THE DVD SHELF: Exploring the Dark Side of Film Noir With "Double Indemnity" and More

News   THE DVD SHELF: Exploring the Dark Side of Film Noir With "Double Indemnity" and More
 
This month's column visits Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" and a 10-movie collection of film noir.

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The steady parade of DVD and Blu-Ray releases (and re-releases) gives us the frequent opportunity to watch old favorites with a fresh eye, often in cleaned-up and enhanced condition. Some of those old favorites turn out to seem more old than favorite, when viewed in this new century. This month, we start with two that remain as strong and vibrant as ever.

"It Happened One Night" [Criterion] is pure delight. Frank Capra's 1934 classic didn't invent the screwball comedy, precisely, but it was one of the earliest and most effective examples of the genre. By screwball we mean a comedic feast featuring fast-paced — and smart — dialogue built around a battle of the sexes; except here, the woman is as equally adept as the man, which was rather a departure at the time.

This was not the first such comedy, of course, but every element of Capra's was just about perfect. So much so, that for the first time in the history of the Academy Awards, one film won what could be called the pentagonal crown: Oscars for best picture, director, screenwriter, actor and actress. This would not happen again until 1976, and has only happened thrice in the Oscar's 86 years. (The other two winners of the "big five," lest you want to know, are "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Silence of the Lambs.")

Nothing in the preparation of "It Happened One Night" suggested a potential classic, or even success. It was a production of Columbia Pictures, one of several Hollywood studios at the time which turned out second-rate films. (The studios, clumped together, were known as Poverty Row.) Harry Cohn of Columbia looked to improve his lot by hiring one Frank Capra, an Italian immigrant who got his start writing comedy shorts for Hal Roach's "Our Gang" series and for Mack Sennett. Capra came to Columbia in 1928 and gradually improved the quality of the output, building to the studio's first Academy Award nomination for the 1933 "Lady for a Day" (based upon Damon Runyon's tale of "Apple Annie"). Still, nobody expected much from Capra's next film, based upon the story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams. They went through a series of prospective stars but were turned down at every step; they wound up with Claudette Colbert (with great misgivings and at an outlandish salary, as she had a bad experience on an earlier Capra film) and Clark Gable (loaned out — some say as punishment — by M-G-M). Capra was joined by screenwriter Robert Riskin, his collaborator on eight films in all (including "Lady for a Day" and the later "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "You Can't Take It With You").

The film — which is saddled with one of those weak titles — still works like a charm. The story tells of a brat-like heiress who escapes her millionaire father, who is trying to annul her ill-advised marriage to an aviator, travelling incognito without belongings or money on a night bus to New York. She is befriended by a just-fired newspaper reporter, who quickly catches on to the front page scoop he has been handed. After numerous adventures, and Herculean squabbles, they make it back to New York and I needn't tell you how things works out. (The final scene from "The Graduate" — and numerous other romantic comedies — is borrowed from Claudette fleeing from the altar.)

The movie is stocked with marvelous comic scenes: the classic hitchhiking sequence, which shows Colbert easily one-upping Gable; the trailer court, where the pair evade detectives by indulging in a hillbilly catfight; the sequence with fellow-passenger Oscar Shapeley (character-man Roscoe Kearns, in a supremely obnoxious performance); and Gable's dollars-and-cents exchange with the millionaire father, Walter Connolly. Best of all is the running joke about the walls of Jericho, which starts out funny; becomes progressively moreso, as the journey progresses; and provides one of the cinema's funniest fade outs as the unseen walls go tumbling down. "It Happened One Night" was one of the final films released before the Motion Picture Association of America began enforcing their Production Code, which brought censorship to the screen. Capra's "walls of Jericho," perhaps, is a perfect example of what the code found so unacceptable.

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Another altogether perfect movie is Billy Wilder's 1944 "Double Indemnity," which didn't invent film noir, precisely, but was one of the earliest and most effective examples of the genre. An unhappy (and as we discover, positively murderous) wife seduces a reasonably upright passerby into murdering her distasteful husband; this has always been something of a staple of tawdry fiction and cinema. Here, just about every line of dialogue and visual image veritably crackles. Not only is the film classic, the lines themselves are. Nobody answers a question; they top it with a rejoinder. The screenplay comes from Wilder — on a break from his long-term partnership with Charles Brackett — and mystery writer Raymond Chandler. The stylistically-mismatched pair did not get along, to say the least, but in "Double Indemnity" they jointly turned out a crackerjack screenplay. (Billy and Ray, a less-than-scintillating stage play about the writing of "Double Indemnity," opened in October at the Vineyard Theatre.)

Here, the murder scheme is built around a scam; Fred MacMurray, being an insurance salesman, figures out what should be an undetectable plot which — due to an unlikely penalty clause in the policy — pays off double. But crime doesn't pay, especially when you've got Barbara Stanwyck pulling the strings.

This was another film that didn't appear destined for greatness. Wilder had achieved success as a screenwriter (with credits including Ernst Lubitsch's golden Ninotchka) and had already directed two films, the amusing "The Major and the Minor" and the rather nifty if little known war thriller, "Five Keys to Cairo." It was the immense success of "Double Indemnity" — followed directly, the following year, by the Oscar-winning "The Lost Weekend" — that established him among Hollywood's top director/writers. The cast, again, was difficult to assemble. Stanwyck, already a major leading lady, was concerned that her career would suffer if she played a killer. MacMurray, a saxophone player who had built a successful career in comedies and musicals, didn't think he could pull off the acting role. (One of the things that makes "Double Indemnity" so powerful is the likability of MacMurray's character, despite the fact that he is drawn into a brutal murder.) The third lead was not the husband — the other point of the romantic triangle — but Edward G. Robinson as the claims adjustor with a "little man" in his gut that tells him something is wrong. Robinson was hesitant at taking the role, having been a top-billed star of gangster films since "Little Caesar" in 1931. As it turned out, the three of them gave what might be their finest performances in "Double Indemnity." (MacMurray later played against type again for Wilder, as Jeff Sheldrake — the slimy executive who has an affair with Shirley MacLaine — in "The Apartment.")

"Double Indemnity" comes to us, in this release, as part of a grand set, "Film Noir: 10-Movie Spotlight Collection" [Universal]. This does not include all of the great films noir, of course; just titles from Paramount and Universal. We've seen most of these films over the years, but it is a treat to sit and watch them one after the other. Movies like "This Gun for Hire," with good-guy cop Bob Preston overpowered by leading lady Veronica Lake (singing Frank Loesser songs) and breakthrough star Alan Ladd as a psychotic murderer. Or "The Big Clock," with good-guy magazine editor Ray Milland holding his own against psychotic publisher Charles Laughton, with Maureen O'Sullivan — wife of director John Farrow — as the girl. (Keeping it a family affair, Mrs. Laughton, AKA Elsa Lanchester, is refreshingly delightful as a Dali-esque Greenwich Village painter.)

Also on hand are Ladd and Lake in both Dashiell Hammett's "The Glass Key" and Chandler's "The Blue Dahlia"; Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers"; and more. The ten films, on six DVDs in no-frills packaging, are capped by Orson Welles' fascinating and strange "Touch of Evil." Charlton Heston as a good-guy Mexican drug agent, Janet Leigh as his American wife, and Welles in a fat suit as the most evil and corrupt small town policeman you're ever likely to find. Searing performances from Akim Tamiroff (as a drug lord) and Joseph Calleia (as Welles's lieutenant), too, along with an impressive jazz score by Henry Mancini. This is the 1998 reconstruction, which attempts to restore the film to what director Welles intended before Universal studio heads seized the film during post-production; cut it down, reshooting scenes with a different director; and released the somewhat incoherent film to a baffled reception in 1958.

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Speaking of Welles, Criterion has now brought us a Blu-Ray edition of the master's final theatrical film, "F for Fake." Or perhaps we should say, film of sorts? This one is enigmatic, about art forgers; Clifford Irving, who during his participation in the film — as biographer of the main subject, Hungarian forger Elmyr de Hory — created a media firestorm with his bogus "authorized biography" of Howard Hughes; Welles' then-girlfriend Oja Kodar; Picasso; magic; and Welles himself. It might indeed be "an inspired prank," as it says on the cover blurb. Or else, it might just be the underbaked, undercooked output of a great filmmaker at the tail end of his rope. Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70. "Citizen Kane" was made in 1941, "Touch of Evil" in 1958; and "F for Fake" in 1974. F for fascinating, yes, but exceedingly strange.

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Finally, we have "Psych," the offbeat detective series with attitude which just wound up its eight-season run. "Psych: The Complete Series" [USA/Universal] stars James Roday as Shawn Spencer, a crime consultant — with presumed psychic abilities — to the Santa Barbara Police Department; and Dulé Hill as Gus Guster, his reluctant sidekick. (This is the same Dulé Hill who starred in last season's Broadway revue After Midnight, and did an admirable job singing, dancing and charming the audience.) "Psych" was so endearingly quirky that after the seventh season, they offered a special two-hour episode, "Psych: The Musical." This included 14 original songs (by series creator Steve Franks and composer Adam Cohen) and a guest cast including Anthony Rapp, Barry Bostwick and Ally Sheedy. All in all, this "Psych" box — 119 episodes plus the "Psych After Pshow," on 30 discs, in a florescent green plexiglas cube featuring a pineapple (an in-joke from the show) — will make a perfect holiday gift for fans of the series. Or Psych-os, if you will.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the “Opening Night on Broadway” books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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