There are plenty of tough nuts to crack in the noir genre, but beneath those hardened exteriors usually lies some kind of rationale — some kind of motivation for why these people do the not-so-nice things that they do. Lust, greed, and even justice are common excuses that certainly explain much human behavior, but how does one determine what the hell everyone is thinking in 1944’s Double Indemnity, often considered the greatest example of this type of film? They’re all fishing, all fish, but though the typical incentives for murder in these sorts of stories are paid some cursory lip service, it doesn’t take too close an inspection to see that none of the film’s characters appear convincingly manipulated or totally hooked — at least not by the bait being tossed out by others. So no one is biting — but what are they all angling for?
“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”
For those who have somehow deprived themselves of the twisting plot, gloriously inky images, and razor-sharp dialogue, Double Indemnity portrays the sordid affair of reasonably successful insurance salesman Walter Neff (with “two ‘F’s, like in Philadelphia”) and sultry housewife Phyllis Dietrichson as they attempt to get away with offing her husband and collecting on a big accident policy payout. On their trail is a greyhound-like claims manager who smells a rat and suspects foul play, but can’t pinpoint the killer (because the guy he’s looking for is “too close. Right across the desk from ya”). Along the way there are scenes of hilariously aggressive flirting and steamy Hays-Code-era passion, a pretty solid murder scheme involving a body double and a train ride, tense cat-and-mouse moments in a hallway and a grocery store, a cold-blooded implication involving the death of a character we never meet, plenty of duplicity and betrayal, and surprisingly, a somewhat tender relationship that you may not see coming.
It’s all fascinating stuff, but what makes it more so is the lack of urgency in the excuses for committing all the lies and murder. Walter claims in the opening scene that he “killed…for money, and a woman. And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.” That seems like clear motivation, but is any of it true? Upon their first meeting, he tells Mrs. Dietrichson that he does okay as an insurance salesman, and indeed he seems to be fairly well respected at his company. His boss and friend, Keyes, even recommends him a promotion to the Claims department. Sure, his apartment might not be a dame magnet, and he’s nowhere near affording “one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago,” but he at no point makes any complaints about his earnings, and the chipper way in which he approaches his job suggests a certain contentment.
Meanwhile, Phyllis initially claims that she hates her husband because he’s mean and won’t let her shop anymore (“every time I buy a dress or a pair of shoes, he yells his head off”), and also notes that the man’s life insurance all goes to his daughter. These are weak arguments for murder but they at least paint a hazily greedy character (perhaps sensing that thinness, she slyly bolsters her case, adding “I don’t want to kill him. I never did. Not even when he gets drunk and slaps my face”). But what does Phyllis want the money for? She never opines on the virtues of financial independence, nor confesses to any grand dream that only a big lump of dough could make true. In fact, once the deed is done, she rarely mentions the contested payout except when wanting to sue, and instead treats the double indemnity claim as if it were merely a prize she was entitled to for victory.
No, money doesn’t appear to be a pressing issue — certainly not so urgent that it’s worth killing for — but what about love? Divorce wasn’t easy to obtain back in the 1940s, so killing one’s spouse to hook up with someone else you’re hot for certainly seems like an option that might cross a person’s mind (Strangers on a Train, anyone?). But though Double Indemnity portrays a lot of ‘feelings’ being declared through clenched jaws and bedroom eyes, each “baby” or “I love you” really gives off an impression of someone going through the motions of human affection in order to not be exposed as a psychopathic manipulator. The lack of emotion is a major undercurrent here, giving even scenes of supposed romance a sinister vibe, with characters saying what they think the other one wants to hear — dangling bait.
Sure, there’s no doubt about Walter’s lust — from the moment he catches sight of that shiny anklet, as well as the shapely leg attached to it, there’s a playful glint in his eye; it’s also obvious that Phyllis is aware of her allure, and enjoys the attention (“I wonder if you wonder.”). But after the murder, those longing looks and passionate embraces disappear almost as if they’ve never existed, replaced by cold shoulders, poker faces, and paranoid glances. The charge is gone from whatever this relationship was — but was it ever really there, or was that attraction merely a tool for Phyllis, and an excuse for Walter to convince himself that he had a reason to get involved? The lack of caring one iota about a future together suggests that those early flirtations are simply passing impulses — not enough to get anyone deeply hooked. Which perhaps explains why neither of them are.
Walter isn’t an idiot; from the beginning he’s onto her schemes, and is smart enough to get out of there, but quick: “Whaddya think I was anyway? A guy that walks into a good-looking dame’s front parlor and says, ‘Good afternoon. I sell accident insurance on husbands. Have you got one that’s been around too long?'” Yet, he ultimately decides to help for his own reasons, causing Phyllis to mistakenly believe that she’s landed a whopper. Conversely, she lets Walter think that he’s the man with the plan, a step ahead of Keyes and in control; of course, he isn’t. With each deluded into thinking that they understand the other’s motives, there’s no end to the duplicity they’ll spout to get what they want — and that almost seems to include lying to themselves.
So, it turns out that love is not the answer after all. Any chance all this murder was done for some kind of cosmic justice? Well, there is definitely an element of comeuppance in Double Indemnity, but due to Hayes code stipulations, it has to be against the principals. The pair ultimately succumb to each other’s bullets — a fitting, fated closure for two people bound by a blood crime (“They may think it’s twice as safe because there are two of them. But it isn’t twice as safe. It’s ten times twice as dangerous”). Nevertheless, morality is not front and center here; even Keyes’ dogged pursuit of truth comes off as less a crusade than a vigorous fox hunt, and certainly Mr. Dietrichson’s faults are never portrayed as convincingly evil enough to warrant such a fate.
Some people fish to eat, others for work, but one reason that many people cast their line into the water and spin the reel is simple: sport. It’s obvious fairly early on that both Walter and Phyllis are bored with their mundane lives; what better way to cure the doldrums than with a game? As Walter puts it, “In this business you can’t sleep for trying to figure out all the tricks they could pull on you. You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don’t crook the house. And then one night, you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself.” So perhaps Walter is proving something with this endeavor — engaging in competition. He is constantly told by Keyes that he’s smart, but also that it’s impossible to fool the claims manager’s instinct — his “little man.” Challenged accepted?
Meanwhile, Phyllis’ body language tells us everything we need to know about her state of interest with her situation in life. With her husband around she lounges around the parlor, seemingly sapped of strength, but suddenly comes alive when outside opportunity appears in the form of a tall, dark, handsome salesman. It’s also implied that this isn’t the first time Mrs. Dietrichson has behaved badly. In fact, she may have stepped over the grave of a previous Mrs. Dietrichson in order to gain the title. Now, having reaped the rewards, she’s looking for the next thrill. And if she gets away with this one, there’s bound to be another. As Walter notes, “You got me to take care of your husband for ya. And then you get Zachetti to take care of Lola, maybe take care of me too. Then somebody else would have come along to take care of Zachetti for ya. That’s the way you operate, isn’t it, baby?”
Having watched Double Indemnity countless times over the years, I’m still not sure. But it’s likely that the mystery of why these people do what they do plays a significant role in the fascination with this crime story, as well as its lasting endurance (along with crackerjack filmmaking, of course). While the characters in so many other noirs commit dastardly deeds in the familiar and relatable pursuit of power, lust, or greed, the motivations of Walter and Phyllis remain largely ciphers — and they are endlessly watchable for it.
The most human moments of Double Indemnity come at the end, as Walter shares a tender moment with Keyes before presumably heading off to the electric chair, and Phyllis drops a bomb on the man she just put a bullet hole into: “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. I never thought that could happen to me.” Whether or not that’s a sincerely heartfelt expression or more cynical angling, by the time audiences get to this culmination, they will likely already be hooked.
Indemnity (def): 1.) security or protection against a loss or other financial burden. 2.) security against or exemption from legal liability for one’s actions. 3.) a sum of money paid as compensation, especially a sum exacted by a victor in war as one condition of peace.
*SIDE NOTE: ‘Double Indemnity’ contains the only known footage of Raymond Chandler.
‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot
The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.
The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.
Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016.
For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.
We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them.
But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein.
The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day.
And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.
The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory.
Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject.
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.
‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire
Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.
Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous.
This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection.
Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom.
When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness).
These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us.
Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results.
Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.
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