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That was then, this is noir

Monday, November 11, 2019

For Cineversary podcast episode #17, host Erik Martin welcomes guest Eddie Muller, host of Turner Classic Movies' Noir Alley, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, and author of several books including Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. Erik and Eddie commemorate the 75th anniversary of one of the all-time great noir films "Double Indemnity," and investigate why this masterwork is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has stood the test of time, and more.

Eddie Muller

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Get Lynched

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mark November 13 on your calendar. That's when your mind will melt from the mad genius and mystery of “Mulholland Drive” (2001; 147 minutes), directed by David Lynch, chosen by Farrell McNulty. Note: Due to this film’s long runtime, we will start CineVerse 15 minutes early, at 6:45 p.m. tonight.


Straight down the line: Analyzing "Double Indemnity"

Thursday, November 7, 2019

"They don't make 'em like that anymore" is an overused phrase used to view many films through the biased prism of nostalgia--a cliche that can be as nonconstructive as it is unoriginal. Yet, though an overstatement, it can be an accurate one. And it certainly applies to Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," a stylized noir masterwork that gave rise to a host of imitators in the years after its 1944 release. CineVerse honored this movie's 75th birthday yesterday with a lengthy discussion that covered the following points:

Why is Double Indemnity worth celebrating 75 years later? How has it stood the test of time, and why does it still matter?

  • It’s worth celebrating because it’s arguably the finest example of noir ever made, with an unsurpassed pedigree when you consider the collaborators—James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Billy Wilder, two of the finest scribes of pulp and the hardboiled school and quite possibly the best noir director, combined with an unimpeachable cast, including Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, both of whom have rarely been better.
  • It’s earned its diamond anniversary accolades by virtue of being so classically representational of the classic noir period between 1941 and 1958; it wasn’t the first noir, but it established and perfected the genre, creating a template for so many others to follow.
  • It’s also worthy of our attention and praise 75 years later because, although we know how it’s going to end right from the start, it’s the journey of these two doomed souls that proves so captivating. Yes, this is a gripping and virtually airtight yarn that proves decidedly satiating, with fascinating twists and turns along the way; but the payoff is more in the behaviors and tension felt between Neff and Dietrichson.
  • Plus, this is chock full of crackling hardboiled dialogue that is so savory and satisfying.

In what ways was this picture was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • The research suggests that this was one of the first examples of a crime film told in overarching flashback form—wherein we begin at the end and are shown how we arrive there. Couple that with the decision to use voiceover narration and you’ve got a great storytelling structure that many subsequent films noir would copy, including Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard a few years later.
  • Double Indemnity also made noir a more accepted and respected genre by virtue of it earning strong box office, high critical acclaim, and several Academy Award nominations.
  • Possibly more than any other film before it, Double Indemnity demonstrated how avarice, lust, deceit, sin, and the thrill of attempting the perfect crime could entertain audiences and keep them coming back for more. It helped make salacious subject matter more popular to moviegoers—depicting criminal, cold-blooded and immoral acts with such forthrightness, including murder for profit, infidelity, insurance swindling, the perfect crime, and rotten duplicitous behavior. Somehow, Wilder and company got these ideas past the censors, and then the dam seemed to have burst, with many similar “get away with murder” films to follow, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, Scarlett Street, The Lady From Shanghai, Out of the Past, etcetera.
  • This could be the first instance of a noir that uses Venetian blinds and the suggestive shadows they create, too.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes, messages, and motifs are explored in Double Indemnity?

  • The fallibility and corruptibility of human beings. This picture serves as a cautionary tale, depicting the ease with which any person can be quickly tempted and tainted under the right circumstances. Consider how quickly Neff—your average everyday insurance salesman, not some two-bit hood, con man, or gangster—agrees to collaborate with Phyllis on this murder scheme—after only three conversations.
  • The inability to escape one’s doomed nature. Neff and Dietrichson seem predestined to conspire and to fail—literally because the movie starts at the end after their plans backfire.
  • The spider woman who preys on weak men easily ensnared in her web. Phyllis Dietrichson is quite possible the queen of femme fatales. She may not be a ravishing siren like some others, and femme fatales in other movies may best her in body count; but she’s portrayed with nuance and icy credibility by one of the best actresses of her generation, given lines of impeccable quality by master wordsmiths, and possessed of an unsurpassed heartlessness and conniving quality that keeps us riveted to her character every time she’s onscreen.
  • The cancer of mistrust. We see how doubt starts to creep into Neff’s eyes and influence his actions. It’s interesting that the murder happens about the film’s midway point, which means that much of the film focuses on growing suspicions and fears—Walter’s apprehension and uncertainties about Phyllis as well as Keys’ skepticism about the insurance claim.
  • The hubris of pride and arrogance. The smug Neff believes his plan is foolproof, and that his insider cleverness demonstrates a superiority over lesser criminals who didn’t get away with their supposedly perfect crimes. But he is undone in the end by what Keyes predicts: that he can’t get off the trolley ride and leave Phyllis behind. Yet even at the very end, he maintains a smug self-satisfaction that he kept Keyes from figuring out that it was his office mate who actually did it.
  • The dangers of veering from the straight and narrow path. It can be assumed that Neff was supposedly a relatively honest salesperson before he is tempted by Phyllis. But he gets off that path and chooses the twisted route of crime, hand in hand with Dietrichson. Ironically, she keeps telling him “it’s you and me, straight down the line.” Only their new course is leading them, as Keyes predicts, straight to the cemetery.
  • The dual natures of men and women. The filmmakers cleverly use chiaroscuro low-key lighting to manifest shadows, including Neff’s shadow and silhouette that seems capable of overtaking him, of pushing him out of the frame—insinuating an irreversible turn to the dark side of his nature. We also get plenty of doppelgangers and twinning in Double Indemnity—like the undefined man on crutches we see at the opening credits who could be Phyllis’ husband or Walter; the contrasting characters of the first and second Mrs. Dietrichson; the two male saps in Walter and Nino Zachetti; and the pairing of Keys and Neff, who exhibit camaraderie and chemistry.

What elements from Double Indemnity have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • If you want to get unfairly picky, sure—ankle bracelets, angora sweaters, smoking in public buildings and at work, Dictaphones, Chinese checkers, the word “swell,” and perfumed hair, are all ancient relics.
  • Pushing a bit harder, it’s a bit hard to swallow that Mr. Dietrichson’s cause of death is determined to be a broken neck; although we don’t see Walter murder him in the car, it’s assumed that he strangles him to death. How he hid this fact and made it look like death by a broken neck seems far-fetched, something that a savvy detective and insurance investigator would uncover.
  • One the other hand, infidelity, taboo eroticism, murder, and fraud haven’t gone out of style and still make for fine movie fodder.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Its ability to tell such a compelling story with relatively simple elements. This is a winding, twisty story, although not as convoluted a plot like The Big Sleep. We aren’t shown a sexy, torrid illicit affair with a lot of smoldering kisses and oozing sexual chemistry. Walter doesn’t talk about needing the money to get out of a jam, and he doesn’t’ fantasize about what he’s going to do with the money or the life he and Phyllis will supposedly live together once they’re in the clear. So that begs the question: What is Walter in this for if it’s not for love, sex, or money? Roger Ebert wrote that “both are attracted not so much by the crime as by the thrill of committing it with the other person. Love and money are pretenses.” So instead of being primarily a film about the allure of temptation, it’s arguably more a picture about the three Ds: doom, dread, and deceit. Watching how rapidly Walter and Phyllis’ relationship starts to disintegrate, the brooding paranoia and fear that Neff is engulfed by, the tightening knot twisting around his neck, the ever-encroaching presence of Keys sniffing closer—that’s what makes Double Indemnity special. Watching it, I can’t help but ask myself, “what would I have done in that situation if I were Neff? How could I keep Keys and the police off my back?” I put myself in Walter’s shoes and shudder because I know this guy is screwed, yet I can’t help but sympathize with him and experience his fear and doubt.
  • Making the central emotional relationship not be between Walter and Phyllis but between Walter and Keyes—two men who admire one another professionally and personally. Edward G. Robinson is absolutely dynamite in this supporting role, with fantastic lines and delivery of them, and he’s very convincing as a man who’s impossible to outwit.
  • The visual template it created for noir, with masterful cinematography provided by John Seitz, who creates expressively textured interiors painted with layered shadows and canted beams of light filtered through Venetian blinds. The deliciously dark misc en scene perfectly mirrors the moral darkness that our conniving lovers inhabit.


A long time ago, in a galaxy noir noir away...

Monday, November 4, 2019

Count on attending CineVerse on Nov. 6, when we'll be wishing a happy 75th birthday (Cineversary style) to arguably the greatest film noir of them all, "Double Indemnity” (1944; 108 minutes), directed by Billy Wilder.


No CineVerse meeting on Oct. 30

Sunday, October 27, 2019

There will be no CineVerse meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 30. Happy Halloween everyone!


Born under a bad sign

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

From the moment the crazed hitchhiker smears his blood on the side of their van, the hapless victims-to-be appear doomed to a dark destiny in Tobe Hooper's seminal work of the slasher and hixploitation subgenres, 1974's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Indeed, portents of death, carnage, and evil are abundant in this movie, which has been hailed as a masterpiece of true, unadulterated horror. We carved up this classic last night at CineVerse and examined the remains. Here's what we discovered:

How was this 1974 film different and groundbreaking from many horror pictures that came before it?

  • It wasn’t a classically constructed horror movie: It lacked the normal tropes, clich├ęs, and expectations of predecessors. There is no brooding music to warn us of what’s to come. There is no sex or nudity. The victims aren’t deserving of punishment due to sexual promiscuity, drug use, horror movie stupidity, or criminal acts. There are no heroes or noble sacrifices—there is only a survivor— and the monsters aren’t vanquished or killed by the conclusion. There is also no comic relief or “winking at the audience.”
  • Instead, this horror is remorseless and lacking any kind of message about morality or redemption. The violence is sudden, random and without warning. Surprisingly, there is very little blood or gore. The camera doesn’t linger on dead bodies or severed body parts. Most of the killing happens quickly and occurs within the first half of the movie.
  • The last third of the film, in which Sally is held captive, psychologically tortured, and escapes, is an exercise in sheer terror.
    • “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is all-out and no holds barred horror, a full-frontal dive into a naked assault on its central character. The half-hour-long attack on Marilyn Burns, which consists of nothing on the soundtrack bar screams and the buzz of a chainsaw, while the camera wildly careers in on extreme close-ups of screaming throats and wide-open eyeballs, has the jagged ripped-open edge of a bad acid trip. You can literally feel Marilyn Burns’s sanity fraying at the assault,” wrote Richard Scheib, reviewer for Moria Reviews.
  • Also, the movie has a raw, documentary-like ragged quality to it, as demonstrated by the shaky camera, gritty film stock, and voiceover opening that claims the events are based on truth.
  • Additionally, this film introduced the notion of power tools used as murderous devices and inspired later horror icons like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees with its depiction of a large, silent, faceless killer.

Themes at work in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

  • Predetermined cosmic fate: Consider the sunspot footage shown at the opening, the close-ups of the full moon, the group talking about cautionary astrological predictions for the time period, and the radio news broadcasts, which relay almost nothing but bad news and disturbing events.
  • The death of the American dream. 
    • DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “Hooper's movie explained the end of the American Dream: with the closing of the frontier, the pioneers had no place to exercise their skills in conquering nature. Killing and eviscerating animals to survive had satisfied man's feral needs. Modern life deprives 'atavistic frontiersmen' of basic savagery… when corporate consolidation took away hundreds of thousands of jobs, Middle Americans had to take their dreams elsewhere. The days of a paycheck and a new car every five years were over, and some of the dispossessed turned to the Bible or to survivalist anti-government movements. Chain Saw shows one feral family that has regressed to practicing the pioneer skills it knows best: living off the land.”
  • We are living in violent, pessimistic, and disillusioning times. Remember that this film was made near the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The idealism of the 1960s was long dead. The public felt distrust in political leaders, and the nation felt like a more violent, cruel place.
  • Meat is murder: Killing cows, pigs and other livestock for mass production of food is a cruel business that everyday people don’t want to know the gruesome details about. While animals suffer and die in a commercialized industry of slaughter, we look the other way. Hooper was quoted as saying “it’s a film about meat.”
  • The hidden savagery within man and the dangers of tapping into primal instincts
  • Beware of strangers and their dwellings: This film serves as a kind of modern Hansel and Gretel tale.
  • The usurping of the wholesome nuclear family. Leatherface and his clan represent an affront to our image of a loving and functional family.

Other movies that this film reminds us of

  • Hixploitation, backwoods brutality and primal folk horror films like The Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs, Deliverance, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, The Hills Have Eyes, I Spit on Your Grave, Southern Comfort, and Children of the Corn
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, The Night of the Living Dead, and Duel—all films wherein the violence and attacks are unprovoked, sudden, indiscriminate, and random
  • The Devil’s Rejects
  • Hatchet
  • The Strangers
  • Wrong Turn
  • Wolf Creek

Other films directed by Tobe Hooper

  • Salem’s Lot
  • Poltergeist
  • Invaders From Mars (remake)
  • Lifeforce


November/December CineVerse schedule is live

We've got a lot of fun, exciting, and seasonal entertainments slated for CineVerse over the next two months. Check out the full November/December CineVerse schedule by clicking here.


Give to me your leather, take from me my face...

Sunday, October 20, 2019

It's hard going through life with a name like Leatherface; it's even harder when nobody wants to come to your home to celebrate your birthday. CineVerse will make amends from 7-10 p.m. on October 22 (yes, that's a Tuesday night instead of a Wednesday night, due to a scheduling conflict at Oak View Center), when we conclude Shocktober Theater and commemorate the 45th anniversary of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974; 83 minutes), directed by Tobe Hooper. Plus: We'll check out the complete video of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (13 minutes), and watch a trailer reel preview of our November/December schedule.

Note that "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is a frightening and and disturbing film. However, be aware that the movie actually shows very little gore or blood; almost all of the violence in the film is suggested and not directly shown (the filmmakers were originally aiming for a PG rating, FYI). This film actually earns an 88% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is often ranked on many critical lists as one of the top 10 greatest horror films of all time.


Happy birthday, Freddy

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The boom of slasher horror films in the 1980s, originally fueled by the catastrophic impact of John Carpenter's "Halloween" in 1978, was anchored by the runaway success of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films featuring Freddy Krueger, which kicked off its franchise in 1984 with the first installment--directed by Wes Craven. Thirty-five years later, CineVerse celebrated this seminal fright flick with a viewing and discussion. Here's our "dream analysis":

What is unique, distinctive, memorable, or unexpected about this film?

  • It re-introduced (nearly 30 years after “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” first explored it) the frightening concept in mainstream cinema of being mortally afraid to sleep and dream—that you were most vulnerable in your unconscious state of slumber. This notion was as terrifying then as it is now, and it gives the film and character of Freddy Krueger a formidable power and uniquely terrifying characteristic compared to previous horror pictures and monsters. Writer/director Wes Craven’s inspiration here was a newspaper article about kids in Taiwan who actually died in their sleep following horrible nightmares.
  • It blurs the line between reality and fantasy, making you unsure which realm you’re seeing and what you can trust. There are scenes where we may believe that a character is awake but is actually dreaming, for example. The ending, in particular, questions everything you’ve watched for the previous 90 minutes—was it all a dream?
    • DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson wrote: “Craven's refreshing Nightmare concept is new territory for the slasher genre. It also does a clever end-run around the issues of credibility and logic. Dreams can be as irrational and inconsistent as they wish, so there is no limit to what Freddy Krueger can and cannot do. Actions, effects, apparent demonic powers can be totally random -- in fact, the more erratic the better. Once asleep, Freddy's victims are at the mercy of a crazy non-logic. Time and place can switch about at will; cause and effect no longer applies…the lack of logic in Freddy's actions only makes him scarier. Freddy gleefully mutilates himself, slicing off his own fingers and gashing his chest to reveal a mass of worms inside. He makes his arms grow twenty feet long for one stalking scene. He can walk through walls and change reality at whim.”
  • Unlike previous slasher films in the horror genre, like “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” this presented a different kind of iconic horror character: one that could talk, change shape, and wasn’t as physically imposing as Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees.
  • Krueger also doesn’t chew the scenery here and command most of the attention, as he does in the Elm Street sequels; instead, he has less screen time than you may expect and remains more of a background character to the teenage leads. By showing him less and keeping his lines minimal, Freddy is arguably a more effectively frightening boogeyman in this film.
  • For all these reasons, according to Moria Reviews critic Richard Scheib, “A Nightmare on Elm Street may well have been the single most influential horror film of the 1980s. The film spun off a series of sequels – seven at current count (see below) and created a unique new boogie man in the character of Freddy Krueger, who appeared on T-shirts, lunchboxes, model kits, even became a poster pin-up figure. Furthermore, A Nightmare on Elm Street inspired a new genre of horror films that rested in a blurred dividing line between dream and reality and/or featured a boogie man returned from the grave to slice people up. The spawning of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films into a franchise gave New Line Cinema the financial clout to move from a minor studio into a major frontline player throughout the next decade.” Without the box-office receipts from the Freddy franchise in the 1980s and 1990s, New Line would not have made the “Lord of the Rings” films in the 2000s.

Themes at play in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”

  • The line between reality and imagination, between fact and fiction, is thin and mysterious.
  • Taboo behavior has dangerous consequences. This movie continues the slasher film tradition of punishing sexually active teenagers and preserving the “final girl” who outlives her peers by refraining from sex, drugs, and bad choices and demonstrating agency and resourcefulness.
  • The importance of staying awake, literally and figuratively. In this film, the parents appear to be asleep—meaning oblivious to the sins of their past and the dangers their children face—and prefer that blissfully ignorant state; by contrast, the children want to wake up and stay alert. They’re trying to break free from the sins of their parents and be aware of and open to the truth.
  • Overcoming your fears involves facing them head-on. Instead of waiting to become another victim like her friends, Nancy chooses to fight back and try to pull Freddy into her world to properly vanquish him.

Other movies that “A Nightmare on Elm Street” reminds us of

  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • Home Alone
  • Dreamscape
  • Phantasm
  • Carrie (another horror classic with a shocking twist ending)
  • Slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th
  • It

Other films directed by Wes Craven

  • Last House on the Left
  • The Hills Have Eyes
  • The Serpent and the Rainbow
  • Scream, Scream 2, and Scream 3


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