Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Revisit--Double Feature

I watched Double Indemnity a few years ago (I'd seen it at other times too, but my interest in films has grown a good deal in the last decade), and followed it up with James M. Cain's other masterpiece, The Postman Always Rings Twice. I think the cold, hard-boiled style of Indemnity had captured my sensibility at the time, and I found Postman to be nearly unwatchable--and in fact I didn't sit through it. This just goes to show you. TCM ran it the other night and I caught the whole thing, and it certainly caught me as well. Which is to say, Lana caught me just as she caught John Garfield.

Between Indemnity and Postman I've seen a lot of Fassbinder. To watch Fassbinder is to develop an appreciation for the melodramatic mode. Indemnity is essentially a cold movie. We watch it from the outside, so to speak: it is an experiment conducted, unsuccessfully as it turns out, by the MacMurray protagonist. What he's doing, fundamentally, is attempting to defeat his father-figure and boss, E.G. Robinson, after studying underwriting under Robinson for twenty years. MacMurray thinks he can pull of the perfect murder, because he's studied many failed attempts with Robinson. In a way, Stanwyck is MacMurray's victim in this contest, although she certainly is complicit in the murder.

Postman is quite another thing. Postman is emotionally ablaze, and its center is Lana Turner, who is mesmerizingly beautiful and whose emotions swerve and veer back and forth from anger to love to lust to envy to fear with the immediacy of a March day. Garfield, who has no anchor at all--he's the quintessential "drifter" archetype, as captured as Marlon Brando's guitar player in the Fugitive Kind. He is spell-bound by Lana Turner. He is always a step behind her latest emotion. The movie is at every turn driven by her emotions, which are unpredictable (except by Hume Cronyn's lawyer, who gets her far better than Garfield and just for a moment harnesses her inner maelstrom for a rational end). MacMurray is never captured by Stanwyck; he is captured by his quest to create a perfect murder.

Indemnity concludes with Stanwyck and MacMurray killing each other, their crime having destroyed their relationship such as it is. It ends with MacMurray confessing to his father figure, Robinson--the character he was contesting with all along. Postman ends with Garfield inadvertently killing Turner just as they are reconciling yet again, with the hope of somehow escaping their crime intact and creating the dream life they, and particularly she, was aiming for. Garfield is then sent to the executioner by the DA who suspected the crime from the start, but was never able to prove his suspicions. But he will die for a crime he didn't commit--killing Turner. It hardly matters to Garfield, since he has nothing left once Turner's light has been snuffed out.

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