Film Noir File: Classic so-good sleepers ‘The Narrow Margin,’ ‘The Locket’ and ‘Angel Face’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). All films without a new review have been covered previously in Film Noir Blonde and can be searched in the FNB archives (at right).

Pick of the Week: TCM’s Summer of Darkness continues to delight

Friday, July 24

The next-to-last chapter of TCM’s deluxe film-noir binge-a-thon Summer of Darkness commences today. It’s another feast for film noir buffs. As we know by now, Turner Classic Movies has been sharing its great shadowy treasure trove of classic film noir on Friday nights.

Marie Windsor

Marie Windsor

This week’s dark list includes Richard Fleischer’s terrific low-budget death-rides-the-train sleeper, “The Narrow Margin,“ starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor — one of director Billy Friedkin’s faves. You’ll also see Hollywood expressionist John Brahm’s stylish triple-flashback thriller, “The Locket” with Robert Mitchum. And don’t even think about missing Otto Preminger’s French critical favorite “Angel Face“ (one of Jean-Luc Godard’s picks for his all-time Best American Talkies list). This time Mitchum is smitten with Jean Simmons. Bitch-slap trivia: “Angel Face” is the movie where Mitchum punched Preminger for being mean to Jean.

Also on Friday’s all-day bill of noir: highlights with ace actors like Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Mickey Rooney, Evelyn Keyes, Jane Russell, Jeanne Moreau, Vincent Price, John Payne and Raymond Burr, and directors like Nick Ray, Josef von Sternberg (on the same show), Louis Malle, Phil Karlson and Fritz Lang.

Curated and hosted in the evening by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation and the Noir City film festivals, TCM’s Summer of Darkness is a standout fest of classic killings, broken dreams and movie nightmares. All that and Marilyn Monroe (in “Clash by Night”) too.

We don’t want this summer to end!

6:45 a.m. (3:45 a.m.): “Roadblock” (1950, Harold Daniels). Charles McGraw and Joan Dixon in a poor man‘s “Double Indemnity.”

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “The Strip” (1951, Leslie Kardos). Mickey Rooney is a luckless jazz drummer who gets in a bad fix trying to help Hollywood hopeful Sally Forrest. The great guest musical stars here include Louis Armstrong, and Satchmo’s longtime friends and sidemen Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines.

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “Beware, My Lovely” (1952, Harry Horner). Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan strike sparks in an icy domestic suspenser.

Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe are bored with small-town life in “Clash by Night.”

Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe are bored with small-town life in “Clash by Night.”

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Clash by Night” (1953, Fritz Lang). Barbara Stanwyck is an independent woman in 1950s America. Trouble, here we come! She can’t keep a man, but then who’d want to when edgy Robert Ryan is around to get in trouble with? Marilyn Monroe is splendid as a small-town factory girl.

1:15 p.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Kansas City Confidential” (1952, Phi Karlson). A good crisp Karlson heist, pulled off by a mob that includes Preston Foster and Colleen Gray.

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray).

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Talk About a Stranger” (1952, David Bradley). Gossipers wreak havoc in a talky small town. A look at U. S. Senator George Murphy and First Lady Nancy Davis (Reagan) in their movie days.

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Split Second” (1953, Dick Powell). In this nerve-racking thriller, outlaw Stephen McNally and hostages Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling and others are trapped together in a desert nuclear bomb testing site.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer).

9:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m.): “His Kind of Woman” (1951, John Farrow).

11:45 p.m. (8:45 p.m.): “The Locket” (1946, John Brahm).

1:30 a.m. (10:30 p.m.): “Angel Face” (1953, Otto Preminger).

3:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m.): “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958, Louis Malle).

[Read more…]

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‘Double Indemnity’ plays nationwide on the big screen

Cissy and Raymond Chandler were married for 30 years.

Cissy Chandler (1870-1954) was married to Raymond Chandler for 30 years.

Just this morning, I finished reading “The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved” (Pantheon Books, 2007) by Judith Freeman. It’s a look at Chandler’s work and his 30-year marriage to a mysterious woman named Cissy Hurlburt Porcher Pascal, a sexy but refined redhead from the Midwest who was 18 years his senior. (It was her third marriage; his first and only.)  Not that she bothered to tell him her real age, natch. Details, details …

Double Indemnity July 19-20In the book, Freeman describes a turning point in Chandler’s career: When he received the offer from Paramount Studios to adapt James M. Cain’s novel “Double Indemnity” for the big screen, working in partnership with writer/director Billy Wilder.

The film, starring Fred Mac Murray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, was released in 1944. It earned seven Oscar noms, including screenplay, which was extremely rare for a film noir title.

Freeman writes:

“Ray didn’t get the idea of the whole thing at first. When Joe Sistrom, the producer, called and offered him the job, Ray said he could probably do it, but he wouldn’t be able to turn in the screenplay for a couple of weeks, and it would cost them a thousand bucks. Sistrom laughed. Was the guy being funny, or was he really that naïve about the way the movie business worked? Sistrom told him he’d be working with Wilder, in an office on the studio lot, that he’d have ten weeks to do the screenplay, and he’d be getting seven hundred and fifty bucks a week. Ray did the math. Ray liked the result. Ray saw the future … and Ray said, Yes. Sure. Why not?”

Precisely! So, why not treat yourself to a big-screen viewing of this genre-defining film? TCM, Fathom Events and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment are partnering to bring this classic to select cinemas nationwide on Sunday, July 19 and Monday, July 20.

“That tears it,” as Walter Neff would say.

See you there, noiristas. Meanwhile, you can read our review as well as 14 reasons we adore this flick.

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Film Noir File: TCM’s badass binge continues with darkside divas Barbara Stanwyck, Lizabeth Scott and more

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). All films without a new review have been covered previously in Film Noir Blonde and can be searched in the FNB archives (at right).

Pick of the Week: Summer of Darkness soldiers on

Barbara Stanwyck plays the tough-as-nails title broad in “Martha Ivers.” Kirk Douglas plays her husband.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the tough-as-nails title broad in “Martha Ivers.” Kirk Douglas plays her husband.

Unless you’re a noirista who has been living under a rock, you know that TCM’s badass binge of film noir continues this Friday.

This week TCM’s list includes the spine-tingling masterpiece “Strangers on a Train” and the lesser-known but compelling melodrama “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” plus noir highlights by and with ace actors like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, recent birthday gal Barbara Stanwyck, Lizabeth Scott, and Audrey Totter, brilliant writers like Patricia Highsmith, W. R. Burnett and Cornell Woolrich, and directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph H. Lewis, Phil Karlson and Anthony Mann.

Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin co-star in “Martha Ivers.”

Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin co-star in “Martha Ivers.”

Curated and hosted by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation and the Noir City film festivals, TCM’s Summer of Darkness is one festival of classic dreams and movie nightmares, you don’t want to miss. As Raymond Chandler once said about Phillip Marlowe, in “The Simple Art of Murder”: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…”

Friday, July 17

7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.): “Tension” (John Berry, 1950).

Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “Where Danger Lives” (John Farrow, 1950). Robert Mitchum is dragged to the bad side of the border and the law by second-tier femme fatale Faith Domergue. This one has its moments.

11 a.m. (8 a.m.): “The Woman on Pier 13” (“I Married a Communist”) (Robert Stevenson, 1950).

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “A Lady Without Passport” (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950). Hedy Lamarr is an illegal alien who proves irresistible to secret service man John Hodiak. Stylishly wrought by the director of “Gun Crazy” and “My Name is Julia Ross.”

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Cause for Alarm” (Tay Garnett, 1951). Loretta Young, caught in a noir trap of lies and murder. With Barry Sullivan.

3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m.): “No Questions Asked” (Harold F. Kress, 1951). Barry Sullivan is an insurance agent gone bad. With Arlene Dahl and other temptations.

Farley Granger and Robert Walker have a wonderful weird chemistry in “Strangers on a Train.”

Farley Granger and Robert Walker have a wonderful weird chemistry in “Strangers on a Train.”

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Strangers on a Train” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951).

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “The Racket” (John Cromwell, 1951). Gangster Robert Ryan and tough cop Robert Mitchum duke it out in this moody adaptation of Bartlett Cormack’s hit stage play.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Too Late for Tears” (Byron Haskin, 1949). Recently restored by the FNF, this sleeper stars Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea. The film examines the evils of money. Seriously?

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (Lewis Milestone, 1946).

12:15 a.m. (9: 15 p.m.): “99 River Street” (Phil Karlson, 1953). Taut little thriller, with unlucky but feisty cabbie John Payne caught in a frame-up, directed with panache by B-maestro Karlson (“The Phenix City Story”). Evelyn Keyes co-stars.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Conflict” (Curtis Bernhardt, 1945). Bogie in his bad mode, tormenting Alexis Smith and trying to evade Sydney Greenstreet.

3:30 a.m. (12:30 a.m.). “Klute” (Alan Pakula, 1971).

Saturday, July 18

8:15 a.m. (5:15 a.m.). “Crime and Punishment” (Josef von Sternberg, 1935). Director Sternberg, in his Dietrich years, tackles Fyodor Dostoyevsky, with the young Lucien Ballard behind the camera, and a cast that includes Peter Lorre (as the gloomy, philosophical student killer) and Edward Arnold (as his nemesis, genial and persistent police detective).

3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m.) “Rebel Without a Cause” (Nicholas Ray, 1955).

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “Lolita” (Stanley Kubrick, 1962). Kubrick’s superb film of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic comic-erotic novel about the dangerous affair of college professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) with nymphet Lolita (Sue Lyon). [Read more…]

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Top reasons we love ‘Double Indemnity’

Double Indemnity poster

Yes, we’re still gushing about “Double Indemnity,” the film noir classic from 1944. And why not? It can still draw an audience, after all. ArcLight and the Skirball Cultural Center are showing “Double Indemnity” Monday night in Sherman Oaks.

Billy Wilder‘s great prototype film noir turns 71 this year and yet it never gets old. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, the movie boasts a screenplay that Wilder co-wrote with Raymond Chandler, based on James M. Cain‘s novel, which was inspired by actual events.

Here’s why we hold the picture dear to our hearts, dearies.

14. As film noir historian and author Foster Hirsch once put it: “It’s the quintessential film noir. This is the mother lode, primary source film noir. It’s the basis for every film noir you’ve ever loved.”

13. Someone with the name Walter Neff turns out to be a tough guy.

12. All Walter has to do to escape punishment is sit tight. Yet, his ego drives him toward a final confrontation with his lover/partner in crime. He’s so damn human.

11. Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is a fashion victim. She’s so damn human.

10. The first time Phyllis shows up at Walter’s apartment, she says she is returning his hat (which he supposedly left at her house) but the previous scene clearly shows him taking his hat as he leaves. Still, there’s so much tension between them, who cares?!

9. The door to Walter’s apartment opens the wrong way (it shields Phyllis on one of her visits) but you’re so caught up in the story you hardly notice.

As Billy Wilder acknowledged, no door in the world would open this way.

As Billy Wilder acknowledged, no door in the world would open this way.

8. You could buy Phyllis Dietrichson’s house for $30,000.

7. You could have a beer at a drive-in restaurant, served by a car-hop, no less.

6. The look of supreme satisfaction on Phyllis’s face at the moment her husband is murdered.

5. Stanwyck and MacMurray both took a risk and played against type.

4. Edward G. Robinson almost steals the show and it’s really a bromance between his character and MacMurray’s Walter Neff.

3. Raymond Chandler makes a cameo appearance, about 16 minutes into the movie, at Walter’s office building.

2. It’s perfectly paced – you can watch it over and over and it moves along lickety split every time, leaving you wanting more.

1. It truly ranks as a classic flick – it’s as fresh, sexy and funny today as it was in 1944. The writing, acting, directing cinematography, lighting, art direction are matchless.

Do you love “Double Indemnity” as much as we do? Then let us know!

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‘Thelma Jordon’ shows Stanwyck at near her bad-best

The File on Thelma Jordon/1950/Paramount Pictures/100 min.

By Michael Wilmington

“The File on Thelma Jordon” plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12, at the Skirball Cultural Center, the final film in The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir series.

The File on Thelma Jordon posterBarbara Stanwyck, one of the smartest and toughest of all the classic Hollywood femmes fatales, was terrific at playing earthy babes who knew their way around a bedroom – and sometimes a courtroom or an insurance office as well. She made a schnook out of policy-seller Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.” She put Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas through the wringer in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”

And, as the hard-boiled man-killer in “The File on Thelma Jordon,” she gives the business to the seemingly solid and non-malleable Wendell Corey, playing a district attorney named Cleve Marshall. The DA draws the touchy assignment of prosecuting Thelma for the murder of her elderly, very wealthy aunt.

Paul Kelly plays Cleve’s suspicious buddy, Joan Tetzel his not-suspicious-enough wife. Stanwyck, of course, is the gal who arouses those suspicions as well as a lot of good old-fashioned Golden Age Hollywood desire.

Corey (marvelous as a psycho in Budd Boetticher’s 1956 budget noir thriller “The Killer is Loose”) is surprisingly effective in “Thelma Jordon” as a straight-arrow guy. He’s tough and savvy, sure, but Thelma bends him like a Charleston Chew.

Barbara Stanwyck was never bashful about playing bad girls or loose women or even murderesses.

Barbara Stanwyck was never bashful about playing bad girls or loose women or even murderesses.

Stanwyck eats parts like this (and guys like this) for lunch. She was one Hollywood star who was never bashful about playing bad girls or loose women or even murderesses. She always knew just the right touch of acid (or whiskey) to drop into her milk and honey come-ons.

Thelma Jordon doesn’t sport a nasty-girl blonde wig like Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity,” but she’s adept at skirting the law and lawyers. First a scheming opportunist who keeps very bad company, then an adulteress and finally a woman accused of an awful murder, Thelma’s a real dark-side knockout.

The movie’s director is one of the authentic masters of film noir: the great German émigré and expressionist puppeteer of twisted people and sinister streets, Robert Siodmak (“The Killers,” “Criss Cross,” “Phantom Lady”). Siodmak is visually right in his element here. Working with classy cinematographer George Barnes (“Spellbound”), he pulls us into an inky cinematic pool of psychological havoc and guilt.

The writer of “Thelma Jordon,” Ketti Frings, was no stranger to noir either, having penned thrillers such as “Guest in the House,” “The Accused” and “Dark City.” (Eventually she won a Pulitzer Prize for her stage version of Thomas Wolfe’s novel “Look Homeward Angel.”) Here, she shows Thelma spinning her webs, Cleve flying into them and everything getting darker and deadlier. And damned if Frings, Siodmak and Stanwyck don’t get some sympathy for Thelma as well.

This is Stanwyck at near her bad-best, Siodmak at his darkest and most Teutonically stylish. No, I don’t know why they spell Jordon with two “o’s.” But, like Wendell Corey, I won’t argue with the lady, especially when the lights go down.

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Skirball Cultural Center shows ‘The File on Thelma Jordon’ starring the grande dame of film noir

The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir series at the Skirball Cultural Center continues at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12, with a movie starring the grande dame of film noir: Barbara Stanwyck.

Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) asks: Why evade the law when you can simply seduce a lawman?

Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) asks: Why bother to evade the law when you can simply seduce a lawman? Wendell Corey plays her snoozing companion.

In “The File on Thelma Jordon” (1950, Robert Siodmak), a film-noir melodrama, Stanwyck’s Thelma is a woman with a past and an ex-boyfriend who convinced her walk on the bad side. But rather than try to evade the law, she decides instead to seduce a married district attorney (Wendell Corey). When Thelma’s aunt is murdered, the DA is definitely the dude to have on her side. Still, guilt has a way of getting the best of a person, and it even gets to the cool, clever and mightily destructive Ms. Jordon.

Siodmak’s crisp, stylish directing paired with a tight script and Stanwyck’s powerful characterization make “The File on Thelma Jordon” a delightful big-screen treat.

Six years before “Thelma Jordon,” Stanwyck made “Phantom Lady” with Siodmak. Of course, one of Stanwyck’s most famous roles was as the murderous Phyllis Dietrichson in 1944’s “Double Indemnity,” directed by Billy Wilder.  Stanwyck and co-star Fred MacMurray took a risk by playing such dark characters in that they might alienate their fan base. But the risk paid off and they proved remarkably capable of playing a range of roles.

The exhibitions close on Sunday, March 1.

The exhibitions close on Sunday, March 1.

Stanwyck went on to star in many more film-noir titles, including “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” “The Two Mrs. Carrolls,” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “No Man of Her Own,” “Clash by Night,” and “Crime of Passion.”

Admission is $10 general; $7 seniors and full-time students; $5 members. The exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect will remain open until 8 p.m.

The exhibitions close on Sunday, March 1. If you haven’t seen them yet, what are you waiting for?! At 11 a.m. on March 1, the center will screen the PBS documentary Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, which explores the impact of movie icons such as Wilder, Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann and Marlene Dietrich.

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The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir series starts Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center

If you’re feeling slightly sluggish after a whirlwind of holiday activity, remember that watching a feisty femme fatale on the big screen might be just what you need to feel newly energized and thoroughly entertained.

Alice (Joan Bennett) has Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) wrapped around her little finger in “The Woman in the Window.”

Alice (Joan Bennett) has Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) wrapped around her little finger in “The Woman in the Window.”

You can start this Thursday, Jan. 8, at 8 p.m., when the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles starts its four-film series, The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir. As the organizers note: “During World War II, many women took up jobs in previously male-dominated industries, which imbued them with a new sense of independence. These four movies – all made by émigré directors and featuring strong female leads – widely appealed to this newly empowered audience, as well as soldiers abroad.”

The series starts with 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. When you least expect your life to unravel is exactly when your life will unravel, at least in a Lang film. That’s the lesson Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) learns the hard way after he’s lured into the depraved world of street hustlers Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. “Woman” is an excellent film and well worth seeing. You can read the full FNB review here.

Pitfall posterAdmission is $10 general; $7 seniors and full-time students; $5 members. The exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect will remain open until 8 p.m.

The Intriguante series continues on Jan. 25 with an afternoon double-feature: “Pitfall” (1948, André de Toth), featuring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Wyatt in a classic noir love triangle, and the taut thriller “Criss Cross” (1949, Robert Siodmak), in which a temptress (Yvonne De Carlo) leads her ex (Burt Lancaster) to his doom.  The series concludes on Feb. 12 with “The File on Thelma Jordon” (1950, Robert Siodmak), a crime drama starring the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck.

Additionally, the Skirball Cultural Center is hosting a series of free film-noir matinees on Tuesday afternoons, starting Jan. 6 with “Somewhere in the Night” (1946, Joseph L. Mankiewicz), starring John Hodiak as an amnesic World War II soldier.

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FNB tributes to ‘Double Indemnity’ continue: Look on twitter

In honor of the 70th anniversary of “Double Indemnity,” we at FNB are hosting intermittent tributes. On Valentine’s Day, we compiled  a list of 14 reasons we adore the flick. Yesterday, we started tweeting the novel (by James M. Cain). Not sure how long that will take, but it should be fun. And here we are rerunning a review. Next, we should host a party in the Hollywood Hills. Until then …

Double Indemnity/1944/Paramount/106 min.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck

She’s got a plan, she just needs a man. And that’s a welcome challenge for a femme fatale, especially one with an ankle bracelet.

In Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece, “Double Indemnity,” from 1944 Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) wants out of her marriage to rich, grumpy oldster, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers). Poor Phyllis doesn’t get much love from Dietrichson’s adult daughter, Lola (Jean Heather) either. Fresh-faced and feisty, Lola is hung up on her temperamental boyfriend Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr).

For Phyllis, seducing a new guy to help make hubby disappear is so much more cost-effective than hiring a divorce lawyer. A smart insurance man is even better. Along comes Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) trying to sell a policy, just as Phyllis finishes a session of sunbathing, wearing an ankle bracelet and not much more. That’s about as much bait as Walter needs.

They flirt, fall for each other and eventually arrange to bump off Mr. Dietrichson, making it look like he fell from a train. It’s a one-in-a-million way to go with a huge payoff from a double-indemnity insurance policy issued by Walter’s company. After that, they play it cool and wait for the check. They’ve planned it like a military campaign, so they’re in the clear until Walter starts to suspect that he’s not the only guy who’s been drooling at Phyllis’ ankles.

Edward G. Robinson

Besides his lust for the blonde (and their chemistry truly sizzles), Walter’s real love is the platonic father/son relationship he has with his boss at the insurance company, Barton Keyes, sharp, cynical and married to his job, played brilliantly by Edward G. Robinson.

Critic Richard Schickel says “Double Indemnity” is the first true noir. I disagree – what about 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and “Stranger on the Third Floor” from 1940? Or even Fritz Lang‘s “M” from Germany in 1931? But the point is “Double Indemnity” was the standard against which every subsequent noir was measured. It’s a glorious treat visually. John Seitz’s luscious lighting and captivating use of shadow bring to mind Vincent Van Gogh’s observation: “There are no less than 80 shades of black.” The score by Miklos Rozsa works perfectly with the visuals to build and sustain atmosphere.

The performances (Stanwyck, MacMurray and Robinson) are tremendous. Though Stanwyck was nominated for the best actress Oscar and “Double Indemnity” was also nominated in six other categories (picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, sound recording and score), MacMurray and Robinson were not in the running and the film didn’t win any Oscars. In retrospect, their work in this movie is some of the best acting of the decade. MacMurray (who might be most familiar as the father in TV’s “My Three Sons”) is such a natural as the easily tempted yet very likeable Neff, it’s surprising now to learn that the role was a major departure from his usual nice-guy parts.

As James Pallot of “The Movie Guide” writes: “Robinson … beautifully gives the film its heart. His speech about death statistics, rattled off at top speed, is one of the film’s highlights.” When Keyes realizes that Walter has betrayed him, it’s heartbreaking in a way that few other noirs are.

Wilder co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler, based on the taut little novel by James M. Cain, published in 1936. (The novel was inspired by the real-life 1927 Snyder-Gray case.) In the book “Double Indemnity,” smitten Walter says of Phyllis’ physical charms, “I wasn’t the only one that knew about that shape. She knew about it herself, plenty.”

The dark, witty script follows the book pretty closely, but Chandler’s contributions are key. For example, check out this bit of simmering dialogue:

Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.

Walter: How fast was I going, Officer?

Phyllis: I’d say around 90.

Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.

Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.

Walter: That tears it…

Chatting things over while Mr. Dietrichson is away.

Now it seems egregious that Wilder (1906-2002) and “Double Indemnity” were snubbed at the Oscars. Born in what is now Poland, Wilder escaped the Nazis, but his mother and other family members perished in a concentration camp. He knew firsthand the dark, sometimes horrific, side of life and that knowledge imbued his work with an unparalleled richness and depth. He was also hilarious. If I could have martinis with any film noir director, living or dead, it would be Billy.

I’ve seen interview footage of him where he punctuated his conversation with deep and frequent laughter. And I’ve heard stories about him playing practical jokes – apparently he when he lost the 1944 best director Oscar to Leo McCarey (who won for “Going My Way” starring Bing Crosby) Billy stuck out his foot and tripped McCarey as he walked down the aisle to pick it up. Maybe if I get that fantasy date with the spirit of Billy, I’ll bring Dick Schickel along too. He might benefit from a girly martini and tagging along with Billy and me.

So, suppose you do yourself a favor and watch “Double Indemnity” the first chance you get. You won’t be sorry.

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On Valentine’s Day: 14 reasons we love ‘Double Indemnity’

Double Indemnity poster

Yes, we’re still gushing about “Double Indemnity,” the film noir classic from 1944. Deal with it. Oh, and happy Valentine‘s weekend, btw!

Billy Wilder‘s great prototype film noir turns 70 this year and yet it never gets old. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, the movie boasts a screenplay that Wilder co-wrote with Raymond Chandler, based on James M. Cain‘s novel, which was inspired by actual events.

Here’s why we hold the picture dear to our hearts, dearies.

14. As film noir historian and author Foster Hirsch put it, at a recent screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, “It’s the quintessential film noir. This is the mother lode, primary source film noir. It’s the basis for every film noir you’ve ever loved.”

13. Someone with the name Walter Neff turns out to be a tough guy.

12. All Walter has to do to escape punishment is sit tight. Yet, his ego drives him toward a final confrontation with his lover/partner in crime. He’s so damn human.

11. Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is a fashion victim. She’s so damn human.

10. The first time Phyllis shows up at Walter’s apartment, she says she is returning his hat (which he supposedly left at her house) but the previous scene clearly shows him taking his hat as he leaves. Still, there’s so much tension between them, who cares?!

9. The door to Walter’s apartment opens the wrong way (it shields Phyllis on one of her visits) but you’re so caught up in the story you hardly notice.

As Billy Wilder acknowledged, no door in the world would open this way.

As Billy Wilder acknowledged, no door in the world would open this way.

8. You could buy Phyllis Dietrichson’s house for $30,000.

7. You could have a beer at a drive-in restaurant, served by a car-hop, no less.

6. The look of supreme satisfaction on Phyllis’s face at the moment her husband is murdered.

5. Stanwyck and MacMurray both took a risk and played against type.

4. Edward G. Robinson almost steals the show and it’s really a bromance between his character and MacMurray’s Walter Neff.

3. Raymond Chandler makes a cameo appearance, about 16 minutes into the movie, at Walter’s office building.

2. It’s perfectly paced – you can watch it over and over and it moves along lickety split every time, leaving you wanting more.

1. It truly ranks as a classic flick – it’s as fresh, sexy and funny today as it was in 1944. The writing, acting, directing cinematography, lighting, art direction are matchless.

Do you love “Double Indemnity” as much as we do? Then let us know!

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Stanwyck a fashion victim? Heck yeah, look at the wig

Very few actresses truly deserve accolades like stellar, peerless, magnificent and amazing. Barbara Stanwyck, who had a stage, film and TV career spanning more than 50 years, is surely one of that select group. She might have cringed at such lofty praise, however, referring to herself as “a tough old broad from Brooklyn.”

Adjectives aside, Stanwyck stands out for the range of parts she played, her discipline as an artist, and the subtlety and strength of her performances. Tonight, she is honored at the Aero Theatre with a screening of  Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder) and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933, Frank Capra). Before the movies, Victoria Wilson, author of a new Stanwyck biography, will discuss and sign her book, “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940.

It is the 70th birthday of Double Indemnityand so I am rerunning this post on Phyllis Dietrichson’s tawdry blonde wig. The piece also includes some observations from master director Billy Wilder on working with Barbara – born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, and later nicknamed Babs, Missy and The Queen. She still rules today.

Double Indemnity posterIf I ever need assurance that every femme fatale has a styling glitch from time to time, I look at Barbara Stanwyck’s awful wig in “Double Indemnity,” a quintessential noir from 1944, directed by Billy Wilder.

Paramount production head Buddy DeSylva said of the stiff blonde ’do, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”

It also reminded me that it had been ages since I’d looked at my copy of “Conversations with Wilder” by Cameron Crowe, published in 1999. Of course, I flipped right to Wilder’s answer to Crowe’s question about the direction given to Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” for the silent shot on her face while the murder is occurring.

Said Wilder: Sure, that was a highly intelligent actress, Miss Stanwyck. I questioned the wig, but it was proper, because it was a phony wig. It was an obviously phony wig. And the anklet – the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man. They scream for murder.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in "Double Indemnity" from 1944. Both played against type.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in “Double Indemnity” from 1944. Both played against type.

Yeah, naturally we rehearsed this thing. But I rehearsed it with her once or twice, that’s the maximum, and it was not that much different from the way she would have done it. She was just an extraordinary woman. She took the script, loved it, right from the word go, didn’t have the agent come and say, “Look, she’s to play a murderess, she must get more money, because she’s never going to work again.”

With Stanwyck, I had absolutely no difficulties at all. And she knew the script, everybody‘s lines. You could wake her up in the middle of the night and she’d know the scene. Never a fault, never a mistake – just a wonderful brain she had.

Crowe asked if the part had been written for Stanwyck. Wilder said: Yeah. And then there there was an actor by the name of Fred MacMurray at Paramount, and he played comedies. Small dramatic parts, big parts in comedies. I let him read it, and he said, “I can’t do that.” And I said, “Why can’t you?” He said, “It requires acting!” [Laughs.] I said, “Look, you have now arrived in comedy, you’re at a certain point where you either have to stop, or you have to jump over the river and start something new.” He said, “Will you tell me when I’m no good?” [He nods: a partnership is born.] And he was wonderful because it’s odd casting.

Paramount image of “Double Indemnity”

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