Saturday, November 27, 2010
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 66
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman
There are dozens of ways you could rightly criticize “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but that’s before you insert what I call “the awesome factor.” Little or no characterization? Bah. No trace of an interesting storyline? Who cares? At some point every critic has to just put down their little book of notes and criticisms and just go with it. This movie aims to be nothing more than fun, and succeeds brilliantly. The following things appear in the movie: snakes, poison darts, gold idols, evil Nazis, eviler Nazis, melting faces, plane propellers chopping up Nazis, cliffs, perfectly round boulders, planes, auto chases and drinking games. If that list doesn’t immediately make all your little hairs stand up then, my friend, you don’t probably don’t like sunshine or ponies either.
We learn just about everything we need to know about our characters from their introductions. No one gains any depth as the film hums along, and there are no shocking double crosses. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is introduced as a he-man of an adventurer. He’s really smart, doesn’t deal with emotions and isn’t afraid of anything but snakes. His girl is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and what a name she has. That’s the kind of name only a really drunk screenwriter could come up with. Marion is quite a broad. She’s first introduced winning at a drinking game over a very burly, frightening man/woman, and almost immediately decks Indy in the jaw after meeting him. But, of course, she’s in love with him. The villains are a bunch of interchangeable Nazis and Indy’s main rival Belloq (Paul Freeman), whose main characterization comes with his first line to Jones: “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.”
That’s all you need to know. Oh, and also that they are hunting the Ark of the Covenant. Now you can probably figure the rest out quite easily.
Ford and Allen deserve one hell of a lot of credit for being able to keep straight faces throughout all of this, and their screen charisma and easy chemistry with one another are the main reason the movie succeeds. If you can tell they are mugging for the camera or not taking what is going on as seriously as death, then the movie will not work.
Though I’m sure if you used a hammer, mallet and chisel you could probably somehow squeeze “Raiders of the Lost Ark” into the rigid three-act structure almost all mainstream movies adhere to, but even then you’d be cheating. There’s no real stakes that continue to be raised. What happens is that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director Steven Spielberg simply move Ford and Allen from one big, memorable set-piece to another with little-to-no lag time in the middle. A single beat, that the Ark will be possessed by the Nazis, is repeated probably a dozen times, the only difference being the location. The end of the second act, which should represent the lowest point for our main characters, is no different than any of the other shenanigans they’d gotten themselves into.
But what shenanigans, eh? My favorite is the actual recovery of the Ark in a tomb, with Indy and Marion subsequently trapped inside surrounded by snakes. But it could just as easily be the car chase along a cliffside and through a forest. Or the opening sequence involving the golden idol. Or…you get the idea. Each set-piece consistently builds until it reaches the point of unbelievability, then takes it a step further. Look at the tomb sequence. Indy enters a tomb full of thousands of poisonous snakes (his one weakness). Then Indy recovers ark, but it is immediately stolen by the Nazis. Then Marion is thrown into the tomb. Then the tomb is closed. Then their torches are about to go out. Then Indy rides an ancient statue into a wall (point of unbelievability) to facilitate their escape. Then they find their way out through a convenient loose rock.
Yes, here is a movie that says “Why not?” instead of “Why?” Let’s give Indiana Jones a whip! Why not? Let’s have one of the Nazis burn his hand on an ancient artifact and then use it as a map! Why not? Of course, much of this is madness, and the only reason it works is because Spielberg is a genius at staging, pacing and wowing the audience. But even he has trouble from time to time, as when the aforementioned Nazi burns his hand. The editing seems speeded up as the Nazi runs outside to thrust his hand into snow, giving the moment a “Three Stooges” feeling.
Filmmakers have bent over backwards attempting to replicate the same energy and rock-em-sock-em attitude. Every summer studios march out at least a dozen films with the same barely-interconnected set-pieces created more because of the evolution of special effects and less because they are just plain enjoyable. Perhaps they may soon realize that they have reached the creative point of diminishing returns. After all, how many summer tentpoles are as just plain fun as “Raiders”? Okay, its three sequels are great, and I’d throw in “Jurassic Park,” but what else? The “Mission: Impossible” films? “Iron Man”? “The Mummy” remake? Perhaps it’s a good sign that our summer tentpoles are becoming darker and more story-driven (the Harry Potter films, “The Dark Knight”), but sometimes don’t you just wish movies were fun again?
Another part of the fun is looking at the now horribly outdated special effects. Even though they were cutting edge at the time of the movie’s release, many of them still look pretty phony. There is something about seeing the miniatures and matte paintings that is more enjoyable and more rewarding than watching a perfectly-created CGI army of trolls attacking a castle. And there are actual stunts involved here, not CG characters doing impossible things! Who would’a thunk it?
I grew up with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Indiana Jones franchise, and its great to know that as I mature the films have lost none of their spark and vigor. It is still just as pleasurable to watch now as it was when I was ten. And how many other films can you say that about?
My Score (out of 5): *****
Sunday, November 21, 2010
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 48
Writer: John Michael Hayes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter
Who hasn’t done it? Your neighbor’s windows are right there, and the lights inside their apartments and houses so well illuminate their actions. We obsess about privacy—we want it but want to feel innocent about invading other people’s on a regular basis. Haven’t you ever paused in your actions, whatever they might be, and realized the window is open and the lights are on, then hurried to pull the blinds? “Rear Window” presents us not with a hero or a saint, but with an everyman behaving in a way decent people probably would behave. We watch him as he watches others, and everyone judges everyone.
The everyman is Jeff (James Stewart), trapped in his two-room apartment during a New York heat wave with a broken leg and cast that makes him basically immobile. He’s a man of action, his walls filled with astounding photographs (one, of a crashing racecar, gives us a hint as to how he got the broken leg), and hates having nothing to do all day but watch the neighbors. But that doesn’t stop him. His apartment looks out onto a courtyard and we get to know his neighbors. Most notable are a musician, a woman Jeff names Ms. Torso who gyrates around her kitchen in next-to-nothing and has all-male parties (except for her, of course) and a middle-aged woman, Ms. Lonelyhearts, who lives up to the name Jeff bestows upon her.
Jeff is cared for by his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) during the days and his knock-out of a girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) during the evenings. Stella isn’t afraid to speak her mind and condemn Jeff’s voyeurism, even if she joins in from time to time if something interesting happens. Lisa wants Jeff to marry her, and is having one hell of a time convincing him to settle down. She pampers him, bringing him expensive dinners from Twenty-One and dressing in the most expensive fashions to please him, only to have him pull further away. Their first scene together is a bombshell of barely-concealed anger. We find out that Lisa has graced the cover of a magazine and Jeff took that picture, but instead of framing the finished image Jeff has frames the negative, which says everything about the relationship. He fell in love with the idea of her, not the finished product. Stewart was graying by this point in his career, and though the age difference between him and Kelly is not commented on in the film, one has to wonder if Jeff’s character sees his handicap now as a sign of things to come in the future, and doesn’t want to hinder Lisa twenty years in the future, when she’s still beautiful and he will be prone to hip-breaking.
Jeff takes interest in another neighboring apartment, this one inhabited by a bickering couple that seems to have an odd parallel to his relationship with Lisa. This time the woman is laid up with an unnamed sickness and the man (Raymond Burr) must care for her. Their apartment is the most boring one in the courtyard, with small windows and few decorations inside, just like the man must view his life. Then, one day, the woman is gone and the man is wrapping saws in newspaper. Uh oh.
Jeff takes this and several other small clues, puts them together and comes to the conclusion that the man murdered his wife. Both Lisa and Stella dismiss this at first. Jeff tells Lisa his suspicions while they kiss one evening in a scene reminiscent of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious” and she just wants to get back to necking. Stella is more blunt, saying “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” What do the neighbors think of Jeff, who they must see watching them? What do they think of his knock-out girlfriend, who only comes over at night (with an overnight case to boot!) and never seems to sweat despite the heat?
Strange things begin going on in the courtyard, like the death of a cute dog, and Jeff’s suspicions seem confirmed even if there are witnesses who allegedly saw the possibly dead wife climbing onboard a train. We learn the man’s name is Thorwald, and any man with that name must be guilty of something. Since he is incapable of doing anything himself, Lisa and Stella take the investigation mobile. The best, most suspenseful sequence in the film happens when Lisa and Stella unearth a small patch of earth they think a stray finger might be buried in and, when they find nothing, Lisa climbs up a fire escape and through an open window in Thorwald’s apartment. There is a harrowing moment where she is about to be arrested then turns toward Jeff (watching helplessly from his apartment) and begins to point toward a wedding ring on her finger—Mrs. Thorwald’s ring! Our hearts leap…until Thorwald sees this and looks out into the courtyard, making eye contact with Jeff. I still get shivers every time I see that moment, and it’s one of the best pay-offs to a sustained suspense sequence ever.
For my money, “Rear Window” is the best-written thriller ever made. Of course, since this is a Hitchcock movie he gets most of the credit for the film’s success, but special attention should be paid to John Michael Hayes’ screenplay. The characters are very, very smart about how they approach the situation and use a mix of logic and women’s intuition (which are often the same thing) to deduce more than your average Joe ever could. More than that, the dialogue Hayes uses to bring the characters to life is witty and wonderful, something you never see in thrillers today. Lisa, who could have easily been the token two-dimensional heroine is given some crackerjack lines (my favorite being “Preview of coming attractions.” Anyone who has seen the film knows exactly what I’m talking about). Ritter is given one of the best black-humor moments ever at the conclusion, where she tells a police officer “She doesn’t want any part of it.” It being the hunt for Mrs. Thorwald’s missing bits and pieces. The lines seem ordinary to readers unfamiliar with the story, but Hayes has a gift of finding the perfect straightforward dialogue to bring out the best of the story.
Then, of course, there’s Hitchcock’s direction. He manages to make Jeff’s apartment seem cramped and small yet still finds endless new ways to shoot it, and until the finale every shot (except for two during the death of the dog sequence that are done for extra impact) is from the vantage point of the apartment. It’s beautiful and adds significantly to the suspense when the time comes for it.
“Rear Window” is my favorite Hitchcock film, and considering the competition that is a huge compliment. Stewart so convincingly plays a normal guy caught up in a extraordinary situation where he cannot do more than watch and conjecture, Kelly is his perfect Girl Friday and Ritter is magnificent as the third member of the investigation team.
As I write this my eyes are drifting out my own windows, looking across the street into the windows of my neighboring building. Perhaps I should pull the blinds. Perhaps.
My Score (out of 5): *****
Saturday, November 20, 2010
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 74
Writer: Ted Tally
Director: Jonathan Demme
Star: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine
Clarice Starling’s quest to become an FBI agent and do good seems futile from the opening frames of “Silence of the Lambs.” The other agents-in-training tower over her and judge her with every lingering glance. Her hillbilly accent gives her speech much less authority than it should. Most importantly, the world around her seems to have rotted and spoiled from its core.
Yes, this is a horror movie, but the viewer would still expect certain scenes to be filmed with warmth or beauty, if only to counterbalance the darkness. Not here. The forest Starling (Jodie Foster) trains in as the film opens is gray, wet and ominous. The river agents fly over to investigate a corpse is brown with waste. Even the main titles are black and ugly. Every location these characters encounter seems devoid of anything alive or worth saving. As if dead forests and deteriorating buildings on the surface of the Earth weren’t enough, the monsters that inhabit the film live beneath that surface in isolated, cold caverns.
The film has two such monsters. The first we meet is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Starling is sent by the FBI’s Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to get Lecter to fill out useless profile forms. To get to Lecter’s cell Starling descends flight after flight of stairs, then is escorted through a seemingly endless collection of barred doors and safety locks. When she finally gets to Lecter’s beyond-maximum security hallway, we notice that the other inmates are kept behind bars while Lecter is held behind Plexiglas. Holy crap.
The second is Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). He seems to live in an unimpressive middle-class home, but underneath is a cavern that seems to reach endlessly out under the earth. He keeps his live victims at the bottom of a dry well and, a few rooms over, sews his dead victim’s skin into a sickening coat of flesh.
The hunt for Bill drives the story but Lecter is the one who lingers most in our minds. His speech is mannered and his persona is by turns cold and inviting. He’s an enigma, and in that way he interests us in the same way he is interested in Starling. Of course the real reason we grow to “enjoy” Lecter is because he is sympathetic to Starling. On the whole he’s kind to her in a world of men who dismiss her, perhaps because she doesn’t cave in the same way so many others would when he calls her a generation away from white trash. Hopkins is perfect in the role and makes the delicate balance between gentleman and monster seem easy. After one of the other inmates throws semen on Starling, Lecter whispers to him until he goes mad(der) and swallows his own tongue. He’s not flirting with her in any sense of the word, but the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that Lecter is male and Starling is female. The moment their fingers touch, albeit only for a second, is electrifying.
That Starling can hold her own with him is a testament to her character. Foster delicately balances Starling’s innocence with her inherent strength. After all, she’s only in training at the FBI, and writer Ted Tally shows that, though very smart, she isn’t a prodigy in her department. Tally and director Jonathan Demme get a lot of mileage out of a small moment in her training where she runs into a room and is about to cuff a faux-suspect but forgets to check behind the door she entered through first. During the final moments of the film, as she is desperately checking through the rooms of Bill’s underground lair, the audience is screaming for her to check behind the damn doors every time she enters a new level of hell.
Demme makes a very ballsy move by shooting the movie head-on. When Crawford is first introduced, he stares directly at the camera to read his lines. When Lecter asks to see Starling’s credentials he is staring through the glass directly at us (“Closer, please. Closer.”). We see the group of local police men staring at us as Starling tries to get them to leave the room. It’s unnerving, but hugely successful. We immediately feel for Starling, understand what she’s gone through her entire life and feel added suspense as she stares down these monsters. If the Crawford character did not look at the camera head-on, we would perhaps think much differently of the subplot where we wonder just what he wants with Starling. Is he aroused by her or does he see her as an equal? Glenn plays the beats of the character just right, and the ambiguity of their parting handshake speaks volumes as a result.
The movie makes another ballsy move in abandoning Starling for fifteen minutes during the second act, but here I’m more torn about its success. Tally and Demme instead follow a bunch of nameless officers after Lecter has escaped from his cell. The scene is well shot and the thrills well choreographed, but since we care nothing about any of these characters it doesn’t resonate emotionally with the viewer. The pay-off of Lecter pulling off a mask of skin in the ambulance, almost makes it worth it. Almost.
Above all else, “Silence of the Lambs” is scary. I’ve focused almost exclusively on the characters and world, but the point of a horror movie is to scare the viewer, and this one does its job brilliantly. When Starling is in the Bill’s basement at the climax of the movie it only takes up about seven minutes of screen time, but after multiple viewings it still feels like a horrifying, suspenseful eternity. I always see the movie referred to as a “thriller,” perhaps because it sounds classier than “horror movie” and movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture should seem classy, but make no mistakes, this is a horror movie. To call it anything else demeans the rest of the genre, which is just as visceral and important as every other film genre. There is a notable lack of horror movies on the AFI Top 100 list (“The Sixth Sense,” “Jaws” and “Psycho” are the only others) and this is a horrible oversight that, frankly, angers me. When AFI created Top 10 lists for all of the major genres, “Horror” was not one of them. You always hear that the best horror and science fiction movies “transcend” their genre, as if there is some shame in those genres. Movies like “The Exorcist,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Shining,” “The Uninvited,” “Halloween” and “Rosemary’s Baby” have just as much artistic merit as any movie on this list, and to pretend they do not because they involve “cheap scares” is laughable.
The “cheap scares” in “Silence of the Lambs” are well earned and beautifully executed. They impact us because we care so much about Starling. They linger with us because they tap into those moments where we are by ourselves, on edge, and can’t figure out why. Who hasn’t been alone in the dark and felt like there was someone else there, watching us?
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2
Saturday, November 13, 2010
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 75
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Director: Norman Jewison
Star: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant
It’s not just that Virgil Tibbs is a black man. It’s that he’s a black man who represents sanity and logic in a small Southern town full of emotion and anger. The world seems to have passed right by Sparta, Mississippi without taking much notice, and its citizens are trying to convince themselves they aren’t angry about it. But, of course, they are.
While “In the Heat of the Night” goes through the motions of being a mystery, it’s not. There is no possible way a viewer can collect clues and deduce the real killer’s identity, no matter how many Agatha Christie novels he or she has read. It’s a character drama pitting two opposite character types against one another before having them team up for the greater good. Taken on those terms alone, the film is fairly successful, but falls short of true excellence simply because the Tibbs character is so much more interesting than the Sheriff he butts heads with.
Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is arrested for murder near the beginning of the film partially because he is a stranger to Sparta but mostly because he’s a black man. From the moment he is introduced to the town’s Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger), we know that this isn’t going to be a fair fight. Sure, Tibbs is well-dressed in a suit while Gillespie is sweating through his tight police uniform, but it’s about so much more than that.
The writer, Stirling Silliphant, stacks the odds against Gillespie by making him so wrong-headed about every single thing he does during the first half of the movie. For a man with so much experience as a police officer, Gillespie seems to overlook every logical question one would ask about the murder. I know nothing about murder or investigating them, but even I would know to check the wound to see if the killer was left or right handed. But no, for most of the movie Gillespie and his troupe of Andy Griffith-wannabe deputies are so overcome by racism that they can do nothing else but make idiotic decisions and then argue with the (obviously right) black man about everything that comes out of his mouth. In a horribly sloppy move, Gillespie’s character is denied any sort of character development until after he realizes Tibbs might know what he is talking about. All we know about him is that he can’t seem to stop chewing gum in the most annoying way possible at all times. Because of this, we have no reason to invest in the character until it’s too late.
Then again, even if Silliphant would have gone out of his way to weave a three-dimensional character for Steiger to inhabit, Gillespie would still be blown out of the water by his rival. Tibbs is just too strong of a character and Poitier is just too charismatic of an actor for anyone else to successfully steal the screen from him. He’s the rarest of actors, like Ian McShane or Laurence Fishburne, whose presence is so strong that viewers have a hard time looking away from him onscreen, no matter what is happening in a given scene.
Jewison inherently understands this and often just keeps his camera on Poitier no matter what is going on. Look at the moment where Poitier must inform the dead man’s widow (Lee Grant) that her husband has been murdered. Instead of cutting to Grant’s face as she gets the news, Jewison just stays on Poitier until the very end of the scene, finally lingering on Grant now that Poitier has left the room.
Jewison’s camera moves quite a bit in the movie, giving viewers long takes that move back and forth to whatever is most interesting. My favorite shot in the movie is a long take that follows Tibb’s hands as they explore a dead body, twisting muscles and exploring skin color as Tibbs tries to make sense of the death. His lack of editing also allows from some wonderful surprises. For instance, in the scene where a white man slaps Tibbs only to immediately be slapped back, the viewer would expect several cross-cuts to close-ups and medium shots for added impact. Instead, Jewison just holds the camera on the men, making Tibbs’ retaliation against the slap much more startling.
From the moment we discover Tibbs in a train station, we know where the story is heading. He will face a lot of racism and opposition from the sheriff and the rest of the town but his logic and insistence on the truth will finally win Gillespie over, allowing them to team up to catch the real killer. The story doesn’t veer at all from the team-up routine, so I began to focus more attention on the murder mystery. The investigation in kind doesn’t start until about an hour into the movie, and even then there are a bunch of sloppy inconsistencies. The police catch a suspect after a harrowing chase through the forest and banks of a river, and we can plainly see the suspect getting his hands in mud and dirt. But moments later when Tibbs checks under his fingernails all he finds is chalk. Huh, that’s odd.
Other details, mostly involving Tibbs and Gillespie, the movie gets just right. It’s fantastic to see the building fury on Gillespie’s face when he first realizes that Tibbs makes more money in a week than the sheriff makes in a month, and then he finds out that Tibbs is a police officer. Or when the men drive through a cotton field and you can see Gillespie relishing the opportunity to make a crack about slavery and trying to decide what the perfect words would be to make the most impact. Then there are weird beats, as when the title song randomly plays over the men’s drive through that cotton field despite it not being at night nor seeming too hot.
The movie does get much stronger once Gillespie develops a personality other than “I’m a racist and I hate you.” The quiet interaction between Steiger and Poitier in Gillespie’s home is a master course in understated acting, and their parting scene at the train station is more emotional than the movie deserves thanks to the fine acting. You have to wonder just how amazing the entire film would have been if the character tension and interplay from the final third of the movie was present throughout.
My Score (out of 5): ***
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 29
Writer: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler
Director: Raymond Chandler
Star: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson
The dame. The dialogue. The gun. The descent. The Venetian blinds.
If I had to choose one movie that defines the film noir genre, it would be “Double Indemnity.” The film breathes bleakness. It has the best femme fatale (sorry Kathleen Turner) ever to grace a staircase. The script is the most literate, quotable noir ever (sorry Robert Towne) and the movie’s direction is beautiful in its shadows and specters.
This was Billy Wilder’s gift. Over his long career, he worked within almost every major film genre (even ones, like noir, which had yet to be defined as such) and in doing so brought those genres to their pinnacle. He completely understood his subject matter, and his work rarely judged, reinvented or deconstructed—instead he just polished the conventions until they gleamed. “Double Indemnity.” “Sabrina.” “Sunset Blvd.” “The Seven Year Itch.” “Witness for the Prosecution.” “The Apartment.” “Love in the Afternoon.” In fact, his few missteps were when he did deconstruct the genres he was working within, as with “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” or “Fedora.”
Wilder wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe novels are masterpieces of style over substance. I’m guessing Wilder brought the structure and morals (okay, lack of morals) to the table while Chandler focused on dialogue and characterization. The result is just about perfect.
The story focuses on an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) named Walter Neff (“with two f’s, just like Philadelphia”). Neff seems like a normal Joe who knows how to light matches in a really, really cool way. The moment he sets eyes on Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) wrapped in a towel on top of a staircase, he’s doomed. There’s a lot of foreplay, the kind that makes you all sweaty without any physical contact, and soon Neff is Phyllis’ willing toy. She wants to murder her husband and collect his accident insurance, and Neff is more than willing to help. Complicating matters is Neff’s best (only?) friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who is his boss at work but also his moral compass. Keyes smells something wrong with the murder, but just can’t put his finger on it, and Neff is right when he concludes that Keyes was just too close to the case.
Neff and Phyllis circle each other beautifully as they wait for the perfect moment to finally be together. There’s no sex in the relationship—instead they make love to one another through beautifully constructed phrases and small gestures. They say they love each other, but you have to wonder if either of them really believe it. To me, they could care less about one another, but the idea of working together and getting away with being very, very bad people is the major turn on. They need one another in that way, and without the other all that is left is an empty shell. Look at a small moment in a grocery store, where Neff leaves and Wilder linger his camera on Phyllis for a few seconds at the end of the scene. While Neff was there her eyes were filled with fire and passion, but the moment he steps out of frame Phyllis’ eyes go completely dead. It’s unnerving.
Though MacMurray is billed first in the credits, this is Stanwyck’s movie. MacMurray is very good in the role, but can afford to be a bit wooden (the role calls for this so it’s not a shortcoming) because of the voice-over narration throughout. Stanwyck must use every line, every gesture, to get her allure and venomous nature across. She uses all those glorious inches of her beautifully curvy body as she approaches MacMurray after fixing him a drink. After three or four lines, it’s easy to understand exactly why Neff would break a man’s neck for her. She’s the ultimate femme fatale. Her later performance in Fritz Lang’s underrated noir masterpiece “Clash By Night” is a beautiful companion piece to “Double Indemnity.” In “Clash By Night,” she is a femme fatale desperately trying to go straight in a world filled with oily men trying to bring out her wicked side.
Keyes is one of the best of all Noir foils because of his friendship with Neff. He never wavers and never questions Neff’s honesty—he simply believes his friend is a good person and nothing will sway that, even though the evidence keeps stacking up against Neff. What makes the role even juicier is that Keyes is such a swift, perfect judge of character. At one point Keyes overhears Neff’s half of a phone call between him and Phyllis. Neff chooses his words wisely so as not to incriminate himself and yet, as soon as he gets off the phone, Keyes already understands the caller’s character: “I bet she drinks from the bottle.” This is one of Robinson’s best performances in a career of “best performances,” and it’s because he has such a gift for showing humanity in the characters he plays even though his exterior seems to contradict this.
The three characters play their life-and-death game of chess in drawing rooms and offices overflowing with shadows, reflections and unease. The Italian-style home Phyllis lives in only seems beautiful upon first glance in the full sunlight. Once inside it seems imposing, almost sinister. And the dread-filled insurance office we see in the opening moments of the film still seems creepy during daylight hours because we know the blood trails will be there sooner rather than later.
Wilder shoots these locations in lingering, long takes. He doesn’t throw in too many close-ups, instead letting the dialogue flow through the rooms and scenes. He works hard to not show off too much, though he starts us off with a doozy of a long take that introduces us to a lobby, elevator and then a two-story office. Wilder knows that the stars here are not the spaces and atmosphere (though they add a lot), but the words and the people.
It would seem upon first glance that “Double Indemnity” is one of the bleakest film noirs. The anti-heroes succeed in the murder they plotted. The “hero” is caught and will be hanged. The “heroine” is brutally shot by the “hero” after declaring her love for him. And yet it doesn’t feel depressing. The exchanges between MacMurray and Robinson in those final moments manage to redeem Neff’s character in a way seeing him die never could. Thanks for that, Edward G. Robinson. I love you too.
My Score (out of 5): *****