Double Indemnity – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Fred MacMurray was a big movie star of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s who transitioned into a beloved TV father figure in his long running series My Three Sons.  In almost all of that long and popular career he was always the kind, mild-mannered and upstanding American man.  There were three exceptions that I can think of.  One was a film I’ve previously reviewed here, “The Caine Mutiny” in which MacMurray was a manipulative naval officer who brings about a mutiny for which he escapes blame but others are court-martialed.  Another was a movie called “The Apartment where he is a philandering corporate executive.  And the third is the present film, Double Indemnity.  MacMurray is insurance salesman, Walter Neff.  Barbara Stanwyck is Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of one of Neff’s policy holders and Edward G. Robinson is Barton Keyes an insurance investigator and Neff’s good friend.  The story revolves around the plot by MacMurray and Stanwyck to murder her husband and collect on a double indemnity life insurance policy.  The details of the murder are actually kind of ingenious and the story has plenty of interesting twists and minor characters that enliven the action.  All in all, the production is well acted and very well written.  In particular, Edward G Robinson’s character steals the show.  He is clever, likeable and provides the moral anchor against which we can weigh the evil being perpetrated by MacMurray and Stanwyck.

The only real problem with the movie is that MacMurray’s character is supposed to be a fast talking, wise cracking, hard boiled character.  He’s supposed to be the kind of character that George Raft or Humphrey Bogart might have played.  But he’s Fred MacMurray.  So, every time he calls Barbara Stanwyck, “baby,” which by the way he seems to do about a hundred times, all I can think of is him playing absent minded Prof. Ned Brainard in Disney’s movie the “Son of Flubber.”  It just doesn’t work.  He’s too nice a guy to believe as a cold-blooded murderer.

The other hiccough in the plot is the scene where MacMurray and Stanwyck fall out.  At one point, Stanwyck abandons here cold-blooded behavior with an altruistic explanation that must have been based on a Hayes Code requirement but just doesn’t make any theatrical sense.

These two considerations aside the movie is an entertaining story with an engaging plot and good acting by both the primary and secondary characters.  Even with my reservations about MacMurray’s believability as bad guy I can still see this movie over and over and still enjoy it.  The secret I believe is Edward G Robinson.  His character allows us to side with the forces of rationality when they intervene and subdue the chaotic outbreak that Neff and Dietrichson unleash with their clever plan.  And Robinson gets to hammer home his side of the story in the final scene where he confronts his murderous friend and tells him how it all will end.  The only accommodation he makes to their old friendship is lighting a match for Neff when he is too weak to light his own cigarette.  And in a 1940’s movie, if you can’t even light your own cigarette you know you’re as good as dead.

Psycho – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Re-Posted from October 2017 in honor of Halloween.  Boo!

In honor of Halloween I’ve gone through the Universal Classic Monster Movies.  Moving along let’s look at the first modern horror movie.  And let’s start by defining what a modern horror movie is.  Well, what it isn’t is Frankenstein or Dracula or any make-believe monster.  In fact, it isn’t even a more contemporary monster like a zombie in “Night of the Living Dead.”  The generation that had lived through World War II and the Korean War and was living under the threat of nuclear annihilation probably couldn’t pretend to be afraid of rubber-masked monsters.  What they could fear was the monster that might be living behind the eyes of the boy next door.  Insanity was a monster that they knew had broken free before and once loose inflicted real horror on all in its path.  So that’s the modern horror movie monster, a homicidal maniac.  And before there was the Red Dragon, or Hannibal Lector or Saw there was Norman Bates.

Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who wrote genre fiction in Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery categories.  It was inspired in part by a truly depraved serial killer named Ed Gein but the details of the story mostly came out of Bloch’s imagination.

But the reason Psycho is the subject of this review is that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make that movie.  Always an innovator and aware of the need to push the boundaries of what was allowable on screen, he produced a film that fit its time.  The sexual nature of the relationship between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis is highlighted.  The murder scenes although tame by today’s standards are truly frightening.  For audiences of that time (1960) some of the scenes would have been shocking.

But Hitchcock didn’t make just a scream fest.  The movie is a complete story.  Each of the main characters and many of the smaller parts are skillfully crafted with loving detail and come to life on the screen.  And one character who has been dead for ten years and only survives inside the tortured brain of a madman gets several good lines including the closing soliloquy.

And here is one of the strangest twists of the movie.  The monster gets to tell his side of the story.  In the scene where Norman Bates brings Marion a meal, he tells his side of the story and even gives his mother’s side too.  Obviously, it’s couched in self-delusion and the confusion associated with a split personality but he describes his life as being in a self-inflicted trap that he no longer even tried to escape.  And he admitted that he depended on his mother as much as she depended on him.  And the portrait we see is personable, sympathetic and pitiable.  Of course, this just sets us up for what follows.

Norman’s sexual frustration is illustrated in the voyeurism we are shown and of course the maniacal rage is on display in each of the murders and the attempted murder.  When the psychiatrist comes on at the end as a deus-ex-machina, he not only explains the origins of Norman’s psychosis but also reveals that there have been additional women victims of “Norman’s mother.”

And finally, in the soliloquy that ends the dialog, we really get to meet the monster.  Mother tells us how sad it is that Norman must be punished and how innocent she is of all the blood.  But the dishonesty and the cruelty are on display and at the very last image of “her” we see the monster showing.  And the very last image we get is Marion’s car being winched out of the swamp (her coffin being exhumed from her grave).

What do I like about this movie?  Everything.  The actors are excellent.  The dialog is perfect.  Even the music and sound effects reinforce the action on the screen.  I don’t watch this movie often because I don’t want to wear it out.  But it’s the perfect adult horror movie.  The only thing that gives it competition is Silence of the Lambs.  I find it to be the perfect embodiment of the modern monster.  Man.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 6 – Strangers on A Train – A Classic Movie Review

Strangers on a Train is a Hitchcock film from the middle of his Hollywood era.  It has one of Hitchcock’s craziest villains and one of the weirdest finales.  Which with Hitchcock is really saying something.  The premise is that two strangers meet on a train and one of them proposes that each commit a murder that benefits the other.  The idea is since they’re perfect strangers they won’t be suspected in a murder associated with the stranger but not himself.  The one proposing the deal is a very strange man named Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker) who hates his father.  The other man is a relatively famous amateur tennis player named Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger) who has an unstable and unfaithful wife Miriam, that he’d like to divorce to marry Anne Morton, the daughter of a US Senator.  But Miriam refuses to allow it because of the monetary benefits marriage provides.  Guy doesn’t even know how to react to this outrageous proposal so he treats it jokingly and gets off the train at his stop.  But he accidentally leaves his very expensive and monogrammed cigarette lighter on the train with Bruno.  Guy may treat this proposition as a joke but Bruno certainly doesn’t.  We get a scene with Bruno and his parents.  Bruno and his mother are both lunatics but she seems relatively harmless.  We hear his father state that he will have Bruno put away.  This activates Bruno and he proceeds to murder Miriam at an amusement park.  He stalks her and flirts with her and chokes the life out of her.  Then he casually walks away.

Bruno  goes immediately to Guy and announces that he has carried out his side of the bargain and expects Guy to kill Bruno’s father.  When Guy threatens to call the police Bruno counters by saying both would be held responsible in the conspiracy.  Most of the rest of the movie involves Bruno hounding Guy even within his circle of friends.  And this is where you realize that Bruno is the most interesting character in the movie.  His insanity does not prevent him from entertaining the minor characters at dinner parties and outside restaurants.  He tells Anne’s father about his theory of interplanetary clairvoyance and he entertains an old lady socialite with his theories on murder.  Unfortunately he gets carried away and almost chokes her to death at a dinner party.  All in all he’s a very spirited fellow.  But eventually all good things come to an end and when guy doesn’t come through with his “criss-cross” side of the murder bargain, Bruno decides to frame him for the original murder using the monogrammed lighter as evidence.

Several additional scenes advance the story to the climax and we return to the scene of the crime, the amusement park.  A very bizarre and cinematically interesting scene with a carousel brings it to a head and Bruno and Guy and the police finally sort things out.

Even though Guy and his friends are the innocent victims, I never felt all that much sympathy for them.  They don’t really evoke much interest.  They’re all kind of flat.  So, despite the fact that he’s a thoroughgoing psychopath, the movie is really the Bruno Anthony show.  And as creepy as he is he definitely keeps my interest.  I like this Hitchcock pretty well but I could see how it might not appeal to all tastes.  Caveat emptor.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 5 – The Thirty Nine Steps – A Classic Movie Review

Continuing on with the British films I’ll review “The Thirty Nine Steps.”  This is another espionage tale where the civilian protagonist is swept up in a confusing web of events that he must navigate or be left holding the bag in a murder manhunt.  Our hero is a Canadian visiting London on a work assignment who meets up with a femme fatale at a London music hall and quickly gets drawn into her attempt to prevent a spy ring from stealing vital British military secrets.  When she ends up in his apartment with a large knife protruding from her back he flees the scene to attempt to clear himself by finding and foiling the espionage ring.

The coincidences, unlikely events and sheer dumb luck that fills the story line makes the suspension of disbelief out of the question.  But Hitchcock replaces it with humor, human interest and a twisting turning plot line that comes full circle and provides the payoff.  Along the way you meet a varied cast of characters each lovingly fleshed out by the dialog and script.  One of my favorites is a milkman delivering to the hero’s building the morning he’s trying to escape from the scene of the murder.  He tries to recruit the milkman to help him escape the scene of the murder but the deliveryman flat out refuses to believe that there’s been a murder and he’s trying to elude the killers.  When the protagonist relents and claims that he’s just spent the night with a married woman and is trying to elude her husband the milkman immediately falls in with the plan and agrees to help without further complaint.  The fleeing man is obviously a brother in arms to the apparently philandering milkman.  Quite a lot of dialog is lavished on this completely ancillary plot device but it’s just this attention to detail that makes the picture memorable and interesting.  And there are several of these types of vignettes sprinkled in the picture.  And there’s a sort of love story although it does involve being handcuffed to a fleeing murder suspect and being gagged and even choked at one point.  But in Hitchcock love will find a way.

The final twist of the story as I mentioned, circles round to the beginning  of the story and is quite clever although there were clues if you were paying attention earlier.  All in all, it is a very well put together plot.

Once again, we have an earlier British Hitchcock that equals or even exceeds the quality of the Hollywood era “classics” that Hitchcock is famous for.  With actors that are complete unknowns to an American audience and immersed in the unfamiliar and idiosyncratic milieu of 1930s Britain, Hitchcock constructs an interesting and highly entertaining story out of a totally improbable premise.

I will dial back my praise with one caveat.  For the younger readers who have been saturated from birth with high definition picture and sound quality, it may be a little off-putting to see an old black and white movie from the 1930s.  This is a restored film where the worst of the sound and visual damage has been repaired.  But it’s picture quality is not even close to 2018 standards.  For those viewers of an older vintage this warning is of course unnecessary.

OCF Classic Movie Review – Charles Laughton – Part 1

So instead of looking at a movie, let’s switch it up and talk about an actor. Charles Laughton was a British actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age (1930s and 40s) who lasted into the 1960s.  In most cases this was fairly rare.  And that is because most of those actors back then were movie stars who depended on good looks to bring in the audience.  Once they hit forty parts started drying up.  Not Laughton though.  He resembled, and as he got older, more and more closely resembled, a toad.  Because of this he never depended on his looks to garner success.  He was a truly versatile and skillful actor.  As I’ve stated recently we are inside the month-long pre-Oscar movie festival on TCM.  Many old classics are being shown daily.  Over the weekend I watched two Laughton movies in one day.  In the morning I watched him in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” and that night I watched him in “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  The only thing that King Henry and Captain Bligh have in common is that they were both English.  The characterizations, appearances and mannerisms are worlds apart.  And yet both characters are memorable and believable.  And the same can be said for the multitude of characters he played over the years.  He was the Hunchback of Notre Dame, an American senator in the Cold War era, the Roman senator Cicero, an English barrister, the Emperor Claudius, a British butler in the old Wild West, Captain Kidd the pirate, a hobo, a ghost, a henpecked husband who murders his wife and even a horror movie mad scientist.  His versatility allowed him to create entertaining characters in a comedy, drama, tragedy, history or any combination of the above.  In fact, it was sometimes the case that a poor movie would still be worth watching just to see Laughton do his stuff.  Laughton movies that I have enjoyed for at least his efforts include:

1)            Mutiny on the Bounty (highly recommended)

2)            Witness for the Prosecution (highly recommended)

3)            Advise and Consent

4)            The Private Life of Henry VIII

5)            The Hunchback of Notre Dame

6)            Ruggles of Red Rock (a very silly but enjoyable comedy)

7)            Spartacus

8)            The Canterville Ghost (a WWII comedy)

9)            Island of Lost Souls (an early horror movie)

 

Treasure Island – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Robert Louis Stevenson is the author of a number of interesting stories including the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island.” I’ve always thought Treasure Island is one of the best boy’s stories ever written. I give a copy to each of my grandsons when he reaches the age where he can read it. It is one of the best.

Treasure Island has been made into a movie several times by Hollywood but for my money the best by a mile is the 1934 version with Victor Fleming directing. It stars Jackie Cooper as the boy hero Jim Hawkins and Wallace Beery as the pirate chief Long John Silver. Cooper was a kid actor in the Little Rascals series and also known for melodramatic roles in some big movies. Beery was a big star of the time who appeared in both comic and dramatic roles. The idea of using American actors in this British story seems ridiculous. Cooper doesn’t even pretend to use a British accent. He speaks in an obviously 20th century American accent. Beery uses a very stagey 18th century English accent. This is also the case with the rest of the cast. There is one actual brit Nigel Bruce (of Sherlock Holmes’ Doctor Watson fame) in the cast but he doesn’t come off any more authentic than any of the other actors. On the face of it, it seems impossible that anything good would emerge. But it does. It’s the best.

The story entertains at every turn. Boys from six to a hundred and six love this movie because it has everything they want. Treasure, pirates, sailing ships (the Hispaniola), desert islands, battles with flintlocks and cutlasses, and all manner of exciting adventure. The movie version takes some liberties with the book (mostly to put Long John Silver in a slightly better light) but the adaption is faithful to the spirit of the story and it remains solidly entertaining.

One of my favorite scenes is Jim Hawkins confronting the pirate, Israel Hands, while Jim is stealing the Hispaniola from the pirates to forestall the use of the ship’s cannons against his friends in the besieged blockhouse. In that scene Jim needs to be brave and resourceful and no adult is there to help him against a deadly adversary. In other scenes, the comedy inherent in his conversations with the ruthless but personable Long John Silver are memorable.

I guess what makes it timeless is the young protagonist proving himself a heroic and resourceful figure in the company of men, both good men and truly evil men. Basically it’s the same formula in the greek myths and every other hero coming of age story.

If you have a son or a grandson or a nephew or other boy who enjoys adventure (as most boys do) buy him the book and after he’s read it give him the movie to watch. And make some popcorn and watch it with him. You’ll enjoy it and so will he. Certain he will matey. Certain he will.

OCF Classic Movie Reviews – The Sting

Can a movie made in 1973 be a classic?  Hell yeah!  The Sting, to my mind, is one of the last identifiable big studio system type movies.  Everything about it exudes quality.  The cinematography, music, actors, sets, sound and script show attention to detail and professionalism.  The only thing that sets it apart from earlier productions is a little profanity that wouldn’t have gotten past the Hayes Code censors of twenty years earlier.

The plot is grifters versus mobsters in 1930s Chicago.  Revenge for a murdered grifter has the two stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford partnering to orchestrate a “big con” against a vicious mobster played by Robert Shaw.  Supporting cast includes Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan and a host of familiar faces.  George Roy Hill directed it and the ragtime music of Scott Joplin suffuses it from beginning to end and reinforces the feeling that you are immersed in an earlier era.  I cannot think of a false note in the whole movie.  Newman is at his best.  Redford is very good and Shaw chews up the scenery with his best Irish gangster characterization.  His mannerisms are fantastic.  One of his best bits has one of his henchmen asking if it’s worthwhile hunting down the grifters who stole such a small amount of his money.  Shaw’s on a golf course and he points to another golfer and says to the hitman, “Ya see that fella?  He and I went to fifth grade together.  If he finds out that a two-bit grifter got away with stealing from me I’m gonna have to have you kill him and every other small timer from here to Atlantic City.  Yafalla (which means do you follow)?

The plot is intricate involving Newman’s crew of con-men, Shaw’s gang, hired hitmen from out of town, local police and even FBI agents after Newman.  There are twists, turns and surprises.  The movie combines comedy, action and some drama in a fast-paced and highly entertaining way.  It’s an homage to the gangster movies of the 1930s that feels like it could have been written by O’Henry or Ring Lardner.  But there’s a modern feel to the pessimistic tone of the ending.  When Newman asks Redford what he’ll do with his cut, he says he doesn’t want it.  “I’d only lose it anyway.”

Give it a try if you’ve never seen it.  Highly recommended.

OCF Classic Movie Reviews – Capra Corn – The Films of Frank Capra – Part 1 – It Happened One Night

Anyone who has watched TV around Christmas has probably seen a Frank Capra movie because every year they play “It’s a Wonderful Life” non-stop for a week straight.  And that’s a really good Capra film.  But Capra made a bunch of good films in his day and some of them are among my favorites.  And my all-time favorite is “It Happened One Night.”  Filmed in 1934, it stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a screwball comedy that wants us to believe that an heiress on the run from her father would meet up accidentally on a bus with a reporter who needs her runaway story to salvage his newspaper career.  Their trek from Florida to New York begins with each despising the other and ends up, of course, with them falling in love.  But of course, the course of true love is never smooth and never was that truer than with this goofy tale.  The key to the success of this movie, for me, is the chemistry between Gable and Colbert.  He is the seemingly self-confident man of the world.  He knows it all and claims to be able to write a book about every skill from how to correctly dunk a doughnut, to how to thumb a ride on the highway.  She starts out as the arrogant little rich girl.  Pretending to need no one’s help and always in charge.  Once they broker a deal to travel together to their mutual interests, they proceed to heckle each other and bicker until they pretty convincingly fall in love.  My wife and I have always thought of this as a pretty much perfect date movie.  It has a little something for both sexes.  Gable gets to strut and brag in his king of the jungle act and Colbert is the sarcastic little woman.  In one of my favorite scenes Gable is demonstrating his various “foolproof” methods of thumbing a ride.  After a string of failures, he dejectedly admits maybe he shouldn’t write that book after all.  Colbert says she’ll get a ride and won’t even have to use her thumb at all.  Of course, she walks over to the rod, lifts her skirt above her knee and the first passing car slams on the brakes and the emergency brake too.  An amused Colbert says to the glum Gable that she had just answered an age-old riddle.  He asks what and she replies “that the limb is mightier than the thumb.”  And he viciously replies “well why didn’t you just take off all your clothes and you could have gotten a hundred rides?” to which she serenely replies “when we need a hundred rides I will.”

As I mentioned earlier, the couple don’t smoothly move from reluctant partners to sweethearts without obstacles and by the last reel misunderstanding and anger almost conspire to destroy this match made on a Greyhound Bus.  But of course, happily ever after is bound to be in a Capra film so the fear of tragedy is never serious.

The movie is full of little details of life in depression era America and the vignettes with the denizens of the bus and other locales add charm to the story.  Capra filled his depression era movies with scenes of the common people displaying compassion and camaraderie in the face of adversity.  The scene where the bus riders amuse themselves with a relatively untalented singing performance is amusing and appealing if a little contrived.

If you’ve never seen the movie, I unreservedly recommend it.  If you don’t like it then I recommend you do not read any more of my reviews.  Our points of view on film would be just too far out of synch to allow any value to you.  And may God have mercy on your poor shriveled soul.

OCF Classic Movie Reviews: The Caine Mutiny

As our first official classic movie review, I’ve picked a beaut.  “The Caine Mutiny” is a World War Two movie made nine years after the war had ended.  It is an adaption of Herman Wouk’s novel and stage play.  This movie has a cast that included star, Humphrey Bogart, veteran actors like Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray and Jose Ferrer along with character actors like Lee Marvin and Claude Akins.  It follows the crew of the USS Caine, a minesweeper under the command of a very difficult captain, Philip Francis Queeg played by Bogart.  A series of incidents convinces the officers that Queeg is a dangerously paranoid lunatic.  It all comes to a head during a typhoon when the officers relieve Queeg of command.  This sets up the finale of the movie, a court martial of the officers who mutinied against their captain.  Jose Ferrer portrays the defense counsel and his part is a tour de force.  He dominates the end of the movie and resolves the conflicting faults of the main characters by identifying “the true author of the Caine Mutiny” and placing blame where it was deserved.  All of the veteran actors perform admirably with Fred MacMurray being especially notable for his character portrayal against type.  There is one weak aspect to the movie.  One of the primary strands of the plot is the story of young Ensign Willis Seward “Willie” Keith played by neophyte actor Robert Francis.  A love story between Keith and his girl at home, May Wynn, is woven into the plot.  In my opinion it is a weak element and a distraction.  Some of the stronger elements involve humor stemming from the crew’s experience of Queeg’s erratic behavior.  But for all of his extreme behavior, Bogart comes off as a strangely sympathetic character and the lack of a truly heroic character seems fitting and realistic.  I think Wouk was capturing the actual experience of war.  The fear and uncertainty that even the sane individuals felt humanizes the behavior of someone like Queeg.  I think it will strike a chord for many people who have had to work together under crisis conditions.

Who will like this movie?  I guess folks who like court room dramas are likely candidates.  Even though it’s a WW II movie and mostly takes place on a war ship it’s not really a war movie.  But it is about navy men and it does reflect the time when it took place.  One interesting historical detail is the social reality of the place of black sailors in the US Navy of the time.  The mess-boys are the cooks and all of them are young black men.  They have an important plot element and I’m sure if Alec Baldwin and Dave Letterman ever review this movie on TCM they’ll denounce the rabid racism of the United States and the military then, now and forever.  Luckily for all of you I just think it’s an interesting footnote on a different time.

In conclusion, to quote from Captain Queeg, the Caine Mutiny can be counted among “the greatest, I kid you not.”