Category Archives: ★★★★

Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Double Indemnity is mostly a character study. There’s the noir framing device–wounded insurance salesman Fred MacMurray stumbling into his office and recording his confession on a dictaphone. Turns out he met a woman and things didn’t work out.

MacMurray narrates the entire film. Occasionally the action returns to him sitting in the office, bleeding out. He’s always present. And he’s the only one always present. His confession is for Edward G. Robinson, who plays the insurance company claims manager and the closest thing MacMurray has to a friend. Both Robinson and MacMurray stay with it for the puzzles. Robinson in catching fraudulent claims, MacMurray in idling his time. He’s a character in stasis. Until he meets Barbara Stanwyck.

The chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray has waves. Their demeanor develops in real time. With director Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler’s double entendre barbs tangoing and Doane Harrison getting just the right cut. And Miklós Rózsa’s ostentatious yet perfectly so score coming in. The scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray, especially the first couple, radiate.

But the film isn’t about Stanwyck’s fed-up wife and boyfriend MacMurray plotting to kill her husband (Tom Powers). For a while it seems like it might be–with MacMurray’s narration implying it too. But it’s not. Not the plotting, anyway. The plotting is all done offscreen while MacMurray’s dealing with work stuff. Powers is barely in the movie. Wilder’s ability to get good impressions from the supporting cast is outstanding; it’s also essential to Double Indemnity’s success. MacMurray’s narrating so he always gets the focus. Making sure the supporting cast is familiar when they have to return is big deal. Wilder (and Harrison) do some awesome character establishing in this film.

After the murder, there are complications. Sometimes there are resolutions, sometimes not. The connotations of each play out on MacMurray’s sometimes strained, sometimes ashen (presumably) face. Robinson and Stanwyck get the film’s flashier roles, but MacMurray’s the one who has to sell it. Not just in his performance but, for the film to work, in how his narration jibes with his own onscreen action.

And Double Indemnity does it. The filmmaking is impeccable.

The flashback takes place over a considerable amount of time–a few months–but the present action of the film is the hundred minutes of the runtime. MacMurray’s narration has an urgency to it. He skims the boring parts, or the parts it turns out he doesn’t want to examine, which is where the character study comes in. Both for Stanwyck, which is expected, and MacMurray, the film has some third act revelations. Double Indemnity being great, some of these revelations come out in scene so Stanwyck and MacMurray get to do their reactions. Others are in MacMurray’s narration. And those revelations are coming while the tension–both in the present and flashback–is getting more and more taut.

It’s awesome.

Double Indemnity is awesome.

Wilder has the three stars–MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson–and he’s always trying to figure out how to place them. The characters talk like they’re fencing–even when it’s pals MacMurray and Robinson. The physical movements are important. Especially when they’re moving during the talking heads. Robinson’s got this nervous energy as he works out schemes, making his behavior itself agitating to MacMurray.

Then there are are the silent facial expressions. They’re real important. Stanywck’s got one particularly great one. And Wilder makes them do some heavy character development lifting too. It’s great.

All three leads are great. Again, Stanwyck and–especially–Robinson get to be flashy. MacMurray has to keep it cool. Even so, Robinson’s probably the best. Then Stanwyck. The flashy is excellent flashy and the actors nail it.

Porter Hall’s got a fun scene, Richard Gaines has an awesome scene–most of the supporting cast just show up for a single scene. Established then out. Until they might need to come back, like Jean Heather as Stanwyck’s step-daughter. She shows up, implies one arc, comes back with something completely different. And far more important than originally implied.

Double Indemnity is a fast, busy film; Wilder and the crew–John F. Seitz’s photography, Harrison’s editing, the score, Edith Head’s costumes–make it graceful fast and busy. Like I said, it’s impeccable, masterful, awesome. Double Indemnity’s great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Miklós Rózsa; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), and Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton, Jr.).


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Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

There are no clocks in Do the Right Thing. The film takes place over a twenty-four hour period; all the action is on one block, most of the characters live on the block. It’s a Saturday. Some people are working, some people aren’t. It’s a very hot day. And for the first ninety minutes of the film’s two hour runtime, writer-director-producer-actor Lee takes a relaxed approach to the pacing.

Lee’s protagonist isn’t exactly the main character; Thing has maybe four main plots running throughout the day, casually intersecting until everything crashes together. Lee’s part of most of them, but so’s Ossie Davis, so’s Giancarlo Esposito, so’s Bill Nunn. It’s about a lot of different people’s day. And Lee goes so deep with the backgrounds–narratively and filmically–it’s not always the top-billed who get the best scenes. Sure, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and Ruby Dee all get excellent scenes and they’ve got bigger parts, but where Lee the filmmaker isn’t always in those scenes. Not for monologues for sure. Sam Jackson is the DJ and he gets some great scenes. Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown change energy and tone with one cut to the next; the film already opens with Lee and Brown affecting the energy and tone.

The opening titles are over Rosie Perez dancing. She plays Lee’s girlfriend. They’ve got a kid. He’s not a great dad and he’s not a great boyfriend. But he loves her. They don’t live together.

Back to the opening titles. They’re over this red-colored monochrome Brooklyn street, empty besides Perez. Brown perfectly cuts on every movement as the shots cycle. Perez in different outfits, on different locations, with Ernest R. Dickerson changing up the lighting for most. More than the editing–or even pace, because Thing is never as relaxed as when Perez is dancing, not even in the quieter moments–more than either of those technical elements, Dickerson’s photography defines a lot of Thing. Especially during the first act when everything is getting set up. There’s a sharpness to Dickerson’s colors, but also enough warmth nothing ever clashes. And Frankie Faison’s third of a sidewalk raconteur trio is loudly dressed enough he definitely ought to clash. He’s in pastels in front of a red wall.

But Dickerson keeps it just warm enough. All those times where a clash should cause some kind of verisimilitude fissure–not because of the cast, but because of how Lee’s directing it–Dickerson’s photography keeps everything even. Or more inviting, actually. Faison doesn’t say much but he’s definitely the most amiable of the trio.

Robin Harris and Paul Benjamin make up the rest of the trio. Harris’s the most lovable, Benjamin’s unexpectedly the most dangerous. They sit and narrate the day, providing background through exposition. Lee’s script has so much going on at once, laying groundwork. One plot will discard an element, only for another to pick it up. Esposito is the energized pinball dinging between them.

Lee’s long setup, even after the first act establishing is done, is determining what exactly Esposito is dinging against. What are the bumpers he’s hitting. Only Espositio isn’t the main character either. He’s barely a supporting character. He’s kind of background, only he’s not, because the point of Thing is there is no background. Foreground and background intersect over and over–sometimes in great sequences, like Aiello friendliness to Joie Lee (Lee’s sister as his sister, which is a pragmatic goldmine). Lee and Turturro (as Aiello’s openly racist son–Aiello owns a pizza shop in a predominately Black neighborhood) don’t like Aiello’s attention to Joie Lee; Lee gets a lot of mileage out of it, both visually and in terms of narrative import.

There are times when Lee just lets a tangent go. It’s too hot to let things get drawn out. The end is different.

When the sun sets, Lee starts slowing things down. The last twenty minutes, minus the last two scenes, are in real-time. And Lee goes from a narrative distance of intense close-up to crane shot before things are over. He yanks the focus around, with Dickerson and Brown (and composer Bill Lee, accompanied by Branford Marsalis) making it all pretty, to keep the energy up but always different. He’s creating an entirely new narrative perspective, using materials he’s prepared in the previous ninety minutes.

Do the Right Thing goes from being great to being great in a totally different way; that second way is this careful rejection of melodrama, done at high speed. It’s awesome.

Great acting. Ossie Davis is the best. He’s got one of the fuller characters. Aiello’s real good, not flashy but real good. Turturro’s flashy and real good. Lee’s a fine protagonist. He’s generally reserved, which ends up helping to quickly introduce characters. In his scenes with Joie Lee and then Perez, he jumpstarts his character development. He’s more reactionary in his scenes with Aiello, Turturro, and Richard Edson (as Aiello’s nice younger son). Again, protagonist but not really main character.

In smaller parts, some fantastic acting. Dee, who starts a bigger character than she finishes, Harris, and Jackson, in particular. Joie Lee’s pretty good but never as good as when she’s bickering with her brother. Lee directs her a little different than everything else, almost like she’s in a featured cameo. The same goes, in very different ways, for Rosie Perez. She’s good too; it’s a good thing Perez is so naturally memorable–it’s the writing too but no one curses like she does–because she’s so set completely aside from everything else.

And, of course, a special mention of Christa Rivers. She’s in the background, she’s got no other film credits, but she’s tasked with holding a bunch of the film together just through reaction shots. She’s great.

Do the Right Thing is technically magnificent and beautifully acted. It’s also a stunning success for Lee. He goes after a lot with the film, does a lot with the film in terms of style and tone (and rapidly changing them), and it all hits.

Even with that studio-mandated insert shot of Lee at the end.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Bill Lee; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), John Turturro (Pino), Joie Lee (Jade), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Rosie Perez (Tina), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin Out), Richard Edson (Vito), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Ponte), Rick Aiello (Officer Long), John Savage (Clifton), and Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy).


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The Beguiled (1971, Don Siegel)

While The Beguiled is a thriller, the film keeps the thrills exceptionally grounded. The film’s set during the Civil War, with wounded Yankee sniper Clint Eastwood taking refuge at a girls school in Confederate territory. The school is quite literally set aside from the war. The war is outside the gates and everyone wants to keep it that way. And they can’t. The Beguiled opens with a montage of Civil War photographs in an attempt to sear the images into the viewer’s mind and memory (at least for the film’s runtime).

Even if the characters can avoid thinking about the war, the viewer can’t.

Because there’s enough going on in The Beguiled it could be avoiding the war entirely. Especially once Geraldine Page’s character reveals as all done. Except director Siegel keeps all the reveals as grounded as the thrills. He never wants to break tone, which is one of the film’s bolder moves as Siegel takes almost the first hour to establish the limits of that tone. The Beguiled is excruciatingly deliberate; Bruce Surtees’s photography makes that deliberateness something exceptional. He and Siegel do these despondent low light shots of the cast. Never scary exactly, but always disturbing. There’s no exposition about the difference between night and day in The Beguiled, but it’s there.

The Beguiled’s “there” is quite a lot.

Eastwood’s sniper is a deceitful, manipulative creep. He isn’t, however, a Confederate. And The Beguiled doesn’t shy from looking at how its female characters benefit from the Confederacy. Or what ugly people it encourages them to become.

Page’s headmistress is responsible, not caring. She’s haunted, which makes her sympathetic, but there’s always the threat of cruelness, which makes her not. Teacher (and former student) Elizabeth Hartman should always be sympathetic, but she too has some cruelty. It comes out in jealousy–usually after catching Eastwood paying too much attention to seventeen year-old student Jo Ann Harris–which somehow makes Hartman less sympathetic.

Yet Hartman has this ethereal, naive sadness to her, which creates omnipresent sympathy. Like everything in The Beguiled, there’s a lot going on.

Besides romancing Hartman, Page, and Harris, Eastwood also charms twelve year-old Pamelyn Ferdin (who finds him wounded and brings him to the woods in the first place) through some subtle grooming; the nicest thing, overall, to say about Eastwood’s character is when he’s manipulating Ferdin, it always appears it’s pragmatic exploitation, not perversion.

Because Eastwood starts being a little creepy about two minutes into The Beguiled and he never stops. He gets more creepy, he gets less creepy. Sometimes he’s right about something in addition to being a creep, sometimes he’s wrong, but he’s always a creep. He’s always untrustworthy and manipulative, even if he’s often too injured to be a real danger.

And then there’s Mae Mercer. She’s the school’s slave. She and Eastwood have the film’s closest thing to an honest relationship. Or at least one where Mercer thinks it’s honest; she’s able to see through the rest of Eastwood’s guile. Again, there’s no exposition about this understanding, it’s just in how Mercer’s performance and the film works. Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp’s script is just as deliberate as everything else–Siegel’s composition, Surtees’s lighting, the fantastic Lalo Schifrin score, and Carl Pingitore’s breathtaking editing.

The direction, the script, the photography, they all have askew aspects. Pingitore’s editing, Schifrin’s score, Ted Haworth’s production design, they’re always flat. They’re expansive and luscious, but they’re providing the foundation to keep the rest stable. The Beguiled’s exceptionally well-made.

All of the acting is great. Page is probably most impressive; her character has the most going on. Again, Eastwood’s one heck of a creep–contrasting ways he’s fundamentally a “better” character–but still just a creep. Hartman’s good, though she’s the first act romantic diversion. Once Eastwood starts flirting with Harris and Page, Hartman gets less to do. Harris is effective. It’s impressive how subtly The Beguiled reveals her innocence. Ferdin’s great. Mercer’s great.

And the rest of the girls–older than Ferdin, younger than Harris–are all good. They aren’t Beguiled, so they’re mostly background.

The film’s got this jarring technique of having a female character’s internal monologue play as they regard Eastwood or one of his behaviors, first as an enemy, then as a man (which, really, is the same thing). Siegel and Pingitore do it matter of fact, the insight not a narrative necessity, but a tonal one. Another fantastic little piece of The Beguiled.

The film’s full of them.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Carl Pingitore; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Clint Eastwood (John McBurney), Geraldine Page (Martha Farnsworth), Elizabeth Hartman (Edwina Dabney), Pamelyn Ferdin (Amy), Mae Mercer (Hallie), Jo Ann Harris (Carol), Melody Thomas Scott (Abigail), Peggy Drier (Lizzie), Patricia Mattick (Janie), and Darleen Carr (Doris).


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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is either terrifying or horrifying. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Sometimes it’s visual terror or horror, sometimes it’s audial, sometimes it’s just implied. Director Hooper has three different styles–daytime, nighttime, indoor–and each goes from terror to horror multiple times. The film takes place over less than twenty-four hours, with Hooper and the film taking breaks–sometimes long–to move ahead in the present action. There’s an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break, an intense scene, a break.

The breaks are never scenes. There is no comic relief. Even when there’s a relative pause in the intensity, Hooper keeps it buzzing. There’s a constant reminder. It’s not about being concerned or cautious or scared. It’s about being terrified. Hooper, photography Daniel Pearl, co-composer Wayne Bell–in addition to directing, producing, and co-writing, Hooper also co-composes the score–they make the idyllic terrifying. In the opening crawl (narrated by John Larroquette), the film says it’s going to make idyllic terrifying. And it does.

The film, the opening crawl informs the viewer, is about five “youths,” specifically Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain (at least, according to the crawl). And Burns does have a central role in the film’s goings-on, whereas Partain just has a big part. He’s left out of the action; Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel bully Partain to a degree. He’s in a wheelchair–he’s traumatized in the first five or six minutes in an attack from a knife-wielding hitchhiker (Edwin Neal)–yet he’s still a complete jerk. Sure, Burns isn’t an awesome sister to him and her boyfriend, Allen Danziger, is a dick, but Partain’s a jerk.

It’s not about him whining or being unpleasant in general, it’s about how those traits affect his actions, which do not endear him to anyone. And most of Texas Chain Saw Massacre does not involve chainsaws or massacres. Most of it is, in terms of runtime, not intensity of moments–most of it is the five youths.

They’re apparently college students or at least around that age. William Vail and Teri McMinn, who are the nicest, complete the five. The girls are blonde and into astrology. The guys are sort of early seventies dimwit Texas hippie posers. Vail and McMinn are a couple, with Vail the traditional male lead type. He’s sweet, a little dumb, but sensitive.

And, for a while, Hooper and Henkel tease him having the bigger part. Then they give it to Partain; taking the film away from someone likable and sympathetic, putting it on someone unlikable and difficult to sympathize with, even though not sympathizing with him creates guilt. But no resentment. Because Texas Chain Saw isn’t about resentment or sympathy or likability.

It’s about horror and terror.

Hooper shoots the daytime scenes as tranquil, relatively rich in color (there’s this lovely sunflower patch some characters walk through). He does tracking long shots, often with a slight dolly in or out at the end. The narrative distance is the thing. The opening crawl told us to pay attention to the youths–who are in this part of rural Texas seeing if Burns and Partain’s grandfather’s grave has been robbed–and Hooper directs exactly how we can pay that attention. The sound editing is big in Texas Chain Saw, and not just when it becomes a combination of clanging music, screaming, and a chainsaw–which is when the film is being terrifying, while foreshadowing being horrifying. The sound editing is also how Hooper is able to keep the audience with the characters. We can always hear them, we just can’t really see them. Instead, we mostly get to see Partain. Whining. Being weird. Being unpleasant.

The nighttime shots are completely different. Cinematographer Pearl gives the film this rich blackness, which Hooper sporadically, unevenly fills. There’s a chase sequence through bramble; it creates a maze for the pursued, one the audience can’t see around either. And the pursuer–Gunnar Hansen in a mask of flesh and waving a chainsaw–is always just behind. The chainsaw, which Hooper refuses to fetishize, always seems just in range of its target. Later, during the morning sequence, Hooper shows he can do terrifying chase scenes in daytime too. He and Pearl’s subtle use of depth throughout the film is magnificent.

After the nighttime shot comes the interior scenes. Even though there have been some interior scenes on the same location, Hooper handles it differently. Tight shots. Fast cuts. From the victim’s perspective to outside the victim, toggling rapidly; sometimes the rapid cuts lead to the change in perspective. Editors Sallye Richardson and J. Larry Carroll do great work throughout, but the last thirty minutes are unbelievable. The film’s already shockingly intense, but then Hooper and his editors have to kick it up a notch. Turns out there are even more surprises in the story than expected. Though expectation is hard. Hooper keeps the viewer’s attention on each moment as it occurs. No distractions.

Except Partain. Isn’t he annoying? Don’t you hate him? Wow. You hate a kid in a wheelchair. You’re awful. Isn’t he annoying though?

The last third is terrifying and horrifying in a way the first two-thirds aren’t. Turns out there’s a comfort in the unknown, all Hooper and Henkel have for reveals are worst case scenarios. The last third explores that unknown. Intensity to the point of nausea. Then more. Then more. Then more. It never ends.

I suppose Partain’s great. His obnoxious is perfect. Burns’s good. Vail and McMinn are fine. Danziger’s an unlikable prick, which, again, seems to be the point. Hansen doesn’t get any lines, but the physical performance is outstanding. Especially since Hooper takes the time to show the inhuman villains emotional moments, but not their intended victims. Neal’s good. Jim Siedow is a gas station owner who the Mystery Machine–oh, yeah, the youths are in a van–comes across. He’s great.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre terrifies. It’s what Hooper’s going for–terrifying the viewer. The way he does it is to create this masterpiece of mood, timing, photography, performance, everything. Every shot appears precise (which is astounding given the film’s micro budget), every cut is right on; his control of the mood is absolute.

Maybe someday I’ll even be able to watch it in one sitting.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Kim Henkel and Hooper, based on a story by Henkel; director of photography, Daniel Pearl; edited by J. Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson; music by Wayne Bell and Hooper; released by Bryanston Distributing.

Starring Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul A. Partain (Franklin), Allen Danziger (Jerry), Teri McMinn (Pam), William Vail (Kirk), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (Old Man), John Dugan (Grandfather), and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface).


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