The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

the_whole_towns_talking_1935_posterComic mayhem was always supercharged in the films of the 1930s because the buzz is palpable, the actors are always endowed with certain oddities, and the corkscrew plotlines run rampant with absurdities of their own.  Penned by a pair of titans in Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, The Whole Town’s Talking opens with an inciting incident that’s a true comedic conundrum.

Bald and beady-eyed Mr. Seaver is called upon to fire the next employee who comes in late to work. A tough proposition to begin with but it gets worse.  Arthur Ferguson Jones has not been late to work in 8 years and of course, today’s the day his alarm clock doesn’t work. Although he gets a reprieve. Still, the next person walking in isn’t so lucky. The hardy, wisecracking Miss Clark (Jean Arthur). And that’s our introduction to our main players.

But the real wrench comes from an age-old device that’s easy to scoff at initially. There’s a doppelganger. Yes, the same upstanding, timid Arthur Ferguson Jones is cut in the spitting image of Public Enemy No. 1, Killer Mannion. But before you check out, consider what this does for this ruckus of a story. It ties it up in knots.

Jones is the talk of the town. Exploding flashbulbs. Cover stories. Tumult. Back in the glory days when the press ran in a pack like hyenas.  His boss invites him to dinner, wants an autograph for his boy. He’s being ribbed by his coworkers and Miss Jones takes an interest in his literary endeavors. This leads to a gig ghostwriting the gangster’s life story in the local paper.

Meanwhile, the police argue about what to do about him. They finally decide to give him a special passport. It says he’s not Killer Mannion. And hapless little Mr. Seaver still badgers his employee to finish up his waiting caseload. What no one expects is that Mannion will sneak into Jones’ home and sets up camp.

And from that point on, everything gets confused. Robinson gets a chance at a great deal of range sometimes having his two diverging roles playing off each other in the same frame. All you need to know is the gangster is looking to leave his new benefactor holding the bag for his numerous crimes. Whether it works out or not is quite another story.

This a particularly odd film for the talent assembled. It doesn’t especially feel like a John Ford film and not simply because it’s not a Western. But at this point in his career, his stock company isn’t even assembled.

Edward G. Robinson will always be identified with gangster pics and it’s true he was tired of that association. Here he’s playing comedy. He has one foot in his usual wheelhouse but the other seems utterly alien to his usual persona. As such it’s great fun.  And his timid common man isn’t even a tragic figure like Chris Cross (Scarlet Street). The comedy is far more apparent and that in part stems from Arthur.

She shows up late to work, gets fired, and still has quips coming out of her ears. She plays all the journalists trying to pump her for facts and at the same time falls for this dope who has her picture framed by his bedside. Perhaps better than anyone she perfected how to be cheeky but still wholesome and caring. Arthur feels most at home in this film more than anyone else, given her comedic pedigree but she and Robinson bounce off each other well.

In a few years she would play a Miss Jones but for right now she’s content calling her colleague by the pet name “Jonesie” and (tiny spoiler) she does become Mrs. Jones. So an oddball romantic pair they might be, but that doesn’t make the partnering of Robinson and Arthur any less amusing. They’re both on their A-game in The Whole Town’s Talking and thankfully there would be many more arresting performances to come.

4/5 Stars

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

The Best Films of Edward G. Robinson

1. Scarlet Street
2. Key Largo
3. Little Caesar
4. The Woman in the Window
5. Double Indemnity
6. The Stranger
7. The Sea Wolf
8. The Ten Commandments
9. The Whole Town’s Talking
10. The Cincinnati Kid
11. Our Vines have Tender Grapes
12. All My Sons
13. Five Star Final
14. Soylent Green
15. Barbary Coast

The Stranger (1946)

f6c39-the_stranger_filmIn a whirlwind, the film goes from a moody foreign locale to a quaint American town called Harper, but it never ceases to be a gripping film noir. Considered Orson Welles‘ weakest project thus far, The Stranger is still thoroughly enjoyable thanks to the performances of Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles himself. Much like Shadow of a Doubt, this film shows that noir thrillers can still take place in middle America, and they can be pulse-pounders all the same. Also, an evil man can easily exist in a mundane environment and still be evil.

The reason we end up in Harper of all towns has to do with an “escaped” Nazi war criminal. He was allowed to escape and investigator Mr. Wilson (Robinson) follows him. It’s an idyllic little town and one of its most respected members is professor Charles Rankin (Welles), who is soon to be wed to pretty Mary Longstreet (Young). Little does she know that he is former Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler, and he is the man the escaped Konrad Meinike is looking for. Mr. Wilson is very interested in his whereabouts too.

Meinike soon disappears but not before deterring Wilson. However, not one to shy away from his duty, Wilson soon ingratiates himself with the local people, especially the newly married Mary and her kindly family. He is eager to learn more about the professor and at first, the gentleman seems above reproach, but something lurks underneath his calm exterior. Soon the beloved family dog Red is killed, an increasingly manic Rankin confesses his predicament to his wife and conveniently leaves out a few facts. Now constantly paranoid, Mary’s life is in far more peril than she realizes, and Wilson takes all the precautions he can. The clanging of the newly refurbished clock becomes a point of major contention, and it also serves as the perfect locale for a final climatic showdown (Put aside the absurdity and just watch it).

The whole town turns out for the show and finally after getting conked on the head and nearly killed during the case, Mr. Wilson finally has time to relax. Welles is not quite as memorable as Harry Lime here but still a sophisticated villain of sorts.  Likewise, Barton Keyes is a bit more memorable but Edward G. Robinson still brings his personality, iconic voice, and memorable mug to the table. Loretta Young has a radiant face and eyes like always. In other words, they do what they do. It works in making The Stranger a worthwhile thriller with the expected melodramatic music and shadowy facades of a film-noir. This is undoubtedly an oversimplification, but  then again, Orson Welles needs no introduction, and he certainly does not need me to vouch for creative genius.

4/5 Stars

Key Largo (1948) – Film-Noir

5b446-key_largo432Starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall,  with director John Huston, the film takes place on a sweltering day during the hurricane season. Bogart is passing through Florida to say hello to the relations of a dead war buddy. In the process he and the others at the hotel are held hostage by the mobster Johnny Rocco (Robinson). Bogart seems to back away from conflict but he is only biding his time with the villainous gangster. Through a series of events the war veteran is supposed to pilot the mobsters to Cuba, however he ultimately turns on them and brings justice. This is a fairly good film with Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, and Jay Silverheels in support. It must be mentioned that this was the final film pairing of Bogey and Bacall. Get ready to sweat it out in Key Largo.

4/5 Stars

In honor of Lauren Bacall

Double Indemnity (1944) – Film-Noir

If the Maltese Falcon was the first great film-noir then this film has to be a refining and improvement of the genre. Billy Wilder put together a crime film that is still intriguing today with its femme fatale and other techniques in storytelling and cinematography.

*May Contain Spoilers

Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, this is a classic film-noir. Walter Neff is your average American insurance salesman. However while trying to sell some accident insurance he falls for a woman who is married to a former widower. Together they plot and carry out a murder on her irritable husband trying to cash in on a double indemnity clause. Although everything goes as clockwork the two of them must stay apart and Neff’s colleague is hot on their trail. Through a series of visits with Deitrichson’s depressed step-daughter, Neff himself finds out Phyllis was seeing someone else. In their final confrontation he figures out she killed her husband’s first wife . Then she preceded to use Neff for her own purposes.Following their confrontation Neff feels guilt and so he records all he knows for his colleague Keyes to hear later. This movie was definitely full of suspense as well as great characters. Directer Wilder utilizes the voice over with flashback very effectively to tell the story.

5/5 Stars

 

Scarlet Street (1945) – Film-Noir

Similar to Woman in the Window, this film-noir was directed by Fritz Lang and it stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Chris Cross is a shy employee who has been working for the same man 25 years. While walking home Chris rescues a beautiful woman from an assailant, not knowing it is her brutish boyfriend. Amused Kitty agrees to have coffee and Chris who is an amateur artist, begins talking art, but Kitty gets the idea he is a wealthy painter. Because Chris is stuck in a hopeless marriage he becomes infatuated with kitty and she takes full advantage. Chris scrounges for money to pay Kitty’s rent and unbeknownst to him, Kitty’s boyfriend tries to sell the artist’s work. A critic is impressed and so Kitty masquerades as the artist. Chris finds out eventually and confronts her but the conniving femme fatale manipulates him again. Chris is delighted his work is appreciated and he is content with Kitty continuing to take the credit. An unexpected turn of events mean he can leave his wife and marry Kitty finally. However, he finds her with Johnny and after his genuine proposal she belittles him.An enraged Chris commits murder but it is pinned on Johnny. A miserable wanders the streets without a job or recognition for his art. Furthermore, he must live with his guilty conscience tormenting him until the end of his days. Woman in the Window is good but this film is more biting and powerful when it is all said and done.

4/5 Stars

The Woman in the Window (1944) – Film-Noir

Starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, this film-noir involves an ordinary psychology professor and a beautiful woman. The story begins at the club where the professor and his friends begin to discuss an enchanting portrait of a woman in a store window. He stays behind for a while longer and before he leaves he takes one last look at the painting. And there he meets the woman herself who then invites him over for a drink. However, her angry boyfriend comes by and he is left dead after a scuffle. Now the two perpetrators must cover up their murder and dispose of the body. That task goes to the professor and he naively dumps it out in the country leaving behind numerous clues. One of the professor’s friends is the district attorney and so he finds himself invited back to the scene of the crime. The professor is not suspected but the woman is blackmailed by a low life ex-cop who threatens to expose them if he doesn’t get his money. Much to the woman’s relief the blackmailer is killed but it comes too late for the professor. Or does it? This noir directed by Fritz Lang focuses on a mysterious woman and psychology. It also has one of the most abrupt, out of the blue endings. Every movie should not be resolved this way but I rather liked it one time around.

4/5 Stars