Sunday, February 22, 2009

Double Indemnity (1944)

"Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"

  The allure of tabloid scandals and media sensationalism has now become the norm. So-called journalists spend entire days sifting through the refuse of human society trying to find a story that will keep viewers glued to their TVs. This insatiable hunger is fed by a constant flood of celebrity updates and lurid tales of human death and degeneracy.
  For James M. Cain when he was writing his book, Double Indemnity, he looked back towards his previous life as a news reporter to help spark an idea in him. The story he would use would be that of Ruth Snyder, an icy blonde, who had managed to convince her lover, Judd Gray, to bludgeon and strangle her husband to death. She was caught though and put on trial. The press labeled her a "Tiger Woman", a derogatory term used to describe the new type of woman springing up in society that shunned house work and embraced the flapper lifestyle. Cain was fascinated by her story and used it as the basis for his novel.
  In 1943 Billy Wilder was primarily known as a screenwriter. Although he had directed a few films that were considered financially successful he had not yet established his rightful place as one of the preeminent American directors. Wilder's risk to take Cain's sleazy novel and turn it into a film alienated him from many in the movie industry who thought that the story and characters would never pass the censor boards. His gamble paid off though and Wilder accomplished the impossible by turning a trashy cynical story about adultery, corruption, and murder into that rare thing called art.

"It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Maybe you would have known Keyes the minute she mentioned accident insurance, but I didn't. I felt like a million."

  Wilder's penchant need to work with a writing partner may ultimately have contributed to making him such a great director. When it came to making films Billy Wilder always tried to surround himself with the best. During pre-production for Double Indemnity Wilder looked towards Cain to help him adapt the book, but since Cain was already contracted out to another studio Wilder turned elsewhere.
  Raymond Chandler had made his name writing detective fiction and gained a reputation for crafting tough and fast stories about tarnished knight errants. Although Chandler had no experience in screenwriting Wilder was confident that Chandler's way with words would elevate the film's dialogue. Chandler's stylized dialogue moved at machine gun speeds and never shied away from sexual double entendres.

"That was all there was to it. Nothing had slipped, nothing had been overlooked, there was nothing to give us away. And yet, Keyes, as I was walking down the street to the drugstore, suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man."

  Because of the unsavory subject matter that the movie deals with, Wilder had a lot of trouble finding actors to be in the film. Wilder was so desperate that he turned to actor George Raft for the part of Walter Neff. During there meeting though Raft refused to read the script and ordered Wilder to tell him the story. As Wilder dictated the story to him, Raft eventually ordered Wilder to "get to the lapel scene." Confused by Raft's request Wilder  asked him what "lapel scene" was he talking about. Raft, apparently believed, that by the end of the story the audience would find out that his character was really a cop and arrests Phyllis Dietrichson. After that meeting Wilder felt completely dejected and believed that the movie would never get made.
  The part of Walter Neff would eventually be played by Fred MacMurray, a sometimes musician and actor who made his name in Disney comedies. MacMurray's non-threatening good looks work to the advantage of the story. Neff is not an inherently evil character, but rather just a bored one. He decides to help Phyllis kill her husband not because he needs the insurance money, but rather because he is tired of the daily grind.
  Phyllis, on the other hand, is a killer. Phyllis ensnares men into her trap and manipulates them to do her bidding. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis is a powerful character. Wilder and Chandler arm her with typical garish female visual signifiers; e.g. anklet, lipstick, angora sweater, wig; but it is Stanwyck who makes it all work and also imbues the character with a strength that most of the male characters in the story lack.
  The only real friendship that Neff has in the story is with the claims manager, Keyes, at the insurance company. Edward G. Robinson plays Keyes as a man who lives and breaths facts and statistics; unlike Neff he does not allow his emotions to make decisions for him. Thus it hurts even more by the end of the story when he finds that Neff, his only friend in the company, is Phyllis's accomplice.

"Just like the first time I came here, isn't it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet."

  John Seitz, the film's director of photography, was integral in establishing the look of the film. He had the idea to mix silver dust with some subtle smoke effects to create dramatic shafts of light that cut through the Dietrichson home. Also with this film Seitz establishes the use of "Venetian blind" lighting giving any room the appearance of bars which seem to trap the characters in their schemes.
  Double Indemnity elevated Billy Wilder's status in the film industry, yet the film is really a product of many artists not just one person. The very casual way in which sex and death are so entwined was quite ahead of most of the film's being made back then. The film doesn't ask you to like any of the characters, instead it challenges you to realize that every person is susceptible to corruption even those with the best intentions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

City for Conquest (1940)

  As the infrastructure of New York City is in a constant process of evolving, one thing that it never runs a risk of having too little of are wide-eyed hopefuls. There is something about the city that draws people onto that thin strip of land and endure the kind of hard scrabble living that has crushed many a weak individual. It may be that the hardships one has to bear to just survive in that town fuels the type of art and artists that can define a specific generation or movement. When you come to New York the goal is to make it big; wanting anything less would just be cheating yourself out of a God-given destiny to be a star.

  In Anatole Litvak's film City for Conquest not only is New York City elevated to the status of being the only American city that matters, but it also offers us a window into the lives of three of its most ambitious inhabitants. James Cagney plays Danny Kenny, a boxer, whose talent for fighting is matched only by his love for the girl of his dreams, Peggy Nash. Ann Sheridan, in the role of Peggy, is the girl next door who wishes to see her name in lights. And finally the third character is Danny's brother Eddie, played by Arthur Kennedy, who tries to parlay his musical talent into a viable career.

  The great debate within the film is the struggle of values vs. ambition. Each of the three main characters starts the film off with a certain set of ideals. Danny only boxes so that he can pay for his brother's tuition, Peggy is content dancing in neighborhood contests, and Eddie quietly works on his own musical compositions while giving piano lessons to neighborhood kids. As the film progresses each of these characters runs up against an individual who exploits their ambitions and each of them gets corrupted by their own personal desires.
  Although Peggy is content to dance in small dance halls she dreams of seeing her name in lights and the pull of celebrity soon corrupts her till she eventually goes from having her name at the top of a marquee to dancing for a burlesque show. Eddie works at being a legitimate composer, but the desire for recognition has him churning out Broadway pop songs. Danny, on the other hand, is the most unambitious character in the story. All he is after is a simple life with Peggy and sees being at the top of his sport as the only way to get her back.
  Each of the three characters sells themselves for transitory pleasures, and in the case of Danny and Peggy are left with nothing. The only good thing to come from all their suffering is that Peggy finally returns to Danny and he, in turn, is granted what he had originally wanted, a simple life with Peggy. Eddie is the only one who comes out of the story relatively unscathed and also triumphant. His brother's brutal beating and subsequent blindness in the ring causes him to reassess exactly what his real priorities are.  

  The film's use of process shots and on-location footage of New York creates a very romanticized view of the city. Anatole Litvak, with some uncredited work by Jean Negulesco, presents a city where even if your dreams don't come true you can at least fall back on your friends for support. The New York in this film may not have ever really existed, but you can't fault them for tapping into the audience's belief that even if you don't achieve the goals you have set out for yourself, by the mere fact that you have survived is an achievement unto itself.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Romance & Cigarettes (2005)

  The story is simple. Told and retold by various artists from every country and decade. Romance & Cigarettes is about the folly of the male libido. It charts how one man's sexual proclivities drag him deeper into humiliating circumstances till finally the specter of death grants him one chance to repent. Nick Murder, played by James Gandolfini, is a man who cheats on his wife for the most common reason their is, boredom. Nick's home life is relatively uncomplicated and Gandolfini eschews the obvious masculine trotting that many actors in that role would have played up, and instead brings out the comic pathos of a man suffering from the insecurity that the measure of a man's virility is the number of women he can bed.
  Nick Murder is a character that wouldn't be uncommon in a Greek tragedy. He is doomed even before the story has started. As his wife and mother remind him, he comes from a long line of whoremasters. He is a man with compromised values believing in the idea of love, but not quite able to express his love in a proper way. Nick is drowning in his own vulgarity; reducing romance into a few sexual acts. It is interesting to note that his wife, Kitty, played by Susan Sarandon, and his mistress, Tula, played by Kate Winslet, are both redheads, very outspoken, and each has a job connected in some way to the making and/or selling of female garments. Tula works in a lingerie shop and Kitty is a seamstress who specializes in wedding gowns.
  Although Tula is shown to be crude, cheap, and unrefined she is really more of a victim of her emotions. For Nick, being with Tula fulfills in him a typical male fantasy of being with a woman more than willing to fulfill every sexual fantasy he could think of. She's willing to talk dirty to him, contort her body into whatever sexual position he wants, and even more importantly she seems to want nothing for it, or at least that's what Nick thinks. For as we see in a flashback sequence Tula expresses to Nick her sincere feelings for him. She genuinely loves him; she isn't naive and her attraction towards him is not so much based on his physical appearance. Tula mistakes Nick's amorous intentions and his circumcising his penis as declarations of his love for her. The reality of the situation though is that he is merely doing what he believes will keep her from getting bored with him.
  In a completely opposite spectrum Kitty is Nick's long-suffering wife. She is neglected and relegated to household chores. She has given up much of her own life to basically take care of Nick and their three daughters and although she hates him for what he has done to her Kitty can't just throw all those years away. For Kitty, it's not so much that Nick had sex with Tula, but of all the attention he shows her. It might have been in bad taste to write vulgar personal notes to her and get himself circumcised, but it is more attention than Kitty has received from him in years.
  John Turturro, the film's writer and director, came up with the idea for the film more than ten years ago when he was working on the Coen brothers film Barton Fink and over the years built the script up slowly working on scene after scene till they all fit beautifully together. Turturro has labeled his film as a "musical of the common man" and, in my opinion, more aptly as a "homemade musical" since the soundtrack for the film avoids the usual orchestral or composer specific score. The soundtrack instead reads like a mixtape proudly flaunting songs by Englebert Humperdink, Dusty Springfield, Connie Francis, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and many more. And even during the musical sequences Turturro has the original song recording mixed in with the actor's voices; making it seem like we are catching the characters in a cathartic moment trying to exorcise their emotional demons through song and dance.
  The characters in the film express what they feel through the only way they can, through pop songs. Music is a form of transportation for them because they can't afford to go and travel. They must use the materials of television, movies, music, and pop culture to manufacture their dreams. With this film Turturro is commenting on the fact that we are all guilty, to varying degrees, of viewing reality through the prism of pop culture. The people and products that the media and advertisers bombard us with on a daily basis form our own ideas about who we are. To prefer one type of food snack over another, to idolize over a specific band, or praise a film that many people have ignored is making just as powerful a personal statement as saying you were a Democrat or a Republican.