SHE'S NOT AS MYSTERIOUS as Greta Garbo, not as accommodating as Marilyn Monroe, not as quick with a quip as Katharine Hepburn. Still, Barbara Stanwyck was probably a better actress than any of them, and even if her name hasn't endured as famously as some of her iconic peers, Stanwyck's film catalog can go toe-to-toe with any of them. NW Film Center's Barbara Stanwyck retrospective is as much a showcase for the actress' immensely likeable screen persona as it is a survey of the workmanlike genres from Hollywood's golden age.
Stanwyck's most celebrated film is, deservedly, 1944's Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder's unbeatable film noir and perhaps the greatest movie ever made about insurance policies. The series' other two noirs aren't as good, but are still worthwhile: 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number has Stanwyck as a wealthy heiress overhearing a murder plot on crossed phone lines—the convoluted plotlines get similarly tangled—and 1954's pulpy Witness to Murder has Stanwyck trying to solve a murder she's witnessed in a neighboring apartment. It's a trashier Rear Window, and Stanwyck is great.
She was wonderful in screwball comedies, too, particularly Preston Sturges' unbelievably charming The Lady Eve (1941). Opposite Henry Fonda, Stanwyck is charismatic beyond belief—she puts Fonda through the wringer, but she's so alluring you can't feel too bad for him. She's similarly outstanding in Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941), as a showgirl trying to teach modern-day slang to Gary Cooper.
You can take or leave the three melodramas on offer (1933's Baby Face, 1937's Stella Dallas, Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow from 1956), but don't miss the bizarro 1957 western Forty Guns. Directed by maverick Samuel Fuller, it's filled with rough violence, Freudian imagery, and audacious camera work, plus a gently crooned song about Stanwyck's character: "She's a high-ridin' woman with a whip."