It Rains On Our Love (1946)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 35min

Ingmar Bergman screenplays are rarely so blunt as they were during his first few years of filmmaking where character dynamics tilted towards melodrama, and yet his second feature, It Always Rains on Our Love, wraps up its candid message of acceptance in a surprisingly sweet, magical realist fable. Perhaps if it came out even a year later, one might have even been tempted to draw a direct line of influence from It’s a Wonderful Life, so it is somewhat of a coincidence that these two films were both released in 1946 given the formal similarities. Never mind the brief sojourn into a Christmastime setting, or even the guardian angel narrator watching over his troubled protagonists. Just as George Bailey is met with misfortune and failure at every turn leading up to his epiphany, so too does it seem as if the entire world is united in its torment of young couple David and Maggi, keeping them from starting new lives together away from the trauma of their past.

Quite curiously, the only person willing to come to their defence is an elderly man neither know on any personal level, and yet who somehow knows them intimately. In the opening minutes, he stands among a group of street pedestrians huddled beneath umbrellas, and as they escape from the rain onto a bus, he remains standing alone on the sidewalk. His address to the camera arrives as more than just a knowing wink, as he explicitly foreshadows his own place in the story, offers commentary on its sequence of events, and even refers to Maggi as his “leading character.” Later when David hits rock bottom in a bar, the mystery man makes contact with him for the first time to offer words of wisdom, though he makes an even greater impact in the final act when, seemingly out of nowhere, he takes on the mantle of the couple’s defence attorney.

Our narrator’s appearances through the film are sparse though, as Bergman is sure not to rely on him too much through David and Maggi’s navigation of a complicated, judgemental world. The train station where they quite literally run into each other marks a crossroad in both their lives, with both searching for fresh starts. Where David is reintegrating into society after spending time in prison, Maggi has recently fallen pregnant, and neither have any family to fall back on. They are far from perfect people, especially given David’s initial reaction to learning about Maggi’s baby, and yet quarrels are always followed by real remorse and reconciliation between the two.

The true villain in this piece can’t be nailed down to any single character, but it is rather the mounting difficulties of living in a prejudiced society which congeal into a single menace. While they dream of a quiet, stable life, they find neighbours accusing them of theft, welfare services threatening to separate them, and bureaucratic officials evicting them from their own home. The stillbirth of Maggi’s baby adds yet a greater pain to their misery, denying them even a target to aim their anger at. Some odd comedic interludes revolving around their neighbours don’t quite cohere with everything else going on, but Bergman is otherwise confident in his storytelling, building towards a court case that condenses every nasty jab we have witnessed into a barrage of cruel attacks.

It Always Rains on Our Love contains a good deal of handsome photography, especially in its wide range of elegantly composed establishing shots, though it isn’t until we enter the courtroom that its visual style manifests more fully. Minor antagonists from throughout the film step up to the witness stand and deliver their testimony in close-ups to the camera, and Bergman moves through them rapidly in a montage set against the flipping pages of a law book, cornering his protagonists into an inescapable dead end. As such, the return of the guardian angel is timely, making for a nice formal comparison against virtually every other character. He is virtuous and kind, but not without a sense of humour, demonstrating an intangible goodness in the universe existing beyond humanity’s trivial prejudices. The perspective he offers is straightforward but sincere, simply asking the world’s imperfect youths are afforded a little more grace.

“That’s what this whole business is all about. It’s about two people who would say ‘Nothing concerns us’ because they’ve been told ‘You’re no concern of ours.’ On the other hand, we have their love for each other. Their efforts, albeit awkward, to fit into society. We should look upon that with favour.”

The elderly man’s final, parting gift to them marks the film with particularly poetic bookends, as Bergman ties back in the motif of rain from the opening scene, pouring a dour gloom on top of our characters. This time though, they possess their guardian angel’s umbrella. They may never see him again, but he has passed on the wisdom they need to carve out their own place in a bleak world, and weather whatever it casts down on them. Bergman would go on to write and direct more complex dramas than It Always Rains on Our Love, and yet the touch of fantasy he injects into this fable of abject misery is charming nonetheless, formally rounding out a heartfelt call for compassion towards society’s outcasts.

It Rains On Our Love is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 54min

Too often when a story is accused of convolution, the core issue usually comes back to some mix of overloaded exposition, useless subplots, or a downright messy structure that quickly gets out of control. To wield convolution as a purposeful device that escapes each of these criticisms proves to be a truly impressive feat though in The Big Sleep, where twists and turns are dedicated to the overwhelming, fatalistic forces seeking to overcome Humphrey Bogart’s private detective, Phillip Marlowe. Credit must of course be given to screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, as well as the author of the source material, Raymond Chandler himself, but it is ultimately Howard Hawks who takes artistic ownership of this densely plotted conspiracy, navigating blackmail and murder with gloriously pulpy intrigue.

For those looking to pick apart this opaque plot with charts and diagrams, it is not an impossible task. The Big Sleep’s tightly-wound storytelling leaves very little unresolved by the end, though to focus too much on the winding path of each thread may prove to be unfulfilling. As Roger Ebert puts so succinctly, “the movie is about the process of the criminal investigation, not its results.” In other words, this is meant to be chewed on, but never really swallowed, as it is only while we are savouring the bewildering turmoil of each individual moment that we can appreciate Hawks’ construction of an alluring but perilous world far beyond our comprehension.

Chiaroscuro lighting typical of classic film noir, outlining the silhouettes of Bogart and Bacall.

It all starts when Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to settle the gambling debts of his flirtatious daughter, Carmen, though enigmatic layers begin to emerge almost immediately when his other daughter, Vivian, pulls him aside, suspecting that this has to do with her father’s disappeared protégé, Sean Regan. From this point on, these affairs become the main through lines of Marlowe’s inquiries, the first of which is tied up by the film’s midpoint, subsequently leaving the second to take over as the primary source of intrigue. That two key players in this mystery are killed before we even get a chance to attach faces to their names only serves to disorientate us further, but such is the nature of the perspective Hawks forces us to adopt. Marlowe is our avatar in this story, meaning that everything is filtered through his eyes, leaving us just as baffled as him each time his discoveries spawn a dozen more questions.

Deep focus photography well-suited to Hawks’ sprawling ensemble, brilliant staging, and convoluted plotting.

This isn’t to suggest that he is anything less than competent though, nor that he ever lets that weakness show. Marlowe is beaten, tied up, and threatened on multiple occasions, and yet the confidence that Bogart carries throughout would convince even his worst enemies that he’s the one in control. All through The Big Sleep, he meets sudden surprises with cool nonchalance, keeping a stoic expression as he playfully delivers dry one-liners to men pointing revolvers at him.

“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You know, you’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.”

Darkness eating away at faces and locations like a pervasive corruption.
Hawks is not always a master of mise-en-scène, but he is showing off some impressive noir visuals here with his rain, lighting, and layering of his shots.

That streak of hardened cynicism doesn’t quite disappear when women are around, but it is somewhat comical how often this treacherous world confronts him with unexpected romantic encounters, as if trying to entice and ensnare him in a trap. The primary love interest here is Vivian, Lauren Bacall’s husky-voiced femme fatale, whose entanglement in her sister’s affairs remains curiously vague up until the final minutes. In the meantime, the steamy banter between her and Marlowe is more than enough to keep us hanging onto their coy provocations, ranging from lively jabs to full-blown sexual innuendos.

“Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.”

“Find out mine?”

One of the great real-life and onscreen romances of Golden Age Hollywood – Bogart and Bacall’s chemistry with their playful innuendos and jabs is magnetic.

This may be a gritty film noir, but Hawks is not directing his actors as a private detective and femme fatale like we see in Double Indemnity. Instead, Bogart and Bacall become a screwball couple engaging in a beguiling battle of wits, sparring like old married spouses trying to get one up over the other, while simultaneously drawing on their real-life passion as lovers. Even outside their interactions though, it seems that instant, sizzling chemistry isn’t uncommon in this world. Carmen’s overt advances towards Marlowe are constant and relentless, while elsewhere a bookseller and taxi driver each express their interest through off-handed quips.

“If you can use me again sometime, call this number.”

“Day or night?”

“Night’s better. I work during the day.”

Romance always seems to be just around the corner for Marlowe, falling into his arms even when uninvited.

In a labyrinthine narrative that just keeps throwing us off its scent, these succulent character dynamics often feel as if they are all we have to orientate ourselves, and fully realising what he’s got in these charming performances, Hawks relishes every second of them. When Marlowe comes across Vivian singing a sultry rendition of ‘And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine’ at a party, she is blocked in the centre of the band accompanying her, dressed in a luminous white gown that seems to shine brighter than anything else in the room. Given how visually dark his world is, it’s no wonder he is so drawn to her, as Hawks often sets her up in stark opposition to his dingy, low-key lighting that almost emanates from his shady characters.

Bacall is luminous in this scene, taking centre-frame in her white dress as Bogart lingers in the background.

It is especially as The Big Sleep hurtles towards its conclusion that Hawks’ mise-en-scène grows progressively dimmer, creeping up to the edges of Marlowe’s face as he hides in gloomy corners and casting shadows of his suspects up on walls as they make quick getaways. In one scene that sees him tail a thug planning to rob Vivian, the camera thrillingly engages in the silent pursuit with tracking shots gliding past cars, and as we cut back to him crouching in the darkness, it is evident that this is where he is most comfortable. Conversely, the presence of light also indicates a clear path forward for him in his investigations, as Hawks cleverly coordinates one shot in a diner that sees the lamp hanging above his head turn on the moment an idea strikes.

Hawks demonstrating his penchant for gripping visual storytelling in his editing, bouncing between Vivian, her stalker, and her stalker’s stalker.
A creatively oppressive frame, obstructing Bogart’s face with the steering wheel.
Shadows of suspects thrown up on windows and walls, keeping us from seeing the whole truth.

By and large though, Hawks is much more a pragmatic filmmaker than he is a stylist, using his expressionistic visuals and suspenseful editing to serve The Big Sleep’s remarkable jigsaw of a narrative. Even as the pieces settle in place, the dizzying spell he has cast over us never quite fades, and it continues to wear away at our desire for rationality right up until the last scene. With Vivian’s motives finally being cleared of suspicion, there is at least some solace to be found in the couple’s final embrace, as it is only when the passionate temptations and perilous exploits of Marlowe’s precarious world are properly untangled that trust between lovers can begin to grow strong, firm roots.

The moment an idea strikes, a light turns on above Bogart’s head. Hawks’ mise-en-scène is playfully interactive with his characters.

The Big Sleep is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Raoul Walsh | 1hr 44min

Raoul Walsh takes a loose approach to historical accuracy in taking on the story of boxing legend James J. Corbett, often opting for comedy where other directors might have preferred serious drama, but Gentleman Jim simply does not possess the self-seriousness that more modern biopics have developed a reputation for. This is the man who turned the sport from illegal street brawling into serious competition by way of sophisticated fighting techniques that overcame the brute force of more traditional boxers, and Errol Flynn’s dashing screen persona makes for a wonderfully unconventional fit. The physical disparity is notable as he sizes up against larger, more muscular men, especially when Ward Bond’s towering world champion, John L. Sullivan, is set as the final boss in Corbett’s rise to the top. “I can lick any man in the world,” Sullivan loudly boasts in noisy bars, and though he is not quite a villain, Gentleman Jim is clearly on the side of the underdog here.

In place of heavy themes and personal character struggles, Walsh imbues this biopic with a whimsical lightness, entering the world of 19th century San Francisco through a photo album that turns a still frame into a busy cobbled street of storefronts, police officers, and horse-drawn carriages. The splendid deep focus photography he uses to shoot his splendid period décor even more importantly extends to his giant boxing set pieces, using the ropes of the rings to frame the adversaries inside, and even foregrounding the audience themselves in wider shots to crowd the scenery.

A strong opening shot, opening up a photo album and then bringing it life as we are transported into 19th century San Francisco.

Whether he is lining hundreds of extras along the docks and masts of shipyards to view illegal matches or tightly packing them into closed-off arenas, Walsh’s sweeping establishing shots fill every square inch of space with bodies, bringing tremendous spectacle to competitions that seemingly have the whole world watching. He takes even greater pleasure too in seeing these extras scatter when the police arrive, setting the camera far back to capture the playful chaos unfold as they escape into the ocean.

Raoul Walsh is a crafter of incredible set pieces, making Gentleman Jim the perfect fit for him in gathering these hundreds of extras around boxing rings.

Perhaps the most innovative piece of Walsh’s style here is the fast-paced editing he uses inside the ring, clearly bearing an influence on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull some forty years later. Where Jake LaMotta fights like a bull though, Jim is light on his feet, and the constant cutting to his agile footwork serves to underscore his ground-breaking fighting technique. Walsh navigates these scenes with equal nimbleness, punctuating hits with cutaways to the audience’s reactions and weaving in splendid long shots as breathers between each round.

What could have been conventional montages become displays of inspired editing. Especially impressive is the shot which starts on the two men, tracks forward on the still photo behind them, unfreezes it to move Jim into the shot, and then tracks back out to the two men – editing with the illusion of one long take.

Even when he uses montage editing for the more conventional purpose of bridging gaps in time, Jim’s rise to success is rendered in long dissolves, freeze frames, and point-of-view shots that see him knock us right out, pushing the formal boundaries of a relatively simple device. Though Gentleman Jim lacks the layered storytelling that might have made these characters more compelling than they are, Walsh’s exploration of boxing’s evolution still tells us something about the raw, primal nature of our sporting passions, and the concerted effort to reconcile those with our refined humanity.

Walsh vigorously editing these boxing scenes 40 years before Raging Bull – obviously not quite up to the same remarkable standard, but the achievement is still there.

Gentleman Jim is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

George Cukor | 1hr 52min

It is nothing short of remarkable that George Cukor managed to unite Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart in one film and capture such fine performances from each, though the brilliant comedy of The Philadelphia Story goes beyond its raw star power. Donald Ogden Stewart’s screenplay is marvellously constructed in its romantic entanglements and sophisticated wit, as over the course of 24 hours preceding the wedding of one wealthy socialite, Tracy Lord, he entwines and then unravels a knotted web of fiancés, divorcees, crushes, and affairs. The end of her previous marriage to magazine reporter C.K. Dexter Haven is captured in a brief, wordless prologue, with each step, push, and snap of a golf club playfully punctuated by Franz Waxman’s jaunty score. The terms they depart on are far from amiable, and it isn’t until thirty minutes later that we see them reunited once more with Grant’s delightfully dry greeting.

“Hello friends and enemies.”

Dexter’s intentions seem shady at first, as he is bringing his colleagues Mike and Liz undercover for a report on Tracy’s wedding to posh aristocrat George Kittredge, though soon enough he reveals his true motive of distracting his boss from the bigger story regarding her philandering father. Meanwhile, Mike’s opinion of her as a “rich, rapacious American female” softens upon their meeting, and soon another romance begins to blossom between the two as he begins to see her instead as a “radiant, glorious queen,” obliviously disregarding Liz’s own feelings for him.

Delicate beauty in this romance between Tracy and Mike, eventually turning into a hilarious drunken fling.

All across the male ensemble, Tracy comes across similarly narrow views that reject her humanity in favour of simplified stereotypes which, however loathsome or adoring, do bear at least some semblance of truth. To her father, she lacks an “understanding heart” and behaves like a spoilt goddess, casting judgement upon those she deems beneath her. To George, the “beautiful purity” of her demeanour is exactly what attracts him, worshipping her like a statue to be placed on a pedestal. As for Dexter, it is that perfectionistic intolerance which drove him to drink during their marriage, resulting in their divorce.

“You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman, until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty. It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little sometime – but your sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact.”

Of course though, she isn’t a goddess, and after a series of upsetting conversations revealing the way these men view her, she downs three cocktails, setting in motion a drunken night that pulls back the curtain on her imperfections and insecurities. Still, this doesn’t stop an equally inebriated Mike from falling even deeper into his infatuation, and Cukor relishes every comedic beat from Stewart as he slurs and hiccups his way through a confession of love for Tracy to a weary Grant. Cukor’s elegant camerawork serves the humour here well as it navigates interactions between characters with a nimble lightness, often moving away from those dominating our attention to amusingly reveal others eavesdropping from just outside the frame.

A meeting of two great actors, Cary Grant and James Stewart, both at the top of their comedic game.
Wonderful camera movements shifting our focus to eavesdroppers, emphasising the web of fantastic characters and their dynamics.

Visually though, Cukor is clearly much better suited to large-scale musicals with bold production designs like A Star is Born, and while we can see traces of that style seep through the handsome décor of the wedding reception’s white tablecloths and candles towards the end, The Philadelphia Story rests its creative strengths on its sharply pointed screenplay. Given his profession as a writer, it isn’t surprising that Dexter seemingly has no limit to the number of barbs he throws Tracy’s way, and Grant’s deliveries never fail to land with pure, cutting ferocity.

“I thought all writers used to drink and beat their wives. You know, I always used to think I wanted to be a writer.”

Handsomely mounted production design in these last few scenes as the dynamic between Dexter and Tracy softens into a sweet romance.

Then there is the passing of specific phrases between characters, each one serving to strengthen their bonds and development. When Tracy chides Mike at one point for his apparent prejudice, she finds herself using the same words that Dexter used against her earlier, and stops herself mid-sentence in recognition of their shared perspective. Most notably of all though, the two ex-lovers frequently recall the nautical term “yar” from their past sailing on boats, defining it as “Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. Everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot.” In effect, it embodies the flexibility, kindness, and patience one shows towards their partner in a relationship, and the metaphor grows even more apparent each time it arises, leading to the final declaration of love between the two divorcees-turned-fiancés.

“Oh, Dexter, I’ll be yar now. I’ll promise to be yar now.”

“Be whatever you like. You’re my redhead.”

Of the three potential lovers Tracy has been caught between over the previous night, it is clear she has made the right choice. Where someone like George cannot stand to see her fall from the pedestal he has placed her on, and Mike remains obstinately blind to her flaws, Dexter is the only man who fully understands and accepts her as she is, yar or no yar.

A wedding with no groom saved in the last minute by the ex-husband, tying up loose ends with a sweeping romantic gesture.

With a wedding ready to go and the groom no longer around, the setting is perfect for Dexter to step into his shoes, inviting the impromptu bridal party of Mike and Liz to escort them down the aisle. And of course, the tabloid photographer is right there waiting for them at the altar, giving Cukor his perfect ending with a freeze frame of their shocked faces looking straight at the camera. With such insurmountable charm and refined form as this, Cukor’s relative lack of visual style is easy enough to forgive, as The Philadelphia Story’s lightly pointed comedy cleverly picks apart the complex dynamics of troubled romances and the humility that can turn them into flourishing relationships.

A perfect, charming union of each main star in the final wedding scene.

The Philadelphia Story is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

White Heat (1949)

Raoul Walsh | 1hr 54min

Before there was Norman Bates and his psychotic mother, there was Cody and Ma Jarrett – two halves of one criminal mind, operating illegal schemes from within their small mob and sharing a co-dependent love which stretches our belief in its platonic foundations. Though Cody is married to the wily, blonde Verna and places full trust in his right-hand man, Big Ed, both associates recognise that their respective relationships with him will never approach the same depths as this mother-son bond, which holds sway over virtually every aspect of his life. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this stunted maturity which erodes their faith in him, pushing them to eliminate Ma when her back is turned and thereby robbing him of his greatest source of comfort. The law’s concerted efforts to track him down may be directly responsible for Cody’s eventual downfall, but it is only when Ma is finally out of the picture that he finds himself truly defeated.

Not that Cody would ever admit that. He’s on his way to the “Top of the world,” according to his Ma, and her early death only sees him cling closer to that idea than ever. White Heat might almost be a tragedy if its central character was not such a despicable human being, though with an actor like James Cagney in this role commanding a heavy, magnetic screen presence, Cody begs for at least some of the audience’s pity. With a jaw that juts out from a scowling face and the physique of a stocky brawler, Cagney’s gangster looks like a tougher, more violent take on the classic Wellesian antihero, not unlike Charles Foster Kane in his great ambition, or George Amberson Minafer in his Freudian inclinations. For Cody, it is not one fatal flaw earning his place among the greatest cinematic characters of the 1940s, but a whole multitude of them, each one tied back to that insecure, volatile ego which places his mother on a pedestal and punishes anyone who even hints at threatening their unhinged relationship.

Great staging of bodies and faces, placing Cody and Ma in their own shared world.
A well-placed long dissolve over Cody and Ma’s faces, visually and psychologically binding the two together.

Raoul Walsh’s slick direction is well-suited to the abundant subtext of this twisted dynamic, blocking his actors in compositions that insulate Cody and Ma in their own lonely world, and later blending close-ups of both their faces in a well-timed long dissolve. This childlike bond brings a surprising layer of vulnerability to an otherwise harsh character, especially when Cody finds himself dolefully separated from his Ma in prison. The scene in which he learns of her death from his fellow inmates was originally going to take place in a small chapel due to the cheaper setup, but Walsh’s push for the mess hall set filled with hundreds of extras brilliantly pays off as the humiliating location for his hysterical breakdown. As the camera follows the whispers along a table in one long parallel tracking shot, we anxiously anticipate the reaction that awaits it at the other end, where Cody’s agonising screams and sobs finally destroy the hardened image he had cultivated over the years.

Cody’s breakdown upon learning of Ma’s death is set against this backdrop of hundreds of extras, blowing his emotions up to a magnificent scale.

As a crafter of truly spectacular set pieces such as these, Walsh expertly matches the huge emotions of his characters with kinetic pacing and an impressive coordination of action, bookending White Heat with a pair of robberies that, on some level, both send Cody soaring to the “top of the world”. The first is a resounding success for his gang, offering this mobster film a hint of the western genre as they hold up a train, kill its crew, and leave with their earnings, setting an extraordinary level of ruthlessness in its characterisations and tightness in its editing. The final set piece closing out White Heat is even more explosive, as Cody sets out to infiltrate a chemical plant with a tanker full of his men to steal its payroll, while unwittingly collaborating with an undercover police officer, Hank, whose plans steadily derail his own.

A superb depth of field in Walsh’s blocking, building excellent character dynamics via the levels in his frame.

Some brisk intercutting and a swift barrage of long dissolves efficiently narrow the police in on Cody’s “Trojan tanker” while this narrative drives towards its climax, and when the two sides of the law finally converge at the plant, Walsh makes remarkable use of its labyrinthine layout and industrial architecture to stage the thrilling final showdown. From high and low angles alike, frames are crowded by winding, metal pipes, and Walsh exhilaratingly sends Cody hurtling through offices and corridors, until he reaches a field of gas storage tanks.

A barrage of long dissolves in a montage driving towards the climactic conclusion.
An excellent use of industrial architecture in the final pursuit between cops and gangsters, combining thrillingly staged action with shadows and sharp editing.

Though he is the last man standing and finds himself surrounded by police, Cody is still dementedly giggling as he climbs one of the globe-shaped structures, elevating himself above everyone else. “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” he madly shouts as he shoots at the tank beneath his feet, going out in a literal blaze of glory. The following line which virtually explains the metaphor to those who missed it is an unfortunate misstep, though it only barely dulls the impact of this dazzling finale. In Walsh’s tight construction of this marvellously compelling character study, White Heat recognises that such ambitious, extravagant grandeur will only ever be fleeting for men as vile and deeply troubled as Cody Jarrett.

One of the great endings of the 1940s – violently and explosively poetic.

White Heat is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock | 2hr 10min

At a certain point in Rebecca, those unfamiliar with the novel might pause and realise that the young, blonde woman we have been following does not have a name. Initially “Madame” appears to be the most common moniker given to her, like a blank slate of vague respectability, and it is only by the time she marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter that she is finally given a proper title – Mrs. de Winter, the second to take the name after his deceased wife, Rebecca. Stepping into her shoes as the first lady of the majestic Manderley manor leads to some initial confusion and disdain among the staff, and while she eventually starts taking more active ownership of the identity, the ghost of its previous owner still lingers. Even when not directly mentioned, Rebecca’s deathly shadow hangs thick over the manor, implicitly present within the very first line of Mrs. de Winter’s opening voiceover.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

As she recounts her sleeping vision, we approach the wrought iron gates at the edge of the estate, float through its bars, and navigate our way down its winding road in a single, long take. There, at the end of it, the burnt husk of Manderley imposes itself upon the lawns and silhouetted trees with a dark, Gothic beauty, bathing in the misty moonlight. Drawing the first-person narration directly from the prose of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, the writing has a romantic, lyrical quality to it, but this alone would not guarantee a successful film adaptation. It is rather through Alfred Hitchcock’s elegant camerawork and evocatively expressionistic mise-en-scène that Rebecca conjures the eerie memory of its unseen title character, imbuing the raw, suspenseful filmmaking on display with her elusive spirit.

After the montage of the misty grounds through the opening credits, Mrs. de Winter’s voiceover accompanies us as we float through the iron gates and down the road to Manderly, emerging behind gnarled trees like a haunted house.

Hitchcock approaches his narrative much the same way one would a ghost story, only ever revealing the artefacts of Rebecca’s post-mortem presence rather than her physical visage. The initial “R de W” marks diaries, pillows, and handkerchiefs, becoming a powerful motif of her enduring ownership over the estate, while the dour grief that persists in her wake is personified as the sinister Mrs. Danvers. Against Joan Fontaine’s naïve, anxiety-ridden Mrs. de Winter, Judith Anderson’s black-clad housekeeper is a force of unsmiling severity, never failing to remind her of whose shoes she is trying to fill – or in one particularly cruel scene, whose evening gown she is dressed in.

A remarkable camera movement much like Notorious, starting up close on the serviette marked with Rebecca’s initials, drifting to Mrs. de Winter’s face, and then pulling right back into this magnificent wide shot.

It is through the complex formal characterisations of the two Mrs. de Winters that Hitchcock’s investigation of their mystical connection manifests as a compelling, psychological paradox, simultaneously blending their identities while recognising the irreconcilable differences between the two. When the second Mrs. de Winter and Maxim move into the East Wing of Manderley, Mrs. Danvers notes the lack of an ocean view, positioning it in stark contrast to the West Wing where we learn Rebecca previously resided. It isn’t that Mrs. de Winter is restricted from entering those quarters, but she does silently realise that it would not reflect well upon her if she did, given others’ perception that she is trying to replace her beloved predecessor. Still, when she sees a light on coming from that section of the manor and movement in its window, the curiosity is too much to bear. The mesmerising suspense that Hitchcock is so known for takes hold here as we apprehensively approach the West Wing’s door, cross its threshold, and discover the shrine to Rebecca de Winter’s memory that Mrs. Danvers maintains and worships as if she were still alive.

“Everything is kept just as Mrs. de Winter liked it. Nothing has been altered since that last night.”

Rebecca’s untouched room kept like a shrine to her memory, appropriately gorgeous in its production design and Hitchcock’s manipulation of its lighting.

Outside of that untouched, opulent chamber, Hitchcock shoots the rest of Manderley with a handsomely menacing decay, carving out ornate sculptures, immense arches, and lavish furniture within its cavernous interiors. Perhaps even more visually sumptuous is his low-key lighting of the space, throwing shadows of flowers, bannisters, and even the pouring rain up against decorated walls. Further adding to the uncanniness surrounding Mrs. de Winter in her paranoia are those wonderfully Hitchcockian camera movements which anxiously creep around doorways, punctuate dramatic beats, and elegantly shift our focus between characters and their sophisticated environments.

Cavernous, Gothic interiors curated with haunting sculptures, chandeliers, and archways – cliche as it is, but the architecture of Manderly is very much its own character, embodying the spirit of Rebecca.
Expressionistic shadows thrown up across walls, a brilliant touch to Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène.
The shadow of rain pouring down the walls of Manderly when Mrs. de Winter first arrives, drenching it in a gloomy atmosphere.

At the point that Maxim finally reveals what unfolded on the night of Rebecca’s death, Hitchcock resists the urge to slip into a flashback, as he instead pushes his camera away from his actors to linger on the negative space she inhabits in his recount. Upon the lounge where she once taunted him, the same tray of cigarette stubs present from that evening still sits there, and as she rises and walks across the room, so too does the camera follow the invisible figure, manifesting her in its captivated movements.

Hitchcock’s camera lingers on this negative space as if watching a ghost as Maxim recounts the night of Rebecca’s death, tracking the camera across the room as he describes her movements.

Hitchcock is also among the few great directors who can place a cut just as well as he can move his camera, and the dreamy long dissolves in Rebecca that set gorgeous close-ups against Gothic interiors are a testament to this. Along with this inspired choice, he continues to build an air of mystery around the deceased woman in cutaways linking her to the angry, choppy ocean outside the West Wing windows, foreshadowing its significance as her resting place. Given this figurative association, it is a poetic exorcism of sorts which finally drives her out of Mrs. de Winter and Maxim’s lives, effectively killing her twice by opposing elements – once left to rot in the water, the second time burning in flames, destroyed along with the entire Manderley estate.

Cutaways to the ocean become a strong formal motif, foreshadowing the reveal of Rebecca’s ultimate fate.

Through a series of gripping twists in the final act, it becomes apparent that Rebecca is a far more complex figure than we could have ever guessed, transcending the vague symbols and hints which were previously our only reference points to her character. Perhaps even more than the devastating fire ripping through Manderley, it is the destruction of her incorporeal, enigmatic façade which finally affords the married couple peace in their union. On that note, Hitchcock puts Rebecca to rest with an understanding of the past which neither glorifies nor despises it, but which recalls it simply as it understood itself – a flawed, complicated being, destined to have its historical legacy twisted into simple but powerfully sensitive memories.

Sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and then burnt in a fire – an exorcism of Rebecca’s spirit that ultimately destroys her hold over Mr. and Mrs. de Winter.

Rebecca is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Pinocchio (1940)

Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske | 1hr 28min

It shouldn’t be surprising that the artistic peak of Walt Disney animations can be narrowed down to the period that the entrepreneur himself was alive, overseeing the production of each feature film from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs up until The Jungle Book. It is there that the studio flourished with artistic ambition, driven by the vision of Disney himself who, quite unusually, exerted his influence as auteur from the position of producer rather than director. So caught up in the nostalgia of childhood, every single one of these beloved films have at some point been claimed as the definitive best for some sentimental reason, though none quite reach the magnificent stylistic and narrative heights of Pinocchio – just the second feature film to come from Disney, marking the pinnacle of his cinematic innovation.

To praise the landmark in animating mechanical motions and weather effects that Pinocchio exhibits is not to simply boil its triumph down to its technical advancements, though Walt Disney certainly belongs in the same conversation as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, all being filmmakers who push boundaries in the realms of both technology and art. Where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs possesses a more primitive, picturesque splendour though, Pinocchio feels tangibly alive in its movements, orchestrating an entire symphony of cuckoo clocks that chime, click, and dance in polyrhythmic, mechanical beats. A mother spanks her child, a hunter shoots a bird, a bee flies off a flower, and a love of whimsical contraptions bursts forth from Geppetto’s beautifully anarchic workshop, where the old woodcarver plays with his creations. All around this space, Disney layers and obstructs his compositions with those random assorted pieces, detailing some of the finest hand-drawn illustrations captured on film, and specifically evoking the expressive, cluttered mise-en-scène that Josef von Sternberg pioneered a mere decade earlier.

So many compositions like these in Geppetto’s workshop, obstructing frames with toys, clocks, and shelves, evocatively layering his mise-en-scène with a delicate visual touch.

From the tiny perspective of Jiminy Cricket, this crowded Italian cottage might as well be a playground blown up to a magnificent scale, turning countertops into cliffs and bookshelves into caves. Toy Story would take some inspiration from this 55 years later by expanding a simple kid’s bedroom into an entire landscape of possibilities, and there is even the common thematic thread between the two of toys wishing to be real, though Pinocchio is especially active in using its camerawork to stretch the eccentric wonder of its world. As Jiminy Cricket heads towards the workshop to seek refuge for the night, Disney adopts his point-of-view, energetically hopping up and down with him, and later we watch Geppetto dance with his newest marionette from inside the bowl of his goldfish, Cleo. There, the curved glass playfully distorts Pinocchio’s movements, comically stretching his face to fanciful effect.

You don’t find this sort of experimentation in other Disney films – playfully refracting the image of a dancing Pinocchio through Cleo’s goldfish bowl.
Like Toy Story 55 years later, a single room becomes an entire world for its minuscule inhabitants, blowing up its tiny pieces of decor to magnificent proportions.

It isn’t until after Geppetto’s wish is granted by the Blue Fairy and finds that Pinocchio has sprung to life that we depart his workshop for the wider world, and the film steps up its rich stylistic immersion once again with a shot that might just be Disney’s finest moment. The multiplane camera his studio developed years earlier allows a robust depth of field comparable to live-action film, but it is put to especially excellent use here in the sheer coordination of its multiple moveable layers, together simulating one long take gliding across rooftops and under bridges of this humble Italian village. As we descend from the bell tower, watching doors fly open and children running through the streets, it is evident that Disney is specifically using this shot to mark an exciting new chapter in his narrative, introducing Pinocchio to an entire world of possibilities.

An unusually long take for animation lasting almost a minute, descending from the bell tower and flying through the town. Technically accomplished animation from Disney, making excellent use of his multi-plane camera, but also so artistically potent, making a new chapter in the narrative.
Townscapes like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), with expressionistic warped roofs and mountains.

Scattered through the film are similarly dynamic camera movements making the most of the gorgeous townscape, notable among them being the inspired overhead tracking shot that passes buildings and trees through the foreground as Pinocchio skips off with his shady new friends, Honest John and Giddy. Even when Disney isn’t dollying in on the two sleazy foxes over the stairs of a greasy bar or pouring down needles of rain upon Geppetto searching for his lost boy, we are often left to sit in glorious, still images that seem carved from wood with their tactile, grainy textures.

Another skilfully executed long take, this time watching Pinocchio through the streets with the foxes in ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’ from a high angle, passing buildings and trees through the foreground.
Disney’s using of ornate mise-en-scène to frame his characters all through Pinocchio is a huge visual success of the film, especially as the camera dollies in and out of scenes.

By the time the boy puppet arrives at Stromboli’s travelling show as his newest act to sing the musical number ‘I Got No Strings’, the central allegory driving Pinocchio’s narrative has properly settled in, using these “strings” to represent the parental restrictions that slowly ease up as a child grows older. Becoming human, or to become “real” as the film posits, is not just a matter of claiming one’s independence. To be human is to be guided by one’s moral conscience, embodied here by our narrator, Jiminy Cricket, whose asides to the camera turn him into a one-man Greek Chorus. His attempt at explaining the complex concept of morality in simple terms to Pinocchio leaves him a little lost for words, and so it is only when each test of integrity comes around that he can offer advice for the puppet to either accept or ignore.

It follows then that if a child can become “real” by proving they can be trusted with responsibility, then the opposite will see a transformation of a different kind. As Pinocchio tries to fib his way out of accountability, his nose grows and grows, eventually springing a nest with eggs and birds on the end of it. It is a humiliating physical transformation that distances him even further from his dream of being human, though compared to what awaits him at Pleasure Island, it is a relatively tame punishment.

Pleasure Island – treacherous in what it represents, and terrifying in its crowded, Art Deco visage, heavily inspired by F.W. Murnau’s carnival from Sunrise (1927) or perhaps even The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

It is upon this strange isle that Disney essentially creates a mini-horror film for children, sending a boatload of boys to a carnival where they can indulge all their wildest impulses. Once again, cluttered mise-en-scène dominates the scenery, and its visual transformation from bright, Art Deco-inspired amusement park to dystopian ruin over the course of one night also signals the degradation of these boys’ souls. If one submits to their most base animal instincts, Disney reasons, then their outside might as well match what’s inside, and as such the children on this island are transformed into donkeys and shipped off to work in mines and circuses. It is a horrific thing to watch, so much so that even the camera looks away at the final stage of Lampwick’s bone-creaking metamorphosis, rendered through haunting shadows cast against a wall. For all the magic and whimsy present in Pinocchio, it is strikingly grounded for a Disney film, giving real weight to the choices its young protagonist makes.

More silent expressionism here, this time Nosferatu (1922) with the shadows depicting a horrific, bestial transformation.

There is some unfortunate narrative hand-waving leading into the film’s final act, which while being a resplendent sequence in itself, is not terribly well set-up, as the Blue Fairy intervenes for the third time to let Pinocchio finally prove his worth. Geppetto’s search for his lost boy has led him into the mouth of the fearsome whale, Monstro, and in the underwater battle with the beast, Disney concludes his magnificent experiment in animating truly invigorating action. Geppetto’s dying lamplights bounce off the surface of the water inside Monstro’s cavernous belly, and as he and Pinocchio make their decisive escape, Disney creates powerful visual movements in his waves, currents, bubbles, and splashes, each one intricately sculpted through the precise arrangement of visible droplets and streams of white foam.

Framing Geppetto’s boat using the whale’s innards – there’s certainly no criticising his visual creativity.
A landmark in water animation, with each drop, stream, ripple, wave, and current intricately hand-drawn and moving with such visceral realism.

With this dazzling whirlwind of a set piece closing out the film, Pinocchio’s astonishing scope and scale effectively exceeds virtually every other Disney animation that came before and after, building a world that seems to never stop shifting around its characters. Purely within context of their emotional arcs though, the pay-off carries a sweet tenderness to it. The lesson that Pinocchio learnt much earlier in the film after obliviously playing with fire returns here in his rescue of Geppetto, using his new knowledge to rile up Monstro and make a quick escape. Even more rewarding than that though is how this deed demonstrates his innate selflessness, finally validating him as a ”real” boy with a conscience.

For Geppetto, the anxieties of parenting prove to be worth it, as he finally gains a son no longer under his control, and yet who is fully active in loving and protecting him. To be “brave, truthful, and unselfish” – that is what it means to be human, Disney suggests, and the dynamic visual expression of this moral fable in all its dark, whimsical temptations backs it up as a staggering accomplishment of both meticulous hand-drawn animation and rich, allegorical storytelling.

Josef von Sternberg in the cluttered mise-en-scène, out of focus but still leaving a tangible imprint on these detailed shots.
The animation of rain bringing such tactility to these scenes. It is hard to believe the leap Disney took from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs just three years earlier to this.

Disney Plus is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 41min

Don Birnam would like to believe that within his body, there resides two versions of him: Don the Writer and Don the Drunk. Never mind that his sober self collects and stashes bottles of liquor in nooks around his flat, actively enabling his own addiction. With this fancy literary conceit of dual personalities, it is easy enough for him to blame it on his fear of creative failure, and escape culpability for whatever he gets up to while under the influence. There is no doubt he is an intelligent man capable of far greater things than what he is currently achieving in life, especially since Billy Wilder relishes writing his dialogue with loquacious, dramatic zeal, letting him romantically soliloquise the sublime effect alcohol takes on his consciousness.

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yes. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary, I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo moulding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz playing the ‘Emperor Concerto’.”

A fine performance from Ray Milland, hitting the highs and lows of this charismatic alcoholic as he struggles with addiction.
Some excellent mise-en-scène work from Wilder as well, making use of foregrounds and backgrounds in these shots that tell entire stories.

Ray Milland’s delivery of such poetic lines goes beyond mere affection. Don is absolutely infatuated with his vice, going to remarkable lengths to satiate its craving, even while recognising it as a foible he must try to keep it out of the view of his brother, Wick, and long-suffering girlfriend, Helen. Minor inconveniences like the fact he can barely sit through an opera featuring actors drinking fake wine barely make a dent in his alcoholic resolve. It is not until the six days that The Lost Weekend takes places over that a steady downward slide sinks him deeper than he ever has been before, dampening his carefree demeanour with enough spirits to finally quench his thirst.

A number of rings from the bottom of a bottle – a smart cutaway that economically tells the tale of one drunken night.
Tracking in on the rippling surface of alcohol, tempting and intoxicating us with its dazzling beauty.

Wilder is not typically one to make daring stylistic choices, but neither does he let his camera become a mere passive observer in this film, as he skilfully develops Don’s substance abuse and breakdown through several alcohol-related motifs. The Lost Weekend efficiently depicts one drunken night through a simple shot noting the many rings of condensation left on the bar by his drinks. In another composition, the alcohol itself ripples and reflects lights with an overhead angle that tantalisingly pushes forward with sultry temptation, and as Don wanders liquor stores looking for his next dose, Wilder smothers him behind rows of bottles lined up in the foreground, turning the mere shape of them into a visual cue prompting his own compulsion. This conceit pays off again later as well when the distorted shadow of a bottle he previously hid in a light fixture casts a recognisable shadow up on the ceiling, thereby ending that night’s desperate search for a drink.

The shape of bottles become motifs of temptation, carrying unsettling implications for Don every time they appear.

Paired with Billy Wilder’s sharp direction is one of Miklós Rózsa’s greatest movie scores, developing a dizzying theme that wavers and spirals in a string orchestra before being passed off to a shrill theremin, where it uneasily underscores Don’s drunken self-degradation. Like the wailing musical saw from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest thirty years later, there is a tragic quality to this melody, similarly seeking to understand the fragility of its cynical male protagonist. It is a testament to the development of Don’s character that we still hold onto some empathy for him even as he hits new lows, where he is driven to stealing purses, holding up whiskey stores, and exploiting romantic crushes. As he sets out to pawn off his typewriter, Wilder dissolves between tracking shots moving down city streets and the alcoholic fully prepared to sacrifice his livelihood and talent, and though we pity him immensely at this point, the narrative is far from done with its torment.

Long dissolves and tracking shots as Don walks groggily down this street, searching for relief.

A brief stint in an alcoholic’s ward marks the point at which The Lost Weekend begins to verge ever so slightly on horror, confronting Don with a frightening, raving patient who could very well be a future version of himself. As he watches in fear from his bed at the man being whisked away, the shadow of the hospital doors swing across his face, casting him in an agitated darkness. Hallucinations of bats burying into walls, killing mice, and spilling blood across his apartment plague his delirious mind, until he is finally driven to rock bottom where suicide seems to be the only escape.

At the climax of Don’s visit to the alcoholic’s ward, the hospital door dramatically swings its shadow across his face, casting him in darkness.

Perhaps it is Wilder’s marvellous genre dexterity which helps him smooth over the tonal shift that comes in the final minutes, offering Don a real chance at redemption and sobriety. In the hands of a less talented writer, the miracle of his typewriter finding its way back into his hands and Helen’s pep-talk might not seem like enough to undo everything that has taken place, but nevertheless there is a strong formal cohesion to in the conclusion’s mirrored bookends. Where we came into Don’s life with a long take floating from a New York panorama into his apartment window, we leave the same way, flashing back to that opening shot that now moves in reverse, accompanied by his voice dictating the words that will introduce his autobiographical novel. For Wilder to draw such a hopeful resolution from what is certainly among his darkest films is a truly impressive feat, though with a complicated character as richly drawn and sympathetic as Don Birnam, The Lost Weekend deserves nothing less.

Returning to this opening shot…
…in the closing shot. Wonderful form from Wilder here, and an excellent camera movement to match it.

The Lost Weekend is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 47min

There are few film noirs one could point to that typifies the genre more than Double Indemnity, where Billy Wilder’s gloriously expressionistic set pieces and passionately cynical writing evolves one man’s macabre curiosity into a hideous corruption of his soul. Fred MacMurray leads as insurance salesman Walter Neff, the smooth-talking protagonist whose licentious entanglement with Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of one of his customers, proves to be the unravelling he always unconsciously harboured some desire for. Next to him, Barbara Stanwyck embodies the prototypical femme fatale in one of the great performances of the 1940s, delivering lines that are somehow both lustfully heated and ice cold at the same time. Together, both rattle off sizzling dialogue that only barely conceals the carnal attraction between the two paramours, playing on verbal repetitions and metaphors that practically beg for some sort of physical consummation.

I wonder if I know what you mean.”

“I wonder if you wonder.”

John F. Seitz masterfully shapes his low-key lighting to create these ravishing shots, shedding thin strips of light across his actors and sets.

But at its core, no matter how many times they profess their love or call each other “baby”, this shady relationship is not about sexual desire. Even thicker than the tension that bubbles through their romantic interactions is that which emerges in their partnership as co-conspirators, plotting the murder of Mr. Dietrichson to claim his life insurance money. Such immense wealth would allow them to run away and live happily together, though it does not take a great mind to see that this is not the ultimate dream for either of them.

For Phyllis, men are but disposable tools in her pursuit of luxury, and Neff is just one in a line of them, wedged between her late husband and Nino, her stepdaughter’s hot-headed boyfriend. Stanwyck is like an angelic poison here, framed in doorways of soft light while faking a conscience that wins the sympathy of others, or otherwise standing high up on balconies like a puppeteer slyly asserting her dominance over lovesick men.

Barbara Stanwyck swathed in soft, angelic lighting, ensnaring Fred MacMurray with her poisonous line deliveries and ice cold demeanour.

For our humble insurance salesman, the temptation is simply to prove a capability and intelligence that he cannot otherwise exercise in his ordinary life. “It was all tied up with something I’d been thinking about for years,” he wistfully ponders, recalling all those times he had seen customers caught out for lies on their insurance claims because of careless holes in their stories. To commit the perfect crime and escape the suspicion of his work friend, Keyes, and his inbuilt lie detector he calls his “little man” – that would be the ultimate validation of his supremacy. Within this scheme, Phyllis is nothing but an embodiment of his ego affirming everything he would like to believe about himself, deliberately letting him confuse his arrogance with love.

Though Wilder’s direction may be only secondary to his accomplishment in writing here, this ultimately means very little. Double Indemnity’s screenplay belongs among the best of film history, formally hinging its tightly wound narrative on Neff’s voiceover that dreamily slips us into a flashback and drives it along in rhythmic, pulpy bliss. Further cementing Double Indemnity as one of the greatest classic noirs is Wilder’s ability to match such visceral, imaginative writing with an expressionistic flair so perfectly in tune with his characters.

Chiaroscuro lighting is ridden all through Double Indemnity, but it is significantly announced right from the opening credits as this concealed figure hobbles towards the camera.
Light fixtures deftly worked into the mise-en-scène, partially obscuring the frame from this high angle.

Before we even know any of them by name, the opening credits introduces us to one in crutches, silhouetted against a white background and hobbling towards the camera. His face may be obscured, but we will later identify him as an injured Mr. Dietrichson heading towards his death – or is it actually Neff putting on the disguise of Phyllis’ late husband, gradually growing larger in the frame like an oil spill spreading outwards, until we are entirely consumed in his darkness? Such stunningly stark imagery can be found all through John Seitz’ shadow-heavy cinematography, incorporating lamps and ceiling lights into his mise-en-scène and shaping their dim glow with Venetian blinds that throw narrow strips of light across walls and faces, as Neff and Phyllis progressively sink deeper into the dark, bleak pit of their own corruption.

The association of Venetian blinds with film noir is typified here, letting light peek through in thin, sharp ribbons that tantalise our curiosity.

Additionally building out Double Indemnity’s tension is Wilder’s taut blocking, always considering the dramatic irony that connects the deceptions his characters create and the secrets they keep from others. A busy grocery store is the location where the two accomplices meet to plot their nefarious crime, standing side-by-side, hiding in plain sight behind packed shelves, and cutting themselves off from any possibility of physical flirtation. Later, Wilder crafts an indelible composition using the familiar geography of Neff’s apartment building, staging Phyllis behind an open door in the foreground while her lover stands on the other side, hiding her from Keyes who is off in the background. For all of this screenplay’s efficient storytelling, the sharp layering of the mise-en-scène is also working to subtly develop its characters and narrative, letting their treachery take full form.

Tense staging in this complex character interaction, underscoring the heavy dramatic irony.
Hiding in plain sight within this packed grocery store, taking both out of their comfort zones.

Of course, this lifestyle of deceit and depravity is not one that comes naturally to Neff though, who is acting more on his own insatiable curiosity than anything else. Much like Phyllis herself, the smell of honeysuckle that lingers outside her house turns from a sweet, alluring scent into something he associates with danger, and even their repeated promise of carrying out this murder “straight down the line” comes back to bite him when he starts wanting to pull out. By this point, all romantic chemistry has dissipated between the two. As Neff divulges in his voiceover, he knew right at the moment he committed the murder that he was going to be caught out, if not because of any slip-ups, then because of his own guilt.

Most of all, it is the shame he feels in fooling Keyes that gets to him the most, as while his colleague’s instincts tell him early on that there is something fishy with Phyllis’ insurance claim, the unquestionable trust he places in Neff clouds his better judgement. Still, all through the murder and cover-up, his “little man” remains the single largest threat to Neff’s insidious lie, proving itself to be a clever character conceit from Wilder. In a way, it is Keyes’ perceptive mind which motivates his workmate to commit this crime in the first place, as his assertion that there is no such thing as a perfect murder is taken as a challenge.

Venetian blinds in the workplace…
…and Venetian blinds on the train. Absolute commitment to an aesthetic from Wilder.

If there is a love story here in Double Indemnity, it is ultimately not about Neff and his femme fatale, but rather Neff and his best friend who he sets out to get one up over. Throughout the film, Wilder develops a loving motif between the two that sees Neff produce a match for his friend and light his cigarette for him, packing their relationship with affectionate intimacy in this simple action. It is this gesture which he also returns to in the film’s closing seconds, as the extended flashback comes to an end and Keyes sorrowfully discovers his friend’s wrongdoing. True to their relationship, their final exchange is part banter, and part profession of their sentimental feelings, transcending whatever wrongs have come between then.

“The guy you were looking for was too close. He was right across the desk from you.”

“Closer than that, Walter.”

“Love you too.”

As Neff lies on the ground bleeding out, it is now he who searches for a match in his coat, and Keyes who sweetly reciprocates the gesture. For all the fatalistic pessimism that roils through Double Indemnity, Wilder delicately polishes it with a light warmth in these quiet interactions, wistfully recalling a moral innocence worth savouring before it inevitably fades away into a dark, bitter void.

Formally paying off on this character motif to end the film, sweetly reciprocating the affectionate gesture.

Double Indemnity is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Michael Powell | 1hr 44min

When it comes to the formal technique of shifting from black-and-white to colour that Michael Powell so effectively uses in A Matter of Life and Death, two other films come to mind – The Wizard of Oz and Stalker. All three movies are masterpieces and use this switch to contrast reality with a metaphysical dream space, and yet Powell’s work is using this device to an entirely different effect. Here, it is the Earth that is flooded with beautiful technicolour, and the surreal afterlife that is shot in black-and-white. Where The Wizard of Oz and Stalker celebrate the magic of other worlds, A Matter of Life and Death is in love with the joys of living.

Brilliant, vivid Technicolor photography on Earth, very distinguished from the monochrome afterlife.

The scenes of the afterlife are gorgeous in their own way though. It is made up of impressive set pieces, the two most notable being the stairway to heaven adorned with statues of historical figures, and the gigantic amphitheatre sitting inside a spiral galaxy. It isn’t exactly surrealist cinema, but there are unique images here that would not look out of place in a Luis Buñuel film, with the metaphor of the stairway entering the frozen operating room especially making powerful and imaginative visual statement.

One of Powell’s greatest set pieces, the stairway to heaven lined with statues of historical icons.
The stairway to heaven meets the operating theatre, one fate being decided in material and immaterial realms. Fantastic surrealism in this gorgeous finale.

In fact, the editing preceding this moment is impressive in itself, foreshadowing the eventual meeting of the afterlife and the real world. Peter’s fate is being decided in both places at once, by both brain surgeons and a jury of deceased men. It is left deliberately vague as to which group holds more power, as the entire afterlife could be all in Peter’s imagination. But the point remains – the metaphysical and physical worlds are inextricably bound to each other.

It is a tricky formal balance that Powell maintains in painting out this relationship, with both always offering counterpoints to each other. If life wins in one moment, then death will later hit back in a similar manner. This isn’t just in Peter’s story, but in Dr Reeves’ own fatal motorbike accident, foreshadowed earlier by a narrowly missed collision. Each of these characters’ lives is positioned on a knifepoint, and it is this fragility that makes them all the more precious.

A precarious balance between life and death in a simple, elegant transition. Powell starts with a close-up on this delicate flower on Earth, and then as his camera pulls back he washes away all colours in his shot, and the scene shifts to the afterlife without so much as a cut.

Peter sinks into the background in the final act which suddenly zooms out and adjusts to a massive scope, giving enormous weight to his life. His agency is taken away, and his fate rests in the hands of both friends and enemies with the power to grant him either life or death. All of history comes to bear witness to the decision, with rows upon rows of deceased people from different periods and cultures watching to see whether he will come and join their ranks.

Epic scope and scale – the people and civilisations of human history come to bear witness to this monumental trial.

The random Midsummer Night’s Dream reference serves to emphasise the afterlife as a relaxed, comedic, pastoral place, and much like the final lines of the play, A Matter of Life and Death essentially tells us in fewer words:

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here,

While these visions did appear.”

In short, everything we might have just watch may or may not be a dream. That will be left up to us.

Most of all though, A Matter of Life and Death is an allegory, manifesting the deciders of our fate in the afterlife. The romance never develops past the initial honeymoon phase, closing the film on the sweet, final words:

“We won.”
“I know, darling.”

And leaving them at that point is absolutely the right choice. Peter and June’s futures are undefined, but as long as they are alive it is in their hands.

Michael Powell’s long dissolves, blending images to create a masterful composition of faces.

A Matter of Life and Death is currently available to stream on SBS On Demand, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.