Remote Access

with George

Category: Billy Wilder

Double Indemnity (1944)

****

The screen is dark. A man, that we can barely see, is covering himself with his jacket. The music is mysterious. It makes us curious.

Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray as Neff (an insurance salesman) and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson (a mysterious client Neff takes a liking to), is a narrative set in Los Angeles, much like the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. Both were made by the legend himself, Billy Wilder. The crazy back-and-forth between MacMurray and Stanwyck in their first scene together is aided by their chemistry (an idea, by the way, I don’t believe in while talking about basketball, but its existence here is irrefutable). Only a few scenes later, they’re kissing in his apartment.

Mrs. Dietrichson and Mr. Neff come up with a plot to kill Mr. Dietrichson and collect the insurance money. And then they follow through on it. The scene in which the Dietrichsons leave the house, not giving too much away, is very dark, just like the opening shot. After the deed is done, the getaway car doesn’t start for awhile. Neff panics. Dietrichson panics. I paniced along with them.

I really enjoyed these characters. Edward G. Robinson was right when he said, in the middle of the movie, that all these insurance claims have a story, a “drama.” This “accident” has an impact on everyone of them, but in different ways. Neff is portrayed incredibly well during the narration. His whole face is sweaty, he breathes heavily, and he’s shaking a little (I don’t think all of that was from the bullet). Phyllis is cool, but somehow passionate all the same, and I would never trust her entirely. If Neff had a choice, he shouldn’t have either.

The movie is genius. I can’t say more than that. The performances are so nuanced that there wasn’t a character I didn’t like. They were all deserving of my sympathy. The shots themselves are noir (French for black, if you didn’t know) and moody. And the humor has a bitter aftertaste that only Billy Wilder can pull off.

(Double Indemnity is available now on Netflix Instant. If you see and enjoy it, you might also want to check out Sunset Boulevard and Casablanca.)

Stray notes:

  • “Now get out of here before I throw my desk at you.” “I love you too.”
  • “We gotta have some of that pink wine that goes with it. The kind that bubbles.”
  • “What was his name?” “Jackson, probably still is.”
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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

****

The very first shot of Sunset Boulevard is of a curb, and the street name on it, which happens to be the name of the movie. I thought back to that first shot at the end. Sunset Boulevard has an entire boulevard’s worth of houses on it. And there are a lot of boulevards in Hollywood. I wondered how many more stories like this there were to be told.

The film opens with a murder. The man killed was Joe Gillis (William Holden), who appears to be the main character of the film at the beginning, but don’t be fooled. This movie is all about Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a disillusioned former silent film star Gillis meets coincidentally, while running from some repossessors. Joe is a heavily in-debt screenwriter who has hit hard times; while Norma is a rich, but lonely woman whose best years are clearly behind her. These people are not currently successful, but they make a good fit because each of them has something the other one needs. (Actually, Joe has more to offer than Norma, but that’s exactly why certain things occur.) Joe is youthful, can fix Norma’s screenplay, and provides company; while Norma has the financial assets Joe needs. After awhile, they begin to care for each other, but Norma finds herself in love with Joe, which Joe sees her more as an aunt.

Sunset Boulevard has a few things in common with Psycho, the famous Hitchcock thriller. You have Joe and Norma, friends in this film, and then you have Norman and his mother, enemies of sorts, in Psycho. But Norma and Norman’s mother do similar things. (Please excuse me if I’m confusing you… it’s not my fault the characters in the two movies I chose to compare have almost the same name.) Their actions, not giving away too much, are set off by similar characters.

I enjoyed both films a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen delusion played better than Swanson plays it here. Norma’s ex-husband and current butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), is also played well. These three characters all care for each other, and that’s what causes the physical death of one character, and the mental death of another. I’m ready for my close up.

Note: Look out for a hilarious Buster Keaton.

(If you see and enjoy Sunset Boulevard, you might also enjoy A Face in the Crowd and The Truman Show, two of my favorite all-time movies.)