Double Indemnity ★★★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 11: Film Noir

So, eleven weeks into the Film School Dropout challenge, I'm coming to realize that I'm simply not going to be able to keep up with the "review a day and book at the end" schedule I had originally devised for myself; things with my day job have kicked up to a level I wasn't anticipating, I find myself still highly invested in the monthly themed scavenger hunts at Letterboxd, and especially I've discovered what a herculean chore it is to get through seven movies of a type I don't like (Italian Neo-Realism, uuuggghhhh), which among other things has led to a three-week streak recently where I didn't get any FSDO reviews done at all, which combined with the two weeks I had already missed means I'm likely never going to be able to get caught up with everything by the end of the year. So my new plan is to just do it like everyone else is doing it, an official commitment of only one movie per week, with the acknowledgement that on weeks with themes that I naturally enjoy (like film noir this week), I'll probably get through a lot more of them than that, and maybe even the full seven like I had originally planned.

Film noir is a particularly interesting subject to tackle in this FSDO challenge; for out of the eleven themes we've now taken on so far this year, this is easily the one that's already had the most academic analysis done to it, the first genre to not only be as popular now in the 21st century as when it first came out, but arguably with an even bigger and more passionate audience than its original fans back in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. So the interesting question becomes why this is, when other genres of its time (social realism, Expressionism, screwball comedies, swashbucklers, etc) have more or less fallen into the realm of historical curiosities, which when watched at all in the 21st century is only by a small slice of the population, selecting only a small slice of those genres' best examples?

It's a question that's been analyzed to death in all those "Film Noir 101" guides that populate the internet; but one of the points that seem to be missing from most of these guides, and one I'm particularly well-suited to notice because of me writing as many book reviews per year as I do movie reviews, is that film noir is the first time that Hollywood really started getting novel adaptations right, the thing that finally started letting cinema rise above the realm of simplistic escapist entertainment for the first time in its then-40-year history (or at least, in the most generous way you might put it, rise above what had so far up to that point exclusively been its badly done and overly simplistic attempts to adapt character-based literary novels), which is what finally started letting cinema be considered a sophisticated form of the arts that could compete equally with novels, which to remind you, at this point in history was considered the main outlet for grown-ups who wished to consume grown-up creative projects.

Certainly Hollywood had tried to adapt literary novels before the 1930s, but as we've been seeing in the FSDO challenge, the results were typically a disaster when compared to the original books: eye-rollingly simplistic and overly maudlin scripts that were often hastily cobbled together by early industry professionals, ones who had just randomly stumbled into screenwriting ass-backwards via completely unrelated former careers; with hammy actors still leftover at that point from Vaudeville, mugging for the cameras and batting their eyelashes in an attempt to project their emotions all the way to the back of the room. But as we've also learned in the FSDO challenge, there seems to have been a sea change happen in the film industry right around the 1930s, not by coincidence just about one generation's time span from when the film industry was born at the turn of the century; and this new generation entering the industry were people who had been born with cinema being a part of their lives, already conversant with the "language" of film by their twenties and ready to start doing some brand-new things with the medium.

This happily coincided, then, with big new innovations in film technology itself; the shift of film "studios" from just normal corporations into some of the biggest and most lucrative businesses the US had ever seen in its entire history; the rise of short, punchy, screenplay-like writing within not just the world of fine-art literature (think Hemingway and Faulkner) but also that industry's prurient edges (think Henry Miller, hardboiled detective tales, etc), two sides of the same coin that mutually influenced and informed each other in the 1920s and '30s; and perhaps most importantly, a newfound shift in public morality in these Great Depression years, one that saw a new tolerance for frank discussions in the arts about sex, violence, and the ethical gray areas of life. (And never mind the infamous Hays Code for now; after all, the Code would've never been invented in the first place if there wasn't this loosening of public morals to prompt such a thing, which much like Trumpism was the result of only a tiny amount of loudmouths who didn't actually reflect the attitudes of the vast majority of the population, who simply screamed and yelled until they got their way and managed to get the Hays Code enforced, but with the "filth genie" out of the bottle at that point and the conservatively religious finding it impossible to cram it entirely back in, no matter how hard they tried.)

All of these things combined in those years to produce a series of genres like screwball comedies, gangster films, and crime melodramas that were suddenly written a whole lot better than they ever had been before, precisely because the world of novels had transformed into a more cinema-friendly one; with scripts that were being increasingly written by actual published authors instead of just hacks that had stumbled their way into the job; with production details like sets and costumes that were suddenly raised to ridiculously high levels of quality because of a "cold war" between the major studios over who could put out the most sumptuous films on a regular basis; and executed by a series of directors, cinematographers and actors who could truly be called "film industry professionals" for the first time in history (versus "odd ne'er-do-wells who sort of drifted into southern California by accident," which is quite literally how you can define most of the eventually famous Hollywood directors and actors of the 1910s and '20s).

And that finally brings us (whew) to 1944's Double Indemnity, which of course immediately clashes with several of the things I just mentioned: for it was directed by Billy Wilder, precisely one of these ne'er-do-wells who stumbled into the film industry by accident in the 1920s after first being a tabloid journalist; and its screenplay was changed so heavily from the James M. Cain novel it was based on that the two are almost unrecognizable when held side-by-side. But that said, there are exceptions to both these exceptions as well: Wilder turned out to be a born cineaste, nominated for dozens of Academy Awards over a 50-year career that helped define what modern cinema even is; and the adapter of Cain's novel was no less than fellow hardboiled author Raymond Chandler, which is why the finished screenplay still reads with the sophisticated complexity of a novel despite all the changes, changes that by the way were so clever that Cain himself said afterward that he would've written his book more like it if he had simply been smart enough to think of those changes himself. (Too bad, then, that Chandler was such an uncontrollable alcoholic, whose addiction forced him into an only short and checkered career in Hollywood; in fact, he clashed with Wilder so much during Double Indemnity that the very next movie Wilder made was the infamous alcoholic-writer drama The Lost Weekend, which he claimed in later interviews he made specifically "to explain Chandler to himself.")

It's considered one of the first-ever movies to define "film noir" as we traditionally know it, so incredibly influential that its incidental details were copied so often as to become cliches -- the long shadows, the abstract patterns of lights shown through blinds, the rat-a-tat dialogue, the endless smoking -- which in a way is ironic, because the German-born Wilder devised many of these elements because of having been a childhood fan of Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and only added them to his pedestrian B-pic crime drama as a way of differentiating himself in his early career, within a crowded field of newbie Hollywood directors who had all recently fled Europe because of the war, causing such a sensation with these details that he nearly single-handedly and completely by accident invented an entire new genre. But what was easily one of the smartest details out of everything he added was the one-two punch of making the main character a sort of milquetoast weasel who you can neither entirely root for nor entirely boo and hiss like a mustache-twirling Victorian-era villain, a murky moral gray zone that eventually became one of the defining trademarks of film noir; and then casting Fred MacMurray to play this milquetoast weasel, who up to then had exclusively been in nothing but light comedies his entire career, and had played nothing but the "genial good guy" part in all of them (a type that defined the part he's today now best remembered for, as the mellow dad in the white-toast-bland '60s TV show My Three Sons).

This was a new type of villain for a new age -- not the black-hat-wearing histrionics of early Hollywood, but the kind of insidious, two-faced pleasantness that so thoroughly defined the fascists who were rapidly taking over the planet in those years, the "banality of evil" (as Hannah Arendt famously described the average mid-level Nazi) who would otherwise be just some forgettable insurance adjuster at some forgettable corporate office, if not for the nefarious activities he takes part in when no one is looking. And this too is a big part of why film noir became so huge at the exact moment in history it did, because it helped define a modern and complicated evil at a point when mustache-twirling villains no longer cut it, a world that was no longer black and white but an infinite series of grays, all of them "acceptable" in one form or another depending on the circumstances and who was doing the rationalization (the attitude that fueled both Nazism and our modern Trump age -- after all, it's okay to slaughter Muslim babies as long as it keeps YOU safe, right? Right?). And this too helps explain why the original film noirs of the 1940s and '50s still have such a lasting power in our contemporary times, when so many other films from those years have become these odd, barely relatable artifacts; for noirs still unfortunately describe our contemporary world unsettlingly well, which combined with their stylish production values and realistic acting make them easy to still enjoy at face value 70-odd years later, without that asterisk that usually comes with movies this old. ("This film is good! ...You know, good for its times.") I have surprisingly seen almost none of these old original noirs, so I'm looking forward to an entire week of them this week, continuing next with 1944's Murder, My Sweet; and I promise, future write-ups won't be nearly as wordy as this one.

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