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Dark passage

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  May 27, 2009
DOUBLE INDEMNITY: The way in which the movie punishes Phyllis and Walter doesn’t mitigate the vicarious pleasure we take in their behavior.

There's also an implied homosexual relationship between two of the (many) villains in The Big Sleep: Arthur Geiger, whose rare-book shop fronts a gangland operation, and his bodyguard Carol Lundgren. But it's easy to miss them among the cast of characters, who include druggies, blackmailers, pornographers, nymphomaniacs, and one memorable sadist (Canino, played by Bob Steele). This blissfully enjoyable Howard Hawks noir, culled from one of Chandler's Philip Marlowe mysteries and starring Bogart, is a catalogue of anti-social conduct, yet compared with The MalteseFalcon or Double Indemnity it's benign. Hawks, unlike Huston and Wilder, was a romantic, and the heart of The Big Sleep is the sexy romance between Marlowe and Lauren Bacall's Vivian Sternwood, a femme fatale who's co-opted by the hero and gives in to her finer feelings. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis ultimately confesses to Walter that what she feels for him — to her own amazement — is true love; by then, of course, it's too late. But once Vivian falls for Marlowe, she pulls away from the corrupting influences that have already claimed her thumb-sucking baby-doll sister, Carmen (Martha Vickers).

The '50s movies in the series are less interesting in terms of their relationship to the Code, perhaps because by the time Robert Aldrich burned up his femme fatale (the short-cropped blonde Gaby Rodgers, so zombified she can barely get her lines out) in radioactive flames in Kiss Me Deadly and Orson Welles had a gang of Mexican thugs (including Mercedes McCambridge as a butch lesbian) drug Janet Leigh in a motel room in his great Touch of Evil, Breen had retired and you could see that his office's days were numbered. But though Anatomy of a Murder is a low-rent story stretched out to two hours and 40 minutes to pass for a prestige picture, it's worth noting that the director, Otto Preminger, had waged a long war against the Production Code office and other such institutions, like the Catholic League of Decency.

When I was a teen, my best friend and I rushed to see Preminger's ludicrous 1967 Hurry Sundown because the League had condemned it for its simulation of an "unnatural act." (Jane Fonda performs fellatio on a trumpet; we were, to say the least, disappointed.) A decade and a half earlier, his inclusion of the word "virgin" in The Moon Is Blue caused a stir; in Anatomy of a Murder, the characters' vernacular has expanded to include "slut" and even "bitch." But the real signal that movies had outgrown the Code is the graphic discussion of rape in Anatomy's courtroom scenes. And the fact that it's a big-studio-era icon, Jimmy Stewart, who interrogates the medical witnesses about climaxes and semen underscores the end of that era.

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Related: Mixed media, Review: L.A. Noire, Portland Stage goes noir, More more >
  Topics: Features , Entertainment, Motion Picture Association of America, Robert Aldrich,  More more >
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