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/.

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