Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Double_indemnity_screenshot_8It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” – Walter Neff

I can’t say this enough. Double Indemnity is so deliciously enticing each and every time I see it. Maybe it’s the A-grade script from Billy Wilder and crime novelist Raymond Chandler with its noir cynicism and memorable phraseology. Maybe it’s the shadowy, low-key interiors or L.A. exteriors. The monotonous beating score of Miklos Rozsa, mourning impending doom. Maybe it’s the plain, laconic way of Walter Neff or his bloodhound buddy Keyes. Is it the innocent Lola who gives the film morality? Or the artificial wig and the silky smooth purring of Phyllis Dietrichson?

In fact, I named many, if not all, of the many facets of this film, because I want to attempt to acknowledge all of them before I forget. But the reality is I love Double Indemnity at its most basic level as a piece of prime American cinema. Yes, it is film-noir and yes, it came from a European director, but it is very much a product of 1940s sentiment as the war years waned.

The story is pulled right from some pulp fiction sleaze by James M. Cain and cemented itself as a noir classic in its own right with all the trappings that are called for.

It opens with the beginnings of Rozsa’s score reverberating in our ears and it very rarely lets up. A car blazes wildly down the street and winds up in front of an insurance agency. Out stumbles our protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and for the rest of the film, he relates the recent happenings over the Dictaphone of his colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). It goes something like this:

During his first visit to the home of a Mr. Dietrichson, he instead has his first encounter with the man’s sensual wife, and his heart goes pitter-patter from then on. His motivation is no longer insurance. Now he just wants the chance to see her more. He gets his chance to advise her on a plan, and it all seems playful enough until she insinuates that she wants to knock off her ol’ hubby. At least that’s how Neff reads it. However, he cannot get her out of his head as he has fallen into her web. There’s no turning back.

They think of everything and Neff has everything figured out to a tee. As he suggests, it’s like having the perfect odds on the roulette wheel, you just need an accomplice to spin and Phyllis is just that person. From then it’s just straight down the line. They corroborate on all the details at local Jerry’s Market, Walter sets up his alibi, and he does the devilish deed as Phyllis stares with cool satisfaction at the road ahead.

They set it all up like an accident as the last touch, because as Neff knows all too well if it looks like Mr. Dietrichson was killed from riding a train the Double Indemnity clause of the insurance will mean double the payoff due to how unlikely the occurrence is.

 Double Indemnity (1944) - UpdatedHis only fear is the inquisitive nose of Keyes and the “little man” inside the claims investigator’s stomach, who warns him of the first sign of anything fishy. He gets close to the truth but not quite there. Neff is too close for him to see it. However, as things begin to heat up Phyllis and Neff must separate.

As Neff tries to console Lola Dietrichson over the death of her father, he quickly finds out what the naive girl has to say about her step-mother. It puts a little light on the subject, and Neff realizes what he’s been taken for. He wants to remedy things while he can, patching Lola up with her boyfriend, and going to confront Phyllis one last time.

It’s the perfect set-up. Darkened rooms with curtains drawn. Phyllis reclined in an armchair with evil intentions on her mind. In walks Walter and they have it out. Shots are fired, literally. Phyllis will never let up with her ploys until Walter gives her a little help for the final time. I’m sure the Hays Codes loved this one. I certainly did.

Back in the office Keyes finally overhears the end of Walter’s “confession” as his friend bleeds to death. In one last touching moment, Keyes returns the favor and lights the cigarette like Walter has been obliging to do the entire film.

Walter: “Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.”
Keyes: “Closer than that, Walter.”
Walter: “I love you too”

Billy Wilder traded longtime partner Charles Brackett for Raymond Chandler, and despite a rocky partnership, they ended up with one of the greatest scripts, chock full of memorable bits of dialogue. You know you have an impressive cast when Edward G. Robinson is your third lead and each character is playing against type. It’s great casting, in a quintessential American drama solidified by great cinematography and storytelling.

It doesn’t get much better than this and it certainly does not need to. You know Double Indemnity is good when I’ve seen it multiple times and each time the bullets still keep me on the edge of my seat. Thank you, Billy Wilder, for teaching us murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle. That’s absolutely beautiful.

Phyllis: “No, 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. I never thought that could happen to me.”
Walter: “Sorry, baby, I’m not buying”
Phyllis: “I’m not asking you to buy. Just hold me close.
Walter: “Good-bye baby.”

5/5 Stars

Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

f5016-sunset_blvd_title

“Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It’s about five o’clock in the morning. That’s the Homicide Squad – complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You’ll read about it in the late editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved – one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.”

So begins one of the most caustic dramas ever constructed in Hollywood, or about Hollywood, and it was gifted to us by screenwriter-director extraordinaire Billy Wilder. His previous hard-edged film noir Double Indemnity had its own cynical narrator with a memorable voice-over of his own. However, Walter Neff was only on the verge of dying. When we hear the voice of Joe Gillis he is already speaking from the grave. It is a fantastic angle in which to look at this seemingly perfect Hollywood construction, and Gillis never ceases to tell his story until we wind up at the pool as the story comes to a close.

For now, we learn that six months back Joe (William Holden)  is a writer who is having difficulties being published, and some men want to repossess his car. Desperate, he pays a visit to a friend at Paramount named Mandrake to pitch an idea, but the script is of little merit according to a pretty young script reader. That’s a dead end so Joe leaves, but the men are waiting for him and he zooms away. A flat tire leads him to drive away into an empty garage connected to a dilapidated old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. 

There he is mistakenly introduced to drama queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who used to be big on the silent screen, back in the day. Now all she has is money, fan letters, and old memories to rehash, while her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) watches over her. The theatrical actress believes her big comeback is soon at hand, and when she learns Joe is a writer, she takes an interest. He needs the money so he takes a look at the rough script meant to be a vehicle for her. A small commitment turns into a life-consuming undertaking. Desmond constantly hovers and dotes over Joe, going so far as having his things moved into her home and buying him new clothes and trinkets. He reluctantly accepts the first class treatment, not minding the cushy lifestyle. But to Norma, it’s more. 

He is her closest companion. Her love. Joe cannot bear to tell her that she is washed up and that there will never be anything between them. He ditches her intimate New Years party for a more friendly affair where he crosses path with his old bud Artie (Jack Webb) and his girl, the previously critical script girl Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson). She takes an interest in a few of his past ideas, but he does not, and after getting shocking news from Max he is pulled back to his lavish prison.

Eventually, Norma is prepared to drop off her script with her former collaborator the great Cecil B. DeMille. However, it becomes all too clear that her story will amount to nothing, but her friend cannot bear to break her heart. She is sent off again with the strong conviction that her day is coming. Makeover’s, diets, and facials follow in preparation. Joe is indifferent to it all and secretly begins working at nights with Betty on a new screenplay. 

Desmond finds the script and jealousy takes over, causing her to call Betty to ruin the romance that is rapidly budding there. Joe hears it all and angrily tells the disbelieving Betty to come see his set-up on Sunset Boulevard. He acts as if he likes the life, and Betty leaves broken-hearted. Soon after, a fed-up Joe packs his bags to head back to Ohio. Thus, begins the systematic breakdown that we had expected for so long. Norma Desmond completely falls apart and does the one thing she knows to hold on. 

Back in the present the crowds and journalists have turned out to see the has-been movie star who is stark raving mad, and one last time Norma does not disappoint. She glides seamlessly down the stairs with a serenely ethereal look on her face before preparing for her closeup. So ends the career of one Norma Desmond and the life of Joe Gillis. We can only hope that Betty got together again with Artie, otherwise this would remain one of the bleakest tales of all time.

However, that is part of the power of this film. It is strangely dark and ominous. Franz Waxman’s score is fit for a Gothic melodrama and Desmond’s mansion is a creaky old foreboding castle that hardly sees the light of day. Max is a solemn figure who we learn brought Norma stardom, married her, got divorced, and then could not live without her. Joe Gillis gets caught in a cycle he cannot get out of, and in the middle of the whole mess is Desmond herself. She is so preoccupied with herself, so obsessed with her own former glory, and yet she is a lonely, insecure aging actress. In many ways, she is Citizen Kane’s female counterpoint. A person with so much money, prestige, and power who slowly drifts away into oblivion without anyone caring except ravenous journalists. Much in the same way, although Norma is so petty and vain in so many ways, I cannot help but feel sympathy for her sorry existence. She is an utterly pitiful person in the end. No one deserves her fate.

In this way, Sunset Boulevard seems to critique Hollywood, a place that makes stars like Norma Desmond and spits them back out just as easily. It is not easily figured out or understood it just does at is pleases. For instance, Billy Wilder became an immigrant writer and director of great repute. Cecil B. Demille was a longtime respected director. Erich von Stroheim had early success with silent films then had to turn to acting. Gloria Swanson was a silent star then struggled in the 1930s. William Holden broke out in the 30s, hit his peak in the 1950s and continued to act into the 70s. Nancy Olson went on to make a few classic Disney movies and Jack Webb, of course, went on to create the TV Show Dragnet. Each Hollywood career starkly different from the others. 

 There is also such an authenticity in this film so much so that sometimes the line between fiction and reality is blurred. First, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson to play former silent star Norma Desmond in the film, so it seems like she is playing herself (Complete with old promotional photos and silent footage). He also had appearances by both von Stroheim and Demille, who had each directed Swanson in her silent days. Some of Desmond’s bridge friends include other real silent stars including Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the legendary Buster Keaton (His career had also crumbled). Even gossip columnist Hedda Hopper gets into the mix to tell the tragic story of Desmond, and it all works. 

So whether you watch Sunset Boulevard for the Hollywood angle, or as a film-noir, or a love story, or a tragic drama, the beauty of it, is that it functions as all of those things simultaneously. Gloria Swanson is absolutely loopy, William Holden is as cynical as ever with his smoked-out gravelly voice. Von Stroheim is haunting as the faithful Max, and Nancy Olson is the one young friendly face in juxtaposition with Swanson. Billy Wilder’s script with Charles Brackett is inspired a multitude of times, but instead of telling you I will give you a taste: 

“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”

That’s Norma Desmond in a nutshell for you. That’s Sunset Blvd.

5/5 Stars