Subliminal, in an unnoticeable way/important, and hard to see

The Agatha Christie post(s) are still coming. In the meanwhile, though, the current For Better or For Worse storyline – with its shameless insistence that ‘always hoping’ a married man will eventually hook up with your daughter is OK, because Fate said so – is making me so mad I want to spit. Which is in turn severely hindering my ability to work out the fine points of how to discuss Christie novels without giving away endings wholesale.

So I thought I’d take a break for now and discuss something else of vital importance to the nation: my favourite movies.

My attitude toward the cinema – such a lovely, expressive term, isn’t it? – anyway, the relationship is a curious one, at least for your average online blogger. I have no qualifications in re: the discussion of film as an art form, nor a cultural influence. I don’t even watch that many, is what I’m saying here. These days I go into the cinematic experience mostly for whatever good time I can’t get in books – the big, the beautiful, the lavish visual spectacle…sometimes just the indescribably cool. Hence, my real, sincere appreciation of Transformers: The Movie.

That said, I have a rather more complicated and intimate rapport with certain classic films from the bygone age of – well, elegance, is the first word that comes to mind. Movies made when the pervasive pop-culture assumption was still that audiences wanted to have their intelligence flattered and their literacy rewarded. In the best of American cinema from roughly 1930 through 1950, there is a fluid rhythm to the dialogue that demands responsive thought, an attention to the details that compels not only attention but respect. At least, they get that respect from me.

Thusly we come to the three particular celluloid bits of my heart: Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity, the unsung Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn collaboration Holiday, and Gene Kelly’s masterpiece, Singin’ in the Rain.


To begin with, Double Indemnity. I’ve noticed, in the course of what serious movie-watching I have done, that there exists a curious sort of perfection in the film mileu that results from being able to manipulate reality so closely. The characters are so perfectly cast, the story so engrossing, the dialogue so sharp and pointed that the movie chimes exactly with the viewer’s conception of what should be happening, regardless of how outlandish any of the above actually is.

The noir genre especially banked on achieving this ideal – because everybody, to a certain extent, wants desperately to be the cool, tough, witty antihero of these movies. (Exhibit A: Batman, as close to universally beloved as a comics character gets.) Roger Ebert, in his review of DI, made the point that the two leads seem not to commit their crimes ultimately because they’re intoxicated by their own personal styles, their chance to strut through the dark side and come out on top. And I have no doubt at all that it is so.

We open on a man staggering into an insurance office at midnight, dazed but determined. He plunks himself down at a desk, picks up a Dictaphone and begins:

Walter Neff: [narrating] You want to know who killed Dietrichson? Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours, Keyes. I killed Dietrichson – me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars… [He glances down at his shoulder wound.] – until a while ago, that is. 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?’

Well, it was at the beginning. Smartass L.A. insurance salesman Neff (Fred McMurray) calls on a renewal prospect one hot summer day, enjoying life and the scent of honeysuckle lingering in the sultry air. Mr. Dietrichson isn’t home, but his much younger trophy wife (Barbara Stanwyck) certainly is. His trophy wife is named Phyllis, and she’s the kind of platinum blonde who receives insurance salesmen while wrapped in a towel.

Eventually, she gets dressed, and they start talking. One thing leads to another, and soon they’re talking about a lot more than premium rates:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?
Walter: Yeah, I was…but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
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. [He picks up his hat and briefcase] 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
Phyllis: That’s what I suggested.
Walter: You’ll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.
Walter: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter: I wonder if you wonder.

This is not the man to resist when on that second meeting, Phyllis proposes taking out an accident policy on her husband without his knowledge. For some while now Walter has been far too clever, too experienced, at the insurance game for his own good – something his best friend, master claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), has also noticed. Keyes, standing unshakeably on the side of right, offers him a job as his deputy. But by then Walter has already discovered that ‘murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle’:

Walter: So we just sat there, and she started crying softly like the rain on the window. And we didn’t say anything. Maybe she had stopped thinking about it, but I hadn’t. I couldn’t because it was all tied up with something I’d been thinking about for years. Since long before I ever ran into Phyllis Dietrichson. Because, you know how it is Keyes, in this business you can’t sleep for trying to figure out all the tricks they could pull on you. You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don’t crook the house. And then one night, you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself. And do it smart….Look, Keyes, I’m not trying to whitewash myself. I fought it, only I guess I didn’t fight it hard enough. The stakes were $50,000 dollars, but they were the life of a man too, a man who’d never done me any dirt except he was married to a woman he didn’t care anything about. And I did.

Killing her husband, you see,  will net them fifty thousand on the policy; making it look like he’s fallen from a train will activate the double indemnity clause, for a total of $100,000.

Everything goes like clockwork…but as usual in the strange, sad world of James M. Cain, upon whose novel this movie is based (as was Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice) it’s not committing the crime that goes to their heads, it’s their success as criminals. The film meticulously tracks Phyllis and Walter’s rapid devolution into mutual fear, then suspicion, then hatred – dogged every step of the way by the indefatigably brilliant Keyes, and later, the dead man’s lovely, determined daughter Lola:

Phyllis: [referring to Lola] She’s putting on an act for you, crying all over your shoulder, that lying…
Walter: Keep her out of this. All I’m telling you is, we’re not going to sue.
Phyllis: Because you don’t want the money any more even if you could have it, because she’s made you feel like a heel all of a sudden?
Walter: It isn’t the money any more. It’s our necks. We’re pulling out. Do you understand?
Phyllis: Because of what Keyes can do? You’re not fooling me, Walter. It’s because of Lola. What you did to her father. You’re afraid she might find out someday and you can’t take it, can you?
Walter: I said, leave her out of this.
Phyllis: It’s me I’m talking about. I don’t want to be left out of it.
Walter: Stop saying that. It’s just that it hasn’t worked out as we wanted. We can’t go through with it, that’s all.
Phyllis: We have gone through with it, Walter. The tough part is all behind us. We just have to hold on now and not go soft inside. Stick close together the way we started out…I loved you, Walter, and I hated him. But I wasn’t going to do anything about it. Not until I met you. You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead.
Walter: And I’m the one that fixed it so he was dead. Is that what you’re telling me?
Phyllis: And nobody’s pulling out. We went into this together and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us. Remember?
Walter: [voiceover] Yes, I remembered. Just like I remembered what you had told me, Keyes. About that trolley car ride and how there was no getting off until the end of the line where the cemetery was. And then I got to thinking what cemeteries are for. They’re to put dead people in. I guess that was the first time I ever thought about Phyllis that way. Dead, I mean. And how it would be if she were dead.

The final, inevitable scenes are the first ones I saw, back about age twelve or so, flipping channels on a Sunday afternoon. I can still recall the fascination, and the horror, and the intense need to know what had brought two such attractive people to such as this:

[Phyllis shoots Walter in the shoulder]
Walter: You can do better than that, can’t you, baby? You’d better try it again. Maybe if I came a little closer? How’s this? Think you can do it now?
[She lowers her gun, trembling. Quietly, he takes it out of her unresistant hand.]
Walter: Why didn’t you shoot again, baby? Don’t tell me it’s because you’ve been in love with me all this time.
Phyllis: [crying] No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me.
Walter: Sorry, baby, I’m not buying.
Phyllis: I’m not asking you to buy. Just hold me close.
[She puts her arms around him in. Then she draws slightly back in surprise and fear, realizing the barrel of his gun is against her chest.]
Walter: Good-bye baby.

Rapidly bleeding to death, Walter staggers back to the insurance office…finishing his memo just in time to see Keyes staring at him from across the desk. Tries to run, collapses into Keyes’ arms by the elevator shaft. We are left to assume the inevitable (although by way of Hayes Code caution Wilder did film an elaborate Death Row sequence that was never used).

I love this movie. I know it for exactly what it is, and I still love it. I’ve never been a fan of the trappings of the noir genre, but I love the way this movie looks – at once banal and sinister, drab yet never quite emerging into reality. I love the performances, the way the dialogue crackles almost visibly through the dusty, sunstreaked Southern California air. I love Fred McMurray, taking on the role pretty much every other leading man in Hollywood fastidiously turned down, effortlessly sketching the portrait of a murderer driven by his own boredom.

One of the movie’s (and Cain’s) central themes is the exquisite vulnerability of believing yourself smarter-than-thou. Walter is consciously not much more than a archetype – That Guy, the genial wisecracker we’ve all learned to root for automatically, the cynic with a heart of gold. Except there isn’t any gold in this case. His ironic detachment has in actuality eaten Walter’s heart out entirely, left him unable to resist evil even when he’s staring it in the face. But on the surface – in that shorthand movie characters use to enter our imaginations – he’s still likeable. We watch him strangle a man he admits is innocent, yet the scenes afterward that play up the tension of his near-discovery still work. Until right up to the moment he puts that bullet in Phyllis, we’re rooting for him; and afterwards, we pity him. It’s a subversion that resonates uneasily long after the movie’s over.

Stanwyck’s Phyllis is a little less problematic for the viewer. The smouldering glare under the outlandish platinum wig (one of the famous costuming miscalculations in movie history), the anklet, the tight sweaters – she’s clearly the femme fatale of legend, updated for 1940’s LA. But – separated out from audience assumptions – just how culpable is she really? After all, as she doesn’t fail to point out, ’twas Walter insisted they carry out all those big ideas about insurance fraud; she was just playing with them. Her stepdaughter Lola Dietrichson suggests she was enjoying it – trying on mourning a full week before the murder – but Lola has several axes to grind against her, after all. No, we can’t write Phyllis off as simply bad, either, however much we’d like to.

Then there’s Barton Keyes, the irascible claims manager who just happens to be a brilliant detective. It’s a lot of fun to watch Robinson, in real life a sensitive, intelligent man, play to those natural strengths for a change. When Keyes’ ‘little man inside’ – his deductive instinct – warns him of fraud, he almost physically can’t let it go. His detail-orientation begins to resemble OCD, except that it’s so obviously driven, as Walter Neff interestingly realises, by his innate vulnerability. He is genuinely outraged by lying and cheating, in the grand old sense. So that what warmth and light there is in the film belongs almost wholly to him; it’s his real affection for Keyes, good-natured contempt slowly being replaced by a terrified respect, that humanises Neff, allows us to realise how far he’s fallen.

The really fascinating part is that none of this ambiguity is present in the source material. James M. Cain was a brilliant author, renowned for his naturalistic dialogue in the service of even more relentlessly naturalistic crime plots…but it must be said that Double Indemnity, the novel, is one of his lesser lights. The relationship between Neff and Keyes is gone – along with most of our sympathy for either – and Phyllis is recast as an out-and-out psychopath, lost in fantasies of herself as Death’s handmaiden. In place of the steadily growing tension post-murder, there’s an impossibly convoluted endgame in which every single character (except, I think, Lola) converges on Central Park intent on double-crossing the other.

One more problem facing director Wilder that wasn’t discovered until he set about to commission a shooting script: the famous Cain dialogue, which he had been assuming could simply be transcribed wholesale, turned out to sound utterly flat and dead when spoken. There’s a good reason why people don’t talk in movies the way they do in real life.

Enter Raymond Chandler, American-born but British-educated author of The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Urbane, witty, a noir legend  in his own right…and not incidentally a hopeless alcoholic. As per most writers imported by Hollywood at the time, he liked the paychecks but resented what he saw as the humiliating sacrifice of his integrity. This evidently carried over into a loathing for Wilder, a short, peppery Austrian who made it clear he would rather Chandler just shut up about his Art and write the damn movie on schedule, please.
It took them several weeks of stormy closed-door brainstorming sessions, but eventually they turned out a masterpiece. If you’re going to film a story in which the characters commit murder for the sake of their own coolness points, you had better make sure they earn them, and as demonstrated above the dialogue here rises to the challenge. Visiting the movie’s Wikiquote page (the source for the quotes in this article), one finds pretty much the entire script.

Fundamentally, I think, I’m the kind of person who needs to believe in the good. So that the puzzles posed by this movie provide a uniquely satisfying validation and a challenge all at once, and enough incidental pleasures to keep me coming back to try and figure them out. It stays in my heart as what should be – but isn’t – can never be – but in some bewitching way is. Which is about as close as I ever get, to defining the grip it’s held on me for twenty-five years.


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