Jesum crow, what wild words this movie is made of, their wit and speed, their poetry and clarity, their uncanny invention of imagined colloquialism, where phrases spit by seemingly familiar yet unbearably strange at pause. Words to match the off-putting expressionist lighting, which doesn’t just illuminate the set, but cuts these characters into pieces, as they and their plan fall to pieces, like the slow inexorable revelation of truth. Lighting to match the story itself—or at least it’s telling—always only half exposed in its narration, shifting your attention to look in one (mis)direction while the real crime is happening just off screen, in the darkness, where you are not looking.
Forget, for a moment, if you can, the film’s historical importance and influence as the first (or, at least, the prototype) film noir, step past its cinematic originality and impudence, important as that is—all reasons this is one of the greatest films ever made—and look at just what happens on the screen or in the script. This is a movie of detailed but subtle characterization (Stanwyck’s trashy wig) and complex but earnest motivation (MacMurray’s ideal ego), with unexpected turns that never pander to or underestimate the intelligence of either its audience or its characters. Yet for a movie about such darkness as what lies in the depths of the human condition, a movie that looks seedy and caused something of a scandal, for all about it that is hard on the soul it nonetheless is easy on the eyes and ears, profoundly enjoyable to watch even when the iniquity of these characters makes you, at times, want to look away.
In that sense, despite the narration by MacMurray which puts you in his shoes—and so makes you miss the story as its really happening, blinded by his ego while the real subject of the crime being Stanwyck—the viewer is ultimately in the position of the gumshoe-esque claims adjuster. Surrounded by brilliant performances, Robinson is the true criminal here, stealing every scene he’s in, and in him is the whole spirit of the movie: Cantankerous, wordy, energetic, intelligent, skeptical, pessimistic. In fact, part of me suspects—and here we return to the filming and not just the film, to what happened off screen and not just what happens on—that Robinson is a stand-in, in a way, for Wilder, the force who keeps the action moving through his relentlessness, who is a step ahead even when he’s playing catchup.
Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.