Category: 1944

The sun shines through the cheap plastic blinds highlighting my face like the spotlights in a police interrogation room. My mind races to find the right words before the sun rises further in its fatalistic elliptical around this floating chunk of rock we call home and my suspect brain loses the details of the lurid tale I witnessed the evening before. Who am I kidding? No passing of the sun will erase the blood-soaked memories of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Like a gunshot in the dark or a fatal fall off a moving train, there are some things you just don’t forget. It’s been years since the shady Mr. Wilder and I crossed paths. Last time around, he was peddling his story of Hollywood depravity and faded glory days, Sunset Boulevard. I was just a young gumshoe then, still learning the ins and outs of this crazy world of movies, and I didn’t appreciate the eerie eye Wilder had for capturing the essence ofnoir. I’ve worked a few cases, seen hundreds of crimes since then though, and maybe it was fate, maybe it was destiny, but the time was finally ripe for Billy Wilder and I to meet again as he and Raymond Chandler constructed a tale of murder, infidelity, and betrayal.

Imagine a middle-aged insurance salesman. We’ll call him Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). He’s one of the best in the game. He could sell automobile insurance to the Amish.  Everybody in the office loves him, even the wily and hard-nosed claims inspector Barton Keyes (Little Caesar‘s Edward G. Robinson) who can spot a phony insurance claim a mile away. Take a second to also imagine a the most gorgeous but dangerous woman you’ve ever met. She’s the type of dame that could bring down kings or presidents. Let’s call her Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and maybe it’s the months old scotch I just downed, but it’s safe to say the word “femme fatale” was created to describe her. Now imagine that the fates bring these two souls together. Walter shows up at the Dietrichson home to sell Phyllis’ husband insurance but gets drawn into a scheme that could put him and Phyllis on a one-way trip to the electric chair. The simmering sexuality that Phyllis radiates is more than Walter can overcome, and he agrees to help Phyllis kill her husband so they can collect the claim on his accident insurance which will pay off double indemnity if he dies in a train accident. Walter and Phyllis plan and pull off what they believe to be the perfect crime, but it’s not too long before Barton Keyes smells a rat in their nest of rats and their plan starts to fall apart.

If you couldn’t tell, I was trying to write my review of this excellent film as if it were the inner monologue of a film noir protagonist which is to say full of intentionally cheesy and melodramatic pulp fiction (as in the genre not the Tarantino film) dialogue. However, that was fine for the opening paragraph and my plot description. I’m not sure I could have accomplished that while trying to discuss the technical aspects of the film like acting and writing. Well, a better writer probably could but I still need to review the final disc of the first season of Angel so I don’t have the time to put that much thought into it. Fred MacMurray wasn’t particularly impressive. His whole performance just felt very restrained and I had trouble believing the paranoia and guilt that he was supposed to be succumbing too. I would have also had trouble buying his “seduction” of Phyllis but she only wanted him to think she seduced him since it was actually her seducing him. However, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson were great in their roles. While I’d never seen this film before, I knew it was one of the archetypal film noir films that set the standards for a lot of the genre pictures to follow. And if Barbara Stanwyck’s performance wasn’t the standard for all of the femme fatales to follow, I don’t know what was. She oozed a darker sexuality. She could simultaneously play the vulnerable damsel than switch to the scheming Lady MacBeth at the flip of a hat. Similarly, as the fast talking and quick thinking Barton Keyes, Edward G. Robinson channeled the intelligence and single-minded determination that made Barton such an effective claims inspector.

This was film noir before film noir even existed as a discrete genre of film. I might not be willing to say that this film is as great as The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca (which the former is certainly noir while the latter vaguely fits in the genre), but it’s one of those rare classic dramas that I think is deserving of the title “classic.” This film spent eight years gestating at the script phase before the Hollywood censor office would let it be made. The Hays Code (which determined very specific rules about what type of content could be released in a Hollywood film [and their standards were unbelievably strict]) rejected countless versions of this film as being too “disgusting” and “offensive” to all contemporary senses of moral decency. So, it’s a miracle that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler were still able to fit so many double entendres and implications of violence and sexuality into the film. I’m really curious what the original script could have looked like (I imagine it more closely resembled James M. Cain’s original novel). A lot of films that help to create entire genres of film often seem dated and cliched when you see them after watching plenty of other genre films, but Double Indemnity managed to seem as fresh and exciting in 2012 as it did when it was first released 68 years ago.

I could go on at length about the gorgeous black and white cinematography (and how the film’s use of shadow set the standard for all film noir films to come) but I’m hungry, and I want to eat lunch. So, let me close this review out by saying that while I might not quite consider this to be an “A+” film, it’s still one of the best film noir that I’ve ever seen. For all fans of classic dramas and film noir, this is about as easy a sell as you can get. Anyone reading my blog that is capable of appreciating classic cinema should watch this. It might not be perfect (mostly because of Fred MacMurray) but it comes pretty damn close. I’m now able to get excited about the rest of the Billy Wilder films that are on my list for this blog. Considering he’s one of the most celebrated and beloved Hollywood directors of all time, there are going to be a lot of his films before I’m done here.

Final Score: A

I have not made it much of a secret on this blog or in my personal life generally that I am not a man of faith. I would consider myself to be a “teapot agnostic”, so named for a thought experiment conducted by Bertrand Russell as  counter-argument to the “You can’t disprove God” rationalization for religious faith. Russell’s teapot refers to a hypothetical teapot that may or may not be in orbit around the earth. I can’t disprove that the teapot is there, but that doesn’t make it any more likely that it does exist. That being said, I have a moderate amount of respect for the power to commit good that religion can inspire. However, I also have an extreme cynicism towards organized faith brought on by all of the violence and tragedy that has been committed in its name over man kind’s history. Centered heavily in the sort of religious faith and love that can do good in our communities, 1944’s Going My Way, winner of many Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, takes a positive look at Christian love than even a jaded cynic like myself can respect, but that doesn’t save the movie from being an incredibly boring and slow two-hour slog through the worst aspects of older cinema.

A comedy/musical/drama hybrid, Going My Way stars Bing Crosby (Best Actor, 1944) as Father Charles O’Malley, a Catholic priest sent to a financially strapped parish on the verge of being repossessed by the bank. His predecessor, Father Fitzgibbons (Barry Fittzgerald, Best Supporting Actor 1944) is a cantankerous old traditional priest who is blind to the needs and realities of his failing church. Father O’Malley is from a more progressive and liberal theological school, and it’s up to him to get the community interested in the church again and to help raise the money that will keep it from being shut down. Father O’Malley’s special gift is his angelic voice and song-writing skills, and before Father Fitzgibbons even knows it, Father O’Malley has formed a choir of the local boys who were nothing but hoodlums before he arrived, and it isn’t long before he’s attracting the attention of a famous singer at the Metropolitan Opera.

Say what you will about his alleged past of severe child abuse (which is indescribably tragic), Bing Crosby is a heck of a performer. All of the music of the film occurs diegetically, i.e. within the context of the scenes, and hearing Bing Crosby croon out old standards (including an original song for the film which won an Oscar) is a delight. He also has a fairly dry sense of humor. He isn’t a spectacular dramatic actor but he doesn’t disappoint in this role. Barry Fitzgerald was the real scene-stealer as the curmudgeonly older priest. I honestly believed that he spent half of the movie not knowing where he was in some addled senility. Fitzgerald easily nailed the self-righteous and stuck-in-his ways aspects of any older clergyman, but he also showed a sensitive and kind side that explained much of his oblivious naivete. I wish I could say anything positive about the large host of child actor’s but I really, really can’t. The red-headed kid that was the head of the choir gives the boy from Shane a run for his money in the bad child-acting department.

As much as I enjoyed the performances, the story itself wasn’t enough to keep me engaged with the film. Running at a lengthy 2 hours and 10 minutes, there wasn’t enough substantive plotting to keep me engaged or some other stylistic or character heavy aspect to make up for deficient storytelling. As much as I liked Father O’Malley, I knew very little about him or why he was so progressive compared to his peers. Father Fitzgibbons felt fare more fleshed out, but he too seemed disappointingly ill-defined. Also, the story itself just never amounts to much more than some slight conflicts at first between Fitzgibbons and O’Malley and then O’Malley’s plot to raise money for the church. None of that was particularly insightful or exciting. Films can get away with being boring if they’re smart or intimately detailed or have something important to say. Going My Way is none of those things, except perhaps panderingly heart-warming (though I admit I did shed a tear the film’s end).

Maybe I’m too cold-hearted and cynical to enjoy this supposedly inspiring film, but my problems with it are more associated with simply how boring and stale the story of the film is. For fans of classic movies, this film has garnered quite a reputation for itself, so you need to watch it, if only for Crosby and Fitzgerald’s performances. I’ve made this observation on this blog before, but it bears repeating. I am simply incapable of enjoying dramatic films before the 1950’s. While Netflix categorized this as a comedy, it definitely had dramatic elements and they were far too moralistic and idealistic for me. If you’re of a religious orientation, you’ll most likely adore the over-all message of true Christian love and tolerance that this film displays, and that (along with the performances) is virtually all this film had going for me. It officially gets the worst score I’ve given a film that won Best Picture at the Oscars.

Final Score: C+

When this particular film came in the mail from Netflix, my first reaction was “Finally, a Bogie picture!” I don’t really think Humphrey Bogart is one of the most talented actors of all time, but there’s something about him that simply exudes awesome. He’s the man that every woman ever wanted to be with and every man wanted to be. He’s got the kind of natural stage presence and charisma that only comes once a generation. To add to my level of excitement, To Have and Have Not was his first movie he ever made with his future muse and soul mate, Lauren Bacall, and as legend has it, it was on the set of this film that they fell madly in love. And to top it all off, the script was written by literary great William Faulkner and based off a Hemingway story. Unfortunately, while certain aspects of the film had the potential for greatness, poor pacing and certain scenes that felt like they dragged on for eternity keep this film from achieving the level of other Bogie classics.

To Have and Have Not is the story of American fishing boat captain, Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), living in French Martinique after the fall of free France during WW II and during the control of the Nazi-backed Vichy. Harry’s life is turned upside down when he becomes caught in the middle of the fight between French patriots and the Vichy regime. Since he’s a rebellious old curmudgeon and doesn’t like being pushed around, he throws his hat in with the patriots despite not having any real stake in the matter. Further complications arrive with the presence of Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall), a thief who catches Morgan’s eye and heart.

Before I delve too deeply into the parts of the film that didn’t work, let me at least hit on the things that were entertaining and kept me engrossed. The chemistry between Bogie and Bacall is absolutely sizzling. If you watch this film and don’t think to yourself “I’m pretty sure those two were getting it on during production” at least four or five times, you either think they’re the best actors on the planet or are blind to simple human attraction. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen two stars with such natural chemistry with one another. It’s no wonder they’re such a beloved Hollywood couple. And Lauren Bacall was a knock-out. She was just dripping with elegance and sexuality. Her “You know how to whistle?” line has become a classic movie quote. Bogie is Bogie and that’s really all I need to say there. Also, in the supporting role of Morgan’s drunken friend Eddy, Walter Brennan was an absolute delight.

However, as entertaining as the film could be in parts, it really dragged in others and there wasn’t enough happening to keep me engaged during prolonged stretches of the film. I actually started to fall asleep around 2/3 of the way through the film and had to take a break and come back and finish it later. I’m glad I finished it because I was able to wrench some value from the film, but I can’t really imagine myself watching this again in the near future. If you’re a Bogie fan, you need to watch the movie for that reason. It’s another step in the evolution of his career. Otherwise, you can leave this one alone.

Final Score: B-