Tag Archives: fred macmurray

THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON: Film Noir and the Villains in DOUBLE INDEMNITY

When I heard that my fellow bloggers over at Shadows and Satin, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy were getting ready to host The Great Villain Blogathon a few days ago, I knew that an opportunity to celebrate my favorite movie villains with other film fans was just too good to pass up. I signed up immediately, and the minute I saw the banner…I knew my topic.

Many of my readers know that I have a great fondness for all things Barbara Stanwyck. And as my recent article about Baby Face and pre-Code Hollywood has proven to be a rather popular one, I have decided to write today about another significant era of Hollywood and two prominent villains to come out of it–Phyllis Dietrichson, the alluring wife of an ill-fated husband, and her partner-in-crime, Walter Neff, villains of that noir-est of all film noirs, Double Indemnity (1944). The film was deftly directed by Billy Wilder, and co-written by Wilder and author Raymond Chandler.

Born out of the German Expressionist movement and honed in the years leading up to U.S. involvement in World War II, film noir is a rich and complex genre. Primarily taking the form of crime drama and most often told with narrative voice-over, it breaks many of the social norms that were in place under the Code, and often takes a view of women little seen since before the Code was in place. In movies under the Code, women were seen as sweethearts, submissive, and existing only for the pleasure of man. In noir films, the woman is often the villain of the story, and through her sex, wiles, and manipulation, she brings about the man’s downfall. It is out of the noir genre that we get the term femme fatale–“deadly woman.”

Never was a femme fatale more deadly, in every sense of the word, than in Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and released at the height of World War II in 1944. In this story of a woman who partners with an insurance salesman to kill her husband and collect on his insurance money, Barbara Stanwyck is at her best and most evil. Her performance earned her a third Academy Award nomination, and remains one of the most outstanding performances in her career.

In keeping with the genre standard of telling a story with narrative voice-over, Double Indemnity begins with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaking into a Dictaphone, confessing to the crime of killing Phyllis Dietrichson’s husband. We see the story unfold through flashback, expounded upon by Neff’s voice-over. Taken by Phyllis’ charm and raw sex appeal and upset at Phyllis’ claims that her husband treated her badly, Neff allowed himself to be talked into hatching an elaborate scheme to murder Mr. Dietrichson, making it look like an accident to take advantage of a loophole in insurance laws allowing for the “double indemnity” clause to be invoked in the case of an accident resulting in death. Though Neff was initially reluctant to go through with the scheme, his lust and desire for Phyllis Dietrichson, and his sympathy for her as a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, caused him to take leave of his senses. Phyllis, for her part, played hard to get. This scene’s magnificent dialogue, written by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, demonstrates perfectly the initial relationship between Neff and Phyllis.

As the story progressed, Neff’s lust for Phyllis increased as the consequences of their crime built. The sexual tension in the film is so thick it is almost palpable, and it is clear that the two are in love not only with each other, but with the thrill of their lawlessness. Though it seems at first that their plan is foolproof, the authorities catch on to them and knowing what will happen to Phyllis when they are caught, Neff kills Phyllis, in essence giving credence to the saying that man kills the thing he loves most. Neff then turns himself in, and the film ends.

Though film noir always skirted at the very edge of what was acceptable under the Code, it still had to abide by the rules set forth by the Hays Office. Owing to the section of the Code that stated that an audience member “must feel that evil is wrong and good is right,” those characters that committed evil crimes must be punished accordingly–and for all the wrong that Phyllis Dietrichson committed, there is no alternative ending for Phyllis in a film made under the Production Code.

This is the great dichotomy in the genre, and what separates the femme fatales of classic film noir from the women of pre-Code Hollywood. In Hollywood before the Code, women were celebrated for their power over men. They were the protagonists, and were praised for ridding themselves of the controlling men in their lives. They were liberated women, while for all their power over men, the women in film noir could never be seen as upstanding or correct in their actions. It is interesting to imagine Double Indemnity as a pre-Code, and to think how Phyllis would have been portrayed if the movie had been made ten years earlier.

Thank you to Shadows and Satin, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy for hosting this great blogathon!

Advertisements

CLFP: SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (1937)

carole lombard

 

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

A mix of light comedy and dark drama defines Swing High, Swing Low, the third movie to team Carole Lombard and frequent co-star Fred MacMurray and the only one that might be classified as a drama. At the beginning we see what looks to be a screwball comedy in the vein of the team’s earlier Hands Across the Table, until the story takes a complete turn in the second half during which it proceeds to deal with large themes such as divorce, fallen stardom, and alcoholism in an unusually frank manner.

Maggie (Lombard), young stowaway on a ship to California via Panama is courted by Skip (MacMurray), a young soldier on his final day of the army, and she reluctantly agrees to go on a date with him at a local Panamanian bar. After a brawl between the soldier and a local caballero, they land in court and while humorously trying to break the language barrier they keep getting fined more and more money for contempt. During their struggle they hear Maggie’s boat leaving, and she is stuck in Panama and forced to move in with Skip and his musician roommate until the next boat. She discovers Skip’s talent for the trumpet and encourages him to play professionally. The three of them form a small group with the roommate playing the piano, Skip playing trumpet, and Maggie singing at the bar, where there is also a sensual dancer by the name of Anita Rodriguez (Dorothy Lamour) who has her eye on Skip. By this time, Skip and Maggie have fallen in love and marry, Maggie leaving her desire to stow away on the next ship to California.

Skip receives an offer to go to New York to play at the El Greco, and leaves a forlorn Maggie behind in Panama. She writes him every day, but never receives a reply. Eventually she sails to New York to find him, and learns that Anita also appears in Skip’s show at the El Greco. Suspecting infidelity, she calls Anita’s room at the hotel and her worst fears are confirmed when Skip answers the phone. She writes him a letter informing him of her intention to get a divorce, and this sends Skip into a deep depression. He loses his job at the El Greco, and turns to alcohol to numb his pain. He tries to rejoin the army, but they won’t take him due to his alcoholism. His old roommate tries to get his career back on track with a radio spot for their old band, and the program director contacts Maggie who has just returned from getting the divorce in Paris to see if she would help. Hearing Skip’s plight, Maggie goes to find him and the band plays together again with Skip leaning on Maggie for support, ending the film on a hopeful note for Skip’s future.

The issue of divorce was a tricky one in the 1930’s, and most movies that deal with divorce during that period end with the decree not going through. Swing High, Swing Low is different. Not only does Maggie obtain the divorce that she sought, but she does not romantically involve herself with Skip again in the end. Instead, Maggie is shown as a sympathetic character who was correct in filing for divorce from the man who wronged her, but who has the dignity and confidence to care for him when he is in need. This greatly surprised me as not only does it validate divorce, a very risky move under the code, but it also validates a woman’s judgment regarding the infidelity of a man and paints her as the man’s saving grace at the end, instead of the reverse.

This is certainly not the best of Lombard and MacMurray’s four pairings, but to me it may be the most interesting due to the thematic switch halfway through and the gender role reversal that ends the film. The acting by MacMurray is marvelous, and Carole Lombard is given the ability to show her talent for both screwball comedy and for drama. Given the versatility she showed in her movies I often think that if Carole Lombard had lived longer, she may have proven to be one of the most versatile actresses of her day, equal to the likes of Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck. A poignant thought.

See you next time!

CLFP: “True Confession” (1937)

carole lombard

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

True Confession (1937) is one of the films marking the twilight of Carole Lombard’s short but illustrious career. By the time this film was made, Carole had shot 71 movies in a career spanning a total of 16 years, and after True Confession she would make 7 more before her sudden and untimely death. In this movie, Carole plays perhaps the strangest and screwiest heroine of her career, a pathological liar who runs the world amok with her fibs. A user review on iMDB rather aptly describes her antics as “right out of the Lucy Ricardo playbook.”

Helen Bartlett (Lombard) is a writer who has perpetual writer’s block and instead of writing, lives her life in a fantasy world of lies. Her husband Ken (Fred MacMurray) is an unfailingly honest lawyer who struggles with money because his principles do not allow him to take the case of any guilty party. After Ken refuses the case of a guilty ham thief, Helen takes a job as secretary to wealthy businessman Otto Krayler but on the first day of the job he seduces her. She flees and plans not to return, until she finds that she has left her hat and coat at his office. She goes back to get them and learns that Otto Krayler has been murdered during the time she was gone. She is arrested on suspicion of the murder and then Helen, the pathological liar, relays a vivid account of how she did indeed kill Otto Krayler. Then she gives conflicting testimony, saying that she did not. She is put on trial for his murder, wherein her husband defends her and she pleads self-defense, as they reason that no one will believe her innocence.

To complicate matters, a man named Charley Jasper (John Barrymore), a noted criminologist, is convinced that she is indeed innocent. Helen panics at this, as she believes a plea of “not guilty” will result in her conviction. Jasper keeps his thoughts to himself, and Helen is found innocent in the court.

After her acquittal, Helen writes a successful novel about her life story and she buys a house on Martha’s Lake with Ken. Charley comes over to visit and tries to blackmail them with Krayler’s wallet, saying that HE killed Krayler, therefore rendering Helen’s testimony perjury. He then reveals that his brother-in-law killed Krayler, and Ken leaves the house fuming over Helen’s lie to the court. She tries to get him to come back by saying that she is pregnant, which is another lie. He returns, but then finds out that she is not. The movie ends as Ken brings Helen into the house vowing to teach her not to lie.

The whole movie is completely backward and this not only makes it great fun to watch, but also almost a brain teaser, as nothing is as it should be. Much of the movie is spent trying to figure out how far Helen’s lies will take her before they backfire. She is an unlikely heroine, someone who deliberately fools the courts and her husband, but yet due to Carole’s portrayal of the character of Helen, we somehow find ourselves rooting for her. It is likely that if this movie were made today it would not be accepted as a comedy. Instead, I would venture to say that it would be presented as a courtroom drama, ending with Helen receiving the psychological help that she so clearly needs.

The cast of “True Confession” (missing: John Barrymore) eats lunch between scenes.

During the filming of “Twentieth Century” three years earlier, Carole and John Barrymore became good friends. By 1937, John Barrymore was in the ravages of severe alcoholism and an illness that could have been the then-unknown Alzheimer’s Disease. His career was in a steep decline, as he was often on a binge and when he was sober, he could barely remember his lines. Carole advocated passionately for him, using her significant power with Paramount to demand that her friend be given the role of Charley Jasper in True Confession. Though Barrymore was a very risky hire at that point, Carole did not back down and Paramount conceded to Barrymore as Charley. He gave a performance that demonstrated, as it did in Twentieth Century, that he had a great talent for comedy and had these films come earlier in his career, he may have developed this talent to his professional advantage. As it was, though, despite Carole’s efforts, this film could not turn Barrymore’s life around and he died of cirrhosis of the liver brought on by his lifetime of alcohol consumption.

Carole remained his friend to the end. She was extremely well liked in Hollywood, an easygoing and friendly personality who made friends with all her costars. She was a loyal friend, and often went to the bat for them, as she did with Barrymore on this film.

See you next time!