Monday, February 25, 2019

Double Indemnity (Book) (1936)

Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1978
Originally published in serial form in 1936

List of main characters:
Walter Huff, insurance salesman for General Fidelity of California
Phyllis Nirdlinger
Lola Nirdlinger, Phyllis’s stepdaughter
Beniamino “Nino” Sachetti, Lola’s boyfriend
Keyes, head of the Claim Department at General Fidelity of California
Old Man Norton, founder of General Fidelity of California

The image above is of the back and front covers of the version, published in 1978, that I read. All page references are from the 1978 edition.

My sister cannot believe that I call myself a fan of noir and I have never seen the film version of Double Indemnity in its entirety. (Until a few months ago, I hadn’t seen any of it at all!) I find it a little hard to believe myself, and I’m not sure why I balk at finally seeing it from beginning to end. I often like to say that I prefer the book to the film and that I want to read the book before I see the film version. But now I have no excuse: I have read James M. Cain’s book, and the film has to be added to the queue, right? With all that I have heard about the film starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, I imagine it will be just as good as the book.

Walter Huff is an insurance salesman for General Fidelity of California, and he uses his knowledge of the insurance industry to try to game it. He knows about double indemnity; it fits into his scheme to make money via murder. He meets Phyllis Nirdlinger by chance one day, while he’s out visiting clients and potential clients. One of those clients is Phyllis’s husband, but Huff notices Phyllis right away at the Nirdlingers’ home, and he is unwittingly drawn into her web, not the other way around. Huff begins to have an idea that he is in deep, but he can’t seem to pull away:
I live in a bungalow in the Los Feliz hills. . . . It was raining that night, so I didn’t go out. I lit a fire and sat there, trying to figure out where I was at. I knew where I was at, of course. I was standing right on the deep end, looking over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, and get quick, and never come back. But that was what I kept telling myself. What I was doing was peeping over that edge, and all the time I was trying to pull away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look. (page 18)
Fate, it seems, is drawing Walter in; his attraction to Phyllis Nirdlinger, the femme fatale of the story, helps keep him trapped.

(This blog post about the novel Double Indemnity contains spoilers.)

Walter is given another chance to see what he is getting into, and the clue comes from Phyllis herself. She seems a little more unhinged than might be expected of a cold and calculating wife when she and Walter have the following conversation, before the murder of Phyllis’s husband:
“He’s [Mr. Nirdlinger] not happy. He’ll be better off—dead.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“Not from where he sits, I don’t think.”
“I know it’s not true. I tell myself it’s not true. But there’s something in me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness. . . . [ellipsis points in the original] Walter, this is the awful part. I know this is terrible. I tell myself it’s terrible. But to me, it doesn’t seem terrible. It seems as though I’m doing something that’s really best for him, if he only knew it. Do you understand me, Walter?”
“Nobody could.”
“But we’re going to do it.”
“Yes, we’re doing [sic] to do it.”
“Straight down the line.”
                “Straight down the line.” (pages 23–24)

But Walter Huff is no match for his partner in crime, Phyllis Nirdlinger. And he’s definitely no match for Keyes, the head of the Claim Department at General Fidelity of California. Phyllis’s words, highlighted in purple above, are echoed by Keyes when he describes how he’s going to help Huff leave the country. By this point, Huff has confessed his crime to Keyes, who is no fool. He knows that the protracted media coverage of a murder trial for a salesman at General Fidelity will be very bad publicity. So he concocts his own plan to get rid of Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger, too. Keyes arranges passage for Huff on a steamer heading south, and he even gets Huff to agree to write out a statement detailing his part in all the events leading up to his being shot by Phyllis and then hospitalized. Walter isn’t even aware of Keyes’s ulterior motives right away:
“O. K. on the statement, Keyes.”
“It’s the best way.”
“O. K. on everything. Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me.”
“I feel that way.”
“You’ve got no reason to thank me.” A funny look came in his eyes. “I don’t think they’re going to catch up with you, Huff. I think—well maybe I’m doing you a favor at that. Maybe you’d rather have it that way.” (page 122)

Huff has heard similar words, a similar warning, once before, but he doesn’t catch on until he’s on the steamer heading past Mexico:
What you’ve just read, if you’ve read it, is the statement. It took me five days to write it, but at last, on Thursday afternoon, I got it done. That was yesterday. I sent it out by the orderly to be registered, and around five o’clock Keyes dropped by for the receipt. It’ll be more than he bargained for, but I wanted to put it all down. Maybe she’ll [Lola Nirdlinger] see it some time, and not think so bad of me after she understands how it all was. Around seven o’clock I put on my clothes. I was weak, but I could walk. After a bite to eat I sent for a taxi and went down to the pier. I went to bed right away, and stayed there till early this afternoon. Then I couldn’t stand it any longer, alone there in the stateroom, and went up on deck. I found my chair and sat there looking at the coast of Mexico, where we were going past it. But I had a funny feeling I wasn’t going anywhere. I kept thinking about Keyes, and the look he had in his eye that day, and what he meant by what he said. Then, all of a sudden, I found out. I heard a little gasp beside me. Before I even looked I knew who it was. I turned to the next chair. It was Phyllis. (pages 122–123)

After Walter Huff starts plotting a murder with Phyllis and before he writes his confession statement for Keyes, he meets Phyllis’s stepdaughter, Lola. Before too long, he decides that he is in love with Lola, not Phyllis. (Cain pursued a similar theme—a lover switching his affections from mother to daughter—in Mildred Pierce.) This change in his affections doesn’t change his murder plans; it just complicates them a bit. He starts to feel guilty—but not too guilty—about killing Lola’s father.

Click here to see my post about Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford. Click here to see my post about Cain’s book and the television series based on it.

Walter Huff is clueless, right until the end: about Keyes, about Phyllis, and about Lola Nirdlinger. It’s hard to believe that Lola would understand his story and why he did what he did. But he seems convinced that Lola will see his point of view.

Maybe it really was fate that he and Phyllis met and concocted their murderous scheme. They certainly deserved one another. I knew that when I finished reading Walter Huff’s story, but I still wondered about Lola Nirdlinger: What part, if any, did she play in Keyes’s scheme to get rid of Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger? We know Lola only through Walter’s perspective, and it’s obvious that he is not a good judge of character. That ambiguity about the ending is one of many factors that make Double Indemnity such a good noir read.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Beast (2017)

September 9, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival), April 27, 2018 (United Kingdom), release dates
Directed by Michael Pearce
Screenplay by Michael Pearce
Music by Jim Williams
Edited by Maya Maffioli
Cinematography by Benjamin Kracun

Jessie Buckley as Moll Hanford
Johnny Flynn as Pascal Renouf
Geraldine James as Hilary Hanford
Charley Palmer Rothwell as Leigh Dutot
Hattie Gotobed as Jade
Trystan Gravelle as Clifford
Olwen Fouere as DCI Theresa Kelly
Imogen de Ste Croix as Melissa Healey
Tyrone Lopez as Nuno Alvarez

Distributed by 30West
Produced by Agile Films, Stray Bear Productions

A serial killer is terrorizing a small unnamed seaside community, and young women are the victims. At first, the plot of Beast doesn’t focus much on this part of the story; it becomes much more important as the narrative unfolds, after the main character Moll meets and falls in love with someone that her family members and friends disapprove of immediately. His name is Pascal, and the narrative thread about the serial murders is taken up again later in the film when Pascal becomes a suspect.

The credits begin, one by one, over outdoor scenes, including flower and candle memorial sites for young women. After the credits, Beast starts with Moll singing in a practice choral session. Her mother, viewers find out later, is the choral group leader. She tells Moll that she needs more from her, which comes across as a criticism in front of the choral group. As the camera closes in on Moll, the sounds of choral singing fade into dissonant sounds. Then the film cuts abruptly to the film’s title in Gothic type on a black background.

The film cuts from this title shot to Moll getting dressed in her room at home. While she talks in voice-over narration, the film cuts to scenes of an outdoor party and some shots of Moll looking very uncomfortable and unhappy: “I was obsessed by killer whales when I was a kid. They always seemed to be smiling. You know, they travel a hundred miles a day in the ocean. But in captivity, their soundwaves bounce off the walls and they become deaf and dumb. Some even go insane. I read about one whale that broke all its teeth trying to break free. It just got too much for him. He didn’t want to smile anymore.” The fact that viewers do not know to whom the voice-over narration is directed underscores the oddity of Moll’s words.

The party is for Moll’s birthday, and during this party, her mother makes her get out the champagne because Moll’s sister has just announced that she is expecting twins. Thus, the sister steals the limelight from Moll, and her mother celebrates the sister’s news by giving the sister the place of honor at Moll’s party. When Moll goes into the kitchen to get a drink of water before retrieving the champagne, she accidentally drops a glass. She picks up several of the glass shards and squeezes them to cut her hand.

(This blog post about Beast contains spoilers.)

By now, I had a lot of sympathy for Moll. She is portrayed as a tortured soul, trapped in a repressive family whose members don’t seem to value her or care about her happiness. But the film slowly reveals that Moll is not what she appears to be. In fact, her affinity for killer whales and the way that she describes them the night of her birthday party could very well be a description of her own place in the world. She is living in her own form of captivity, but the way she decides to break free turns out to be more destructive than a few broken teeth.

Moll has a nightmare that someone comes into the house and stabs her with a pair of scissors. She is often plagued by nightmares, but viewers eventually learn that they originate from her own misdeeds. When she was still in school, she stabbed a classmate with a pair of scissors. In her dreams, she plays the part of the victim, but in reality, Moll is the perpetrator.

I found myself asking the following questions as I watched the film:
Does the film’s title refer only to the serial killer who is terrorizing the small seaside community?
Is Moll’s mother Hilary a beast for beating her daughter? Moll mentions this in a conversation with Pascal, but is she a reliable narrator?
Are all of Moll’s family members beasts for treating her, one of their own, as a pariah?
Is Moll herself a beast for stabbing her classmate with a pair of scissors?
By the end of the film, the meaning of the title is a bit clearer; by that I mean that it could apply to many characters for many different reasons, but I think it is meant to apply to Moll specifically, which came as the biggest surprise to me.

Before I saw Beast, I had read that the film is difficult to categorize, and I agree with that observation for the most part. I am not at all fond of categories or categorizing, so this is hardly a drawback from my perspective. I do think a case can be made for calling the film a neo-noir, with its understated violence, constant threat of violence, fear, angst, alienation, and the feeling from the main character Moll that she cannot fit in.

The lighting in the film is another reason that I think Beast can be called a neo-noir. It throws viewers off kilter with the use of unusual colors: yellows, reds, blues. Moll lives in what seems like an idyllic seaside town, but some of its inhabitants have a dark side. Some of the bright sunny outdoor scenes are juxtaposed with scenes lit in unnatural colors, which adds to the sense that so much, and not just the violence occurring around the town, is out of kilter.

Beast is also a bit old-fashioned: So much of the violence happens off screen and thus is left to the viewers’ imaginations. It reminded me of low-budget films noir from the 1940s in that regard. I couldn’t find any information about the film’s budget online, so I’m not sure that this is an accurate comparison as far as budget is concerned. But the technique of leaving much of the violence off screen also adds to the unease and the feeling that the threat of violence is a constant in the story.

The narrative holds lots of surprises, which I always count as a plus for any story, on film or in print. The most intriguing detail for me was that both Moll and the viewers go through a transformation over the course of the narrative: Moll begins to accept the beastliness of her nature, and viewers experience a transformation in their understanding of Moll’s character. I said before that the film cuts abruptly to the film’s title (Beast) in Gothic type on a black background, and this happens right after Moll sings choral music with her fellow choir members. This small detail turns out to be an important clue about the title of the film. For the duration of the film, I was waiting for violence to come to Moll; I never expected her to be a perpetrator herself.

The absorbing and shifting story line, with its unexpected twists and turns, and characters who seem familiar but become less so as the film progresses make it hard to step back and examine the film closely on a single viewing. However you want to categorize it, Beast is a film worth seeing more than once.