26th 08 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature film of: Terence Young, director


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Back in November 2008, Rod posted a “Famous First” on Dr. No (1962), which marked the first screen appearance of the James Bond character. The director of Dr. No was Terence Young, and so it is with some sense of continuity that I write about the first of many films in the long and successful career of this underrated British director who peaked in the 1960s with the Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965), as well as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Wait Until Dark (1967), and Mayerling (1968).


Young began his film career as a screenwriter, most notably penning the scripts for On the Night of the Fire (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), A Letter From Ulster (1942), and Theirs Is the Glory (1946), which were directed by his good friend, the Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst. On the Night of the Fire is often considered a good example of early British noir, and this film may have given Young a few ideas about the look he wanted when it came his turn to direct. Shot in Paris, Corridor of Mirrors has the moody shadows and skewed camera angles of a proper film noir. However, it offers a story reminiscent of the horror/thriller Vertigo (1958) of a man searching for a lost love and creating a living woman in her image. Further, there may have been something lingering in the air from the fantasy films the French made when the Germans occupied their country during World War II. Corridor of Mirrors is a dreamy, gorgeous film that, whether Young intended it or not, rips the veil off the nightmare of the Occupation that the subjugated French banished from their filmmaking, making it something much closer to gothic horror film than noir.


The film starts with the noirish voiceover of our female protagonist, Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney), a half Italian-half Welsh country wife and mother who tells us that she is hiding a dark secret that puts a lie to her respectability—she is leaving for a few days to meet her lover, who has been writing to her persistently for the past few months. Her rendezvous is to take place at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the creepy chamber of the notorious that contains lifelike French nobility having their heads lopped off during the Reign of Terror. We look around for her lover and are surprised when she reaches up to take the hand of a wax figure. His is the likeness of Paul Mangin (Eric Portman). We won’t learn what he did to earn a place at the wax museum until much later, once Mifanwy finishes her reminiscence of the strange and intense affair that began in a nightclub when she first saw his fascinating face and determined that she had to get to know him.


Paul is fabulously wealthy and lives in an enormous and opulent mansion, surrounding himself with rare and beautiful items. His particular passion is for 15th-century Venice, and he preserves all the courtly charms of that bygone era. He drives Mifanwy to his home in a hansom cab and compliments her unconventional dress as being in keeping with his own anachronistic tastes—but he can’t abide her cigarette habit. She returns several times to his home, and one day finds herself alone in it, save for the discreetly hidden servants, and invited by note to have a look around. She discovers a corridor of mirrored doors, behind which are lavish period dresses and jewelry. Unable to resist, she tries one on and is admiring herself when Paul comes up behind her and finishes the look with the necklace and tiara that accompany it. He has had all of these costumes made for the day the woman of his dreams appears; of course, that woman is Mifanwy, the spitting image of the Italian spitfire who made his life a living hell when they both lived previous lives in Renaissance Venice.


This twist definitely tips Corridor of Mirrors into the horror category, with Paul offering a strong model for the genteel type of Dracula that would become a staple of England’s Hammer Studios, a strangely apt approach considering that this marked Christopher Lee’s big-screen debut, as a party-hearty companion of Mifanwy and her night-clubbing friends. Further, we have a Renfield character in the form of Edgar Orsen (Alan Wheatley), the designer of those fabulous garments who hates Paul for dallying with his lover, Caroline (Joan Hart), but remains chained to his generous patronage. We’re even offered a crazy housekeeper (Barbara Mullen) for the purposes of plot and added menace.


French cinematographer André Thomas is really the making of the film, setting up a genuine air of romance and dread that carries it through to its somewhat ridiculous conclusion. The first dance between Mifanwy and Paul is a whirl, like a spider slipping a very delicate web around its prey. Who is the predator and who is the prey doesn’t really seem to matter as both people look equally in thrall. The benign first scene in the corridor of mirrors gives way to fear and confusion as Mifanwy’s panic at Paul’s delusions about past lives and worries about his stability have her running through the corridor anxiously looking for the door that will aid her escape, but being confronted by blank-faced mannequins at every turn and reflections of madness. She learns her laugh disturbs Paul, and the sound design of her echoing laugh in Paul’s head matches the multitude of mirror images Thomas captures.


The script, partially written by Romney, is kind of a mess when it comes to her own character. We are supposed to think Mifanwy is a modern girl who is simply intrigued by Paul’s world and whose cruelty matches that of the ancient Italian she resembles down to the last detail, signaled by her attraction to a poison bottle a la Lucrezia Borgia in Paul’s display case. The switch is neither well-planned nor well-executed, and the consequences of her rejection don’t strike the tragic note they probably should have—and certainly not with the grotesque happy ending the film has in store for us.


If this and other implausible plot twists are redeemed at all, it is because Eric Portman is such a magnetic and pleasant character to spend 90 or so minutes with. The lavish costume ball he throws to celebrate the rediscovery of his lost love is absolutely enchanting, and Young and company achieve that difficult task of making us feel as though we have really entered another time occurring within our own, as opposed to watching a straight period piece that can be viewed more dispassionately. Thomas and Portman pay close attention to the faces of the players, a handsome and exotic bounty that does much more to put the story across than the expensive-looking sets. All in all, Corridor of Mirrors casts a rather intoxicating spell that fans of classic and horror films should find worthwhile.



8th 08 - 2015 | 5 comments »

Famous Firsts: It’s Trad, Dad, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (1962)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature film of: Richard Lester, director

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This weekend, the Film Society of Lincoln Center began a weeklong retrospective of the works of American-born, British-based Richard Lester. The series will of course include his most famous works, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), but will range across his career to include lesser-appreciated films like Juggernaut (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989). What it will not include is his debut feature film. The privilege of seeing It’s Trad, Dad, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm this week was solely that of the patrons of the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society, which, after lengthy negotiation, managed to pry the only projectable print out of the Sony vault for our enjoyment and edification.


Many movie buffs and Beatles fans know that Lester was hired to direct A Hard Day’s Night based on the Fab Four’s wild enthusiasm for the The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a short film Lester made as a first foray onto the big screen after several years in television. What isn’t as well known is that another Lester effort, a TV pilot called Have Jazz, Will Travel, made an impression on Amicus Productions cofounder Milton Subotsky, another American expat in Britain with a TV background trying to reach the teen market with music, and later, horror films. Subotsky handed Lester a 24-page script, a large roster of jazz and pop stars, and a free hand in filling them both out to feature length. The result was a 78-minute concert film with a comedic story thread and a wealth of visual inventiveness that occasionally tips the film into experimental territory.

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Although the film is nearly nonstop music, there is a story that Lester mines for some great visual gags. The mayor (Felix Felton) of an English suburb goes out to a cafe for a quiet cup of coffee, only to have his repast rudely interrupted by a swarm of teens coming in to dance to the rock ’n roll records on the jukebox. They also watch TV announcer Alan Freeman as he presents such acts as Terry Lightfoot and His New Orleans Jazz Band. The mayor gets the town council to approve a ban on jazz, sending two of the town’s teens, pop stars Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas, on a mission to bring a jazz concert to town to show the townspeople that the music is just good clean fun.


The wrap-around story affords Lester the only opportunities to indulge his comedic instincts. He shows the mayor crushing records in a vise, only to stop when his aide accidentally (?) hands him a Lawrence Welk record. When Shapiro and Douglas decide to go to London to enlist the aid of Freeman, Lester breaks the fourth wall with a snappy verbal exchange and moves the film strip across the screen to change the town location to the broadcast studio; similarly, when the teens strike out with Freeman and decide to go to a nightclub to try their luck with announcer David Jacobs, he flips the scene again and pops some evening clothes on them for good measure. He ends with more visual zaniness as the mayor, who has unwittingly agreed to a jazz concert in town, sets up obstacles to the bands coming to play. Giant rubber bands bounce the musicians’ van between two sets of trees, and when the van breaks free, the police pile furniture into a high roadblock, only for the van to drive around it.

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Most of Lester’s real work is in trying to provide interesting set-ups for the 26 acts that comprise the bulk of the film, and he largely succeeds. He uses masks to split the images of Terry Lightfoot and his band, creating boxes within boxes that offer the static image some movement. When Helen Shapiro sings, he gets right into the crowd of kids swirling around her and creates an almost flickering effect of her peeking out between the moving heads and bodies. He favors close-ups, perhaps thinking it would be rather funny to move into the maw of a crooner, as he does with the megaphone-wielding singer of The Temperance Seven. The gargantuan images he creates with this effect are rather monstrous, creating an impression not far off from what the mayor objected to—that hopped-up music and teen culture would take over the world, as indeed they did.


Lester and Subotsky almost pulled off a coup as the first people to capture Chubby Checker on film doing the twist—in this case, the “Lose Your Inhibition Twist”—but lost out when Teenage Millionaire appeared in 1961. The scene with Checker is notable for being at an integrated nightclub where black and white dancers mix freely on the dance floor.

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It is worth noting that the film’s British title, It’s Trad, Dad, refers to the label Dixieland jazz has in Britain—traditional jazz. Thus, the film is loaded with Dixieland bands and music, including Chris Barber and his Jazz Band with vocalist Ottilie Patterson doing “Down By the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” My favorite was British clarinetist Aker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band; Lester seized the opportunity to create a visual narrative for the band’s rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” that presages similar work in the Beatles films.


A dramatic moment is Gene McDaniels singing the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Another Tear Falls.” Lester films him first in dramatic silhouette and then maintains minimal key lighting to reflect the song lyrics and McDaniels’ powerfully emotional voice. Sadly, the liberal lipsynching used in the film creates an unintentionally funny moment in this excellent performance when McDaniels takes a puff on his cigarette and ends up spitting smoke for several bars.


There aren’t many recognizable pop songs, though artists such as Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, and Gary U.S. Bonds were at the top of their game when this was filmed. Sixteen-year-old Helen Shapiro made her screen debut in this film, but she was hardly an unknown; she had been voted Britain’s top female singer, and The Beatles’ first national tour of Britain, in 1963, was as her opening act. Her deep voice and energetic phrasing in “Let’s Talk About Love” demonstrate what a major talent she was.

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How much you like this film may depend on how much you like the music. Although some of the outdated vocal and fashion styles garnered laughs from the audience with whom I saw It’s Trad, Dad, the hands-down favorite of the evening were The Temperance Seven, a cross between the Nairobi Trio and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Their cheeky, untranslated French lyrics and ennui-filled performance are delightfully droll and unabashedly fun. It’s absolutely fitting that they should be in Dick Lester’s very first feature film.


3rd 12 - 2014 | no comment »

Famous Firsts: Le beau Serge (1958)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature film of: Claude Chabrol, director and screenwriter


By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s not often that a film—especially a debut film—grabs me and pulls me into its orbit with the irresistible force of a black hole, but that’s exactly what happened to me and, impressively, the hubby, when we started watching Le beau Serge. I stipulate that I’m predisposed to like films by Claude Chabrol, one of my favorite filmmakers, but Shane is famously fidgety in the opening minutes of a film, wanting to know what is going to happen before the credits have even finished rolling. Running roughshod over the usual settling-in period, Le beau Serge grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck with an ominous energy and holds us tight to the bitter end—bitter being the operative word.


1958 was an interesting year in cinematic and Gallic history. Just as the supposed end of the classic period of American film noir was reached with the release of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the Cahiers du cinéma critics were gearing up to start making their noir-influenced independent films, with Chabrol being the first out of the blocks with Le beau Serge. This bleak film shot in Sardent, to which the Paris-born Chabrol was evacuated during World War II, has the kind of quasi-confessional aspects of personal remorse and social unease that were then being unleashed by the angry young men of the United Kingdom. A reference in the film to a townsman serving in Algeria prefigures the May coup attempt in that French-occupied country that would see a member of the old guard, Charles de Gaulle, return to power. Interestingly, Jacques Tati’s nostalgia for small town France got a big-screen airing in 1958 with the debut of Mon oncle; Le beau Serge is a radical counterpoint to that humorous fantasy.


François (Jean-Claude Brialy), a handsome young man, returns to his home village after 10 years in Paris to rest and give his tubercular lungs a chance to heal. His family home has fallen into ruin, and he is forced to take a room at the local inn. His friend (Michel Creuze), who had no illusions that he would ever leave the village and become anything but the baker his father was, reaches to grab François’ suitcase from the bus driver on top of the bus. A discordant note is struck in the film score as two men are viewed on the opposite side of the bus. They are François’ great childhood friend Serge (Gérard Blain) and Serge’s father-in-law Glaumod (Edmond Beauchamp). Both are drunk and belligerent, and seem oddly menacing. François tries to capture Serge’s attention, but fails. As he makes his way up the street to the inn, villagers greet him and have to remind him who they are. He doesn’t recognize anyone but Serge.


Class resentment is Claude Chabrol’s thematic calling card, and he starts flashing it with this, his very first film. François has distanced himself from the villagers, his head stuck in books in a rented room with faux-brick wallpaper (Chabrol revels in tacky interiors) as a symbol of his outsider, intellectual status. He believes he can save the villagers from themselves, showing up the ineffectual priest (Claude Cerval) in the process in an echo of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). He especially wants to reform Serge, whom he tries to persuade to leave Yvonne (Michèle Méritz), the wife he took when he got her pregnant, only to be trapped in an apparently loveless marriage when their baby was stillborn. Yvonne is pregnant again, but that doesn’t seem to bother François, who wants Serge to join him in bourgeois striving. The urgency of François’ yearning to see Serge in the opening scenes of the film and his continued efforts to connect with Serge contain homoerotic overtones that the film’s title, which translates as Handsome Serge, tends to endorse. In fact, Serge, a Marlon Brando knock-off in his black leather jacket, is kind of a mess—often covered with mud from his delivery job and his drunken carousing. François is much more handsome and is targeted immediately by the promiscuous, 17-year-old Marie (Bernadette Lafont), Yvonne’s sister who lives at home with their father. While he’s perfectly happy to diddle Marie, it’s clear he thinks she is in no way good enough for him.


While his films preponderantly critique the French bourgeoisie, Chabrol has always saved some contempt for the pettiness of the underclasses as well, allowing mere resentment or even boredom to burgeon into murder. With Le beau Serge, Chabrol highlights the self-delusions of the villagers as well. Serge seems to enjoy wallowing in his degradation and refuses to abandon Yvonne, claiming that he loves her. That may be a lie, but he certainly does need her to blame for his own lack of ambition and as an excuse to get drunk early and often. The townspeople also seem to have conspired in pretending that Marie is Glaumod’s daughter—Marie tells François she’s not—so that he can keep from jumping her bones. Glaumod all but forces François to tell him the truth about Marie, and then blames him when nature takes its course.


Indeed, the entire film, which assumes François’ point of view, looks at the villagers as little better than animals, and incestuous ones at that. Although the village is poor, there is a real life in it, with meals and dances and daily work. But François’ dealings with Serge, Yvonne, Marie, and Glaumod reduce the environment to squalor in a manner that must have influenced Bertrand Tavernier’s dissipated look at French colonialists in Africa in Coup de torchon (1981). Serge literally starts sleeping his drunks off in chicken coops, and the final scene is the birth of Serge and Yvonne’s baby, a basic animal act if ever there was one.


From the standpoint of filmcraft, Le beau Serge shows the influence of the Italian Neorealist movement. Like the Neorealists, he populates his frames with actual villagers and shoots from life, with natural lighting. A village dance looks and sounds quite like a similar dance in Luchino Visconti’s early Neorealist film Obsessione (1943). Yet, Chabrol includes a score by Émile Delpierre that telegraphs feeling in a very melodramatic way. Some have criticized the score, but it is part and parcel of Chabrol’s heightened sense of reality and wicked humor, a dark opposite to the light and urbane music of Tati.


The final scene is shot through with arresting images—Yvonne’s martyred face looking all the world like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); François shining a flashlight into every stable and coop, his utterly black form contrasting with the light and making him seem like a human void; François sliding a passed-out Serge along the snowy ground like a sack of potatoes. Serge’s maniacal laughter at the birth of a son might mean a new start—or just another person to start blaming.


22nd 09 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Straight Shooting (1917)/Beyond the Hill (Tepenin Ardi, 2012)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature films of: John Ford and Emin Alper, directors

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It isn’t every day that one can watch two films in one day—one from the early days of the motion picture industry and one hot off the presses—and see such a straight line of descent from the early to the new. Add to that “coincidence” the fact that both films represent the feature debuts of one legendary filmmaker and one possible legend in the making, and the experience is all the more powerful. Lucky was I! I had the rare privilege of seeing the first in what would be a long line of iconic Westerns by John Ford, and a more genre-mixed Western by one of the rising directors of Turkey’s emerging national cinema, Emin Alper. I had not realized the strong connection between these films when I made plans to see them, but the discovery was a highly illuminating one.


Straight Shooting was the first feature to emerge from the Cheyenne Harry short-film series Ford shot for Universal. The series’ star, Harry Carey, would continue to play kind-hearted outlaw Cheyenne Harry into the 1930s, though Ford’s working relationship with Carey would largely end by 1921. After getting a few shorts under his belt, Ford knew how to get what he wanted and delivered an action-packed Western centered on a range war, with homesteader Sweetwater Malone (George Berrell) standing fast against the threats of cattle rancher Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), who illegally stakes a claim on the creek they both share and threatens death to anyone who trespasses. Of course, Cheyenne Harry, who’d rather keep himself to himself, gets pulled into the fray.

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A seemingly amoral rogue who finds himself pulled into the righteous side of a conflict, often with the enticement of a sweet and beautiful girl as partial incentive, is a stock situation that has been changed up and modified over the years, but never completely obliterated. With such a conventional throughline, Ford insisted on injecting more realism with a strategy he would pursue his entire career—shooting on location. He chose Monument Valley (and is credited by some with its discovery as a filming location), away from the artificial frontier of backlots and California ranches, to people with his ranchers, homesteaders, and outlaws.The “hideout” for outlaw Black-Eye Pete (Milton Brown) and his gang—a valley beyond a steep rise guarded by lookouts on either side of the pass—looks to me very much like what a real gang would use.


Going from a short to a feature-length format may have set up a tendency I’ve seen in quite a few of Ford’s films to include a comic middle act that bears very little upon the main action of the film, and, in fact, could be popped out without any loss of continuity. With Straight Shooting, that middle act takes place in a saloon/rooming house where Harry goes to strike a deal with Flint to run the homesteaders off their land. After this bit of plot is slapped into place, a non sequitur involving the lily-livered sheriff surveilling Harry and Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg), one of Flint’s men, as they get drunk and pursue some burglars provides a bit of comic relief, though I was distressed to see Harry’s horse become so thoroughly spooked by the driving rain Ford engineered that it had to be removed after its opening appearance. In fact, horses and actors in danger during chases and descending the steep path to Pete’s hideout had me on the edge of my seat almost as much as the massing of the ranchers set to attack the homesteaders gathered at Malone’s cabin. One “dead” attacker had to “resurrect” to get out of the way of a horse on a path to trampling him. Although fascinating, such scenes are sobering reminders of how wild the early days of filmmaking actually were.


There’s no question in this fictional universe that there are good people and bad people. While Straight Shooting only goes so far as to indict Flint and his men through the cowardly act of shooting Malone’s son Ted (Ted Brooks) in the back, the film does seem to show a bias for people who settle down on the farm and start families. Malone’s daughter Joan (Molly Malone) switches her affection from her misguided beau Danny (Hoot Gibson) to Harry, and the final clinch inevitably comes after Harry weighs the pros and cons of giving up his crooked, carefree ways. While I haven’t seen the Cheyenne Harry films that follow this one, I reckon Harry slipped free of the marital noose to carry on his unofficial Lone Ranger duties.


The multi-award-winning film Beyond the Hill is a horse of a different color primarily in its insistence on withholding the blood-quickening violence from the audience and siding with the ranchers. The outlines of the conflict come slowly into view, as family patriarch Faik (Tamer Levent) welcomes his son Nusret (Reha Özcan) and grandsons Zafer (Berk Hakman) and Caner (Furkan Berk Kiran) back to the family homestead in a craggy corner of Turkey that quite resembles the Western frontier. Faik has 50 sheep grazing his pasturelands and a large stand of poplars, and Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur), his wife Meryem (Banu Fotocan), and son Sulu (Sercan Gumus) are his hired hands. Faik declares that they will kill a goat to prepare a proper feast for his family, ignoring Mehmet’s suggestion that they wait a bit. Mehmet correctly susses that Faik means to kill the goat he took from a group of nomads that have been grazing their herd on Faik’s land.

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The nomads are instantly recognizable to Turkish audiences as the Kurds with whom Turkey has been fighting a protracted war for decades, and former soldier Zafer is a mental casualty of that conflict. It is also apparent from their dress and customs that Mehmet and his family are Kurds, living under the thumb of Faik in substandard quarters due to a financial debt Mehmet owes that is never explicitly outlined. The political parallels of the story may be lost on a foreign audience, but the relative position of master and servant that allows Faik to bark orders at Meryem, Caner to threaten Sulu and his dog, and Nusret to get drunk and try to assault Meryem is universal.


Unlike in Straight Shooting, the nomads are never seen. Faik assumes they are massing to attack him after he kills several of their goats for trespassing on and “destroying” his pasture—never mind that he has 50 goats of his own that put stress on the land. Like the ranchers in Ford’s West, the nomads’ argument, as communicated to us through Faik, is that they have been grazing the land since the Ottoman Empire; Faik is the newcomer/homesteader who insists on the sanctity of private property and his right to defend it in any way he sees fit, as though history began when his family settled the land.


An interesting parallel between the two films is a character that is essentially a double-agent. Danny belongs to Flint’s gang, but is courting Joan and feeding intelligence to the Malones and Harry about Flint’s impending attacks. Sulu keeps a place of his own away from the Faik compound and is frequently the messenger who speak of thefts and attacks on Faik’s livestock. The morning after Nusret accosts Meryem—whether he completed the rape or she fended him off is never known—he rouses from the spot on the floor where he passed out and goes outside. A figure with a rifle takes aim, and we soon learn from Sulu that Nursret has been shot in the ankle. A parallel scene occurs in Straight Shooting right down to the exact camera angle, similar landscape, and object of attack—the son of the patriarch. In Beyond the Hill, however, the shooter is never revealed. Nonetheless, by the end of the film, the enemy Faik locates as an outside band of intruders may, in fact, be one of his own, someone filled with resentment who may be trying to escalate the disagreement to incite violence that will drive Faik off the land for good.


In both films, the primacy of a manly code that is enforced with guns, not laws, is front and center. The sheriff in Ford’s film is cowardly and ineffectual, and the Turkish police know very well what is going on but choose to accept Faik’s lies while refusing the goat meat, religiously and legally unclean for having been stolen, he offers them. Beyond the Hill goes further in fetishizing guns, as Caner can barely keep his hands off his grandfather’s rifles, and the sound of gunfire provides a dramatic forwarding of the plot. Zafer, plagued by hallucinations of his fallen comrades, offers a corrective to the macho entitlement of his grandfather while ridiculing his younger brother for being a sissy, showing that little that is learned about the atrocity of war is passed on to the next generation. The final image set to upbeat, heroic music, the only nondiagetic music in the film, shows Faik and company marching along a ridge to meet the enemy, the half-lame Nusret dragging behind. We want to laugh, just as we laugh when Harry is domesticated by Joan, but the certainty that history will repeat itself makes for a rueful close to this eastern Western.


4th 06 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Andrjez Wajda, director

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema. As such, it anticipates any number of neophyte directorial works from the likes of Breathless (1959) to Reservoir Dogs (1992), in trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo. A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.


20th 04 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: The Grim Reaper (La commare secca, 1961)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Screen debut of: Bernardo Bertolucci, director and screenwriter

By Marilyn Ferdinand

At the unripe age of 21, Bernardo Bertolucci made his directorial debut with a film Pier Paolo Pasolini lost interest in making after he had started work on Mamma Roma (1962), only his second directorial effort. Of course, Pasolini had been writing for the cinema for some time, so his acquaintance with the mechanics of movie-making weren’t entirely casual—not like Bertolucci, who first stepped onto a movie set when Pasolini took the young man on as a production assistant when shooting Accattone (1961). Until that time, Bertolucci had been following in the footsteps of his father, the renowned poet Attilio Bertolucci. Pasolini talked to the producer of La commare secca, Antonio Cervi, and suggested that Bertolucci work with Sergio Citti, Pasolini’s frequent collaborator, to come up with a script. Cervi eventually handed Bertolucci the directing reins with the instruction to make it “Pasoliniano”—in the manner of Pasolini. Despite Bertolucci’s attempts to put his own stamp on the film, “Pasoliniano” is how the Italian press categorized it. Nonetheless, La commare secca is a formidable debut from a real film greenhorn that reveals a lush visual eye Bertolucci attributed to his poetic sensibilities.

La commare secca is a murder mystery that resembles Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), relying on the recollections of witnesses—in this case, various young men who may have been involved in the death of a prostitute—to tell the story. This style is a reversal of the usual narrative style of focusing on the detective as he or she moves around town interviewing people, looking for clues, and so forth. This strategy affords the viewer several advantages—we can tell when the actual memory does not match up with what the interviewee is telling the police and we get to see the actual murder through the mind’s eye of the killer, which a cop never can.

Bertolucci adds a poetic touch by imagining the movements of the victim as she wakes up from an afternoon nap, makes coffee, and gets dressed for her evening stroll. Even the discovery of her body at the opening of the film is treated with delicacy—the same classical guitar music that attends her movements during the film plays as the camera follows some pieces of torn newspaper off a bridge and into the open field near the Tiber River where she lies face down. A close-up reveals a pretty ring on her finger and chipped nail polish, marking her as shabby genteel. We can’t be sure that she’s a prostitute until a cop in an interrogation room says so to a cocky young man he is questioning. The young man’s recounting of his movements that day will form the first of several vignettes that offer a look at the daily goings-on in Rome’s underbelly that will form the real text of this film.

Our first suspect, Canticchia (Francesco Ruiu), is unemployed. He tells the cop that he went to meet two priests for a letter of recommendation for work; in fact, he’s a thief who met two friends with whom he roams the woods looking for lovers who aren’t watching their belongings. Bertolucci follows their restless prowling through a wooded area that has become Rome’s lovers lane, watching them take turns creeping up on the distracted couples, succeeding and failing at their thievery. Eventually, Bertolucci brings Canti to the point where all the suspects converge—a park where the prostitute was last seen alive. In what resembles a night constellation, a soldier is bent forward sleeping on a bench, three men stand conversing, and in the distance, like the North Star, the prostitute (Wanda Rocci) stands under a light, her large, patent-leather purse glimmering softly.

Bertolucci spends a good deal of time on the stories of each of these men, and of several, like Canti, who pass through the park and particularly, their relationship to women. The two teenagers, Francolicchio (Alvaro D’Ercole) and Pipito (Romano Abate), who are talking to the third man (Silvio Laurenzi)—a crucial player in the resolution of the murder—are romantic and foolish, thinking they will rob the man of his solid-gold cigarette lighter so they can raise the 2,000 lira they need to buy groceries for a meal their two girls and their friend will cook the next night. Pipito is timid, terrified by the interrogation and anxious about the fate of his friend, who jumped into the fast-moving Tiber to avoid capture.

Francolicchio and Pipito are the least loathsome of the men whose stories Bertolucci tells. Teodoro, the soldier (Allen Midgette), harasses women as they pass down a street, trying to get them to talk to him. He stops at an art gallery and caresses the center of a metal statue that looks like a woman’s spread legs. When he escapes from the sudden thunderstorm that plagues all of the characters, he hides under a bridge and is soon joined by a bevy of women trying to stay dry. His smile, more like a leer, shows his delight at this turn of events.

The longest and most annoying story is of 30ish Natalino (Renato Trioni), a two-timing leech who lives with a very unpleasant and violent madam name Esperia (Gabriella Giorgelli) and her equally unpleasant mother (Santina Lisio). He takes her money and buys himself a sportscar, cheats on her, makes the rounds with her as she collects her cut from her whores, and confiscates a puppy from one who can’t pay Esperia what she owes. Natalino is pretty much a complete waste of space, and the shouting and threats and stereotypical Italian “love” match made me wish Bertolucci had cut it from the too-long film.

Despite Bertolucci’s lengthy digressions into real life, he doesn’t forget the event that brings all these characters together. The murder is a very affecting scene, injected with a strangely hard-edged pathos as the prostitute lays down on the concrete retaining wall next to the river, turning her head to one side, looking like an unattractive side of meat not wishing to see what will happen next. Her stunned pleading at the feet of her killer quite reminded me of Nancy’s murder in Oliver Twist, and yet the entire scene is short and perfunctory, not bathetic.

There are images in this film that point to Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist: two girls dancing together, the murder, the concrete retainers on the Tiber looking as monumentally ugly as the fascist constructions of Mussolini’s Rome. Bertolucci said that he wanted a peripatetic camera to contrast with Pasolini’s static, full-frontal shots in imitation of Tuscan religious art, and indeed, the camera’s motion gives a feeling of teeming life in this crowded capital city to contrast with the bombed-out locations where a lot of the action takes place. The desperate landscape and lives attest to the continued hardships recorded in the neorealist works of Rossellini and Fellini, and Bertolucci certainly owes much to their visions in this first film. The story, however, is so “Pasoliniano,” including explicit and veiled references to homosexuality, that the director delivered what his producer wanted, in spite of his best efforts to make this story his own. Nonetheless, hybrid of styles though it is, La commare secca signals the promise of Bertolucci’s eventual mastery as a film director.


19th 08 - 2009 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: Bad Taste (1987)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Peter Jackson, writer and director


By Roderick Heath

In the depths of a governmental office, a shadowy bureaucrat, upon hearing a report of an alien invasion, dispatches his operatives from the Astro Investigation and Defence Service (AIDS) to the scene of the landings, a small coastal town called Kaihora (which is Maori for “hungry”). The two agents on the scene, Barry (Pete O’Herne) and Derek (Peter Jackson), contend with the silent, stupid, blue-shirted men hanging around the town who prove to be the predatory aliens. One chases Barry through the deserted village, until Barry pulls out his .44 and blows its head off. Nerdy but ballsy Derek (“Dereks never run!” he declares) has captured another alien and has him safely suspended over a cliff edge with a rope around his ankle. Whilst awaiting the Service’s two muscle men, Ozzy (Terry Porter) and Frank (Mike Minett), nicknamed “The Boys,” Derek worries about an invasion of “extraterrestrial low-lifers” spreading beyond the town and attacking large cities, though he concedes the idea of them exterminating Auckland isn’t too objectionable.


Soon Barry is being chased by a bunch of the alien goons. Derek fights off a trio of them, only to be hurled off a cliff by his alien prisoner to shatter his skull on the rocks. The Boys try to intercept a relief aid collector named Giles (Craig Smith) who’s due to go door to door in the town, before he gets captured. Giles escapes the town by the skin of his teeth, only to be caught when he seeks refuge at a large colonial house that is now the aliens’ base of operations. He’s left to marinate in a giant pot by the alien leader, Lord Krum (Doug Wren, voice of Peter Vere-Jones). Krum and his goons have landed on Earth in search of new taste sensations for Krum’s galaxywide chain of fast food restaurants, and they’ve slaughtered the whole population of Kaihora for treats that Krum thinks will help him regain the lead in the market: “McYabbalo’s Fried Boobrat won’t know what hit them!” Giles is going to provide their celebratory feast. But they didn’t reckon on the amazing competence of The Boys in comparison to their own amazingly feeble skills (they’re all “third-class workers,” Krum admits), and Derek, his shattered skull strapped back together with his belt, returns to the fray in order to give these intergalactic yahoos a taste of their own menu.


Bad Taste is an exemplar of a dream that drives aspiring filmmakers the world over: an essentially homemade film made with sweat and duct-tape that displays enough energy and invention to start its director towards Oscar-garlanded triumph and riches. Bad Taste was the product of four years’ incessant, no-budget labour by Jackson and friends from school after work and on weekends, and funds from his day job as a trainee newspaper photographer. The production utilised homemade camera apparatus, including a crane and Steadicam harness; rockets that ran on fishing line; models made of cardboard; and foam-rubber alien masks baked to hardness in Jackson’s mother’s oven. Early sequences were filmed on a hand-cranked camera that allowed shots of no longer than 30 seconds, and most of the sound was added in post-production. As the production dragged on, the proposed storyline changed several times, and the concept stretched from a 20-minute short to a feature. It was finally finished with funding from New Zealand government film boards.

The movie Jackson and his mates patched together was a surprise success at Cannes, and swiftly became a true cult classic for gore and action aficionados. But a sense of proportion ought to be maintained. Bad Taste begins shakily and never quite makes you forget its backyard origins. The acting is largely shocking, the sound often badly post-synchronised, the narrative initially barely coherent, the score tacky, and, though Jackson’s gore-as-hilarity approach is as revivifying as it is in his subsequent, far more polished Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive, 1992), the jerry-built script’s humour is hit and miss. I’m not entirely sure if the film should be lauded for being as successful as it is in light of the distended, penniless production and the constantly altered storyline and script, because the truth is that it barely hangs together.


And yet it’s a doggedly admirable film in that it’s obviously the work of an original, dedicated, and prodigiously talented creator. The familiar quirks of Jackson’s eye, with his love for wide-angle lenses used up-close to give his action an overlarge immediacy, and his swooping, physically forceful camera motions edited together with surprising sharpness and dexterity, are startling in such a context. It’s very difficult to describe how Jackson uses grotesquery as high comedy, but as skulls erupt, sledgehammers lodge in foreheads, spines are torn out and wriggle, guts are trodden on, and bowls full of green vomit are consumed with relish, it’s hard to stop laughing.


The first part of the film begins so awkwardly, with its (perhaps deliberately) superfluous prologue and subsequent early scenes lacking an effective internal rhythm, that it threatens to prove a mere slapdash curio. But as the film finds it groove (right about the point when some money was finally injected into the production), it pays off with a lengthy, funny, well-filmed combat between humans and aliens, employing some deftly clever effects, such as those homebake latex masks and some wittily employed model work. The film’s imitation of a rollercoaster-like ideal of action movies is far superior to most action movies. The aliens, once revealed, are not only grossly ugly, but they also amble along like large apes with their swollen shoulders and buttocks jutting out of their clothes.


Because it’s never even vaguely scary and not really tense either, Bad Taste works best as a comedy, sending up and mimicking a host of other genre entries and adolescent obsessions with a smirk on its face. It’s also a very antipodean piece of work in its way, extracting humour from the low-rent, arse-end-of-the-world vibe of it all. The Boys tear around in their souped-up Ford (“I told ya you should’ve gotten a Holden!” Terry rebukes Ozzy when it breaks down), listening to head-banger music that drives the aliens crazy. Evil alien overlord Krum irritably dismisses the heroes as “wankers” and describes them as a mob of “right arseholes” for killing his workers. The generic riffs are plentiful, from the deflation of macho men Ozzy and Frank, as when Ozzy gives a cigar to a wounded Frank, only to snatch it back when Frank tells him he doesn’t smoke, to the hordes of aliens who, unlike similar movie menageries of disposable Indians or Nazis who prove to be mysteriously bad shots, are easily wasted because of a well-defined lack: they’re too dumb to shoot straight. But the neat, satiric core—that the aliens are intergalactic fast food moguls visiting upon humans the sort of exploitative, consumerist carnage they dish out to other species—is not pursued as anything more than a broad joke.

Which is, by and large, a good thing: Bad Taste’s near-unique pleasure is in its lack of pretension and determination to let its audience in on the fun. The constant barrage of Jackson’s references and sly gags realise an almost MAD Magazine-like air of zany, culturally diverse attentiveness, as if, down at the edge of the world, all the world’s influences become refuse to be remade by the imaginative schlockmeister.


When Jackson revisited the same style of outrage in Brain Dead, he to a certain extent recycled the approach of his debut, but also perfected it. References to it dot later works, like the hero’s car in The Frighteners (1997) and the look of the leader of the Orcs in The Return of the King (2003). Another consistent career motif Bad Taste revels in is the notion of the scrawny, deceptively nerdy hero winning through, as Derek runs rampant with his chainsaw, finally dispatching Krum in a coup de grace that sees him high dive and lance Krum’s head with the war cry, “Suck my spinning steel, shithead!” When he finally ends up wriggling about within Krum’s hollowed-out body, his head emerging from Krum’s ruptured loins, he cries “I’ve been born again!”—a notion repeated in a more Oedipal consummation in Brain Dead. Jackson, who plays Derek with a degree of amusing competence, also plays the alien Derek has taken prisoner, which leads to the utterly confounding sequence in which Jackson is fighting…himself. Derek is last seen drifting off into space on the spaceship (still in the shape of the house), threatening Krum’s home world: “I’m comin’ to get the rest of yez!” Such could have been Jackson’s warning to Hollywood.

Bad Taste is in very bad taste. I recommend that only people of good taste watch it.


15th 07 - 2009 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1960)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Celebrating Bastille Day: French Films All Week

Debut Film of: Jacques Rivette, director


By Roderick Heath

“Just because you’re paranoid,” goes the saying, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The debut film of Jacques Rivette, the most wilfully eccentric of the early Nouvelle Vague directors, could well be described as an exegesis on that theme. Rivette, a filmmaker never in a hurry to get anywhere (his 1971 film Out 1 runs 13 hours), only occasionally indulges the look-at-me editing and referencing that spiced up the other eruptive early films of the movement in Paris Belongs to Us, begun in 1957, but released in 1960. Rivette is deceptively becalmed, even gentle, whilst being coolly, almost cruelly implacable.


Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is an unshaped ingénue studying English literature whose cramming is interrupted one day by the sound of sobbing from a neighbouring flat in her student boarding house. Investigating, Anne finds a distraught woman who knows Anne’s brother Pierre (François Maistre), and, in her grief, talks about the murder of a man named Juan. She seems to think the murder has been committed by some cabal and predicts that all of them, including Anne and Pierre, will fall victim. Anne tries to calm the woman and dashes to get her a glass of water, but returns to find her composed, smiling, and pushing Anne politely out of her room. Invited by the shifty, alienated Pierre to a party of his lefty bohemian friends, Anne soon finds that a man named Juan really is dead. A guitarist of a level of talent that no one can agree on, Juan’s thought to have committed suicide. Present at the party is a boozy, angry, American writer, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who had to flee the States because of the blacklist, his ex-wife Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), and her current boyfriend, aspiring theatre director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito). Later, when Anne encounters Philip, a mysterious hit-and-run death disturbs him sufficiently to make him drag Anne along in fleeing through the streets. He speaks of a plot that will inevitably cause Gérard’s death, an event that perhaps only Anne can forestall.


Anne, inclined to take this stuff seriously after two such similar and yet obscure encounters, tries to alert Gérard to his apparently grim situation. The young, ardent director laughs it off. When his lack of finance means difficulties in keeping the cast of his dream production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre together, he drafts Anne to play the role of Marina. As Anne digs deeper, she uncovers sure evidence that something is going on, but what? Is the rootless, knowing Terry a kind of spiritual succubus, bringing death or ruin to every man she comes near? Or are they all pawns in some monumental game? What has the economist De Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), for whom Pierre does “some odd jobs,” to do with it? Why is Juan’s sister, a former radical, now living in De Georges’ apartment as his infantile mistress? Is Gérard’s sudden success in getting Pericles staged by a major theatre really a big break, or a cunning ploy to destroy him? And why is Juan’s legendary last recording, an improvisation that Gérard was desperate to have for the play, so hard to find and so seemingly close to the heart of the mystery?


Rivette’s dark thesis perceives the alt-culture of its era as assailed, self-deluding, and terminally self-destructive, trapped between blocks of power and making the situation worse with its own hysteria. Philip, the film’s prophet of hellish entrapment, lounges in his one-room apartment surrounded by his own artwork, dozens of modernist squiggles that resemble evil, gnawing, gnomic heads; he gives one to Anne, who soon enough sits peering at it in her own room, his demons infesting in her mind, too. Easy to see then why this film never stirred the same orgasmic odes to coolness as Breathless (1960). And yet it’s both the most awkward and possibly the most artistically and intellectually advanced of all the early Nouvelle Vague films. Paris Belongs to Us is as deeply, even apocalyptically, political a film as Godard’s The Little Soldier (1963) or Week-End (1967), perhaps even more so, but in a dissembling, allusive fashion, exploring the dire state of things through parable and paranoia. It takes no refuge in the hip and the righteous. The film’s references—McCarthyism, Franco, Hitler, the Resistance—invoke an age of insidious ills and underground struggle, with the borders between creeds and causes becoming porous and disturbingly homogenised.


In another sense, it’s not political at all, but a statement about art and the lot of artists in the modern world. The artists, from the passive and impotent, like Philip, to the most seemingly energetic and idealistic, like Gérard, are tortured, pushed by forces beyond their control, torn by conflicting desires both to commit (that great godhead that Sartre urged in his On Literature) and to create, consuming them in the process. Even the most superficial glance at Rivette’s oeuvre reveals that the motif of the band of players putting on a play, usually a work of the classical canon, that will never be performed is one of his recurring gambits; artistic endeavour being both eternally new and ancient, evergreen, and ever endangered. Here, Pericles, is critiqued early on by Anne and an actor friend as a rambling collage of great words, which is precisely what Gérard loves in it. Pericles’ connection on a spiritual level is an observation that shines a light on the ideals of Paris Belongs to Us, too, as its peripatetic characters roam the world and yet can’t escape each other. Juan’s elusive recording becomes both something of a holy grail and another wild goose, an emblem of the beauty of creation that becomes lost in the tangles of design. And yet, in a provisional fashion, the film also makes the case for creativity and the power of the intellect, of perspective, to define the world over all other influences—for good and ill.

The title’s allusion is opaque: who the “us” is could be the theoretical conspiracy, or the energetic young artists and students, or the people in general. Either way it’s contradicted, and yet also solidified, by the quote from Charles Peguy at the start, “Paris belongs to nobody.” It’s not just the city, either, but the marketplace of ideas and aesthetics that it’s always represented, as well as the crucial crossroads of political and philosophical movements. Everyone and no one owns life. And yet the narrative’s labyrinthine descent revolves around Philip’s conviction—a conviction that Terry shares—that a grand conspiracy is in place by a hidden society to turn the world into “one big, jolly, concentration camp.” The idea eventually proves to be something of an intellectual luxury that Philip has conjured and temporarily infects others with that offers the strange reassurance well familiar to us—the conspiracy theory, the notion that the truth is explicable but in a great, hidden whole.


That things really are going on—De Georges really is trying to wipe out people more talented than him, and Juan really was killed by Falangist agents—at first seems to substantiate, but finally corrodes such a notion, revealing a world teeming with threat and intrigue and, often, hopeless and irreducible confusion and shapelessness. “It’s easy to justify everything with a single idea, including his (Philip’s) inaction and cowardice. The nightmares were just alibis,” Terry offers in a final summary. That the alibi is powerful enough to stir Terry to commit murder reveals the danger in such solipsism. It’s a vital and powerful indictment of the retreat of the modern mind into the fringes of conspiracy theory and fragmented blocks rather than deal with problems at hand; people become implicated in destroying themselves and others. Gérard is both victim of plots and also of character—he’s tried to kill himself once before—and a situation, as Anne, who sets out to save him, finally rejects that role and precipitates crisis. All actions feed into every other action.


Although Rivette’s camera roams all over Paris, the city becomes more defined by the breathless little boxes most of the characters live in and streets at dawn that are deserted, zombie-movie-ready. The few expansive moments come thanks to Gérard, as when he and Anne converse within sight of Notre Dame, and later, when he triumphantly walks the theatre roof as he regards the city. Late in the film, when Anne receives a note from Gérard threatening suicide by midnight if she doesn’t call him and it’s already nearly 1 a.m., Anne settles in weary confusion by a window as the sound of the clashing TVs and radios in the apartment building congeals into a strange electronic menagerie. Along the way, there’s a scene incorporating the Tower of Babel sequence from Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis (many of Lang’s silent films, with their quivering air of sinister influence, are a definite touchstone for this movie), with all its allusive evocations of both grotesque capitalist-industrial presumption (and that film’s dictatorial elite) and its fear of apocalypse and disintegration as the punishment for its hubris. “The Wormwood star approaches,” warns one of Juan’s associates in one of the recurring moments of terrible pronouncement. But it’s not to be taken so seriously. “I love a femme fatale!” Gerard jests when Anne suggests Terry could get him killed, a moment that feels like a poke in the ribs to the whole enterprise.

As an aesthetic and conceptual statement, Paris Belongs to Us is strong, even triumphant. Its prognosticative wits are remarkable, all the more so for predicting and possibly influencing the subsequent concerns of directors like Antonioni (mysteries that go nowhere, a la L’Avventura, 1960, and the tortures of discerning truth from impression in a politicised context in Blow-Up, 1966), De Palma (the same hothouse paranoia infests Greetings, 1968, and much of his subsequent work), David Lynch (for whose career of rabbit-hole descents this could almost be draft thesis), and indeed a vast sector of the modern canon. As a dramatic work, it doesn’t quite work as a well. Rivette’s style is both more intimate and classical than the other New Wavers, with a carefully gliding camera that moves like an attentive listener; yet Rivette’s also less assured in eliciting performances and maintaining pace, and he slaps on a dissonantly corny score. His private mood seems detached from the efforts to conjure urgent, Lang-and-Hitchcock dread, finding more immediacy in watching birds skate across a dawn pond in the affecting final image, as if, like Gérard, he seeks something more humane, a way out of this cold scenario. Schneider is no Anna Karina, with little facility for illustrating her movement from blasé innocent to crumpled adult, and so her engagement with the other characters, especially Gérard, isn’t as crucial as it needs to be. For buffs, there’s a funny cameo by Godard as a café lecher.

Troubling, unsteady, and strange, Paris Belongs to Us is nonetheless a vital movie.


30th 05 - 2009 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: Greetings (1968)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Brian De Palma, writer, editor, and director; Robert de Niro, actor.


By Roderick Heath

Brian De Palma, one of the greatest stylists amongst contemporary American cinematic masters and one of the most misunderstood, made several short and unreleased independent films in the 1960s before finally seeing the light of day with the cult comedy Greetings, based in the common experiences and paranoias of three Greenwich Village hipsters. Although he and his actor friend Robert de Niro had collaborated on The Wedding Party nearly five years earlier, that film was not released until after Greetings, which became the work that announced the actor’s career. Greetings, with its rough, occasionally flaccid technique and amateur-night production values, can be hard to penetrate. Several sequences grind on in shapeless, improvisatory fashion, relying more on the skill of the actors to keep them sustained than on cinematic effect or decent writing. But De Palma’s sensibilities are certainly emergent, except that the guise is that of a satiric comedy, rather than a thriller or war movie, and there’s ingenuity and intelligence in Greetings, qualities that make it crucial to understanding De Palma’s later work.


Greetings is a series of related character vignettes, often announced with episodic title cards, involving three bohemian pals. Paul Shaw (Jonathan Warden), who walks into a bar and provokes a fight with the black patrons, and gets the crap knocked out of him. His motive? An unscientific attempt to make himself unfit for his upcoming army physical. His companions Jon Rubin (De Niro) and Lloyd Clay (Gerrit Graham) advise him on better tactics, suggesting he come on like he’s gay before Jon suggests he use his own tactic: posing as a genocidal right winger. Jon and Lloyd keep Paul awake for days, bombarding him with dirty stories, until the examination to make sure he’s in terrible condition. Paul fails his examination with flying colours and sets about trying to find himself a mate. He signs up with a computer dating service that sets him up with women variously insulting, bonkers, or larcenous, and mostly flat-out horny.

Lloyd is obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, and this constantly distracts him from pressing matters (at one point he dresses up a woman he’s made love to in a suit and tie to illustrate, for a rant at the camera, a hole in the Warren Report). Inspired by a conversation with an artist (Richard Hamilton), and having watched Blow-Up (1966) one too many times, he enlarges portions of photos from the assassination scene, perceiving shapeless blotches as rifle-wielding killers. In his job at a book store, he encounters a paranoid man who claims to be Earl Roberts (Peter Maloney), nephew of Lee Harvey Oswald’s boarding-house manager, now believing he is pursued by government agents.


Jon is drawn toward becoming a voyeur, and conceives a form of installation art he calls “peep art.” In the same bookstore, he spies upon a young woman named Linda (Ruth Alda) who shoplifts several volumes. When it seems she’s been caught, Jon dashes to the rescue, paying for what she’s taken. Linda’s so grateful she makes a date with Jon, only to be roped into his project, which is to capture a facsimile of a woman undressing on her own in an apartment. Distracted from a ’Nam vet’s (Richard Landis) account of his time in the service by a drop-dead beauty (Carol Patton) at a party, Jon shadows her about Central Park, but gets caught up talking with a pornographer (Allen Garfield) who pesters him until he buys a dirty movie. Finally, Jon’s own attempt to get out of the draft with a Nazi act is a flop, and he’s shipped off to Vietnam, where he’s still trying to get women to enact his fantasies.

Greetings offers mostly modish student-movie tricks, such as sped-up, silent-movie-like inserts where characters cavort in the streets or have sex, that are a long way from the perceptual and emotive orchestration of his later greater works. Only vaguely present is the emotional kinesis, balanced somewhere between ardour and sadism, that drives his most memorable stories and characters. There are occasional shows of impish technique (such as Paul’s third date, which also purports to be Garfield’s porn reel, “The Delivery Boy and the Bored Housewife”) that aren’t half as dynamic or poetic as those employed in Martin Scorsese’s equally rough-and-ready Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967). It sits apart from other early works of De Palma’s Movie Brat generation that take in similar settings and ideas. It’s not, like Who’s That Knocking a vivid work by a tyro trying to capture elusive psychological moods and ethnic specifics, or a flashy piece of attention-seeking pop, like Francis Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1967). Nor does it have the lyricism and scope of Arthur Penn’s draft-dodger epic, Alice’s Restaurant or the urgency of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969).


To be fair, Greetings’ budget was rock bottom, even lower than Penn’s and Coppola’s films. It is a counterculture document, but in a ground-level, distracted, self-critical fashion, attentive to the sights and sounds of its era, yet more caught up in analysing new habits in perceiving the world. It’s also a cinephile’s work that bears relation, in a way, to the films of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, with its three heroes as screwball foils interacting with a specific environment, surviving, and contending with the forces that assail them. Nonetheless, the film does have a specific political and social idea to communicate. It’s not found in scenes such as when Lloyd encounters a zealous radical magazine seller, or in the draft-dodging hijinks. Lloyd’s paranoia, Jon’s fetishist interest in realising voyeuristic fantasies, and the way these tendencies cross-pollinate in efforts to capture the obscured truth on film reveal the leitmotifs of De Palma’s career. It’s easy, for instance, to point to Lloyd’s constant citation of Blow-Up and his general obsession with assassination and political skulduggery and note that both inspired Blow Out (1981).


Several sequences, like the opening credits in which the camera follows Paul in his search for a place to get beaten up or when Lloyd is mysteriously assassinated and tumbles down the ramp of a modern edifice, evoke De Palma’s later propensity for using long, intricate interactions with physical environments to set his story in play. The most notable example is the bookstore scene, in which two different storylines and five different characters’ disparate actions are observed in relationship. Hanging out, absorbing, theorising, girl-watching—De Palma admitted his adolescent habit of frequenting art galleries trying to pick up girls inspired the epic opening of Dressed to Kill (1980) as much or more than Hitchcockian film theory—are the major activities of his heroes, and these reflexive pursuits also infuse De Palma’s work. Jon’s sighting of Linda between a rack of books both celebrates ordinary male ogling and fuses it with a fascination with her criminality and Jon’s morally ambiguous complicity (Jon uses the leverage he gets over Linda in her gratitude for saving her) that entwines a power game with the act of watching.


If in thrillers like Dressed to Kill, Body Double (1984), or Femme Fatale (2002), he found a way to explore the same elements in a way that entertained audiences, even at his most apparently frivolous, De Palma remained a political filmmaker. His occasional return to the material and feel of Greetings (even his most recent film, Redacted [2007], is, in many ways, a return to the guerrilla aesthetics and radical perspective of his debut) confirm this. In De Palma, things always have to be looked at twice, at the least because nothing is ever found at first glance. It’s a theory Lloyd, in a comic fashion, lives and dies by. When he has the photos of the grassy knoll enlarged, the girl who does this for him dismisses the images she perceives as white blotches, but he insists they contain meaning: his blackly amusing fate seems to confirm that he was right.

This motif of the witnessed, the unperceived, and the gulf between the two, correlates constantly to the done and the undone, the action and the failure to act. Hence Jon’s growing obsession with voyeurism both provides him with a way of watching, controlling, and using the world, and also confirms a curious impotence in dealing with that world. Early in the film, the men’s fixation causes them not to notice when the girl Paul has just made resentfully steals stuff from them and then walks out.


The film’s two most crucial sequences involve Jon’s fixations on women. In the first, he prods Linda into taking part in one of his “peep art” projects in a sequence shot entirely from the perspective of someone watching her undress on her bed through a window. The window becomes the movie screen, and the slow strip both fulfills and excoriates the erotic fantasy; the constant dialogue between Linda and Jon evokes a strangely fraught game between the watcher and watched, male and female, audience and act, as Linda and Jon’s differing agendas fuse to come to the desired result. In the end, Jon steps through the frame and joins Linda on the bed, shattering and consummating the dirty dream all at once.

That this has political relevance, and is not merely a semantic spin on movie watching, is revealed in the “episode” “Two Ways of Looking at Vietnam.” De Palma presents at several junctures in the film footage of people on television talking about the war. When he juxtaposes one such safely boxed, edited experience with the veteran’s bizarre anecdotes, De Palma employs a specific cinematic touch, as the camera representing listening Jon’s perspective, removes focus from the vet and fixes on the blonde roaming through the party: Jon will swiftly leave behind the vet and the party to rejoice in the sheer act of watching her. Jon’s taking his eye off the ball, as it were, renders him vulnerable, but his desire is all-eclipsing. This gets him no further than ending up with a dirty movie reel in hand.

In both halves of the episode, the omnipresent, grim fact of the war is obscured by modes of perception. Jon’s transformation into a filmmaker and a peeping tom confirms both his involvement and impotence in worldly affairs. He finally gains sexual satisfaction with the woman he asks to take a picture for a false passport (so he can escape the draft), but misses his chance to escape. When we last see him, he is a GI in the field being interviewed on TV, captured both by the box and the war on it, lost in his very own fantasy world, still trying to put it over, this time on Vietnamese farmer girls. In contrast, Lloyd’s obsession sees him constantly shattering the fourth wall and then literally annihilated by his fantasy. It’s finally a kind of solipsism that De Palma detects and unravels in these men, a solipsism as destructive as the variety LBJ reveals in his TV broadcasts.


The cast is uniformly effective, including the great Garfield, future “Bud T. Chud” Graham, and Warden, who, oddly enough, never made another film. But it’s De Niro who eventually made the splash. That De Niro plays the weird, but important Jon and not the lovelorn Paul or obsessive Lloyd, both pays tribute to his obvious talent and also seems to undercut his definite star quality and voluble capacities. It’s De Niro’s tautly self-contained quality that is rare and interesting; even when simply engaged in reading a book, he projects intelligence and character. Free of any Method twitchiness, he nevertheless anticipates his casting as Travis Bickle, an even more dissociated, obsessive, porn-fixated outsider and Vietnam vet than Jon—a reminder, indeed, that De Palma would continue the adventures of Jon as a returning, even more warped veteran in a sequel, Hi Mom! (1970), and would then work on developing Taxi Driver as a project.


1st 12 - 2008 | 12 comments »

Famous Firsts: Only Yesterday (1933)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Director: John M. Stahl
Debut film of: Margaret Sullavan, actress


By Marilyn Ferdinand

According to actress Louise Brooks, Margaret Sullavan remains “mysterious… like a voice singing in the snow.” While this description may itself seem a bit inscrutable, if you think about how snow refracts and muffles sound, then there certainly is something to this comparison. Margaret Sullavan was an actress who made only 16 films, almost all of them hard to find and view. She might be entirely forgotten today if not for her starring role in the only recognized classic she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Yet it wasn’t really the paucity of performances and the obscurity into which most of them fell that made Margaret Sullavan an actress who was hard to pin down. She had a presence that seemed to hold dark, tragic secrets, an old soul who seemed mature beyond her years, even in her screen debut. Indeed, Only Yesterday began a string of screen deaths to which Margaret Sullavan would bring her special brand of stoic poignancy.


The story begins on October 29, 1929—the day that marked the end of the Roaring 20s and the beginning of the Great Depression. Frantic traders milling at the New York Stock Exchange share their collective misery as their fortunes crumble around them. One dejected man moves as though bent by a strong wind; he is persuaded by an eager worker to climb up on his shoeshine stand. Before his shine is finished, the man rises, gives the fellow some money, goes into a nearby men’s room, and blows his brains out.


In the next scene, we see a gay couple under a shop sign, the slyly named Deux Freres (Two Brothers), catching a taxi to attend one of the nearly daily soirees held at the home of society doyenne Phyllis Emerson (Benita Hume). The stock market crash is the talk of the evening, but it doesn’t supplant the usual intrigues. Phyllis cozies up to her lover, who wants her to leave her husband Jim (John Boles); Phyllis would rather play games with Jim’s latest lover Letitia (Noel Francis), who has just arrived at the party and is flashing the “famous” pearls Jim has not so discreetly bestowed upon her. Phyllis admires the pearls and then tells Letitia to be sure to pay for them—a great line that leaves Letitia nonplussed.


Jim arrives home and puts off the guests who seek his financial help. The Emersons are wiped out, too, and Jim sneaks off to his study, where he prepares to end it all as well. He sits down at his desk, pulls a gun out of one of its drawers, lights a cigarette, and goes through his mail. One letter catches his eye, and he opens it. Inside is the story of a woman who knew Jim long ago. The film moves into full flashback as we follow the story told by the letter writer, Mary Lane (Sullavan).


The flashback takes us from the Emersons’ sophisticated New York party to a much more quaint affair—a ball given by a good Virginia family for soldiers about to muster out to fight in the First World War. Mary Lane, just 18, flirts outrageously with Captain James Stanton Emerson, flippantly remarking that she has been in love with him for years. When he asks her to dance, we see from her looks and the way she holds him that this flip remark is absolutely true. The pair leaves the ballroom and goes for a walk in the formal garden. They disappear under a leafy canopy; when they return, Jim is helping Mary refasten her sash. The party’s over, not only for the guests at the ball, but also for Jim. Mary is the last thing on his mind when he musters out a couple of days later. Soon, Mary learns she is pregnant and elects to move in with her suffragette Aunt Julia (Billie Burke) in New York to spare her family embarrassment. She eagerly awaits the end of the war, when Jim will return to her and little Jimmy, the son she bears in his absence.

The end of the war and return of the troops have all of New York out in the streets to welcome them home. Mary works through the crowds, trying to catch sight of Jim, and then running the gantlet of well wishers to reach him as he leaves the parade to join Phyllis and some friends. The series of screen caps below wordlessly tell the story as Sullavan embodies Mary’s quiet excitement, and even quieter disappointment and hurt, as Jim looks her square in the face and fails to recognize her. Once at home, she yields to her broken heart and dreams, then forthrightly faces the reality of her life now as an single mother with little hope of uniting with her baby’s father.





The director, continuing to use devices like the calendar to place the characters in time, shows Julia perusing a newspaper whose headline indicates that the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) has been passed. That makes the year 1919, only a few months after the troops returned following the 1918 Armistice, and in that time, Mary has made no attempt to contact Jim. That day, however, Mary tells Julia she intends to end her torment and tell Jim who she is. Too late. The newspaper serves a plot-related purpose as well—Aunt Julia shows Mary the Emersons’ wedding announcement in that same paper. (It would have been fitting to have another newspaper announce the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, because Mary becomes the epitome of the modern woman—an unwed mother supporting her child by becoming a success in business. Alas, the film’s greater interest in Mary’s private life counts as a missed opportunity, even though forward-thinking Julia and a suitor of Mary’s look at her unwed motherhood as something that “just happened.”)



The final meeting between Mary and Jim occurs again at a party—New Year’s Eve at the St. Regis Hotel. Mary and her date are out with Julia and her younger husband. Jim passes behind them and joins his party at a nearby table. Mary is happy and carefree until she notices Jim. He mistakes her stares for flirtation—it’s clear to the audience in this scene and the one that follows in which Jim and Mary take a taxi to his bachelor pad that Mary is very angry. Her every word is a veiled recrimination against a man too superficial and careless with the feelings of an 18 year old—a time when first love can mean everlasting love—to remember a night that meant the world to her. Again, Sullavan’s understated emotions simmering with indignation allow us to understand her as Jim never could have and make her obsessiveness through the years—a telegram every December 31 to Jim from “One Who Does Not Forget”—a bit easier to take.

This ability to act both text and subtext believably would serve Sullavan extremely well in The Shop Around the Corner, where her Miss Novak maintains a prickly, insulting demeanor with her coworker Mr. Kralik (James Stewart) while melting with genuine admiration and affection at the letters this same coworker—obviously a completely different man to her—sends her pseudononymously. However, in playing Miss Novak, it is Sullavan this time who is blind, who reacts to circumstances as they occur, just as Jim Emerson had. Yet, Sullavan’s ability to suggest emotion with the slightest of gestures—for example, the sight of her hand (shot from the rear of a bank of mailboxes) reaching into her mailbox, feeling around her cubbyhole thoroughly for an expected letter from “Dear Friend,” and then shrinking slightly and slowly sinking in disappointment to the bottom of the cubby—always allows audiences to identify with the woman beneath the prickly or stoic exterior.


Sullavan’s first performance is slightly mannered; even though she really was a Virginia belle, her giggly girlishness at the beginning of the film seems somewhat put on. Her deathbed scene in Only Yesterday is a bit of a wallowfest, but she’d soon learn to tame that tendency. In two other films of hers I’ve seen, The Mortal Storm (1940) and Cry Havoc (1943), she uses her emotional containment to embody bravery during wartime; she goes to her death in each of these films with the same clear-eyed realism tinged with emotional idealism with which she started her film career. Thus, remarkably, Sullavan’s screen persona seems pretty close to fully formed in Only Yesterday, elevating what could have been an ordinary melodrama (reproduced by Max Ophüls in his more sudsy 1946 film Letter from an Unknown Woman) to a memorable debut picture.

Dan Callahan provides an excellent review of Margaret Sullavan’s career in the August 2005 edition of Bright Lights Film Journal.



17th 11 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Famous Firsts: Dr. No (1962)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Director: Terence Young
Debut film of: James Bond, character


By Roderick Heath

Dr. No was more than just the first entry in a successful film series: it came at a point when a new type of pop culture was colonising the cinema screen. From Maurice Binder’s dazzling credits and John Barry and Orchestra’s spidery rendition of Monty Norman’s theme, through to the tightly choreographed action, the softcore Playboy-style posings of luscious females, and its hero’s trademarks and traits, whole movies became familiar, repetitive, even iconographic. Dr. No was pitched as a work of aggressively contemporary stylisation. It had been preceded by the Hammer horror films, which, like the Bond films, took stale genre yarns and glossed them with a fresh paint of sex, violence, and a deliberately gaudy style based in previously unfashionable forms, like comic books and serials.

It’s still easy to feel the sheer vibrant force that gripped imaginations right from Dr. No’s opening credits. After the famous gun barrel opening depicts Bond as a silhouette, both anonymous and iconic, Norman’s music and Binder’s visuals entwine in an audio-visual frenzy, the titles and background visuals dancing to the music, giving way to literal, rotoscoped dancers, and then to the “three blind mice” stalking their way through the streets of Kingston, pursued by their own theme song. The substance of the film is infused with a musical quality, and the narrative that follows leaves behind any sense of psychological or political substance for a tale that reinvents the term “melodrama.”

Dr%20No%20paperback.jpgWhen, in the early 1950s, former naval intelligence officer, Lt. Ian Fleming, began to write a fast-paced, pulpy, adventure novel, his chief ambition was to earn some extra dough to support his new wife, who subsequently referred to his scribblings as “Ian’s pornography.” That novel, Casino Royale (1953), was liberally adapted from some of his wartime experiences, and like the best of his subsequent series, it was a curious melding of tactile realism and sheer fantasy, the humdrum and the ludicrous. Fleming’s influences were patent: Bulldog Drummond, the prewar version of the wop-bashing gentleman-roughneck, with dashes of Richard Hannay and Philip Marlowe, some Somerset Maugham for the more serious inflections, and, in Dr. No, the sixth book in the series, a nod to Sax Rohmer, creator of überfiend Fu Manchu. If you watch wartime British films like Secret Mission (1942) and The Adventures of Tartu (1943), you can see the Bond formula was transferred from them virtually intact. Fleming’s books, then, with their winking character names and cheeky narrative quotes, were close to being pop art already, but they also had a quality of taciturn melancholy and disillusioned professionalism that writers like John Le Carré and Len Deighton would make the dominant keys to their spy yarns.

Fleming’s creation lived in the contemporary world, but he was looking back to the blood-and-thunder tropes of his youth, the ambitions of his manhood, and an ethic that began vanishing even as his species of male called itself the winners of World War II. Bond, his hero, considered his most precious possession to be his 1932 Bentley; he likewise held onto his prewar ideals whilst reaping certain benefits of the modern world, in which all that marriage and moral malarkey had become passé. In planning to adapt Fleming’s books for the screen, cunning producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, director Terence Young (something of a London swinger who found an avatar in the Bond character), and chief screenwriter Richard Maibaum (a Hollywood veteran), decided to throw out thorny politics and replaced SMERSH, the Soviet assassin’s bureau that provided villainy in most of the early novels, with SPECTRE, the terrorist group Fleming had created for the failed earlier film project that he turned into the much-litigated Thunderball (1961).


This team also set the series down the path toward becoming the elephantine, purely comic-book spectacles they’re generally known as. It’s possible they chose the Fu Manchu-inspired Dr. No as the first film precisely for its relative absurdity. In coming back to the Bond films after a long time, I’ve found that few hold up even as quick-paced fun. But the first few entries retained the plots and much of the grit of Fleming’s stories, and held some real dramatic integrity: the first half-dozen films have a roughly contiguous plot as Bond battles the forces of SPECTRE, concluding in the best of the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), which even pulls off the feat of having its hero married and then widowed tragically. Its relative failure and the bland impact of Connery replacement George Lazenby meant that from Diamonds Are Forever (1971) on, any dramatic layering in the series went out the window.


Dr. No is dated in many ways, and yet has aged better for its relative modesty and gamey rigour. It begins by going to great lengths to give its hero a suitably indelible introduction. British agents Strangways (Tim Moxon) and Mary (Dolores Keator), are assassinated in Kingston, Jamaica. Half a world away in London, in a splendid visualisation of a fantasy version of intelligence services teeming with trained specialists keeping watch on a complex world, MI6 operatives within the cover organisation of “Universal Exports” monitor radio signals from all over the world. When their agents in Kingston fail to report in, an official is sent to fetch James Bond, agent 007, from Le Cercle club, where he’s dueling at baccarat with sexy society dame Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). The sequence is artfully shot and edited so that Sylvia’s opponent is not revealed until he utters “Bond, James Bond,” lighting a cigarette and cocking a brow, his theme tune throbbing momentarily.


Connery is instantly impressive, and unique—polished and poised, and yet his dark Celtic brow and his semiconcealed Scots accent offer a whiff of the wild, of a man hunting, even in fashionable circumstances, for any existential thrill on offer. This introduction should serve as a reminder that Daniel Craig’s edition of Bond isn’t actually as far from Connery’s as Roger Moore’s fashion-brochure lounge lizard. Later, when Connery strips off his clothes and gets into action, it’s entirely believable that the fellow who plays at gentleman playboy is actually a creature capable of brute force and feral rage. His boss M (Bernard Lee, inimitably crusty) dispatches him to Jamaica to find out what’s happened to Strangways and Mary, and whether their disappearance has anything to do with the sabotaging of American space shots, suspected of being accomplished with high-powered radio beams directed from somewhere in the region.

Upon arrival, Bond finds allies in CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and Strangways’ islander helper Quarrel (John Kitzmuller). He also witnesses manifestations of a terrifying menace, as one assassin takes cyanide rather than be taken captive, and a girl who pretends to be a newspaper photographer would rather risk a broken arm than talk. One of Strangways’ chums, Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), a mineralogist, buried evidence of radioactivity on Crab Key, an island that is the strict private property of the mysterious part-Chinese Dr. No. When Strangeways discovered that evidence, Dent, as No’s agent, arranged Strangways’ killing and now is ordered by the omnipotent No to do the same to Bond. Bond survives and kills Dent, then travels to Crab Key with Quarrel to investigate the island. That’s when he meets Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the breathtaking naturalist’s daughter who strides out of the water singing a calypso tune.


Honey is still often voted the Bond girl to end all Bond girls (although personally I find Andress well outclassed by the likes of Diana Rigg and Eva Green, who can actually act). Lusciously formed and yet innocent, her virginity taken in rape, Honey later avenged herself on her assailant by sticking a black widow spider in his bed. It’s an interesting contrast (Connery’s expression whilst listening to her account is amusingly queasy) with No’s earlier attempt to kill Bond by putting a tarantula in his bed: both heroine and villain use the same method, but for widely divergent reasons. Orphaned by her father’s death at Dr. No’s hands, Honey makes her living poaching rare shells, but also accidentally draws the attention of No’s operatives. Soon Bond and Honey are trapped on the island, running from his guard and his “dragon”—actually a marsh buggy with a flame-thrower that roasts Quarrel—before they are captured and subjected to the compulsory educational seminar about the villain’s motives and plans. No is played by Joseph Wiseman, whose snake-eyed cunning and sibilant contempt for lesser mortals makes him the first and still one of the most impressive Bond villains, crushing objets d’art with his mechanical hands, running using a disturbingly monkeylike gait, and dismissing Bond as a “stupid policeman” for holding onto moral notions.

The final raw clash between Bond and No that ends near the boiling waters over an atomic pile, encapsulates a significant aspect of the series: No’s metal gauntlets are literal forms of the hand of brutal, technological power that the Bond villains always wield. No’s ultimately beaten by Bond’s eminently battered flesh because Bond can climb out and No can’t. For all his sophistication, Bond always represents the strength of the unreconstructed man. His civility is a skin he sheds easily. He eats, drinks, loves, and fights entirely for the right to do all those things where and when he likes, unlike his opponents, who always seem to be trying to supplant such a life with a world that reflects their own twisted egos. No’s idea of fun is to tie Honey up to be drowned.

Anxiety over the modern world’s shape, the simultaneous glamour and terror of it, lies at the heart of the early Bond films’ great success. Satires like the Austin Powers series poked fun at their tropes without really understanding them—the modish trappings of supermodernity (like the omnipresent collarless tunics and the villains’ chitinous-looking machines of destruction) encoded a fear of the future contrasted with Bond’s primal force and the classic gentility of M’s oak-paneled office.


Some early ideas, like his trysts with Sylvia constantly being interrupted when duty calls, were quickly abandoned in favour of his constant flirtation with Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) (“What gives?” “Me, given an ounce of encouragement.”); others were yet to be put in place, like the precredits sequences, and Q, the MI6 weapons expert, who here is still called by his proper sobriquet of Major Boothroyd and played not by Desmond Llewellyn, but rather Peter Burton.


Curiously for a Bond film, Dr. No is at its best when being severe and restrained, even quiet, as Bond moves about the Jamaican locales trying to parse what’s going on, and contending with assassination attempts in humid hotel rooms. A lengthy sequence that caps off the first half involves the treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), secretary of the Governor and one of Dent’s agents, who tries to lure him into two attempted assassinations. He beds Miss Taro anyway before packing her off to the police, and then settles down to wait for Dent, shooting him dispassionately with not one, but two lethally cold shots. Such stark amorality from a film hero was very new in 1962, but there’s nothing psychopathic about Bond. Instead, there’s a curiously intense emotional satisfaction Bond always derives from such achievements as screwing the woman who tries to set him up, and giving his opponent Dent a chance to turn the tables on him and then, knowing very well he had no chance, coldly executing him for being stupid. There’s a punch here that disappeared from the series before being partly revived by Timothy Dalton and then more fully by Daniel Craig, reminding me that most of all, Bond represents the desire to feel life and death in its extremes, employed for ethical causes but without ethical cares.

Dr. No’s action scenes are pretty ropy (the novel’s best scene, where No tests Bond by subjecting him to a gross experiment where he can try to escape through an agonising series of tests, is rushed and ineffectual here). Bond films that would be wall-to-wall, precision-oiled action scenes were still in the future. Nonetheless, Dr. No’s still a cracking good yarn.


6th 11 - 2008 | 1 comment »

Famous Firsts: Citizen Kane (1941)

Debut film of: Orson Welles, writer and director


By Roderick Heath

Note: This essay was composed for academic purposes, in commentary on the proposition by Laura Mulvey that “Citizen Kane explicitly invites us to figure out its puzzle but it also constantly frustrates that desire.”

Citizen Kane begins at the end—the death of its eponymous character uttering a word that becomes the object of retrospective investigation. The attempts to understand Charles Foster Kane and his life will be fractured, and Thompson, the journalist attempting to parse the meaning of his dying word, “Rosebud,” never achieves his objective. His failure reflects his realisation of an idea the film has laid out in great detail—that such words as news, truth, biography, history, and remembering, are infinitely flexible, influenced by perspective, time, character, and purpose. Whilst the audience is finally presented with a solution to the puzzle, it returns the arc in a complete reversal to the opening, still “a situation of total ambiguity,” as one of Welles canniest critics, Joseph McBride, put it in 1972.

Susan Alexander Kane’s love of arranging jigsaw puzzles presents the central metaphor—the story resembles such a puzzle. Pieces are disarranged, and one must place them together to construct the full picture. And yet there is not a sense of intellectual and emotional triumph over the unknown and confused. This fragmentation of the traditional holism of narrative is mediated not merely through linear, but also stylistic, displacement. The film evokes familiar genres, but renders them incomplete, warping traditional shape, thereby serving to make us ponder the purposes genres are put to and the traditions they are supposed to service. “The endurance of relatively stable genres is sometimes assumed to by symptomatic of institutionalised inertia, aesthetic stasis and a more general lack of desire for change,” as Negus and Pickering summed it up neatly in their 2004 volume Creativity, Communication and Cultural Value. Perhaps nowhere was this suspicion held to be more accurate than of classic Hollywood.

It can be broadly observed that the detective genre, to which the Rosebud search could belong, or the heroic-journalist genre, in which Thompson, Kane, and Leland could all be traditional characters, generally posit the idea that the truth will out. The clue will be found, crime unearthed. As Julian Symons described it in his landmark 1972 study of the detective genre, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, the shape of social and moral order will be reinforced for the pleasure of those “who have a stake in the permanence of the existing social system.” But in Kane, such certainties are conscientiously erased. Generic quotes in Kane both interrogate, and also utilise, the ideas encoded in these genres.


The film begins with the mood of a horror movie—Xanadu, a wonderland in the newsreel, but here a prematurely decaying castle fit for Dracula. Why the appropriation of gothic style? The gothic genre’s familiar dead castles and haunted mansions are traps for rancid memory, cultural detritus, and the devolution of the consciousness. We encounter all these things in this “monument to himself.” Xanadu and its trove of art and craft, its chasms of ego-cocooning space, are both godlike and oppressive. This is reminiscent of films with haunted house settings. Take the description in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Movie of Kubrick’s The Shining, probably the greatest modern example of the genre but highly reliant on its classic tropes, with its “twinning of opposites” for a “tortured ego” in such a “space trap”—exactly the same atmosphere Welles conjures for Xanadu. Likewise, Susan’s wraithlike appearance at the end of her opera tour renders her looking much like a vampire’s victim. Again, Kane borrows a generic motif, but there is no monster here, only a dying old man haunted by memory, undermining the motif.


Still, we never “meet” Charles Foster Kane. We encounter versions of him in biographies and anecdotes, observe his possessions, his dwelling place, signifying the absence of a being. In the newsreel, such men as Thatcher and the labour advocate describe him as both a communist and a fascist, presented as binary opposites in popular discourse. Kane is reinvented even in life according to the needs of others. His wealth, prestige, his sheer scale as an entity not only invite this, but seem to demand it; there is too much of Kane and his world to account in one version.

The dreamlike prologue is followed hard by its stylistic opposite, the News on the March newsreel, which serves vitally important functions. It lays out the agreed facts of Kane’s life, and the audience can access this information during the leaps in period and perspective that pepper the film. We know where each “piece” fits in. It also establishes a thematic schism. The stylisation of the prologue evokes the threat of an unspoken truth, which the newsreel editor, Ralston, senses. The gap between the expressionist dread of the prologue and News on the March seems the distance between artifice and documentation. But this distinction is already rendered hazy. News on the March is supposedly truth unadorned, but is characterised by melodramatic voiceovers, musical cues, and pat title cards. Aspects of Kane’s life are grouped together in the reel to create distinct dramatic acts, bestowing symmetry on Kane’s story, first evoking awe, mystery, exoticism (the tour of Xanadu), epic excitement (Kane’s rise, the expanse of his empire), then, decline and punishment for hubris (associating the collapse of his political career and marriage with his business decline, despite their unrelated causes). The film identifies the news as just another genre, with its own clichés, collusions, and reductions.


Ralston insists that Thompson cross the distance between journalism and art, to find the key to Kane’s personality, which will give life to this story they wish to conjure. News on the March exemplifies a process that Kane himself set in motion—the dramatisation of news and the manipulation and selective reading of facts. Kane’s propensity for inventing truth, as in whipping up fervour for the Spanish-American war, eventually meets its match as Boss Gettys and the newspapers impugn his private life, a distortion that becomes accepted fact. Kane is totally beaten by his own invention. News as narrative, then, is inextricable with mythology, especially political mythology. Kane invents villains—trust magnates, the potential murderer of a missing girl, the Spanish—to embody certain concepts: the betrayal of the working man, the vulnerability of femininity and the home, the manifest destiny of the United States. This could be described as exactly what genre does—create arcs of cause and effect, and manifestations of ideas, which will then be triumphant or repressed, depending on their nature. Thompson sets about his boss’s glibly conceived mission to deduce the meaning of Rosebud and thus give the newsreel a dramatic fullness through psychological insight. Thompson’s search, however, like the newsreel, skims around the edges of Kane’s life, probing friends, business partners, and his ex-wife in pressing closer to a kind of truth, but then coming up against an invisible barrier—the lack of a heart to the mystery.


The narrators of Kane may promise a sought-after veracity, but they, too, frame their accounts with slants of preconception. Each lends a kind of coherent shape and essential pitch to their experiences, whilst shutting out other interpretations. Susan, an innocent, perceives herself as the entrapped plaything of a dark prince, enclosed by seemingly arbitrary decisions of will. Hers is a gothic fairytale of girlhood. Leland, an intellectual and a drama critic to boot, assays his recollections as a cautionary tale, complete with observed themes and critical speeches (“That’s all he really wanted out of life, was love. That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it.”) extrapolated from Kane’s character and experience. Bernstein, who is never associated with any woman except for the passing illusion of perfect beauty decades in the past, is a nostalgic, a hero-worshipper. Susan is a victim. Bernstein is an idealiser. Leland is, as McBride called him, a “romantic … (who) feels and remembers all of the emotional extremes which the other characters are prone to remember only selectively.” And yet Leland has own blind spots.

David Thomson contended in 1996 that “it was Welles’ way later in life to say that, early on with Kane, they had played with a Rashomon-like idea—that of different versions of one central fact, leaving us uncertain of what happened. But they let go gradually, and it was replaced with the overall perspective of all the reports being voices in Kane’s head.” Be this as it may, though the flashbacks might then be called “accurate,” nonetheless, they are still shaped by perspective, by the egos and prejudices offered by the narrators. These people, like the news, select the relevant facts from any experience. There is the consistent theme of the things we miss in concentrating on our interests, actions and objects that are misinterpreted or unnoticed. Rosebud is the singular example of it, yet it is a motif throughout the film.

Leland only remembers Susan’s debut in terms of what happened to him. The actual performance, for him, is a throwaway joke, a sideshow of Kane’s egotism. Susan recalls the awfulness of performing to people, including the prominently contemptuous Leland, who despised her. In his own account, Leland is a moral hero; in Susan’s, he’s a self-satisfied boor. Susan cannot know the import of the letter Leland sends to Kane, seeing it only as a message from a loathsome man. It has context and meaning for us, but not to Susan. Her estranged viewpoint renders the delivery of the torn check and the Declaration of Principles anything but the crushing moral gesture Leland intended.


Likewise, Susan remembers the sad triumph of leaving Kane, where Raymond sees its aftermath. As with Leland’s letter, this detached sequence presents a fulfillment of other scenes, but removed from the direct flow of consequence. We intuit Kane’s destruction of Susan’s belongings as a condemnation of the futility of objects, and a desperate riposte for an answer to the accusation Susan had made: “You never give me anything I really care about.” His stumbling across the snow globe finally resolves the embarrassing spectacle of destruction because it reminds him of an object, a belonging, a time in life that had an actual, emotional value for him. This means nothing to Raymond, but everything to the protagonists.

The nature of the puzzle, then, changes for each person. Susan’s jigsaws present the journalists, with their love of simplification, and the audience, with our love of neat resolution, with a happy metaphor. Thompson comes to deny the importance of a missing piece, realising that only the whole of Kane’s life is its explanation, and only the man who lived it could articulate it. The film finally slips their perspective and offers an omniscient revelation, which, if David Thomson’s reading is correct, is Kane himself offering the revelation of Rosebud. In terms of technique, it’s a bald rejection of perspective, a final reflex towards the godlike narrators of classical fiction.


Is Rosebud merely the longing for a lost Eden of childhood with its manifold promise? The sled is not an unheralded revelation. It’s part of a signal legend of Kane’s, as we know from when the Congressman taunts Thatcher in the newsreel about being hit with it. It is not merely a sentimental symbol for Kane—it’s the instrument with which he attempts to ward off the fate that ultimately entraps him. Money enables his genius, and yet also cocoons him from becoming a proper, self-actualising human; he theorises, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Considering how Kane seemed as hemmed in by circumstance as he was a definer of them, and the way he perceives himself as perpetually embattled—“That’s when you’ve got to fight ’em,” he advises Susan when she wants to surrender—it’s easy to see Rosebud not merely as a longing for lost youth but also for the spirit that comes in battling adversity. This spirit has entirely ebbed by the time he signs control of his companies back over to Thatcher’s bank, a scene of his utter defeat in his war with the monolithic world of money and purposeless profit Thatcher ushered him into so many years earlier. The fact that Rosebud still has multiple meanings as a symbol is once again a denial of simple resolution, part of what McBride called the “constant ironic undercutting of the audience’s search for a solution.”


Such meditations invest the film’s “attack on the acquisitive society” (as Welles described it for Cahiers du Cinema in 1966) with force beyond simple political morality. It’s an enquiry into the degree to which any human is shaped by circumstance, and left unshaped, into free will itself. The discovery of Rosebud intensifies the patterns we have observed. We consider other missing pieces. What impact did the death of Kane’s son, along with Emily, in a car crash, have upon him? This presents a gaping hole in the narrative, a private matter only Kane could speak of.

The ability to tell and shape a story is finally associated with power over the perception and thinking of others. Kane’s and the newsreel company’s manipulations are unified with notions of political might, wealth, and influence. Equally, the fragmentation of story, the self-conscious assault on the totality of narrative and the recognition of perspective, is an intrinsically subversive act by virtue of denying power to the shapers, giving power instead to the receptive interpreter. If the completeness of generic narrative reinforces certain social and moral precepts, the rejection of such completeness, whilst still embracing the idea that the metaphors of genre have value, critiques the shape they bestow on reality.


The revelation of Rosebud is, then, a final reclamation of Kane’s story for Kane himself, as well as a conduit for our sympathy, if not our understanding. Rosebud reminds us that for all the tales told about him, his innermost self was only communicated to others in enigmatic flashes. From Thatcher’s recollection of “I always gagged on that silver spoon,” to “Rosebud” itself, his mind was his last domain, unknown and unknowable to others. This is the true impact of the refrain of the “No Trespassing” sign; the mysteries of Xanadu and Rosebud have been supplanted by the impossibility of knowing a man’s inner life, a realm beyond the reach of the power of others, to steal from and reshape.


5th 09 - 2008 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: La Maschera del Demonio (Black Sunday, 1960)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Mario Bava, director


By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava, ace cinematographer, had filled in as director on his mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), the film many horror genre scholars see as the first of a nascent explosion in the genre’s popularity that barely receded until the mid 1980s. Bava was the son of a sculptor and film effects pioneer Eugenio Bava, and had wanted to be a painter himself. But he, too, moved into movies and became a respected director of photography, working for the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. He had also made some short documentaries in the ’40s. The low budgets and strict shooting schedules of Italian genre film often overwhelmed directors and crews, and Bava had proven himself able at picking up the pieces. He had done so on I Vampiri, when Freda, frustrated, had walked off the set, forcing Bava to finish the film in two days. Bava had also contributed to several films as second-unit or fill-in director. In 1960, he finally made his first lone, credited foray into directing at the age of 46, La Maschera del Demonio.


Some horror critics feel La Maschera del Demonio is Bava’s best film. It certainly exemplified a richness of style nigh untouched at the time by other genre filmmakers, pulsing with inventive cinema and making an immediate impact. In what was becoming common practice, foreign actors were imported to sell Italian genre films overseas. For horror films whose makers were attempting to pass them off as Hammer product, British actors, rather than Americans like Steve Reeves, were hired. For his debut, Bava picked up John Richardson, whose greatest claim to fame would be to act alongside Raquel Welch in One Million B.C. (1967), and a young actress whose appearances thus far had been restricted to four rather small roles in her native land—Barbara Steele.


The story is loosely based on a Nokolai Gogol short story, “The Vij,” and Gogol’s work itself was adapted distantly from folk tales collected by early Christian scholar Saint John Cassian. The startling opening is worth noting for confronting violence. Around this time, horror films were becoming vehicles for a fresh, increasingly manifest social and historical cynicism, and were exploiting looser censorship with newly charged depictions of gore that anticipated the interests of the 1960s, when more revolutionary fantasies were taking grip. There is quite a gulf between the relatively distant fantasies of German Expressionism and Universal horror and that more direct impulses toward attacking social order in horror at the time. Terence Fisher had begun actively eviscerating historical iniquity in his Hammer films, Alfred Hitchcock tried to capture the shocking texture of sudden violence and incipient madness in Psycho, Michael Powell had meditated on the relationship between voyeurism and brutality with Peeping Tom (1960), and Georges Franju had made his explicitly antipatriarchal parable Eyes Without a Face (1959). To this Bava now added a direct approach to historical misogyny and warped religious concepts of femininity and virtue, subjects rarely tackled before except by Carl Dreyer, one of intelligent horror’s strongest influences, in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and Day of Wrath (1943).


Bava begins at his most provocative, with a spectacle of Inquisition in old Moldavia. An accused witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Steele), and her brother (a detail obscured in the English-dubbed version), lover, and consort in evil, Javutich (Arturo Dominici), having been captured and condemned by soldiers and priests, are subjected to gruesome punishment. Javutich is already dead. Their other brother, Gryabi, acts as Grand Inquisitor, bringing this relentless annihilation upon them. Asa begs for Satan’s aid to return from the grave and punish her tormenters, which include her own father. She is, in short order, branded, and has a “devil’s mask”—a grotesquely spiked object designed to eternally identify her as a Satanic being— pounded onto her face with a sledgehammer. The sickening force of the blow and the blood that flows from her face is gross enough, but Bava makes sure we hear her moans that tell us she survives this torture. Following this, she is to burn at the stake, but a furious wind and rainstorm prevent it. Instead, she is interred in her family crypt under a repressing cross, and Javutich is buried.


Two centuries later, figures of modern, masculine rationality, embodied by Doctor Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant, Andrei Gorobek (Richardson), travel the region. Their carriage throws a wheel, and whilst their jittery driver fixes it, they venture into a nearby ruin of a church. Vaguely aware of Asa’s legend, they discover her sarcophagus and can’t resist opening it, tugging off the devil’s mask to reveal her face, riddled with holes and with the eyes rotten away but still surprisingly intact. Kruvajan cuts himself, of course, and blood spills on Asa’s corpse. As they leave the church, they are startled to happen upon a young woman with a mastiff blocking their exit, the very image of the witch. But this is her descendent Katia Vaida (Steele again), who makes eye contact with the handsome and young Richardson, and bids them go in peace. But peace is short-lived—Asa has been revived by the blood. She summons Javutich from his grave, which he digs his way out of, and he sets about aiding Asa’s vengeance on her family, including Katia; her father, Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani); and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri).

La Maschera was a prestige effort for Galatea Studios, which gave Bava an uncommonly long six weeks to make the film. Bava used the time well, setting up some impressively complex and innovative camerawork. Despite this, it has a number of the regulation cheesy moments of horror films of the time, notably a bat the size of Rodan that attacks Kruvajin. AIP bought the film and hacked it about considerably, dubbing a lousy Les Baxter score over it and changing the title to Black Sunday. Nonetheless, they were paid off with a big hit. The film became an immediate template to steal from, so that works like Freda’s L’Orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock, Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum, John Moxey’s City of the Dead, and others filched its plot and imagery to the point where it looks clichéd now.


The shoot was beset with script difficulties that Bava doesn’t entirely paper over. But like Hitchcock, Buñuel, and Lang before him, and Argento and De Palma after him, Bava was the kind of cinematic shaman whose belief in the power of images subverted dramatic standards. Scenes in La Maschera dazzle the eye and imagination; Katia, framed by the shattered doorway of the church, holding two dogs on leashes; Javutich slowly breaking his way out of his tomb and lumbering out into the night; the nocturnal progress of the Vajdas’ coach, appropriated by Javutich, making its ghostly passage through the night fog; the gently gliding camera that observes the Vajda family in their castle, a Byzantine environment of great carvings and paintings; Asa, partly revived, calling for Kruvajin to become her lover and the middle-aged intellectual instantly enslaved; Prince Vajda discovered gnarled and masticated; Asa sucking out Katia’s lifeforce to rejuvenate herself.


It’s wonderful to watch Bava save the genre from the mercenary insipidness that had, apart from rare exceptions, afflicted the style of horror films for two decades after the dizzying stylistic heights of films like Nosferatu, Bride of Frankenstein, and Vampyr. Bava enters the gothic realm wholeheartedly, employing some newer, sophisticated camera techniques, like slow motion, which had barely, if ever, been used before by genre directors. He also employs some devilishly clever, exceedingly simple special effects, like the slowing regrowing eyes that fill Asa’s sockets, and the infrared make-up effect used when Asa leeches off Katia. Maschera also leapt wholeheartedly into another, perhaps ultimately less salutary, trend, towards strong violence and raw corporeal effect. Asa’s branding and masking, Vajda’s masticated corpse, and Kruvajin’s scorched face all represent the new frontier for gore in the genre. Much of this had to be edited out of the AIP cut, and the film was refused a certificate altogether in Britain, where it was not released uncut until 1992.


With his tales of rampant killers driven beyond all reason to wipe out everyone who taunts their illusory desires, like Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1973), Bava probably did more than any other horror director other than Hitchcock to invent a modern genre; La Maschera, with its Gothic style and themes, might seem backwards-looking by comparison to some of his later work. Bava also had gifts that invited a larger stage than he ever achieved. But Bava was born to make horror films, not merely because of his talent at creating pitch-perfect mise en scène, but because of his insistent interest in the notion of repressed feelings, passions, and ideas rudely returning to enfold and ensnare the present. Such a notion is, indeed, fundamental to the genre. But perhaps no other filmmaker maintained such a relentless interest in expressing the idea, especially through incestuous families, fuelling the narratives of this film, Operazione Paura (1966), Lisa i en Diavoli (1972), and Shock! (1977). Sexual passion, particularly, keeps resurging in warped ways; condemned in an act of patriarchal repression; Asa is a raw, seething body of sexuality that refuses to die, determined to ensnare all who approach her, and to steal the flesh of the virginal Katia. The image of Asa, lying on her bier, face pocked with unholy holes, writhing like a lustful leech, her fingers clawing and flexing with rapacious need, seducing Kruvajin, isn’t quickly forgotten.


Steele is an incalculable asset. Her perverse beauty, with her ability to project gradations in intensely weird emotions, from virginal insensibility to insatiable cruelty to rampant madness, instantly became emblematic of the genre—and made her verboten for mainstream cinema. Even Fellini could only manage to cast her as a kooky beatnik in (1963). Steele was a cunning actress and a hipster with a feminist bent. As such she was entirely hip to Bava’s approach, and would later express cutting opinions on the degeneration of the genre into misogynistic slasher films. She expertly presents distinct characterizations of innocent, doe-like Katia and the powerfully perverse Asa. She is the centre of the film, far more than the heroes Andrei and Constantine, who, as is often the case in Bava, are present as a requirement, but are so wooden and conventional they practically disappear. If there’s a disappointment to La Maschera, it’s that it ends too conventionally. Asa, unlike a lot of subsequent movie monsters, is cool and interesting enough to win.



29th 08 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Famous Firsts: THX 1138 (1971)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: George Lucas, writer-director

By Roderick Heath

It’s impossible to talk about George Lucas’ career without doing it in terms of Star Wars. Perhaps it’s fair enough, considering that four of the six films he has directed have been in that series. Even at his least—that would be Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999)—with his limitations on display, Lucas is a natural-born filmmaker, skilled at filling the silver screen with detail, composing and editing his shots with fluidic skill and pictorial intelligence. Lucas achieved the feat of surviving, when the vagaries of cinematic fate crushed his producer, collaborator, and friend Francis Coppola’s hopes to define a new independence in Hollywood. Coppola’s then-new Zoetrope Studios produced THX 1138, adapted from Lucas’ film school short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138-4EB. Peeking under the film’s stringent, conceptual façade, Lucas’ preoccupations come into focus, preoccupations that also fed the nostalgic comedy of American Graffiti and the high-flying fantasy of the Star Wars films. THX 1138 is a tale of attempting to escape a world of strangling conformity and seemingly arbitrary rules (and rule) with verve and humanity. THX, the kids of Graffiti, Anakin, and Luke Skywalker—all attempt to blast apart the numbing trial of their lives in Nowheresville armed with fast machines and romantic notions that soon melt in the light of day. How well they survive then depends on their essential characters.


THX 1138 (Robert Duvall, suitably, intensively dead pan) is a member of a future civilization that has retreated underground. Children are laboratory-grown, and people have been reduced as much as possible to abstract entities. They’re drugged to suppress emotion, allowed to cohabit but prohibited from sexual activity. Hordes of technicians supervise everyone and each other. They’re kept still more numb with media, reduced to the barest of provocations. TV provides either terrible sitcoms (“That was very funny,” THX states at the punchline of a nonexistent joke), or social lectures, or forms of pornography, both violent (one show consists of one of the city’s robotic policemen beating up a man) and sexual (a dancer who flickers whilst THX is worked on by a masturbation machine). Religion provides confessional sessions in a phone booth, with an image of a generic holy man and a recorded voice; priests don’t let anyone into their tabernacles. The workplace regularly sees accidents that wipe out hundreds of disposable employees.


Like most dystopias, it’s actually a particularly scurrilous version of the era it was made in, whilst owing something to Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick. The prologue presents clips from an old Buck Rogers serial, an ironic counterpoint to this vision, but also an affirmation of its themes. Like Buck, THX is an ordinary man who beats his enemies by utilizing his fundamental, ordinary human gifts of bravery, verve, and wit. There is no cabal of ruling elite, à la Orwell, with knowledge and interests at odds with the suppressed populace. It’s not a theocracy, fascist, or socialist state. It’s all those things, with catchphrases of such diverse authorities, like “the masses,” and “religious matters,” jumbled into a mélange of substance-free significance. THX is a technician who works with dangerous nuclear materials, and it’s impossible for him to perform without nerve-deadening drugs. But his assigned wife, LUH (Maggie McOmie), tampers with their pills, prodded by suppressed, illegal maternal urges. She and THX are awakened to a terrifying, daunting new life. THX is beset by violent withdrawal symptoms, but is soon suddenly alive to LUH’s body, sex, and feeling. Not just love, but the ambiguity of love, as LUH wonders whether they were properly mated by the computers. It’s amazing, but, as THX snaps, “It can’t go on!”


They are observed by computer programmer SEN (Donald Pleasance), who attempts to intervene in their lives, promising to shield them if he can convince THX to cohabit with him. SEN is searching for a kindred soul who, like him, bends the rules. Whilst at his job, an arrest warrant goes out for THX, and he is “mind-locked” at his work station; this almost causes a nuclear disaster, which is only averted once he’s released and can save the day. He is swiftly tried for violating morals and drug-use laws, and sent, along with LUH and SEN, to a vast white void of a prison. When THX and LUH react to this strange, oddly free environment by having sex, officers hurriedly race in to separate them. LUH is later executed. THX is only spared from execution because of his technical skills, and is left with SEN and other long-term, intelligent prisoners. In a note that satirizes the divide between younger, lifestyle-oriented, counterculture folk and older, goal-oriented radicals, SEN wants to be effective in his resistance, and rejects the notion of intellectual immigration. “When posterity judges our actions here it will perhaps see us not as unwilling prisoners, but as men who, for whatever reason, prefer to remain as noncontributing individuals on the edge of society,” SEN formulates to the other prisoners, and warns, “This must not happen!”


THX doesn’t give a damn. He stalks off into the great white to find a way out, SEN trailing him pathetically. They come across the wandering SRT (Don Pedro Colley), who claims to be a hologram who got bored with his program and escaped into the real world, and he shows them the way out of the prison. Escaping into a throng of pedestrians, SEN is separated from THX and SRT, and panics at the thought of freedom. “I can’t start again. I can’t change,” he confesses, and allows himself to be arrested. THX and SRT brave their way into a transport hub and steal police cars. SRT crashes, but THX hits the road.

Lucas is fascinated by the notion of the ghost in the machine—in a literal fashion, the degree to which fundamental human, sentient characteristics can interact with the technological, and the way they clash. “He’s more machine now than man,” Obi-Wan Kenobi once murmurs in considering Darth Vader, and the crux of the series, as in THX, is the notion that a spark of human spirit will finally overthrow such technocratic usurpation. The crucial moment of this film comes when THX escapes. He stops his car on the threshold of the city. Duvall’s face subtly registers both his fear of the unknown he’s diving into, and his sad realization that his rebel companions SEN, LUH, and SRT won’t be following. He is vitally alone in his confrontation with existence. This is, at last, being human, and he feels it.


Despite the scifi trappings, THX 1138 has an interior, alienated texture pitched to echo a counterculture atmosphere; it feels like an illustration of a Bob Dylan lyric, like “Visions of Johanna,” or a Borgesian labyrinth tale, with its haiku-spare vignettes and images, and echoes of vast cultural arguments going around in circles. This balances some overt satire and whimsy. As Peter Watkins did in his masterful Punishment Park (1970)—an entirely different spin on a similar parable—Lucas exploits the suspiciously fascistic look of contemporaneous Los Angeles motorcycle cops, styling his robot guardians of the city after them. Yet the policebots are the film’s fount of humor, as they engage in idiotic banter and find themselves easily outpaced by a man without the behavioral restraints they’re used to. In the end, they’re reduced to pleading with THX to come back because they’ve exceeded their allotted pursuit budget.

The Star Wars films are pictorial, illustrative, narrative-driven, whereas THX 1138 is often near-abstract, but both are built from an enveloping mise-en-scène. Lucas cowrote the screenplay with buddy and all-around film wizard Walter Murch, who aided Lucas in creating the film’s suffocating sound textures, an eternal cacophony of blips, beeps, sirens, advertisements, recording voices, droning air conditioning, and a thousand other contributors to subterranean atmosphere. Lucas’ visuals are often fractured, shot through layers of media like video surveillance equipment. The film condenses gradually into a dense blanket of sensory input. This is THX’s world, where private feeling and experience have been reduced to the point where even those who rebel have barely any idea of how they should act or what they should do.


THX 1138 also owes a debt to Kubrick for its thematic glaze of estrangement through technology and the struggle to overcome it. Visually, however, it owes little to anybody, and images from it haunt the imagination afterwards: Maggie McOmie’s shaven head and haunted face; the vast hordes of likewise bald drones; naked THX circled by the policebots with cattle prods, trying to defend himself and his mate; the dribbling philosophical argument in an endless sea of white; the sudden thrill of movement as THX drives to freedom. Lucas is a savant at home purveying the image rather than the spoken word. His most expressive moments are found in image. The very last image of THX 1138, where newly reborn Man rises to the surface underneath a gigantic setting sun, is bound with the other, most nakedly emotional shot in his oeuvre, where Luke Skywalker stares in yearning at the twin suns of Tatooine. Yet it also echoes the finale of American Graffiti, with the car crash in the early morning light suggesting an end to illusions and the brief window of the thrill of the run—from here on is only survival.

It’s easy to call THX 1138 a serious film, and the Star Wars films play, but they’re built from the same nuts and bolts of parable. Star Wars was bent on being accessible and thrilling, where THX 1138 is allusive and mysterious. If THX 1138 is ragged in places, it’s also one of the best science fiction films of its time. Its influence is undeniable. Scifi dystopias arrived by the bushel in its wake, but the likes of Soylent Green (1971), Logan’s Run (1974), and Rollerball (1975) lacked its rigor of style and mise-en-scène, and I doubt Mad Max (1979), Blade Runner (1981), or The Matrix (1999) would have happened without its example. Lucas occasionally talks about returning to experimental projects like this. I doubt he will. And it’s a shame.



23rd 07 - 2008 | no comment »

Famous Firsts: The Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Monte Hellman, director


By Roderick Heath

It’s harder to judge the quality of a directorial debut when that debut is not sponsored by a fully functional, well-financed, major studio or, indeed a more modern film with access to cheap, yet sophisticated technology that can make even a shoestring production look good. The Beast from Haunted Cave is a fine example of a genre that is long gone—the ultra-low-budget drive-in movie—a category that runs the gamut from startling works of invention like Night of the Living Dead (1968) to the oeuvre of Edward D. Wood. Beast was made under the aegis of Roger and Gene Corman and AIP, the only people to turn such fodder into a minor cultural phenomenon.

beastmonte.jpgMonte Hellman is a shadowy legend of American New Wave cinema, joining such rare figures as his mentor Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, and John Waters as true mavericks of Hollywood. Unlike Corman, he didn’t stick to specializing in B-movies when his efforts to break out of the ghetto proved disillusioning; unlike Waters, he never made himself agreeable enough for a mainstream breakthrough. With his near-legendary pair of cheap, but poetic, westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967), and his barely-screened interior dramas, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974), one might have expected Hellman to burgeon into a Malick or Coppola. His vision, however, ultimately was too esoteric, and his only real achievement of note in the 30 years since has been producing a very famous first—Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). It’s worth noting that Hellman might have been drawn to that project because it, like his distant debut, centered on the robbery getaway by a group of hardened, but human criminals.

The Beast from Haunted Cave is easy to laugh at. It’s cheap, tacky, badly shot, with lousy sound, and features what looks like a cobweb-strewn pile of cabbages as a monster. It was recycled out of Corman’s own Naked Paradise (1956) and itself spun into Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). It’s also an oddly gripping and inventive little film that doesn’t so much show how far you can go with a small budget— perhaps Val Lewton’s films and Night of the Living Dead are better examples of that—but of how a solid script and a neat idea promise a film that, with a little more cash and love, could have been pretty good, and offers strong hints of a directing intelligence.


Beast begins in a ski resort in the Black Hills outside of Deadwood, South Dakota. Alex (Frank Wolff), Marty (Richard Sinatra, Frank’s cousin), Byron (Wally Campo)—the thieves posing as Chicago businessmen—and Alex’s gangster moll Gypsy Boulet (Sheila Carol) are planning a robbery of gold extracted from a local mine. Their plan is to set explosive charges in the mine, causing a cave-in that will draw off attention whilst they raid the gold storage. They then plan to take off cross-country, posing as recreational skiers, to hole up in a mountain cabin. To this end, they’ve hired local ski instructor Gil (Michael Forest) and rented his own cabin.

Marty, a would-be hipster (“Is knitting your scene?”) and ladies’ man, sweet-talks Gil’s sister (Kay Jennings) and barmaid Natalie (Linné Ahlstrand, Playboy’s Miss July 1958). He and Natalie sneak off together and, under the guise of sating his curiosity over the mine, Marty plants the explosives. But they are attacked by a mysterious spidery beast (played by Chris Robinson, who also built the monster suit and plays a barman), newly hatched from an egg and apparently disturbed from millennia of gestation by the miners. It snatches Natalie away, and Marty returns breathless and panicked to his confederates. His half-coherent explanations are dismissed by the relentlessly pragmatic Alex. The next day, a mine worker discovers a strange cobwebby material in the shaft just before he’s blown up by the charge. The thieves do their job whilst Gypsy keeps Gil distracted, and then depart on their trek; occasional glimpses of the beast’s hairy tentacles show that it is following them.

Beast was penned by Charles B. Griffith, who was also responsible for the clever screenplays of Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960), films that gained credible attention for Corman. Griffith’s script is surprisingly strong, especially in the characterizations and dialogue. It combines elements of The Thing from Another World (1951) and Key Largo (1948), and predicts Alien (1979), which may even have been influenced by it. The main dramatic conflict in Beast centers around two self-contained males—Gil and Alex—competing over Gypsy, which, curiously, anticipates the central pas-de-trois of Two-Lane Blacktop, in which James Taylor’s Driver and Warren Oates’ GTO compete for the admiration of The Girl (Laurie Bird). Wolff’s Alex even somewhat resembles Oates’ character; gruff, antisocial, mustachioed, prone to hiding behind dark glasses and affecting a vaguely existential hipster cynicism slightly at odds with his air of the middle-aged lay-about. The difference is that Alex is definitely a villain, a self-congratulatory winner in a Darwinian world, who plans to knock off Gil at his first opportunity and take off with the loot to Canada.


Meanwhile, the drunken, forlorn Gypsy is desperately attracted to the rugged mountain dweller, and Marty, believing the monster remembers him and is stalking them to ensure their destruction, keeps an eye out for the beast. One night, he is horrified to stumble upon the monster guarding the cocooned, still semiconscious body of Natalie. Later, he discovers the entrance to a cave where the beast’s tracks lead. The monster attacks Marty, and then drags off Gil’s housekeeper Little Dove (unidentified actress), who has crush on Byron. Byron follows to snatch back Little Dove, but he is soon caught and cocooned alongside her, and the two have to watch Natalie’s blood being sucked out. When the beast tries to do the same to Byron, Little Dove tries to stab it, which provokes it to kill her. Gil, warned of his charges’ deadly intentions by Gypsy, has already made a break for the countryside. An oncoming storm forces Gil and Gypsy to shelter in the cave. Marty insists on heading there with Alex to get the beast, packing rifles and flare pistols. Interrupting the beast’s attempts to eat Gil and Gypsy, Alex is chomped and Marty mortally wounded, but he fires the flares into the creature, setting it ablaze, before expiring, leaving Gil and Gypsy as the solitary survivors.


Despite the ratty production, Hellman’s sense of film grammar and his touch with actors, especially Wolff, Sinatra, and Carol, are well in advance of the average director on Poverty Row. He successfully draws out intelligence from Griffith’s script—in Alex’s übermensch rants, Gil’s meditations on the superiority of his mountain life over city life, and Gypsy’s teary confession of how she got involved with Alex and why she can’t get away. It’s a pity then he can’t really generate any dramatic intensity for the situation, and the film feels awfully padded at a scant 75 minutes. The effect of tacking on a monster yarn to a dully plotted gangster melodrama doesn’t exactly make for high tension, despite Hellman’s and Griffith’s attempts to solidify the drama. The film only achieves eeriness in a couple of places—when Marty finds Natalie’s cocooned body and the death throes of Byron and Little Dove—and builds to a climax during the battle with the perambulating spinach monster, where Hellman compensates a little with some nifty editing and lighting. His gift for drawing a sense of healthy atmosphere out of location shooting, which was to serve him well in better films, makes the best of the snowy terrain and stony caves where the action takes place.

A film like Beast is a borderline case, rudely built as a cinematic seat warmer for other films, some better, some worse. Yet it displays glimmerings of a quality that money can’t always buy and the lack of it can’t always obscure, standing in contrast to the utterly mercenary banalities of, say, Friday the 13th. Despite having nothing to work with, Hellman produces something.


14th 07 - 2008 | no comment »

Famous Firsts: The Verdict (1946)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Don Siegel, director


By Roderick Heath

A tale of a vigilante policeman that begins with the peal of a church bell—this could describe Dirty Harry (1971), the biggest hit of Don Siegel’s career. And yet it also describes The Verdict, Siegel’s directorial gambit of 25 years earlier.

Siegel had been for many years the top editor at Warner Bros, contributing his superb montages to films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Across the Pacific (1942). As Siegel put it: “I actually shot more footage for Warner Brothers than any of their highly touted directors, but when I went to Jack Warner and said I wanted to be a director…He said ‘Look, I can get directors a dime a dozen. But who am I going to get to do the action sequences, the inserts, and the montages?’ So I said, ‘Fine, pay me what you pay the directors, and I’ll carry on doing that stuff for you.’”

After a couple of shorts and a lot of patience, he finally got to helm a vehicle for one of Hollywood’s strangest, and yet most entertaining, double acts: Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who had proven their star worth without Humphrey Bogart in two terrific films, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and Three Strangers (1946). The Verdict is Victorian era, and right from the brilliant opening shot where Siegel’s camera swoops in on the tower where the bell tolls in Newgate Prison’s chapel tower for a condemned man on a fog-wreathed night, it’s easy to spot his talent. As well as establishing Siegel’s visual fondness for vertiginous heights and angles, the shot also anticipates one in Dirty Harry in which Siegel’s camera swoops upwards dizzyingly from Harry Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) torture of Scorpio (Andy Robinson) in the centre of a football field; both shots entwine the sometimes cruel and salutary nature of a thirst for justice with godlike perspective.

The condemned man here is Harris, convicted for the murder of social scion Hannah Kendall. The man who convicted him, Supt. George Grodman (Greenstreet), meditates on the ironies of a profession where success means taking a man’s life: “I have no personal feelings. We are only instruments of justice, like the court that condemns.” But Grodman is in for a nasty shock. Called in by his superior (Holmes Herbert) at Scotland Yard, Grodman learns from his chief rival—the ambitious, supercilious Supt. Buckley (George Coulouris)—that he has proven Harris’ innocence. Scandal erupts and tars the Yard’s competence, and Grodman is forced to retire. The case haunts him, not just because of Harris’ fate, but also because the murder victim’s nephew, Arthur Kendall (Morton Lowry), is his next-door neighbor and friend. Grodman sets out to write an account of his career.

Grodman’s best friend, artist and bon vivant Victor Emmric (Lorre), attempts to cheer him up by throwing him a birthday party, inviting Kendall and another next-door neighbor, liberal MP Clive Russell (Paul Cavanaugh). The pairing of Kendall and Russell is disastrous. Russell detests Kendall who, as a mine owner, exploits and degrades the men who are Russell’s constituents. Russell threatens to silence him once and for all when Kendall promises to pressure him with the identity of his secret mistress. Kendall, not a popular man this night, also argues with his girlfriend, singer Lottie Rawson (Joan Lorring), before settling down to bed. The next day, Kendall doesn’t answer the knock at his door by his batty, smitten landlady, Mrs. Benson (Rosalind Ivan), and she runs next door to fetch Grodman. He busts through Kendall’s door, and warns Mrs. Benson not to look…


It is assumed that whoever killed the aunt returned for the nephew. Buckley leads the investigation, and casts his unctuous suspicion on everyone. The case is baffling, as there’s no explanation for how the killer got out of the locked room—even a burglar (Clyde Cook) can’t work out a method. Grodman is hugely amused by Buckley’s floundering, and he and Victor begin a little sleuthing, chiefly an excuse for Victor to romance Lottie.

Lottie is suspect when she attempts to retrieve a valuable watch fob she gave to Kendall, and is caught by Buckley. Attempts to locate the fob prove fruitless until it’s suggested it was buried with Kendall, prompting his exhumation. Lottie is released when the fob is found, but is now stalked by a shadowy presence assailing her with warnings not to talk about Russell and his mistress. But Lottie has already blabbed about that to Buckley.

Russell becomes the chief suspect, and his refusal to divulge the name of his lady friend entraps him. Meanwhile, Victor’s suspicions are closer to home, and he searches Grodman’s apartment. When the stalking presence tries to enter Victor’s bedroom, he takes a shot at it. Russell is tried, and sentenced to death. Grodman convinces Russell to let him track down his mistress, the estranged wife of a Lord, and convince her to confirm his alibi. Grodman pursues her all over France, only to catch up with her at her funeral.

With all avenues of saving Russell from the gallows exhausted, Grodman triumphantly confesses to the murder. Having realized that Kendall killed his own aunt for her money, and then used Grodman in setting up Harris for the fall, and with no way of proving it, Grodman took justice into his own hands. He used many contrivances designed to muddy the waters and fool Buckley as much as possible, but won’t let Russell pay the price for his acts.


Siegel handles the stringent production expertly, slathering the action in fog and shadow. With some terrific actors, Siegel conjures the kind of ripping yarn that’s a pure pleasure to watch. Even the awful Cockney accents of the bit players add cheesy fun. Siegel replies to the evidently low budget with an economic, but technically accomplished style, with expressionistic camera angles, careful lighting (witness the ghoulish delight that is the exhumation scene), and inventive model work (as in the opening shot) to conjure an elegantly bogus Victorian London that looks like the one you imagine when reading a Sherlock Holmes story. Indeed, The Verdict was based on a novel, The Big Bow Mystery, by Victorian writer Israel Zangwill. Zangwill’s novel was a social satire and riff on the detective genre that was already cliché-ridden. Siegel and screenwriter Peter Milne toy with the novel’s elements to give it a more individual moral imperative. The murder victim is changed from an orator of leftist values into a filthy example of capitalist evil, and the progressive, Russell, is the pillar of conflicted conscience whose life must be saved. Grodman’s actions and motivations have been altered to make his crime utterly sympathetic.

But it’s the detail of Grodman’s ironic status as both avenger and murderer that proves Siegel was fascinated by the idea of breaking the law in a heinous fashion to achieve justice, which casts Dirty Harry, still often regarded merely as a sop to reactionaries, in a different light. Harsh reversals of moral expectation and identification are a Siegel trademark—witness the people who have to fear and kill their own neighbors in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the schoolgirls who are far more dangerous to the soldier than he is to them in The Beguiled (1969), or the criminals who gain our empathy in Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Many Siegel heroes are criminals, bastards, or not what they appear to be. He took that last device to an extreme in Body Snatchers, but also including heroic figures like Robert Mitchum’s army officer pretending to be a gangster in The Big Steal (1949) and Shirley MacLaine’s whore-dressed-as-a-nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1971).

The Verdict is a transitional film. It straddles genres that were running out of puff in post-war Hollywood—the crisp, quaint mystery yarn with an Anglophile bent, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, The Falcon, The Saint, and all the other detective franchises and one-offs and the Universal-style gothic chiller. The Verdict pays homage to these, whilst, simultaneously, the harder, dark-drenched, morally ambivalent noir genre was taking grip. Siegel toys with the structure, sympathies, and style of The Verdict to make it count as a noir work; though the first two-thirds of the film are fun in the Holmesian tradition, the last third in which Grodman’s efforts to save Russell gain in grim urgency, take it to another level.


Siegel observed of Greenstreet and Lorre, who work together so well on screen they seemed to have been doing it for decades, that they actually had very different work habits: “If you changed so much as a comma, Sydney was upset…He wanted to get his cues down to the word, and studied his part very carefully. On the other hand, not only didn’t Peter study, but he would come on the set as if he didn’t even know what studio he was in.” The Verdict riffs on their screen personas. It’s fun seeing Lorre play a party animal and ladies’ man, but Victor is also incurably morbid, crowing, when Kendall’s body is exhumed that “I’ve always had an unconscious desire to see a grave opened, especially at night!”and complaining, in illustrating Grodman’s book, “I’ve done three stabbings in a row! How about a nice juicy strangling?” The film uses Lorre’s real-life hobby of sketch art creatively. And there’s a recurring gag where Grodman remarks on Buckley’s attempts to fill Grodman’s britches, emphasizing the capacious girth of Greenstreet’s posterior. Backing them up is Coulouris, always a joy at playing slimy arrogance. One weak link is Lorring’s lousy accent.

It’s far from being a great or perfect film. It’s weighed down by standard touches, like clumsy comic relief and the ever-tiresome staple of the shoehorned song-and-dance number, here a “racy” song performed by Lottie, in a “Royal Music Hall,” which looks more like a bad theater restaurant. Although it portends many of the themes and interests of Siegel’s career, in other ways, its retro, studio-bound class is at odds with the style the director would develop. With The Big Steal, Siegel dragged the noir film out on location and kept it there, leading to the stark, utterly modern stylishness Siegel had mastered by the time of Coogan’s Bluff (1969) and Dirty Harry. But The Verdict is a delightful melodrama and the sort of film that stands for what Old Hollywood at its best was all about.


5th 07 - 2008 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: Friday the 13th (1980)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Producer/Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Debut film of: The unpleasant Voorhees clan


By Roderick Heath

There’s a large dose of irony underlying the attention Friday the 13th and its endless sequels receive these days, not dissimilar to the sarcastic ebullience that greets my friends when they perform Vanilla Ice at karaoke. It’s so lame, it’s classic. Yet it demands attention as a foundation of ’80s film culture and the modern horror genre. Make no mistake—Friday the 13th is a shitty film. Perfunctorily written, boringly directed, dimly plotted, and awkwardly acted, it’s hard to see what made it so damn special, which is, perhaps, the point. Friday the 13th has no ambitions to being special. Its aim is to be efficient. Friday represents the apotheosis of cinema as mass production. Taking elements provided by better films, Friday puts them together cheaply with infinite capacity for repetition.

The story is almost Euripidean in its simplicity and compression. A period prologue—a common feature of ’70s horror films, plus pinching the first-person camerawork of Halloween’s opening—introduces the rural Camp Crystal Lake, which, though the setting is kept obscure, is revealed by both the shooting locations and stray details as being in rural New Jersey. Two camp counselors sneak off for a bit of crumpet, and are promptly slaughtered by an intruder. The present-day bulk of the film takes place in a period of about 12 hours. Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), who seems to be a bit of a counterculture wash-up, is reopening the camp as a refuge for “inner city kids,” and has hired a crew of flaky break-year teens as counselors. One, Annie (Robbi Morgan), hired as a cook, has difficulty making it to the camp. Dropped off in the nearest town, she encounters a local drunk, Ralph (Walt Gorney, playing a part that ought to be Dwight Frye’s), who warns of the evil that haunts the camp, beginning with a boy who drowned in the ’50s and followed by the still-unsolved murders seen near the film’s opening. Then she gets a lift with a truck driver (Rex Everhart), who cagily repeats the warning and leaves her at a crossroads. She then gets a ride in a jeep, whose unseen driver slices her throat.


Meanwhile, the general idiocy of the counselors is revealed by their attempts to kill a snake in the room of Alice Hardy (Adrienne King), who, it’s hinted in the film’s barren dashes of character development, is an art student with some unexplained baggage preoccupying her who is romantically interesting to Steve. Jack Burrell (Kevin Bacon, defining the power mullet as we know it) and Marcie Cunningham (Jeannine Taylor) are the appointed pair of pretty lovers, Ned (Mark Nelson) is a manic nerd jealous of Jack, and Brenda (Laurie Bertram) and Bill (Harry Crosby) make up the numbers. Steve departs for the evening, night falls, and a buffeting rainstorm descends. The night is—well, Snoopy would know how to describe it.

Godard famously remarked that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun; Friday adapted these slightly as a girl in underwear and a big knife. The anxieties that Friday exploits are so basic that the film nearly works as a pure Jungian experience: night, shadows, isolation, the vulnerability of being unclothed whether having sex or taking a shower. Films that can be easily identified as influencing Friday include Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1971), Argento’s L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo (1970), Richard Fleischer’s See No Evil (1971), and Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). But the elegant games of cinematic space, construction, and identification that Bava, Argento, Fleischer, and Carpenter learnt from Hitchcock and employed are totally absent from this film’s mercenary, witless proficiency. From Carpenter especially, it steals mercilessly, hamfistedly reproducing his style down to the title; in this first episode, at least, it is supposed to be Friday the 13th, but I don’t think this ever came up again.


In quick succession, Ned, Jack, Marcie, Brenda, Steve, and Bill are either dispatched or disappear to turn up riddled with holes later. Tom Savini has long been rightfully acclaimed for his gore effects, and his work here is cunning, but not exactly chilling. Effects like the arrow that sprouts from Bacon’s neck and the axe that lodges in Taylor’s face are lividly entertaining, but never actually look like real violence happening to real people, and the weak editing doesn’t help. Back when I first saw these films, late night on TV, they’d been cut senseless, but I’m not really sure why, because the gore, whilst striking, never seems to invoke any reality of corporeal pain and suffering.

About half an hour from the end, Friday remembers to throw in a perpetrator and motivation—Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who makes an unexpected visit, claiming to be a friend of Jack’s, but who soon starts rambling about her disfigured son Jason, the boy who drowned back when and whose birthday this is. To nobody’s surprise but Alice’s, she is pursuing a psychotic revenge for her son’s death that she blames on horny incompetent counselors and is given to taking on Jason’s voice (which pleads for her to “Kill, mommy!”). Her appearance was only a ruse to draw King out of her besieged readiness. This incredibly somnolent piece of oh-yeah plotting reminds us why screenwriter Victor Miller is still neglected by the Nobel committee. Rather than hide in the vast dark forest or take a boat out onto the lake—you know, places where you’d be hard to find and attack—Alice locks herself in a cupboard with a frying pan.

Director Cunningham had produced Craven’s seminal Last House on the Left, and he brought with him from that film assistant producer Steve Miner. Friday shares with Last House a visual emphasis on the contrast between leafy, pacific surrounds and grim violence, plus a dash of barely coherent social-conservative critique. What it lacks that Last House has is a level of actual thought to what it’s portraying, as well as dramatic structure and depth. It could be argued that the intense moral and intellectual indolence of the series’ hapless teens leads them to become easy knife fodder, and so they’re a general condemnation of the audience that laps them up. But that is, frankly, crap. The element of slasher-film-as-reactionary- statement has in being so oft-reiterated perhaps been over-emphasised. The sexual element of the slasher film feels less intellectual, in the sense of being about a moral caution, than the sheer visceral exploitation of young people’s sexual anxieties. The vulnerability of coitus is especially loaded for people under 20, who worry about being caught by their parents, spied on by friends, catching diseases, getting knocked up, etc. Ironically, the Friday series probably did more for the cause of back row nookie than any other films.


Technically, the film hangs together. It’s well-shot by Barry Abrams, and aided especially by Harry Manfredi’s score, with its pseudo-Psycho strings and those indelibly creepy sounds that accompany the stalking (ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma, which is actually Palmer’s mantra of “kill, mommy!” edited and remixed, to suggest the underlying motivation). Cunningham builds a modicum of atmosphere as the camp is swallowed by the storm. But it would be Miner, a fairly talented director who made the series an iconic one, through Friday the 13th Part II (1981) and Friday the 13th Part III (1982), by introducing the lethal, supernaturally spurred Jason Voorhees, who, in his hockey mask, was an anonymous embodiment of thuggish violence, a genuine monster whose utter malevolence can only be temporarily contained.

But the plot of all the films is the same, and the tensions that made them mildly, repetitively entertaining in Miner’s more talented hands, are laboriously set up here. The swift, casual brutality of the murders committed on the unsuspecting and exposed, most of whom are too involved in their sex lives or lack of one to notice the danger, makes the final pursuit of the last survivor, always a girl, especially fraught. The mechanical stunt where Alice keeps knocking Pamela down and leaving her for dead, only to be attacked again, is repeated no less than four times. This contrast of the lack of killer instinct in ordinary people compared with the remorseless nature of the villains is, of course, vital to the genre, and also a great device for a lazy director. Alice finally gets bloodthirsty enough to cleave off Pamela’s head with a machete, in a palpable climax insufficient to make up for the lousiness of the preceding 90 minutes.


Cunningham here throws in another stunt that would become a tiresome hallmark—the exasperatingly fuzzy conclusion that leaves us wondering whether what we saw is a traumatic dream or real event. Specifically, King, who gets the idea to take a canoe out into the lake after killing Mrs. Voorhees, awakens in the morning when the local deputy arrives, but then seems to be attacked by the drowned, part-rotted remains of young Jason, only to awaken in hospital, raving about the boy in the lake. The very last shot is of Crystal Lake, its surface pocked by small ripples, and the audience sensing its placidity is charged with menace. Well, mild nausea, at any rate. By pure coincidence, when I watched this, it was followed on cable TV by House of Wax—the one with Vincent Price, not Paris Hilton—which, with its perfervid colours, energetic acting, strong script, classical references, and overall sense of gothic fun, was like stumbling into the daylight after slogging around in the dark.


29th 06 - 2008 | 1 comment »

Famous Firsts: The Sugarland Express (1974)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film


Debut film of: Steven Spielberg, director

By Roderick Heath

The 26-year-old wunderkind who had wowed with Duel (1971), a TV movie that received limited theatrical release in Europe, received his first shot at feature directing under the aegis of Richard F. Zanuck and David Brown. The Sugarland Express underperformed badly at the box office (the bad news came in on the first day of shooting Jaws), and Sugarland is still treated as a footnote in the director’s expansive oeuvre. But The Sugarland Express, loosely based on a real incident from 1969 and written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins from a story they wrote with Spielberg, demands more than a casual glance. From any other director it would be a notable film, which might explain why Zanuck and Brown let him helm their next tricky production, Jaws (1975), the film that gave birth to Spielberg the phenomenon.

Whilst Jaws represents the new model Hollywood, Sugarland is a film from an era that was ending—an era of open-road movies with a cynical, anti-establishment bent, rooted in folksy Americana, as disparate and yet of a common generation as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), Bad Company (1972), Badlands (1973), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974). It’s this aspect that makes Sugarland most interesting in terms of the Famous Firsts program. What tendencies does it reveal that marks it, and the director’s later career, as so divergent, from, say, Terence Malick’s, despite the similar subject matter of their early works?


The differences are not hard to discern. Whilst it begins with a similar mood of a blasted, lonely, inhospitable land, Sugarland doesn’t develop the veneer of alienation and poeticism of Rafelson and Malick, or geared-up pulp fury. Sugarland is shot with clear, unaffected rigor, the artless artfulness of great American directors like Hawks, Ford, and Preston Sturges. The film tells a warmhearted tale that counteracts the mood of Easy Rider without actually contradicting its message. Spielberg is friendly towards his protagonists whilst admitting that it’s their own refusal to look facts in the face that leads to their downfall. Whilst the heroes of the other films are cursed by a desire, or by fate, to stand out and alone, Spielberg’s dopey heroes, Clovis (William Atherton) and Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), are asserting their right to be normal, to be a family. As is so often the case with Spielberg, a family spontaneously forms in response to adversity and includes their hapless hostage, state trooper Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), and even a stern patriarch, Police Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). Tanner’s efforts to prevent the situation from ending bloodily resemble a wise grandfather attempting to corral the high spirits of silly grandchildren.

The story kicks off with Lou Jean’s visit to Clovis, waiting out the last few months of his one-year sentence for shoplifting at a pre-release center in Texas. Lou Jean was sent down for the same offence, released earlier, and is now faced with the permanent loss of their son to the Loobys (Merrill Connally and Louise Latham), adoptive parents who live in Sugarland County, on the far side of the state. Lou Jean threatens to leave Clovis unless she agrees to bust out with her—it only requires her to change clothes and walk out the gate—and go to take back their baby. That’s the limit of her thinking. Lou Jean is entirely a creature of instinct. Her primeval desire to regain her son outweighs everything else. Clovis is her adoring, good-natured patsy. They catch a ride away from the center with the elderly, ornery parents of another inmate. A series of mishaps results in them taking Slide captive and fleeing in his patrol car, the object of a crisis that has every cop, patrolman, trooper, marshal, ranger, reservist, and dog catcher in Texas on their tail.


An aspect of Spielberg’s early work that comes into sharper focus—taking into account Sugarland, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and 1941 (1979)—is their vision of America not as a capricious, clapped-out country wearied by Vietnam and Watergate, but as a sassy, energetic, ebullient place, dogged by corruption and iniquity, but still full of raucous, everyday life. The American-life-as-carnival vision underlies the comedic moments of all those films, and it’s quite often more than a little dangerously anarchic, for example, the beach crowds and the gun-happy bumpkins of Jaws who treat a killer shark hunt as the world’s greatest kegger, or the civil defense volunteers in 1941 who shoot up downtown L.A. when they think the city is under attack. Clovis and Lou Jean’s odyssey draws out crowds of gawkers and supporters who cheer them on with democratic aplomb. Twits who want to get in on the action make it a bigger sideshow, like the Louisiana cops who attempt to ram the hostage car and instead collect half the vehicles in the trailing fleet, thereby allowing Clovis, Lou Jean, and Slide to escape. They’re found hiding in a used car lot by a pair of retired reservists who proceed to shoot up the place, less a proper gunfight than a thigh-slapping good time for the good ole boys.

Spielberg employs an attuned eye and ear in The Sugarland Express to provide a texture that would give Jaws and Close Encounters much of their effectiveness—the rich sense of a languidly fecund, everyday world, full of ice-cream-cramming kids, cussing old folks, tinny transistor radios perpetually ringing out bubblegum pop, and people who’d drive a hundred miles for a cheap thrill. Spielberg’s early style is sleek and naturalistic. If, in the late ’80s, his style became excessively glossy and arthritic by leaving behind his essentially new wave roots, it was still a vital component of his style in the ’70s.


Spielberg’s heroes, male and female, young and old, are usually in search of a grail of some variety, arming themselves with varying levels of self-delusion to protect against the cruelest facts of life. They take journeys that have no guaranteed end quite simply because they can’t afford to stay still. The quest is vital, even if the ultimate goal often is a delirious enigma. The prototypical Spielberg everyman, Dennis Weaver’s David Mann in Duel, is driving theoretically to reach a business meeting, but he’s really in search of his lost masculine sense of propulsion that will enable him to return to the family that has no use for him. Lou Jean and Clovis certainly fit this mould. Neither thinks much further than the next move, and whilst both prove canny—Clovis especially, as he dismantles every move the cops throw at him—they’re clueless when it comes to the world at large. Adult and child behavior rarely have a neat dividing line in Spielberg’s films, especially in the infantile nature of American pop culture. The grind of gears when clashing perspectives meet is realized in the film’s strongest scene: as Clovis and Lou Jean watch a Road Runner cartoon on a drive-in movie screen, Clovis registers the ridiculous violence that befalls Wile E. Coyote as prescient of their own approaching disaster.

Another consistent Spielberg theme taking root is his version of the ghost in the machine, the process that, once begun, cannot be stopped, even by those who propagate it. Even the Indiana Jones films are, in their absurd way, illustrations of snowballing cause and effect. Be it a monstrous shark, dinosaur, Nazi tank, or alien killing machine, force always consumes itself through its own momentum. Usually this process aids his heroes, but in Sugarland (and this is probably why the film flopped), the Poplins set fate in motion themselves and leave it for others to try to stop. Tanner gives them every opportunity to escape this fate, but they continue to drive toward it, held together by their aim as much as society is held together by the laws that must stop them. As in Catch Me If You Can (2003) and The Terminal (2004), where Spielberg returned to this sort of material, the clash between individualism and authoritarianism is essentially a friction of temperaments.


It’s not, ultimately, an innocent joyride. Clovis and Lou Jean put lives in danger, and Clovis, despite knowing better, is more frightened of crushing Lou Jean’s hopes than of police bullets. They find something harsh beneath the surface of their nation. A group of FBI marksmen offer their services to Captain Tanner, which at first he spurns, but eventually accepts, placing them in the Loobys’ house. Mr. Looby hands over his own rifle, requesting that they “shoot the sonofabitch” with it. When Clovis and Lou Jean finally arrive at the house, Slide spots the trap and urgently pleads with Clovis to hand over the gun and end it now. The last 20 minutes are a model of slow-burn tension, until the frantic explosion of the characters—Slide’s appeals to Clovis; Lou Jean wailing first in betrayed rage at Clovis who hesitates, and then, realizing the danger at last, calling for his return. Clovis gets a bullet in the gut for his pains, but he manages to drive the car through the border checkpoint and crash in the mud of the Rio Grande before expiring. Lou Jean is left a shell-shocked wreck, and Slide and Tanner stand on the riverbank shaking their heads in sorry bewilderment.

Sugarland is a fine film, and works rather better than some of Spielberg’s subsequent attempts to balance whimsy, drama, and sentiment. Perhaps the Spielbergian quality it lacks, however, is also one of his strongest—his gift for compulsive cinematic movement. Sugarland is an artful sketch by one of the screen’s great suspense mongers, a simple film that beguiles and then concludes on more of a forlorn note than a tragic one. The final title card tells us that after her imprisonment, Lou Jean does recover her son, a sign that the desperate display that has underpinned these whimsical and tragic events has proven something. As he often would later in his films, sometimes to the point of overstraining, Spielberg emphasizes a singular human ability to survive.


19th 06 - 2008 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Sanshiro Sugata (Judo Story, 1943)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Akira Kurosawa, writer and director


By Roderick Heath

Before he made Sanshiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) worked for years as an assistant director and screenwriter. He worked on several projects where, he later reported, he had been left to his own devices in getting them completed. We could consider that he essentially directed these films—including Uma (1941)—himself. Nevertheless, Sanshiro Sugata was the first completed feature film to carry the credit “Directed by Akira Kurosawa.” Sanshiro Sugata has a compact energy and sense of form that establishes a cinematic intelligence far above the ordinary. It portrays, in an immature and limited fashion, the images, ideas, and emotions that will recur in complex and nuanced ways throughout Kurosawa’s career. Released when WWII was still raging, it was edited by nearly 20 minutes after the occupation, and the excised sequences only exist in very ragged form. Based on a popular novel by Tsuneo Tomita that would have a half-dozen other adaptations in the next 50 years, Sanshiro Sugata feels like a foundation text not just for Kurosawa’s career, but also for the whole genre of Asian martial arts movies. You know the drill—impulsive student learns from stern master how to master himself, as the means by which he transcends from try-hard to great warrior. A vast swathe of genre filmmaking, from Star Wars to The Karate Kid, owes a big something to this film.


The film is set in the 1890s. Sanshiro, embodied by the appealingly average-looking Susumu Fujita, wants to become a martial arts master. He comes to the seedy Jujutsu school run by Monma, who lounges about with his indolent, aggressive students, incensed by the rumored superiority of the new fighting style of Shudokan Judo practised by Sensei Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi). Monma leads his students to attack Yano on the street. Cornering him on the bank of the canal, the students all end up pitched into the water, and Monma finishes up pinioned and ashamed. Worshipful of a new hero, Sanshiro volunteers to wheel Yano to his school in a deserted rickshaw.


Time passes, and we rediscover Sanshiro showing off his new Judo skills, beating up street toughs and Sumo wrestlers. Yano is angry at this thuggish display, Sanshiro, now shamed, throws himself into the muddy pond next to Yano’s house, angrily declaring his intention to die. “Go ahead and die, then!” Yano shouts. Sanshiro spends the rest of the night clinging to a rotten stake in the centre of the pond, where, in studying a flower, he realises the fragile nature of human existence and essence of a transcendental world-view, which gives him the self-insight to abase himself before Yano.

That’s the kind of pseudo-mystic jive we’re so familiar with in the genre and that Kurosawa portrays vividly, even though it’s cornball. Kurosawa would entirely toss out such claptrap from his later films. Kurosawa’s heroes usually have utterly corporeal talents, mixed with large dashes of guile; they generally prevail against enemies because they’re smarter. Even in his action films, Kurosawa usually had little time for the unrealistic. Fair enough. If, say, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood had made it clear his amazing archery skills were thanks to “God-power,” audiences would have been wetting themselves with laughter.

More typical of Kurosawa is the subsequent development of Sanshiro becoming a great, but reluctant warrior. When he is let back in from the cold of Yano’s displeasure, he is chosen to fight in an exhibition match between his school and Monma’s, with future employment in training police officers at stake. He throws Monma against a wall, killing him and causing Monma’s daughter to attempt to stab him later. Such prowess attracts the dour attention of the Ryoi Shinto School, in the shape of star student Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), a dapper, gimlet-eyed gent who, as one student says, resembles a large snake. Higaki is eager to fight Sanshiro. But Sanshiro’s next fight is to be against Higaki’s sensei, the recovering alcoholic Murai, played by an actor who would become one of Kurosawa’s fondest faces, Takashi Shimura. Standing amidst this fraught trio is Murai’s pious daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), scared of the obnoxiously attentive Higaki, protective of her dissolute father, and attracted to Sanshiro. Sanshiro is tortured by the idea that he might kill Murai.

It’s here that the film’s only note of wartime propaganda is struck, when the school’s priest (Kokuten Kodo) admonishes Sanshiro for his reluctance, reminding him that his duty to the school demands he fight Murai and that this will be a truly selfless act. This “duty, right or wrong” moment conflicts with the texture of the film and with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, but then he only made Sanshiro Sugata after having several projects knocked back by the wartime censors. Sanshiro is, however, one of Kurosawa’s familiar, conscientious, all-too-human heroes. In combat with Murai, Sanshiro is nearly brought down by the elder sensei’s skill, but finally he gains the upper hand, the valiant older man rising agonisingly to his feet repeatedly only to suffer another violent toss, before conceding.


But Murai doesn’t die. As he recovers, he gets Sayo to invite Sanshiro to their house, and Sanshiro becomes a friend. When Higaki finds him at their house, he promptly challenges Sanshiro to a duel to the death. Their confrontation is staged on a reed-clad hillside during a strong windstorm. Higaki nearly topples Sanshiro, but Sanshiro, remembering the flower (flower power!), resurges and defeats Higaki. A brief coda follows, where Yano and the priest discuss the fact that Higaki has reformed and forgiven Sanshiro, and that Sanshiro has decided to travel. On the train leaving town, Sanshiro promises Sayo that he will return.

Although the story of Sanshiro Sugata is generic and familiar, it’s a vivid experience—swift and entertaining. Many debut films suffer from imbalance as budding directorial talents test out their ideas without much thought for the overall texture of the film, but Kurosawa barely puts a foot wrong. As in his later work, his close-ups are carefully thought out and sparingly employed. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the film is of Munmo’s daughter, having just seen her father die, staring implacably at the camera, her grief and madness registering as the tiniest muscular twitches. Kurosawa’s background as a landscape painter is always apparent in the way he frames his actors in relationship to the environment, interested not just in their faces but in the behaviour of their whole bodies. The core action scenes are developed in a continuum of intensity. The poise of his camera makes Yano’s early victory over Munmo’s jujutsu brats look effortless; to Sanshiro’s eye, there is no indication of the draining physical and spiritual force required. Later, Sanshiro’s fight with Murai is filled with close-ups of their sweating brows as they engage in a deathly dance, each balanced on a knife-edge between defeat and loss. Finally, when Sanshiro and Higaki battle, the whole earth seems to explode into fractious elements.

Kurosawa’s intense, almost pantheistic relationship to nature as a reflector and counterbalance to humanity is strikingly nascent. As he would do so often later, atmospheric touches overtly or subtly set the tone of scenes—from the insects incessantly chirping in the background when Yano castigates Sanshiro, to the breeze that underscores the hollow-hearted, alien Higaki’s entry into Murai’s house, and finally, to the epic winds and racing clouds of the final elemental clash of the two men—not between good and evil, exactly, but between the humbled, humane, and responsible, and the dictatorial, arrogant, and grasping.


Kurosawa would rarely offer hissable villains like Higaki. His villains tend to be either foolish, or so collectively ill-defined as to be nearly abstract symbols of tribulation, or shaded reflections of the heroes. Higaki is the man in himself Sanshiro has defeated. Higaki’s introduction is so utterly splendid—his umbrella handle enters the film before him, tapping Sanshiro’s shoulder—that his eventual unmasking as a cardboard-thin opponent emphasises the limitations of straight genre for Kurosawa’s strength of style. It’s another possible indicator of when it was made that Higaki dresses like an English gentleman, complete with bowler hat, where Sanshiro wears traditional dress.


In many regards the later film that best displays Kurosawa’s growth from this point is Sanjuro (1965), one his few straight genre films of later years, a funnier, but also angrier film than Sanshiro Sugata. Toshiro Mifune’s title character and Tatsuya Nakadai’s villain represent a similar conflict, virtually separate to the rest of the plot—that of men who see too much of themselves in each other. Mifune’s victory releases not joy, but a sickening welter of blood and the ronin’s self-disgust and disavowal of a violent path. Such dark duality is also a consistent motif, particularly in female characters, clearly present here in the mirror of Munmo’s burning-eyed daughter and Sayo, and Sanshiro’s fear that he will turn one into the other if he kills her father, too.

Kurosawa’s distrust of violence—concurrent with his fascination with it—and love of humanity is ultimately confirmed by the sentiment of Sanshiro and Murai’s friendship and Higaki’s late alteration. Sanshiro is defined as much as the Seven Samurai by his learned determination to use his gifts to fight for a value, and for other people, rather than for self-aggrandisement. And it work for Sanshiro, as he apparently converts Higaki. Although naïve, it’s still a fascinating message for a Japanese film of 1943.

All of that said, there isn’t much more of the dramatic and character richness of Kurosawa’s later work. Sayo is a regulation, radiantly submissive female far from the pithy heroines of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, although it might be fair to say she anticipates the cosmically forgiving Lady Sué of Ran. Yano is a stock, wise Yoda figure. Higaki a bad guy for barely any more reason than the fact that he acts creepy.

More superficially, familiar stylistic flourishes are present. When Sanshiro is showing off on the streets, Kurosawa likewise shows off, with a series of mirroring crane shots descending down to the street level, showing crowds back away from the attacking Sanshiro as he races forward and picks out men to beat up. This kind of physical-force camera work would later have a profound effect on directors like Godard and Scorsese; likewise, his small dash of slow motion—when Munmo dies, a panel falls like a gentle petal from the wall onto the dead man’s back. Like the device’s similar use in the early stages of The Seven Samurai, it emphasises a sudden, sad realisation of the nature of death in what has been, up until now, a game. Sanshiro Sugata is a truly enlightening sketch of so much that was to come.


19th 06 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Famous Firsts

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film


By Roderick Heath

I’ve always enjoyed tracking down embryonic work by future notables. Even more, I like seeing a work that suggests a future great, and watching their growth – the electric sensation of history being made that came when watching, say, Reservoir Dogs or Hard Eight, or even seeing the birth of greatness from a far earlier era.

So I’m going to make as broad a survey as I can of the unofficial genre known as the debut film. I’m not talking here about those stupid clip shows where they dig up footage of a now-famous actor when they were a teenager with a bad hairdo getting being iced by a serial killer in an obscure slasher film. I’ve employed a highly scientific method that involves DVDs, coffee, and a bagful of mixed nuts.

There’s a cliché constantly employed when describing the debut of note, whether it’s of the future great director, star actor, or accomplished writer. It’s the word “promising,” indicating that, amongst the dross of amateurism contained in a debut, there are flashes of real skill and art that might some day flourish into worthiness.

It’s not such a helpful phrase. Quite apart from the fact that it is as belittling as it is congratulatory, it can be misleading. Often, especially in the perverse geometry of modern cinema, the promising debut is, in fact, the best work. How many times have you said to yourself or your friends something like, “I liked the early stuff, but since then he/she’s gone off the rails.” All sorts of reasons for that. Have too much money thrown at you, too much adulation, and that energy, discipline, and circumstance-enforced invention all go out the window. Then there’s another endemic problem, which is the overrated debut for which some tyro wins Oscars and legions of fans with a promising film that just isn’t that great.

Most typically, the eye-catching debut is uneven, perhaps even generally lousy, but contains flashes of imagination, invention, vividness. Key themes and stylistic tendencies are present, but in embryonic, naïf form, that will develop in the more considered later work.

Then there’s the highly unpromising debut, the piece of crap that teaches you more by how you screw up than by what you get right, that lousy slasher film that taught the future star never to take a part that means dying from a power tool to the head in the third reel. Sometimes an ill-fated debut creates survivors. Witness Jessica Lange’s recovery from her worldwide humiliation in King Kong (1976), or good directors recover from work like Piranha 2: The Spawning (James Cameron, 1981).

Then there’s the exact opposite—the earth-shaking arrival, the awe-inspiring declaration of ability that seems to have nowhere to go but down. Welles with Citizen Kane. Huston with The Maltese Falcon. Brando in The Men. Godard with Breathless. Lynch’s Eraserhead. Reservoir Dogs. Nightmare on Mills Street (What, you’ve never seen that? The absolute greatest horror film ever made with a camcorder and featuring my mother as a homicidal maniac).

For these films, then, I’ll be applying a broad and not-at-all rigorously planned grading system:

Unpromising, Promising, and Tectonic.

*Lead image is Strongman Sandow, the first film ever made (1896).

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