading
A dark Los Angeles night. A reckless speeding car is seen racing through the streets running a red light. When it comes to a screeching stop, a hunched over man gets out and enters the Pacific All Risk Insurance Co. Building. After looking at row after row of desk after repetitive desk, he goes into his private office. The man is hurt badly. Hunched over, perspiration running down his face, he begins to tell his tale into a dictaphone. His name is Walter Neff, and he is about to make a confession. Continue reading
In a 1993 interview with The New York Times, Martin Scorsese talks about the influence Murder by Contract had on the then teenager. “It’s an example of an American B-movie that is 100 times better than the film it played with on a double bill.” He then went on to explain, “The film it was playing with when I saw it was ‘The Journey,’ by Anatole Litvak, with Yul Brynner. That film had nice color, but when ‘Murder by Contract’ came on the screen, it was surprising and lean and purposeful, and not like anything my friends and I had seen. Afterward, we talked about it on the street for days. When I saw it again years later, I was overwhelmed by the severity of the style, which was dictated by the budget.” Scorsese later said in the interview how he put a clip from the film in ‘Mean Streets, ‘ but he had to remove it out of the final cut of the film because it was too long. Continue reading
Nicholas Ray’s films were filled with anti-heroes. Characters who were disillusioned with life. Outsiders in a system they could not or would not fit into or accept. Protagonist Dix Steele fits the mole perfectly. For Humphrey Bogart, playing Dix, was a stretch. This was not the typical Bogart character we were used to seeing. Whether on the right or wrong side of the law, Bogart’s characters were generally calm, cool and in control (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca). As Dix, we are watching the flip side. A man who is always on edge: cynical, moody and ready to explode at the slightest moment. As a screenwriter, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., he knew where on the Hollywood pecking order he stood…way down at the bottom. He despised the Hollywood machine, considering most in the industry hacks or as he says, “popcorn salesmen.” Continue reading