Showing posts with label Miklós Rózsa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Miklós Rózsa. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Double Indemnity (1944)

Posted by Steve-O

Double Indemnity is the perfect mix of talents that combined to create one of the best films of all time. The movie is based on a brilliant novella by James M. Cain, written for the screen by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, an enterprising film score by Miklós Rózsa and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. Double Indemnity was directed by Billy Wilder who used his movie making instincts to create a classic film noir all others would be measured by.

Wilder's first few films as a director in Hollywood showed no signs of the shadowy world of film noir he would help create. He was known as a comedic writer but he wanted to do more. He wanted to do a thriller. Wilder, working for Paramount Pictures, had the rights to Cain's novella and Barbara Stanwyck was to be the main attraction.

The plot is simple: A housewife plots to rub out hubby with the help of a nasty insurance agent.

Creating a screenplay from the popular novella was a challenge. Austrian-born Wilder wrote for many German films but his had yet to get total command of English. His American writing partner Charles Brackett refused to work on the film due to the racy content - Double Indemnity was a tale of adultery and premeditated murder for hire. Wilder and Brackett knew that a film like this would be nearly impossible to get past censors and a powerful film studio. Wilder, who previously directed two Hollywood films, felt he was up for the challenge but he needed a writing partner. Paramount and Wilder tried to get James M. Cain to co-write the screenplay but he was under contract for another studio. During the exhaustive search Wilder read The Big Sleep and decided that Raymond Chandler would be a good choice since his writing style was similar to Cain's. (interestingly Chandler detested Cain's writing one time writing “Do I, for God's sake, sound like that?)

Most importantly, Chandler could write amazing dialog. Wilder found out early on when reading Cain's characters words aloud - although effective on the page - sounded wrong when read aloud. Chandler and Wilder had their work cut out for them. To make the task of writing the script even harder was the fact that the pair hated each other from day one. Wilder and Cain locked themselves in a room together for weeks and what came out of Billy Wilder's office was pure genius. Cain's crime story was intact but now it featured witty dialog that was a combination of 1930's machine-gun chatter (especially Robinson's speeches) and the laid-back hip dialog that would be Chandler's trademark. The result is a screenplay that actually ends up being more sexual than the novella thanks to an almost non-stop delivery of slick double entendre-laced lines uttered by Phyllis and Neff:


When I was getting ready for this Noir of the Week, I tracked down and read Cain's novella. I poured myself a drink and ending up memorized - reading the story in one long sitting. Cain's story puts you inside the skin of two egotistical killers who will stop at nothing- and makes you care about them. Wilder keeps the spirit of the quick-paced novella as well as Cain's first-person perspective but strips the dialog almost completely. Wilder also no doubt contributed most of the humor to the script that was lacking in the book.

The ending is also very different. In Cain's story Neff and Phyllis Ditrichson (actually called the almost comic Huff and Nirdlinger in the book) end up on the lam on a cruise ship where they plan suicide by jumping ship and get eaten by sharks. Before that there are a few extra twists and turns similar to end of Cain's biggest novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Luckly, Wilder trims most of the fat and wisely ends the film with Neff's confession to Keyes (played by Robinson). Wilder actually shot another ending featuring Neff going to the gas chamber (you can see a still of the scene to the right) but Wilder - like his decision to cut part of Cain's ending - smartly edited himself and ended the tale when Keyes receives his friend Neff's confession late one night in the Bradbury building.

In the novella Keyes is not even liked by Neff. Wilder wisely has the two men admire each other- often telling each other “I love you.” Keyes is a fat obnoxious guy in the book. He's made more lovable just by hiring Robinson in the part - no small casting feat considering Robinson, past his prime, was used to being the lead actor.

The casting of MacMurray is one of the most interesting tales. According to legend the role of Huff was offered to every leading man in Hollywood they could find including George Raft. Wilder was reportedly very relieved that “wooden” Raft turned down the role because he didn't want to be killed in the end. The same reason he turned down another classic High Sierra. MacMurray, a saxophonist turned light comic actor, was eventually hired but never felt comfortable in the role. Most of his scenes with Stanwyck and Robinson made him feel like his was in over his head. Despite his self-doubt MacMurray is perfect. He not only nails the character but he adds something to Huff that wasn't in the novella. When he first meets the sunbathing Phyllis - wearing only a towel and anklet - he has a look of a man who's meet his share of lonely housewives before. He knows what Phyllis is all about and you can see in his face that he's quickly coming up with a plan to bed her before she even speaks. His flirting and laid-back line delivery would later be aped by every film noir to follow.

The casting of Stanwyck was a no brainer. The book called for a blonde with slightly buck teeth. Babs was also the biggest actress in the world. Having her in the lead no doubt made it easier for Wilder to get the film made.

Stanwyck and her director adds a lot to her role as Phyllis. Cain was known for his Hemingway-esque writing which didn't include a lot of details. Working with a mostly clean slate Wilder created Stanwyck's cheap but brassy look including a blonde wig and the worlds most memorable ankle bracelet. She plays the part of a cheap but sexy femme fatale with gusto but at the same time tones down her beauty by wearing that ugly wig and over lipsticked mouth - which ended up looking wonderfully black on screen. You can see why men would do anything for her. Her looks and body language made her a man trap that none could escape.

Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun writes: “Already proving her mettle in screwball comedy, Stanwyck took on the dark art of film noir with nasty brilliance. Creating one of noir's most inspired, iconic femmes fatales, Stanwyck's double-crossing, bitch-seductress Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder's seminal Double Indemnity remains unparalleled. Donning the now famous blond wig, a sexy, cynical smirk and (dear God!) that anklet, she oozes a snaky sex appeal that manages to be evil and, in flashes, vulnerable. After eyeing her mark in Fred MacMurray's insurance salesman, Stanwyck convinces the lovesick lug to help plot and execute the murder of her husband in the hopes of cashing in on the dead man's insurance policy and supposedly living happily ever after. But, as usual in these situations, nothing ever comes off without a hitch -- numerous hitches, in this case. All dolled up in pom-pom heels, creamy sweaters and dramatically lined lips, Stanwyck's Phyllis, who's not as young as she used to be and not quite as lush, can't hide the poison within her. And her chemistry with MacMurray sizzles as they swap barbs and coos with sleazy ease. They yearn for more, but Stanwyck, the prototypical noir siren, seems perfectly aware of how fatalistic this kind of dream really is. Sometimes murder really does smell like honeysuckle.”

Restrictions due to the Hayes code actually made Double Indemnity a better film. Not being allowed to show sex instead it was implied with clever editing- and I bet it was fantastic. Instead of showing the murder the camera pans to a smug Babara Stanwyck while the killing takes place off camera - for the first time in the film revealing that maybe Neff isn't as smart as he thinks he is.

Double Indemnity was released September 1944 and it rocked the film world. The a dark back-and-white tale of lust, greed and murder told from the killers point of view - distinctly different when compared other noir born around the same time including The Maltese Falcon - was a box office hit. Double Indemnity competed against romantic thrillers and Hollywood melodramas at the 1944 Oscars - the film lost the Best Picture award to the Bing Crosby-starrer Going My Way. In fact was shutout in all Oscar categories. No one knew how influential this film would eventually become.

There's so much you can say about a film like this. From it's opening shot of a car speeding through a stop light foreshadowing things to come to Wilder's brilliant use of flashbacks (also used to great effect in Sunset Blvd.) the film is a piece of art that you can watch over and over again.

Wilder was inspired by Hitchock films when he made Double Indemnity. But he ended up doing something much more than a Hitchcockian thriller. Thanks to the film's success Wilder became a movie maker that could take nearly any controversial subject and not only film it but earn big money at the box office at the same time. More importantly helped define an American style of film making that survives and inspires today.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Posted by Jay M

The Asphalt Jungle (MGM, 1950) directed by John Huston, based on the novel by W.R. Burnett.
Main cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Marc Lawrence, Marilyn Monroe, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso, Dorothy Tree, Brad Dexter. Noteworthy bits by Strother Martin, Frank Cady, Ray Teal, Gene Evans, Don Haggerty.

"If you want fresh air, don't look for it in this town."

The Asphalt Jungle epitomizes not only film noir, in a number of ways, but also the sub-genre of the caper film. This is not to say that there were not precedents in terms of Caper Film. Only one year earlier, Universal released a great example with Criss Cross, directed by Robert Siodmak. It's a matter of opinion whether Criss Cross is superior to Jungle. I say the Huston film is greater because of the range and depths of its characters (discussed below). And before the Siodmak example, there were many number of other movies centered around plots to pull off a robbery or a heist: Larceny, Inc. (1942, Lloyd Bacon) comes immediately to mind. But that film, enjoyable as it is, has a light touch and an optimistic outlook. The Asphalt Jungle is not afraid to show us seedy, down-and-out characters who are nevertheless complex and deeply human. In contrast to Larceny, Inc, these are not charming criminals.
To place The Asphalt Jungle more solidly into context, let's consider that Huston had directed two other famous films that form a kind of trilogy with it: The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). Surely no other director can claim three disparate, yet similarly-themed films, all of which have been considered "great" by critics and audiences over the decades since they have appeared.

The "trilogy", as I term it, is made up of films concerned with groups of desperate people attempting to gain access to, and possess, something that will lead to their ultimate redemption. "Redemption" here should be taken in its most generalized sense, and perhaps least of all in a spiritual sense. In The Maltese Falcon (of the three, perhaps the one with the darkest and most ambiguous view of humanity) redemption (financial or otherwise) seems so far from any one's mind that it may not seem worth mentioning. Yet the trio of Greenstreet, Lorre and Astor does have a desperation about it that seems less concerned with some strange, elusive reward that the "black bird" appears to promise and more consumed by the pursuit itself. One reason Falcon is so re-watchable is that the characters' true motivations are cloudy at best. We can place any number of interpretations onto the desperation we see in these people. All three of them seem strung-out, weary from a years-long search for this apparently unattainable goal. Maybe the film is a metaphor for the "quiet desperation" we are told every human life has at its center. Or maybe the falcon is a kind of inverse Holy Grail, a dark unattainable god, eternally shrouded in mystery.

With The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Huston takes the desperate search theme out of doors and into the wild. Some have termed Treasure a film noir, and a case can be made for this, but the film plays out more as a fatalistic adventure yarn. Where Falcon was dark and claustrophobic in its look and feel, Treasure is set largely in sun-drenched deserts and craggy mountainous terrain. The harsh natural conditions and hostile roaming bandits symbolize the relentless struggle merely to exist: nothing new to these hard-luck men. This quest for gold dust is only the latest--and maybe also the most vehemently pursued--of their attempts to escape the lousy hand life has dealt them. Their motivations are unambiguous: money from the gold will make them rich. As in Falcon, the desperate, plotted- quest--troubled by double-crosses and plenty of bad luck--comes to naught. We are left with the near-maniacal laugh of Walter Huston at the end: most human endeavor ends in a pile of dust carried away on a gust of wind.

Two years later, The Asphalt Jungle presents us with a larger set of characters, all of them as desperate as the trios in Falcon or Treasure. But where the two earlier films had people who were mostly on the same page in general terms of their back stories and motivations, JUNGLE has men and women who inhabit the underworld, that 'city under the city', however peripherally. Most of their needs are spelled out, and the backgrounds are painted in memorable detail. We see little men like Cobby (the late Marc Lawrence in an extremely realistic performance) and Gus (James Whitmore, who may be the only surviving prominent cast member); a woman with nothing but a romantic illusion to cling to (the great Jean Hagen as Doll); men whose lives have been crippled by crime and who persevere only through their own folly-laden dreams: Doc (who sets it all in motion, expertly played by Sam Jaffe) and Dix (Sterling Hayden). There is also family-man safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), whose motivations are understandable to us all and whose desperation is painful to watch at times. While Dix is often seen as the central protagonist in Jungle, he really shares that position with Alonzo Emmerich. Emmerich is a corrupt lawyer: a formerly wealthy, urbane man reduced to the same doomed schemes as his cohorts, men to whom he feels superior and whom he ultimately intends to double-cross. Emmerich is almost tragic in the Greek tradition: he has farther to fall than Dix and the rest, but he has already met the ground halfway as the film begins. He's broke, and more debts can be called in to support the new scheme. Unlike the younger men, who could possibly take other paths, there is really nowhere for him to go but down. Emmerich's scenes--rendered immortal by Louis Calhern's performance, the greatest in the film--are the most interestingly complex. He pretends he is smarter than everyone else, but he knows that hubris has brought his life past the crisis point. He is painfully aware that neither the money from the stolen jewels, nor the foolish romantic escape with his mistress (Marilyn Monroe) will ever redeem him.

When it arrives, the caper sequence, around which the film ostensibly revolves, is very brief and anti-climactic. This is surely Huston's intention: it's all over in a few minutes and nobody actually gets what they want. The stolen jewels are brought to Emmerich and a violent scene leads to a foil of the rich man's double-crossing scheme. In the end, everyone can see that this particular gleaming treasure--like the dust in Treasure or the 'black bird'--is ultimately worthless: the jewels are too hot and no one dares fence them. So Doc ends up with most of them in his black bag. He begins pursuit of his dream of a tropical isle, surrounded with dancing girls and ends up in a roadside bar where he feeds nickels into a jukebox as a pretty teenager bops around for him. The waiting cops close in quickly, and all is over for Doc.

Emmerich, too, is soon caught. The alibi plan with the mistress doesn't hold water. And the police make a direct connection to him and his dead henchman Brannom (Brad Dexter). Making short work of it, he goes into his private office and shoots himself in the head.

Other characters meet their ends behind bars (Cobby and Gus) or with ironic justice (corrupt detective Barry Kelley, who tries to play both sides), or in death (Ciavelli). At the close of the film, we are left with a mortally wounded Dix, driving toward his dreamed-of horse farm. At his side is the faithful Doll, who knows the jig is up. Dix has never given up his illusions, where the other characters probably never believed their own. He dies, with poetic rightness, in a field surrounded by curious horses, as poor Doll is left to her own devices. The film, which opened on a dim stretch of urban asphalt, closes on a sunny rural vision.

What makes The Asphalt Jungle a great film noir? The wide array of doomed characters--all put into dramatic perspective by Emmerich's tragic fall-- and a persistent feeling of encroaching doom go a long way to give this film its stature. In this way, the film exemplifies the strong fatalism that is essential to Noir.

Besides the great screenplay, major contributing factors to the the film's success are:
--Dialog: some of the most intelligent, yet convincing dialog in all of Noir (by Huston and Ben Maddow) characters who sound real, who say what someone might actually say or be thinking.

Some examples--
Dix: "I was up on that colt's back. My father and grandfather were there, watching the fun. That colt was buck-jumpin' and pitchin' and once he tried to scrape me off against the fence, but I stayed with him, you bet. And then I heard my granddaddy say, 'He's a real Handley, that boy, a real Handley.' And I felt proud as you please.

Doll: Did that really happen, Dix, well, when you were a kid?

Dix: Not exactly. The black colt pitched me into a fence on the first buck and my old man come over and prodded me with his boot and said, 'Maybe that'll teach ya not to brag about how good you are on a horse'..."

Mrs Emmerich: "Oh Lon, when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with, I get scared.

Emmerich: There's nothing so different about them. After all, crime in only a left-handed form of human endeavor."

--Cinematography: realism is enhanced by the look of the film, starkly, yet vividly shot in black-and-white by Harold Rosson. It's worth noting that Rosson uses some sophisticated camera techniques, such as deep focus and and the extreme foregrounding of a single character. If, while watching, the viewer imagines a B-movie version of this story, with conventional camera work and a lackluster cast and script, the greatness of The Asphalt Jungle becomes even more evident. The consummate technical work and artistry involved elevate the film far above any genre or pulp limitations.

--Music: underlining the bleakness of Huston's vision right from the opening credits is the music score by Miklós Rózsa (who also scored Criss Cross). In a departure from his approach with scores for Double Indemnity and Spellbound, Rozsa places his cues sparingly. The score only calls attention to itself under the main titles and during Dix's wild death ride. For the robbery scene, Rozsa provides no music , and dialog is minimal. While it's far briefer, we can see in this scene the true precursor of the long burglary in Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), famed for its nearly complete silence.

--Direction: it is John Huston himself who may deserve the lion's share of credit for this film. Taking the advice of an older director he had known (possibly Josef Von Sternberg), he directs each scene as if it were the most important one in the film. This gives every scene its own sense of urgency and keeps a consistent tone, making the film one long, tragic descent into doom.


--in 1961 the ABC TV network began a series entitled "The Asphalt Jungle", starring Jack Warden and Arch Johnson. It apparently had no connection to the Huston film apart from the title. Duke Ellington provided music. The series ran on Sunday nights for only 13 episodes.

--Oscar Nominations (no wins) in 1951:
Best Director: John Huston
Best Screenplay: Ben Maddow/John Huston
Best Supporting Actor: Sam Jaffe
Best Cinematography (b&w): Harold Rosson