Friday, August 23, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Gene Kelly!

Gene Kelly video featuring Gene Kelly ("My Love For You") video featuring scenes from "An American in Paris" with Leslie Caron, "Anchors Aweigh" with Kathryn Grayson, "On the Town" with Vera-Ellen, "Cover Girl" with Rita Hayworth, "It's Always Fair Weather" with Cyd Charisse, "Singin' in the Rain" with Jean Hagen and Debbie Reynolds, stills of Gene Kelly with actresses Natalie Wood, Pier Angeli, Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Marie McDonald, Kay Kendall, Mitzy Gaynor, Catherine Deneuve, Grace Kelly, Deanna Durbin, etc.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

To be or Not To Be (starring Carole Lombard): New Criterion Release

Carole Lombard — To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

Carole Lombard’s final film called on the actress to marshal her considerable talents to depict the only character in a story about role playing who is always portraying herself. In To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s early entry in what would become an enduring genre—the send-up of Nazism that uses comedy to lampoon its excesses but also underscore its threat—Lombard plays Maria Tura, stage star in Warsaw on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland. The company she and her actor husband Joseph (Jack Benny) headline find themselves in the production of their lives, as they impersonate Nazi officers and sympathizers, first in order to keep a list of underground operatives from falling into enemy hands, then to make their escape to England.

While Joseph plays various military officers and a professor, Maria is deployed as herself—glamorous actress charged with manipulating various smitten men. As we learn early in the film, though, this is business as usual for Maria, who has made a habit of entering into dalliances with younger men. According to the recurring gag that gives the film its title, during performances of Hamlet, in which Joseph plays the lead and Maria is Ophelia, the “to be or not to be” soliloquy signals her lover to leave his seat and come to her dressing room.

Carole Lombard & Robert Stack on set of “To Be or Not To Be”

Her first meeting with suitor Lieutenant Sobinski—played with naïveté and swagger by a very young Robert Stack—demonstrates Maria’s (and Lombard’s) virtuosity. When asked to tell her about himself, the star-struck Sobinski describes his airplane, an extended double entendre to which he remains oblivious, but which Maria engages with increasing interest, Lombard demonstrating her ability to imbue characters with frank sexuality without resorting to bawdiness or vulgarity. ~Michael C. Nelson Source:

As nervy as it is hilarious, this screwball masterpiece from Ernst Lubitsch stars Jack Benny and, in her final screen appearance, Carole Lombard as husband-and-wife thespians in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who become caught up in a dangerous spy plot. To Be or Not to Be is a Hollywood film of the boldest black humor, which went into production soon after the U.S. entered World War II. Lubitsch manages to brilliantly balance political satire, romance, slapstick, and urgent wartime suspense in a comic high-wire act that has never been equaled.

New, restored 2K digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
New audio commentary featuring film historian David Kalat
Pinkus’s Shoe Palace, a 1916 German silent short directed by and starring Ernst Lubitsch, with a new piano score by Donald Sosin
Lubitsch le patron, a 2010 French documentary on the director’s career
Two episodes of The Screen Guild Theater, a radio anthology series: Variety (1940), starring Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Lubitsch, and To Be or Not to Be (1942), an adaptation of the film, starring William Powell, Diana Lewis, and Sig Ruman
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed by Lubitsch

Friday, August 09, 2013

Fred MacMurray: Nice Guy On & Off Screen

Fred MacMurray was born on August 30, 1908, in Kankakee, Illinois. Both of Fred's parents had ties to the small Middle Western town of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Frederick MacMurray was the son of the Rev. T.J. MacMurray, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Beaver Dam. Fred's mother was Maleta Martin, whose father was the president of the Beaver Dam Telephone Company. Jacob Martin was a self-made man (having received his education in the public schools). When he took on his job of manager of the local telephone company, the exchange consisted of only a single subscriber, but through his energetic efforts, within a few years it had over 1500 members. Maleta and Frederick eloped to Chicago and were married on June 20, 1904. The pressures of the road finally got to be too much for Maleta, who eventually left her husband and returned full time to Beaver Dam with little Fred. Years later Fred and his second wife, June Haver, would be sitting in their living room listening to a concert on television. At one point in the concert there is a violin solo and June looked over to Fred and noticed tears in his eyes. She realized he was thinking of the father that he barely remembered. It is perhaps ironic that Fred MacMurray, the ultimate TV dad, grew up basically with no father.

Despite George Murphy's assertion that everybody loved Fred, there is some evidence that Bob Hope felt some jealousy toward the younger and better-looking man. "Hope began stepping on toes right from the first. Jealous of Fred MacMurray's good looks, Hope patronized him as a green kid and former saxophone tootler who couldn't put over comedy," Fred kind of hesitated when asked about Hope and said: "He was a pain in the ass." -Lawrence J. Quirk in his biography of Bob Hope "The Road Well-Traveled".

The showgirls in the Broadway play 'Roberta' did find Fred attractive but only one caught his eye, a statuesque brunette who appeared during the 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' number as one of the models in the background. "I saw a girl named Lillian Lamonte," Fred later recalled, "and smoke got in my eyes." For the rest of their lives together the song 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' would be considered their song. They met when the show was in rehearsals in New York in August 1933. Fred found the courage to ask her out and she accepted. Because both were limited of funds, they had a romantic but inexpensive courtship. It was love at first sight and very soon afterwards Fred was telling Lillian (whom he called Lily) that he loved her and wanted to marry her (they got married in Las Vegas in 1936 and went to Hawaii on honeymoon).

According to magazine writer Jerry Asher "He was a romantic and idealistic when it came to women, under all that rakishly casual exterior of his. Of course he was so sexy that women conceived elaborate strategies to get him in bed." Fred's chaste reputation even became the butt of a private joke attributed to Jack Benny, but Laurence Quirk thinks it is more likely to have been originated by Bob Hope: "Bob made passes at every woman in the show, according to MacMurray (a man who, despite of his come-on sexiness looks-wise was actually a chivalrous Puritan with women). Reportedly, Jack Benny once made a crude crack about MacMurray that he must have masturbated a lot to relieve sexual tension. This crack sounds like something Hope, who never liked MacMurray, might have dreamed up."

"Claudette and MacMurray were a natural fit. The warmth the two of them generated as they sat on a stone bench at the New York Public Library, eating popcorn, filtered into the audience, who thought of them as the ideal couple, until Gray arrived on the scene. Milland’s Prince Charming was so at odds with MacMurray’s common man that audiences hoped Marilyn would make the right choice." -"Claudette Colbert: She Walked In Beauty" (2008) by Bernard F. Dick

Hollywood writer Ruth Waterbury wrote that Fred "was perfect in 'Alice Adams' as the aristocratic suitor of shy Katharine Hepburn's underprivileged nice girl. You felt his honest sympathy and concern for the girl. I always saw Fred as a nice boy, nicely brought up, and he saved any itches he had in his pants for marriage. Many people in Hollywood admired and looked up to him for that."

'Hands Across the Table' opened in November 1935. Variety called the film 'first rate entertainment.' The New Republic reviewed: "Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray make an all-time copybook example of how to play a movie for what it is worth -with subtlety, and the sustained kind of charm that can be projected through the shadows of a mile of celluloid."

Fred MacMurray and Joan Bennett in 'Thirteen Hours by Air' (1936) directed by Mitchell Leisen. Leisen got another excellent performance out of Fred, this time extenuating his masculinity, and he enjoyed working with Bennett, too, who Leisen called a 'doll.'

Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in "Swing High, Swing Low" (1937) directed by Mitchell Leisen

In her autobiography, Dorothy Lamour pays tribute to Carole Lombard: "Not only a great star, Carole was a beautiful woman inside and out and a great humanitarian. From the lowest to the highest paid, everybody at Paramount loved her". During 'Swing High, Swing Low' Lombard took Lamour under her wing in much the same way she had Fred in 'Hands Across the Table." Lamour and Fred also got along well, remaining friends for the remainder of his life and making one more film together several years later: "Star Spangled Rhythm" (1942).

Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in "True Confession" (1937) directed by Wesley Ruggles

Madeleine Carroll and Fred MacMurray in "Café Society" (1939) directed by Edward H. Griffith

Carroll was a cool English beauty who excelled at playing one of Hitchcock's blonde heroines. She made a fine counter balance to Fred's all-American diamond-in-the rough masculinity. Their first film together was 'Café Society' (1939). Fred ended the decade by appearing in three comedies opposite two leading ladies -Madeleine Carroll and Irene Dunne.

Movie still photographer John Engstead once told the story of why Fred was less than enamoured by Carroll: "I said, 'Madeleine, Fred's coming in especially,' and she said, 'That doesn't matter. I'm not going to do it (some photo stills).' And this poor guy had come in especially on his off time, while her filming had finished early. And this is just being a bitch."

Fred and Lily were living in a modest, by Hollywood standards, home in Brentwood, twelve miles west of Hollywood. The house was described as 'a small, early-American affair whose sole Hollywood feature is a swimming pool." The house was at one time the home of Margaret Sullavan and her then-husband, agent extraordinaire Leland Hayward. On the property was a red barn which the Haywards had built as a place to house their children, which Fred converted back to a barn also used as a workshop. Joan Crawford would recall that they "had one of the few happy and well-adjusted marriages in Hollywood." Fred and Lilly often socialized with Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. So close did Lillian and Lombard became that Carole would later refer to Lillian as "really the most decent person I've met in Hollywood." For some years the MacMurrays had wanted children, but couldn't conceive, possibly because of the fragile nature of Lily's health. In 1940 they adopted a newborn blonde and blue-eyed baby girl, Susan.

Fred MacMurray, Mitchell Leisen and Marlene Dietrich in "The Lady is Willing" (1942)

Marlene Dietrich was used to her leading men falling in love with her, so she was apparently displeased when Fred, who she did find attractive, didn't respond properly to her allure. Film publicist Sid Bloomberg said: "Marlene hit on everybody. She believed it helped a film's chemistry if she slept with her leading men. Fred was an exception and she never forgave him for it. He was too devoted to Lillian -it truly annoyed Marlene." Leisen would later say that Fred was 'embarrassed' by Marlene and her transparent attempts to get him in the sack.

Fred considered 'Double Indemnity' his best film. "I enjoy comedy more than anything, I guess, but I honestly have to come back to Double Indemnity and say, that's my best role."

Due to pregnancy, Lynn Bari's only 1945 release was the Eddie Rickenbacker biography 'Captain Eddie' starring Fred MacMurray. He had sole star billing and Lynn, as nice Mrs. Eddie, was back under the title again. When MacMurray signed with Fox to do the film, he specifically asked for Lynn as his leading lady. MacMurray was six feet three so Lynn didn’t need to “scrunch down until I look like a question mark” as she did to play scenes with shorter actors. “I can wear my highest heels and my broadest shoulders and he’ll still make me look tiny.” -"Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames" (2004) by Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner

Darryl Hickman acted in 'Captain Eddie' portraying Rickenbacker as a boy. "I remember Fred as being one of the shyest men I've ever met. He was just very quiet and laid back," Hickman recalls. "Fred would come in with his newspaper and sit down away from anybody else. I would walk by and suddenly hear 'Hello, Darryl', and it was Fred with his face hidden behind his newspaper. Everyone liked him and recognized that he was just basically a shy man." Hickman contrasted Fred's behavior with that of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, who he recalled loving being the center of attention in the MGM commissary. Fred and Lilly added to their family a year-and-a-half-year-old blond-haired blue-eyed little boy, naming him Robert, in 1945.

Paramount asked Fred to return in 1946 to team up with Paulette Goddard in the passable Mitchell Leisen comedy 'Suddenly It´s Spring'.

In 'Singapore' Fred was cast as Matt Gordon, one of the many anti-heroes who populated the screen during the late '40s. When he returns to his favorite hotel after serving five years during World War II, he can't help but reminisce about his pre-war life and the woman he loved and was engaged to be married, Linda (Ava Gardner). The filming went relatively smoothly until the day that Fred and Gardner shot a fire sequence which got out of hand when part of the burning ceiling caved in just narrowly missing Gardner but setting Fred's tropical suit on fire.

The two stars got along fine but didn't forge any long lasting attachments (Ava referred to Fred as 'great'.) Gardner assigned coded nicknames for other stars so that she could gossip on the set with other friends. Barbara Stanwyck was called 'short lips,' Deborah Kerr was 'Miss Continuation', and Fred had the rather innocuous coded name of 'Mr. Gordon.' As for Gardner, director John Brahm would later say, "She didn't have a brain in her head." The film didn't go anywhere at the box office despite its NY opening, where the first one hundred women were given a string of pearls.

Fred read the script of 'Sunset Blvd' and despite previously saying he would do 'anything' that Wilder offered him, he turned the part down finding the Gillis character too 'morally repellent' to do. It's puzzling that Fred (after having played a murderer in 'Double Indemnity') found Gillis -a desperate man, but not really a bad guy- repulsive. William Holden, ten years younger than Fred, gleefully accepted the role and finally cemented his stardom. He even won an Academy Award nomination for his work. Like 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' it was another lost opportunity for Fred.

Fred had a reputation in the industry of being parsimonious and dozens of stories have emerged through the years, real or imagined, of his frugality. Fred de Cordova, who directed Fred on 'My Three Sons', tells in his autobiography that 'nobody in the industry was as generous to charitable causes as Fred and June MacMurray.' And despite Fred's cheap reputation he never pulled anything like Cary Grant later did -charging 25 cents for autographs. Fred's cousin Lester Martin Jr. recalled that Fred was 'always nice to the public. He never turned down anybody who asked for his autograph."

Film publicist Sid Bloomberg recalls 'Fair Wind to Java' as the only time he ever saw Fred blow up at one of his leading ladies on a film set. "I saw Fred blow up only once. The leading lady was Vera Ralston, the mistress and then wife of the studio head (Herbert Yates, president of Republic), and she was basically an ice skater, not an actress. Vera kept blowing scene after scene and Fred wasn't used to it. He was used to working with professionals like Colbert and Goddard, and Ralston was not in their league and he almost walked." Claude Jarman recalls a scene where Fred and Vera Ralston were supposed to enact a 'passionate' love scene. When the scene was completed, Fred turned to a bunch of the guys on the set and said "I have to be nuts to be in this film." Jarman added, "He pretty much summed up how most of us felt."

Unfortunately, Lily would not live long enough to see the realization of one of Fred's finest screen performances: 'The Caine Mutiny'. In early June 1953 Lily was admitted to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, following a heart seizure. Her kidney problems further complicated her recovery and according to her physician Dr. Robert J. Kositcheck, Lily was in grave condition. Fred was at her side all through the final days and was often observed holding Lily's hand. On June 20, while in the hospital, Lily and Fred celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary. She died two days later with Fred at her side. Lily was only 45. Lester Martin maintains that it was Lillian's bulimia which caused the serious side effects which affected her kidneys and heart and kept her in poor health for much of her marriage to Fred.

Fred said that his marriage was 'so perfect' and 'we had a wonderful life.' Perhaps forgetting that Fred had just lost his beloved wife of 17 years, Stanley Kramer ('The Caine Mutiny' producer) wrote: "Fred MacMurray was a spectator in the scene of life, both in his work and in personal relations. He seemed strangely to have retired within himself." The New York Times called Fred's performance in 'The Caine Mutiny' excellent. There was also some talk that Fred would be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but Fred typically downplayed such talk. In the end, the only actors nominated were Bogart and the veteran Tom Tully.

In 'Pushover' (1954) Fred is back in 'Double Indemnity' mode once again. A pillar of the community, a career cop who goes bad over a dame. And not just any dame. Fred's a cop in his 40s and Novak, the femme fatale, more than twenty years younger. She needs a sucker, a 'pushover,' and, as always when Fred plays a heavy, he is confident on the outside but a marshmallow on the inside, easily manipulated by a woman he thinks he is one up on, but in actuality she is always one step ahead of him.

"MacMurray coldly kills the boyfriend and steals the money to provide a future for himself and Novak, but in film noir, things never work out that neatly. After mudering another cop who witnessed the earlier killing, MacMurray is gunned down tring to get away. As he lies in the street, seriously wounded as a result of turning crooked, he asks Novak the rhetorical question, "We really didn't need the money, did we?" No noir characters really need the money; they just want it, often for reasons they themselves do not understand. Even if they do understand, their choices are inexorably ruled by their own flaws and compulsions and by events in the world around them, ensuring their own destruction. "'Noir has a timeless appeal," says Eugenio Zaretti, art director for the modern film noir 'Slamdance' (1987), "because a noir hero has no exit, no options, and is constrained to do what destiny bids. People respond to noir because it is an element of daily life. We are all constrained,  because of conditioning, to do things we'd prefer not to do." -"Death On The Cheap: The Lost B Movies" (2000) by Arthur Lyons

Lauren Bacall and Fred MacMurray in "Woman's World" (1954) directed by Jean Negulesco

Arlene Dahl recalls Negulesco as 'an authetic flirtatious Hungarian' who would 'flirt with each of us [Dahl, Bacall and Allyson] and take us out to lunch, separately.' Dahl believes that June Haver helped bring Fred 'out of his shell.' She recalls the courting couple as being 'very affectionate and sweet to one another, just very loving.' Dahl also observed that Fred, basically a shy man, would blush, especially in the presence of women. After Lily's death, Fred told a reporter he wasn't sure he would ever marry again. By the holidays of 1953 the loneliness he felt over the loss of Lily was as acute as ever. John Wayne was having a 'Gay Nineties' party a few days before Christmas and invited Fred to come.

Singer and dancer June Haver was also invited to the party and was also hesitant about attending. Haver, the 'pocket Grable' at Fox, was the daughter of a strong-willed stage mother whose own hopes for a show business career never panned out. Haver was 'as sweet a human being as I met, a delightful woman,' according to Darryl Hickman. Actress Sybil Jason recalls Haver as being 'cute as a button and very warm and hospitable.' At the party June would recall being asked to dance by British film actor Laurence Harvey. June would later state that she knew right away she could fall in love with Fred. After all, this was the same man she worked with a decade earlier who impressed her as the kind of man she would want to marry. "He was kind of a challenge. I wanted to know what Fred was really like." They spent the rest of the time at the party locked in conversation together, pretty much ignoring everybody else. He took her home that night, but always a gentleman he didn't stay for the night. But the next day, Sunday, he came by June's apartment with his tools and fixed the plumbing in her bath room where the pipes had been leaking. June said, 'there he was, lying on his back on the bathroom floor, working on those pipes."

By late January 1954, while Fred was filming 'Pushover' with Kim Novak, Sheilah Graham was asking Fred in her syndicated column about rumors linking him to Ann Sothern, Eleanor Parker and June Haver. Graham ended her column by writing: "when he does decide to marry again, you can envy the girl. He has millions, he's attractive, considerate and about the best husband this town ever had." By May 1954 June felt it was time to ask Fred the big question, 'When are we going to get married?' Fred just grinned and said, 'Oh, we are? Well, I guess I'd better get you a ring.' She suggested 'something simple, a little pearl would be fine, that's my birthstone.' But Fred didn't want just a simple ring for June, he wanted her to have a diamond and even had one in mind, 'Red Skelton's good luck ring, the one he wore on his pinky.' When Red heard that Fred admired his diamond pinky ring he told Boo Roos that he would willingly let Fred have the diamond. Fred wouldn't hear of it and arranged to buy it and then have the diamond made into a ring.

Fred and June held their civil ceremony in Ojai, California, on June 28, 1954. The ceremony took place at the Ojai Valley Inn, in the room of Dr. and Mrs. Don Burger, the owners of the hotel. Fred slipped a circle of diamonds on June's finger while she gave Fred a plain gold band. Fred was 45 and June was 27. June was the perfect complement to Fred, where he was shy and withdrawn she was an extravert and outgoing. Lester Martin contrasted June with Fred's first wife: "Where Lillian was reserved and straightforward, very princess like, June was just the reverse, but they were both wonderful ladies and Fred was devoted to them both. He often commented to me on how lucky he was to be blessed with two happy marriages." Just before they got married Fred bought a new home for himself, June and the kids. He couldn't bear to live in the same house that he and Lily had shared and bought a ten-room colonial mansion in Brentwood from singer Nelson Eddy.

"June was one of the kindest women you'd ever want to meet, but the mother superior at her former convent would definitely not have approved one of her stories. 'Fred & I used to have a really big farm with a great big oakie tree on it. Do you remember that tree honey?' she asked as the color drained from Fred's face. He knew what was coming next, but by now June was unstoppable. 'Fred used to take me up there under that big oak and fuck the shit out of me, didn't you, honey? And he's hung like a horse.' She picked up the champagne bottle and, waving it around to emphasize the point, said: 'It´s as big as this, isn´t it, honey?' Then, probably to Fred's relief, she passed out." -"Moon River and Me: A Memoir" (2009) by Andy Williams

June had also determined not to return to work. Fred also didn't make any bones that he preferred to be the sole breadwinner of the family, but he wouldn't pressure June, it had to be her decision. She was tempted only once when she was offered a role in the film version of 'Guys and Dolls', but ultimately she turned it down: 'I had ten good years in the movies', she said. June found that even though she had come to love both Sue and Bobby, she had a natural desire to want children of her own. But she discovered that she could not conceive, which naturally disappointed her but rebounded quickly. June approached Fred to discuss adopting a baby. At St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, June found two red-headed baby girls who had been born prematurely. When Fred arrived, according to June, he telephoned their friends Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, who had also recently had twin girls, and asked Jimmy: 'What do we do? They're twins!" to which Stewart replied 'Buy two of everything.'

They named the girls Laurie and Katie. June said: 'you should have seen Fred. He worked like a frenzied boy putting up the bassinets, the bathinettes. He even helped with the night feedings, he was just marvelous.' His friends thought they had never seen Fred so happy. His pal Claude Binyon would later say 'Ever since those little girls arrived, Mr. Nice Guy has become even nicer.'

"Fred was always nice and very polite, but not an easy man to get to know. He towered over me like one of those monuments to big business on Wilshire Blvd. I felt inconsequential standing in his shadow. All I was looking for was a nod of acceptance, and I finally got it the day Fred took out his sax and I accompanied him on piano. I remember the twinkle in his eye and the connection I felt. Music bridged the unspoken gap between us, and a deep friendship began. Fred often spoke to me about Rob. It bothered him deeply that he couldn’t connect with his only son. Gradually I came to see Fred as a man who was longing to have the same relationship with Rob, as Steve Douglas had with his sons. Through his TV sons, Fred found the chance to express his love for his son. Through Fred, I found the chance to experience a father-son relationship, which I eventually had with my real dad. He loved me like a father, I loved him like a son… and I’ll never forget him. How much of that is miraculous? I suppose it depends on where you are in life, and how much of a miracle you need. For me, Fred MacMurray was the miracle I needed." -Don Grady's Foreword.

Two days following Fred's death, the Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote an appreciation: "The movie camera, with its undeniable capacity to see past the characterization to the player's soul, saw the nice guy that MacMurray really was. The miracle of Hollywood in its early days was that it kept finding the men and women who could help to define the movies' possibilities. Fred MacMurray was one of the men." In 1986 Fred, in his own understated and humble way, summed up his career this way: "Well, I've done pretty good for a guy who plays saxophone." Two years later, on his 80th birthday, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, he replied, "Fondly." He got his wish. -"Fred MacMurray: A Biography" (2007) by Charles Tranberg

In addition, please revisit my previous post: Memories of Fred MacMurray

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Robert Siodmak!

Film noir from 1944 directed by Robert Siodmak and starring beautiful Washingtonian actress Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Alan Curtis and Elisha Cook Jr.

Ella Raines plays Carol Richman, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis)'s secretary, nicknamed 'Kansas'. She doggedly follows evanescent clues through shadowy nocturnal streets. Can she save Scott in time?

Binary Genre Models in "Double Indemnity"

Barbara Stanwyck, photographed by A.L. Whitey Schafer and Costume by Edith Head. Publicity photo for 'Double Indemnity' (1944) directed by Billy Wilder

DOUBLE INDEMNITY SCRIPT - NEFF: He interrupts the dictation, lays down the horn on the desk. He takes his lighted cigarette from the ash tray, puffs it two or three times, and kills it. He picks up the horn again. NEFF (His voice is now quiet and contained) It began last May. About the end of May, it was. I had to run out to Glendale to deliver a policy on some dairy trucks. On the way back I remembered this auto renewal on Los Feliz. So I decided to run over there. It was one of those Calif. Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This one must have cost somebody about 30,000 bucks -- that is, if he ever finished paying for it. As he goes on speaking, SLOW DISSOLVE TO: DIETRICHSON HOME - LOS FELIZ DISTRICT -

“I Won’t Tell You What I Did Then”: The (Partial) Confession of Walter Huff: Walter Huff, made even more famous by Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff portrayal in the 1944 Billy Wilder film, is often set forth as the prime example of the fall guy seduced and betrayed by the murderous femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in 'Double Indemnity' (1944)

Walter refers to his attraction to Phyllis at one point as “some kind of unhealthy excitement that came over me just at the sight of her”. He contrasts this response with the feelings the innocent Lola inspires in him: “[A] sweet peace... came over me as soon as I was with her”. Phyllis is all agitation for Walter, while Lola is safe, heimlich, the expected family romance. Their different brands of femininity appear to be defined primarily by Walter’s bodily reaction in their presence. His body constitutes their gender; his hysterical response casts Phyllis as a lethal femme fatale.

Phyllis fails to fulfill physical/aesthetic expectations of the glamorous femme fatale. She is not “beautiful,” but merely “pretty.” She dresses simply—but also androgynously. No seamed stockings, tight dresses, or veiled hats. She wears lounging pajamas on first meeting Walter, later a sailor suit, then a sweater and slacks. She is characterized as appearing “sweet” rather than seductive. Walter first describes her as having a “washed out look” and later as having teeth that are “big and white and maybe a little buck” -the linking of Phyllis’s mouth with slang for money (“buck”) is surely telling- Hollowed out and even ironized, the femme fatale consequently is made to appear less and less an independent figure than a constitutive projection performing a crucial function for Walter.

Readers are not given salivating descriptions of Phyllis’s body or face, and consequently do not participate in Walter’s desire so directly, thereby enabling readers to see Walter’s projection more clearly. Her illness is within him — maybe it always was. Walter tells us early on: “I was peeping over the edge, and all the time I was trying to pull away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look”. Instead of bowing out when Walter hears Phyllis say she regrets their kiss and loves her husband, Walter pushes forward, confiding to the reader, “the thing was in me, pushing me still closer to the edge. And then I could feel it again, that she wasn’t saying what she meant”. Again, Walter locates the drive within himself, as something he “feels.”

The reliance on intuition is tested when Walter meets Phyllis for the first time. They have only spoken for a few minutes when Walter begins to suspect that Phyllis may, in hardboiled parlance, have an angle (though he mistakes what the angle is). It is at this moment when, he confides, “all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair.” It fixes Walter, even when Phyllis changes the subject. While he refers to her look’s potency, it is actually his look that seems compulsive and insistent as he “tries to keep [his] eyes off her, and couldn’t.”

Mary Ann Doane writes that the femme fatale is an “articulation of fears surrounding the loss of stability and centrality of the self, the ‘I,’ the ego. Phyllis’s presence surely “unmans” Walter here —but the “unmanning” is multi-leveled. The two take part in a dance in which Walter attempts to control the situation, while Phyllis plots behind the scenes; just when he thinks he has the power, it is revealed to be a sham, not just because Phyllis is more clever or more malevolent, but because her very presence can literally destabilize Walter.

There is another mode of destabilization that is explicitly gendered, and it is negotiated through Phyllis’s appearance. Her pajamas cling to her body as she moves in such a way that he can suddenly discern the appealing curvy shape beneath: “... I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts”. Her sailor suit pulls over her hips, hinting at her figure. Her raincoat and swimming cap promise even more hidden pleasures—but, after Walter “[gets] her peeled off,” he finds she’s wearing “just a dumb Hollywood outfit” of slacks and a sweater, though even there “it looked different on her”.

William Luhr notes about the film version of 'Double Indemnity' (scripted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler), “The image of the crippled man on crutches applies to three men [Huff, Sachetti, Nirdlinger]... The broken leg, the crutches... symbolically point to a phallic injury, an emasculation suffered by men who became involved with this black widow... The film links this image of debilitation, deformity, death to sexual association with Phyllis.” Walter is not merely threatened by the femme fatale, but his masculinity is configured such that he identifies with, desires, and doubles the femme fatale. This complication leads us to ask if, in fact, the femme fatale is nothing more than Walter himself.

Phyllis has shifted from being Walter’s plant to being the Company’s, as their virtual executioner. She operates unknowingly as a stand-in for the Company, which is effectively a stand-in for an all-consuming capitalist economy. Femininity so equated with death in the text, ends up forming a triangulated relationship with the stranglehold of business on Walter’s desire. Both Phyllis and General Fidelity (the Company’s name signifies its insistence on allegiance) provide Walter with opportunities to enact a family romance by betraying the patriarch, be it Mr. Nirdlinger or Company founder Norton (or Keyes).

William Marling suggests that Walter’s mistake was in failing to realize that the “emerging economy needed to limit [his brand of ] aggressive rationality rather than to have insiders use what usually did not happen against it”. But rather, it seems Walter’s error was in underestimating the extent to which he had absorbed, or “caught” the Company. Walter assumed he could beat it from the inside, not understanding that he was not inside the system; the system was inside him. Phyllis, while appearing to be Walter’s disease, is in fact his symptom of the larger Company pathology he has “caught.” The disease is the Company he cannot beat because he has become it. Keyes knows that Walter cannot truly flee, and Phyllis unwittingly functions as the Company’s hit man, the long arm of the Company reaching out to annihilate the stray. But Phyllis does not truly need to assassinate Walter; Walter recognizes what he carries within him and enters into death of his own volition.

Neither Walter nor Phyllis can exit their respective gender systems, but for Phyllis, the death pact is an ecstatic communion with the system through which her femininity is defined and, if we accept her self-identification as Death, the system through which she defines herself. Conversely, for Walter, the suicide pact is a hysterical recognition of his own utter lack of agency. The systems intermesh, interlock, and leave Walter with one position, white male cog whose body and function have been prescribed for him all along. This lack of male agency amid larger social systems will prove a recurrent pattern within hardboiled fiction. While the weakness of the tough guy–as–sap in his interactions with the femme fatale is often broached, 'Double Indemnity' demonstrates the extent to which that femme fatale is merely a symbol of larger and deeply oppressive societal structures that imprison both genders in tyrannically binary models.

-"The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir" by Megan E. Abbott (2002) / 'I Can Feel Her': The White Male as Hysteric in James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler (Chapter 2)