Can you believe we’re up to our fifth annual marathon? It’s true! This year we decided to go with a three-fer from director Billy Wilder. Wilder has already been featured once at Cinema 1544 (Sunset Blvd.) and we had to pass over a number of potentially excellent films (including The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch, and Witness for the Prosecution) to get down to the three finalists. But get down to three finalists we did, and here they are:
Double Indemnity led off the festivities with a pretty clever crime noir film (and according to some more expert than me, the first true film noir, period).
The film starts out with insurance investigator Walter Neff coming into his boss Barton Keyes’ office late at night and leaving him a Dictaphone confession to an insurance fraud murder that Keyes himself was investigating: “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?” It’s a strength of the script that while we already know what’s going to happen, the details are opaque and keep you guessing until they play out.
Neff starts his story at the beginning, when he found himself on a home visit to an auto insurance customer hoping to get him to re-up. The customer isn’t home, but his younger va-va-va-voom wife Phyllis is. One or two visits and several lines of snappy, risque dialog later, the ugly truth begins to peek its head around the corner – Phyllis is looking to take out accident insurance on her husband…and then see to it that he has an accident.
Neff initially storms out in refusal, not only because his conscience tells him to do so but also because he knows the rules, and the rules are: you never get away with insurance fraud when Barton Keyes is in charge of the policy. But of course, those femmes fatales have a way of getting men into trouble. One surreptitious visit to his apartment and a steamy kiss later, and Neff is ready to break at least four of the Ten Commandments for her. They start by fooling Phyllis’ husband into signing up for accident insurance (he thinks he’s signing a duplicate copy of the auto insurance policy) with double indemnity for death on a train. Then, they set into motion a plot (only revealed as it unfolds) to kill him without the insurance company figuring it out. The police, either, obviously.
Her husband immediately complicates things by going out and breaking his leg. Neff, in his single-minded plotting of the murder doesn’t realize (as the audience sure ought to) that he’d be certain to collect on his new accident insurance policy after such an incident, but since he doesn’t know about the policy… At any rate the lovers’ plot finally comes to light: as Phyllis is driving her husband to a scheduled train trip, Neff hides in the backseat, strangles him, and then impersonates him getting onto the train. At a short distance from the station, Neff goes to the rear of the train and jumps off, where he meets Phyllis and they dump the body.
There’s a bit of misogynistic comic relief (so much misogyny on the evening…Billy, I’m looking at you) when the car refuses to start for Phyllis, but turns right over for Neff. You have to turn the key with your manpowers, see? Anyway, the whole thing was planned to eliminate the suspicion of suicide (which would invalidate the policy, of course) – how could somebody think that jumping from a train going 15 mph could possibly succeed as a suicide attempt. The police conclude that he got tangled up in his crutches and broke his neck.
But Barton Keyes doesn’t buy it and becomes convinced that Phyllis and a lover have conspired in both murder and worse, insurance fraud. Of course, the non-claim on the broken leg is a factor, as is the double indemnity followed by the super-unlikely train death. Things start to get a bit sticky for Neff – he’s got a sharp investigator on his tail, and there’s a witness from the train who saw Neff prior to the “fall” and remembers him as a much younger man than the dead husband.
Then there’s the moment where Keyes decides to show up unannounced to Neff’s apartment right before Phyllis is scheduled to come over – With Phyllis under investigation they obviously cannot be seen together. As far as hiding-behind-the-door scenes go, this one is pretty good.
And of course, the drama wouldn’t be complete without one further complication – Phyllis’ stepdaughter (and new orphan) Lola, who has evidence that Phyllis (at the time merely a nurse) killed her mother in order to marry her father, and now she believes her father’s death was no accident either. Neff’s conscience is back under the blinds as he’s faced with a dilemma: on the one hand a girl about to blow a hole in his hopes of getting away with insurance fraud, on the other hand a misty-eyed hard-as-it-gets-luck orphan.
With his scheme collapsing around him, Neff realizes that not getting rung up on the murder is a more pressing goal than successfully cashing in on the policy, and he finds an opportunity as Keyes discovers that Lola’s on-again off-again boyfriend is making late-night visits to Phyllis. It turns out she’s trying to femme fatale Nino into killing (read: getting rid of) Lola and with Keyes on Nino’s tail, he’s got a fall guy. The next order of business is to kill Phyllis and frame Nino.
The only problem is, Phyllis shoots first. (And yes, Neff’s upper chest is bleeding more and more as he dictates his confession!) But Neff’s not quite dead and all of a sudden little miss somebody goes soft:
No, I never loved you Walter — not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you, just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot.
Neff accepts her embrace, and shoots her twice himself.
At this point he’s sunk. so he slinks back to the office for his confession. Keyes shows up towards the end of the story, and is there to light Neff’s final cigarette as he bleeds to death.
In an interesting note, the part of Neff was originally offered to George Raft, but he refused to take it unless Neff turned out to be an undercover F.B.I. agent in the end. Thankfully, that plot muff was refused. But apparently, Raft lost his goody-goody streak fifteen years later when he was cast as the main gangster villain in none other than our second film, Some Like It Hot.
Some Like It Hot wins the award for the disappointment of the evening, at least in my book. I mean, this film is AFI’s Number 1 Comedy of all time. I would like to think there’s a reason for that, but having watched the movie, I’m hard pressed to find one. (And yes, I know that Cinema 1544’s very own Kevin O’Connor loves this film.) It’s not that it doesn’t have a few yuks – it does – but I’d hesitate to try counting the number of comedies I have on my shelf that I consider better than SLIH because I’d run out of toes. But reviews is reviews, so here goes:
Joe and Jerry are the saxophonist and the bass player in a Prohibiton-era Chicago speakeasy band. Like most itinerant musicians, they’re always a bit hard up for cash, and things certainly don’t get any better when the club they’re playing is raided by the Feds (on payday, no less!) Joe and Jerry manage to avoid getting nabbed in the raid, and they head over to their agent to try to find a new gig. The agent does in fact have an opening for exactly a saxophonist and a bassist – but in an all-girls band traveling to Florida. So no dice to start with, but anybody with a passing familiarity with the crossdressing theme of SLIH is pretty sure of what’s going to happen soon.
In the meantime, Joe and Jerry accidentally witness a mob murder orchestrated by “Spats” Colombo. Colombo’s gang is not quite competent enough to rub them out immediately, but Joe and Jerry are clearly no longer safe in Chicago. How can they escape? What option has been placed in front of them today?
Meet Josephine and
Geraldine Daphne. (Daphne doesn’t like the name “Geraldine”.) And lickety-split they’re on a train to Florida with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators. The Syncopators are not only an all-girl band, but they’re a dry all-girl band, which is a bit much to ask for the band’s lead vocalist and ukulele player, Sugar Kane. By the way, Sugar Kane looks like this:
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Sugar accidentally drops her flask at a rehearsal and is on the verge of being dismissed from the band for multiple alcoholic violations, either Josephine or Daphne takes the fall. I can’t remember which, and frankly that’s because to me Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon basically look identical in drag. At any rate, the three all become fast friends while Josephine and Daphne both plot to win Sugar’s heart.
To make a long story short, Josephine wins by impersonating an oil tycoon heir appropriately named Junior (sans drag, of course). Meanwhile, Daphne has to content himself to be the ultimate wingman. No, seriously, the best-ever wingman ever. In the history of history. Witness:
Yes, Daphne is tasked with leading on actual millionaire Osgood Fielding III, who is a lecherous and misogynistic aging multiple divorcee, and who has had his eye (and hand) all over Daphne’s butt since they showed up in Florida. But, Osgood has a yacht (something Josephine and Daphne are sorely lacking) and getting him off of the yacht gives Josephine/Junior an opportunity to fake some millionaire bona fides and woo Sugar on the boat. It works pretty well. Of course, in the meantime Daphne, now having a few identity issues, has accepted a marriage proposal from Osgood.
To mercifully bring the movie to a close, Spats Colombo and his toughs show up at a fairly blatant mob meeting at the hotel the Syncopators are playing at, and worried that they will be recognized, Joe and Jerry make their preparations to blow the joint. But never fear, the whole movie ends happily with Colombo and his gang being gunned down by another mobster (retaliation for the hit witnessed by our heroes) and the gang running away together on the yacht: Joe and Sugar (who can live without the money), and Osgood and Daphne.
On their way to Osgood’s yacht, Jerry/Daphne lays out the reasons why he can’t get married. Osgood blissfully dismisses them one by one until finally Jerry pulls off his wig and says, “But I’m a man!” Osgood closes the film with the immortal line: “Well, nobody’s perfect!” Sort of like this movie.
The Apartment edged out a win in the “attendee vote” to determine the third film, defeating Witness for the Prosecution. This established one Winter Marathon precedent (the first marathon for which I had not seen any of the films) while preserving another tradition intact (no marathon films have been shown out of chronological order). Well, one of those records or the other was going to fall, it was just a question of which.
While I’m a fan of Witness for the Prosecution, I’m quite happy with the selection of The Apartment – it turned out to be the best film of the night, if it is a bit sentimental.
As a pre-review aside, did you know that Shirley MacLaine was smoking hot when she was young? I did not know that. File under “Things that I now know”.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon again!) is a work-a-day drudge at a New York insurance company (insurance again!). Normally one would think that he’d be impossible to notice – he’s certainly unassuming enough. But he’s got a secret weapon: Adultery.
Not that he’s committing adultery himself, that pleasure is left to the big-wig executives. But there’s great influence to be had in aiding and abetting adultery – in this case by loaning out his apartment to big-wig executives for trysts. It’s quite an inconvenience for Baxter. He seems to never have the use of his apartment to himself, and is forced to even sleep outside one night when one exec fails to properly return his key. The doctor living next door thinks Baxter gets so much tail he should donate his body to science when he dies. But lo and behold, these indignities are survived and Baxter passes everybody up for a promotion due to his “company loyalty” shall we say.
Eventually, his little operation comes to the notice of Personnel Director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray again! Insurance again! Adultery again! Oh my!) and it would at first appear that Sheldrake wants to shut Baxter down, but in fact what he wants is use of the apartment. That night. In exchange he gives Baxter tickets to a show.
Things are looking up for Baxter, and he has a couple of show tickets, so he figures he may as well ask out his favorite elevator operator Fran. (Elevator operator? Seriously? The women in this movie are all elevator operators. As I said, night of misogyny.) Stunningly, she agrees to meet him – after she has drinks with an old friend. Then she stands him up, because the old friend is Sheldrake and they’re getting it on in some random guy’s apartment. At least, that’s what she thinks.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a plot!
When Baxter gets home, he finds a compact with a broken mirror, which he returns to Sheldrake.
So when Fran later offers the use of the compact to Baxter, the jig is up! He can put two and two together. However, he doesn’t really have enough of a spine to do anything about it and he allows the trysts at his apartment to continue. Fran and Sheldrake have reignited after she dumped him because he was married and not going to commit to her, but this time it’s going to be different, she’s sure. At least, until Sheldrake’s secretary gets drunk at a Christmas party and runs down a list of about 5 of Sheldrake’s most recent mistresses, including herself on the list. It’s called “a pattern of behavior”, and he’s got one.
Naturally, her response is to have one last fling with Sheldrake, confront him, and then tarry in the apartment after he leaves. Then, she overdoses on Baxter’s sleeping pills. Fortunately, Baxter returns early enough, finds her, calls in his next-door doctor, saves her life, the whole nine yards.
Then Baxter nurses her back to health with spaghetti strained through a tennis racquet. (There should have been an Italian tennis player joke here, but there are literally zero Italian tennis players anybody has ever heard of. C’est la vie.) Fran is surprised at the turn of events, but she’s not exactly the most grateful of patients.
From here, you kind of know where the movie is going to end – Fran is going to dump Sheldrake and hook up with Baxter. Sure, there’s a bit more drama in there, but from this point onwards it’s nothing that couldn’t be replaced with alternate drama without changing the essence of the film whatsoever. Finally it ends with Fran shuffling a deck of cards, intending to finish a game of gin rummy that she wasn’t particularly interested in when Baxter began it during her convalescence. “Shut up and deal,” she says to conclude the movie, and that’s how you know that she loves him.