Tag Archives: billy wilder

Straight Down the Line

Inviting me to select my favorite image from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), as The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series has done this week, is a little like asking that I single out my favorite limb. I’ll make the choice eventually, sure, but it’ll be a reluctant one and involve lots of nervous glances from hand to foot and back again. What I’m trying to say is that Double Indemnity is an unusually beautiful film noir, shot by cinematographer John Seitz as a tapestry of shadows and key lights—a lustrous labyrinth of insurance offices and Venetian blinds leading “straight down the line,” as Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale repeatedly puts it.

But, well, the challenge is to pick one shot, so I picked one, and it’s at least pretty emblematic of Wilder and Seitz’s technique throughout the whole of the film. See, for example, the inventive patterns in which they’ve scattered light across the frame, drawing our eyes straight to the space between Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. The lighting supplements the actors’ already white-hot chemistry, suggesting a downward sloping line from his face to hers and a region of the screen that’s buzzing with sexual magnetism. Mere seconds before this, MacMurray was pacing the room, going on and on in voiceover about how “the hook” (read: his own cock) was pulling him toward her,

so at 8 o’ clock the bell would ring and I’d know who it was without even having to think, as if it was the most natural thing in the world…

And there she is, lit up like a vision from heaven (or elsewhere). The curls of her blond wig are shimmering and her body assumes an irresistible pose beneath that heavy trench coat. This is her about to cross the threshold into his dark bachelor pad, about to make the relationship between them more than just one of flirtatious salesman and client. It’s the seed of her anklet blossoming into adultery, and murder.

I suppose that’s why this shot—which, incidentally, lasts a full minute and fifteen seconds, this image emerging roughly in the middle—calls out to me: it’s so tentative, so teeming with potential. Double Indemnity is like the tale of the scorpion and the frog if it were about two scorpions trying to ferry one another across a river, and this is a shot of those deadly predators, each sizing the other up, separated only by a doorway. A couple other details I enjoy here: the shadow of the rain outside, barely visible on the seat of MacMurray’s pants; and that picture of a bare-knuckle boxer just to the right of the door.

Three more similarly framed prints grace the wall above his couch, and while I’ve never been able to fully integrate them into my reading of the film, they suggest to me an antiquated notion of brawny masculinity. Perhaps they hint at a kind of visceral thrill that MacMurray’s Walter Neff, this bundle of machismo and libido stuffed into a white-collar job, is pursuing whether through his relationship with a married woman or his attempt to “crook the house.” Those boxers, always lurking in the background, could signify the primal man lurking inside the skin of a mild-mannered insurance salesman.

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Cooling Down

Maybe if I took the little fan, put it in the icebox, left the icebox door open, then left the bedroom door open, and soaked the sheets and pillowcase in ice water… no, that’s too icky!

Since America’s presently in the midst of a July heat wave, now seems as good a time as any to write about The Seven Year Itch (1955), Billy Wilder’s feature-length paean to air conditioning in the summer. Adapted from George Axelrod’s play of the same title, the film doesn’t hide its theatrical origins: most of it takes place in a single set, the Manhattan apartment of its seven-years-married protagonist Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). There, he monologues and fantasizes about infidelity, turning his abode into a psychic echo chamber—and turning The Seven Year Itch into the comic, gender-flipped cousin of Repulsion.

Fundamentally, this is a film about paranoid masculinity, about men who are only capable of viewing women as wives or sex objects. To the audience, “The Girl” played by Marilyn Monroe is a real, complex person, and indeed Monroe plays her as more than just a ditzy blonde. She’s new to New York and happy to have a friend in her building; a little naïve, but driven by innate sweetness and thrilled by an impromptu performance of “Chopsticks.” To her, Richard is a chance to combat both loneliness and, via his AC, the summer heat.

To the solipsistic Richard, however, The Girl only exists insofar as she plays into his fantasies, all derived from pop culture and peer pressure. His visions are alternately self-aggrandizing and self-loathing: first he’s an amorous, Rachmaninoff-loving nobleman and Monroe’s his Obscure Object of Desire; later, he’s the sex-crazed “Mad Lover of Liepzig” and Monroe’s a proto-feminist bitch out to ruin his marriage and reputation. This is Wilder at his most Tashlinesque, inflating gendered behavior until it’s cartoonish and extreme. Hilarious, too: Ewell’s body is the ideal vehicle for Richard’s neuroses, which manifest themselves in dances, tics, pratfalls, and grotesque visual gags.

The Manhattan that surrounds Richard is no less broad and garish: his male acquaintances include his boss at the publishing house—a bellowing summertime hedonist—and the janitor Mr. Kruhulik, a bawdy, intrusive blue-collar caricature. (Robert Strauss, who plays Kruhulik, should’ve gotten an Oscar for his insinuating delivery of “big, fat poodle” alone.) Although Monroe is so often described as an exaggeration herself, as this ne plus ultra of femininity, she actually gives the film’s subtlest performance; her “playing dumb” looks especially restrained and unaffected next to all these histrionic men.

This is part of why I love the short monologue cited above: while Richard’s in the kitchen fixing drinks and holding a one-sided conversation about civilization and its discontents, she isn’t being a sexpot—she’s just curled up in a chair, pondering the best way to sleep comfortably. She’s oblivious, yes, but also guileless, unaware of the obsession that drives this “family man” to try and fuck a younger woman. The Seven Year Itch is very much a movie of the ’50s, about a postwar era when prosperity and hypocrisy went hand in hand. With a satirical slant, it navigates a culture of quick fixes and consumerist highs, of advertising, pop psychoanalysis, and health food.

And, of course, pathological self-absorption. Richard’s lost his up his own ass, whipping up rationalizations and projections to claim that he’s a good guy, that she’s seducing him, that his wife is probably off cheating, too. For all the film’s jokey, pastel lightness, it’s surprisingly dark at heart: no matter how much he deludes himself, Richard is still a pathetic, manipulative scumbag, a regular “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” And he’s the film’s idea of a typical American husband and father. Maybe The Seven Year Itch is closer to Wilder’s acidic black comedies than we realize. It’s silly and farcical, yeah, but you can distill its impression of the American family down to one line uttered by Richard’s boss: “On the surface, clear-eyed and healthy… but underneath, dry rot.”

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Garbo and the Eiffel Tower

Yes, it is an amazing piece of engineering. Still the most remarkable iron structure in the world. Leading to the top, there is a staircase of over a thousand steps… but there is an elevator included in the price of admission.

It’s hard to overstate the extent of Ernst Lubitsch’s genius, and this moment toward the end of Ninotchka demonstrates just how economical, powerful, and witty his filmmaking could be. At this point, the lovelorn Ninotchka—once a hard-edged Soviet apparatchik—is headed back to Moscow, having been blackmailed into leaving Leon (Melvyn Douglas), the object of her affection, behind in Paris. Her bumbling companions note that they never visited the Eiffel Tower, and Ninotchka rattles off the above spiel, taken verbatim from the informational pamphlet she read earlier in the film while visiting the Tower herself (and being pestered/seduced by Leon).

The reason I find this short monologue so profoundly effective is that it deftly combines pathos and humor, but doesn’t compromise either of them. It’s just as funny as it is sad, and it’s very sad. She’s been torn away from the man she loves, the man who literally taught her to laugh, and may very likely never see him again. They’re in love, but belong to two different worlds—what’s sadder than that? Yet Garbo’s precise, delicate delivery of these seemingly heartless lines creates a humorous incongruity between style and content. Billy Wilder, who co-wrote Ninotchka, excelled at this kind of joke: turning dry, objective statements into clever jokes through rhythm and context. Lubitsch and Garbo pull it off flawlessly. Just look at the progression of Garbo’s expressions as she recites these lines:

Much of Ninotchkas comedic power comes from Garbo and the fact that she takes her role just as seriously as if she were playing Camille or Anna Karenina. She’s hilarious, but she’s still dignified and impassioned. She’s bringing all her dramatic skill with her to the character, and so scenes like this are poignant even while they’re resiliently funny. The comedy of “there is an elevator included in the price of admission” comes from how much emotional weight she invests in the line, especially since its tourist trap flatness follows the numerical quasi-poetry of “over a thousand steps.”

This is a scene where the stars aligned, and the actress matched perfectly with the writers, director, and subject matter. The end result is an utter delight to watch, and luminous piece of film history.

Yes, it is an amazing piece of engineering. Still the most remarkable iron structure in the world. Leading to the top there is a staircase of over a thousand steps…but there is an elevator included in the price of admission.

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Ready for her close-up

She’s the woman who gave one of my favorite performances of all time, in one of my favorite movies of all time. (I also liked her in DeMille’s Male and Female.) She is big. It’s the pictures that got small. She’s Gloria Swanson, and she was born 112 years ago today! Happy birthday!

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Link Dump: #24

In light of Lady Gaga’s recent high-profile cover of it, along with the music video’s director David Fincher being Oscar-nominated, we figured it was time to revisit Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” which features—you guessed it!—lots of kitties. And half-naked men. The best of all worlds, really. So! Sit back, listen to Madonna expressing herself, and read over some vintage links…

  • If you’re like me, you love reading about retro sex ed videos. Now’s your chance, thanks to a long, dense conversation about them recently conducted by Farran Smith Nehme and Vadim Rizov, two ultra-perceptive film folks!
  • The Australian has a fascinating interview with filmmaker and special effects expert Douglas Trumbull (of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind fame) that goes over his career and influence. I especially liked this part:

Projection in 3-D, he believes, should be reserved for “alternate reality”. “It’s great for a movie like Alice in Wonderland, but maybe not for a love story, or even The Great Gatsby.”

As far as search terms go, we had a few wacky, outlandish, and gross ones like “bread in a vagina” (speaking of yeast infections…) and “syringe douche anal mistress.” The search “fucking happily movies” could, I think, have a few different meanings: movies with happy fucking in them? Good movies to watch while fucking happily? Did they mistype “fucking happy movies”? Lastly, we had another search term in Arab, “سكس كرتون كايوتك,” which Google Translate renders as “Sex Cartoon Cayotk.” I still don’t know what that means.

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Horror is everywhere (2)

Jumping off from last week’s post about horror’s influence across genres, national boundaries, and levels of respectability, I’m going to look at a very specific subset of horror-related images. If you saw my special announcement last night, you’ll know that I have a personal interest in the connection between femininity and monstrosity. And that’s just what I’ve got for you! Culled from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? list of the 1,000 most critically acclaimed films, here are female monsters in established classics from around the globe…

Rashomon (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #18

OK, so maybe the medium from Rashomon isn’t technically a “monster,” but this is still a terrifying moment. In order to extract testimony from a dead samurai, the court interviews a medium channeling his spirit, and his voice emanates from her like Mercedes McCambridge speaking through Linda Blair. The way she writhes and contorts just compounds the creepiness. As you’ll see later in this list, 1950s jidai-geki (samurai movies) are often informed by medieval Japanese mythology; witches and ghosts frequently intrude on secular affairs. And, although it was inspired by Shakespeare’s very scary Macbeth, similar horror motifs also show up in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).

Sunset Blvd. (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #31

Besides being easily one of the greatest films ever made, Billy Wilder’s bitter paean to tinseltown is also a brilliant genre hybrid, mixing black comedy, film noir, and horror. All three are visible in the image above, as faded movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sinks deeper into delusion. By the end of the film, her tics and grandiose gestures have consumed her, and she looks grotesquely vampiric as she gazes into that mirror – teeth bared, nostrils flared, and face tilted upward. Swanson’s makeup exaggerates her facial features, turning her visage into a monstrous mask, and she completes the transformation with her unhinged, incomparable performance. Earlier in the film, Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) remarks, “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” Norma is the monster; Hollywood’s publicity machine (aided by Erich von Stroheim as Max, the servant/ex-lover) is Dr. Frankenstein.

(For the “Sunset Blvd. as horror” argument, it’s worth remembering that the film contains a monkey in a casket.)

Persona (1966) – TSPDT ranking: #42

Let me put it this way: in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Elisabet (Liv Ullmanm) is a fucking vampire. OK, maybe she doesn’t literally suck the blood of her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), but she’s still an emotional vampire. She listens to Alma pour her heart out about past affairs, insecurities, etc., and says absolutely nothing, pretty much draining her of identity. With such an ambiguous, atmospheric movie, it’s hard to put it all into concrete terms, but believe me: she’s a vampire. During this scene, she sneaks into Alma’s room while she’s sleeping and they have a very weird, sensual, late-night interlude together. It’s never clear exactly what Elisabet’s doing, but in his own artful way, Bergman is definitely borrowing from the visual language of horror movies. He may have only made one or two “real” horror movies in his career, but the genre was always lurking right under the surface of his austere, spiritual experiments.

Ugetsu Monogatari – TSPDT ranking: #47

To be blunt about it, Kenji Mizoguchi’s lyrical masterpiece is one long ghost story, complete with a twist ending (and emotional sucker punch) that anticipated The Sixth Sense by half a century. Like Rashomon and Onibaba, it takes place against a backdrop of warfare and its collateral damage in medieval Japan. Here, an ambitious potter forgets his wife and son when he’s entranced by a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, the wife from Rashomon). Granted, she’s a conniving, undead femme fatale with her fair share of ulterior motives, but Kyo also imbues her with a slightly tragic, pathetic quality. Also, note how the Buddhist prayers scrawled on the potter’s body would be repeated a decade later in the Citizen Kane of Japanese horror movies, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964).

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #66

This is perhaps the classic example of kindertrauma-inflicting nightmare fuel. Every little kid is told about Dorothy and Toto and the Emerald City, and how they’re going to love this fun, cute movie… and then this green-faced harridan lunges out of a cloud of smoke, and the little kids start wetting themselves. This isn’t the worst of it, either; just wait till later on, when she’s flinging balls of flame and ordering around an army of flying monkeys. Margaret Hamilton is perfectly cast as the pointy-nosed old lady everybody loves to hate. She’s just so evil – and garish, and histrionic, and anti-fun – and she wields black magic to enforce her dictatorial reign over Oz. She’s many a child’s first worst nightmare.

Vampires, ghosts, and witches are all over the place, in Hollywood classics and art film masterpieces. I’ll be back with more “Horror is everywhere” next week!

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