Film Noir

The Big Sleep: The Head-Scratching Film Noir

Listen, Angel, run and get a scriptwriter who can explain what's going on." Image: lksdjf

“Listen, Angel, go find a scriptwriter who can explain what’s going on.” Image: Doctor Macro

Dear Reader: As part of The Great Movie Debate Blogathon, we are going to argue against The Big Sleep.

Yup, you read that right. Against.

Now, we realize The Big Sleep is on everyone’s Top 10 List, and we respect that. It’s a legendary film noir with engaging characters, beautifully designed sets (from Carl Jules Weyl) and a luscious wardrobe (by Leah Rhodes). Add a cast that includes Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and hire William Faulkner (yes, that William Faulkner) to help with the script. How can it go wrong?

Well, it does go wrong, in our opinion, because this movie doesn’t make much sense.

We realize, dear Reader, that we may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, and that perhaps the first time you saw the movie you nodded and said, “This is perfectly logical.”

We would not be exaggerating if we told you we’ve seen this movie at least half a dozen times. The last time we viewed it, we had one hand working the Pause + Rewind buttons on the remote, while the other pounded furious notes into a laptop. Even with this approach, we were left with questions starting with “Why did…?” and “How come…?” Et cetera.

You’re likely curious about the plot if you’ve never seen this film. We’re not going to describe it because it’s more complex than filing your income tax. We will say, however, that there’s lots of skulking and double-crossing and shooting. There’s a bit of romance, too, as Bogart starts to fall in love with Bacall even though she may be Trouble.

The Big Sleep also has some of the best lines of any film noir; the dialogue is smart and quick. In one scene, Bogart refers to Bacall’s drink as “lunch out of a bottle”. In another scene, an elderly, dying man tells Bogart, “You’re looking, sir, at a very dull survivor of a very gaudy life.”

Terrific stuff, these lines, lifted directly from the Raymond Chandler novel on which this movie is based. (Chandler’s novel has so many great lines, you almost want to stuff them in your handbag to show off later.)

We recommend the reading the novel because, if you’re perpetually confused like us, you’ll want to know what’s really going on in this movie. And that makes us cry “foul”.

Bogart sneaks around corners in search of Answers. Image: kdjf

Bogart is desperate for Answers – much like the audience. Image: The University of Iowa

In our opinion, a movie’s script should be able to hold itself upright. It may have plot holes, which is forgivable, and we know sometimes novels don’t translate well to film. However, we feel the audience shouldn’t need the original book to get the subtleties of the movie’s plot. The Big Sleep tries to tell the novel’s story but can’t because of, you know, the Motion Pictures Production Code.

The Production Code (c.a. 1930-1967) was Hollywood’s way of keeping films morally neat and tidy. (One aspect of the Code we champion is that the bad guys always Get What’s Coming To Them.) If you’ve read The Big Sleep, the novel, you’re probably wondering how filmmakers in 1946 thought this material could squeeze into a Code-friendly movie. We’re wondering the same thing.

The Big Sleep, the novel, is a study in incongruity. Here is a book about some fairly distasteful crimes, but the writing is so beautiful it almost sings. This is why The Big Sleep, the 1946 movie, can never really reflect Chandler’s work. It can’t get into the specifics of the book and it doesn’t quite capture detective Phillip Marlowe’s haunted loneliness. We’re not saying this film shouldn’t have been made; we just feel the filmmakers had a near-impossible task.

Given all this, would we watch The Big Sleep again? Why yes – now that we know what the heck is going on.

The Big Sleep: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgley. Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman. Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1946, B&W, 113 mins.

This post is part of THE GREAT MOVIE DEBATE Blogathon hosted by The Cinematic Packrat and Citizen Screenings. Click HERE to see the other fab entries.


The Femme Fatale Troubleshooting Guide

Robert Mitchum (left) blah blah Image:

Robert Mitchum believes everything Laraine Day says, the poor slob. Image:

Being a Femme Fatale is easy. Really – all you need are semi-presentable hair and wardrobe, along with an imperial ego.

It’s when things start to slide off the rails that a gal needs a little help. Fortunately, a Femme Fatale troubleshooting guide exists in the 1946 film noir The Locket.

The Locket is the kind of film that doesn’t follow the rules. For example, it embeds flashbacks within flashbacks, and presents so many plot twists that a person ought to wear a seatbelt when viewing it. (At one point, we nearly jumped from our chair and involuntary exclaimed, “GET OUT!”)

The plot, briefly: On the day of his wedding, a wealthy young man is visited by a stranger (Brian Aherne) who claims to be the ex-husband of the bride-to-be (Laraine Day). The stranger relates a troubling story about this woman, one that involves yet another man from her past (Robert Mitchum).

The film revolves around the wholesome-looking Day, who gives an incredible performance as a woman who knows how to play all the angles. This makes her one of the great Femme Fatale figures, because she has Technique. She is able to remove herself from sticky situations by ducking behind innocent bystanders.

Let’s examine Day’s technique. Are your pencils sharpened? Let us begin.

1. Always deflect blame. This is easier if you have a man who can absorb it for you. Remember, nothing is ever your fault.

2. Don’t flinch if an unwanted old flame suddenly reappears. Apply your prettiest smile to your face and say how thrilled you are to see him. Ask him to stay for a drink. Show everyone that you are the Bigger Person.

3. If a man from your past commits suicide, be sad and patronizing. Shake your head and wonder aloud about his emotional state. Be careful to not overdo it, though, or people might get the wrong idea about your history with the deceased.

4. If a man accuses you of a crime, act as though he’s gone soft in the head. Ask him if he’s feeling tired or stressed. If he persists with his story, put him in a mental hospital. Here you can be the Brave Woman who tearfully asks doctors if there’s Any Hope.

5. If your man tells you that an old beau has been to see him with wild stories of your past, admit to only innocuous facts. When you tell the story to your man, smile innocently, kiss him and place your head on his shoulder. “You don’t suppose he’s still jealous?” you might ask, as though you hardly dare entertain the notion.

blah blah Image:

Tip: Don’t take offence to portraits like this. Image:

Bonus Point: If your man paints a less-than-flattering portrait of you (see above), pretend there’s no weird subtext. Refer to it as Art and boast about your boyfriend’s talent to every rich person you meet. You never know who you might meet while you’re networking.

Even if you’re not interested in becoming a Femme Fatale, The Locket is required viewing. Not only does it have a clever script and inspired casting, it features a stunning performance by an underrated actress.

The Locket: starring Laraine Day, Brian Aherne, Robert Mitchum. Directed by John Brahm. Screenplay by Sheridan Gibney. RKO Pictures Inc., 1946, B&W, 85 mins.


Jeanne & Barbara: We Hardly Knew Ye

Jeanne Cooper (left) has reason to be worried about Barbara Hale (right). Image:

Dear Reader, we wish to unburden ourselves with a confession.

We (as in, yours truly) tend to be dismissive of typecast television actors. We may admire them in their particular TV role, but we may not appreciate – or care about – their full acting potential.

So imagine our chagrin when we screened The Houston Story starring two actors who became typecast in later years, and boy oh boy! Do we have egg on our face! Someone pass the moist towelettes, please.

The Houston Story is a thrifty 1956 film noir that stars Gene Barry as a self-centered, scheming oilworker who devises a plan to steal oil from Texas oilfields. Edward Arnold (in his final screen role) stars as an organized crime boss who provides the manpower and resources needed for this caper.

Now, don’t let this film’s economical budget put you off. Some of the dialogue seems abrupt and underdeveloped, and we’re well aware of how much mileage the filmmakers are getting out of the sets. Also: nobody talks like they’re from Texas.

However, we don’t care about that. The story is engrossing, the characters are interesting and the acting is really, really good. Especially when it comes to the two main female characters played by Jeanne Cooper and Barbara Hale.

Cooper was previously known to us only as the calculating, ultra-rich Katherine Chancellor from the daytime drama The Young and the Restless. Likewise, Hale, to us, was best known as the reliable, uber-efficient Della Street in the Perry Mason series/re-boots.

What we (as in, yours truly) refused to see, is that these women can ACT. The Houston Story shows us what these women are capable of.

Cooper plays Barry’s girlfriend before he makes millions siphoning off oil wells. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she still gives us a likable, hard-working woman for whom we instantly cheer. Her character is smart, funny and energetic. Cooper never once lets us see her “acting”; she embraces her blue-collar character and we love her for it.

Hale plays the-rich-gangster girlfriend, because only rich men can afford Hale’s company. Hale is beautiful, spoiled and drenched in jewels. We first see her as a nightclub singer, performing Put the Blame on Mame. She growls the lyrics with such intensity, it makes the Rita Hayworth’s singing seem almost timid by comparison.


At the movie’s conclusion we sat, almost dumbfounded. Who were these women? Where did all that talent come from?

Then we realized that it must take talent to become typecast in the first place; that it can’t be easy to play the same character year after year in a television series; that it must be frustrating to know you had the chops to be great, but never had the chance.

The Houston Story has a script that moves along quickly, but director William Castle never hurries Cooper or Hale in their pivotal moments. He gives them the space they need to convey what the character is thinking. Because both these women are crucial to the plot, we need to see why they act the way they do.

There are many reasons to enjoy The Houston Story, but we encourage you to see two under-appreciated actresses dominate the screen – and make it look so easy.

Thanks to the lovely and talented Kristina at Speakeasy for putting this movie in our hands.

The Houston Story: starring Gene Barry, Barbara Hale, Edward Arnold, Jeanne Cooper. Directed by William Castle. Written by Irve Tunick. Columbia Pictures Corp., B&W, 1956, 80 mins.

Why Tom Neal Can’t Call Police

Tom Neal (right) pleads with Ann Savage to be reasonable.

Tom Neal (right) pleads with Ann Savage to be reasonable. (Image: Claqueta)

They say there’s one question a film noir has to answer right away, and that is: Why don’t they call the police?

That would be the normal thing to do if, for instance, you stumbled upon a victim of a violent crime. However, if movie characters went to the police each time someone was murdered/robbed/blackmailed, we wouldn’t have a very interesting selection of crime dramas, would we?

Here’s where film noir makes things interesting. In film noir, people can’t go to the police. The only way to solve their dilemma is to face it themselves – as grim a task as that is. A film noir world is a place where you don’t know who to trust, and people aren’t always what they seem.

This is the case in Detour (1946), a paranoid, nothing-goes-right film about a man (Tom Neal) who wants only one thing – to travel from New York to Los Angeles to marry his fiancé. As is the case with many good noirs, the film is told in flashbacks and we are gradually led to discover a gritty and desperate situation.

As he starts to hitchhike across the country, Neal is picked up by an amiable “travelling salesman” (Edmund MacDonald). After driving for the better part of a day, MacDonald asks Neal to take the driver’s seat while he sleeps.

Aww – ain’t this sweet? Neal drives and MacDonald has a lovely little nap, resting comfortably against the passenger door. Just two buddies travelling down the open road.

One key characteristic of film noir is the plot twist, and Detour has plenty of those. The first occurs when Neal stops the car and opens the door against which the sleeping MacDonald is slumped. MacDonald spills onto the ground, slams his head on a rock and dies instantly.

Well! If that weren’t awkward enough, it turns out MacDonald was a rather unsavoury character who has a lot of cash in his wallet, and we mean a LOT of cash.

Neal is in a quandary but, in true noir fashion, he does not wait for police. How come? First, he’s on a highway in the middle of nowhere. Second, he’s convinced police wouldn’t believe him – and he’s probably right. Here’s a hitchhiker, alone with a dead man and a wallet stuffed with cash on a deserted highway. Nah, nothing suspicious here.

Here’s a second plot twist: Neal decides to take the car (and the dead man’s wallet) and continue on to L.A. Along the way, he picks up a hitchhiker (Ann Savage), an abrupt woman who doesn’t like questions until, suddenly, she asks one of her own: “Where did you leave his body?”

Yikes! How on earth does she know?

By now, we are completely immersed in the world of film noir. Neal can’t go to the police because Savage has made it clear she will testify against him. He also can’t escape Savage’s clutches because, like every good femme fatale, she has a very controlling personality. He is alone must solve his predicament, if he can.

It’s obvious that Detour was filmed on a budget, as some of the most notable noirs are, but it doesn’t interfere with a gripping story. The camera work is top-notch and the performances by Neal and Savage are outstanding. The script, too, is water-tight and it delivers a gasp-out-loud twist near the end of the movie that you will not believe.

You may or may not agree with the film’s overall philosophy, which is summed up in a single statement just before the closing credits. But you won’t forget Tom Neal’s desperation in a film noir world or his inability to summon police when he needed them most.

Detour: Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Written by Martin Goldsmith. Producers Releasing Corp., B&W, 1946, 67 mins.

The Strange Love of Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck is waaay too happy to see Van Heflin (right). Image: Biography

Barbara Stanwyck is waaay too happy to see Van Heflin (centre). Image: Biography

Dear Reader: Today we are going to gush – GUSH! – over Barbara Stanwyck.

Stick with us and you’ll be gushing over her too. Just see if you don’t.

We realized Stanwyck was gush-worthy when we screened the 1946 drama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. This, to us, is the perfect example of why Ms. Stanwyck is a legend.

The film opens as Stanwyck’s teenaged character, a rich and fiesty gal, plans to run away with a boy from a poor family. However, the sudden death of Stanwyck’s aunt/guardian upsets her plans and sets a new trajectory for her life.

Nearly two decades pass, and the grown boy (Van Heflin) returns to discover that Stanwyck is rich and powerful, and is married to their meek childhood friend (Kirk Douglas). An old flame is re-ignited when Heflin and Stanwyck meet, but Douglas suspects Heflin’s “friendliness” masks uber-sinister motives.

This is all we’re going to tell you about the plot, which is more far complex and intriguing than we’ve described here. We don’t want it to get in the way of our gushing.

Here’s something about The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: Stanwyck doesn’t make her first appearance until at least 20 minutes in. And when she does, she suddenly bursts onto the screen in a fur stole and a crystal-embroidered evening gown. It’s quite an entrance! There is no doubt in our minds that she is The Person In Charge Around Here.

Stanwyck’s character is as cold and canny as any we’ve seen on film. But she practically sparkles when she’s on screen with Heflin. She becomes a young girl again, looking admiringly at him, eager for his approval. However, in the second it takes to shift her gaze to Douglas, she becomes full of contempt and meanness.

She and Douglas are phenomenal in their scenes together. She controls his actions with one icy look; he, in turn, is the perfect blend of desperation and resignation. In one scene, Douglas says Heflin is coming to the house. Stanwyck replies, meaningfully, “I’ll go and change. I don’t want him to see me in the same outfit twice.”

Stanwyck has far less screen time than other players. But even when she’s not in a scene, you feel her presence. You find yourself thinking, “Uh oh. What’s she going to say about this?”

Stanwyck is one of those actors who can make you believe anything she wants you to believe. She has contempt for Douglas, so we have contempt for Douglas. She practically worships Heflin, so we do too. It’s almost as though she tells us what to think, and we do – even when we feel we shouldn’t.

The last scene in this movie is carefully done and we feel it shows Stanwyck at her best. We won’t tell you what happens, but we will point out that only Stanwyck could have played it the way it was written. In the hands of a lesser-skilled actor, the scene would feel contrived. Not only does Stanwyck create a believable outcome, she makes us realize this is the finale we’ve been expecting all along.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a rather twisted story that asks some pointed moral questions. Still, it is a redemptive sort of film that lets us experience, in a small way, the healing properties of forgiveness. It takes someone like Stanwyck to carry a movie with these heavy undercurrents and make it look easy. It is her movie, as it should be.

Go on, now. Gush. You know you want to.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Written by Robert Rossen. Paramount Pictures, Inc., B&W, 1946, 117 mins.

This post is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Girl with the White Parasol. For more fab posts, click HERE.


The Man Who Cheated Everybody

Lee J. Cobb (standing) grills a suspect for the murder he himself committed.

Crooked cop Lee J. Cobb (standing) grills a man for a murder he himself is involved in.

Do you ever wish you could make studios re-do certain movies? Well, we certainly do!

We just watched a film noir that left us feeling so dissatisfied, we’re placing a call to Warner Brothers.

In fact, we’re feeling so ripped off that - *SPOILER ALERT!* - we’re going to tell you how the movie ends to spare you the trouble of watching it. (You’re welcome.)

The movie is 1950’s The Man Who Cheated Himself, but it would be more appropriately titled, The Movie that Ripped You Off.

Before we launch into our tirade, it’s only fair to give you a brief rundown of the plot and, as far as plots go, it’s pretty juicy.

A San Francisco police detective arrives at his married mistress’ house just as she shoots and kills her husband. Instead of arresting her, the detective loads the husband’s body into his car and dumps it.

But here’s the thing: the detective’s kid brother, who is also on the police force, is assigned, along with the detective, to investigate the murder. Get this: The kid brother so keen to solve the murder, he delays his honeymoon to focus on the case.

There is a fabulous cast attached to this film. Lee J. Cobb is the seasoned, crusty detective who expects the worst of people. His dialogue is sparse and packed with meaning; nothing is wasted. For example, after his mistress shoots her husband and asks if they should call a doctor, Cobb replies, “Two slugs in the chest.” The way he says it, you know the man is dead.

John Dall is Cobb’s idealistic younger brother who is a little too smart for Cobb’s comfort level. He idealizes Cobb, until the moment it dawns on him that Cobb might involved in the murder.

And then we have Jane Wyatt, Cobb’s mistress, who is a perfect noir dame – beautiful, selfish and manipulative. Her charm appears as suddenly as it vanishes.

So. How can this premise, paired with this cast, end up in such a mess?

Here’s how: the script.

Now, Dear Reader, we are not a screenwriter and it’s very easy for us to criticize something we know little about. So our opinion is based on our belief that the scriptwriting team was capable of doing better. But maybe the scriptwriters aren’t to blame; perhaps there was too much studio interference.

Here’s what we have: (A) A crooked cop tries to cover up his mistress’s crime; and (B) an adoring brother who is keen to solve this murder to please him. Instead of exploring this sibling relationship, the movie merely pays lip service to it. If you blinked, you would miss the scene where Dall realizes, with horror, that his brother is not who he claims to be. Whoa! That is one callous script.

No, let’s not put our energies into philosophic possibilities. Here’s a better idea for the script! Let’s waste the final 20 minutes of the film in an empty, windy San Francisco fortress with no dialogue and no tension and no point! Let’s give Cobb and Wyatt the bright idea to hide in a corner of this fortress. Then let’s bring Dall, in frantic pursuit, and make him run around the fortress like an idiot, searching for these two.

This – THIS! – is the climax of The Man Who Cheated Himself:

  • shot of Cobb and Wyatt huddled together, looking nervous
  • cut to Dall, running
  • cut to Cobb and Wyatt, still looking nervous
  • cut to Dall, still running
  • repeat for 20 minutes

It is so annoying.

However, the film’s last scene is a redemption of sorts. Cobb, under police guard at the courthouse, spots Wyatt and her defence attorney walking through the corridor. Wyatt is fervently promising her lawyer that she will do Anything if he keeps her out of prison. Cobb overhears this conversation but, being the cynic he is, isn’t surprised or troubled by it. On the contrary, he gives her a look that says, It was worth it.

We have to admit it’s a bit satisfying to see Cobb smug and unrepentant at the end – if only to make up for that dreary fortress scene.

There. Let us never speak of this movie again.

The Man Who Cheated Himself: Starring Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall. Directed by Felix E. Feist. Written by Seton I. Miller & Philip MacDonald. Warner Bros. Pictures, B&W, 1950, 81 mins.

Mickey Rooney’s Crime Spree

Mickey Rooney (right) tries to not strangle Peter Lorre (left).

Peter Lorre (left) toys with a desperate Mickey Rooney.

If you hate the thought of a young-ish Mickey Rooney playing a bad guy, please do not read any further.

We mean it. We’re not talking about a fellow who squirts water out of his boutonniere or puts whoopee cushions on people’s chairs. Nay, we’re talking kidnapping and murder, as portrayed in the gritty 1950 crime drama Quicksand.

You may remember Rooney as the über-talented child actor who could do anything – sing, dance, act, and play musical instruments. He became a superstar when he starred as the kind-hearted rascal Andy Hardy, in the Andy Hardy series. It was a character that cast a long shadow.

So, when Andy Hardy – er, Mickey Rooney – breaks into an arcade at night to steal a few thousand dollars, you realize you’re rooting for him to get away with it. Even when he attacks his boss and flees to Mexico, you know you won’t relax until he’s safely across the border.

Quicksand is one of those gritty black-and-white movies that makes you feel a bit grimy afterwards. There are not many glamourous scenes, and there are certainly no glamourous people. Almost all the characters (except for Rooney’s saintly but stupid ex-girlfriend) are as morally corrupt as Rooney.

Rooney plays a car mechanic whose boss (Art Smith) is a mean, cheap jerk. We are given a glimpse into both men’s characters early in the film: the boss gets angry about employees leaving the light on in the stockroom and, in a fit of pique, turns off the light above Rooney’s head as he works. As soon as the boss leaves, Rooney glares after him and snaps the light back on.

The film starts to pick up speed when Rooney, desperate for cash before payday, helps himself to a $20 bill from the company till. However, the bookkeeper arrives early to pick up the cash deposit, and Rooney scrambles to replace the money. One bad decision creates another and, before long, Rooney finds himself racing towards Mexico.

We won’t give you too many details because this film is best enjoyed when you’re unprepared. We will tell you, though, there are some very clever plot twists that will make you exclaim, in your out-loud voice, “No way!”

You couldn’t ask for a better cast in this film. Jeanne Cagney (sister of James) is the girl of Rooney’s dreams, a gal who would do anything to wear a mink coat. Rooney asks her, “Think you can handle me?” Cagney, with a smirk of contempt, says, “I can handle you easy.” We know how this will go.

Barbara Bates is Rooney’s dense ex-girlfriend, and we mean head-shakingly dense. But, as a girl who is loyal to a fault, Bates almost breaks your heart.

The most outstanding performance, in our opinion, is by Peter Lorre who plays a slimy arcade owner. Lorre is creepy and loathsome, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Rooney abhors Lorre and regards him as the worst type of human, even though Rooney proves himself just as capable of despicable behaviour.

The tension in Quicksand heightens with each new plot development. The movie starts to squeeze against you on all sides you until you feel as desperate as Rooney. How will Andy Hardy get out of this one!

If you’re keen to see a young-ish Mickey Rooney in a demanding dramatic role, we recommend Quicksand. Even with its flaws, it provides a hang-onto-your-hat ride.

Quicksand: starring Mickey Rooney, Jeanne Cagney, Barbara Bates. Directed by Irving Pichel. Written by Robert Smith. United Artists Corp., 1950, B&W, 80 mins.

Nora Desmond’s Gothic House

Nora Desmond worships herself on screen.

Nora Desmond worships herself on the screen.

Sometimes we (as in, yours truly) think we’re pretty smart. We think that if we’ve seen a movie a dozen times we know the movie. Ask us a question! We’ll give you the answer; we know it all!

Except we don’t.

We were reminded of this recently when we saw the 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard in an actual movie theatre.

Now, we’ve probably seen Sunset Boulevard on our television a dozen times. We own the DVD. We force our everyone we know to watch it. We can quote entire scenes by heart.

But when we saw it on the big screen we realized we didn’t know it at all. Seeing it in the theatre changed the movie for us.

If you’re not familiar with Sunset Boulevard, it is the story of a struggling screenwriter (William Holden) whose car breaks down outside the cavernous home of a mentally-unstable recluse (Gloria Swanson). Turns out this recluse is Norma Desmond, who had been one of the most popular movie stars in the world during the silent era.

The movie is a series of flashbacks that describe the events leading to a murder. It’s also the story of old Hollywood and offers an interesting look inside the workings of a major Hollywood studio, in this case, Paramount Pictures.

We thought we knew Sunset Boulevard. We were familiar with the script and the sequence of events. But, as it turns out, we’d only ever seen half the film. Because, on the big screen, the movie is stuffed inside Norma Desmond’s house.

Instead of fitting the story comfortably on our television screen, we are pulled entirely into the movie, into Norma Desmond’s enormous gothic house with the heavy, funereal decor. The house becomes more than a set; it is a looming, silent master with knowledge it will not share. We are no longer an audience in a theatre; we are prisoners in this house.

The actors are its prisoners, too; captured by the world Norma Desmond has unwittingly created for herself. We respect Norma’s silent film career; we are weary of her narcissism. We admire her determination; we are annoyed by her neediness. We love Norma. We hate Norma.

Her descent into madness is magnified on the big screen, in this house that is both a tribute to madness and a betrayal of it. The final scene of the movie is utterly brilliant and completely devastating. The words, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” twist inside of us. We do not laugh at this now-flippant phrase; we nearly weep because it signals finality. There is no turning back from here.

When the movie concludes, we do not stir. We have seen what madness looks like and it leaves us unsettled. When we finally leave the theatre, we squint in the bright sunlight but the images of the movie remain to haunt us.

Sunset Boulevard: starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim. Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr. Directed by Billy Wilder. Paramount Pictures, 1950, B&W, 110 mins.

Interesting background info on Sunset Boulevard can be found at the Wikipedia article here.

Ann Sheridan, Homewrecker

Darling, you used to be so fun before you faked your own death

Kent Smith and Ann Sheridan grapple with the ethics of faking your own death.

Watching the story of a man’s untimely death is always fascinating, isn’t it?

We’ve all seen movies like this, where the circumstances surrounding a person’s demise is told in flashbacks. The inevitable death is no surprise; you watch events unravel until the individual finally kicks the bucket.

However, the 1947 film noir Nora Prentiss has a plot twist that you won’t see coming. You’ll think you have the movie figured out, but you won’t. Trust us.

Basic storyline: A straight-laced married doctor (Kent Smith) becomes involved with a nightclub singer (Ann Sheridan). They meet innocently enough; Sheridan is hit by a car outside Smith’s office. Smith treats her minor injuries like the no-nonsense professional he is, but Sheridan is an aggressive flirt. Ever the gentleman, he escorts her to her apartment, but makes a beeline home to his family.

The thing is, Smith is secretly sick of domestic life. His wife is a decent, pillar-of-society woman, but she’s dull and over-scheduled. Smith quickly becomes involved with Sheridan, and we see how the affair affects his family and his own personality. For example, he forgets his daughter’s sixteenth birthday because he’s so preoccupied with Sheridan.

Sheridan is not a homewrecker without a conscience. Unlike Smith, she feels it’s unfair to continue the relationship while he is still married. She begs him to go back to his family, but he refuses. He says he’ll ask for a divorce, but he doesn’t do that either. Smith, it seems, cannot be fair to either woman.

Then. One day a bizarre circumstance occurs and Smith realizes he can fake his own death and get away with it. He can drop his wife and children, drain his bank account and start over in a new city with Sheridan. Woo hoo! Get this party started!

Nora Prentiss is often regarded as “film noir for women”, which puzzles us. Never mind the fact we don’t know what that statement actually means, the movie is more about Smith’s character than Sheridan’s. (If you know what “film noir for women” means, please let us know.)

This film cleverly plays with traditional movie stereotypes. At the onset, we assume Smith the doctor is an upstanding citizen. By contrast, we are introduced to nightclub owner Phil Dinardo (Robert Alda), Sheridan’s boss. At first we think Alda is a bit sleazy and, perhaps, associated with the Mob. But, as the movie progresses, we realize Alda really is a decent person and Smith is the one without scruples.

As much as we grow to dislike Smith’s character, we admire his acting. He portrays a weak man who desperately wants a happy life but makes all the wrong decisions. He is completely credible as a man caught in a desperate situation of his own doing.

Truthfully, we were a bit unsure of Ann Sheridan’s ability to carry the movie; we sometimes feel ambivalent about her acting ability. However, in Nora Prentiss, she seems more skilled in each successive scene. In fact, she is exquisite when Smith calls her to say he didn’t ask his wife for a divorce. Sheridan’s face reveals an incredible depth of emotion; you can feel the sucker punch Smith gives her.

Have we convinced you to see this so-called “women’s film noir”? You really should, you know. It’s regarded as one of Ann Sheridan’s best performances, and it’s paired with a very smart script.

Nora Prentiss: starring Ann Sheridan, Kent Smith, Robert Alda. Directed by Vincent Sherman. Written by Arthur Weiss. Warner Brothers, 1947, B&W, 110 mins.

Barbara Stanwyck’s Anklet

Happy 100th, Paramount! This post is part of the PARAMOUNT CENTENNIAL BLOGATHON, hosted by none other than The Hollywood Revue. The blogathon runs September 27-28, 2012.
I love it when you talk auto insurance

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck discuss auto insurance.
(Note the anklet on Stanwyck’s left leg.)

**Huge spoiler alert!**

Rumour has it that once upon a time, when a North American woman wore an anklet, she was considered “loose”.

Don’t ask us why. We are just as flummoxed as you.

So when Fred MacMurray first meets Barbara Stanwyck in the 1944 film noir Double Indemnity, and notices that Stanwyck is wearing – gasp! – an anklet, audiences knew what that meant. An aklet meant Trouble.

MacMurray plays an insurance salesman who’s been in the biz 11 years. Nothing surprises him, nothing excites him, and he’s unafraid to share his caustic wit with his clients. In an early scene, Stanwyck serves iced tea; he takes a sip and remarks, “I wonder if a little rum would get this up on its feet.”

MacMurray has come to Stanwyck’s home to sell auto insurance to her husband, but really, who wants to talk insurance? He begins a flirtatious rapport with Stanwyck then, over the next few days, becomes smitten with her. By the time Stanwyck coaxes him into murdering her husband, he is powerless to refuse.

As you might expect, being an insurance salesman is mighty handy when it comes to plotting a murder. MacMurray realizes there is a way to kill the husband and collect on a double indemnity clause in the life insurance policy. This is a clause that pays twice the usual amount when the death is caused by a really fluky accident.

After the husband is disposed of, and the authorities declare the death accidental, the only pickle left in the jar is MacMurray’s co-worker, Edward G. Robinson. Robinson is an adjuster at the Pacific All-Risk Insurance company, who has an uncanny ability to sniff out phony insurance claims. And there’s something about Stanwyck’s claim that doesn’t sit well with him.

Double Indemnity is arguably the most famous film noir ever made, and it’s just one of many extraordinary movies made by Paramount Pictures. The story, based on a novella written by James M. Cain, was sought by every Hollywood studio in the late 1930s. Paramount bought the rights in 1942, and created a film noir classic that was nominated for eleven Academy Awards.

Double Indemnity is about murder, but it’s really a movie about relationships. This is rich considering the two screenwriters, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder (who also directed), hated working with each other. The relationship between MacMurray and Stanwyck drives the story, but it’s the relationship between MacMurray and Robinson that provides the soul.

Robinson views MacMurray as a mischievious son; MacMurray is devoted to Robinson despite his surly exterior. Their relationship is symbolized in the lighting of matches; Robinson is forever patting his pockets in search of a light for his cigar, and MacMurray is forever providing the matches. But it is the last scene of the movie that shows us the depth of their friendship.

In this scene, MacMurray is slumped in the doorway of the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company. He’s been shot and is losing a lot of blood. Robinson, having just heard MacMurray’s detailed confession of murder, silently kneels beside him, his strained face lined with worry and utter disappointment.

MacMurray, his breathing heavy and laboured, gasps, “You know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you. Cause the guy you were looking for was too close – right across the desk.”

Robinson replies quietly, “Closer than that, Walter.” His words are sparse, but in those six syllables we see him baring his soul, like a father grieving for his only son. This time it is he who strikes a match to light MacMurray’s cigarette.

Double Indemnity is one of those movies you can see time and again, and never tire of it. (We watch it at least once a year!) The script is water tight, the dialogue is sharp and sassy, and the cast has perfect chemistry. Not to mention it features one of the most famous anklets in movie history.

Double Indemnity: starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Paramount Pictures, 1944, B&W 105 mins.