As Birmingham’s Electric reopens following a protracted period of uncertainty as to whether it was gone for good, it turns to a programme of classics to invigorate its audience. We catch The Apartment there, Billy Wilder’s dark romantic comedy, which Mike has never seen and José not for years, to discuss corporate alienation, whether the suicide story structure works, the cynicism in Wilder’s work and his personal history that it can be seen as a product of, the appeal of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, and the takers, those who get took, and the mensches.
I re-watched There’s Always Tomorrow again last night and was left with a renewed appreciation:
The mise-en-scene is as expressive as you’d expect, the themes an inverse of the typical representation of the family in films of the time. Here family life is lit as a noir, with all the trauma, blockages, frustrated desires evoked by the lighting (the cinematography is by the great Russell Metty)>
Family gets in the way:
Children are frightful:
..and there are so many barriers to the fulfilment of one’s hopes even the light cries:
William Reynolds basically plays the same role he will do later in All That Heaven Allows: the stuffy, priggish, selfish, son who can’t conceive of a parent having an interest other than their children and makes sure to block it.
It was wonderful.
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?
Hollywood Home Movies From The Academy Film Archive (USA, 1931-1970)
Il Cinema Ritrovato showcased a program of home movies donated to The Academy Film Archive and, in this instance, narrated live by Michael Pogorzelski, who told us where these movies came from (Fred McMurray, Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s estate, etc.) and who was in them (the audience sometimes seemed to know more than Pogorzelski). The collection of short home movies was exciting to see because these people figure in our pasts, sometimes in an intimate way, so this was a way of making part of their private life intersect with part of ours.
It was wonderful to see Randolph Scott gently stroke Cary Grant’s shoulder in a the way familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a couple, as a gesture, tender but proprietary, that only established couples do to let the other know they’re there, besides them, and that they are thinking of them, with love. And perhaps to let others know to buzz off – that person’s taken, mine. That gesture did more to convince me of something between those two, than all the gossip I’ve heard and photos I’ve seen thus far.
I loved seeing: Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. pretending to be Tyrolean peasants in their huge mansion-size ‘little cottage’ whilst changing into dozens of outfits; Cary Grant, more handsome than I’ve ever seen with practically no upper lip and a lower lip three times the size of anyone I know, on the set of Gunga Din; some rare colour footage of Carole Lombard, always the liveliest and most beautiful person in any film she graces, including these home movies; Fred McMurray’s home movies, in three-strip technicolor, and showing him as the athletic and handsome leading man he was but that can be so difficult to detect in some of his films, particularly the later ones, or for that generation of people who grew up with him as a Disney star or as the father in My Three Sons. Also who knew he was a blond?
I adored also the footage of one of Hearst’s 1930s parties, all of the stars on their best behaviour, like at the boss’ house, and pretending to enjoy the prank of a shaft of air being wooshed up lady’s dresses from below. Marilyn was to be shown enjoying a heightened and eroticised version of this two decades later in The Seven Year Itch. But practically every ‘30s star you care to mention is shown here in that very human contradiction of being extremely annoyed and trying to have the good manners not to show it, particularly to someone who’s got power over one’s job. It felt a privilege to have been able to see these films.