Double Indemnity: Double the Fun 70 Years Later

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Turns out the insurance business is a hell of a lot more interesting than most of us think.

Between the wise-cracking salesmen, the dangerous women, the tough-as-nails claims adjusters, and all the schemes, twists, and intrigue, it’s no wonder that premiums tend to spiral out of control.

Or at least that’s the impression you get from Billy Wilder’s deliciously-fun Double Indemnity.

Based on a 1935 novella by James M. Cain—which, in turn, was based on a famous murder plot perpetrated in Queens, NY, in 1927—Double Indemnity is the story of a successful, fast-talking, low-character insurance salesman, Walter Neff, who falls for the wrong woman and gets tangled up in a plot to murder her husband for the insurance payoff. When the woman, Phyllis Dietrichson turns out to not be the abused, innocent victim that she initially appeared to be, things spiral fatally out of control for Neff.

From the first frame to the final image, Double Indemnity is a pulsating popcorn thriller, through-and-through.

It took nearly a decade for Double Indemnity to make the leap from story to screen, primarily because of the then-controversial nature of the material. Although a studio bidding war erupted shortly after the publication of the novella, it ended quickly when the infamous Hays Office began strictly enforcing the “moral guidelines” of the Motion Picture Production Code. Although codified in 1930, the so-called Hays Code was not aggressively enforced until circa 1934, and when the Hays Office got wind of the bidding war over the rights to Double Indemnity, it issued a stern warning to the major studios.

“The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story,” Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen wrote, “makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater. I am sure you will agree that it is most important…to avoid what the code calls ‘the hardening of audiences,’ especially those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and fact of crime.”

Eight years after Double Indemnity’s first flirtation with Hollywood, Paramount tried again, buying the rights to the film and eventually getting a film treatment approved by the Hays Office. The project was then handed off to writer-director Billy Wilder, who collaborated on the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, then a first-time Hollywood screenwriter. Chandler was only a few years removed from his breakout first novel, The Big Sleep, but even Wilder (rightly) credits much of Double Indemnity’s success to what would soon become Chandler’s trademark gift for crackling, amped-up dialogue. “Yes, I killed him,” Neff confesses in the film’s opening scene. “I killed him for the money and a woman. And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t just the Production Code that threatened to derail Wilder’s movie, though.

None of the three leads—Fred MacMurray as Neff, Barbara Stanwyck as Dietrichson, and Edward G. Robinson as hard-boiled claims adjuster (hard-boiled claims adjuster!) Barton Keyes—actually wanted to be in the film.

MacMurray and Stanwyck, both already box office stars, objected to playing such seedy, unseemly characters. In fact, MacMurray wasn’t even the studio’s first choice, but after Alan Ladd, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, Fredric March, and George Raft all turned the role down, MacMurray became Wilder’s last resort. Eventually, through sheer force of will, Wilder signed both his leads, also securing Robinson despite the actor’s misgivings about playing what amounted to a supporting role for the first time since he became a star.

As it turns out, Double Indemnity is the best film that any of them ever made.

Double Indemnity rolled through Madison last week as part of the Turner Classic Movies’ “TCM Presents” series. To my discredit, I’d never discovered Wilder’s classic before, but 70 years after hitting theaters for the first time, Double Indemnity still feels as fresh and engaging as any new release you might find at the multiplex. Highly stylized, fast-paced, and ruthless, the film hooks you immediately with the first-scene appearance of Neff, who mysteriously stumbles into his insurance office, wounded and struggling, and spills his sordid story into a Dictaphone machine. From there, his confession spools out in voice over, and the film never slows down.

Part of the fun of Double Indemnity is watching the two leads, especially MacMurray, play against type. For someone who grew up knowing MacMurray primarily as the lovable father on My Three Sons and as the Flubber-inventing hero of The Absent-Minded Professor, it’s a delight seeing him play the snake-charming, amoral insurance salesman Walter Neff.

But as a life-long film buff, the wonder of finally catching up with Double Indemnity is seeing what many critics (though not all) identify as the first real example of American film noir, and seeing so many of the classic elements of noir come together on screen for the first time. The unseemly characters whose lust and greed set the wheels in motion for their own inevitable destruction. The stylized lighting and masterful mis-en-scene that pull you into the characters’ hearts and minds. The rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that slips from seduction to scheming without losing a beat.

And oh that femme fatale!

Stanwyk’s treacherous blonde seductress rivets from her first appearance on-screen, getting her hooks immediately into Neff with demure, playful allure. Like Neff, we go right along with her for the ride, slowly discovering her devious motives, her malicious intent, and ultimately her double-crossing plot. By the time he figures out the truth about her, his fate has already been sealed, and all that is left for him to do is to stumble through the final act of his deadly tale.

“Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong,” Neff mutters in voice over. “It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps.”

“It was the walk of a dead man.”

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Woody and the Women

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“Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?”

IndieWIRE’s Ryan Lattanzio asks that question in a blog post this week titled “The 9 Women You Meet in Woody Allen Movies”, an article tied to Allen’s upcoming 2015 release, Irrational Man.

Leading with Irrational Man’s Emma Stone, Lattanzio writes:

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Lattanzio then goes on to a rather reductive take on the 9 types of women that he says populate Woody Allen’s film oeuvre.

Honestly, it would seem that if you take any filmmaker and look at his or her characters—male or female—and try to archetype them, you might be hard-pressed to come up with nine distinct types! Are Martin Scorsese’s antiheroes so different from one film to the next? Or how about Wes Anderson’s quirky ensembles? Or Sophia Coppola? I mean, how different, really, was Bill Murray’s aging burnt-out movie star in Lost in Translation from Stephen Dorff’s young burnt-out movie start in Somewhere?

When it comes to Woody Allen, though, it has always been fashionable (if not incredibly lazy) to ask, “Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?”

If he does, then it is a problem that almost every actress in Hollywood over the past forty years has wanted to be a part of. Any why not? Perhaps actresses are so eager to work with Allen because of the phenomenal success women have historically had starring in his films.

Despite Allen’s apparently horrible failings at writing female characters, an astounding 12 actresses have been nominated for 13 Oscars for appearing in Woody Allen films, and 6 times they have walked away as winners.

A quick summary:

Diane Keaton was nominated for and won Best Actress for Annie Hall in 1977.

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Maureen Stapleton and Geraldine Page were BOTH nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—for 1978’s Interiors.

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Mariel Hemingway was nominated for her supporting turn in Allen’s masterpiece, Manhattan, in 1978.

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Dianne Wiest was nominated for and won Best Supporting Actress in 1986 for Hannah and Her Sisters. (No good females roles in that one, right?)

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Judy Davis gave a volcanic performance, earning a Supporting Actress nomination, for 1992’s Husbands and Wives.

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Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly both earned nominations for Supporting Actress, with Wiest claiming her second Allen Oscar win, for Bullets Over Broadway in 1994.

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Mira Sorvino earned an improbable Supporting Actress win for 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite.

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Samantha Morton earned a Supporting Actress nomination for Sweet and Low Down in 1999.

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Penelope Cruz smoldered and erupted her way to a Supporting Actress win in 2008 for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

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Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett were both nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—with Blanchett the runaway Oscar winner for 2013’s Blue Jasmine.

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Woody Allen writes such weak and obvious female characters that three times multiple actresses have been Oscar-nominated for his films?

And those are just the Oscar winners!

Don’t forget about Diane Keaton’s brilliant turn in Manhattan. Or the phenomenal ensemble work done not only by Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, but also Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and even Maureen O’Sullivan in a small role. Anjelica Houston’s shattered other woman in Crimes and Misdemeanors? Scarlett Johansson’s scintillating seductress in Match Point? Heck, even the minor, mostly-dismissed You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger featured strong, vibrant work from Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts.

To be sure, Allen has worked with some of the best actresses in the business, and the credit for their performances go first and foremost to them. But it is no coincidence that great actresses climb over each other to try to appear in Woody Allen movies, despite the fact that there haven’t exactly been a lot of hits in his filmography since the early ‘80’s.

Clearly, they must see something in his female characters that they want to play, and something in the director that will allow them to do their best work.

Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?

Only in that even in churning out a movie every single year, there still aren’t enough parts for all the actresses who want to play them.

It’s Hard to Hang with The Gallows

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In 1996, the movie Scream famously articulated the “rules” you needed to follow in order to survive a horror movie of that era. Nearly 20 years later, I would humbly revise those rules with some suggestions as to how today’s teens might avoid finding themselves trapped in a horror movie altogether.

  1. First and foremost, if your high school drama club stages a play and the lead actor dies on-stage under highly mysterious circumstances, do NOT star in a revival of the play, on the same stage, twenty years later.
  1. If by chance you violate rule # 1 and do star in the revival of the play, do NOT sneak into your school late at night the day before the play is to open—twenty years to the day after the tragic accident—and do mischievous things on the stage.
  1. And finally, and I can’t stress this enough, but if you do ignore rules # 1 and # 2, do NOT—and this is very, very important—do NOT make sure you have multiple video cameras running at all times in order to provide a seamless, minute-by-minute account of all the horrible things that follow.

Ironic, actually, that rule # 3 should include the word “horrible”, because as it turns out, each and every one of my three rules are broken in the horrible new found-footage horror flick called The Gallows.

Found-footage horror films have existed for years, long before they were made famous by The Blair Witch Project, the success of which was less about pioneering a new subgenre and more about its ingenious marketing effort. Since The Blair Witch Project, however, the found-footage approach has too often been not a creative choice, but rather an excuse for poor production values, bad acting, and lack of vision.

To be sure, there have been some top-notch found-footage films in recent years. Barry Levinson’s The Bay was interesting if not all that scary. Norway’s Trollhunter was creative, thrilling, and fun. And the anthology V/H/S hit hard and fast and was legitimately terrifying.

But for every V/H/S, there have been a dozen films like the promising but dreadful The Houses that October Built, The Amityville Haunting, and The Frankenstein Theory. (Bluntly, if The Frankenstein Theory had actually been an honest-to-goodness documentary, and at the end of the documentary you would actually see actual, verifiable footage of a REAL-LIFE, man-made monster walking the earth…this movie would still be all but impossible to sit through.)

Actually, make that a baker’s dozen and add The Gallows to the ledger on the dreadful side.

At the start of The Gallows, we see home video footage of a school production of a play called “The Gallows” (that’s the name of the movie!), shot from the back of a typical high school auditorium. In hushed whispers, a mom and dad talk over the action and roadmap out the proceedings for us: complimenting the fine construction work on the set’s gallows and obliquely referring to some mysterious “last minute change” that can only foreshadow disaster. (If you put these two on an airport runaway with a couple of flashlights, their pinpoint guidance would keep all the planes running on time, no doubt.) Of course, disaster does strike, and after little Charlie slips the gallows’ noose around his neck, something goes wrong and little Charlie dies. Turns out the construction work on the gallows was not quite as good as they thought…or maybe just a bit too good?

Fast-forward 20 years, and a new crop of theater students is in the final day of rehearsals for a revival of “The Gallows”. Due to a remarkable collision of convenient antics, longings, and lazy plot devices, four of them wind up locked in the school at the witching hour, and before long, the sinister, ghostly Hangman starts to stalk them.

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The Gallows manages to conjure up one or two brief—very brief—unsettling images. And it manages to construct a few—very few—jolts and moments of suspense. But for a movie that clocks in at an economical 81 minutes, it is somewhat shocking how much time drags on at the beginning of this movie before anything interesting (and that’s a relative term here) happens. Despite featuring twice the number of writers and directors here as usual—Travis Cuff and Chris Lofing share both duties—The Gallows delivers less than half the scares. And that’s being generous.

In the end, the victims of the Hangman turned out to be the lucky ones: they didn’t have to stick around all the way to the end of The Gallows.

Escape from Tomorrow: Brilliant Filmmaking, Terrible Film

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What do you get when you combine awful characters, awful scripting, and awful performances…and plop them down smack dab in the middle of the happiest place on earth? You get the incoherent, practically unwatchable—but yet maddeningly fascinating—Escape from Tomorrow.

First released in late 2013 but finding some (though very little) footing in theaters throughout 2014, Escape from Tomorrow is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital (currently streaming on Netflix).

The film itself is largely unsuccessful in just about every way that you can consider, but there is a legitimately great story behind Escape from Tomorrow.

Ambitiously directed by first-time filmmaker Randy Moore, Escape from Tomorrow was shot over the course of roughly twenty-four days, guerrilla-style, at Walt Disney World and Disneyland…without receiving permission from the Walt Disney Company.

This approach required tremendous secrecy and creativity. Without the ability to use any lighting equipment, for example, months of planning went into the shoot to ensure that outdoor scenes were shot when the sun was at just the right point in the sky. The actors and filmmakers used their iPhones to review scripts. Portable audio recorders were strapped to the actors and left running all day. Footage was shot using video mode on Canon digital cameras so that the filmmakers would look like typical tourists snapping photos of their vacation. And the number of takes allowed for each shot and scene were limited in order to avoid suspicion from park employees and other visitors.

That is inspired, daring filmmaking that simply boggles the mind.

The movie itself, however—billed as a horror fantasy—does not live up to the legendary tale behind it.

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A family from Bristol, Wisconsin (yay Wisconsin!) is winding down their vacation at Walt Disney World, when strange things begin to happen, primarily to the unhappy and unlikeable (more on this later) dad, Jim. After waking up one morning to a phone call from his boss telling him that he is losing his job, Jim enters the final days of the family vacation in an emotionally precarious state. Things only get worse when he begins to have disturbing, startling visions on the various Disney rides, and the minor trials and tribulations common to a family day at a theme park—hungry kids, scraped knees, closed rides—begin to take on ominous, threatening overtones.

Is Jim going crazy, or are there some sort of evil forces at play?

The problem with Escape from Tomorrow is that you simply don’t care.

Start with the family itself. They are all—parents and kids alike—thoroughly unlikeable and uninteresting. The kids go from emotionally dead to whining to screaming in less time than it takes to cannonball into an overcrowded resort pool. The mother is a caricature of the worst kind: a nagging, badgering shrew who is emotionally abusive toward her husband but a protective mother hen to her kids…right up to the point when she slaps her daughter for really no good reason. And dad Jim is not a character so much as a lecherous cliché. He follows two underage Parisian girls around the parks, leering and fantasizing over them like a low-rent Nabokov villain. He guzzles booze to the point that he ends up puking over the side of the boat on Epcot’s Gran Fiesta Tour. And he loses track of his kids multiple times as he stumbles through his narcissistic journey. Father of the Year material he ain’t.

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It certainly does not help that the acting fails almost entirely across the board. While nobody in the cast stands out, Roy Abramsohn’s performance as Jim weighs the film down significantly. Asking Abramsohn to carry the film may well have been an unfair ask in the first place, considering his film and TV credits prior and subsequent to Escape from Tomorrow are almost entirely devoid of proper nouns. His recent roles include Subject #1, Reporter #2, Supervisor, Reporter #2 (different show!), Male Reporter, Man, Reporter #1, and Date #2. I could go on. Here, Abramsohn stammers, double takes, and grimaces through most of the movie, demonstrating that subtlety and nuance of a beer belch during a church service.

Even the bad acting, though, might have been palatable if the film itself were more interesting, but Escape from Tomorrow substitutes pretense for intelligence. The film presents itself (and it may even believe it) as having something profound to say, but it really doesn’t. American consumerism suffocating the family unit? No, not really. Corporate malfeasance disguised as good-natured family fun? Nope, that’s a miss. Male castration through marriage, fatherhood, and professional failure? Close, but no cigar.

Despite the audaciousness and ambition of the production, Escape from Tomorrow just isn’t very good. In fact, it’s downright bad. And it’s a shame. When you think about all the work, all the planning, all the ingenuity it took to make this movie, maybe they should have just gone the extra mile and made a good movie.

The making of Escape from Tomorrow will be a legendary story told in film schools and movie clubs for years and years to come, long after the movie itself is forgotten.

But in the end, Escape from Tomorrow is a just movie about four people who hate each other, and it is hard to blame them. After spending just 90 minutes with them, you will too.

Love & Mercy: Bad Vibrations, Great Movie

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I’m not a musician. I don’t play an instrument, don’t read music, and can’t really carry a tune. I don’t pretend to understand music theory or philosophy. But I do know how music gets under my skin, touches me, and powerfully affects me in ways that nothing else does.

And I know that the creative force behind some of the songs that do just that is Brian Wilson.

Wilson—the legendary co-founder, songwriter, and force-of-nature behind the Beach Boys—is the subject of the quasi-new, quasi-biopic Love & Mercy.

Unlike traditional musician biopics, Love & Mercy—released in 2014 but distributed widely just this summer—does not attempt to chronicle Wilson’s entire life and career, but rather focuses on two relatively narrowly-defined periods of Wilson’s life: the 1960’s and the 1980’s. In the earlier period, Wilson was producing the Beach Boys’ masterwork album, Pet Sounds, and beginning to struggle with the serious mental illness that eventually derailed his career and his life. In the later period, Wilson was falling in love with his second wife and would-be-savior—Melinda Ledbetter—while psychologically imprisoned and controlled by shady psychotherapist Eugene Landy.

Love & Mercy alternates back and forth between the two periods in Wilson’s life, with Paul Dano portraying the younger, faltering Wilson, and John Cusack filling the role of the older, broken Wilson. The unconventional approach—two different adult actors playing the same character at different points of his life—works in unexpected and riveting ways. After two decades of struggle with debilitating mental illness, drug abuse, and family turmoil, the fragile, dependent Wilson of the 1980’s indeed seems to have been a completely different man than the energetic, dynamic Wilson of the Pet Sounds era. Dano and Cusack famously did not coordinate their takes on Wilson and barely even met before or during the film’s production, and as a result their individual portrayals of the man are crafted and shaded in their own unique ways. And both shine.

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The always-reliable Dano disappears into his role, imbuing it with the same bursts of intensity and nuance that brought him critical acclaim in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will be Blood. Dano illuminates the screen as young Wilson, bringing a manic joy to the scenes in-studio as Wilson feels his way through Pet Sounds, and equal parts vulnerability and independence in the one-on-one emotional encounters with his father. In one early scene, Dano’s Wilson sits at a piano and plinks through his new composition God Only Knows—a song that Paul McCartney would later call his favorite song of all time—for his father, whom the Beach Boys had already fired as their manager. Desperate for his father’s approval but resolute in the rightness of his musical vision, Dano sets the table for the parallel relationship that Wilson would struggle with in later years with Landy.

It is Cusack, however, who is a bit of a revelation here, eschewing the easy charm that has defined the bulk of his career and hollowing out his character to its raw, desperate core. It’s not that Cusack outperforms Dano, per se, but rather that we see a performance from Cusack unlike any in his career so far. It is personal, powerful, and delivers a handful of heart-breaking moments that linger well beyond the closing credits. When Cusack’s Wilson meets Ledbetter and slips her a handwritten note that says simply “Lonely, Scared, Frightened,” it is a disarming and painful cry for help that Cusack spends the rest of the film echoing.

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Like Cusack, Elizabeth Banks surprises as Cadillac-saleswoman-turned-guardian-angel Melinda Ledbetter. When she comes across Wilson in her showroom, she circles him warily, unsure what to make of the emotionally reclusive teddy bear that he appears to be. Banks especially shines in her scenes with Paul Giamatti’s Landy, whose relationship with Wilson—by all accounts—was somewhat more complex than the one sketched out by the movie, but who here fills the role of villain with relish. At first, Banks’ Ledbetter defers to Landy. Later, she probingly challenges him. Finally, determined to break his hold on Wilson, she goes fully to battle with Landy and fills the screen with her strength and determination. Love & Mercy’s odd release schedule will likely do it no favors come awards season, but even in an acting showcase such as this, Banks’ performance stands apart and may be the one most likely to gain recognition down the road. If nothing else, it elevates Banks to a new level as a leading dramatic actress.

In a film that splits its main role between two actors, though, it seems only fitting that a third Brian Wilson—the real Brian Wilson—be introduced in the film’s closing moments. As the credits role, we see Brian Wilson himself in close up, at a piano, delivering a concert performance of his song Love and Mercy. The delicate, gentle strains of the song from the man himself offer a comforting, redemptive punctuation to the film. Brian Wilson still struggles, still hears the voices in his head, and still wrestles with the demons of his life.

But Brian has his music. He has Melinda. And he has survived.