June 28, 2011

#28: All About Eve

"Everybody has a heart... except some people."

I have been looking forward to rewatching Joseph Mankiewicz's masterful 1950 tale of backstage backstabbing, All About Eve, since the blog project began. I only saw it in college and never again since, and now after rewatching it, it's been reaffirmed as one of my favorite classics. (Found it on Amazon used for eight bucks: boom!) It's one of those rare films that seems not to have aged, aided by swift direction, out-of-this-world performances from top-tier actors and what is possibly the greatest screenplay ever written. Oh, and fourteen Oscar nominations (paralleled only by Titanic forty-seven years later).

Company: now that we're getting to the top of the list, it's easier to entice folks in for the night! Along for the "bumpy night" were Paul and Ryan, delightful actors and friends who celebrated their two-year anniversary the next night; Bonni, major fan and beauty; Alex, supplier of sweet snacks and disposition; Kecia, roommate and hostess who really ought to go as Bette Davis for Halloween; and Adam, whose obsession with the film is so great that his shirt purposely matched one of Bette Davis' signature dresses... even though the film is in black-and-white (he still knew).

Cuisine: popcorn with various spices, cheeses and/or truffle salts; a major bowl of M&Ms in various iterations; and beer aplenty.

After a brief prologue in which we see a young actress receiving a major acting award in front of people who are shooting daggers from their eyes at her face, harshly narrated by theater critic Addison DeWitt (Oscar winner George Sanders), we flash back. (Second flashback film in a row!) A year earlier, Karen Richards (Oscar nominee Celeste Holm) is going backstage after a performance to see her old friend, aging but respected Broadway star Margo Channing (Oscar nominee Bette Davis), when she happens upon a young fan, Eve Harrington (Oscar nominee Anne Baxter), who claims to have seen every performance of Channing's current outing, a melodrama called "Aged in Wood," but doesn't have the guts to introduce herself. Karen takes an interest in her and brings her backstage to meet her idol, and in the process also meets Karen's playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), Margo's fling Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) and Margo's quippy maid Birdie (Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter). [ That's right folks, FIVE acting nominees, including four women (the second feat has never since been achieved by any film). ] Having piqued everyone's interest, even the jaded Margo, Eve tells her life story, particularly how it's been enhanced by Ms. Channing's performances. Margo, vain as she is, falls for the girl and gives her a job as her personal assistant.

Margo Channing is a fascinating character, first because of that remarkable switch. At first, Margo is hesitant, even cruel about meeting a fan, but when she hears Eve's tale of adoration, her compassion and tenderness flip on like a light. Birdie is rightfully put off by this new girl in Margo's employ and lays claim to the first sneaking suspicions about Eve. As an audience, we can tell there's something creepy about Anne Baxter's breathy delivery and Terminator-like focus, but nearly every character on screen takes it for sincerity and simplicity... at least at first. But Margo's initial trust of Eve slowly erodes and reveals layer upon drunken layer of paranoia and delusion.

What Eve plays off as simple dreams of a small-town girl Margo slowly starts to take as conniving betrayal. Divas in full force! But her friends don't share or endorse her apprehensions, and soon, it really does become a famously "bumpy night." Alfred Newman's score gives away a little of the surprise, but we're still clutching our pearls all the same.

Is Margo Channing right? Was she right from the beginning to distrust a fan, to even consider fans sub-human?

LLOYD: Have you no human consideration?
MARGO: Show me a human and I might have.

The film deceptively paints her as the villain at first, leaving Eve in the shadows and allowing Margo to wrestle her way to the top of the first half of the story. She appears her alongside her own caricature outside the theater: the audience believes her to be a cartoon, living in a delusional fantasy where every other actress is struggling to take her down. But Eve plays it cool, appearing aloof at even the slightest hint of aggression towards her. Soon, she manages to turn everyone against Margo: her friends, her confidantes, her lover, even the playwright who wrote the role Margo is so terrified of losing to Eve.

"Sink in your mink." -- Ryan Grimes

In order to teach Margo a lesson, Karen devises a plan to have her miss a performance, stalling her car and necessitating Eve's understudy performance that earns raves from critics who all happen to catch her one-night-only engagement. Little does Karen know that Eve planted the idea in her brain in the first place and will use it to her advantage later. Stuck in the car and awaiting help, one of the most telling conversations is also one of the most heartbreaking:

MARGO: So many people know me. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me.
KAREN: You're Margo, just Margo.
MARGO: And what is that, besides something spelled out in light bulbs, I mean - besides something called a temperament, which consists mostly of swooping about on a broomstick and screaming at the top of my voice? Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave - they'd get drunk if they knew how - when they can't have what they want, when they feel unwanted or insecure or unloved.

This is perhaps the most vulnerable and honest we'll see Margo, however short-lived. She reconciles her fame and her mortality, and seems on the verge of atonement. But she (and the rest of her duped friends) are about to "go to their battle stations."

Much of the film's success lies in Mankiewicz's unparalleled screenplay, endlessly witty and only rivalled on this list by Network, in my opinion, for originality and a generous dose of great characters. The whole affair is awash in backstage bitchery and depressing theater metaphors, which alone would make it must-see entertainment for actors and theater folk. Luckily, it's also blessed by flawless performances from a huge principal cast.

"Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be."

George Sanders won an Oscar for his performance as the jaded critic Addison DeWitt, but you're not sure why until his phenomenal last scene. Though wooden for most of the film, Baxter's portrayal of Eve as a conniving skank is spot-on, and her come-uppance is cheer-worthy. Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe all have chances to shine as well. How many films can you say that about -- SO many juicy roles? Not a lot, says I.

Has Eve become Margo by the end? Is that her greatest curse, or is it that the cycle could start all over again and come back to bite her in the ass? The film's famous ending had me reaching for the rewind button so I could watch it all over again -- or at the very least, finding it used on Amazon so I could watch it whenever, wherever. A total classic, and one I enjoyed even more in the company of friends invested in and intrigued by the bitch factor. A fantastic film, top to bottom.

How can you top that? Gary Cooper's gonna try: it's High Noon, folks.

June 8, 2011

#29: Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity is a 1944 thriller-noir by Billy Wilder, whose cultural impact on cinema cannot be understand thanks to such classics as The Apartment, Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard (all on the list). There is a great economy in his work, and I'll be interested to compare this to the latter two films, which are yet to come on this blog. Honestly though, if you had told me that Hitchcock had directed this, I might have believed you, save the fact that Hitchcock doesn't make a trademark cameo. My last experience with noir was only a few movies ago (The Maltese Falcon) and I was much less taken with that one than I was here, so: a pleasant surprise!

Company: alone, although I had folks express interest, and since it's on instant Netflix I will definitely see it again!

Cuisine: a burger, a few chips and a diet Coke, left over from our Memorial Day barbecue

We open on Walter Neff (a very charming Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who looks like shit at the moment. He's taping a confession of a murder he's committed -- thanks for giving away the ending! -- and the entire film acts as a flashback to explain how he got to this sorry state. Somewhere out there there's a list of movies that do this exact thing (Saving Private Ryan and Forrest Gump come to mind). Anyway, his confession acts as an omniscient narration over top of the events surrounding this murder. At first we're agog: how could this seemingly mild-mannered insurance salesman get mixed up in this? I'll tell you how.

Meet "how."

Enter Phyllis Dietrichson (Oscar nominee and femme fatale to end all Barbara Stanwyck), a trophy wife and would-be merry murderess, whom Walter meets on a routine house call during which he had hoped to renew Mr. Dietrichson's auto insurance policy. She wants her husband dead, and the phenomenal first scene between Walter and Phyllis makes it all too clear how badly they want each other from the first moment. Their flirtation is mouth-watering and electric, but Neff senses that she's bad news and wants no part in her scheme. But he's already doomed: he can think of nothing but her. Supposedly Wilder put Stanwyck in a purposefully awful wig to show that something's not quite right about her, and how right he is.

The plan is simple (ha!): Walter sells Phyllis' husband an accident policy that insures the owner with a 'double indemnity' clause (hey, that's the title!), which basically covers the owner twice over in the event of an unlikely accident, for example, death in a train accident. Then the scheme goes that the pair will stage the husband's death, making it look like an accident, claim the $100,000 and be together forever. What could possibly go wrong? It's a film that constructs, at least in the mind of its anti-heroes, a perfect crime, and both MacMurray and Stanwyck make such believable bad good-doers that the audience can't imagine what could stop them.

Except, of course, for the one factor that they never thought about: the racking guilt of their crime. It's a great thrill to see their plan put into action, knowing exactly how it must happen and biting our nails when something happens that they don't expect. What did they forget? Will that man at the back of the train come back to haunt them? The pace of the thrills never lets up, especially not after the crime has been committed. One of the most chilling elements is the above shot of Phyllis, staring straight ahead as her husband is strangled next to her. So unfeeling, so calculated, so sure that it will work... right?

Unluckily for Neff, he's got a boss who hates when he can't see through a phony claim, and Barton Keyes (a fantastic Edward G. Robinson) is on the case. He's never been stumped by a claim before, and sets his mind to figuring it all out. The great thrills that come from watching those cogs turn as the murderers are right under his nose! How short my nails got as I bit them while Phyllis hid behind the door with Keyes not ten feet away! This is thrilling cinema, friends.

Because it's thrilling and because it's the not knowing that keeps you on the edge of your seat, I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending, but suffice it to say that if I thought I knew where the film was going I was wrong. I think one of the master strokes of the film is how Wilder balances these three characters: whose side are you on? Do you want the plan to work, without any hitches? Are we hoping they'll get caught? Do we root for Keyes to discover their deeds? We're never fully on any one character's side; even though Neff narrates, it really feels like the same story told from three fully-developed angles, and the complexity of the heightened emotion of noir is never lost on Wilder.

Those Venetian blinds!

It's this complex story line, so smart and so involving, that keeps the audience guessing until the last moments. I read that this film was one of the first, if not the first, to really investigate and even justify the intricacies of a homicide, and boy does it ever. Perhaps it's these complexities that drew me in the way The Maltese Falcon just didn't. There, Humphrey Bogart's character was essentially alone in solving a crime of which we the audience were not a part. Here, we're presented with all the details of a crime, and then watch as the trio of detective, the detective-turned-murderer and the murderess play that lethal game of cat and mouse (and mouse), witnessing simultaneous sides of the crime. Genius.

Love it love it! Another wonderful surprise.

Nothing surprising about the next film, however, at least none that I don't remember fondly from the last time I saw it in college: buckle up, it's gonna be a bumpy ride with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's classic All About Eve.