Billy Wilder directs this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom drama concerning a man on trial for the murder of an old woman – did he do it? What’s up with his wife? Will his lawyer’s nurse catch him smoking? As with Christie’s stageplay, The Mousetrap, upon the film’s conclusion, the audience is kindly asked to refrain from revealing its twists and revelations, but we at Eavesdropping at the Movies respect no such requests. Spoilers within.
Charles Laughton is pleasingly hammy, Marlene Dietrich composed, and Tyrone Power a loud, sweaty, stressed out mess – and somehow mostly in the background, despite his central role as the accused murderer. We discuss their performances and characters, the pleasures and methods of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, and Wilder’s direction, which hopes, in that classic Hollywood style, to render technique invisible. Witness for the Prosecution is an engrossing mystery filled with interesting bits of business that enrich its characters, and a classic.
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Stardom, beauty, the machinery of Hollywood, madness, age – 1978’s Fedora sees Billy Wilder occupying much of the same thematic territory of his 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s has-been film producer attends the funeral of Fedora, a reclusive former film star, and thinks back on the recent trip he took to Corfu, attempting to track her down and coax her out of retirement. What unravels is a mystery, a conspiracy, a twisted mother-daughter relationship, and another in Mubi’s strand of “perfect failures”.
Wilder’s struggle to finance Fedora is apparent, José suggesting that in every part one can imagine a superior actor. Though that’s perhaps scant defence of the tedious visual design – Dutch angles don’t cost money, and the film is crying out for more visual expression than it offers. Mike explains his problem with the plot structure and particularly his dislike of “two weeks earlier” hooks, and we consider the way in which we’re asked to believe in Fedora’s incredible stardom while not really having it explained to us satisfactorily. And José takes particular issue with the casting of Michael York as himself, finding him a blank, while Mike is more content with it, but perhaps that’s largely because whenever someone says “Michael York” it makes him laugh.
Despite the film’s many problems, it remains an intriguing exploration of stardom, identity, the lengths to which people will go to support their own delusions. Mike suggests that Fedora and Sunset Boulevard share a low opinion of women, that their themes of self-obsession, fame and beauty are particularly aligned with their stars’ gender. José describes Fedora‘s relationship to reality, in particular the ways in which it echoes Marlene Dietrich’s extraordinary fame and subsequent withdrawal from the public eye, and how Wilder’s experience and understanding of this and other inside stories informs the film.
And finally, Mike takes a moment to bring up two things he doesn’t like about Sunset Boulevard, because he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t take one look at a great masterpiece of cinema and explain what’s rubbish about it.
The film noir to end films noir, Billy Wilder’s classic crime drama Double Indemnity made its way to The Electric in Birmingham for a one-off screening, where a packed cinema ensured a great atmosphere. Mike, as usual, hadn’t seen it, while José is very familiar with it, even having taught it before.
Mike didn’t entirely click with it, though he’s able to appreciate much of what makes it a classic. Perhaps the stylistic and thematic elements that identify film noir are so perfectly employed by Double Indemnity that it leads to an ironic, detached mode of viewing – the genre, though it has existed since its inception, is strongly connected to its classical era of the Forties and Fifties, and has been parodied and pastiched more than most, burdening the film with unfair baggage to audiences not in that frame of mind. José, on the other hand, relishes the chance to see it with a paying, enthusiastic audience, finding that he notices different details and appreciates the film differently outside of an academic setting.
Unquestionable is the strength of Barbara Stanwyck’s seductive performance as the femme fatale, her Phyllis Dietrichson the archetype of the dangerous woman who bewitches her doomed victim, in this case a chump played with distracting self-importance by Fred MacMurray. And every time Edward G. Robinson appears on screen he lights it up, capturing the audience, whether with the array of witty retorts and bon mots with which the script furnishes him, or dialogue as ostensibly dull as a recitation of an actuarial table for types of suicide.
With all of this in mind, Mike is sure that a second run at the film would help him appreciate it more. There’s no doubting its place in cinema history, and that it continues to pack out cinemas with eager filmgoers is testament to that.
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There are innumerable reasons to value Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944): it’s not only one of the great works of cinema but possibly the ur-text of what started off as a cycle of films and eventually became a genre: film noir. It’s got dialogue that still snaps, a structure so tight nothing’s extraneous, lighting so expressive it’s led critics like Richard Schickel to see the film as, ‘a drama about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the shadows’. I love the actors, the badinage between Edward G. Robinson and Fred Macmurray, the tough-guy voiceover, the way the film evokes a combination of cool cynicism and overheated desire. Its influence continues to be felt. As we can see in the cabezudos scene in Almodóvar’s La mala educación/Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2004), Double Indemnity’s images are instantly recognisable, regularly re-deployed, still very evident in the culture and still wielding power (see clip below).
My own favourite moment (see clip at the very top) is a close-up of Barbara Stanwyck in the scene where Phyllis (Stanwyck) is driving her husband to the station whilst Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is hiding in the back seat waiting to off him. Her husband’s been haranguing her, ‘why do you turn here!’ She honks the horn. ‘What are you doing that for!’ Then, as if to answer him, the camera cuts to Walter crouched in the back and rising for the kill. The film then cuts back to a close-up of Stanwyck. ‘Why are you honking the horn!’ as we hear a thud. The camera remains on her face as her husband gets killed and it’s this moment that remains indelible to me.
What do we see on Stanwyck’s face? She bounces with apprehension at the blow that kills her husband, mouth a little open. Then, as lights ricochet past her face, what does Stanwyck convey about Phyllis’ thinking and feeling in that last close-up before the scene dissolves? Disquiet, a hardness, efficiency, a vengeful ‘he only got what he deserved’ look, the slightest glimmer of a smile; could it be glee? And could it be sexual? One feels it’s so without knowing quite why. It’s in that evocation of the precise and the evanescent, the material and that which reverberates just out of reach – it has so many associations it can’t quite be pinned down – that Stanwyck’s great artistry makes itself manifest. It’s a glorious moment, one of many, and part of the reason why, to quote Woody Allen, Double Indemnity is ‘Billy Wilder’s greatest film, practically anybody’s greatest film’.
PS In a wonderful conference on noir at the University of Warwick on 19th of May 2017 — Hardboiled History: A Noir Lens on America’s Past — Kulraj Pullar speaking on ‘Veronica Lake and L.A. Confidential: Nostalgia, anachronism and film history’ iterated a fascinating redeployment of Baldwin’s notion that the ‘negro’ is a white invention in relation to the femme fatale. I don’t identify, I didn’t create, I don’t need the negro says Baldwin: so how, when and why do white people need this term? Thus how, when and why do men need femme fatales like Stanwyck’s Phyllis?
The Merry Widow is a shallow masterpiece. Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald), the richest woman in Warshovia has been widowed, might be hooked by a foreigner and send the country’s economy into a tailspin. Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) gets caught by the King (George Barbier) making love to his wife and the Queen (Una Merkel) is so complimentary that he is chosen to be the one to woo and win The Merry Widow back to Marshovia. It’s a film full of delights; the magnifying glass over the map that introduces us to Marshovia (figure 1), the first meeting between Danilo and the Widow which begins by her reading the letter saying he’s terrific and ends with him following her to the palace and saying ‘I tried to bring a little moonlight into your life…..Forget me – if you can!…and Don’t include me, even in your dreams!’; The montage of black veils, shoes, corsets and dogs that signify her life and whose change in colour symbolises a decision to change that life; How the King discovers his wife is cheating on him — a scene that Billy Wilder used as an exercise with students at UCLA asking them how would they stage it and then showing how Lubitsch did it; the fabulous waltz sequence, with hundreds of dancers waltzing through a palatial hall of mirrors, a still from which illustrated countless early film books (see fig. 1); the charming prison sequence at the end; Sam Raphaelson’s witty dialogue. The film is a delight, a joy, a mini-masterpiece of cinematic inventiveness. Barbier and Edward Everett Horton, as the Marshovian Ambassador to France, are particularly enchanting. It’s only of Lubitsch that one dares ask for more.
The film was based on Franz Léhar’s operetta and was remade by Curtis Bernhardt in 1952. I quite like the Bernhardt version with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas but to see the two films side by side is to be convinced of Lubitsch’s genius. Both films were for MGM, the Lubitsch version, the most expensive film made to that point and, though a considerable hit, it still lost money.
N. T. Binh and Christian Viviani have called The Merry Widow the quintessential Lubitsch film (Lubitsch, T. &B Editores: Madrid 1991, 2005, p. 160). It contains the elements of spectacle evident in his early silent (from Carmen onwards), the operetta form of his early thirties musicals (e.g. The Smiling Lieutenant) — hugely popular then and unjustly marginalised in historical accounts of the musical genre now — the rhythmic elements evident in all of his great works (note the dance number in the silent The Oyster Princess from as early as 1919), the use of doors, the indirect way of showing, the ingeniousness and comedy that infuses the whole film, the sophisticated comedy of manners of his greatest films (Trouble in Paradise), the great dialogue of most of his great talkies (Ninotchka), the controlled, precise, and poetic imagery of is late masterpieces (the letterbox sequence from The Shop Around The Corner say). One can’t help but agree. The Merry Widow might not be the best Lubitsch – it doesn’t quite touch our hearts – but it is the quintessential Lubitsch in that it delights the eye, the ear and the mind.