What happens when you get a femme fatale, a life insurance firm, and a detached member of The American Dream?
Double Indemnity, of course. Made within the reign of the Hay’s Production Code, Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir is arguably one of the genres finest—a true gem in the catalogue of American film due to its mesmerising script, artful performances and cinematography.
Focusing upon an insurance agent, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) and his quest to finally achieve some sort of cohesive position in society and his life.
He seeks the aid of the married, promiscuous Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to help achieve this idea; the only small problem for Neff and Stanwyck is successfully pulling off a profitable murder scam against Phyllis’ husband, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) and the company that Walter works for, as headed by the enigmatic Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes.
The ability to transcend the basic features of film noir at the time of its creation, by rejecting the societal constraints of its time, is paramount to the plaudits of this fundamental piece in modern film history.
Opening the film with the streets of a dark and dirty L.A.—as opposed to the stereotypical New York, Double Indemnity sets out on a path of switching the known formulaic narratives and features of previous film noir films out of the window.
This is not to discount such classics as Public Enemy and Scarface as inferior to Wilder’s piece, but they lack the creative fluidity that is permeating to Double Indemnity.
In Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Eva Green, the French actress (see above) is treacherous, deadly and alluring enough to turn a polar ice cap into a cloud of steam.
Her character has a name – Ava Lord – but she might as well be called simply Femme Fatale. She is just the latest in a long line of cinematic devil women who beguile viewers as surely as they beguile their weak-willed prey.
But the femme fatale doesn’t just give audiences a delectable taste of forbidden fruit. Dr Catherine O’Rawe of Bristol University is the editor of an academic survey of the subject, Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, and she argues that such fictional seductresses reflect society’s mixed feelings towards independent women.
“The figure of the female temptress is as old as Eve,” says O’Rawe.
“But the femme fatale as we understand it emerged in the late 19th Century, when the term was applied to a range of fin-de-siècle figures such as Salome, Rider Haggard’s She and Bram Stoker’s female vampires.
What’s striking is that these figures arose at the same time as concerns about emancipated women occupying the public sphere.”
There were similar concerns in the air during the femme fatale’s big-screen heyday. The movies have always featured wicked women: in 1915, Hollywood’s original ‘vamp’, Theda Bara, ensnared and destroyed a respectable Wall Street lawyer in A Fool There Was.
Photo: Rita Hayworth.
But it was in the 1940s that such film noir classics as Gilda, The Killers, Murder, My Sweet and Double Indemnity brought us the definitive femmes fatales: Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck at their most hazardously alluring.
Photo: Veronica Lake
Sometimes evil, sometimes in thrall to a villainous male, the vamp in these films used her hypnotic eroticism to get what she wanted – up to and including murder.
She may have been a fantasy, says Dr Ellen Wright, a film noir specialist at the University of East Anglia, but she personified real issues.
Gloria Grahame circa 1950. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.
Gloria Hallward, an acting pupil of her mother (stage actress and teacher Jean Grahame), acted professionally while still in high school. In 1944 Louis B. Mayer saw her on Broadway and gave her an MGM contract under the name Gloria Grahame.
Her debut in the title role of Blonde Fever (1944) was auspicious, but her first public recognition came on loan-out in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Though her talent and sex appeal were of star quality, she did not fit the star pattern at MGM, who sold her contract to RKO in 1947.
Here the same problem resurfaced; her best film in these years was made on loan-out, In a Lonely Place (1950).
Soon after, she left RKO. The 1950s, her best period, brought Gloria a supporting actress Oscar and typecast her as shady, inimitably sultry ladies in seven well-known film-noir classics.
Rumors of being difficult to work with on the set of Oklahoma! (1955) sidelined her film career from 1956 onward. She also suffered from marital and child-custody troubles.
Eight years after divorce from Nicholas Ray, who was 12 years her senior (and reportedly had discovered her in bed with his 13 year old son), and after a subsequent marriage to Cy Howard ended in divorce, in 1960 she married her former stepson Anthony Ray who was almost 14 years younger than her.
This led Nicholas Ray and Cy Howard to each sue for custody of each’s child by Grahame, putting gossip columnists and scandal sheets into overdrive.
Rope is a 1948 American psychological crime thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the 1929 play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, and adapted by Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents.
The film was produced by Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein as the first of their Transatlantic Pictures productions.
Starring James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger, this is the first of Hitchcock’s Technicolor films, and is notable for taking place in real time and being edited so as to appear as a single continuous shot through the use of long takes.
It is the second of Hitchcock’s “limited setting” films, the first being Lifeboat.
The original play was said to be inspired by the real-life murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924 by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
“Rififi”: Often called the granddaddy of all heist pictures, Jules Dassin’s 1955 French film noir has been restored, good news indeed.
Dassin’s name sounds French, but in reality he was Brooklyn-born and established a pretty efficient noir career in Hollywood in the 1940s — “The Naked City,” the San Francisco-shot “Thieves Highway,” “Brute Force” — before heading to Europe on the lam, thanks to the blacklist.
He thrived in Europe — he made the great “Night and the City” in London before heading to France.
But “Rififi” was a groundbreaker, with the centerpiece of the film a nearly 30-minute jewel heist executed with precision in complete silence (methinks Brian De Palma had this in mind during Tom Cruise’s silent incursion into CIA headquarters in the first “Mission: Impossible” movie).
Dassin got two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival for this film: best director, and Greek actress Melina Mercouri, his future wife, whom he met there.