It sometimes seems that when it comes to “classic” films, there are real classics and there are fake classics. Or at least, there are films which, when you come to them many decades removed, with all the accumulation of praise and reputation, remain genuinely surprising — while others seem to have had all the life sucked out of them, to have been used up, with nothing left to offer.
The films that are surprising may not always yield a pleasant surprise — I remember gritting my teeth through an episode of Filmspotting in which the critics tore Bringing Up Baby to shreds — it was actually repugnant to them. I couldn’t disagree more, but I will note that at least Baby had the teeth to irritate them. It has a shrill, frenzied style all its own, and maybe you love it and maybe it drives you up a wall, but there’s no denying that it’s an original.
But if you take another picture from the same era, with the same actors, which also frequently makes top 100 lists and gets 5 stars from critics, The Philadelphia Story, and watch it today, it’s rather ho-hum. Oh, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it — I like it fine. The little girl and the mother are particularly funny. Heck, I even like the musical remake with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. But I don’t love Philadelphia, and I can’t imagine it irritating someone the way Baby clearly can.
To take a single example, throughout The Philadelphia Story people, especially the Katherine Hepburn character, constantly refer to the Cary Grant character by his full name, “C.K. Dexter-Haven.” Hepburn rolls the name around in her mouth, “C.K. Dexter-Haven… C.K. Dexter-Haven…” for full comic effect — and it is a funny name, but every time she says it, of course, it becomes a little less funny. The joke is reduced with repetition; it hasn’t got the mass to carry it through a whole film.
In Bringing Up Baby, on the other hand, the two main characters are forever barking each other’s perfectly ordinary first names — “David!” “Susan!” Again, it can be argued that this is a maddening, irritating to the very hilt — in that same Filmspotting episode, Sam van Hallgren did a very funny off-the-cuff parody of this seeming stylistic crutch. But, on the other hand, the very plainness of it, the simplicity of the repetition, the everydayness, makes me think that the irritation is perhaps a little intentional. David and Susan, though the time-frame of their relationship is compressed, come to frustrate and annoy one another just as much as if they had been married for 20 years already. Who hasn’t experienced the annoyance of hearing his own name again from the mouth of someone he loves? Bringing Up Baby is a carnival stuffed inside a clashing mechanical monkey, and it’s not for everyone. But by many small details, director Howard Hawks and his writers anchor all the madness in a real piece of emotional earth.
I am reminded of these differences between classics that still have teeth and those that seem to be surviving on reputation every time I put a well-known film in the DVD. This week — perhaps it will be every week — the PX in Camp Taji has few films of interest. But like PXs everywhere it always carries an oddball assortment of older, sometimes rather obscure, films alongside The Dukes of Hazzard and Borat. I almost want to sit in the aisle all day just to see who picks up Targets or Day of the Locust. I myself went with the boring, bourgeois choice — Double Indemnity.
Richard Schickel, in his audio commentary for the “Universal Legacy Series” DVD of the film, claims that Indemnity is the first true film noir. I found this claim peculiar until I heard Schickel’s rather narrow definition of the genre as one in which a weak or ambivalent man is led into the path of evil and, ultimately, destruction by a strong, shrewd woman. And I suppose by that definition, perhaps it is the first, although in the general sense of films with a strongly pessimistic flavor, elements of a crime story, and low-key lighting, it’s surely foreshadowed by The Maltese Falcon, and the Hawks masterpiece The Big Sleep was made the same year and was easily as influential. Schickel mentions Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the authors of the novels from which those films were made, as the other two legs, with James M. Cain, of a trio who essentially created the noir atmosphere in literature a decade before it found its way into postwar filmmaking. So it’s a little odd to hear him calling Double Indemnity the “first” noir.
Priority shouldn’t be the important thing here. But when someone claims that a film is the “first” of a genre, he’s setting the film up for a special status, which is also exactly what we do with that heavy “classic” label. Double Indemnity gets stuck with both, and that’s a lot to live up to.
Taken on its own, the film is perfectly enjoyable. It’s the story of a clever and mildly cynical insurance agent, Walter Neff, who hooks up with Phyllis, the seductive younger wife of a man thoroughly unpleasant, if not evil. The lovers, of course, decide to knock off the husband for the insurance money, making it look like a train accident. (Deaths on trains are so rare insurance companies offer the double payment of the title for them.) Of course, it all starts to fall apart immediately after they commit the crime, and most of the rest of the film is devoted to chronicling this unraveling.
Fred MacMurray, the benign dad of My Three Sons, is terrific as Neff: tough and seasoned, but too square to really get away with murder. And there’s no denying that Barbara Stanwyck is awesomely sexy, with a core of self-serving calculation that somehow makes her even more alluring to a guy like Neff who, we may suspect, lives alone in a crummy apartment because he hasn’t met very many women who can hold his interest.
And Wilder’s script, co-written by Raymond Chandler, is crisp and fun:
KEYES: Have you made up your mind?
JACKSON: Mr. Keyes, I’m a Medford man, Medford, Oregon. Up in Medford we take our time making up our minds.
KEYES: Well, we’re not in Medford now, we’re in a hurry.
How often, in contemporary films, do you get long straight lines followed by throwaway jokes like that? For that matter, what contemporary actor could deliver it without overselling it?
This is not to say the script is jokey; Double Indemnity most significant achievement is that it absolutely takes the right tone of rigorous worldliness, allowing us to dislike its characters without losing interest in them. The Keyes character, a thoughtful insurance investigator who works with Neff and patiently unweaves the whole crime, is a sort of model for the filmmakers. He understands the motivations as well as the mechanics of crime, but he doesn’t particularly hate criminals; it’s perfectly easy to argue that the real love story in the film doesn’t involve Phyllis at all, but lies in the non-sexual bond between Walter and Keyes.
But criminal investigation is not necessarily the best template for filmmaking, and there’s something a little mechanical about Wilder’s approach to this material. I often have trouble with Wilder in this regard. With the exception of the painful Seven Year Itch, I’ve never failed to enjoy one of his films, and yet they are peculiarly without effect on me. It almost seems that Wilder approached each genre as a task to be performed as cleanly and efficiently as possible. War film? Done. Screwball comedy? Done. Crime film? Done. He glides through each of these genres, contributing some respectable film, engineered like a Swiss watch and destined for some AFI list of the “100 best” whatevers, yet none of these films is particularly satisfying. Stalag 17 never makes us feel the hardship of POW camps, or the overpowering desire to escape, the way that even a mediocre film like Victory does — let alone masterpieces like The Bridge on the River Kwai or Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Some Like It Hot is effectively funny and madcap, but it never takes us to the point of discomfort in either its gender play, as a Hawks comedy might, or its comic energy, as the Marx Brothers did.
And similarly, Indemnity, apart from the interesting depiction of male friendship, never offers serious stakes; it certainly never makes us feel the agony of the descent into depravity. It fares poorly when compared to a disastrous wreck of a melodrama like Edger G. Ulmer’s Detour, which hurls its character down an absolute abyss of terror and moral distress, or the apocalyptic chaos of Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. And it pales equally in the stern light of cool, cerebral noirs like Kubrick’s The Killing and the French New Wave experiments with the form.
And then there’s Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard. Of all his films, it’s probably the oddest, the most hysterical, the most cruel. It also feels the most personal. Perhaps the story of a failed writer had a little more gut-punch for Wilder, or perhaps it was just one of those happy moments where, on a clear, warm spring day, an artist just lets go and swings for the fences. Either way, from its chilling opening shot to its bizarre, hilarious ultimate line, Boulevard reaches in and grabs, giving us the goods, combining the flat, weary delivery of noir with the emotional grue and splatter of a Southern gothic.
Idemnity never reaches those heights. But perhaps it’s unfair to expect it to, just because it’s the “first” noir.
The second disc of the “2-disc Special Edition” of Double Indemnity turns out to be the 1974 television remake of the film. I admit I was secretly hoping, when I started watching it for this essay, that it would somehow prove my point, by being more interesting, weirder and more personal than the original. Sadly, it turns out to be a lot like a community theatre troupe staging a well-known play: it’s kind of cute to watch people saying famous lines badly, but you tire of that kind of entertainment quickly, unless you’re cruel. (Lee J. Cobb’s expressionistic growling makes you long for Robinson’s easy confidence.) And the sax music behind Walter’s initial seduction is more of the same.
Stephen Bochco, the screenwriter, can’t resist tinkering with Wilder’s lines, and he fattens up simple scenes unnecessarily. This makes him snip and transplant other scenes, seemingly without understanding how they work. To take a tiny example, in the original Wilder film, the first time Walter goes to the house, intending to renew the husband’s car insurance, the maid answers the door. Phyllis comes out of an upstairs room in a towel, and this sexy glimpse is the first we see of her. Great stuff. But in Bochco’s version, there is no maid — Phyllis simply answers the door in a towel, claiming she’d been catching some sun. The idea of Stephanie Eggars sunbathing in the nude certainly hits the mark in terms of sex appeal, but by having her present her body so starkly, purposefully, and without embarrassment, undermines the unintended intimacy of the original scene. The original Walter is attracted to Phyllis precisely because of the tension between her seeming vulnerability when he first meets her and the cleverness and strength he senses a few minutes later when she’s fully dressed. But Richard Crenna’s Walter is attracted to this other Phyllis just because she’s hot. Still a compelling reason, but without many places to go, psychologically.