If you’re a baby boomer, when you think of Barbara Stanwyck, you think of The Big Valley, which ran for four seasons in the late sixties. Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, the tough matriarch who ruled the Barkley family in the wilds of 1870’s California.
But if you’re a film buff, you think of a cheap blonde wig and an ankle bracelet that seduced Fred MacMurray into murder.
You think of Double Indemnity.
Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, the fatalist femme in film noir.
Stanwyck had made her career playing hard-boiled dames with soft centers, and Fred MacMurray was the affable everyman who ceded the spotlight to his female co-stars.
Neither Stanwyck nor MacMurray had ever played characters as rotten as Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff, the lethal housewife and willing insurance salesman who plot to murder Phyllis’ husband and abscond with the insurance money.
The results are electric.
Walter burns for Phyllis with a combustible mix of lust and greed that ultimately sours to revulsion.
And Phyllis? She’s one cold fish from wire to wire.
To satisfy the production code, Walter Neff murders Mr. Dietrichson off-screen. Instead we see only a close up of Stanwyck as Phyllis. She doesn’t watch the murder of her husband inches away, but stares straight ahead with a look of almost sexual satisfaction that will make your blood run cold.
Things go wrong, of course. Walter’s murder isn’t as perfect as he believes, and he’s dogged by his conscience and a suspicious insurance claims man.
Phyllis and Walter soon wish to be rid of one another, but the murder between them binds them tighter than lust or money.
Events spiral out of control with consequences lethal to more than just Mr. Dietrichson.
Double Indemnity is number 38 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies. It’s on every list of the greatest film noirs, often in the top spot.
It’s a classic about the rotten core of humanity, and the whole film orbits around Stanwyck’s performance.
And still she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar. Once again she competed in a stacked field and lost to Ingrid Bergman for her performance in Gaslight.
Two women at the top of their game—it’s a shame one of them had to lose.
But as we’ll see next week, Stanwyck had one more chance at the golden statuette, and it all begins with a late night phone call.
To study old American movies is to study American history, which makes you realize what a winding road we’ve taken from landing the Mayflower to Zooming our way through the 2020 pandemic.
From my modern viewpoint where congress could not agree on the fact that the sky is blue, I find it impossible that two-thirds of congress and the states once agreed to outlaw the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol.
Welcome to Prohibition.
For thirteen years, from 1920-1933, the country was dry.
Dry on paper, that is.
For on the one hand, the temperance movement was celebrating the elimination of alcohol and all its evil effects, poverty and disease chief among them.
On the other hand, it was the Roaring Twenties, one of the most romanticized periods of American history, where the rich drank champagne while wearing flapper dresses and tuxedos, while the lower class packed into speakeasies for a taste of bathtub gin.
The twenties were a complete contradiction. That sounds more like the America I know.
Prohibition created a huge vacuum in the supply of alcohol, but the demand remained. Someone willing to break the law to fulfill that demand stood to make a killing.
Enter the bootlegger.
As Al Capone, the first and most famous bootlegging gangster said, “I give the public what the public wants.”
Hollywood did the same.
Because gangsters were another American contradiction. At once envied and feared, valorized for their ostentatious wealth and rebellion against an unpopular law and vilified for fighting like animals over territory and leaving the city streets soaked in blood.
Producer Jack Warner was interested in making films about the gritty life of those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.
MGM had their stars, Universal had their monsters, and Warner Brothers had gangsters.
Little Caesar was the first full talking gangster film, the story of the rise and fall of two friends, Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)
Rico and Joe move to Chicago, where Rico ruthlessly works his way to the top of a gang of organized crime. As he ascends from enforcing thug to top dog, Rico buys expensive suits, expensive cars, expensive guns.
Joe loses his taste for the violence and falls in love. He wants to make an honest living as a dancer, but learns quickly how difficult it is to quit the mob.
Rico is addicted to money, power, and the thrill of danger. It gets lonely at the top, and despite the women, money, and booze, Rico grows paranoid and angry. He must always look over his shoulder and stay one step ahead of the cops and his enemies.
Rico has a moment of redemption when he finds he cannot kill Joe, despite the fact that Joe’s girlfriend intends to spill the mob’s secrets to the police.
But as the film takes pains to show—mainly to get it past the regional censors—a life of crime doesn’t pay and Rico’s descent is swift and complete. The cops dismantle his organization, and he ends up living in a homeless shelter, all his fancy clothes and women gone.
Rico dies in the gutter he was once so proud to have crawled out of.
To the dismay of those who wanted cleaner pictures, Little Caesar was a box office hit.
Despite the ending, the film promoted a romanticized view of organized crime. Children idolized Rico and his fancy lifestyle but quickly forgot the moralizing title cards.
While the censors wrung their hands, Jack Warner ordered up another picture just like it.
The Public Enemy is even better.
The film opens with the protagonist Tom Powers as a young boy. We see that while he has a decent mother and father, Tom is a bad seed with a predilection for stealing and cruelty.
He purposely trips a girl who’s roller skating and his father takes a strap to him that is obviously well worn from prior whippings.
James Cagney plays the adult Tom Powers as he works his way up the ranks of an organized crime gang that sells bootleg beer. For the first time in his life, Tom has power and money.
His upgraded suits, fancy cars, and false charm are just a veneer over the surface of his thin skin. Violent and insecure, he can’t let even the smallest slights go unavenged.
Tom tries to give a wad of cash to his mother (who is only too happy to believe his lies about where it comes from), but his brother Michael rejects it and accuses Tom of hiding behind a gun. Insulted, Tom tears the money to pieces and throws it in Michael’s face.
Later, Tom proudly brings a keg of his bootlegged beer to a family dinner. Michael throws the keg across the room, shouting that Tom is a murderer and the keg is full of “beer and blood.”
With a chilling grin of cruelty, Tom tells his war hero brother, “Your hands ain’t so clean. You kill and like it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”
He shoots Putty Nose in the back years after Putty Nose left him behind to be caught by the cops on his first job.
And most famously, when his girlfriend gets on his nerves, he smashes a grapefruit in her face. The look he gives her before he walks away is one of pure contempt.
(Poor Mae Clark—after a forty year career that spanned into the 1960s and featured dozens of leading roles in the pictures, and even a stint on General Hospital, she will forever be remembered as the girl who took a grapefruit to the face)
More even than the public enemy, Tom is his own worst enemy.
He has partners not friends, sex not love, greed not mercy, pride not duty.
Tom couldn’t change even if he wanted to, and comes to a bad end when his enemies leave his disfigured body on his mother’s doorstep.
There is a through line that runs from these early Warner Brothers films to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), right up to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Oscar nominated film The Irishman.
As time passes the films get bloodier, alcohol shifts to cocaine, and the f-word litters every page of the script, but at their core, these films are about broken men who find power only in the way of the gun.