Film noir. Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck. Films Reviewed: Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers PLUS Tracers
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Film Noir. Those dark, mysterious B&W thrillers from the 1940s, full of intrigue, lies, murder, and adultery. They abound with low-lifes, power-hungry toughs, private eyes and femmes fatales. And one of the key players was Barbara Stanwyck. Strong, sexy and smart, she ruled the Hollywood screen. A retrospective, Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck is now playing at TIFF. I’ll admit I’d heard her name but hadn’t seen her films until now. Wow! I get her now: She played powerful women in an era when that meant you’re either evil, immoral, or psychotic.
So this week I’m going to look at two of her film noir movies from the 1940s: there’s a seedy seductress testing the waters of insurance fraud, and a female industrialist with a secret past who might have an affair; and a new release, a noir-ish crime thriller about a young bike courier who jumps, feet first, into organized crime.
Dir: Billy Wilder, Wri: Raymond Chandler
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance agent in L.A. He’s a bachelor, devoted to his job. The one man he looks up to is the firm’s investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson). Keyes is the one who uncovers the crooked scammers trying to push through dubious claims on their accounts. He says “the little man inside” him can always detect when something’s fishy.
One day, when Neff visits an oil man to renew his insurance policy, he instead encounters the man’s wife. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a vivacious blonde in a bathrobe who isn’t shy about her good looks. She flirts openly with him, but he smells a scam brewing so he brushes her off. But soon enough they’re together again, making love and plotting an insurance scheme. It would pay her “double indemnity” — a huge amount of money — if the husband dies accidentally in a particular way. He goes for it like a dumb dog, blinded by lust. But after the deed is done, he finds himself in a double bind as the result of his actions. Keyes is suspicious, so Neff can’t see the woman he wants to be with. And Neff begins to suspect there is more to Phyllis than meets the eye.
This is a fantastic, dark story told by a dying man.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Dir: Lewis Milestone
Martha Ivers is a teenaged orphan in Iverstown, a city that bears her family name. She lives with her rich and powerful aunt and an ineffectual boy named Walter, her tutor’s obedient son. Her only friend is a blustering ruffian itching for a fight. Sam is from the wrong side of town but Martha’s attraction transcends class. She tries to run away with him but is brought back by her cruel aunt. But on the very night that they plan to escape Iverstown forever, something happens. In a fit of anger Martha strikes and kills her aunt. Walter sees it happen, but helps her cover up the crime. And in return for his silence she later marries him.
Flash forward 20 years. Sam (Van Heflin) comes back to Iverstown, almost by accident. He discovers his old love Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) now rules the place. She’s a powerful woman who turned her aunt’s small fortune into a huge legacy. Her husband, Walter (Kirk Douglas – his first film), is the District Attorney. Walter is a depressed alcoholic, still madly in love with Martha, who merely puts up with him. They live in separate wings of her mansion. Sam, meanwhile, meets a pretty ex-con on parole named Toni (Lizabeth Scott) and vows to help her out. He asks Walter for a hand, for old times sake.
But when Martha and Sam meet again, an old love is rekindled. Walter attempts to nip it in the bud by having Sam roughed up and driven out of town. But nobody kicks Sam around without paying the consequences. This menage a quatre, involving the highest of the high and the lowest of the low, is played out in a rough urban setting. This is an amazing film, largely forgotten, from an era where the poor and downtrodden were more sympathetic than the rich and powerful. Barbara Stanwyck is amazing, as this self-made powerful woman… and potential psychopath.
Dir: Daniel Benmayor
Cam (Taylor Lautner, the wolf-boy in the Twilight series) is an orphan in New York City who works as a bike courier. One day on a ride, he notices some ninja-types bouncing on top of the buildings he zooms past. But when one of them, a woman named Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos) jumps down from a rooftop, he ends up in an accident. He flies through the air, landing right on top of her. It totals his bike, which puts his sole income in jeopardy: he holds a debt to a loan shark. He needs money … and he really likes Nikki.
After passing a complex test he ends up joining her secretive gang. Turns out they work freelance, pulling off carefully-planned jewel heists and drug deals. Their secret weapon? They’re all skilled in parkour, the French sport of running, climbing and jumping of buildings, which renders them unbeatable. But they all have to answer to Miller (Adam Rayner), the self-proclaimed “alpha dog” of this pack. And he doesn’t want anybody messing with his plans… or his girlfriend Nikki. Can Cam pay off his debt, escape this criminal life, and get together with his new true love?
Tracers is a feeble action-thriller, with plot holes so big you could drive a convoy of trucks through them. Teen idol Taylor Lautner is as one-dimensional as always, though Rayner and Avgeropoulos (and some of the actors in smaller roles) are better. A silly movie for sure but I really liked the jumping, climbing and the rest of the parkour chase scenes, They’re great! And I hear Lautner did his own stunts. Is Tracers worth seeing? If you like parkour, definitely. If not, don’t bother.
Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck is playing at TIFF through the month. And Tracers opens today in Toronto and on Pay on Demand. Check your local listings. Also opening today is the Water Docs Festival at Jackman Hall at the AGO – a documentary series… about water!
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.