Stanwyck and MacMurray make a dangerous bet
There are still, after all these years, important classic films we've never discussed in detail. We can now cross Double Indemnity off the list. The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and we've looked at its West German poster, had fun with one of its promo images, and talked about its ingenious quasi-remake, but never actually gotten to the movie itself. Well, here we are, and now the question is can we tell you anything you don't already know? Possibly not, but let's start with the Australian daybill, which you see above. It isn't the usual poster you find online, so that's something, anyway.
The movie begins with MacMurray making a confession, then slides into flashback to explain his crime. He plays an insurance salesman for Pacific All Risk who quickly realizes that Stanwyck's interest in secretly purchasing a life insurance policy on her husband is for the purposes of murder and claims fraud. He resists the scheme at first but Stanwyck convinces him. How? All we see are a few kisses but the answer has to be sex. McMurray is a guy who has experience with women and is so confident with them he's almost glib. He wouldn't agree to murder a guy just because someone is a good kisser.
Thus, temptation nudges him, unseen sex tips him over the edge, and from there he and Stanwyck are off and running with their murder plot. Eventually Stanwyck's husband is found dead on a train track, presumably after falling off the observation car of the Los Angeles-Santa Barbara express, and the crime seems perfect, except the insurance policy that will pay $100,000 brings a tenacious investigator into the picture. That would be Edward G. Robinson in another great performance, and he immediately latches onto an anomaly—Stanwyck's husband didn't file an insurance claim when he broke his leg weeks earlier. Why would a guy who had accident insurance not make a claim? Maybe he didn't know he had accident insurance.
Robinson's role and performance make the movie. He pulls on the single hanging thread that unravels the entire murder plot, and when it starts to come apart it does so almost too fast to believe. There's revelation upon revelation, even reaching years back to the time that Stanwyck's husband was married to another woman, and Stanwyck was that woman's nurse. It's this latter half that makes Double Indemnity a top classic—though make no mistake, it's a film noir clinic even from its first frames, in terms of visuals, structure, music, and direction from Billy Wilder. But when MacMurray's situation deteriorates so quickly and so uncontrollably in the last half, you almost experience the same vertigo and helplessness his character must feel.
Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and as usual for the Oscars, was beaten in most of its categories by a film that ended up having far less influence—the Bing Crosby musical Going My Way. But time tells the tale. Nobody is calling Going My Way one of the best films ever made, but Double Indemnity was certainly a top ten film noir, and was influential far beyond its niche. The movie opened in the U.S. in the late spring of 1944 and finally reached Australia to dazzle and dismay audiences today, December 1, that same year.
Don't jump to conclusions. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. Give me a minute to think of one.
The talented and versatile Barbara Stanwyck appears in this promo image made for her 1929 pre-Code thriller The Locked Door, which she starred in at the age of twenty-two. It was her first credited role, and actually does involve her making up a flimsy story for a shooting, though not for the reasons you might assume. You'll have to watch the movie to find out more. And there's no reason why you shoudn't, because if Stanwyck wasn't the greatest actress in the history of Hollywood, she was pretty damn close. Below: she's still thinking.
Murder most premeditated.
Above is a poster painted by German artist Heinz Bonne for the U.S. film noir classic Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as lovers who try to pull off a murder and daring insurance fraud but may not be quite as smart or lucky as needed. We'll hopefully get back to Bonne a little later. Double Indemnity premiered in the U.S. in 1944, but made it to Germany—West Germany actually—as Frau ohne Gewissen, or “woman without a conscience,” six years later, today in 1950.
Something old, something new.
This is something a bit unusual. It's a life-sized promotional cardboard cut-out for 1982's film noir-sourced comedy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which starred Steve Martin and Rachel Ward. We thought of this film recently due to Martin's new Agatha Christie-influenced television mystery series Only Murders in the Building, which we watched and enjoyed. We first saw Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid years ago, long before Pulp Intl. and all the knowledge we've gained about film noir. We liked it much better during our recent viewing.
If you haven't seen it, Martin uses scores of film noir clips to weave a mystery in which he stars as private detective Rigby Reardon. Aside from Ward, and director Rob Reiner, his co-stars are Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Cary Grant, and many others, all arranged into a narrative that turns out to be about cheese, a Peruvian island, and a plot to bomb the United States.
The film's flow only barely holds together, which you'd have to expect when relying upon clips from nineteen old noirs to cobble together a plot, but as a noir tribute—as well as a satirical swipe at a couple of sexist cinematic tropes from the mid-century period—it's a masterpiece. If you love film noir, you pretty much have to watch it. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid had its premiere at the USA Film Festival in early May, but was released nationally today in 1982.
Stanwyck rips holes in yet another man's life.
The File on Thelma Jordon is another one of those movies in which a man fools around on a perfectly wonderful wife, and in so doing screws up his perfectly satisfactory existence. The fool in question is played by Wendell Corey, who you may recognize as James Stewart's police buddy from Rear Window. Here he's a district prosecutor. His marriage to nice girl Joan Tetzel is problematic for reasons that seem pretty trivial as far as we're concerned, but whatever—it's film noir, and if the script says he's bummed, okay. His wandering gaze soon partakes of veteran bad woman Barbara Stanwyck, and from that point forward he just can't keep his lips to himself. When Stanwyck's frail aunt turns up ventilated, wily Wendell finds himself in a serious pickle, both personally and professionally.
There's not much you can criticize in The File on Thelma Jordon. Stanwyck is a great actress, particularly in moments of high tension or panic, of which there's an abundance. The sequence where she and Corey frantically try to reorganize an incriminating crime scene before anyone else arrives is a tour de force, seven minutes of masterful staging, acting, directing, and cinematography. And that's just the halfway point. The web hasn't even begun to tighten yet. Before long Corey will find himself—as in all the best noirs—in a situation so absurdly awful that there seems to be no possibility of escape. And all because he wasn't happy with his perfectly wonderful wife, and perfectly satisfactory existence. These guys just never learn.
I should be happy with you, my lovely wife, but this is a film noir, so I'm not.
Eyes, nose, lips—yup, everything looks fine. Why do I want to cheat on you so badly?
Hi, I'm Thelma. It's okay to look at me—we'll be making the eight-limbed mattress monster™ soon anyway.
What do you mean you found a gun? What's a gun?
Why, I know nothing at all about the recent thefts of tablecloths from local Italian restaurants. Do you like my new skirt?
Can we go inside now? The center console is bruising my crack.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I've gotten my dick in the wringer but good.
Sorry, there's only room for one up here.
This 1941 image of U.S. actress Barbara Stanwyck was made when she was filming the comedy-romance Ball of Fire, one of eighty-five films she made during her long career. Her perch on a pedestal here is appropriate, considering she earned up to $50,000 per role, and in 1944 pulled in $400,000 from various sources, making her the highest paid woman in America. No wonder she's smiling.
Don't look at me you fool! Look at the menstrual cups!
Above is a production still from the classic film noir Double Indemnity showing stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray trying to look like two random grocery shoppers who don't know each other. They're failing big time. But it's not because of the sunglasses and hat. It's because they're both in the feminine hygiene aisle. Well, not really. In the movie we never see what aisle they're in, but our interpretation could explain MacMurray's utterly baffled expression. Double Indemnity premiered today in 1944. And for you history buffs, menstrual cups premiered in stores in the 1930s.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1916—Paris Is Bombed by German Zeppelins
During World War I, German zeppelins conduct a bombing raid on Paris. Such raids were rare, because the ships had to fly hundreds of miles over French territory to reach their target, making them vulnerable to attack. Reaching London, conversely, was much easier, because the approach was over German territory and water. The results of these raids were generally not good, but the use of zeppelins as bombers would continue until the end of the war.
1964—Soviets Shoot Down U.S. Plane
A U.S. Air Force training jet is shot down by Soviet fighters after straying into East German airspace. All 3 crew men are killed. U.S forces then clandestinely enter East Germany in an attempt to reach the crash but are thwarted by Soviet forces. In the end, the U.S. approaches the Soviets through diplomatic channels and on January 31 the wreckage of the aircraft is loaded onto trucks with the assistance of Soviet troops, and returned to West Germany.
1967—Apollo Fire Kills Three Astronauts
Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee are killed in a fire during a test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Although the ignition source of the fire is never conclusively identified, the astronauts' deaths are attributed to a wide range of design hazards in the early Apollo command module, including the use of a high-pressure 100 percent-oxygen atmosphere for the test, wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials in the cockpit, an inward-opening hatch, and the flight suits worn by the astronauts.
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