Tag Archives: Miklos Rozsa

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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Valley of the Kings (1954, Robert Pirosh)

Eighty-six minute movies are not supposed to be boring. Eighty-six minute sound films anyway. Valley of the Kings manages to be boring in the first twelve minutes. Even those twelve minutes are boring. It takes the film until just over the halfway point to actually get moving. Not interesting, not good, but moving. There are three action scenes back-to-back–a sandstorm, a Bedouin duel, and a fist-fight atop a giant Egyptian statue. The film tries to start with action too–a buggy chase within the first six minutes, but chases are hard enough to do in cars, much less buggies.

Valley of the Kings was filmed on location in Egypt, so I imagine those visuals were much of the prospective appeal, but the writing’s bad–in multiple ways–and the director doesn’t know how to make the visuals work for the film. They’re background instead of attraction and the film still tries to replace content with them. At eighty-six minutes, it’s hard for a film to take much responsibility–and Valley of the Kings tells the story of the archeological proof of Joseph in Egypt (something archeology has yet to prove), and it’s a deep subject. A lot has to go on… and nothing goes on in Valley of the Kings. It tries to be a few films–one about this search for evidence, another about adulterous relationship, and yet another (action-filled one) of grave-robbing intrigue. In the end, it doesn’t any of these subjects seriously and there’s little to hold together….

…except, of course, the locations–which are excellent in the second half–and Robert Taylor. Valley of the Kings is Taylor and Eleanor Parker’s second of three films together (for MGM). Their first, Above and Beyond, was great. This one manages to waste Parker by changing her character in the third act (she becomes positively unlovable in the last three scenes, then the film expects the audience to embrace her). She has a cuckold, played by Carlos Thompson (who I’ve never seen in anything else, much to my glee)… but the opening credits tell us the film stars Taylor and Parker. Taylor is getting the girl, so there aren’t many surprises once it gets going. Taylor is great in the film and would have been even better had to been serious film about archeology or adulterous affairs.

The film has a lot respect for the Muslim characters it portrays, much more respect then they get today in films–even in culturally sensitive films. It’s a reasonably important footnote in the history of American perspective of Muslims (Islamic fundamentalism hadn’t come around yet) and they’re treated with more respect then the European character, who’s a big shithead.

Valley of the Kings isn’t terrible thanks to the second half, but Robert Pirosh is a bad writer and a bad director. Of the two problems, the writing hurts the film most. With a good script and another twenty minutes, Valley of the Kings would… still not be as good as Above and Beyond, but it wouldn’t be so middling.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Pirosh; screenplay by Pirosh and Karl Tunberg, from a book by C.W. Ceram; director of photography, Robert Surtees; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Miklos Rozsa; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Mark Brandon), Eleanor Parker (Ann Barclay Mercedes), Carlos Thompson (Philip Mercedes), Kurt Kasznar (Hamed Backhour), Victor Jory (Taureg Chief), Leon Askin (Valentine Arko, Antique Dealer) and Aldo Silvani (Father Anthimos).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.