(On TV, June 2018) Like many, I like film noir a lot, and Double Indemnity is like mainlining a strong hit of the stuff. Pure undiluted deliciousness, with black-and-white cinematography, unusual investigator, femme fatale, crackling dialogue, strong narration and bleak outlook. Here, the focus on insurance agents trying to figure out a murder mystery is unusual enough to be interesting, while the Los Angeles setting is an instant classic. Fred MacMurray is a great anti-hero (morally flawed, but almost unexplainably likable along the way), Barbara Stanwyck is dangerously alluring and Edward G. Robinson is the moral anchor of the film. Double Indemnity does have that moment-to-moment watching compulsion that great movies have—whether it’s the details of an insurance firm, dialogue along the lines of the classic “There’s a speed limit in this state” exchange, a trip at the grocery store, or the careful composition of a noir film before they even had realized that there was a film noir genre. Double Indemnity is absorbing viewing, and a clear success for director Billy Wilder, gifted with a Raymond Chandler script from a James M. Cain novel.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There are actors that elevate the material they’re given no matter the genre or how many years later you see the result, and so while Key Largo is in itself a perfectly serviceable thriller, having Humphrey Bogart in the lead role certainly doesn’t hurt. At times a small-scale thriller in which various people are trapped in a Florida hotel during a hurricane (showing its theatrical origins), the film eventually opens up to a boat-set finale. In another classic pairing with Bogart, Lauren Bacall plays the dame in distress, with strong supporting performances from Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. Director John Huston keeps things tight and suspenseful as characters are forced to interacting in a small setting—you can see the influence that the film had over some of Tarantino’s work, for instance. Key Largo is not particularly remarkable, but it does have this pleasant late-forties Hollywood studio sheen, meaning that you can watch it and be assured of a good time.
(On DVD, December 2017) Everyone knows Soylent Green’s big twist, but there’s a lot more to the movie than Charlton Heston’s panicked “it’s PEOPLE!” Firmly dystopian even when it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t take a long time for Soylent Green to showcase its nightmarish vision of an overpopulated New York in a world where the environment has been (entirely?) destroyed. Things are so bad that steak and vegetables are a rare delicacy, and where even good cops can’t help but pillage the apartment of a rich murder victim. Euthanasia has been ritualized, street protests are cleaned up by heavy machinery and there’s a clear twilight-for-humanity theme to the film’s atmosphere. Heston stars as a cop intrigued by the murder of one of the city’s elite, but much of the movie is one bad thing after another, all the way to a gut-punch of a conclusion that finalizes the grim fate of its protagonist through a happy montage earlier established to signify a Requiem. You can know everything about Soylent Green’s conclusion and still be impressed (in the most depressing sense of the word) by the film’s relentless grimness. Very loosely adapted from Harry Harrison’s classic genre SF novel “Make Room! Make Room!” (which doesn’t even feature the big twist of the film), Soylent Green gets more interesting the more you read about it, especially how Edward G. Robinson’s final performance ends with an elaborate death sequence (the actor died twelve days after filming). Firmly belonging to the “Science-fiction as a warning” school of filmmaking, Soylent Green is often rough and crude. But it does carry a certain impact that helps make it stand out even today. It’s clearly a product of the seventies, but I found it somewhat more interesting than it’s endlessly parodied twist would suggest.