There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

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The film begins with that old storytelling standard, Once upon a time in sunny California…and it’s raining outside. Not a minute has gone by and the tone of the picture has already been set with this opening taste of irony. It unravels on a smaller, less grandiose scale than other Sirk pictures but it’s no less potent.

It brings to mind one of the other great masters of such films in Billy Wilder also from Germany and yet you would never get either of their pictures confused because how they go about it so so vastly different. This is, of course, another Double Indemnity (1944) reunion (a film directed by Wilder) bringing Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray back together.

I did some digging and besides the underrated Christmas classic Remember the Night (1940), the memorable screen couple appeared in a  minor western called The Moonlighter (1953). This would be their last pairing.

But back to Wilder and Sirk. The way this film looks and the subject matter strikes no exact resemblance to the former’s more caustic work and there’s also the fact that Wilder wrote all his material. While Sirk had often cohesive themes running through his stories, I’m fairly certain he could not claim script credit on any.

The true connection point and the aspect of these two emigre filmmakers that is so crucial to appreciate what they are doing is how they both managed to critique their adopted country through both comedy and drama and they do it in such inventive ways.

Here Fred MacMurray is the owner of a toy shop and a stockroom full of hobby horses and pinafores as they look to roll out their latest pride and joy Rex the Walkie-Talkie Robot. Meanwhile, after a hard day at work, he comes home to ungrateful and preoccupied kids who constantly tie up the phone lines with girlfriends and take up their mother’s time with their numerous extracurriculars.

It’s akin to All That Heaven Allows (1955) in that it places a camera to the mores of Middle-Class America. While that film was about a mother and her children’s reactions to her romantic life, this is a picture about a father and what he does with what he deems to be an unfulfilling life. He has a similar outcome. This is by no means a My Three Sons episode.

He’s feeling that age-old suffocation of suburban life, work, kids, wife, and no satisfaction with any of the things that are supposed to be the pinnacles of the American Dream. What do you do with said disillusionment? You look for an outlet.

Two tickets to the theater just about look as if they’ll be wasted when rather fortuitously an old friend shows up on his doorstep or more correctly an old flame. And on a whim, they make an outing out of it to the theater. Leaving early they end up touring the toy shop and dancing together to “Blue Moon,” a song that conjures up reminiscences and nostalgia and subsequently can be heard in refrain after refrain from that point forward.

The following weekend it happens again when Mr. Groves is looking forward to a weekend getaway with his wife although he must admittedly mix business with pleasure. In the end, his wife stays behind with their histrionic daughter and the work meetings fall through. But coincidentally he runs into Norma again and they have a lovely time talking, horseback riding, and the like.

But the wrinkle we come to expect is a surprise visit by his eldest son who takes a detour from Los Angeles to Palm Beach. It’s so very cringe-worthy and aggravated by the fact that he overhears his father and Ms. Vale talking but proceeds to leave the tourist trap without even a word to his father. He’s too vexed.

Still, MacMurray comes back from the invigorating weekend refreshed and explains everything to everyone all perfectly innocent and this works against our preconceived notions of what might happen.

The film goes further by folding over yet another layer. His son when hearing his explanation far from confirming his faith in his dad, only causes him to sink deeper into distrust. In one sense, it’s absolutely absurd (he quotes An American Tragedy for goodness sakes) and yet it’s a perfect development. Here we have the planting of seeds of resentment and doubt even in things that aren’t the truth.

Stacked upon this is the final irony that it’s the so-called “other woman” who talks MacMurray’s character out of an affair that ironically he slowly evolves into wanting. That’s a new one but also a very honest outcome.

And being the strong individual that she is, Stanwyck not only weathers the difficult conversations with her old beau with dignity but she’s equally strong when it comes to scolding his children for their treatment of him. She is the one who points out the error in their ways. Again, it’s yet another ironic development.

So yes, this is no doubt a weepie; it’s a contrived set-up with a wife who is conveniently busy and children who seem so quick to turn on the man they’ve known all their lives, but putting those preoccupations aside for a moment, what we do have is a beloved pair of stars and a director who made a living off of such fare. If you ask me that’s a quality combination and though it’s a less heralded film, There’s Always Tomorrow is still very much a worthwhile affair.

4/5 Stars

Pushover (1954)

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A film such as Pushover is easy to admire for the simple fact that it does not waste a moment in telling its story. As the credits roll a bank job is already in full progress laying the basic groundwork for what will unravel in the subsequent minutes.

The introduction of our stars follows soon thereafter in a meet-cute happening outside of a local theater, the pretense being engine trouble. It’s enough of an excuse for them to make a connection — two people who started the evening on their own but felt enough of a spark to wind up together.

Of course, when we pull back it’s easy to realize a pretense is all that it was. Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) is a cop tasked by his police chief (E.G. Marshall) to help recover the $200,000 that was nabbed in the bank job. The alluring young Lona McLane (Kim Novak) ties into it all because she was the one-time moll of wanted thug Harry Wheeler.

Thus, the police soon have her apartment under surveillance and her phone tapped for any hint of contact with the gangster. But what they weren’t counting on is for Sheridan to fall for her and put his own stake in getting back the missing money. Meanwhile, his partner Rick trusts him completely and the old vet Paddy is just trying to limp by to retain his pension.

What develops is this strange dichotomy between what is the ethical long arm of the law and what is pure voyeurism encroaching on a person’s right to privacy. Though it doesn’t explore the topic as Rear Window (1954) did that same year, there are still some interesting issues to be culled through.

Further still, despite being a policeman, Sheridan’s personal philosophy seems to be that money makes the world go around. Although he’s quite a bit older, there’s still much to enjoy about Fred MacMurray. Even if his occupation has changed, there is a sense that he’s playing another thinly veiled version of Walter Neff, that pragmatic everyman not fully prepared for playing with fire. Since that role was one of the ones that lit up his career, if this is a mere copy, it’s still a fairly enjoyable one placing him opposite Novak’s femme fatale.

There are passionate kisses that strike like lighting, some gorgeous shadows that easily help to put this into the dark recesses of the noir canon, also reflected by the number of cigarettes smoked and the loose morals that run through the narrative.

Even in her scintillating debut, Kim Novak’s voice is as husky and sultry as ever. Whether wearing her mink coats or driving her sleek wheels. Smoking her cigarettes and coolly spilling her drinks on anyone who gets fresh with her.

But she is not one of the independent strong-willed dames out of the war years. She is not Phyllis Dietrichson. She comes from a different generation and so, far from being a manipulator, it feels far more like she is willingly complicit in Sheridan’s plan as he takes the reins. In fact, it’s difficult to call her a femme fatale at all in the typical sense. It’s really the men around her who are crooked and more than anything she garners sympathy.

Phil Carey plays the stalwart cop who stands by his colleagues but he’s also no schmuck when it comes to laying down the law. The ever-active nurse next door (Dorothy Malone) who shares an adjoining wall with Lona becomes the object of his desire and it conveniently sets up parallel love stories. We now have two cops and two gals. Two romances and a line of entanglements as Sheridan tries to sidestep his colleagues and get the payoff for his own and for his beautiful new accomplice. Pushover develops into a delightfully messy piece of drama full of police corruption and avarice. But it’s a small-time story too. That’s part of its charm.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Remember the Night (1940)

remember_the_night_posterI find that many of the best Christmas movies aren’t really about Christmas at all — at least not in the conventional sense that we’re so used to. Not trees or presents or lights or even holiday sentiment although those might all be there.

The films that start to tease out the true meaning and impact of the Christmas season start by looking at people and their relationships with one another. Because, truth be told, we so often get distracted by the bright colors and shiny objects that get in our way.

That’s actually part of what Remember the Night is about. Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman who has a penchant for stealing jewelry. She’s not a kleptomaniac or wrong in the head, she’s just a poor, unspectacular woman with nothing to show for in life. She lives in a hotel. And so the minute she’s apprehended and prosecuted in the courtroom you would assume that it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Except this is a romantic film starring the likes of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck working from a script from Preston Sturges and under the guidance of Mitchel Leisen. So obviously that tips us off that love is in the air. Especially during the Christmas season, love is all around us — peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

Except when Lee’s trial is postponed by the astute district attorney on the other side of the table, it looks like she’s in for an abysmal holiday. She has no money, no place to go, and she’ll be spending her time behind bars (with a Christmas dinner of course). But John Sargent goes through a change of heart and his heart is fairly big when you get to know him. He ends up getting Lee out of jail for Christmas dinner as recompense and goes a step further still by inviting to take her back to her family home. They both hail from rural Indiana.

In this leg of the film, on the road, they begin to warm to each other. A certain amount of empathy sets in as they must flee pell-mell from some small town law enforcement after unlawfully milking a cow on private property. However, John also stands by his new companion when she returns to her childhood home — a place she ran away from at an early age — she’s not welcomed back.

And while it doesn’t tell the story of Christmas overtly, it’s at this point that Remeber the Night begins to make sense. Hence the title. At least in my mind. Because what night would you remember? The logical progression of thought would be the first Christmas — the moment where the biblical narrative notes that there was no room for the child in the inn and so he was forced to be housed in a lowly manger on that silent night.

If you look at John’s mother and aunt played so lovingly and nurturing by Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson, you get the sense that they were probably aware of that event. However, how they act is also a natural outpouring of their hospitable natures. They welcome Lee into their home, they welcome her like family, they go so far out of their way to make her comfortable. Certainly, this is only a backdrop for the broader more sentimental focal point of the film which we were expecting. The accused and the prosecutor begin falling in love, but they still have to return to the courtroom when their holiday is over.

But that’s what wonderful films do. They work above and beyond their plotline being displayed at face value. Sturges was always a spectacular screenwriter even before becoming a director and here he develops a tale that comes off less frenetic than many of his later works, but it’s also imbued with a great amount of feeling. But credit also goes to Leisen for tailoring the script to his leads.

And as it’s set during the holidays, that makes it into a timely movie for the Christmas season (and New Years). Because the bottom line is that it’s about love, but not just in the romantic sense. Love of family. Love of your fellow man (and woman). Love of other people so much so that you are willing to sacrifice and take on the penalty for your actions, deserved or not. If we strip down the impact of Christmas to its core elements that’s essentially what it is about as well. So remember this movie during the holidays and remember that night if you’re so inclined.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

4/5 Stars

Review: The Apartment (1960)

The_apartment_trailer_1What has always stood out to me about Billy Wilder’s films and the writing behind them is that you can almost always observe cynicism paired with wit. They are continually sharp, often funny, but they also are underlined by more serious topics altogether. This quality is what allowed him to make films as diverse as Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot. There’s a subversion of the norm that sometimes is dark, sometimes is funny. His second pairing with Jack Lemmon in The Apartment seems to fall somewhere in between.

The legend is that this story formed in Wilder’s mind after watching a Brief Encounter, about a tryst between an English man and woman. What interested him was a very small detail indeed. What type of person would allow his place to be the location of such a rendezvous? And in such a question came the inception of C.C. Baxter a man who was unwittingly funny, but also pitiful as played by Lemmon.

He’s a man trapped in the bureaucracy, attempting to climb the corporate ladder of a  company. He’s fighting in this game of survival of the fittest and trying to get ahead the only way he knows how. Lending his flat out to higher-ranking executives who are looking for a place to take their dates and have a good time. Baxter is somewhat of a hapless stooge though. He’s far from shrewd and his high ranking pals like him for it. He follows their requests. Does what they want. He’s a perfect cog in their plan. He’s one of them. Even Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss and his landlady get the impression that he’s a real high flyer since there’s always music emanating from his suite and bottles piling up outside his door. But he lives the charade and spends many a frosty evening waiting for his customers to clear out. It’s certainly a sorry existence, but he doesn’t mind at first since it pays off handsomely as he moves up the ranks.

One of the more personable employees in this mass of humanity is elevator gal Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacClaine), who is always friendly with Mr. Baxter since he is a true gentleman. However, she is also caught in an affair with top exec Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and she is actually in love. It’s a messy situation made even more complicated when Sheldrake asks Baxter for the use of his flat. He enthusiastically agrees, but he has no idea who else will be there. That’s one of those painful moments of dramatic irony where our opportunistic nonetheless lovable protagonist gets hurt. Lemmon is good at playing the drama movingly and filling his scenes with organic humor (much like the late Robin Williams).

At this point, C.C. Baxter becomes the general scapegoat for his colleagues and even his neighbors. Everyone gives him a hard time for things he has not done or does not really deserve. Sheldrake leaves his wife and looks to solidify things with Fran, and this moment is paramount because Baxter finally mans up. He may have lost his job, but he got to finish the best game of gin rummy of his life.

I must admit the themes of The Apartment are not always my favorite. I am much more partial to Some Like it Hot or even The Odd Couple, but Lemmon makes the film for me. Whether he’s straining spaghetti through a tennis racket or trying on his new suave business bowler for size, it’s hard not to like him. Ray Walston, Fred MacMurray, and about every other character is a cad. Shirley Maclaine is pretty good, but then again she’s never been the most captivating for me actress-wise.

When it’s all said in done, this is not Wilder at his absolute best, but teaming up with IAL Diamond elicited another classic vehicle with Jack Lemmon. Now shut up and deal!

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 Caine Mutiny (1954)

With a stellar cast starring Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and Jose Ferrer among others, the film begins with a young ensign assigned to the mine sweeper named the Caine. After the first lax captain is reassigned, their new commander Queeg (Bogart) is a stickler for detail and order. After a series of incidents the crew becomes increasingly annoyed with him. The situation worsesn when Queeg begins to obsess about a few missing servings of strawberries. All these events boil over during a typhoon when the second-in-command (Johnson) prodded on, feels Queeg is unfit for command and he takes over control of the Caine. In the ensuing court martial, he is put on trial for mutiny and his attorney (Ferrer) must try to show Queeg to be truly unstable. Although he wins the case, everyone soon comes to realize Queeg was just a war-wearied man who gave a lot of himself. Despite some stark revelations the young ensign finally marries his girl and gets a pleasant surprise when he is reassigned to another boat.

4/5 Stars

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