Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Makes a Classic?


"How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?" - Walter Neff, Double Indemnity

He could have known this and a lot more if his father had read him the Proverbs ... and if he talked to him about them ... and maybe watched movies about them too.

That was an immortal line from Double Indemnity, #38 on the AFI's list of the top 100 films of all time. But what makes a film a classic? Isn't a black and white job like this too boring and outdated to cut it in the age of computer-generated mid-air nuclear UFO collisions?

I say, no. Here's are 3 brief reasons:

1. It still kept me interested, even riveted - The fact that since its release in 1944, probably hundreds of thousands of movies have been made, and I’ve seen probably a few thousand of them in my life … yet, not only did it keep my interest until the last minute, I was genuinely shocked and surprised by the twists of the plot at least 5 times. That is a quality movie – one that doesn’t fall back on glitzy computer-generated special effects to keep my interest. It’s a quality movie, with a quality plot, directed in a masterful and discrete way that still seems fresh and interesting 65 years [and how many hundred thousand more movies] later.

2. It's artistic touches and pioneering innovations- The movie started with the beginning of the last scene then tracked backward until the final scene resumed for the conclusion. Now, I realize that 3 years before, Citizen Kane began in a similar way, but this one seemed to take that idea and improved upon it. The information we were given in the first 60 seconds provided the critical questions that carried our interest through the rest of the movie … he worked in insurance, he was desperate, everything had fallen apart in his plan, he had been shot, he was confessing to his friend, he had been seduced and probably betrayed … we take this kind of intro for granted today, but I think it was probably much more experimental in ’44 … and they pulled it off without a hitch in a way that seems flawless to me today.

3.The moral - the bad guys don’t get away; they get what was coming to them. Though this film is thought to be the first real example of dark film noir, it incarnates the 6th and 7th chapters of the Proverbs wonderfully, warning against the temptress. The downward spiral of the man is complex but clear and the characters are believable, not flat.

Cons: This is a dark film about the fall of a man who gives in to temptation and sin. There is no happy ending and there is no other character to model redemption. Because of this, the focus of the movie is on the schemes of this man, and you may at times actually find yourself rooting for him. If that is the case, snap yourself out of it. If you can't, don't watch the film.
And of course, there are a ton of solid-gold one-liners:

Do I laugh now, or wait 'til it gets funny?

Walter: You'll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.
Walter: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter: I wonder if you wonder.

His name was Jackson. Probably still is.

"Margie"! I bet she drinks from the bottle.

… they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it's a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery. Murder's never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it's usually sooner.

This movie is a true classic, and I give it four out of five stars.

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