Movie’s Better V: Noir Edition

Double I stillOften, when I’m in the right (or wrong) mood, I’ll raise some Cain…James M, that is. He perfected the hard-boiled literary style: books about crime & criminals written with precision, brutality, and distance.The adaptation of one of his masterpieces, Double Indemnity, however is an improvement. This would be a pretty short blog post if it wasn’t, wouldn’t it?

After World War Two, we lifted an embargo and our books and movies flooded into France. Perceptive, they sensed trends in theme and style and labeled the books a “serie noir” and the movies “film noir.” The books, by authors like Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, and Horace McCoy, are considered classics of the hard-boiled style. The films comprise a movement that is considered the most artistically important in American film history.

Double I CoverIn 1939, James M. Cain wrote Double Indemnity, a novel as elegant and brutal as a rusty nail about an insurance cheat perpetrated by a wife, with help of a clever, but weak-kneed insurance man. Like the film, it’s told from the perspective of our doomed anti-hero.
The 1944 adaptation is considered the most important film in the film noir style. Not only was it directed by one of cinema’s greats, Billy Wilder. But he and his writing partner Brackett had none other than Raymond Chandler to improve the story and add his inkily cynical humor to a story that richly benefits from it.

A line from the novel: “Maybe that don’t mean to you what it meant to me. Well, in the first place, accident insurance is sold, not bought. You get calls for other kinds, for fire, for burglary, even for life, but never accident. That stuff moves when agents move it, and it sounds funny to be asked about it.”

Double I Movie PosterAn exchange from the film: “Walter Neff: You’ll be here too? Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am. Walter Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet? Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean. Walter Neff: I wonder if you wonder.”

It’s easy to see that the film greatly improves the verbal style. But what of the visual style? Roger Ebert lauds: “The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings.”

And we know it’s a classic, but how was it received in 1944? Alfred Hitchcock (yeah, him): “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are ‘Billy’ and ‘Wilder.'”

Come see what they were (and what we will be) talking about in our “Best of the Best” film series, as we screen and discuss Double Indemnity on Wednesday, September 25th at 1:30 PM. A repeat screening at 6:30. See what’s playing and cast your vote today at http://www.epls.org/films/.

Taking a Chance on Drive

There are many lofty reasons to be fond of public libraries. Their promotion of literacy, the way they bring the community together, and, of course, ensuring access to all kinds of information. But there is another reason and it is one of my favorites: The ability to root around in pop-culture’s closet for free.

My latest example of this phenomenon is the 2011 film Drive. With the title suggesting one long car chase, it is not the kind of film that would normally pique my interest. Having read a review or two that mentioned its imminent cult status, plus only needing a library card to view it, I decided to give it a try.

Now there definitely is a car chase or two in the film, but don’t let that scare you off. Drive is essentially a quirky modern day film noir with 80s highlights. A nameless anti-hero, played by Ryan Gosling, works as a part-time stunt driver and hires himself out as a getaway driver for cash. As with all film noir, things eventually fall apart but not before he develops an attachment to a single mother (Carey Mulligan) who lives down the hall in their seedy apartment complex. There are also great supporting performances by Albert Brooks, as the lead villain no less, and Bryan Cranston, who will always be Mr. White from Breaking Bad to me.

While the plot description sounds pretty standard, the tone of the film is not. Dialog is kept to a bare minimum and the odd romance, comprised of lots of significant stares but not much else, is contrasted with the hyper-violence of the crime plot. Though I definitely liked the film overall, I must admit that I got a little lost towards the end and began asking myself questions like “Who is that guy, and why is he getting killed?”

Luckily, the library has the book the film was based on, Drive by James Sallis, to help me try and sort things out. With hardly a whiff of romance, this book is hard boiled and as straight down the line as they come. A quick read, at a mere 158 pages, it is stark and plot driven, but a lot of fun. If you want to continue the story, there is a sequel, aptly titled Driven, which has recently been published.

Are you a fan of 1980s synth music? Do you think it is perfectly acceptable to explain plot points with a montage and a cool song? If so you definitely want to check out the Drive Soundtrack. I would have sworn the bands were from the early 80s but they are all modern and hail from France, Montreal and Portland. Is it retro, a new trend or some odd version of nostalgia? Quite frankly, who cares? It is just freaking awesome to me.

So remember those lofty reasons for loving public libraries, but don’t feel ashamed to take a chance now and again. What have you got to lose?

Richard