Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Martini with Two Olives

Vermont and Franklin, the northwest corner to be precise. That’s where Walter Neff drops off Lola Dietrichson for her secret rendezvous with Nino Zachetti in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. It’s pretty obviously not the corner of Vermont and Franklin, as anyone who knows Los Feliz would tell you—I think it’s actually Hollywood and Western. The real northwest corner is residential and actually pretty quiet. The southwest corner is the House of Pies, where more than a few real life secret rendezvous have probably taken place. Just a few minutes later Walter Neff mentions in narration that he secretly meets Phyllis Dietrichson at Jerry’s, “that market up on Los Feliz” but whenever I think of the area that would be referred to as up on Los Feliz (Boulevard, to be precise) it’s a residential stretch, so I’m not sure where Jerry’s is really supposed to be. And it’s clear from dialogue that the Dietrichson home is supposed to be somewhere close by as well and even though the actual location of the housed used for exteriors is more in the Beachwood area it’s nice to think that it’s supposed to be nearby.

Way back when I first moved to this area I happened to rent DOUBLE INDEMNITY on tape and was a little floored by the viewing not just because of how great the movie is, but by the realization that almost the entire thing was set in my neighborhood. I found myself thinking at one point, “Walter Neff’s probably driving by my house right now.” It’s one of those things that got me started on an interest in old L.A. and the history of the area. You live around here long enough you start to feel like you’re in a bit of a Walter Neff frame of mind, with that Miklos Rosza driving-around-music going through your head like a loop as you traverse the streets of this city. It’s very easy to watch this movie yet again and get sucked in within seconds and it has truly become more potent to me as the years go on. There’s always been debate over the garish blonde wig that Barbara Stanwyck wears with both harsh criticism of it and excuses like Billy Wilder’s after-the-fact claim that it serves to emphasize the cheapness of the character. But while I watch the film thinking it looks more bizarre than anything else, somehow it kind of works. For one thing, it doesn’t mess with my dreams of Barbara Stanwyck in THE LADY EVE and BALL OF FIRE, movies where she truly is sexy and vivacious. If she looked here like she does in those films maybe the strength of her performance here would override my perception of them. That’s how strong her portrayal is. But the fact that the wig makes her look weirdly, strangely off makes Fred MacMurray’s instant lusting after her have that much more of an effect. Certainly I can relate since I know I’ve had my own weird attractions in the past that I couldn’t really explain. I’d say ‘haven’t we all’, but of course I don’t know that for sure. Anyway, she lives in Silverlake, it’s a long, sad story so I really don’t want to go there and besides, weren’t we talking about the character of Phyllis Dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY? My point in talking about the wig is that I get it. I understand the notion of being attracted to women in this town who maybe you shouldn’t have that kind of response to. Maybe it explains why happy go lucky Walter Neff is suddenly driven to murder. It’s as good a reason as any.

Of course, none of that is real. The fantasy of wanting to live in a movie like DOUBLE INDEMNITY isn’t about getting mixed up in a murderous noir storyline that leads to meeting your doom. It’s about living in that world of old, black and white L.A. where your co-worker offers to buy you a martini “with two olives”, where you can go for a walk up in the woods over Hollywood and encounter a magical view of the Hollywood Bowl. And in that skewered world your apartment door opens out for some reason, which it of course never does in real life, and it’s extremely useful to keep Edward G. Robinson from learning who’s behind it. (Has anyone ever noticed that The Dude’s door in THE BIG LEBOWSKI opens out as well? Is this some kind of INDEMNITY reference?) The film has one of my favorite senses-of-place of just about any movie I can think of from Hollywood’s golden age. Maybe that’s because of how much I recognize the place it depicts. I love living around here partly because it reminds me of a movie like DOUBLE INDEMNITY which will forever be a favorite of mine and that kind of fantasy can be tough to shake as you begin to realize just how many years you really have been in this town.


WelcometoLA said...

I love that post. DI is one of those movies that has never quite overwhelmed me, but I agree on the romance of old LA. Have you ever heard Charlie Haden's jazz album, Haunted Heart? A lot of that old retr/film noir feel in it, as well.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Glad you liked the post, Larry. I'm not familiar with the album, but I'm definitely going to look into it.