Film Event: December's Double-Thrill Double Bill

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By Marc Sober and Tom Warner

RememberMarc Sober in the Humanities Department has been hosting "FilmTalk," a once-a-month Saturday morning film and discussion series, for almost 10 years. Tom Warner, in the Sights & Sounds Department, has been running a Saturday afternoon film series on the same date for almost as long. Usually the two films have no relation to each other, though many people make a day of it and attend both films at the Central Library.

But occasionally the stars line up and we have an old-time "double feature." Just a few months ago, we screened Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons in the morning, followed by Welles’s rarely seen adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial in the afternoon.

And this week, on Saturday, December 15, we have a double bill of two Paramount Studio films from the golden days of the Hollywood studio system: Mitchell Leisen’s Remember the Night (1940) and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). The double feature presents Paramount stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in their first two onscreen pairings. They worked together two more times in the ‘50s for other studios—The Moonlighter (1950) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)—and both ended their careers with hit 1960s TV shows (The Big Valley and My Three Sons).

The double bill also highlights two of Paramount’s greatest "behind-the-camera" talents in writer-directors Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. Sturges wrote the screenplay for Remember the Night and later that year wrote and directed The Great McGinty (1940), which paved the way for other writers to step into the director’s chair. Wilder was one of them, earning his first writer-director credit with 1942’s The Major and the Minor. And lest we forget, Paramount's Mitchell Leisen directed films written by both Sturges (Easy Living, Remember the Night) and Wilder (Midnight, Hold Back the Dawn).

DoubleIn Remember the Night, Lee Leander (Stanwyck) is a petty shoplifter on trial for swiping an expensive bracelet from a jewelry store; when her trial is postponed until after New Year’s, sympathetic Assistant District Attorney John Sargent (MacMurray) bails her out of jail and invites her home for the holidays. This being a holiday movie helmed by a director known for romantic films, they naturally fall in love along the way! Sturges was so impressed by Stanwyck's performance that he subsequently cast her as the lead in his 1941 film The Lady Eve.

Watch the "Remember the Night" trailer

The crimes are not so petty in Double Indemnity, which was based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novel and is considered one of the most literate and elegantly constructed of all of films noirs. In it, insurance agent Walter Neff (MacMurray) and greedy blonde bombshell Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) plot to murder Phyllis’s husband and collect the double "accidental death" payout. But Neff’s colleague and mentor, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), harbors suspicions and foils the lovers’ plans with his snooping.

Watch the "Double Indemnity" trailer

Director Wilder wrote the hard-boiled screenplay with "Philip Marlowe" private eye creator Raymond Chandler, transforming it into a quintessential film noir characterized by "the interacting traits of greed, lust, murder, betrayal, and a pervading, oppressive darkness in which evil's grasping hand is free to entrap anyone who thinks of straying from the moral path" (Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic). But where Cain’s double-suicide ending would have shocked audiences and critics alike, Wilder and Chandler substituted their brilliant coda in which Neff proves himself the ultimate dedicated insurance agent—one who risks his life going to the office to file a self-incriminating report that "closes the Dietrichson case."

Good agents like that are hard to find (even if they do cut a few corners with the law!) and we're sure Walter Neff would approve of Saturday's killer double bill that promises to deliver a double payout in entertainment value.

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