Hardcore (1979)

Hardcore begins in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Christmas day, where much of the congregation from the Dutch Reformation Church has gathered together in the house of Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott).  Even allowing for the fact that it is a Christian holiday, we see that for these people, religion permeates every aspect of their lives.  And while this movie can be enjoyed by those that know next to nothing about Christian theology, I believe an appreciation for this film is enhanced by an understanding of the particular version of Christianity that these people believe in, especially since the story can be understood allegorically.  For that reason, and because I have always been fascinated by the doctrine of predestination, I shall indulge myself in a preliminary discussion of it.

In one room, some men are discussing the unpardonable sin, rejection of the Holy Spirit.  Actually, the verses in the Bible that mention the unpardonable sin, Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, speak of blaspheming against the Holy Ghost, but these men are apparently construing that as rejecting the Holy Ghost. One man questions whether one can be guilty of that sin unwittingly. That suggestion is dismissed by another as verging on the Pelagian heresy.

Pelagius was a British monk who, on his visit to Rome just before the turn of the fifth century, was disturbed by the effect that the idea of predestination was having on people.  It was thought that because of Adam’s original sin, everyone is born sinful.  Only with the grace of God could a person be saved, but man is so corrupt that he cannot sincerely ask for God’s grace unless he already has it.  This is known as the doctrine of prevenient grace.  Then, once one has God’s grace, one’s salvation is assured, and one has no choice but to follow the path of righteousness, known as the doctrine of irresistible grace.  And as God ordained all things in advance, it was already determined before man was born whether he would receive God’s grace and be saved or not.  Pelagius concluded that these doctrines were causing people to become fatalistic.  If everyone is predestined to either be saved or damned, there seems to be little point in trying to be good.

According to St. Augustine, a contemporary of Pelagius and a strong proponent of predestination, man did have free will, but without God’s grace, all he could do was choose one sin rather than another.  Pelagius countered this by arguing that man’s free will was such that he could choose to be good all on his own, and that he could ask for God’s grace freely.  Subsequent Pelagians continued this line of thought, maintaining that Adam’s sin was not passed on to subsequent generations, and that there were men without sin before the coming of Christ.  Of course, this called into question the whole need for Christ’s crucifixion:  if man was not all that sinful, there seemed to be no need for God to atone for man’s sins by suffering on the cross.  As a result, this line of thinking came to be known as the Pelagian heresy.

With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin took predestination one step further.  Whereas Augustine had maintained that man had free will, but that it was not worth much unless accompanied by the grace of God, Luther and Calvin rejected the idea of free will outright.  There was no such thing.  All had been ordained by God from eternity, including who would be saved and who would be damned.  As Calvin said, everyone deserves damnation, and all salvation is unmerited, granted by God to a select few, not because they deserved it, but because it pleased God to do so.  It is this Calvinistic theology that Jake’s congregation believes in.

Referring back to the man who wondered whether one could commit the unpardonable sin of rejecting the Holy Ghost unwittingly, he was suggesting that if such a man knew he was doing that, he might choose not to.  But that would seem to suggest that he had the power to choose otherwise, which implies free will.

While the theological discussion among the men is going on in one room, in another room a bunch of kids are watching television with Joe VanDorn, apparently Jake’s father.  On the television, some men dressed in Santa Claus suits are dancing to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”  Joe gets disgusted, stands up and turns the set off, saying that the people who make shows like that are the kids who used to live in Grand Rapids and then left for California (a harbinger of what is to come).  “I didn’t like them when they were here, and I don’t like them out there.”  It seems like harmless enough entertainment, but Santa Claus and Christmas trees represent a secularized form of Christmas, not to mention the fact that a lot of Calvinists regard dancing as sinful.

Jake voices some concern about his teenage daughter Kristen and her cousin Marsha going to a Youth Calvinist Convention in California.  He expresses his misgivings somewhat jokingly, because he knows they will be heavily chaperoned, but as it turns out, such concern was more warranted than he imagined.

The next day at his furniture factory, Jake talks to a woman he hired to design a sign for his business.  He doesn’t quite like it because it is too “overpowering,” although if anything is overpowering, it is Jake’s personality.  The woman says she has worked really hard to get the color just right, but she says she will change it, if that is what he wants.  He says he would not have hired a display designer, if he did not trust her taste.  But he keeps expressing misgivings until she agrees to change the sign the way he wants it.  Once she consents to making the sign the way he prefers it, Jake says, “If you say so.”  This recapitulates the whole business about God and free will discussed above.  The display designer supposedly has free will in choosing the color for the sign, but the color that will end up being on the sign has been ordained by Jake.

Jake gets a call from one of the counselors, informing him that on a trip to an amusement park, Kristen disappeared.  Jake and Marsha’s father Wes, Jake’s brother-in-law, fly out to California, where Marsha tells them that there was a boy there that Kristen met.  At the police station, the detective suggests that Kristen may have run away.  When Jake becomes angry, saying his daughter was not the type to run away, he gets his first of many doses of culture shock when the detective informs him that her being a runaway is the best they can hope for, as he points to pictures of other girls who may never come back at all.

Jake decides to hire a private detective, Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), whose hardboiled, irreligious talk disturbs Jake, even though he realizes Mast is the kind of guy he needs to help find his daughter.  Mast apologizes for offending Jake’s religious beliefs, noting that he is a practitioner of Mind Science himself, as if that is supposed to be reassuring.  Mast tells Jake and Wes to go back home and says he will call them when he knows something.

Several weeks later, Wes tells Jake that we can’t always understand the Lord’s ways, that the Lord his testing him, that he has to have faith.  This is an irritating trait that some people have, presuming to advise those suffering from a misfortune about the mysterious ways of God, but considering the community in which they live, it is not surprising.  In any event, Jake expresses his contempt for the remark about having faith.  As is often the case, it is easy to talk about God’s ways and having faith as long as the bad stuff is happening to others.  But now that something bad may have happened to his daughter, he begins to have doubts.

Mast turns up in Grand Rapids with an 8mm hardcore movie, which he shows to Jake in a “stall” theater that he has use of for an hour.  Today, Jake would be told which adult website to look at, but back in the 1970s, when this movie was made, before cable, video cassette recorders, and the internet, most pornographic movies were seen in adult movie theaters or in adult bookstores with private stalls.  The movie shows two men having sex with Kristen, which has a devastating effect on Jake.  Mast promises he will find her, and he heads back to California.

Jake gets tired of just waiting around, so he drives out to California and surprises Mast while he is in the middle of “doing research” (slipping the panties off a porn star).  Jake becomes so angry, he runs Mast out of his own apartment, and then goes through some of the evidence that Mast has accumulated (pictures, names, addresses) and decides to see if he can find his daughter himself.

The structure of this movie from this point is like that in Dante’s Inferno, where Jake gradually descends into the sex trade, at first by looking at the street prostitutes and advertisements, then by pretending to be a customer in an adult book store where he looks at the various adult novelties and magazines.  He does fine as long as people think he just wants sex, but as soon as he starts asking questions, trying to find out if anyone has seen his daughter, he runs into trouble, at one point being bounced from a whorehouse.

Since that gets him nowhere, he decides he will do better pretending to be a producer of pornographic movies, which will allow him to meet a lot of people in that business.  He goes to see Mr. Ramada, a movie producer whose name Jake got from Mast’s files.  Ramada gives Jake some advice.  “Start small.  Start with the kiddie porn.”  Well, that makes sense.  Children are small.  Ramada is serious, but clearly Paul Schrader, the writer and director of this movie, is making a sick joke, although one with a purpose.  I said that this movie has the structure of Dante’s Inferno, where we encounter increasingly worse aspects of the sex trade as the movie proceeds.  Child pornography is the worst form of pornography, belonging in what would correspond to the lowest circle of Hell.  But Ramada makes it sound as if child pornography corresponds to Limbo, where one finds the unbaptized infants.

The reason Schrader dismissed child pornography in this manner was to get it out of the way.  He wanted snuff films to be the worst form of pornography in his movie, especially since it would directly threaten Kristen.  Technically, the 8mm movie showing Kristen having sex would today be counted as child pornography, because she is a minor.  But what Ramada is referring to, of course, is prepubescent children, which is vastly worse.

Jake does not take the advice about kiddie porn, of course, but he does have some success posing as a producer of smut.  In pretending to interview “actors” for a film, one of the men he saw in the movie with Kristen finally shows up.  When Jake asks him where he can find the girl he was in the movie with, the guy says she abused him in the making of that movie and that he never wants to work with that “freaky bitch” again.  Jake becomes angry and beats the porn star until he gets some information out of him, which leads him to Niki (Season Hubley), whom Jake had already met on the set of a porn film being produced by Ramada.   Niki regularly works at a place called Les Girls, and if you ever wanted to find out just how disgusting the sex trade can be, the scene at that establishment alone is worth the price of admission.  Niki will become his guide into the lower regions of the sex trade, much in the way Virgil was a guide for Dante.  Virgil was a virtuous pagan.  Niki is also a pagan of sorts, referring to herself as a Venusian, as in Venus, the goddess of love.  She agrees to help Jake find Kristen.

Niki is perceptive.  She quickly figures out that Jake is not a producer.  He tells her he is a detective, but she sees through that too.  He finally tells her that he is Kristen’s father and that he is a widower, but later she asks him point blank, “Your wife’s not dead, is she?” to which he admits his wife left him. She is clearly thinking it was for the same reason that his daughter ran away.

In addition to being smart, Niki is likable.  In fact, we begin at this point to compare her to Jake’s daughter, who is a big nothing.  Kristen is so docile and passive that it would be easy to indoctrinate her into a religion, and then just as easy for someone to come along and talk her into running away.  We feel sorry for Kristen, who cannot help being what she is (there is no free will, after all), but we would much rather spend time with Niki.

She becomes curious about Jake’s beliefs, and he tells her they can be summed up by the acronym “TULIP,” which covers some of the things discussed above.  “T” stands for “total depravity,” which is the doctrine of original sin, that man is incapable of good.  “U” stands for “unconditional election, which is the belief that God has chosen a certain number of elect from the beginning of time.  “L” stands for “limited atonement,” which means only the elect will go to Heaven.  “I” stands for “irresistible grace,” meaning that one who has God’s grace cannot choose to reject the Holy Ghost.  And “P” stands for the “perseverance of the saints,” by which is meant that you cannot fall from grace once you have it.

Niki helps Jake look for Tod, the other guy in the film with Kristen.  She learns that Tod has been associating with Ratan, and she becomes visibly shaken, saying, “He’s into pain.”  Of course, the name “Ratan” is only one letter removed from “Satan,” which is appropriate, since he is the most evil man in the entire sex trade.  Mast, who in the meantime has been secretly rehired by Wes, catches up with Jake.  When asked, Mast tells him that Ratan is the kind of man who can supply child whores and sex slaves, and who can have people raped or killed while the cameras are rolling.  Niki sets up an appointment for Jake to meet Tod in an adult bookstore, where Jake says he wants to see one of Ratan’s most recent films, thinking that Kristen may be in it.  It turns out she is not, which is fortunate, because what starts out to be a phony bondage flick turns into a snuff film in which a man and a woman are murdered by Ratan with a knife.  By the time the movie is over, Tod has disappeared.

Just as we compared Niki with Kristen, Niki begins to think of herself as Jake’s daughter, telling Mast that Jake will take care of her, get her out of the sex trade.  Mast ridicules the idea.  When Jake returns, he demands that Niki tell him where he can find Tod.  She is afraid to talk, saying she is afraid Jake will desert her.  He slaps her and threatens to beat her with his fists until she tells him.  Then he kisses her on the forehead and promises he won’t forget her.

Jake catches up with Tod at his bondage business and beats him until he tells Jake where Ratan is.  When Jake finds Ratan in a strip joint, Kristen is with him.  Ratan slashes Jake with his knife and runs out.  Mast had followed Jake, and he shoots Ratan, killing him.  Kristen is hostile to Jake at first. Her rejection of their way of life in Grand Rapids is like the rejection of the Holy Spirit, which is the unpardonable sin.  But the elect can never fall from grace, and Jake makes excuses for her, saying they forced her. Kristen asserts that she left because she wanted to, but there is no such thing as free will in their religion.  Jake admits his failures, however, and they reconcile.  After helping his daughter into the police car (they need her as a witness), he turns and sees Niki.  As he fumbles with his words, she realizes that Mast was right, that Jake has no more need of her.  Jake turns to Mast, asking him if there is something that can be done for her, if money would help.  But in so doing, Jake refers to her as “the girl” rather than as “Niki,” so we know he wants to distance himself from her.  Mast tells him to go home, that he does not belong there.

In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary makes the following observation in reviewing this movie:

By the time Scott [Jake] saves his daughter from the pimp who controls her, he believes he has learned to be a good father to her—but his sudden rejection of Hubley [Niki], as being unworthy to be his daughter’s adopted sister, shows he is a hypocrite.  … [The] ending is not very satisfying because the girl you care about gets the shaft while the other gets salvation.

Peary is right as far as how we feel about the ending, but that is precisely the effect Schrader intended.  Kristen is like one of the elect in Calvinism, someone who has been saved without seeming to be worthy of special consideration; while Niki is like one of the damned, whose exclusion from being one of God’s chosen strikes us as not only unfair, but also heartless.

This Gun for Hire (1942)

This Gun for Hire is about a hired killer named Raven, and it uses a variety of means to make us like him. First, Raven is played by Alan Ladd, who is good looking, and we have a natural inclination to like good-looking people. Second, he has a cat for a pet, of which he is very protective, causing him to slap a maid when she runs the cat out of the room after it knocks over a can of milk. We tend to like people who like animals. True, we tend to not like men who slap women, but that is the sort of thing we would expect from a man who kills people for money. It is the positive qualities that he is given to make us like him, in spite of the negative ones that would ordinarily make us not like him, that are interesting.

When he goes to an apartment where there is a man he is supposed to kill, he sees a little girl sitting on the stairs with her legs in braces, probably a victim of polio. He doesn’t like the fact that she is a witness, but he continues on up the stairs. Once inside the room, he is dismayed by the presence of a woman. After he kills the man, he sort of apologizes to the woman, saying he was told the man would be alone, and then he shoots her too. The man he killed was a blackmailer, so we had no sympathy for him, but in killing the woman, who presumably was nothing more than a girlfriend of the blackmailer, Raven shows that he is not averse to killing someone who is innocent, if she happens to be a witness. As a result, we wonder if he will shoot the little girl too on his way back down the stairs. He is tempted, but takes pity on her and simply leaves after handing her the ball she dropped. That is another way the movie gets us to like him.

Furthermore, the movie gives us another villain, Willard Gates, whom we are encouraged to despise. Gates is played by Laird Cregar, who just has the look and manner of someone creepy. He is the one who hired Raven to do the job. He pays Raven off in ten dollar bills, and then double-crosses him by giving the serial numbers to the police so that Raven will go to prison where he cannot talk. At least, that is the idea, but it really doesn’t make sense, because the best way to keep a hit-man from talking to the police is by not double-crossing him. In any event, it turns out that Gates works for a chemical company that is selling a formula for poison gas to the Japanese during World War II. Compared to Gates, Raven seems to be a pretty good guy, for a hit-man.

Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a showgirl, is enlisted by a senator to go undercover and investigate Gates and his company. This naturally results in her and Raven crossing paths. He almost kills her to keep her from talking, but she gets away. Eventually, they come to like each other, especially after he rescues her from Gates, who was planning to have her killed. Raven confides in her about dreams he keeps having of the woman who raised him as a child, who beat him regularly, and even hit him with a flatiron, deforming his wrist. This movie was made when psychoanalysis was familiar to audiences, who were therefore primed to accept childhood trauma as an explanation for mental problems later in life. Even today, we tend to accept this explanation for why Raven is the way he is, somewhat excusing his evil nature.

Raven wants to get even with Gates and with Brewster (Tully Marshall), the man Gates works for, while Ellen wants to find out if those two men are traitors. This leads them to cooperate with each other, with Ellen telling Raven where he can find the two men. Brewster is an old man in a wheel chair, which makes him the third person in this movie with some kind of physical disability, though there seems to be no special significance about that in this case, unless it is to provide a dramatic contrast between his physical weakness and his lust for power. In any event, when Raven forces Brewster to sign a confession, the latter dies of a heart attack, after which Raven kills Gates. This is a common ploy of the movies, having the protagonist act from personal motives, which just happen to be of great help for the war effort or some other noble cause. So this is another way the movie gets us to like Raven.

Finally, Raven starts to shoot a police detective, but when he sees that he is Ellen’s fiancé, he holds his fire. This consideration for her makes us like him some more. Then he is shot by a policeman and dies. Because his death is the proper punishment for the crimes he has committed, it balances the books, allowing us to like him without feeling guilty about it.

Calcutta (1946), Saigon (1947), and The Blue Dahlia (1946)

It was 1965, and I was in my second year of college.  Having just finished watching a monster movie on the Late Show on Saturday night, I changed channels and came in toward the end of another movie, starring Alan Ladd.  When I was just a child, I had seen him in Shane (1953) , which was great, and I might have seen another of his movies with my parents a couple of years later, but that one had left no impression on me.

Anyway, in this movie, Ladd walked into a room where several people were gathered, and someone said, “We were just talking about you.”

“My favorite subject,” Ladd replied.  He wasn’t smiling.

The scene was apparently one involving a double-cross.  Speaking to the beautiful woman in that room who had betrayed him, Ladd says, “Sorry you can’t join us in a glass of rat poison.”

Now, I’m not going to say that this was the greatest bit of hardboiled dialogue ever written for the big screen.  But it was the first I’d ever heard.  Besides, it had been delivered by Alan Ladd, with that voice of his and that look.  Wishing that I had seen the movie from the beginning, I merely made a mental note to watch it in its entirety the next time it was featured on the Late Show.  For some reason, I didn’t bother to check the newspaper to see the name of this movie, figuring I’d know it when I saw it.  Little did I realize that it would never be shown on television again.

The years passed, and in the 1980s, cable television and videocassette recorders expanded my viewing options.  Moreover, I became acquainted with the term film noir, and soon it was that I had seen the best of Ladd’s movies in this genre:  This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and The Blue Dahlia (1946), each costarring Veronica Lake.

But eventually, I began to think again about that movie I had seen in college.  I remembered the oriental setting, and so for a while, I wondered if the movie could be Calcutta (1946).  It wasn’t readily available, but it did finally show up on the internet. It’s about three commercial pilots transporting goods between Chungking and Calcutta.

Two of the pilots are played by Alan Ladd and William Bendix.  The third pilot, whose name is Bill, is murdered.  He was engaged to be married to Gail Russell, but she was just using him to smuggle jewels on his plane without his knowing about it, something she had done with other pilots.

At the end of the movie, Ladd beats a confession out of Russell, kills a casino operator named Lasser, who was the head of the smuggling ring, and then calls the police and has Russell arrested. And that wasn’t easy for him to do, since they had fallen in love with each other.  As Ladd says to Russell, “Does a guy have to trust a girl to fall for her?”  But he decides he had better not marry her.  The way he figures it, since she had already killed one man in order to steal the jewels she thought he had, and had helped Lasser murder Bill, someday she might decide to kill him too, and he might not get much sleep thinking about it.

That’s how hardboiled characters have to weigh the pros and cons of marriage in a film noir.  It reminds me of that incredible conversation between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, which is in both the novel and the 1941 movie based on it.  Spade tells Brigid that she’s taking the fall because she killed his partner. Her feelings are hurt.  She accuses him of not loving her.  He admits that he probably does love her, and he accepts that she loves him.  But he won’t play the sap for her. Otherwise, as he points out in the novel, when the love wears off, she might kill him one day.  Still, he figures that if they don’t hang her by her pretty neck, she might get out of prison in twenty years, in which case he will wait for her.  Twice he says that he will wait for her!

So, like Sam Spade, Ladd chose to turn the woman he loved in to the police rather than marry her and take a chance of her murdering him one day.  Of course, Ladd had a dim view of marriage all along, quite apart from the question of whether his wife might someday kill him.  Earlier in the movie, when he and Bendix find out Bill is going to get married, they are appalled.  Ladd sneers, saying that what women want is “stability, to settle down.”  That would be like a slow death right there.

Ladd becomes suspicious about Bill’s murder because he still had money on him when his body was found. Whoever strangled Bill must not have watched many movies, or else he would have known this fundamental rule:  if you are going to commit a murder, be sure to remove all the money and jewelry from the person you kill so that the police will suspect that robbery was the motive and let it go at that. In any event, Ladd suspects Russell may have had something to do with it right from the beginning.  She protests that she would never have done anything to cause Bill a moment of unhappiness.

“Wouldn’t want to harm him, huh?” Ladd asks.  “Then why’d you want to marry him?”

In a later conversation, when Ladd says he doesn’t trust women, Russell asks, “What was she like?” referring to the woman she assumes must have walked off and left him bitter like that.

Ladd replies, “A woman always wants to blame a guy’s good judgment on a woman.”

And yet, while I enjoyed this movie, it was not the one I was looking for.  Having already seen several other Alan Ladd films set overseas, but to no avail, I had now eliminated every possibility except Saigon (1947). Of course, if I had remembered that the beautiful woman to whom Ladd had suggested a glass of rat poison was Veronica Lake, that would have helped me narrow it down. It was not available on Netflix, but it was available as a DVD, though of poor quality.  Anyway, I could hold out no longer, so I ordered it.

Saigon turned out to be the movie I was looking for.  I was pleased to see that I had not been misled by the brief impression I had formed of this movie while watching ten minutes of it over fifty years ago. It holds up throughout.

In this film, Alan Ladd plays a recently discharged major in the Army Air Forces.  He piloted a bomber during the war until his plane was shot down.  He finds out that a friend of his, Mike, who was a captain in his crew, has two or three months to live.  He suffered a severe head injury and now has a large piece of platinum as part of his skull. The doctor agrees to let Ladd tell him the grim prognosis, but Ladd tells another crew member, a sergeant named Pete, while they are sitting in a bar, that they aren’t going to tell Mike anything.  His parents are dead, and he has no wife.  So, they’ll just show him a good time for the next two or three months.  In order to have the money needed for this purpose, Ladd agrees to take a job flying a man to Saigon.  The man’s secretary is played by Veronica Lake.  As in Calcutta, Ladd and his pals end up inadvertently getting involved in a smuggling operation.

Regarding Mike’s prognosis, this is a Dark Victory (1939) situation: Mike will have no symptoms (or not many, at least) until he dies; the prognosis is precise in the time left for him to live (just a few months); and someone has taken it upon himself to keep him from knowing.  The key difference, however, is that Mike is killed by one of the bad guys before he ever finds out about that prognosis.

In a different way, this movie also reminded me of The Blue Dahlia, where during the war, Ladd was the leader of a flight crew, which included William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont.  In this movie, it is Bendix that has the plate in his skull.  His problem, however, is not that he has only a few months to live, but rather that he gets confused and forgetful. When the three men get off the bus at the beginning of the movie, after having been discharged at the end of the war, Ladd and Beaumont are wearing suits, but Bendix is wearing a leather jacket.  Though there is no reference to their rank in the service, yet we gather that Ladd and Beaumont were officers, while Bendix was an enlisted man.

If so, then once again we have two officers and an enlisted man, once members of a flight crew, and now able to fraternize as civilians.  Only in this case, it is the enlisted man who has the plate in his skull, whereas in Saigon, it was one of the officers.  There was never any reference to the war in Calcutta, but three young American pilots were bound to have flown combat missions.  And given Bendix’s screen persona, it is hard to imagine him being an officer.

Anyway, in Saigon, after Ladd and Pete agree not to tell Mike about his prognosis, Mike shows up at the bar and joins them.  Ladd leaves the table for some reason, and when Mike starts talking about going home, Pete gets Mike to agree to stay so they can cheer Ladd up by showing him a good time. It seems that Ladd was planning on getting married, but then he received a Dear John letter, breaking off their engagement.

And so, whereas Ladd was a misogamist in Calcutta, in Saigon he has been jilted by the woman he wanted to marry.  He got even further in The Blue Dahlia.  In that movie, he is married to a woman named Helen.  When he and his two friends say goodbye after getting off the bus, Beaumont advises Ladd not to just show up at his wife’s hotel room unexpectedly, but that he should phone first.  Ladd says, “Maybe,” but there is no maybe about it.  Only a wittol would do that, someone that might go on to become Ward Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), for instance.  But a real man just walks right in, and if he catches his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto, he can settle matters right then.

Instead, when he gets to Helen’s hotel room, which is more like an apartment, there is a swinging party underway.  He tells the inebriated woman who opens the door that he is looking for his wife. “We have lots of wives here,” she informs him.  A few minutes later, when Howard Da Silva, Helen’s lover, realizes that her husband has returned from the war, he decides to leave the party.  Helen kisses him goodbye, not realizing that Ladd can see her doing so.  “You’re wearing the wrong lipstick, Pal,” Ladd tells Da Silva seconds later as he punches him in the mouth.  Da Silva shows some class. Wiping the spot with a handkerchief where he was kissed and then punched, he says, “You’re right.”

After the guests leave, Ladd and Helen have an argument, during which she tells him, in order to hurt him, that their son died because she had an automobile accident one night while she’d been drinking.  He pulls out his 45, saying he should use it on her, but then tosses it on the couch and leaves.  Somewhat later, she is found murdered with that gun. Naturally, Ladd is suspected by the police, while we start suspecting Bendix.  He met Helen in the hotel bar after Ladd left, and then accepted her invitation to go back to her room, not realizing she was Ladd’s wife.

The original screenplay of The Blue Dahlia, as written by Raymond Chandler, had Bendix be the one who murdered Helen, but the Navy objected to having a veteran be the killer, so the script was changed to make “Dad,” the house detective, be the villain. It’s a better ending anyway. We would have felt sorry for Bendix, and that would have been depressing. Much better to have Bendix be suspected on account of his war injury, and then have the unlikable house detective be the murderer.

As a side note, in Dark City:  The Lost World of Film Noir, Eddie Muller, in discussing The Blue Dahlia, says that in general, there was an unwritten law that a veteran in a movie must never be found guilty of a crime. He overlooked Crossfire (1947), however, in which Robert Ryan plays a veteran who commits a murder.  And this is a peculiar oversight, since Muller discusses this movie in the same book.  I suspect that the difference had to do with the reason for the murder.  In the case of The Blue Dahlia, the Navy did not want a man to commit a murder because of an injury sustained during the war, whereas the Army could accept that Robert Ryan’s character had been evil before he enlisted, and his service during the war had nothing to do with it.

So, whether as a confirmed bachelor, jilted fiancé, or cuckolded husband, Ladd seems to have good reasons for being cynical about women and having a dim view of marriage.  Not that these movies could end on that note, though.  In Calcutta, after sending Russell away with the police, Ladd is comforted by another woman, Marina, from whom he regularly gets a little uncomplicated nookie. We get the sense that he might just marry that girl one of these days.  In The Blue Dahlia, Ladd and Veronica Lake, who was Da Silva’s wife, have fallen in love, so the good spouses from the two marriages will now presumably make one good marriage, and they will live happily ever after. We also figure that Ladd will marry Lake at the end of Saigon too, but only after first offering her that glass of rat poison.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Phantom Lady has one of the most contrived and illogical plots in cinematic history. Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) and his wife have an argument, and he leaves their apartment and goes to a bar. Shortly after, his wife is strangled by Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), with whom she was having an affair. Because there is no evidence connecting him with her murder, the police never suspect him, and so all he has to do is take the trip to Brazil as he already planned to.

But no! He decides that he must make sure that Henderson is suspected of the crime. So, he only pretends to get on the ship going to Brazil so that he can follow Henderson around (he catches up with the ship later by taking a plane to Havana). He sees that Henderson meets a woman (Fay Helm) in a bar, whom he persuades to go to a show with him, inasmuch as he already has tickets. She agrees, and they take a cab. They sit right up front, and it turns out that she is wearing the same unusual hat worn by the star of the show, Miss Montiero (Aurora Miranda). The drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) takes a fancy to the woman with Henderson and flirts with her.

So, Marlow figures he must bribe the bartender, the cabdriver, and the drummer to say they never saw the woman, thereby depriving Henderson of his alibi. Marlow does not have to bribe Miss Montiero, because her vanity won’t let her admit that someone in the audience wore the same hat that she did, which she apparently disposed of. Of course, other women in the show might have remembered Miss Montiero’s hat, and other members of the band might have noticed the woman in the front row with the hat, but Marlow does not bother to bribe any of them.

As a result, the bartender says he saw Henderson at the bar, but not the woman; and the cabdriver says he picked up Henderson and drove him to the show, but there was no woman with him. And so, without an alibi, Henderson is convicted of murder on the flimsiest of circumstantial cases and sentenced to be executed. However, no one in the movie seems to realize that the bartender and cabdriver have provided Henderson with an alibi anyway. Whether he had a woman with him is irrelevant. For that matter, if Marlow was going to bribe these characters, he should have told them to deny seeing Henderson rather than deny seeing the woman with him. Had he done that, then the woman would be the only one who could provide Henderson with an alibi, and the frantic search for her by Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines), Henderson’s secretary, would have made sense.

It gets worse. Although there are only a few weeks until Henderson will be executed, Marlow returns from Brazil and decides to murder the drummer when he sees Carol trying to get information out of him. Even so, there still would be no evidence connecting him with that murder either, except that he picks up Carol’s purse, which she left behind when the drummer became angry, and puts it in a drawer in his apartment.

These do not exhaust the absurdities in this movie, which pile up on top of the ones already discussed, but there is no point in beating a dead horse. And because we immediately become aware of these absurdities as they unfold, watching the movie can be an exasperating experience.

Where Danger Lives (1950)

In some movies, the protagonist will commit some minor offense that will result in his being punished way in excess of what he would seem to deserve. An example karmic overkill occurs in Colossus:  The Forbin Project (1970), where all the bad things that happen to Dr. Forbin when his supercomputer takes over the world is punishment for his stealing an ashtray from the White House.  And in North by Northwest (1959), it is on account of Roger Thornhill’s lying about his secretary being ill so they could cut in line and grab a taxi that he ends up being pursued by spies that are trying to kill him as a result of mistaken identity.  Where Danger Lives, a minor film noir directed by John Farrow, is just such a movie.

It begins in a hospital, which we typically think of as serving the public good. Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is a doctor at that hospital, and Julie (Maureen O’Sullivan), his fiancée, is a nurse. We know that their relationship is wholesome, because he regularly gives her a white rose. He is dedicated to his profession, and so much so that a nurse reprimands him for working too hard. To underscore what a good man Jeff is, his patients are children, with whom he has a terrific bedside manner. He tells a story to a girl in an iron lung to help her go to sleep, and then chats with a little boy, promising that they will have more baseball discussions in the future.  But it is when he is talking to the boy that we discover Jeff’s sin. When the boy mentions that he knows Jeff will be going away, the nurse says, in an apologetic tone, that she told him that Jeff will be going into private practice.

Private practice? Oh no! That means he values money more than people.  At least, this is what the people that produced this movie wanted us to think, for they clearly put in the scene about Jeff’s going into private practice for a reason. Remove that one brief scene with the boy, and the rest of the movie could have been exactly the same, without anyone thinking there was something missing. We would simply believe that Jeff was being punished for being unfaithful to Julie, a second sin that comes later. Because the writers put that line in the movie, we can only conclude that it was supposed to tell us something about Jeff’s character, that he was guilty of forgoing his public service for the sake of private greed.

It’s an old story. Once a man gives in to one sin, he soon gives in to another. Just as he is about to leave the hospital, he is delayed by an emergency attempted suicide. The woman is Margo (Faith Domergue), and when she wakes up, she sees Julie’s white rose and thinks it is for her, saying she likes red roses instead. When Margo grabs Jeff’s hand to thank him for pulling her through, Julie senses something, raising her eyebrows, and she exchanges glances with Jeff.

As it turns out, Julie’s doubts and suspicions are justified. Just as Jeff is abandoning the children in the hospital, so too does he abandon Julie.  Jeff begins dating Margo, bringing her a red rose on a regular basis, red being an obvious symbol for lust, the new sin added to the previous one of avarice. And it turns out that her marriage is based on an exchange of one sin for the other, money in exchange for sex. Jeff only finds out about this later, because Margo has lied to him about her marriage, claiming her husband (Claude Rains) is her father. This lie leads to a confrontation between the two men, resulting in blows, and ultimately to the husband’s death. Jeff believes he accidentally killed him.

Suffering from a concussion, Jeff cannot think straight, and he lets Margo talk him into fleeing with her. From that point on, everyone they come into contact with wants money from them. By the time they get to the border, they are broke. But then Margo reveals that for years she has been squirreling her husband’s money away in a Mexican bank in her maiden name. Of course, this makes us wonder why, instead of trying to commit suicide, she did not leave her husband and make a new life for herself in Mexico, but we’ll let that go.  In any event, Jeff further realizes that it was Margo who murdered her husband, smothering him with a pillow. She then tries to smother Jeff, and later shoots him. Then the police shoot her.

Her dying confession exonerates Jeff, who awakes in a hospital. It is clear that he and Julie are going to get back together, white rose and all. While nothing is said one way or the other, we suspect that once he recovers and is no longer a patient in this hospital, he will return to the hospital where he will continue working as a resident much in the way he is returning to Julie. He has presumably learned his lesson about wanting to go into private practice.

Double Indemnity (1944)

There is nothing new about a woman and her lover killing her husband.  That’s been going on since Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon.  What inspired James M. Cain to write Double Indemnity was the additional feature of insurance, as in the case of Ruth Snyder, whose murder trial Cain covered as a journalist in 1927.  While having an affair with Judd Gray, she got her husband Albert to take out a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause, one that promised to pay extra in case the insured died by accident or by some violent means.  This added a whole new dimension to an old story.

Let this be a warning to all husbands.  The whole point of life insurance is to provide for your loved ones, say your wife and children, in the event of your death.  The manner of your death has nothing to do with their dependency on you as a breadwinner.  Their needs will be the same whether you die in your sleep or fall off a cliff.  So, if your wife seems to be taking an undue interest in the double indemnity clause of the policy you are considering, this should occasion a moment of reflection.

My mother once told me that a man might be averse to taking out a life insurance policy for fear that after his death, his wife will squander all the money on some younger man.  But if the policy also has a double indemnity clause that the wife keeps asking the salesman about, she may already have that younger man, with special plans for him later.  Some believe Albert refused to take out that policy, for just that reason, but with the connivance of the insurance salesman, anxious to get his commission, Albert’s name on the policy was forged.

Killing Albert turned out to be something of a challenge, but after several attempts, Snyder and Gray managed it.  They were sloppy, however, leaving behind incriminating evidence.  Eventually, they turned on each other, as if that would help.  Both of them died in the electric chair.

Never mentioned in the story of Ruth Snyder is that, in all likelihood, there was a time when she and Albert loved each other very much.  They took their vows in all sincerity, fully believing every word of the ceremony, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.”  That last part turned out to have a significance neither of them could have imagined at the time.

One of the painful things about the movie Two for the Road (1967) is the way it keeps jumping back and forth between the four stages of love:  when the man and woman first meet, their courtship, their marriage, and the affairs they have after love has died.  The movie won’t let us forget how these two miserable people were once so much in love.  But in real life, we do forget.  And so it was, in all probability, that while Ruth and Judd were cuddling in bed, they convinced themselves that she never felt that way about Albert, and Judd never felt that way about his wife.  More importantly, it never occurred to them that the contempt, if not hatred, they presently had for the ones they married, they might someday have for each other.

Have there been stories in which men have murdered their wives for the insurance money?  Yes, of course.  But such stories just do not capture the imagination in the same way.  Perhaps it’s because men are more violent than women, more likely to commit murder, so we are not as shocked when a man murders his wife.  I regularly hear about men killing their wives or girlfriends and whoever else happens to be in the room on the nightly news.  And that’s the local news I’m talking about.  As for women, perhaps it’s because we tend to be sentimental about women, seeing them as being more caring, loving, and nurturing than men are, and so it is more shocking when a woman murders her husband.  Still, there have been movies made in which a man murders his wife for money, such as Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), but they just don’t horrify us as much as when it is the woman that murders her husband.

Just as there is nothing new about a woman murdering her husband, neither is there anything new about murder being committed for money.  But when it is money being paid out by an insurance company, money also becomes a motive for solving the crime.  Cain also made an insurance policy part of the plot in the The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was made into a movie in 1946.  Normally, if the beneficiary of a policy is charged with murdering the policyholder, the insurance company will delay paying the claim:  if the beneficiary is acquitted, the company will pay; if he is convicted, it will not.  In this movie, however, it is the other way around.  The prosecutor waits to see what the insurance company’s investigators come up with.  When these top-notch investigators fail to find incriminating evidence, the insurance company pays the claim.  That is when the prosecutor realizes he doesn’t have a case.  I don’t think that’s the way things work in real life, but the idea is that a police detective gets paid whether he solves a crime or not, but when an insurance company stands to lose a lot of money, they will try much harder to prove foul play.

As another example, an insurance investigator solves a crime in The Killers (1946) because his company had to pay off when the money stolen was never recovered.  In a similar way, money is also the motive in films noir in which a private detective solves a crime when the police failed to.  So, instead of the police solving the crime as part of their duty to enforce the law, films noir cynically reject this idealistic notion by making money the central motive of the investigation rather than justice.

In the case of Snyder and Gray, the police solved the crime all by themselves.  The insurance policy merely supplied the motive.  But in his novel, Cain wisely made Keyes, Claims Manager for General Fidelity of California, the principal detective on the case.  Keyes seems to have uncanny powers of intuition when it comes to spotting insurance fraud.  In the movie, he refers to it as the “little man” inside his chest, who gives him indigestion whenever a phony claim comes before him.  But it is an intuition distilled from years of having immersed himself in statistics and actuarial tables, along with dealing with insurance fraud directly.  In the movie, there is a scene in which Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is talking to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), the insurance salesman who conspired with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband and make it look like an accident.  With disgust, Keyes says the inquest was over with in forty-five minutes.  “Verdict, accidental death.”  Neff asks what the police figure.  Keyes replies:  “That he got tangled up in his crutches and fell off the train. They’re satisfied. It’s not their dough.”

In the novel, Walter gets Phyllis to show up at the inquest with a minister.  “Once a coroner’s jury sees that it’s a question of burial in consecrated ground,” Walter informs the reader, “the guy could take poison, cut his throat, and jump off the end of a dock, and they would still give a verdict, ‘in a manner unknown to this jury.'”

There was another improvement made by Cain over the case of Ruth Snyder.  She had her husband take out a life insurance policy with an extra payout for accidental death.  Cain made the policy one of accident insurance by itself.  Happening to be in the neighborhood, Walter Huff (“Neff” in the movie) decides to stop by the house of one of his customers, Mr. Nirdlinger (“Dietrichson” in the movie), in hopes of getting him to renew his automobile insurance.  As it is the middle of the day, he has little hope of finding him at home, but decides it’s worth a try.

Once he gets past the maid, he finds himself talking to Mrs. Nirdlinger.  She tells him her husband is thinking about switching to the Automobile Club.  After a while, Huff begins to suspect she wants him to split the commission with her in exchange for getting her husband to renew with General Fidelity of California.  Huff informs the reader that there is a lot of that going on, but it wasn’t the sort of thing a reputable insurance agent like himself would participate in.  But while those thoughts are going through his head, he finds himself appreciating her figure beneath her blue pajamas.  He is wondering if his ethical standards would be able to resist splitting a commission with an attractive woman like Mrs. Nirdlinger.

“But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. ‘Do you handle accident insurance?’”

Huff informs the reader that accident insurance is sold, not bought, so her asking about it out of the blue is most unusual.  In addition to that, the payout is substantial, for which reason it lends itself to insurance fraud.  Finally, unlike life insurance, no physical examination is required, and the insured doesn’t even have to know anything about it.  All the insurance company wants is the money for the premium, and “there’s many a man walking around today that’s worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he don’t know it yet.”

Another improvement made by Cain over the Snyder case is that of having the wife’s lover be the insurance salesman, someone that knows what a claims adjuster will look for, and knows where people committing insurance fraud tend to slip up.  There is a scene in both the book and the movie in which Keyes is upset about a policy that Walter sold on a truck that later became the basis for a fraudulent claim.  Walter points out that he had attached a memo saying the man should be investigated first.  This lets us know that Walter is also alert to the possibility of fraud, which is why Keyes later tries to talk him into becoming his assistant.  And so, whereas Snyder and Gray committed a clumsy murder that even an ordinary flatfoot could see through, the novel becomes a game of wits between two men, each an expert in the insurance business, making it a story in which one of them sets out to commit the perfect crime that will escape the detection of the other.

Cain’s novel is in the form of a first-person narrative, in which Walter tells us how he became involved in a scheme to murder a man’s wife.  In this way, we are privy to his thoughts, such as his suspicion that Mrs. Nirdlinger wanted a cut of the commission, his forebodings about her interest in accident insurance, and his commentary on the sinister aspect of such insurance.  And, like most such novels, it is told in the past tense.  Movies, on the other hand, are usually in the present tense, and we merely watch events unfold.  Only through dialogue do we get any insight into what someone is thinking.  Therefore, in order to better represent such a novel as a movie, it should be told in flashback, which is what is done here.

The flashback, however, is not simply a way of making a movie unfold like a first-person narrative in a novel, for the flashback form also gives us some idea how things will end up.  And so it is that whereas in the novel, the story begins with Walter telling us why he happened to show up at the Nirdlinger house in the middle of the day, in which case we haven’t the slightest idea that anything bad is going to happen to him, the movie lets us know right off that something bad did happen, and Walter’s narration will explain what led up to it.  Just as Cain made improvements over the Snyder case in writing his novel, the movie makes improvements over the novel, and this flashback device is one of them.

During the credits, while we hear ominous music, we see the silhouette of a man moving toward us with the aid of two crutches.  We sense that he is dangerous, but this is contradicted by the crutches, for how could a man in his condition, we wonder, be dangerous?  As the credits end, we see a city street late at night.  A car going fast almost crashes into some men doing repairs underneath a sign that says, “Los Angeles Railway Maintenance,” foreshadowing the role that a train will have in this story.  The car swerves and continues to speed recklessly along the streets, though no one is in pursuit.  Finally, it pulls up in front of a building.  A man gets out with a coat draped over him.  It looks like the same man that was in silhouette.  The elevator operator lets us know that the man is Walter Neff.  He lets him out on the twelfth floor, which is the main office of Pacific All Risk Insurance Company.

When he gets to his office and removes his overcoat, we see that he has been shot, a small spot of blood near his left shoulder, incapacitating his left arm, much in the way that the man in silhouette had an incapacitated left foot.  He removes his fedora, and with a little difficulty, uses his thumbnail to ignite a match so he can light up a cigarette.  Once he takes a drag and exhales, he is ready.  He puts a new cylinder in the Dictaphone, addressing an office memorandum to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager.  He remarks that what he is about to say may sound like a confession, but he doesn’t like that word.  He says he just wants to set him straight on the Dietrichson claim.

In other words, he’s not worried about his wound, and he’s not worried that he is about to incriminate himself in a couple of murders.  He tried to pull off the perfect crime, and almost did so, fooling even Keyes, the one man he most feared would see through his scheme.  It is important to him to let Keyes know how it all went down, where Keyes went wrong, and why.  He then begins where the novel did, with his decision to stop by the Dietrichson house, which he says must have cost somebody $30,000, if he ever finished paying for it.  (The year is 1938, so that would be well over $500,000, adjusted for inflation, in today’s dollars.)

Another improvement in the movie over the novel is due to the fact that Billy Wilder, the director, got Raymond Chandler, author of novels like Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep, to help with the screenplay.  And so, whereas there is something a little hurried and abrupt about Cain’s style of writing, Chandler, who said he never cared for Cain’s novels, was able to smooth out the story and give it some style.  For example, when Walter Neff arrives at the Dietrichson house for the first time, he notes the smell of honeysuckle in the air, leading him to ask, “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

What I like about that line is the way it introduces another element in the crime beyond motive.  Early in his confession on the Dictaphone, Neff admits to committing murder, saying he killed Mr. Dietrichson for money and for a woman.  But it’s not merely that sex was a motive for the crime, along with the money.  Rather, it’s the effect sex had on his attitude about murder that is important.  Sex has a way of soothing our conscience, keeping us from having the feelings of guilt that we should.  Usually, this just makes it easier to violate some sexual taboo.  But it can also make it easier to do something evil that is not sexual in nature.  A man and woman in love can sometimes talk themselves into committing a crime they would never dream of doing otherwise.  The crime becomes an expression of their love for each other.  It’s so sweet that they would even kill for each other.  Hence the remark about honeysuckle.

In the beginning, Phyllis tries to get Walter to allow her to get accident insurance on her husband without his knowing about it.  She hates her husband, but has no definite plan to murder him.  She is just hoping that once she gets the policy, her husband will have an accident in the oil fields and die.  We later find out from her stepdaughter Lola that Phyllis may have contributed to her mother’s death while acting as her nurse during an illness.  According to Lola, while her mother had a fever, Lola walked into the bedroom and found that Phyllis had the windows wide open, letting in the cold winter air.  After the mother died, Phyllis then married Lola’s father.  This kind of opportunism is probably what Phyllis had in mind for her husband once she got him the accident policy:  wait for propitious circumstances, and then help them along a little.  Making Phyllis a nurse was another improvement on Cain’s part over the Snyder case.  It reinforces those sentimental feelings we have about women, alluded to above, about caring and nurturing, all the better to unnerve us when she turns out to be coldblooded.

Limiting Phyllis’s dark past to what she did with Lola’s mother in the movie is a major improvement over the novel, where it turns out the Phyllis is a serial killer from way back.  As a pulmonary nurse, before killing the first Mrs. Nirdlinger, she had already killed three children, making it appear they died of pneumonia.  She did this because she was related to one of them and, as executrix, was able to take possession of the property herself.  The other two children were killed just to keep the police from focusing on the one she made money off of.  Then it turns out there were five mysterious deaths before that, two of which Phyllis profited from.  And Lola will be next, so that Phyllis can get whatever she has as well.

But it gets worse.  In the novel, Phyllis says she doesn’t hate her husband.  As she agrees to go along with the plan to murder him, she says, “I haven’t any reason. He treats me as well as a man can treat a woman. I don’t love him, but he’s never done anything to me.”

Then comes a strange justification.  She says, “He’s not happy. He’ll be better off—dead.”  In a sense, she knows it’s not true, but she says it’s based on a strange notion she has:

“I know it’s not true. I tell myself it’s not true. But there’s something in me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness… Walter, this is the awful part. I know this is terrible. I tell myself it’s terrible. But to me, it doesn’t seem terrible. It seems as though I’m doing something—that’s really best for him, if he only knew it. Do you understand me, Walter?”

Later in the movie, Lola says that before her father died, she saw Phyllis trying on a black hat, pinning on a veil, as if preparing for how she will look in mourning.  But Lola sees more than that in the novel.  She tells Walter she plans to go to the police and tell them what she knows:

“I’ll tell them everything they need to know. I told you there was plenty more, besides what I told you. I’ll tell them to ask her about the time I came in on her, in her bedroom, with some kind of foolish red silk thing on her, that looked like a shroud or something, with her face all smeared up with white powder and red lipstick, with a dagger in her hand, making faces at herself in front of a mirror….”

At the end of the novel, after Phyllis and Walter try to kill each other, Keyes doesn’t want the bad publicity of a trial, so he just puts them on a ship sailing south without either of them realizing the other one is on the ship too.  When they meet each other, Phyllis suggests that they could be married, but not with any illusions about their having a future.  But then she decides she has a different marriage in mind, saying the time has come “For me to meet my bridegroom. The only one I ever loved. One night I’ll drop off the stern of the ship. Then, little by little I’ll feel his icy fingers creeping into my heart.”  Walter says he’ll give her away, meaning he will join her.  There is a shark following the ship.  They agree to wait until the moon is up so that they can see the dark fin of the shark when they dive into the water to meet their death.  These are some of the last words Walter writes:

I’m writing this in the stateroom. It’s about half past nine. She’s in her stateroom getting ready. She’s made her face chalk white, with black circles under her eyes and red on her lips and cheeks. She’s got that red thing on. It’s awful-looking. It’s just one big square of red silk that she wraps around her, but it’s got no armholes, and her hands look like stumps underneath it when she moves them around. She looks like what came aboard the ship to shoot dice for souls in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Instead of letting it be a story about a woman who has come to hate her husband and wants to kill him for the insurance money, as in the case of Ruth Snyder, Cain has turned the Phyllis of his novel into a fantastic monster.  The movie wisely returns to the idea that Phyllis is just your ordinary psychopath, one that you or I might inadvertently find ourselves married to, and not some utterly deranged serial killer.

At first, all Walter was hoping for was to have an affair with Phyllis.  But when he hears about her plan to get the accident policy on her husband without his knowing about it, Walter immediately realizes that she is dangerous, and he gets up and leaves, picking up his hat as he heads for the door.  There follows a scene that many people miss, while others catch it, but think it is a goof.  That night, as Walter broods over his situation with Phyllis, she shows up at his apartment.  When he opens the door, she says, “You left your hat today.”  A lot of people, including professional critics, think that Walter did leave his hat behind at her house.  Others, having noticed that Walter picked up his hat on the way out the door, conclude that this is a mistake.  However, it is obvious that Phyllis has no hat in her hand as she stands in the doorway.

What Phyllis is doing is amusing herself with the remark about the hat.  If a man has recently met a woman and would like to see her some more, he may pretend to leave something behind at her home.  We don’t wear hats so much any more, but an umbrella is a good substitute.  Then the man can call her up the next day and say, “Did I leave my umbrella over at your place yesterday?”  When she says that he did, he can then ask if it would be all right to drop by and pick it up.  With a little luck, one thing will lead to another.  Phyllis is alluding to that ruse by making believe she has his hat and is using it as an excuse to see him.  In so doing, she is essentially saying, “We both know why I’m here.”

At least, we figure she is there to have sex with Walter.  But during his confession on the Dictaphone, Walter says, “Yes, I killed him.  I killed him for money and for a woman.  And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.  Pretty, isn’t it?”  That remark, “I didn’t get the woman,” always puzzled me.  Didn’t he get the woman when she came over to his apartment, once before the murder, with the hat routine, and again after the murder, when Walter says Keyes will be watching her, and they will have to quit seeing each other for a while?  We’re all used to scenes fading out in old movies, where we are supposed to imagine the man and woman having sex, and there was a fade out at a critical moment in the second visit to his apartment.  Well, I finally figured that he meant that while they did have sex once or twice, he still didn’t get the whole woman.  But you never do.  That’s why they call it a piece.  In the novel, however, it is clear that they did not have sex on either night that she came over to his place or at any other time.  All they did was plan the murder.  I should think a man would want to have sex with a woman before agreeing to kill her husband, but I’m just an armchair philosopher, so what do I know?

On the night she and Walter trick her husband into signing the application for the accident insurance, Walter hears him say he is taking a trip to Palo Alto.  Walter tells Phyllis to get him to take the train.  He knows that getting killed while riding a train is so rare that the $50,000 policy will pay off at twice that amount owing to a double indemnity clause in the policy, which would be over $1,800,000 adjusted for inflation.  In the novel, Walter plans on murdering her husband on a train right from the start, without the slightest idea of how to get him on a train.  The movie is better in having the possibility of an accident on a train just fall into their laps.

In the novel, Phyllis tells Walter that her husband wants her to go with him to Palo Alto, saying, “He’ll raise an awful fuss if I don’t go.”  Walter dismisses that problem:

“Yeah? Listen, don’t give yourself airs. I don’t care if it’s a class reunion or just down to the drugstore, a man would rather go alone than with a wife. He’s just being polite. You talk like you’re not interested in his class reunion, and he’ll be persuaded. He’ll be persuaded so easy you’ll be surprised.”

“Well, I like that,” she says.   (The woman who’s planning on killing her husband is indignant that he doesn’t want her company.)

“You’re not supposed to like it,” Walter replies. “But you’ll find out.”

By chance, Mr. Dietrichson breaks his leg.  That too turns out to be to their advantage.  On the night of the murder, Walter hides in the backseat of the car that Phyllis will use to drive her husband to the train station.  In the novel, Walter says, “Believe me it’s an awful thing to kibitz on a man and his wife, and hear what they really talk about.”  Just another one of Cain’s disparaging remarks about marriage, based on his personal experience, no doubt.

They kill her husband before he gets on the train.  In the novel, Walter says, “I took one of the crutches and hooked it under his chin. I won’t tell you what I did then.”  I guess Cain felt it would be indelicate to go into details about the way he used the crutch to break the man’s neck.

Then Walter pretends to be the husband and boards the train, jumping off soon after, before the train can pick up much speed, after which they dump the husband’s body on the tracks.  Because Neff put his own leg in a phony cast and got on the train with the crutches, people were confident they had seen Dietrichson get on the train.  As Keyes says later, the witnesses had the crutches to look at, so they never really saw the man at all.

In the novel, after Walter gets back to his bungalow, the enormity of what he has done begins to overwhelm him:

I dived for the bathroom. I was sicker than I had ever been in my life. After that passed I fell into bed. It was a long time before I could turn out the light. I lay there staring into the dark. Every now and then I would have a chill or something and start to tremble. Then that passed and I lay there, like a dope. Then I started to think. I tried not to, but it would creep up on me. I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a finger at me, and I would have to die. I had done all that for her, and I never wanted to see her again as long as I lived.

That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.

Eventually, Walter tells Phyllis that they will have to quit seeing each other for a while, until Keyes is through investigating.  In the novel, he says, “That night I did something I hadn’t done in years. I prayed.”  Perhaps the prayer went something like this:  “Dear God, please don’t let Keyes find out that I killed Phyllis’s husband.”

All right, back to the movie.  Suspecting that Mr. Dietrichson was murdered, Keyes realizes it would be easier to murder him before he got on the train, which is what happened, rather than kill him on the train.  That means that Phyllis must have had a male accomplice pretend to be her husband.  Keyes starts having her house watched.  As a result, Walter and Phyllis have to stop seeing each other until the investigation is over.  Phyllis’s stepdaughter, Lola, had a boyfriend, Nino Zachetti, but they broke up, and soon he and Phyllis start having an affair. Keyes concludes that Nino is the accomplice in the murder and calls off the surveillance.  He tells Walter he is going to reject the claim, daring her to take it to court.

What follows from this point on seems to make no sense.  Walter goes over to Phyllis’s house intending to kill her, and she slips a pistol under the cushion so that she can murder him. Let us consider the situation from Phyllis’s point of view. Unless we assume she is psychic, she does not know of Walter’s plans to kill her. So, what does she hope to gain by killing Walter? The police have already dropped the case, but if Walter is murdered, the police will not only investigate his death, but it might make them reconsider her husband’s death as well, since Walter supposedly sold him the policy. Furthermore, shooting Walter in her house will not only get blood all over the place, but she will then have to dispose of the body. What is she going to do, cut him up in the bathtub like the guy in Rear Window (1954), and then make several trips to the city dump with the body parts in a suitcase?

The prudent thing for her to do is to just sue the insurance company.  If she wins, she can give Walter his cut and all will be well. If she does suspect Walter wants to kill her, then she should simply refuse to let him come over to her house. After all, he is not going to gun her down on Main Street. Therefore, it makes no sense for her to shoot Walter.

Now let us look at it from Walter’s point of view.  By this point, Walter has obviously given up on getting his share of the money, because she cannot very well collect and split with him after he kills her.  So, what does he hope to gain by killing Phyllis? All Keyes knows is that Phyllis has been seeing Nino, which means she has been having an affair with a younger man. Big deal. Keyes says he has investigated Nino’s movements on the night of the murder, and they cannot be accounted for.  We later find out from Lola that he broke a date with her the night of the murder, claiming he was home sick.  But that is not exactly evidence that will convict a man of murder.  In any event, we know that Nino did not do it, so he is not going to get tripped up in a cross examination in court, as Keyes seems to think.  With nothing more to go on, Keyes has little chance of successfully denying Phyllis’s claim in court, and it certainly would not be enough for the police to reopen the case. Walter should just continue to stay away from Phyllis.  Whether she wins her case, and if she does, whether she splits the money with him, there is no point in killing her.  And there is always the chance that she might win and pay him off anyway.

But let us assume that beyond all reason, Walter is afraid that enough would come out in the civil suit that would lead the police to reopen the investigation into the death of Phyllis’s husband, and make them suspect not Nino, but Walter.  In that case, Walter should simply turn in his resignation at the insurance company and go to Mexico for a while. If Phyllis’s lawsuit does not lead to a new police investigation in which he becomes a suspect, he can always return to the United States later; if it does lead to a new investigation, and he does become a suspect, he can continue to hide out in Mexico. But his killing her will definitely cause the police to investigate. Walter’s plan is that Nino will be blamed for Phyllis’s murder. But Nino might have an alibi for that night. As it turns out, Nino was coming to see Phyllis just as Walter was leaving the house, but Walter could not know Nino was going to do that. Walter tells Phyllis, just before he kills her, that he knows Nino will be coming to see her in fifteen minutes with the cops right behind him, because it has been all set up. Now, how would he know that? And set up for what?  If they plan on arresting him, they should just go to his apartment.  Furthermore, Nino would have no motive for murdering her. If anything, the police might end up suspecting Walter. Therefore, it makes no sense for Walter to kill Phyllis.

Since Nino was coming over to see Phyllis, that means that if she had successfully killed Walter, Nino would have walked in the house and seen Walter’s corpse lying on the middle of the living room floor.  And then what?  Will Phyllis ask him to help her dispose of the body of the man that helped her kill her husband?  How likely is he to go along with that?  He was fine having sex with Phyllis, but I doubt that he would want to get mixed up in a couple of murders.

However, it is reasonable to assume that two people who have committed a murder and are afraid of getting caught might not be thinking clearly.  In fact, if they had been thinking clearly, they would never have committed that murder in the first place.  It is especially hard to believe that a man could have an affair with a married woman, conspire to kill her husband, and not have it occur to him that one of these days she may turn on him too.  And so, I suppose that if people are foolish enough to commit such a murder, they would be foolish enough to think that killing their partner in crime would solve their problems.  So, their behavior makes sense on an emotional level.

You really have to give those hormones credit!