Jun 24, 2012

Blu Ray Review: Double Indemnity / The Lost Weekend

Masters of Cinema are releasing two Billy Wilder films on June 25th. I'll be tackling both in one review because otherwise I might end up repeating myself rather a lot.

The Films

Double Indemnity was only Billy Wilder's third film as a director, but you'd never know. It not only defined the film noir style for all time (its influence on both classic and neo-noir is inescapable), but it also remains probably the best film made in either era of noir.

Based on a novella by James M. Cain, and with a perfectly hard-boiled screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity is narrated, in the form of a confession, by insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who relates how he fell under the spell of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and was seduced into a plot to kill her husband and claim the insurance on his life. His summation: "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" could easily double as a summation of noir itself.

Double Indemnity is one of those rare films that functions like a perfect machine; every cog working in unison to make something that does its job flawlessly. There are so many elements here that come together perfectly. In many ways, as director and co-writer, Billy Wilder is the star. The screenplay that he and Chandler penned is exceptional, shot through with dark, dry wit, and dancing around the sex and murder implicit in the film with linguistic creativity and glee the likes of which we seldom see. Wilder also had a great collaborator in the visual aspects of the film; cinematographer John F Seitz (who had a track record stretching back to the silent era). Seitz' lighting here is a masterpiece in and of itself, with bars of shadow frequently entrapping MacMurray, and pitch blacks contributing to an increasingly foreboding atmosphere. For his part, Wilder's camerawork is clever and compelling in its patience. Frequently he lets a simple shot hold, and uses that to make the audience tense in their seats. For instance there's the brilliant scene of Stanwyck hiding behind a door, desperate that Edward G. Robinson (who plays MacMurray's suspicious boss) not see her, or the simplicity with which Wilder handles the murder; holding on Stanwyck's face as it happens just next to her, out of shot.

But the praise that has to be accorded to Wilder shouldn't detract from his three leading players. Barbara Stanwyck was one of the best actresses cinema ever had, effortlessly compelling whether she was in a drama like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, a romantic comedy like The Lady Eve or a screwball farce like Ball of Fire (also co-written by Wilder), but Phyllis Dietrichson may be her greatest role and her best performance. Stanwyck was already in her mid thirties by the time of Double Indemnity and she was never Hollywood's most obvious beauty (a cheap blonde wig certainly didn't help), but she's still devastatingly sexy. The minute she appears at the top of a flight of stairs, wrapped in a towel and wearing "a honey of an anklet" you understand how MacMurray has ended up where we find him at the start of the film. Stanwyck also has the Fatale part of the Femme Fatale equation down perfectly; there's an edge to everything she says, and an ever present glint in her eye that should set alarm bells ringing with DO NOT TRUST.

The chemistry between MacMurray and Stanwyck is fantastic, and the two bounce off each other in some of the most memorable dialogue scenes in 40's cinema. Wilder was best known as a comic wirter, but here his dialogue with Chandler is a perfect mix of the poetic "How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?", the suggestive "There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour..." and the darkly funny "...Guess I was wrong. You're not smarter, Walter... you're just a little taller." MacMurray, best known at this time, and subsequently, as a star of family films, is perfect as Neff, that outward assurance and bravado to Phyllis is all the more effective for he way he allows us to see the nerves simmering just below it. The third spoke in the wheel is Edward G. Robinson, whose delivery of the many speeches about the 'little man' telling him that there's something wrong with the Dietrichson claim ratchet up the tension, while he also emphasises the closeness between Neff and his boss to strong effect.

Double Indemnity is as tense, as smart, as thrilling and as beautiful now as it ever was, if you haven't seen it there really is no excuse.

The Lost Weekend was the film that Billy Wilder made immediately following Double Indemnity, and while it's adapted from a novel it may also have been inspired by Wilder's difficult and fractious relationship with Raymond Chandler, who was, like this film's main character, an alcoholic writer.

Ray Milland plays author Don Birnam, he's supposed to be going away for the weekend with his brother Wick (Philip Terry), so that he can make sure Don doesn't go back to drinking (it's been 10 days since his latest 'cure'). Instead Don sends his girlfriend (Jane Wyman) and Wick to the theatre, while he goes off to his favourite bar. Wick leaves without him, and over the weekend Don spirals ever further into alcoholism.

The Lost Weekend is one of, if not the first Hollywood film to really tackle the subject of alcoholism in a serious manner, and that's where it really excels. The scenes themselves have become somewhat cliché as every other film about addiction has worked through the same beats over the last 67 years, but Wilder and especially Ray Milland bring them vividly to life. Milland is outstanding as Birnam, making the vicious circle of his drinking - he drinks because he can't write, and can't write because he drinks - relateable as well as devastating. We see just enough of the charming guy Don might be that we can root for him to recover, and empathise as he becomes ever more pathetic and helpless (even begging money from fellow barfly Doris Dowling). While the acting style of the time was broader than it is now, Milland doesn't overplay the drunkenness (compare this performance to Tom Cruise's hilariously dreadful drunk scene in Jerry Maguire, for example), giving us a picture of a man who doesn't drink for fun or even for the effect, but just because he needs to.

Wilder brings DP John F Seitz and all the visual style he learnt on Double Indemnity back here. Indeed, thanks to the design of the shots and the the lighting, you could say that The Lost Weekend is a film noir in which Whisky is the femme fatale (look at the shot when Milland finally sees a shadow, and remembers he hid a bottle in the light hanging from his ceiling, or the increasing use of shadow as he becomes more and more enclosed in his apartment and his addiction). Seitz and Wilder paint with shadow to wonderful effect, emphasising the dark influence of the bottle on Milland's life.

There are things that don't work though, chiefly the flashbacks, and particularly Jane Wyman's part as Milland's girlfriend. Ultimately, Helen is just a misconcieved character, there are few scenes where you really feel that she needs to be there, and even in the flashback scenes the relationship carries very little weight. Wick is a better character, and Pilip Terry has a good scene when he pretends to Helen that it's he who is the drinker in the family, but he's off screen too much for there to be much weight to the relationship with Milland, and Terry's hardly the most charismatic of actors, especially next to Milland.

There are outstanding sequences here; Milland's desperate trawl through the city trying to pawn his typewriter comes to mind, as does the DTs sequence, which brings a B Horror edge to the film for a few minute. On the whole though the film is a little inconsistent; a minor Wilder, but still, calling something a minor Wilder is hardly an indictment, and The Lost Weekend is often compelling, with Milland's performance alone making it a must see.

The Discs
DIcap LWcap
Masters of Cinema have a well earned reputation for discs with beautiful transfers, and these are no exception. The Lost Weekend looks great, with deep blacks and subtle shades of grey in the black and white photography. The grain is pretty heavy, but very natural, and helps bring out a lot of detail in the picture while giving it a film like look. The print isn't quite perfect, but you'll barely notice.

The print for Double Indemnity, however, is perfect. The Blu Ray is stunningly beautiful, and unless you saw it on its original release (perhaps even then), it should make the experience like seeing the film for the first time again. The blacks are pitch dark, the (few) whites spotless and everything in between is beautifully and subtly scaled. The transfer is awash with fine detail, and does wonders for Seitz' photography.

The soundtracks are pretty simple, both largely dialogue driven, and the stereo tracks do a fine job; they're well balanced and loud enough to be an easy listen.

The Extras
The Double Indemnity disc has a featurette on the making and the legacy of the film. It runs for almost 40 minutes and is entertaining, though the lack of any comment from anyone who was there (even in archive footage) is a shame, though the assembled critics, writers and filmmakers do a nice job telling the story. There is also an audio bonus; the full radio broadcast version of Double Indemnity, with MacMurray and Stanwyck reprising their roles. I love these things, they're fascinating alternate versions of films we know and love, and something that just doesn't exist today. It's a great listen. Wrapping up the on disc supplements is a commentary with screenwriter Lem Dobbs and film historian Nick Redmond. It's a very good track, avoiding much of the dry film theory that can afflict tracks like this and Dobbs and Redmond make a good team.

The Lost Weekend has a six minute introduction from Alex Cox, which is a sincere appreciation, and Cox is a good host, but the real gold here (and of all the extras on these releases) is a three part, three hour, conversation between Billy Wilder and fellow German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff called Billy, How Did You Do It? It's an utter joy to see the 85 year old Wilder still so animated and enthused talking about his and other people's movies, and probably worth buying the disc for all by itself. There is also a radio production starring Milland, which is very similar in style to that for Double Indemnity, and is also well worth a listen.

Both discs also feature the original trailers for the film, and, like all MOC releases, a booklet packed with fascinating articles on the films. The Double Indemnity booklet includes a short answer from James M. Cain, relating how Billy Wilder did things with the film that he wished he had thought of for the book, while the Lost Weekend booklet has a comparison of the DTs scene in book, scrrenplay and film forms, and each boasts much more intensely interesting material besides, along with some well chosen and reproduced pictures.

These are essential discs for any serious fan of classic cinema. The films are of varying stature, but each is packed with brilliant extras that both intrigue and entertain, and the films themselves look incredible, even if you've seen each of them over and over it will be like watching them for the first time again.

If you'd like to buy these discs please use the links below, it won't cost you anything extra, but you'll be helping out 24FPS. Thanks.

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