As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Fred MacMurray was convinced by director Billy Wilder to take leave of his usual light comedy roles to play Walter Neff, a highly successful insurance salesman who runs afoul of Phyllis Dietrichsen (Barbara Stanwyck in a horribly cheap blonde wig), an unhappy housewife who desperately wants to be rid of her loveless oil executive husband. Once these two finish playing bedroom games, Neff manages to get Dietrichsen insured for double indemnity in case of accidental death, then carefully rigs the murder, using his knowledge of insurance scams to commit the perfect crime.
Unfortunately, Neff’s best friend is insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a Sherlock of Statistics who at first figures the death is just bad luck for the insurance company, then homes in on the one tiny inconsistency in Neff’s plot. Keyes has a blind spot toward his old friend, Neff, and believes someone else is her accomplice – but the salesman watches in dread as that blind spot shrinks and his relationship with Phyllis starts to sour and curdle, and they begin to turn on each other.
Double Indemnity quite simply does everything right, from a beginning that grabs the viewer (and gives a perfect reason for Neff to spend the rest of the movie narrating his own downfall) straight through a twisted story that never strays from the logical – at least insofar as anything concerning human emotions can be – to a wholly satisfying end. MacMurray probably surprised the hell out of everybody. Stanwyck already had a reputation as a solid, versatile actress, and this movie established her as the Dark Lady of film-noir for many years, proving that the right actress can even overcome a director’s horrible choice of wigs. But the real standout for me is Edward G. Robinson, taking a step down from his usual starring roles to play Keyes, in his own way the hard-boiled detective of the story. Robinson has several dynamite speeches that he delivers perfectly, rapid-fire. Screenwriter Raymond Chandler made sure to be on the set when Robinson did those.
It amazes me that Hollywood made two James M. Cain novels with similar themes – unbridled lust and adultery lead to murder – under the restrictive Hayes Code.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
I’ve been warned enough times about Birth of a Nation. But it still winds up in reference books, still on Ebert’s list, because it is a remarkable technical and artistic achievement a mere 20 years after the exhibition of the first motion picture. It undeniably kicked off serious American cinema. It possesses a stature worthy of reckoning, but also an unfortunate message.
Right up front you get a warning with the title card “The Birth of a Nation (Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman)”. The first hour and a half tells the tale of two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, whose sons are great friends (and whose eldest boys quite fancy the daughters on the opposite sides). The Stoneman family hail from the North, the Camerons own a cotton plantation in the South. Then the Civil War hits, and of course the boys wind up facing each other on the battlefield. The youngest die, the two elders survive. Lincoln pardons Cameron from an unjust execution when Miss Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and mother Cameron beg for his life. Gish refers to him as “The Great Heart”.
Lincoln’s assassination is fully and well-staged in a recreation of Ford’s Theater (but out in the open air, for lighting purposes). The Camerons read of his death and sadly look up from the newspaper, stating, “Our best friend has died. What will happen to us now?” If you’re slightly dubious of that being the actual reaction of defeated Southerners, just wait.
As I’ve said, that first 90 minutes is a good enough retelling of the period before and during the Civil War, but I wasn’t smitten with it when it was called Gone With the Wind, either. Then the second half of movie starts with a card that reads “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” In other words, We are about to get racist, but we are not racist.
Stoneman takes over after Lincoln is assassinated, and while he does not hang the Southern leaders, as he had previously advocated, he does go full-bore into making sure the freed slaves of the South become fully equal to the white citizens. This takes the form of whites being turned from the polls and blacks being bribed to elect rascals and carpetbaggers to the local government. My God, you can just hear current political talking points being freshly minted. Stoneman’s choice to head up the Reconstruction is a villainous (of course) mulatto named Simon Lynch, who secretly aims to establish his own Black Empire, and not incidentally marry Lillian Gish against her will.
Luckily, at the two-hour mark, the elder Cameron son has established the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and it is these brave sheet-beclad horsemen who rout the Black Apocalypse that Lynch has created (to Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”, no less), save Lillian Gish from Lynch’s vile mixed-race clutches, and, at the end, keep the Negros in their homes during the next election.
That last hour is a total mindfuck to rival The Holy Mountain or Holy Motors, let me tell you. Ideally, you try to cast yourself in the same mindset of a person watching the movie contemporaneously, and you just can’t. You can’t erase the image of blacks on the legislature floor leering at white women in the balcony when intermarriage is legalized. You can’t forget Gus the Rogue Negro (obviously a white man in blackface, as are any actors who come into contact with white actresses), stalking the teenaged Cameron girl, who leaps from a cliff rather than endure his touch. And it is really hard to forget sweet little Lillian Gish telling her Klan boyfriend, “Kill one for me!”
Birth of a Nation is culturally important, but it’s nightmarish. It may be even more culturally important, for just that reason.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Based on a true story, it involves a platoon of captured British soldiers sent to a WWII Japanese labor camp in Siam, where they are supposed to, you guessed it, build a railroad bridge over the Kwai river. Our main conflict comes from the insistence of the camp’s commandant, Major Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) that the British officers also work alongside the enlisted men, which Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) rightly points out is a violation of the Geneva Convention. This insolence gets Nicholson thrown in The Oven, and his officers in The Punishment Hut until they give in to Saito’s demands. The soldiers, meanwhile, keep sabotaging the construction while the officers bake in the sun. I should mention that the American prisoner who actually starts the movie, Shears (William Holden) manages to escape through the jungle, though nearly dying three times in the attempt.
Nicholson is made of incredibly stern stuff, and Saito finally finds an excuse to accede to his wishes under the auspices of a Japanese holiday. Once Nicholson sees what a wreck the bridge is, and what a rabble his men have become during his imprisonment, he decides that the best thing to do, to return discipline to his ranks and to show the Japanese what a British soldier can do, by God, is to build the bridge, and build it well. Saito, desperate to finish the bridge by his deadline, agrees, even conscripting his own men to construction work under the British officers, several of whom had built similar bridge in India.Nicholson becomes ever more obsessed (though in a genteel way) with the bridge’s completion, unaware that Shears has been basically blackmailed to make an unwilling journey back to the camp to blow up the bridge.
Bridge gets fascinatingly complex in its character’s motivations; Saito sinking slowly into depression as his enemy does what he could not, to the point of planning seppuku after the bridge’s christening; Nicholson’s slow metamorphosis to slave driver, finally, ironically, putting his officers on the work force, and eventually even injured and sick men from the dispensary; and Sears, more or less forced – genteely, you gotta love the Brits – into the commando force and finding himself voluntarily risking his life once in the field.
William Holden always had an appealing vulnerability under his gruff handsomeness, and honestly should have been the only actor considered to play Shears (that didn’t stop them from offering it to Bogart, Grant, and Olivier). Like Fred MacMurray, Alec Guinness was, to this point, mainly known as a comedy star. The role of Nicholson had been offered to Charles Laughton (!), Ronald Coleman, Ralph Richardson, James Mason… the musical chairs even extended to directors. Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks… only eventually David Lean. The two screenwriters were Michael Wilson and Carl Foremen, both Blacklisted. It is amazing that this movie exists at all, much less turned out to be the masterpiece it is.
Research finds the story a bit more interesting, though less cinematic. The real Major Saito was apparently a much more enlightened gentleman, negotiating with his charges for their work duties. In fact, the real-life version of Colonel Nicholson testified on his behalf at a war crimes tribunal! Two bridges were made, both were bombed by Allied forces, but the sturdier one was repaired, and much like Nicholson’s dream, is still being used today.
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Thief of Bagdad is an Alexander Korda production, impossible to trace to one director, as Korda kept switching them in and out like drill bits. It’s an Arabian Nights fairy tale concerning a kindly ruler, Ahmed (John Justin), who befriends the title character, Abu (Sabu) when he is deposed by the evil vizier, the sorcerer Jafar (Conrad Veidt). Both men are in love with the princess (June Duprez) of a neighboring city, and when magically blinding Ahmed and turning Abu into a dog doesn’t work, Jafar shipwrecks them with a summoned storm. At which point things get weird.
Abu finds a genie (Rex Ingram) who flies him to the top of the world to steal a jewel called The All-Seeing Eye, which works like a magic TV, allowing him to locate Ahmed. The treacherous genie then sends Ahmed to Bagdad and execution, and strands Abu on top of a mountain, As luck would have it, Abu’s destruction of the Eye of the World in a rage unlocks the gate to the Land of Legends, where the Thief gets the tools he need to rescue his friend.
I don’t expect fantasy movies to necessarily be tightly constructed, but Thief’s plot feels sadly thrown together – I really missed my three act structure. The movie’s harried production – it had to move from its British studio during the Blitz into America – along with the directoral musical chairs works against it. But if I was somewhat bemused by the movie’s fevered insistence to cram nearly all the fantastical elements into the final third, it was fun to watch it while pretending to be a young Ray Harryhausen and see the inspiration for the green men and the six-armed goddess in Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
And Rex Ingram is a fine genie. Conrad Veidt excelled at playing villains with a soul, and Jafar, who would be able to hypnotize the Princess into loving him, but knows this would be a hollow victory, qualifies. The relatively new Technicolor process gets a real workout, and we see the first instance of the blue-screen technology that would enable traveling mattes for years to come, and the matte lines that would plague visual effects artists for the next fifty years.
There were more Arabian Nights-style movies over the years, but none matched the scope and fancy of Thief of Bagdad until that young Harryhausen fellow in the theater started making his own movies. For that, if nothing else, Thief of Bagdad gets props.