Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

My introduction to Billy Wilder’s film noir classic was not as a requirement for a film class or an interest in one of the main actors or even an interest in the genre of film noir. It was Gilmore Girls.

(Of course.)

Lorelai has injured her back while making a dress for Rory to wear to her school dance, and when her mother, Emily, arrives the night of the dance to take pictures of Rory, she discovers Lorelai’s injury and insists on spending the evening overseeing her injury. Flipping through the television channels, Emily stumbles upon Double Indemnity.

“Oh, look–Barbara Stanwyck. I just love Barbara Stanwyck,” she says.

“Oh yeah, she’s good,” agrees Lorelai.

“She had that wonderful voice — that husky, deep voice. I just love that voice.”

“You know Mom, you have kind of a Barbara Stanwyck-y voice.”

“Oh, I do not.”

“I mean it. You could have gotten Fred MacMurray to off Dad if you’d really wanted to.”

But like most Gilmore Girls pop culture references, I didn’t recognize or fully understand the reference until I’d seen the episode three or four or three times four times.

mythreesons

(Are you singing the My Three Sons theme song in your head right now? ‘Cos once you start, you just can’t stop. Just try it. Dare you.)

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of Fred MacMurray, I instantly think of Steve Douglas, widowed father of Mike, Robbie, and Chip (and later Ernie…but I don’t really want to talk about that right now).  Steve Douglas–and by extension, at least in my mind as a child, Fred MacMurray–was a kind, understanding, and fair father.

And when I don’t see MacMurray as Douglas, I see him as Wilson Daniels, a mailman who hates dogs and father to Moochie and Wilby, who happens to turn into a dog–a shaggy one, to be precise.

vlcsnap-00027

Moochie? Moochie! MOOCHIE!

Slightly more erratic than Steve Douglas but still a good and decent man.

aliceadams

And then I see MacMurray in Alice Adams as Arthur Russell, the kind and wealthy man Katharine Hepburn’s Alice Adams falls in love with.

Always kind. Always decent. Always trustworthy. There was no way he was ever, ever, EVER plotting to kill anybody to get the insurance money.

That, of course, is exactly what he does in Double Indemnity. 

vlcsnap-00024

The film opens with Walter Neff (MacMurray) hobbling to his office to record a “confession” for his fellow employee, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He is obviously in pain. He dictates into the Dictaphone, “I did it for the money. I did it for the girl. I didn’t get the money. I didn’t get the girl. Pretty, isn’t it?”

Somehow, you instantly get the idea that this isn’t going to end too well for Walter. Yet, as the film is told in flashback, you’re (or at least I was) on the edge of your seat, anxious to see how the plot unfolds and whether Walter and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) will actually get away with their devious plan. The suspense of the film is perfectly complemented and augmented by the taut soundtrack, sharp and concise dialogue, the ingenious use of light and shadow, and Fred MacMurray’s dispassionate voice-over narration. (It would be kind of cool if he could narrate my life every day. Just sayin’.)

Neff, like my childhood memories of MacMurray, is at first portrayed (from his perspective, mind) as a respected, honest, and successful insurance salesman. Then, how is he driven to commit murder? Two words: Barbara Stanwyck. And five more: In a (hideous) blonde wig. From the moment Neff sees Phyllis, he is overcome with desire for her, and thus is willing to be roped into her plan to murder her absentee husband to cash in an insurance policy Neff will (not really) sell him. They work together to meticulously plan every detail of how they will carry out the plot…and whether they’re successful, well, you’ll have to watch and see for yourself. It is so worth it.

Double Indemnity

“We’re both rotten.”

“Only you’re a little more rotten.” 

According to Robert Osborne’s introduction to the film, one of the major obstacles to the film being made was in fact the casting. Each of the principal players–MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson–were initially resistant for different reasons. Robinson at first refused because his role was a supporting one, not a lead. MacMurray and Stanwyck (who had previously worked together in Remember the Night, which I was going to write about at Christmastime but admittedly was too lazy to do so) both had concerns about playing cold-hearted murderers. Wilder encouraged both to accept the challenge, and as a result, they produced two of the finest performances of their long and illustrious careers.

It’s a near-perfect film. Actually, it just might be perfect. I can’t think of anything wrong with it–except perhaps for Stanwyck’s truly hideous and often distracting blonde wig, which does suit her character in a way. It is well-written, the performances pull you in from the moment the film starts and don’t let you go until the words “The End” fade onto the screen, and the soundtrack and photography perfectly mirror the dark plot.

Oh, and Emily Gilmore does kind of have a Barbara Stanwyck-y voice. And she totally could have gotten Fred MacMurray to off Richard Gilmore if she had so desired.

Advertisements

The Jam, A Gift…

The year 1981 was a relatively quiet one for The Jam, a group who had released five albums and 11 top 40 singles (including two consecutive number ones), many of which were exclusive to the 45 format and featured similarly exclusive b-sides, in the space of just three years. With no new album and only three singles (including a release of “That’s Entertainment”, taken from Sound Affects) issued in 1981, it may have appeared that they were slowing down. Yet they were still touring the globe furiously, and chief songwriter, Paul Weller, was writing songs just as furiously for the group’s next album, an album he hoped would be the perfect album.

It didn’t quite turn out that way, as Weller himself readily admits in the foreword to the beautiful book that accompanies the Super Deluxe Edition of the recently reissued album, The Gift: “I think apart from a couple of turkeys (not gonna say which–you work it out!) it’s a great album.”

Yes, 2012 meant many different things to different people, but for fans of The Jam, it marked the thirtieth anniversary of the band’s split–and the thirtieth anniversary of what turned out to be the band’s final album, The Gift. Universal, thankfully, also remembered and repackaged the album as both a double-disc deluxe edition and a Super Deluxe Edition, which includes the original album, non-album singles and b-sides, a disc of previously unreleased demos and alternate takes, the full audio of the band’s December 3 show at Wembley Arena, a DVD of performances and promo clips, a replica of the original tour program and postcards, and an absolutely stunning 72-page hardcover book, featuring new interviews with Paul Weller and an insightful essay on the album by John Harris.

Unfortunately, the latter edition was also considerably more expensive–overpriced, even, some might say. But I bought it anyway. ‘Cos, in case you forgot, Paul Weller has stolen my soul, and I’m never, ever serious about the New Year’s resolution where I resolve to finally get it back from him.

thegift

Is this not the most beautiful sight your precious little eyes have ever beheld (excepting Paul Weller himself, of course)? It’s even more beautiful than I could have ever possibly imagined. Definitely justified my drooling excessively at the thought of it every single day for the past six months.

There is nothing new on the first disc, all the non-album singles and b-sides previously made available elsewhere, but there are a few treasures on the demo and alternate takes disc, notably the demos of “Running on the Spot” and “Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero?”, which I fell in love with on first listen when it accompanied the November issue of MOJO. The live show offers proof of the band’s passion and power, as do the clips provided on the DVD, exempting Top of the Pops, where Weller half-heartedly mimes along. (Too bad the full Birmingham show isn’t included, though. Every Jam fans know it exists! Come on, Universal.) My favorite part about this package, though, has to be the 72-page hardcover book, which is skillfully written and designed. The pages are not only filled with striking designs and fresh analysis but also facsimiles of original press clippings and memorabilia. My favorite has to be the “See Bruce Jump” craft taken from the NME. You can create your own pop-up of Bruce Foxton jumping around like a fox terrier! Oh, and there’s also this photo:

Screen shot 2013-01-11 at 3.26.07 PM

Oh yeah. Look at this pin-up. This adorable, blind pin-up.

Anyway. Moving on.

The album itself unleashes mixed emotions. I don’t think it’s really anyone’s favorite Jam album (Sound Affects or go home, ya’ll). Tainted by the group’s split and a few “turkeys,” as Weller calls them, it is not the perfect album he aimed to create, yet it still contains some of Weller’s finest and (sadly still) most relevant lyrics. In his essay about the album, John Harris details the social and historical context of the album, specifically the rise of Margaret Thatcher and how, by the winter of 1981, unemployment in Britain was nearing three million, manufacturing had lost a fifth of its capacity, and the nation itself was becoming quite literally a series of ghost towns, hence the rise of The Specials’ “Ghost Town” to the top of the charts in 1981. Weller vented his feelings about the state of the nation in his new compositions.

“I was trying to capture a sense of the anger that I felt–that a lot of people felt–about Thatcherism and the way that she and the Tory party were trying to dismantle the communities and the working classes. Attacks on the trade unions, small businesses disappearing, and so many of aspects of English life being closed down to people…I was trying to reflect the frustration and despair that sprang out of all that,” says Weller in the accompanying book.

Yet, Harris is apt to point out, these were not the finger-pointin’ songs of Bob Dylan. Oh, no. (But don’t worry, The Style Council, replete with explicit attacks on Margaret Thatcher and, of course, aesthetically offensive haircuts, is coming!) These were songs that “ran the gamut of feelings and emotions, sounding notes by turns sad, angry, wistful, and sometimes almost desperate. They key point was that it never let go of a perspective that is focused on people rather than the cold stuff of ideology, something reflected in both its eye for everyday detail and the sense that most of its songs were actually less about any political problems than the human condition.”

Take, for instance, “Town Called Malice”: “Better stop dreaming of the quiet life–‘cos it’s the one we’ll never know/And quit running for that runaway bus–‘cos those rosey days are few/And stop apologizing for the things you’ve never done/’Cos time is short and life is cruel–but it’s up to us to change/This town called malice.” Or “Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero?”, an earnest, straightforward ode to the working man: “Alright then love so I’ll be off now/It’s back to the lunchbox and worker-management rows/There’s gotta be more to this old life than this/Scrimping and saving and cross off lists.”

The album’s most enduring sentiments are found in “Running On the Spot,” a song Weller has recently reinstated into his set lists. It is a song, as its title indicates, about halted progress (if there ever was any to begin with), and this idea is fittingly reflected in how its sentiments and statements are still relevant, depressingly so: “I was hoping we’d make real progress/But it seems we have lost the power/Any tiny step of advancement/Is like a raindrop falling into the ocean/We’re running on the spot–always have–always will/We’re just the next generation of emotionally crippled.”

Not every song on the album is politically charged, however. “Happy Together” and “Precious” are intense and complex love songs, each expressing an overwhelming need to be with the singer’s loved one and brimming with the energy so closely associated with The Jam, epitomized by bass player Bruce Foxton’s desperate scream at the start of “Happy Together”: “Baaaaaaby!”

The album’s crowning moment, though, has to be “Ghosts.” Or at least it has to be for me. This is quite possibly my favorite song in the entire world, barring none except perhaps The Beatles. John Harris describes the song as two minutes of “near-perfection” in his essay. He’s wrong. This is two minutes (and ten seconds!) of absolute perfection. Weller often introduced the song in concerts as a song about “the power inside you”: “Why are you frightened–can’t you see that it’s you?/That ain’t no ghost–it’s a reflection of you/Why do you turn away–an’ keep it out of sight?/Oh, don’t live up to your given roles/There’s more inside you that you won’t show.” Uplifting and lyrically flawless, I could listen to nothing but this song every day for the rest of my life. (Unfortunately, we only get an instrumental demo of this song on the demos disc. I really, really, really hope no one is hoarding any demos or alternate takes of this song from me.)

In stark contrast to “Ghosts” stands “Carnation,” a song equal to “Ghosts” in its lyrical power and imagery. The song depicts the coldness of someone’s–indeed, anyone’s–heart, perfectly reflected in the image of the crushed petals of a carnation: “If you gave me a fresh carnation/I would only crush its tender petals.” If “Ghosts” describes the “good” power inside you, then “Carnation” paints quite the opposite: “And if you’re wondering by now who I am/Look no further than the mirror/Because I am the Greed and Fear/And every ounce of Hate in you.” Liam Gallagher once uttered the most succinct and perfect description of the song, with a flash of what I can only presume was intended to be devil horns: “It’s proper Lucifer, innit?” (Watch the brief interview and cover of “Carnation” here. Cute keyboard player, by the way!)

747

“He looks younger than me in that thing. I look terrible! Really massive bags under me eyes.” — Paul Weller

Weller worked incredibly hard on the album, so hard that he contracted shingles, a rare illness for a 23-year-old, and had a mini-panic attack, both induced by stress. He also met Paul McCartney, resulting in the above photo snapped by McCartney’s wife, Linda. Weller later recalled: “We was in the same studio, right, in Air. We was in Number One and he was in Number Two or something. They just started talking to us. They knew all about us. Linda really liked The Jam, knew most of the songs, and he’d heard some of the new stuff, which was The Gift at the time. If I’d met him 12 years ago I would have been really knocked out–‘cos I used to really like him then–but now he just seems like a really ordinary geezer. Seemed really nice and straight. She had, like, a backdrop set up in the studio and she was taking photos all day of, like, him and the kids and she just got me in there and sat me down and done it. He looks younger than me in that thing. I look terrible! Really massive bags under me eyes.”

Terrible? Someone obviously forgot about THIS photo:

Screen shot 2013-01-11 at 3.26.07 PM
Yeah. This picture alone was worth the price of admission.

With so much hard work and so many outstanding songs, Weller was still disappointed with the results, writing in the tour program, “Cracking up over The Gift LP, I wanted it perfect, but settled for good, oh well!” Oh, if only more bands could release “good” albums like The Gift!

Seven months following the album’s release, Weller announced the split of the group. With the band at the height of their commercial and, arguably, critical peak, it was a bold move. At the time, Weller stated, “The longer a group continues, the more frightening the thought of ever ending it becomes. That’s why so many of them carry on until they become meaningless.”

This was not to be the case for The Jam, a band whose meaning has, if anything, only increased with time, uncontaminated by mediocrity and nostalgic reunion tours. Their honesty, passion, fire and skill still resonate, as they did so brilliantly on The Gift, which we are allowed to re-experience in this remarkable, if slightly overpriced, Super Deluxe Box Set.

P.S.

Screen shot 2013-01-11 at 3.26.07 PM

Yeah, this will never get old.   

Finding Fred Gwynne

Or, rather, finding Fred Gwynne in a movie starring Marlon Brando, which requires my eyes to wander and look at someone else besides Marlon Brando. Scientists sometimes refer to this behavior as “unnatural.”

The Munsters came to my house for Christmas, and watching the show again prompted me to look up ol’ Herman Munster, Fred Gwynne. I was surprised to discover that his career included an uncredited bit part in On the Waterfront.

I love On the Waterfront.

File On the Waterfront under Films I Could Watch Every Day For The Rest Of My Life And Still Never Tire Of.

So how did I not know that Fred Gwynne was in this movie? Marlon Brando, duh. When I saw On the Waterfront at the local theatre as part of its ongoing Celebrating the Classics series, the film was preceded by an introduction by a local film aficionado/critic/historian à la Robert Osborne. This man told us all kinds of interesting bits of trivia and anecdotes about the film, and he left us with a challenge to watch any one else in the film besides Brando, who, of course, gives an electrifying performance. I felt no need to accept that challenge (who wants to watch anyone except Brando in this–or any–film?)–until I learned of Fred Gwynne’s role.

vlcsnap-00001

There he is! Gwynne plays one of Johnny Friendly’s henchmen. There’s so many of them, he is easily overlooked, but once you know to look for him, he’s just as easily found.

vlcsnap-00004

Annnnnd there he is again. Herman! 

vlcsnap-00006

And in case you’re blind and still not convinced that that is indeed Fred Gwynne, he utters a single line, albeit offscreen, during an argument with Friendly’s banker and another henchman, “That’s why I never got married.” Herman Munster speaks!

vlcsnap-00009

There he is again, preparing to throw a can or something at Father Barry (Karl Malden), who is speaking about how longshoreman Kayo Dugan’s death is akin to the crucifixion of Christ and how anyone who knows anything about his or Joey Doyle’s death is complicit in that crucifixion. You can see the effect of his words on Terry Malloy (Brando), who is torn between what he feels should be his loyalty to Friendly and his moral conscience.

vlcsnap-00010

Yup. That’s him. In the hat. Er, on the left.

vlcsnap-00015

And one last final appearance. Here he is, preventing anyone from interfering in the climatic fight between Friendly and Malloy. Ain’t no one gettin’ past Herman!

On the Waterfront is a perfect film, a film so perfect I’ll have to gush about it properly (i.e. devoting thousands of words to Brando’s every movement in the film) in another post. But I do believe its perfection has been heightened by the small discovery that it features Fred Gwynne. Definitely! 

P.S.

vlcsnap-00020

Bless. Your. Face.