Barbara Stanwyck’s Deadliest Femme Fatale

220px-Double_indemnity_screenshot_3The 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.

161228_double_indemnity_bannerI 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.

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Double Indemnity (1944) Billy Wilder

double_indemnity

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

Florida Noir: Key Largo

Key Largo

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Here’s the story of the hurricane….

   On September 2nd 1935, a category five, the highest level, storm slammed into the Florida Keys. The storm hit on Labor Day. Original predictions had it heading between the Lower Keys and Cuba. At first, it was thought to be of lesser severity. Then it blew up heading toward Upper Matcumbe Key, Plantation Key and Tavernier Key with wind speeds between 200 and 250 mph. It turned out to be the strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. Storm surges ranged from 18 to 25 feet. Towns like Tavernier and Marathon were left with no buildings standing. Other towns nearby suffered catastrophic destruction. Over 400 hundred deaths were reported, many were World War I veterans who were working on the completion of the Overseas Highway the road that would connect the mainland to the keys. The veterans were part of the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Continue reading

Kid Galahad (1937) Michael Curtiz

Harry-Carey-Wayne-Morris-and-Edward-G_-Robinson-in-Kid-Galahad-1937Kid Galahad is a solid entertaining Warner Brothers film starring Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, so you can hardly go wrong. The film was directed by Micheal Curtiz who just a few years later would direct Bogie in one of cinema’s greatest classics, Casablanca. Here Bogie is still a second string player in one of his typical, for the time, gangster punk roles he was being typecast to play. He had the unlikely name of Turkey Morgan. Like what tough guy has a nickname of Turkey? Continue reading

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) Norman Jewison

By 1965, Steve McQueen was a star with hit films like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape” already behind him. Yet, McQueen still had not proven he could carry a film, films where he alone was the big name. “The Honeymoon Machine,” “The War Lover” and “Hell is For Heroes” did little at the box office no matter what their quality. McQueen was still chasing the one actor who he saw as his rival, Paul Newman. With the release of “The Cincinnati Kid,” Steve would be on a cinematic roll pushing him through the stratosphere for the next few years equal to that of his screen rival.

I first saw “The Cincinnati Kid” in 1965 at a little theater in Downtown Brooklyn called the Duffield. Back in those days, this area of Brooklyn was a sort of mini Times Square with the boroughs largest and fanciest movie palaces all within walking distance. The Loew’s Metropolitan, RKO Albee, Brooklyn Fox and Brooklyn Paramount were all large grand scale theaters, each seating more than 3,000 people. The Duffield, on the other hand, was a small theater, approximately 900 seats, located on a side street (Duffield Street) just off Fulton Street, the main thoroughfare. McQueen was cool, as Eric Stoner, aka The Cincinnati Kid, his screen persona in full bloom. He had the walk and the look. He doesn’t talk too much but McQueen was always at his best when playing the silent type, it was all in his face and his body language. In truth, I was always more of a Paul Newman fan, but in this film McQueen was it, total sixties cool. Continue reading

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) Anatole Litvak

“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”  is an odd little Warner’s film with Edward G. Robinson as a Park Avenue doctor who decides to do some research on criminal behavior by becoming a criminal himself. After stealing some expensive jewelry at a dinner party he seeks out a fence by the name of Joe Keller who turns out to be Jo Keller (Claire Trevor), a woman. Jo’s gang includes “Rocks” Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), a young Ward Bond, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Warner Brothers’ regular Allan Jenkins.

To continue his research the good doctor goes on “vacation” in Europe freeing him up from his practice to secretly join the gang in a series of daring robberies. This is a out of the ordinary film that manages at times to be suspenseful, funny, and sinister with a whiff of mad scientist thrown in for good measure. At times the actors seem to be in different films; Bogart in a straight gangster film with “Rocks” in the ranks of his greatest slime ball characters while Robinson acts as a scientifically aloof madman obsessed with his findings going to any length to save his breakthrough research.

In the final courtroom scene Clitterhouse is on trial for poisoning “Rocks” after he discovered the Doctor’s real identity and blackmails him forcing in to stay in the gang. Clitterhouse objects to testimony in court that he must be insane fearing all his research would be disregarded. Still the jury finds him innocent by reason of insanity leaving Clitterhouse not only confused but innocent of murder charges, an ending that was daring for its time when the production code was strictly enforced and criminals must pay for their sins.

The script was written by John Wexley and John Huston based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and was directed by the reliable Anatole Litvak. It was during the filming of this movie that Bogart and Huston met and became friends, a partnership that would lead to some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Huston, Robinson, Bogart and Trevor would reunite some ten years later in “Key Largo.”    

 ***

The Little Giant (1933) Roy Del Ruth

This is a reprint of a short review from my Weekly Wrap column that I have been doing over at  the “Watching Shadows on the Wall” blog,  I am reposting some of the short reviews I have written over there that fit into the scope of 24frames.

 

From Little Caesar to Little Giant. Just two years after Edward G. Robinson made celluloid history as Rico in Mervyn LeRoy’s “Little Caesar” he and Warner Brothers were spoofing his tough guy image in this little gem.  With a story line similar to the better known “A Slight Case of Murder”, which was made some five years later in 1938, this film has Robinson as gangster Bugs Ahearn who decides to get out of the bootlegging business and go straight after Roosevelt’s victory over Hoover and the government’s announcement to repeal prohibition.

Rich from his 12 years of bootlegging, he decides to relocate to California and mingle in high society. The film becomes a fish of water story as Bugs, hiding his true identity, become a target for every scam artist on the west coast especially the evil Cass family. From pretty Polly Cass (Helen Vinson) who seduces him hoping to marry so she can get a quickie divorce and a large settlement, to her brother who sells Bugs polo ponies and finally, the father who sells Bugs an investment firm on the verge of bankruptcy and has the law coming down on them for fraud. Also on board and about the only honest person in the film is Ruth Wayburn (Mary Astor) who of course falls secretly in love with our gangster hero.

The mix of slapstick and verbal humor, many that play on Robinson’s gangster screen image, keeps this film moving at a snappy pace. The film is directed by Roy Del Ruth whose career seems to have flourished during the pre-code era while he was at Warners. His works from this period include “The Maltese Falcon” (1931), “Blonde Crazy”, “Lady Killer”, “Blessed Event”, “Employee Entrance” and “Taxi.”

“The Little Giant” is the least known of four comedy gangster films Robinson did in his career, at least with him in the lead, and deserves to be known better than it is. TCM always has the other three in their rotation (The Whole Town’s Talkin’. A Slight Cast of Murder and Larceny Inc.) however, this one seems to have fallen off the map. It deserves better.

***1/2