Category Archives: Suspense

The Sweet Smell of Murder: The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity

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In 1925, Ruth Brown Snyder, of Queens NY, who was having an affair with a married salesman, Henry Gray, decided to kill her husband. With the assistance of an insurance agent, who was later fired and imprisoned for forgery, Snyder purchased an insurance policy in her husband’s name, a policy that paid extra — double indemnity — if her husband died in an act of “unexpected violence.” Snyder then attempted to kill her husband at least seven times, finally succeeding with her lover Henry Gray’s assistance, and subsequently staging the murder as a robbery gone bad.

Snyder’s inconsistent stories about the robbery-murder, along with the police discovery of the stolen items hidden in the house, caused detectives to investigate Snyder more thoroughly. When police located her lover, Gray, he confessed in great detail. Snyder was found guilty and imprisoned. In 1928, she became the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Tom Howard’s dramatic photograph of Snyder in the electric chair mid-execution was printed on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Ruth Brown Snyder, photographed mid-execution by Tom Howard, © New York Daily News

Many celebrities and reporters covered Snyder’s trial, including crime reporter James M. Cain, who subsequently based two of his novels on Snyder’s story: The Postman Always Rings Twice, about a woman who murders her husband with the help of her ex-con lover; and Double Indemnity, which more closely follows Snyder’s story.

The novel is a crime fiction classic, and the 1944 film of the same name, co-written by director Billy Wilder and crime fiction author Raymond Chandler, has since become one of the defining classics of Noir Film, with all the genre’s requisite essentials: a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over narration limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous but always beautiful and sexually alluring femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a Dictaphone message for a colleague, Keyes, a brilliant claims adjuster noted for ferreting out insurance fraud. Walter’s confession becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, seems to be seriously offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With Phyllis’ ostensibly reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Edward G Robinson as Keyes, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man instead of as a criminal or gangster) is immediately suspicious about the husband’s accident. Keyes intentionally stalls payment on the insurance policy to aggravate Phyllis, complicating Walter’s relationship with her.

Jean Heather as Lola, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Further, the victim’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) knows some secret about Phyllis’ past that makes Lola also suspect foul-play was involved in her father’s death. While simultaneously side-stepping his colleague’s ongoing fraud investigation, Walter spends more time with Lola to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions. Though still sexually involved with Phyllis, Walter begins to have feelings for Lola. When she tells him that she thinks her stepmother Phyllis is involved with Lola’s own boyfriend Nino, Walter’s guilt about the murder and his burgeoning fear of Phyllis make him anxious for his own life.

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Fred MacMurray as Walter, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity is a “moody, pessimistic crime story with strong overtones of spiritual bankruptcy and moral cynicism” and is considered both a model and an archetype of the Noir Film genre.

Filmed in black-and-white, and

[b]rilliantly photographed by John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity’s use of ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting (creating a jail bars effect that foreshadows the likely, if not actual, fate of its protagonists) was to go on become a staple of the film noir look.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, regarded as a “template” for Noir films, and considered by most critics and archivists to be one of the best American films of all time, Double Indemnity is available for rent for $2.99/3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Horror and Suspense Films

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listed in alphabetical order by name of film

Scary Because It's Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

Scary Because It’s Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

#NoSpoilers It's October, and that means it's time for scary movies. When I was young, vampires and ghosts and werewolves usually did the trick. As ...
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To Make Cynics of Us All: Devil, the Horror Film

To Make Cynics of Us All: Devil, the Horror Film

#NoSpoilers There is a long history of stories about humans being influenced or tempted to commit evil by some outside being rather than by their ...
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The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself: The Devil's Backbone, the Film

The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself: The Devil’s Backbone, the Film

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to ...
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If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

#NoSpoilers Crime films, frequently inspired by crime fiction, concentrates on criminals, their crimes, and (sometimes) on the detection of those crimes. The famed Noir films ...
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The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

#NoSpoilers Though the word "horror" was not used to describe a film genre until the 1930s, films including supernatural or frightening elements, usually adapted from ...
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Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film

Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film

#NoSpoilers Pandora, whose name means either "all-gifted" or "all-giving," was ostensibly the first human female created by the Greek gods. Each of the gods helps ...
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Killing Others To Survive: Identity, the Film

Killing Others To Survive: Identity, the Film

#NoSpoilers The 2003 psychological horror film Identity is not a direct adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1939 mystery novel And Then There Were None, though the plot of Identity is ...
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The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

#NoSpoilers I first read The Turn of the Screw when I was ten years old after I learned it was about ghosts, and much of ...
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Coming-of-Age with a Vampire: Let Me In, the Film

Coming-of-Age with a Vampire: Let Me In, the Film

#NoSpoilers The concept of vampires or vampire-like beings — undead who return from the grave and exist by stealing the "life essence" (flesh or blood) ...
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The Plague That Cast the World Into Darkness: Open Grave, the Film

The Plague That Cast the World Into Darkness: Open Grave, the Film

#NoSpoilers I'm going to be honest with you: I don't think much of post-apocalyptic dramas that include zombies. I mean, who's going to root for ...
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When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

#NoSpoilers This story has been recycled a few times: parents who are longing for another child and also to do good in the world -- ...
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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

#NoSpoilers Of all the horror films I have ever watched or blogged about, The Orphanage (2007) -- written by Sergio G. Sánchez, directed by  JA Bayona, and ...
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The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

#NoSpoilers Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this film, which some say was inspired by Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw, isn't ...
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Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

#NoSpoilers Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer ...
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Suspense via Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven, the 2012 Film

Suspense via Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven, the 2012 Film

No Spoilers I'm not sure why the 2012 film The Raven doesn't have at least 9 out of 10 stars on popular reviewing sites because ...
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The World Breaks Everyone: Horror Film Classic Rosemary's Baby

The World Breaks Everyone: Horror Film Classic Rosemary’s Baby

#NoSpoilers The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong in the broken places. Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms It all seems so ordinary ...
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Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

No Spoilers You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in ...
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You Are Now Entering the Cruel World: Texas Killing Fields, the Film

You Are Now Entering the Cruel World: Texas Killing Fields, the Film

No Spoilers You are now entering the cruel world bridge sign near The Killing Fields Since the 1970s, at least 30 young women and girls ...
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Hansel & Gretel With A Video Camera: The Visit, 2015 Film

Hansel & Gretel With A Video Camera: The Visit, 2015 Film

No Spoilers (okay, there's a couple, but they're not about plot) When I first saw the description for the 2015 film The Visit, written, directed, and produced ...
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Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

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Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was filmed in black & white, by a television crew, on a small budget, because Paramount had already rejected the project, claiming its subject matter was “too repulsive… and impossible” for film. Hitchcock, who had already optioned the novel, then financed the film himself. According to film critic Roger Ebert, Psycho (1960) “remains the most effective slashing in movie history, suggesting that … artistry [is] more important than graphic details.” Because Hitchcock was answerable to no one but himself, he succeeded in creating one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made. At the same time, he created an art film classic.

Janet Leigh as Marion, and John Gavin as Sam, Psycho © Universal

The story begins as if it were a crime mystery. Marion (Janet Leigh) is having an affair with Sam (John Gavin), and she is distressed that they cannot marry because of his debts. Later that afternoon, when she returns to work, Marion is asked to take a substantial cash deposit of $40K to the bank. Instead, Marion absconds with the money, hoping to use it so she and Sam run away together.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Psycho © Universal

That night, in a thunderstorm, Marion stays at an isolated and mostly unoccupied motel, managed by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Though handsome, Norman is gawky, and he has an odd hobby: taxidermy. The room where he serves Marion dinner is filled with dead and stuffed birds of prey.

From the spooky house overlooking the motel, Norman’s mentally ill mother can be heard berating him, and this elicits Marion’s sympathy for him. It also makes her re-evaluate her own crime, which would hurt not only her employer but his client as well. Marion takes a shower, symbolically cleansing herself of her evil intentions since she has apparently decided to return the stolen cash, when…

The famous shower scene, with Janet Leigh, Psycho © Universal

You may or may not know about the most famous shower scene in all of cinematic history, but the rest of the story becomes an intense murder mystery as the audience’s sympathy is shifted from impulsive criminal Marion to horrified son Norman as he desperately attempts to protect his dangerous mother.

Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho © Universal

In a move that, even now, is considered outrageously audacious, Hitchcock directs the film’s viewing audience as much as he did its actors: about a third of the way into the film, he takes all the viewers’ attention away from the ostensible protagonist — played by the film’s star power, Janet Leigh — and focuses the story on the newly introduced Norman. “I was directing the viewers,” [Hitchcock] told [fellow director] Truffaut in their book-length interview. “You might say I was playing them, like an organ.”

Martin Balsam as Detective Arbogast, Psycho © Universal

As Norman is feverishly working to protect his violent mother from discovery, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) is desperately worried about Marion, who has disappeared. While asking Marion’s lover Sam about her whereabouts, the pair is approached by a detective (Martin Balsam), who has been hired to retrieve the stolen money. Sam and Lila encourage the detective to search for Marion, confident that some mistake has been made concerning the missing funds, which they assume Marion will be able to explain.

Vera Miles as Lila, John Gavin as Sam, and Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho © Universal

When the detective fails to contact them as arranged, Sam and Lila decide that they must investigate the mysterious happenings surrounding the isolated motel themselves…

Vera Miles, Psycho © Universal

Even if that means they must break into the spooky old house where Norman’s mother is obviously keeping watch over everything that happens down at the motel.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh, and Best Director for Hitchcock, Psycho is considered one of Hitchcock’s best films. Marred only by the final scene with the psychiatrist — which appears before the classic finale with Norman and his mother — Psycho is a classic thriller, with enough realistic spookiness to keep you up at night.

Available for rent ($2.99/3.99 SD/HD) or purchase (about $6.99) from Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

Related Posts

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The First Award-Winning Horror Film:
The Exorcist

The World Breaks Everyone:
Horror Film Classic Rosemary’s Baby

Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

Scary Because It’s Possible:
The Bad Seed, the Film

The Demons Within:
The Innocents, the Film

The Plague that Cast the World Into Darkness:
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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself:
The Devil’s Backbone: The Film

To Make Cynics of Us All:
Devil, The Horror Film

When Children Scare You To Death:
Orphan, the Film

The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

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Scary Because It’s Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

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It’s October, and that means it’s time for scary movies. When I was young, vampires and ghosts and werewolves usually did the trick. As I’ve gotten older, I find movies where the events could actually happen even more frightening than those supernatural beings of my childhood horror films. One of the scariest is 1956’s The Bad Seed,  which was considered so potentially scary to viewing audiences that all the actors appeared to “take a bow” at the end of the film — much as they had in the stage play of the same name on which it was based — to remind everyone that it was fictional.

The Bad Seed may be fictional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary. And the most terrifying part of the film is that it could actually happen. To anyone. So don’t let the fact that the actors “take a bow” at the end of the film keep you from watching this horror classic. Psychologically realistic and terrifying in the extreme, The Bad Seed contains not a single paranormal character or hint, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.

Nancy Kelly as mother Christine (L) and Patty McCormack as daughter Rhoda (R), The Bad Seed ©

The film stars Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark, who begins to feel uneasy around her 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) after a little boy who’s Rhoda’s school rival dies in an accident. As Christine begins to re-evaluate things about Rhoda’s character that make her uneasy, she is faced with opposition from neighbors and family, all of whom insist Christine herself is imagining things about her angelic little girl.

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Every time Christine manages to convince herself that she’s jumpy and unreasonably suspicious, however, Rhoda does something that’s less than angelic, throwing Christine into doubt all over again.

Nancy Kelly as Christine, The Bad Seed ©

Though the film is a little heavy-handed on the heredity vs. environment discussions, it’s worth watching. The supporting cast is excellent even when their parts are minor, and include Eileen Heckart as the grief-stricken mother of the dead boy,

Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed ©

Paul Fix as the doting crime-writer Grand-dad who thinks his beloved daughter is just worrying about nothing in particular,

and Henry Jones as LeRoy the suspicious handyman who just knows that something is not right with pretty little Rhoda.

Despite everyone’s assurances that Rhoda is a beautiful, sweet, highly intelligent little girl, Christine has her doubts and suspicions about Rhoda’s true nature and potential for violence. After all, not everyone gets to see Rhoda when she’s upset. Or annoyed. Or even angry.

Patty McCormack as Rhoda, The Bad Seed ©

The film’s content is so scary — and so very possible — that even the original trailer had to “remind” viewers that they were watching an advertisement for a film based on a play based on William March’s novel, just so, you know, people didn’t get too creeped out. Further, The Bad Seed was so unusual for its time that it had a notice at the end of the film, asking viewers not to reveal its ending to others.

The Bad Seed, 1956 ©

McCormack as the young girl Rhoda and Kelly as her mother Christine received Oscar nominations for their performances.  60 years later, the film and its exploration of evil remain pertinent.

 The Bad Seed is available to rent for a couple bucks on Amazon, on YouTube, and on Vudu.

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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

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Of all the horror films I have ever watched or blogged about, The Orphanage (2007) — written by Sergio G. Sánchez, directed by  JA Bayona, and produced by Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) — is the only one that I would caution adults not to allow children to watch. As in many of del Toro’s other films, there is a strong connection between fairy tales and horror, but I’m not talking about the sanitized versions of fairy tales that most children are now familiar with. If children, especially those under age 10, watch this film with you, they may be quite distressed. By the time you discover why young children should not watch The Orphanage, it’ll be too late: they’ll probably be seriously upset by this film, if not actually traumatized, so be warned. The Orphanage is R-rated for a reason, and there are no special effects, bad language,  or graphic violence to warrant the rating: the mature rating comes purely in the content of the story itself.

Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

Laura (Belén Rueda) spent many of her formative years in an orphanage, where she loved, and was loved by, the other children. Despite her having grown up without parents, Laura she remembers being happy in that orphanage.

The Orphanage ©

In an attempt to “pay back” society for her secure and relatively happy childhood, she purchases the old home and decides to take in special needs children.

Belén Ruedo as Laura, and Fernando Cayo as Carlos, The Orphanage ©

With Laura are her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), who’s an MD, and their son Simón (Roger Princep), who doesn’t know that he’s adopted nor that he’s seriously ill (he’s HIV-positive).

Roger Princep as Simón, The Orphanage ©

Simón already has a couple of imaginary friends, but he makes a few new imaginary friends at the orphanage-now-home. This starts to disturb his parents, who aren’t sure that he’s not just trying to get more attention at a time when their focus is going to be divided among the new resident children, all of whom will have special needs.

Roger Princep as Simón, and Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

On the day of the party to welcome the special needs children who will be living at the orphanage,  Mama Laura sees a strange, hooded figure, and she thinks it is Simón, trying to get attention.

The Orphanage ©

When the strange figure then attacks her, Laura is frightened, not only for herself but for Simón, who goes missing on the same day.

The Orphanage ©

And Laura’s life deteriorates from there.

Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

Laura becomes a sort of detective, trying to discover what might have happened to her son. She also invites a psychic (Geraldine Chaplin) to visit the orphanage in an attempt to locate the missing Simón.

Geraldine Chaplin, The Orphanage ©

Though her husband and other grieving parents who have lost children attempt to convince Laura that Simón is dead, rather than merely missing, she refuses to give up hope. She travels all around the area looking for her son. When husband Carlos suggests they leave the scene of their tragic loss, Laura insists they remain at the orphanage, if only because it was the last place anyone saw her son.

The Orphanage ©

Laura then decides that the mysterious hooded figure she saw on the day Simón disappeared must have been a ghost. She is determined to make contact with any ghosts who might be at the orphanage, to ask them for help locating her son.

The Orphanage ©

Some reviewers of the film complained that the ghosts were a minor part of the story, and I have to admit that they are, but I found that a strength of the film rather than a weakness. The Orphanage is about loss and grieving, about guilt and hope. It’s about parents and children, husbands and wives. It’s about how tragedy can forever change everything in our lives, and how some people simply cannot live with the devastating pain of irreparable loss.

It is not a film for young children: you will just have to trust me on this.

In Spanish with English subtitles, The Orphanage is an intense and excruciating psychological drama, masking itself as a ghost story. Yes, there are some ghosts, but that is not why this is a powerful and memorable film.

Winner of 14 Goya Awards (Spanish Academy Awards) and winner of 8, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, The Orphanage is available for rent for $2.99 from Amazon, from iTunes, and from Vudu.

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The First Award-Winning Horror Film:
The Exorcist

The World Breaks Everyone:
Horror Film Classic Rosemary’s Baby

Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

Scary Because It’s Possible:
The Bad Seed, the Film

The Demons Within:
The Innocents, the Film

The Plague That Cast the World Into Darkness:
Open Grave, the Film

Leave a Comment

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