Film of the Week | 17th May 2021
There are nine films in Sony Movies Classic ‘Film Noir Wednesday’ starting at 8.00am, providing an orgy of film noir – more or less.
I haven’t seen all of these, and I would cross the road to avoid Sirocco, described by Humphrey Bogart, who was in it, as “a stinker,” but the Film Club business starts at 5.15pm with:
The Big Steal (1949) is directed by Don Siegel, a great director of action who revealed his cutting skills in the montage sequences of Casablanca and hit the jackpot with Dirty Harry. It is only 71 minutes long, and has one of the great noir pairings, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. An insight into how studio-bound films were in those days is shown by the trailer boasting ‘Actually filmed in romantic Mexico!’ Well, some of it was.
Howard Hughes, the owner of RKO, moved on from failing to satisfy Hedy Lamarr to failing to satisfy Jane Greer, who peeved him by breaking off their relationship and getting married to someone else. He set out to ruin her career by keeping her out of films though she was under contract; then he stuck her in this film instead of his big star Jane Russell because Robert Mitchum had just been imprisoned for possessing marijuana. He hoped to cash in on Mitchum’s arrest but thought that the publicity might damage Jane Greer. It didn’t, and she described Robert Mitchum as “a very brilliant man,” and “great fun.” She might have added, ‘and a great actor’.
One pleasure of film noir lies in the quotes:
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort to a girl to know she couldn’t possibly sink any lower.”
6.45pm Wednesday 19th May
Double Indemnity (1944) directed by Billy Wilder, and one of his best.
Here, the dialogue snaps, crackles and pops, thanks to Raymond Chandler, who collaborated on the script and, in the eyes of James M Cain who wrote the novel on which the film was based, much improved it (though Wilder and Chandler didn’t get on, and Chandler loathed Cain). Chandler hung around locations, spending time in stores so that he could get the authentic feel of ordinary American life, and honed one of the great scripts, getting a lot of innuendo past the Hayes Office. He makes his only appearance on film, sitting reading a newspaper outside the office that Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) leaves on his way to see Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson), at about sixteen minutes in.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Mrs Phyllis Dietrichson, gleaming like ivory as she descends the staircase to meet his and her doom, her anklet glittering like the lines she bats back and forth with her soon-to-be-willing accomplice. The story was based on the Ruth Snyder case. Snyder tried to kill her husband seven times before she succeeded, using a ‘double indemnity’ clause in the insurance to increase her takings from insurance on his life, her death in the electric chair caught by a reporter who had strapped a camera to his ankle producing the most famous photograph of the nineteen twenties.
The film ends with one man saying to another, "I love you too," from the director who was to give us Joe E Brown commenting on Jack Lemmon's revelation that he is really a man in Some Like It Hot: "Well, nobody's perfect."
Hitchcock often claimed that this was his favourite film, for he liked stripping back the appearance of a quiet American town to show the evil within, symbolised, as Hitchcock intended, by the black cloud belching from the train on which Joseph Cotten arrives. There are Gothic elements in Hitchcock’s films, but he specialised in scaring us in otherwise safe and familiar locations, like a motel shower. Here, small-town America conceals evil behind its picket fences. We should look inside ourselves for evil, not out there.
The film was unusual in being shot mainly on location, a decision to some extent forced on Hitchcock by the war. He usually spent around $100,000 on sets but the War Production Board imposed a $5000 limit on building sets. It was much cheaper to shoot on location, and Hitchcock chose Santa Rosa, far enough away from Hollywood so that he would be left in peace and could pay lower rates to the extras, and so that he could be in the heart of the California wine-growing area and enjoy himself while he was there. At this time, Hitchcock, who was under five feet six inches in height, weighed over twenty-one stone, the heaviest he was ever to be, and his cameo appearance is on the train holding a hand of cards that consists entirely of spades. Another factor contributing to the low cost of the film, which cost only $813,000, was that Hitchcock couldn’t get Joan Fontaine for the role of Charlie Newton and was lucky to get Teresa Wright (a better actress in this role), and she cost less to hire.
The Newton house is 904 McDonald Avenue (it still stands, as does the station and the tourist office). Hitchcock chose it because it looked old and ordinary, and the family who owned it were so delighted that they had the exterior re-decorated and the film company had to “dirty it up again” (Pat Hitchcock). Its interior was recreated back in Universal studios, with Hitchcock’s usual obsessive care, and the way the camera moves through it is a technique he was to repeat when making Psycho. The art director, Robert Boyle, said:
‘no director I’ve worked with knew as much about films as he [Hitchcock] did. He was always trying to make the visual statement, and there was no such thing as the throwaway shot.’ The house was literally designed around the shots Hitchcock wanted to get inside it, the walls, windows, porch and roof swinging silently away in front of the moving camera. As a result we get as clear a sense of the floor plan of the Newton home as any in American cinema. This skill in creating atmosphere came back to him when he made Psycho, again for Universal.
The two-faced protagonist is a major theme in Hitchcock films: the charming murderer, the spy playing two roles, the good guy who turns out to be bad. The doppelganger theme sees darkness not as an outside force but as something that comes from inside, darkness the other side of light – Jekyll and Hyde. François Truffaut was the first to write that Shadow Of A Doubt is built on the number two.
- There are two Charlies. The heroine wasn’t named in the original script but Hitchcock and his wife Alma named her Charlotte/Charlie to mirror her Uncle Charlie as they revised the script. The name Charlie is uttered over a hundred and seventy times.
- When we first see Uncle Charlie he is stretched out on a bed; Charlie is in an identical pose when we first see her, and both Charlies are about to send telegrams.
- Two detectives are investigating two murder suspects.‘The trailing detectives are after two men’,either of which may be the Merry Widow Murderer.
- The landlady refers to the policemen as ‘two strangers’, and the Newton family learn that ‘two strangers’ want to interview them for an article, while the man with the camera carries tworolls of film.
- Detective Saunders tells Charlie that the two detectives are awaiting a wire and that he should learn which of the two men is the killer in a wire that will arrive in two hours.
- The detective looking for Charlie calls twice at the house and misses her twice.
- The film has two church scenes, two meal scenes, and two garage scenes.
- There are twotrain scenes in the movie, Uncle Charlie’s arrival and his departure.
- Uncle Charlie tries to kill Charlie twice.
- When Uncle Charlie settles into Charlie’s room in the Newton home, he looks out of the window and sees two women talking. Later we see two women (perhaps the same ones) walking past the Newton house.
- Uncle Charlie gives his sister two gifts. One is a ring with two sets of initials carved into it.
- Joe and Herbie are twofriends who like to talk about the perfect murder, and who have two such conversations in the movie.
- Charlie’s younger sister, Ann, reads two books a week.
- Names with two syllables proliferate: Charlie, Oakley, Otis, Newton, Spencer, Santa Rosa…. The latest murder victim had two names: Mrs Bruce Mathewson better known as Thelma Schenley.
- Emma is a name which contains doubled letters (it was the name of Hitchcock's mother, who had just died); Ann, Phillips, Green, Potter, Gunnery Grill….
- Charlie has two buttons prominently displayed on her coat.
- When she goes to the library Charlie wears two bird brooches.
- Charlie runs past a window with two clocks in the background.
- At the Til-Two Club Uncle Charlie orders a double brandy from a waitress who has been working at the club for two weeks.
- Charlie has two girlfriends, and she runs into them twice.
- When Uncle Charlie calls the postal union, he dials the number two.
- When Uncle Charlie knocks over his glass, he does so with two fingers.
- Couples dance ‘The Merry Widow Waltz’.
- The two Charlies appear as menacing figures in two similar images, either one standing at the door of the Newton house threatening the other.
- It takes twotrains to finish Uncle Charlie off (the original script had him dying in a fall from rocks).
Mirror shots and reflections continue to express the doubling theme, which might be thought of as ripples moving out from the central Charlie-Uncle Charlie splash, linked but not intrusive. And none of this patterning would mean anything if Shadow of a Doubt wasn’t an engaging and exciting story. Patterning is the easy part. Turning it into a human story is what is difficult.
Uncle Charlie takes over the Newton house when he arrives. He is seated at the head of the table taking the place of the father. He is given Charlie’s bedroom (there are some disturbing incestuous resonances here), and he becomes a home breaker, literally sawing through a step, and both attempts to kill Charlie involve the house. His present to Charlie is a ring, a symbol of love and family unity, but it contains the seeds of his downfall, and it is his first misstep.
The plot makes no sense, but Hitchcock knows it doesn’t have to. Who pays the expense accounts of two detectives who have travelled from New Jersey to California with endless time on their hands? But we are dealing with Hitchcock World. As with Shakespeare, what matters isn’t realism; it’s truth.
Hitchcock chose Thornton Wilder to write the script and brought in Sally Benson to write the dialogue. Both Our Town (Wilder) and Meet Me In St Louis (Benson) dramatised small-town America, which shows what Hitchcock was after, but he and Alma (Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator) worked constantly on the script, adapting it to show the darkness underneath. Hitchcock was particularly taken with Thornton Wilder, the first Hollywood professional who looked up to him rather than trying to push him around, so he gave him special praise in the closing credits.
No photographs of Uncle Charlie exist. Can he be photographed? The landlady of the guest house where Uncle Charlie is staying pulls down the blind as if she is closing a coffin, putting a vampire to rest, and he takes an unhealthy interest in young Charlie's throat. Vampirism, like incest, is hinted at, not displayed.
Young Charlie is desperate to break out of the stifling conformism of picket-fence America. She is the troubled and troubling future. Beneath the surface lies darkness, anxiety and even evil. ‘Go away or I’ll kill myself,’ she says; she has changed. Santa Rosa will change too. It will learn to lock its doors.
The film was made in 1943 but it was displaced to 1941 before the war had started for Americans. The time shift is hidden until Charlie’s younger brother is shown a photo of his grandparents in 1888. “1888?” he sputters with a whistle. “[That’s] 53 years ago!”, establishing an even longer reach to the supposedly angelic past. “Everybody was sweet and pretty then, Charlie. Not like the world now. It’s great to be young then.” But it was 53 years since the Jack the Ripper murders which took place in 1888 in Hitchcock’s native East End.
Hitchcock enjoyed the planning process so much that he sometimes saw the actual filming as an anti-climax. Thus the sometimes disapproving comments that he didn’t always bother to look through the camera, but he didn’t need to. One director of photography said that Hitchcock understood what the camera saw so well that he didn’t have to look through it; but he was open to improvisation, as recent studies have shown.
NOTE: Santa Rosa is the town that Philip Marlowe claimed as his birthplace. Raymond Chandler may have seen the film.
Now we can go to pubs – support your locals, pubs and bookshops! – but Wednesday might be the night to stay in.
Best wishes, Bill.