It’s very late in the month for me to be finally cracking into that Noirvember Challenge I’d talked about previously, so today’s post will be delving into the first three films viewed for this mini-challenge: Double Indemnity (1944), Fashion Model (1945), and Crime Against Joe (1956). Note: I’m using Netflix streaming to watch these noir films, and thus using their genre tagging system for what qualifies as “film noir.” More on that in a bit…
First, I want to look a little deeper into Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s 1944 work that is perhaps one of the most influential and recognized of the early films noir. By now, the plot is incredibly well-known — do-good insurance agent gets caught up with a devious married woman, they hatch a seemingly airtight plot to off her well-to-do husband and collect a huge sum of cash from a life insurance policy, the plan soon falls apart bit by bit as the two key players stay pitted at each others throats. The catch is that Our Hero, played by Fred MacMurray, has to outsmart the world’s most clever claims adjuster, a brilliant turn by Edward G. Robinson. It’s a plan doomed to fail.
Double Indemnity is one of those gold-standard films where everything falls just into place. It moves like clockwork, and is often just as tense as an over-wound timepiece. The bulk of the film is told in flashback by Walter Neff (MacMurray), who is suffering from a gunshot wound, as he speaks into Barton Keyes’ (Robinson) Dictaphone. He tells the story of going to visit Mr. Dietrichson to renew his auto insurance policy, meeting Dietrichson’s alluring wife Phyllis (a cheaply-wigged Barbara Stanwyck), and falling into a sordid, murderous relationship with her. He lays out the entire scheme for Keyes to find later, only to have Keyes discover him, severely bleeding out, as his story is finished.
I’ve seen parts of Double Indemnity here and there, but not enough to count it as anything other than a first-time-viewing. I seemed to remember Neff as a private investigator, which in so many other noir films wouldn’t have been incorrect, and I didn’t know Robinson was even part of the cast. Film noir as a cinematic cycle has frankly been a huge blind spot for me. Mea culpa. What caught my interest about the film, however, was not that it seems to fit perfectly as a film noir into that cycle, nor that the cast is just damn perfect, or that the story is clockwork (although those are all fascinating on their own), but that I saw the film as a kind of queer love story, with Neff at the pinnacle and Keyes and Phyllis at the two lower points.
Neff struck me as a man battling between two loves: a woman who is sweetly poisonous, bringing a cool kind of chaos into his placid life; and a man who represents order and gut feelings and warm instinct. The way Neff speaks about Keyes in his dying voice-over comes across as someone who regrets leaving a secure relationship for one that fails. The final lines of the film (among others peppered throughout the whipsmart dialogue) seem to indicate that the feeling between these two men is mutual:
Neff: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.
Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.
Neff: I love you, too.
Granted, the film is certainly not intended as a queer romance gone astray, but this was something that kind of stood out. To me, it isn’t so much a story about Walter’s fateful relationship with Phyllis as it is one about how he feels toward Keyes. It’s a crackerjack bit of film that, despite being set in a very particular time period, feels incredibly timeless.
Next up on the slate is Fashion Model (1945), an amusing trifle of a film that left me wondering how it ever got listed under the “film noir” tag at Netflix. I believe it is also listed as a “thriller” and a “crime drama.” It is none of these. In fact, it’s better described as a silly murder mystery comedy. That doesn’t make Fashion Model a bad film, just a horribly mislabeled one on Netflix.
The plot is a typical convoluted mess that happens in a lot of low-budget mystery films when someone has a good idea but can’t quite get it together. Jimmy, a stock boy at a fashion house is framed when one of the models turns up dead in the dumbwaiter, so he and his chatterbox girlfriend Peggy take it upon themselves to clear his name. Soon another model winds up dead, and the whole thing starts to fall apart as they get closer to finding who the real murderer is.
There are some cute moments here and there, such as when Jimmy and Peggy disguise themselves as mannequins and wind up as window dressing, only to find out they’re dressed all wrong for the display. Fashion Model is a good way to kill an hour, if you’re looking for a way to pass the time, but it’s ultimately a bit of fluff.
Finally, Crime Against Joe (1956) is a fairly piecemeal, late-cycle noir about a Korean War vet who spends his time painting and living at home with his mother. After a particularly frustrating time working on a portrait of the “ideal woman,” Joe decides to go out on an all-night bender looking for an ideal woman, finding one in lounge singer Irene. The next morning, Joe wakes up to a wicked hangover and the news that Irene has been murdered. His only alibi refuses to clear his name, and the rest of the film is a series of loosely-connected vignettes involving Joe and his awesomely-nicknamed friend Slacks as they try to clear him of the crime. THE CRIME AGAINST JOE.
Well, anyhow. Crime Against Joe was about the kind of movie you’d probably see on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are lots of continuity errors, including one involving a scene that switches from day to night and back again. Ed Wood, Jr. would be proud. It also features one of the worst pieces of evidence against someone for a crime, something so minuscule and insignificant that every cop on that case should be fired over it. The reason for murder is pretty terrible, too, and seems like the kind of thing a writer would do when they can’t think of a good ending. As a matter of fact, the whole film seems to shrug, as if to say, “I give up.”
So far, the Noirvember Challenge has been quite a bit of fun, and I hope I can get through the rest of the movies on the line-up, which include another Edward G. Robinson movie, Scarlet Street, and Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. That’s gonna be good shakes, I think.