By Scott Ross
Billy Wilder’s third movie as writer-director is one of his finest. With John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, it also helped set the tone and look for what would later be called film noir. (Although, technically, noir thrived due to the photographic tricks required to work around restrictive, post-War B-movie budgets, and these two studio products were definitely A-movies.)
This is the movie to point to when some critical ignoramus claims that Billy Wilder, for all his verbal acuity, was not a visual director. Despite its California setting, the movie has the look of an industrialized vision of Hell: shadows predominate, and machinery itself takes on the menacing aspect of deadly inexorability: an automobile makes the murder itself possible, a train helps disguise the act, and the often repeated motto of the sexually insatiable killers (Fred MacMurray and, especially, Barbara Stanwyck, who when kissing MacMurray looks positively carnivorous — she appears about to devour the man) is “Straight down the line.” MacMurray, cast against type, is revelatory. This was the first of his two great movie roles, both courtesy of Wilder (c.f., The Apartment) and he more than rose to the occasion.
Edward G. Robinson, also playing against his by-then accepted criminal persona, is the indomitable insurance investigator, unaware that he’s pursuing the man he regards as a kind of unofficial son — although you might argue his feelings for MacMurray are more akin to romantic love. Raymond Chandler, against his will, co-wrote the superb screenplay with Wilder from a James Cain novella he loathed. Miklos Rozsa composed the pluperfect score.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross