Category Archives: Noirvember
Noirvember: Double Indemnity (1944)
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a classic film noir and a classic crime drama about bad people doing bad things and doing them badly. It’s a rich narrative environment that has been explored in droves before and after. Double Indemnity was a box-office sensation, critical hit that was nominated for seven Oscars, and solidified Wilder as one of the most creative and daring writing and directing voices in cinema. This was only his third directing effort and it provided the freedom to make his own way through Hollywood. There’s a certain danger in going back to cinematic classics. It’s easy to see their influence in a sea of imitators and sometimes the accomplishments can be taken for granted just because the viewer is too removed from the initial splash the film made. Double Indemnity is a sharp, surefooted, and highly influential film that still resonates with suspense and intrigue. The formula was refined with Wilder at the helm and his genius can be readily recognized.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a mid 30s insurance salesman in Los Angeles. He gets into some big trouble when a prospective client, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), intimates that she would like to bump off her husband and profit from the act. Walter is appalled but also intrigued, drawn to the charms of the sexy Mrs. Dietrichson. He agrees and says they’re going to do it right. She takes out a hefty insurance policy on her husband that pays double for rare accidents, which spurs Neff to stage a phony accident where the injured Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) fell to his death off a train. The scheme is elaborate, with alibis, swapped identities, hiding places, and a minimal of public interactions. It seems perfectly executed that is until Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), starts inspecting closer feeling something is amiss. Neff must outwit his boss and co-workers and keep the scheme from getting further out of control.
“I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”
Thanks to the morally and creatively restrictive Hays Code, it’s easy to see all the roadblocks that could have sabotaged the movie from getting made, let alone becoming a great film. It’s a movie not just about adulterers but they’re also murderers, and the script places you in their perspective, clinging to hope they might succeed in their scheme. Admittedly, the characters are punished for their misdeeds by the film’s end as the Hays Code would demand, but the film experience was different, and Wilder made it so early on. Within minutes, as Walter Neff dictates his confession in his boss’ empty office, he admits to being a killer, to killing Mr. Dietrichson, and in doing so out of a desire for Mrs. Dietrichson. By the very fact that he’s slumped over, panting heavily, and confessing in sordid detail, we can rightfully assume that he did not get away with it. What’s left for the audience to discover? Wilder has already established the major turns of his story for his audience and seemingly robbed us of any notion of surprise. But that’s where Wilder’s storytelling prowess emerges, because it’s not so much a story of whether something was done or would be done, it’s a story of how and how to elude capture.
We’re locked into Neff’s perspective, and with it as an experienced insurance salesman, he knows the proper way to stage a murder, make it look like an accident, and not get caught. It’s in the details that Wilder hooks us, and as we watch the trap unravel, the movie becomes an exercise in nervous tension wondering what will trip up our lovers. An audience generally gravitates to smart characters trying to outwit others, appreciating the wiles but also, perhaps, wanting to see if the scheme can be accomplished. It pushes the audience into an interesting position of rooting for our murderer. There’s a wonderful scene right after Neff and Phyllis have deposited the body of her dead husband. They’ve hopped in her car and are ready to flee the scene of the crime, and that’s when her car won’t start. Wilder simmers in the moment, luxuriating in the encroaching panic as key turn after key turn only results in the sounds of a stalled engine. Finally, it starts, but during the sequence you empathize with the killers and their panic. Wilder and company have done their job and at least some part of the audience is pushing for them to escape. What happens later tests audience loyalty, but we’re still firmly in the perspective and in the shoes of the film’s killer, the only killer in the picture at that. He’s our man.
“I think you’re rotten.”
“I think you’re swell – so long as I’m not your husband.”
The staples of noir cinema really came alive with Wilder’s excellent crime drama. The visual signifiers we associate with the genre are all here in accordance, like the chiaroscuro lighting that bathed the actors in swaths of invading darkness. The lighting does a great job of reflecting the sordid schemes of our lovers. As soon as Walter accepts, the lighting changes drastically and the layers of dark creep in on the actors’ faces. The dialogue by Wilder and Raymond Chandler (his first screenwriting gig in Hollywood) has that robust rat-a-tat rhythms of hardboiled genre fiction that we love. The twists and turns keep an audience glued even though we have already been told the major plot particulars. The inclusion of Mr. Dietrich’s twenty-something daughter Lola (Jean Heather) from his previous marriage presents an intriguing complication. She suspects her wicked stepmother might have something to do with her father’s death as well as her mother’s death. Walter Neff keeps tabs on her as a means of trying to dissuade whom she tells her suspicions to, as a means of manipulating her, but then when Lola reveals that her ex-boyfriend has been seeing Phyllis on a nightly basis, we don’t know what to think. Is Phyllis setting up her own scheme to kill Neff? Is Lola knowingly manipulating Neff to enact vengeance against her hated stepmother? Is there anyone a guy can trust? It’s a fine character and played sincerely by Heather (Going My Way) almost to the point of ache. She stopped acting altogether in 1949, to the detriment of us all.
But the ultimate femme fatale is Stanwyck (The Lady Eve). I think what makes her work is the fact that she doesn’t immediately leap to mind as a femme fatale. She’s not the most gorgeous actress in Hollywood, though clearly still an attractive woman. The stiff blonde wig they saddled her with doesn’t help on that front. She’s a temptress that doesn’t sizzle off the screen so much as step from the mind because she feels more realistic. Working within the repressive confines of the Hays Code, Stanwyck still knows how to provide a sexy smirk to things left unsaid with her character. There are a few looks she employs that could make you melt. A standout scene focuses entirely on her face. Her husband is being murdered just off screen. That violent act is left to our morbid imaginations while we watch Stanwyck’s subtle expression of satisfaction cross her face only to dissolve when she knows better. I wish MacMurray (The Absentminded Professor) was a better scene partner with her. He seems overly stiff like he’s trying harder to get out the stylized dialogue in the tone the director wants. Wilder finds ways to subvert the actor’s tendencies but I feel like he’s at best a likable but limited dolt of an actor.
“You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”
Phyllis is a classic femme fatale figure and Stanwyck plays her with a beautifully controlled sense of menace, but I want to offer a different theory as to what kind of twisted love story inhabits Double Indemnity. I think Walter Neff was never in love with Phyllis, though he acknowledged her beauty and general seductive effect. This much is clear from his first meeting with her where the insurance veteran can’t help himself with how forward and transparent his flirting is. He’s interested, though he’s also interested in getting a sale, and then when she floats the idea of life insurance, his tone immediately changes. The flirting stops cold and he promptly sees himself out. But he can’t stop thinking it over. I propose he isn’t drawn to Phyllis so much as he’s drawn to the intellectual challenge of pulling off the “perfect crime.” He considers himself a clever man and this would put all his skills to the test. He knows what agents look for to suss out foul play. He knows what the police ask about. Now he gets to see if he can fool them all. In this interpretation of mine it’s not Neff’s love for the dame that gets him but his love of his ego. There’s a cold manner in how often he calls Phyllis “baby,” lacking apparent affection and instead seemingly turning the pet name into something dutiful. Oh, but you’ll argue, his voice over goes into great detail about the magnetic and sexual appeal of Mrs. Dietrichson, and that’s the point to remember, that it’s his voice over. Neff is retelling this story, knowingly dictating his confession, and perhaps he’s playing into a narrative that removes some of the emphasis from his true intentions. I propose Neff is an unreliable narrator. Since it’s from his perspective, his words are all we know about Phyllis and her assumed seductress ways. Having the final word on his story would provide a perfect opportunity for Walter to alter the story as best he sees fit, shifting some blame onto the woman who done him wrong. I believe that in the end it was Walter Neff’s desire to prove he could outsmart the world of law enforcement and get away with murder that drove him onto this wayward path and not a woman as fetching as Stanwyck and her anklet may have been.
There’s a very unexpected emotional current that surfaces fully by the conclusion of Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson was at a transitional point in his career, having been the lead in a slew of older crime pictures. An audience was prepped from association to consider Robinson a disreputable character, just as they had prepped to consider MacMurray’s character a likeable fellow from his previous comedic roles. Wilder’s film flips audience expectations to great effect. MacMurray is the cunning murderer and Robinson is the moral center. Keyes is exceptionally skilled at insurance fraud and it naturally should be him that unknowingly tightens the noose around his beloved employee as he gets closer and closer to the truth. He just can’t see it; Walter Neff is so close he inhabits a blind spot. When Keyes does discover the truth, his crushing sense of disappointment he tries to hold back is an emotional moment that hits hard. It’s the professional and loving relationship between these men that helps to add something more to Double Indemnity; it’s got the noir staples we come to expect nowadays but it also has a surprisingly sweet and affecting father/son relationship between mentor and student. Robinson is terrific in the bravado moments like when he unleashes a torrent of statistical categories on suicide types and methods and he also sells the quiet hurt of a proud man who must admit he placed his trust in the wrong recipient.
“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Double Indemnity is a film classic that holds up thanks to deft plotting that puts the audience in the place of the killers, solid twists and turns, and a clear understanding of the strengths of the genre. It’s a standout film noir that still stands rather tall. It’s always reassuring when the great pieces of art can still transport, still excite, and still resonate with the same feeling that communicates why they deserve their decades of plaudits and acclaim. Wilder was one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers who could hop genres like few others. His foray into noir cinema left a long lasting legacy for the genre and its fans to follow, and Double Indemnity is still the crackling crime thriller it was under the Hays Code. Perhaps the scrutiny of censorship forced Wilder and Chandler to get more creative, and the finished product is a taut and stylish imprint that others eagerly copied. There’s just something inherently interesting about bad people doing bad things badly no matter the best intentions of the moral crusaders of its day.
Nate’s Grade: A
Noirvember: L.A. Confidential (1997)
There was no stopping Titanic in 1997, iceberg be damned. James Cameron’s epic disaster movie had all the momentum of the times, and yet it’s a smaller movie that captured more of the critics and was far more deserving of the ultimate Oscar prizes that year. L.A. Confidential was based upon a James Ellroy novel that many argued was unfilmable. Enter journeyman director Curtis Hanson and novice screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and the pair stripped the book down from eight main characters to three, kept the spirit and essence of the book alive while rearranging the storylines for large-scale popcorn thrills. It’s been nearly twenty years since L.A. Confidential first seduced big screen audiences and its powers are still as alluring to this day. It’s a neo noir masterpiece.
In 1950s Los Angeles, not all is what it seems. The captain of the police, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is looking to keep the peace in the City of Angels as outside criminal elements are looking to fill the void from Mickey Cohen going to prison. Three police officers of very different stripes find themselves on the edges of a complicated murder case stemming from a massacre at the Nite Owl cafe. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a famous police captain and wants to rise up the ranks as quickly as possible. He’s a political animal and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a bruiser of a man who enforces his own level of justice when it comes to men who beat or harass women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a happily shady officer who serves as a consultant for a hit TV police procedural. The Night Owl case takes them into many sordid corridors of sex, money, and power, including Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), part of Pierce Pratchett’s (David Strathairn) stable of prostitutes meant to look like movie stars, the mysterious self-serving sources to tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and good cops and bad cops on the controversial L.A. police force.
This movie is a master class in plotting and structure, enough that it should be taught in film schools. By nature noir plots are meant to be busy and mysterious, and a guarantee for mystery is a Byzantine plot full of plenty of suspects, dispirit elements, and strange coincidences that eventually coalesce into a larger picture. The beauty of what Hanson and Helgeland have done is that they have made the script complex yet accessible, able to lose one’s self in the tangled web of intrigue but still able to see how all the myriad pieces fit perfectly together by the conclusion. There is an efficiency to the screenwriting that is mesmerizing. It all seems so effortless when you’re with storytellers this gifted or who have a divine connection to the source material. Forgoing the customary slow builds of recent film noir like the oft-cited Chinatown, L.A. Confidential just moves from the opening narration. Within the first 25 minutes, the movie has expertly set up all three of its main characters, what defines them, their separate goals, the obstacles in place, and previews how they will intersect into one another’s orbit, and then the Nite Owl case explodes. Every scene drives this narrative forward. Every scene reveals a little more depth to our characters or fleshes out a superb supporting cast. Every scene cements that contradictory theme of the glitzy allure and unseemly darkness of the post-war City of Angels. My only quibble is that before the truncated third act the movie resorts to a few easy shortcuts but by that point Hanson and Helgeland had more than earned their paces. This is one of the greatest modern screenplays, period (WGA listed it as #60 all-time).
There are so many remarkably assured sequences but I want to emphasize one in particular – Exley’s interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects. “Oh I’ll break him,” Exley promises his superior before entering into the first interrogation room. At first you’re with the other officers and morbidly curious with his arrogance. By the end, your jaw hangs in amazement at the intuitive pressure this man is expertly applying. It’s a terrific moment that allows Exley to masterfully manipulate three different men, taking pieces and running toward accurate insinuations, building momentum and clarity. Each man is different and each man offers a new piece of the overall puzzle. A slight reference by one unlocks another’s confession. An overheard sound byte pushes another into self-defense. I’m convinced it was this scene that ensured robust and thorough interrogation was a crucial element of the gameplay for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, a noble misfire that definitely looked to replicate Hanson’s film as a user experience.
Noir is one film genre with a visual code that can get the best of directors, but Hanson played this to his advantage. Classic noir is filled with criminal activity and the allure of sex and violence, typified perhaps best in the position of the untrustworthy but oh-so-sexy femme fatale. Yet the majority of film noir was produced in an era of censorship thanks to the implementation of the notorious Hayes Code, making sure that audiences didn’t enjoy the sordid elements too far. Free of these restrictions, some modern filmmakers take the opportunity to revisit the noir landscape and fill in the blanks of old, furnishing an outpouring of unrestrained exploitation elements. Brian DePalma’s 2006 film The Black Dahlia (also based on an Ellroy novel) gets drunk on this mission, though “restrained” has never been a word I would associate with DePalma’s filmmaking anyway. My point, dear reader, is that it’s easy to get lost in the superficial trappings of the genre: sexy dames, corrupt lawmen, temptation, shootouts, schemes, and chiaroscuro lighting. It’s easy to dabble in these elements because they’re so nostalgic and celebrated.
Hanson did something different with his 1997 masterpiece. He builds upon the audience expectations with noir but he doesn’t let his complex story and characters come second to the visual spectacle of the famous genre. L.A. Confidential is in many ways a movie that straddles lines; old and new, indie and Hollywood classicism, and film noir and drama. It’s an adult film that doesn’t downplay its darkness, brutality, and moral ambiguity, yet when it comes to those exploitation elements, especially sex, it’s almost chaste. The relationship between Lynn and Bud seems refreshingly square, like it was pulled from Old Hollywood. The entire movie feels that way, an artifact that could exist any decade.
Hanson was something of a journeyman for most of his career, directing competent thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. As Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his eulogy for Hanson (he died in September 2016, a fact I shamefully didn’t know until writing this review), after 25 years in the industry the man became an earth-rattling auteur after the age of 50. That is a rarity. Who knew the guy had something this singularly brilliant within his grasp his entire career? The care he puts into the screen is evident from the opening montage onward. There’s an elusive magic to the filmmaking on display, a bracingly divine sense of how to move the camera for best effect, how to escalate and deescalate audience nerves. He knows his story structure and characters inside and out, but he also knows how to play an audience. His time making serviceable studio thrillers certainly helps him during the film’s climax, a bloody shootout that’s also a mini-siege thriller.
Hanson also assembled an incredible crew to enable his vision. The technical elements recreate the early 1950s L.A. time period with beguiling immediacy; the cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat) gives a sense of the darker elements just under the surface without having to overly rely upon the film language of staid noir visuals. Peter Honess’ sharp editing provides a downright Thelma Schoonmaker-esque musical orchestration to the proceedings, especially as the multiple storylines and developments spill onto one another. Speaking of music, the score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek) is thick with the jazzy overtones of the genre. It’s a score that simmers with sexual tension and malevolence. The casting director deserves a lifetime free pass. There are a whopping 80 speaking parts in the movie, and each person is a great hire that builds a richer film.
While the plot of L.A. Confidential sucks you in right away, its characters take hold the strongest. Film noir is one genre that has a codified cheat sheet of character archetypes, and this movie fulfills and subverts them, finding surprising and gratifying ways to further round out these figures into complex and nuanced human beings. The three main characters all provide a different approach to law enforcement and when we see them start to work together it’s a wholly wonderful turn of events. Bud is the muscle, Exley is the brain, and Vincennes is the charm, and each one attacks the Nite Owl case and its subsequent leads from different angles that best apply to their set of skills. Each of the three characters discovers new pieces of evidence, new contacts and suspects, and when they start to work together it not only provides a payoff with the combined evidence but with the satisfying nature of their teamwork. That’s because they become better people when they work together and each moves closer to some moral redemption.
Bud is the loyal cop with a hair trigger and a penchant for being a white knight to abused women. His personal history of abuse makes him seek justice, often by his own fists. He has a rigid moral code of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to cross lines to achieve it. He’s also tired of being a bully and wants to be more than just the muscle. Exley is a straight arrow with a strong sense of moral righteousness and a mind for politics. He knows how to play sides for his own gain. He’s not afraid of making enemies within the department, and his opportunistic choices create many. He’s trying to forge his own path outside the shadow of his father, a famous lawman who was gunned down by a random purse-snatcher (“Rollo Tamassi”). He has to learn that he can’t do everything on his own. Finally, Vincennes is in many ways the face of the department as an ambassador to the world of TV and film. He’s succumbed fully to the glamour of Hollywood but he’s also full of profound self-loathing, trying to count how many compromises he’s made in life and where it’s gotten him. The appeal of the old life is crumbling and his detective instincts are reawakened, spurring Vincennes into the fray and surprising even himself. It’s extremely rare for any movie to successfully develop more than one protagonist, let alone three, and yet L.A. Confidential achieves this milestone so that when we alternate perspectives there isn’t a drop in viewer interest. Each man brings something different and interesting, each man reveals new hidden depths, and each character is fascinating to watch in this setting.
The gifted actors take the already excellent written material and elevate it even further, turning an already sterling movie into one of the all-time greats. Almost twenty years later, it’s fun to see these famous actors when they were young and, arguably, in their prime. Spacey (House of Cards) was on a tear at this point in his career, between his two well-deserved Oscar wins, and having the time of his life in every role. His character seemingly has the least complexity, a man who knows he’s sold out but believes himself to be enjoying the ride, but Spacey offers poignant glimpses of the man behind all that oily charm and sly glances. There’s a scene where he stumbles across a mistake of his making and the subtle, haunted expression playing across his face is amazing. The man was capable of expressing so much, and still is. Crowe was still a couple years from his big breakout in 2000’s Gladiator but he put himself on the Hollywood map as Bud White. He’s a coil of anger and pain looking for an outlet, and Crowe is magnetic as hell. His glowers could burn right through you. Pearce (Memento) was another knockout that solidified leading man status thanks to his performance as the rigidly self-righteous Exley. He’s a character that thinks he’s above moral reproach, and his humbling is a necessary part of solving the case. Exley is constantly surprising his peers and it feels like Pearce does the same, showing exciting new capabilities from scene to scene, from his stirring hire-wire act with the interrogation scene to his understated glimmer of fear through a poker face. These three performances are golden.
Nobody better represents sleaze than Danny DeVito’s character and the man brings a merry lechery to his tabloid journalist/exposition device. His unquenchable thirst for the worst in humanity to sell more papers feels even more sadly relevant given the media climate that contributed to the recent presidential election. Kim Basinger (Batman) won an Oscar for her somber performance, which reinvigorated her career. She’s good but I can’t help but feel that she won the Oscar in a weak field (my choice would be Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights). David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) is enjoyably nonplussed as a man who specializes in delivering vice. James Cromwell used every bit of audience warmth associated as the loveable farmer from Babe and used that to his advantage. His pragmatic police captain is a father figure for Exley and the audience and perfectly sets up a turn that leaves the audience spinning even twenty years later.
There are little details the could go unnoticed but confirm for me just how much thought was put into L.A. Confidential. Exley is chided by his superiors for wearing glasses as they think it makes him look weak. As the film develops and he gets more immersed in the Nite Owl case, his compulsions against violence and rash judgment start to waver about the same time he stops wearing his glasses, a subtle symbol of his difficulty to see things for what they truly are. I enjoyed that our introduction to Lynn is in a liquor store and she’s wearing a winter cloak that strongly resembles a nun’s habit. It’s a memorable costuming choice and also suggest Lynn’s penchant for straddling the line of devotion. The Patchett “whatever your heart desires” line of high-class prostitutes has allusions to our current media culture of celebrity worship and personalized sexual fantasies. It naturally ties into the exploitation of the dream factory of Hollywood that takes young ingénues with dreams in their head and squashes them pitilessly. It’s not the first film to explore the darker side of the film industry but that doesn’t make its themes lesser.
L.A. Confidential feels like the noir thrillers of old but stripped down to its essentials and given a new engine. It’s something that celebrates noir thrillers of old and Old Hollywood but it isn’t so lavish to either the genre or older time period that it loses sight of its own storytelling goals. The elaborate plot is complex and intensely engaging while still being accessible, populated with memorable and incredibly well developed characters, each given their own purpose and own insights that contribute to the larger whole. Hanson’s lasting accomplishment is a near-perfect masterpiece to the power of story structure and characterization. The three lead detectives are compelling on their own terms and the movie keeps them separate long enough that when they do come together it feels like a payoff all its own. Hanson recreates the world of classic film noir and makes it his own, using new Hollywood to lovingly recreate Old Hollywood. It’s the kind of movie I can watch again and again and discover new depths. It gave way to a wave of success for its participants. Hanson never quite delivered another movie on the level of L.A. Confidential, though I’ll posit that In Her Shoes is an underrated character piece. Helgeland has become a go-to screenwriter for many projects low (The Postman) and high (Mystic River) and became a director for A Knight’s Tale and 42. It’s a movie that plays just as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago, and that’s the mesmerizing power of great storytelling and acting. L.A. Confidential is a lasting achievement that proves once more the power of our darker impulses. It’s stylish, seductive, smart, subversive, and everything you could ask for in a movie.
Nate’s Grade: A
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