Thursday, September 10, 2009

One Argument at Least For Why Going to an Overpriced Liberal Arts College Isn't Always a Bad Idea.

If I had gone to Teeming Real World State U instead of the much smaller place that I did go there's a good chance I would have ended up just like poor "Dick" in the story here (and here, and here, and here). At least he has 500 Facebook friends, including apparently all of the hot girls he lusted after in college who would never dream of letting him touch them in any way suggestive of an erotic manner. I couldn't pull that off.

Double Indemnity

It's been a while since I've written about a movie, and this one offers so many things which are natural topics for me to write about at this particular juncture of my life that I am not going to resist taking it up.

The last few months, remarkably, have seen my first modest encounters with the celebrated genre of 1940s film noir. The remarkableness of this is not because they are cool, or even great, but because I generally eat up everything artistic from the 1940s. However, I think the enthusiasm of the genre's fans for its darkness, edginess, subversiveness, what have you, compared with the hokey and earnest offerings of Hollywood in the same period--which I also like--in combination with the circumstance that the people saying these things seemed to be suspiciously undisturbed in their own minds by this particular variety of dark subversive edginess, made me inclined to avoid them. The ones I have seen so far, namely this one directed by the--I am strongly tempted to call him great; yes, I think he is great--Billy Wilder, and Robert Siodmak's The Killers, are hampered in their attempts to be really dark by having rather fantastic and implausible plots. Some people consider The Third Man to have noirish qualities as well, though if it does it is in a highly Euro-stylized manner; its despair and pathologies are of a different kind than that of the Hollywood noirs. They are cool though, because the dialogue, the buildings, the cities and towns, the diners and bars, the women's hairstyles and the train stations, the wallpaper and furniture, and of course, the cigarettes and bourbon of the 1940s are cool. The movie is most convincing as a kind of statement on the false but seductive desires of the modern condition. There are no really good people in them. Innocent people yes, but these are either children or insipid. One cannot be good without an intimate understanding of the alternatives, and no one can be intimate with the alternatives and remain good. At best one can reject/resist acting out the lowest sorts of depravity.

The femmes fatales in these movies are much more evil to the core than I had realized. I feel that in our time the definition of a femme fatale has been whittled down to mean someone who is a little out of your league who teases you, leads you on, distracts you from your manly business and makes mincemeat of your heart. The Alida Valli character in The Third Man is somewhat more after this model except that she doesn't really even lead on the naive character. The Ava Gardner/Barbara Stanwyck model of femme fatale knowingly enlists you to murder, steal and betray your friends for them, and they don't even like you at all. They always say American girls are at bottom the cruelest of all women, or at least the quickest to have your throat cut if your existence is no longer serving their needs. Maybe it's true.

More on the 1940s: Where have those nightclubs gone? You know the ones from a million movies, they have a big wide open room where every table is full with well-dressed and good-looking men and women every night of the week even in cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, there is a live Ricky Ricardo-style orchestra playing, and the booze and the cigarettes flow endlessly, and such attitude as you get was earned rather than bought or applied before going out. That's still my idea of a good time.

It is a truth that I was a long time actually in realizing, but the women's hairstyles of the 1940s were just great. The young actress in this who played the innocent daughter (though still with a non-parentally approved, tough-guy boyfriend) of the murdered victim, Jean Heather, has absolutely perfect 1944 hair. I replayed several of the scenes with her in them numerous times just to look at her hair and sigh contentedly. In truth she isn't that pretty, but she has a really satisfying look. The only other hit movie she was in was the Bing Crosby film Going My Way, which I believe also came out in 1944. That was her year. Apparently somebody loves her in Germany, since the only Wikipedia entry for her I could find was in German. The commentary on the movie stated that she retired from acting after the war in order to get married, which apparently was not uncommon in that generation. One can think of a few recent television and movie actresses whose place in the sentimental memory would have benefited from a similar retreat from the spotlight at age 24 or so (all people with real acting talent excepted of course).

Here is old Jean Heather. This is the only picture of her in Double Indemnity I could find.

As I have detailed elsewhere, my system for determining which movies to see is much less rigid than that I have for reading. Still it is interesting how in certain years even under a random system one will somehow fall upon a certain theme or star or director several times in the course of a short period. Several years back I went through a phase where I was constantly seeing movies with Toshiro Mifune and Marcello Mastroianni in them. This last year the guys I have found myself running into on multiple occasions are Fred MacMurray and Burt Lancaster. The Burt Lancaster movies cover the period from 1946-1980, The Killers, The Train, and the last, Atlantic City, when he was getting into old age. I had never seen anything with him before, and didn't even know who he was. Atlantic City seems to me to be overrated. The other two I liked stylistically, though in The Train Lancaster is supposed to be a French resistance leader, and I at least was not able to think of him as actually being French for a minute. The MacMurray movies span from 1944-1960, being this film, The Caine Mutiny, and The Apartment. The DVD commentary noted that of the 100 or so films MacMurray was in, these are the only three that were any good. That is a shame, because I thought he was quite good in all three of these movies, and I would have liked to have seen more of him. Apparently before this movie he was known for being a star of romantic comedies.
Speaking of stars, this was my first time seeing Edward G Robinson, who was a big figure in 1930s gangster films, another genre with which I have to confess myself wholly unfamiliar. He strikes the modern viewer as a unlikely movie star, though he was good in his role. He looks like he wasn't much above 5'3" 110.
Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay. The dialogue was good, and like a lot of old movies, the scenes moved and followed smoothly from one to the other. The film is probably so well loved today not so much for its plot as for its evocation of 1940s Los Angeles, which is supposedly one of the great charms of Chandler, and the glimpes of which had the film historian commentators on the DVD practically in agonies at having missed the splendors of. Interestingly, a lot of the real buildings shown in the movie still exist, but, rather remarkably, they don't have an air of being old at all in contemporary photographs.
I feel invigorated and more like a real person after seeing one of these films in part I think because my own house looks and feels more like a 1930s-40s house than a more modern one. Besides being built in 1895 and having the old style windows, alcoves, etc, in the rooms, I have a lot of my grandparents' old furniture, the bedroom set in particular, which dates nearly from that time. I remember seeing a Laurel and Hardy film from 1933 where they get trapped in a attic, and it looks exactly like my attic. It doesn't sound like that would be all that exciting, but it surprisingly is.

I thought it interesting that the poor husband who gets offed in this movie was dispatched of while on his way to his Stanford reunion, the idea that he would go to which I think was supposed to be a tip-off that he was a pretty lame guy, even though he was rich and successful. It was the memory of his college days playing football and hanging out with his frat brothers that made him happy, and that is inexcusable in the ethos of film noir.
I am not a great fan of Disney movies, but even with them, the 1940s was by far the strongest decade. Pinocchio, Bambi, The Wind in the Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are probably my four favorite Disney movies. There is a nice touch of darkness in them, not pervasive, not that it overwhelms the story, but tempers it nicely, in a way that is needed in later productions but isn't there. And I had forgotten, or never noticed, what a great song this is.

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