17th 08 - 2014 | 13 comments »

The Big Sleep (1946)

Director: Howard Hawks

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By Roderick Heath

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” – Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

Raymond Chandler, a former oil company executive who had found himself jobless in his forties, turned to writing crime fiction for survival and to expel the cynical passion that had built up inside him. Inspired by the genre’s early master, Dashiell Hammett, who had already lapsed as a novelist, Chandler began writing short detective stories before achieving a smash with his first novel, The Big Sleep. Where Hammett’s diamond-hard prose and stringent sense of human motive blended a peculiarly Dickensian imagination with a hard-earned understanding of street realities, and Chandler’s rivals like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson were paring down their words to hard blocks of chilly analysis, Chandler brought intricate, even florid, visual and experiential prose as well as literary awareness to the form. He turned the private eye tale into a type of neomythology. Chandler’s singular hero, Philip Marlowe, became his tarnished knight-errant, anatomising a corrupt society whilst retaining his decency under a veneer of cool scorn and world-weary alienation.

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Chandler’s writing was inimitable on the page but he swiftly inspired a raft of strong cinema. The first film based on his work was Murder, My Sweet (1944), taken from his second novel Farewell, My Lovely, and cleverly cast Dick Powell as Marlowe, his boyish face from his ingenue days turned anxious and leathery and thus a good mix for embodying Marlowe’s peculiar persona. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), greeted as shambling revisionism in its time, actually got to the heart of Chandler’s often outmatched, fool-of-fortune hero to a striking degree. Dick Richards’ more traditional Farewell, My Lovely (1974) cast Robert Mitchum as a tough, aging man tormented by his own failures. But the best known and arguably most perfectly iconic Marlowe, however, was Humphrey Bogart, who played the role for Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep.

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Playing private eyes, gangsters, and other urban warriors was already second nature for Bogart, who had finally cemented his film stardom by playing Hammett’s distinctly grubby Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Bogart was an unlikely figure for such roles, as he came from a blue-blood New York clan, but youthful experiences in World War I, where according to lore he received a facial injury that gave him his signature lisp, and a spell of rank poverty during the Depression chiselled worldly knowledge deep into Bogart’s face and voice. He became American cinema’s image of the tough, savvy man of action until his death from cancer in 1956. The Marlowe Bogart plays in The Big Sleep isn’t quite the sad-sack he increasingly became in Chandler’s books, but a swift-tongued, poised, occasionally insolent swashbuckler with a moral streak that never feels forced, but rather flows from his refusal to be bullshitted.

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Hawks made The Big Sleep as a follow-up to his and Bogart’s first collaboration, To Have and Have Not (1944), which had made a star out of model Lauren Bacall. Bacall and Bogart’s on-screen chemistry lit up the screen, whilst their off-screen affair was common knowledge and ended Bogart’s troubled second marriage. Hawks and his formidable task force of screenwriters, including future Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, sought to create another vehicle for the couple’s electric appeal. They seized on Chandler’s work, even though they couldn’t work out who killed whom at one point, and soon found the author couldn’t remember either.

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Of course, The Big Sleep, although a mystery and a crime drama, isn’t really about its plot. Its connective tissue is provided by entwined incidents of romance and evil, rather than riddle, with narrative velocity provided by how Marlowe sinks up to his neck in the proliferating consequences of the perversities of a family of American aristocrats who have turned the national dream into an id-inflected nightmare purely by dint of self-indulgence. The animating mood of Chandler’s novels, captured beautifully in this film in spite of its buoyant segues, is one of miasmic corruption and evil welling out of a still-callow, urban America that’s infected with secret appetites fed by feudal princes of the underworld, creating a noxious symbiosis that can only be battled by someone who understands it intimately. Bogart, who had found his real break in cinema playing hood-eyed heels ready to break teeth and plug bellies, was ideal to play such an intimately conversant hero, hard knocks and rude facts impressed upon his persona. Marlowe’s first appearance in the Sternwood Mansion sees him immediately fascinated by effetely competent butler Norris (Charles D. Brown), and the thumb-sucking teenaged seductress Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), who, as Marlowe puts it, tries to sit in his lap whilst he’s standing up.

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Marlowe is hired by Carmen’s decrepit, wheelchair-bound but still whip-sharp father General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to find the most sensible way to get rid of a blackmailer who’s calling in Carmen’s gambling debts. Marlowe’s interaction with Sternwood is a marvellous introduction to the strange adventure upon which he’s about to embark, the General mentioning that he imagines his daughters “have all the usual vices besides those they’ve invented for themselves,” and coolly notes, “If I sound a bit sinister as a parent Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.”

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Sternwood is quietly pained by his recent abandonment by personal bodyguard and companion Sean Regan, who usually took care of such unpleasant business for Marlowe. Marlowe soon realises that Regan’s disappearance is on the minds of others, as Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall) tries to find if he’s been hired to find Regan. Marlowe rebuffs her in a verbal skirmish of quips, insults, and innuendo, and then gets busy tracking the apparent blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) to a rare bookstore he owns. There, Marlowe pretends to be a camp dilettante, annoying Geiger’s chicly dressed, but covertly brassy shopgirl Agnes (Sonia Darrin) and noting the apparently forbidden trade of the shop. Marlowe consults an employee in a neighbouring shop (Dorothy Malone) who is able to point out Geiger to him. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house and whilst staking the place out hears multiple shots, followed by two cars fleeing. He finds Geiger dead and a very high Carmen sitting by the body.

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The most difficult challenge for Hawks and crew wasn’t Chandler’s knotty plot, but rather the litany of crimes, depravities, and illicit acts encompassed by the story, nigh impossible to portray under the rules of the Production Code. Carmen’s drug addiction, Geiger’s pornography racket that has her in thrall, Geiger’s gay relationship with his gunsel Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty), and sundry other aspects had to be conveyed via nudge-and-wink devices, like Marlowe glimpsing a flustered-looking man looking for access to the locked back room in Geiger’s store’s, or Marlowe recoiling when he sniffs a concoction near Carmen in Geiger’s house, the girl not stark naked as she is on the page, but draped in a Chinese bathrobe. Major story developments had to be changed, too. Regan could no longer be Vivian’s husband as he was in the book, just as the identity of his killer had to be carefully smudged. Yet The Big Sleep still conveys an atmosphere of impeccable sleaze, as the dialogue and action constantly trace the sordid world it sees lurking behind urban brickwork, suburban rose bushes, and brownstone mansions alike. Hawks and company even make an overt joke out of the barely censored material when he has Agnes repeatedly cut off from finishing her angry description of a hood pal as “a pain in my—”. The Big Sleep conveys a pervasive relish of the dark side of American life that makes it stand apart from a lot of the noir films that would follow it, feeling closer in spirit to the boastful, struttin’ blues of guys like Muddy Waters and, much later, many a hip-hop star.

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Like those artists, The Big Sleep simultaneously brags and conspires with the audience to delight in its carnality and brutality in a manner partly detached from the oncoming noir pattern of stark moral parable. Toughness, terseness, cool under pressure, a capacity to look at the meaner things in life and love and still sling off a devastating wisecrack: not only does the film revolve around such traits, but positively fetishizes them. Sometimes it does this to a grimly hilarious extent, like the traditionally shoehorned time-out for a song, where Bacall warbles lyrics bouncily reporting the tale of a “sweet, sweet guy” who socks his lady in the choppers.

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The specific appeal of the private eye genre has always been about the detective’s independence from the state-sponsored moral force represented by the police. Marlowe’s breezy confidence in sticky situations is quickly confirmed, as he spirits Carmen from Geiger’s house, tells Norris and Vivian how to handle the situation, and then returns to study the crime scene and work out what happened. A police inspector pal of Marlowe’s, Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), calls him out to a seaside pier, where a car containing the Sternwoods’ murdered chauffeur Owen Taylor has crashed into the water. Ohls, who recommended Marlowe for his current job, half-jokingly suggests Marlowe might have rid the family of a problem by killing Taylor.

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Marlowe soon strides with characteristic directness into the thicket of double-crosses Geiger’s death causes amidst his coterie of associates, including reputed creep Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), who may or may not have killed Taylor for Carmen’s porn pictures, but who’s certainly trying to squeeze the Sternwoods again with them, with Agnes as grouchy confidant and Lundgren gunning for whoever he thinks killed Geiger. Events and personalities collide in Brody’s apartment in a hilarious and then brutal critical mass that sees Marlowe sarcastically outwitting not just Brody but also Vivian, who tries to cut a separate deal, and then Carmen, who turns up wielding a pistol to collect her photos. Many directors might have let this sequence devolve into an extended exposition punctuated by random, gun-wielding interlopers. Hawks turns it into a bedroom farce, linked to the screwball comedies he helmed in the 1930s and would direct again in the near future, except with blackmail and murder added to sex. Marlowe casually calls out Agnes and Vivian out from the curtain behind which they are hiding, with Marlowe and Vivian’s frenetic argument interrupted by an exasperated Brody.

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Later, in a subtle, but brilliant encapsulation of Hawks’ technique, Marlowe, now holding the gun and the aces, grills Brody over his actions before Taylor’s death. Brody sits in a chair and Marlowe prowls on the far side facing the camera. Brody shifts his position as he explains, trying to avoid Marlowe’s excoriating gaze, and the camera pans slightly back and forth, tracing this little dance of power, with Brody quite literally shifty, Agnes looking on poised like a praying mantis dying to chew Brody’s head off, and Marlowe’s potency visually stated. A moment like Marlowe kicking Lundgren in the chin after challenging him to pick up a gun only confirms his mastery, a spasm of physical violence as precise and immediate as any kung-fu battle and quicker to the point. Of course, Marlowe was also himself perhaps the most knocked-out and beaten-up hero in the history of literature, and here he gets the crap knocked out of him by a couple of stand-over artists and his lights turned off by a thug with a fist full of pennies. The Big Sleep is set in wartime, instead of being a quasi-period piece, an off-hand detail confirmed by the rationing stickers on the cars and the habit of chief villain Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) referring to Marlowe as “Soldier”—which he is, lone warrior keeping the home front in order.

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One fascinating aspect of The Big Sleep is that as an action film made during World War II, the age of Rosie the Riveter, Hawks is in a wonderland where his love of gender blurring can be given free rein, free from the usual justifications for having the classic Hawksian lady on hand, as female taxi drivers who can flirt hot and drive cool could be introduced without comment. Marlowe has starkly memorable interactions not just with appointed love interest Vivian but with a complement of strong vivid, hardboiled gals of various persuasions, from Agnes to Carmen, to cute librarians, cigarette girls, gangland wives, and, most deliciously, Malone’s embodiment of an everyday wet dream, the trimly bespectacled geek girl who archly transforms into drop-dead babe for a bout of backroom sex between incidents in the case. Malone’s star was as instantaneously sealed by her appearance here as Bacall’s was giving whistling instructions in To Have and Have Not. Vickers is similarly marvellous as the protean Carmen, swerving from frightened kid to coquettish seducer to wrathful dope freak, and yet, amazingly, her career never went anywhere after this. This was also true of Darrin, who’s brilliantly spiky as Agnes (“Whadda those look like, grapefruit?”), the proverbial cookie full of arsenic.

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No director of his—or perhaps any—era had such finite understanding as Hawks of the film actor as a lodestone of both singular personality and ensemble reaction, and how to use this to enrich rather than take over a film, especially when it came to the ever-mercurial nature of sex appeal. In Bogie and Bacall’s combusting on-set romance he had a force of nature at his disposal, and yet The Big Sleep had to be retooled to make the most of it to ease studio worries over Bacall’s less well-received sophomore work in The Confidential Agent (1945). So, scenes were added sporting charged conversations where the couple assess each other’s sexual style through horse racing metaphors, and a late scene is laced with intimations of S&M as Vivian voraciously kisses a trussed and bloodied Marlowe. The whole thing adds up to one of the sexiest films ever made, a rare achievement not just considering the time of its making but also its usually more businesslike, overtly macho genre. Part and parcel, too, of the film’s greatness is the almost relentless stream of great dialogue provided by the awesome trio of screenwriters, with Jules Furthman rounding out the work by Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Speech in The Big Sleep is not, however, just a series of verbal displays of cleverness like too much modern film and TV writing. It’s given form and shape by the niceties of streetwise communication, and usually predicated on characters testing each other, feeling out motives, fishing for revelations, toughness made apparent not just in slugging and shooting, but also in verbal wit and dexterity and their capacity to hold onto knowledge, another form of power. The General’s aged, ruined form (“I seem to exist mostly on heat, like a newborn spider”) conceals a man who has no need to ration truth, which puts him at an advantage over just about everyone else, but also signals how far out of the running he is now.

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Verbal currency is certainly at stake during Marlowe’s first conversation with Vivian, where she tries to wheedle facts out of him, but is instead provoked to quick displays of anger. Bogart’s Marlowe turns his weaknesses into strengths through his verbal nimbleness. “So you’re a private detective,” Vivian greets him, “I didn’t know they existed except in books or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you are a mess, aren’t you?” An opening barrage many could not recover from, but Marlowe replies, undaunted, “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.” There’s a pair of clever in-jokes lodged in this line, as Bogart had been forced to wear platform shoes opposite Ingrid Bergman on Casablanca (1943) and had often ridiculed his early career playing Joe College types who say “Anyone for tennis?” Marlowe’s quip deprecates both himself and the actor playing him, but in a way that gives both stature and potency. Similarly knowing are Marlowe’s exchanges with Carmen, where he calls himself Doghouse Reilly in parody of stock tough-guy shtick, the filmmakers wise to Chandler’s strategy of kidding the genre’s clichés just a little to clear ground for his own. By comparison, Marlowe’s interactions with Mars see two alpha males assessing each other’s qualities almost delicately, though even Mars is finally driven to note irritably, “You take chances Marlowe.” “I get paid to,” the private eye replies. Ridgley’s performance is nicely understated, never trying to come on like the tough guy.

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Mars is a gambling boss who proves to be shepherding the Sternwoods’ darkest secrets even as his associates, like Geiger, try to profit from them. Even when the case seems over, with the Sternwoods’ blackmailers dead or locked away, Marlowe comprehends that some deeper game is being played, especially when Vivian is apparently robbed by one of Mars’ goons after a big roulette win. Marlowe realises the robbery has been staged, and is seemingly connected to the disappearance of Mars’ wife, who supposedly ran off with Sean Regan. Marlowe cops a beating for his continued interest, but then encounters Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), Agnes’ diminutive but poised boyfriend, who offers to sell interesting information. Before Marlowe can pay him off, he witnesses a unique bit of cruelty, as he spies on Mars’ main thug Canino (Bob Steele) extracting Agnes’ whereabouts from Harry, who’s loyal enough to lie, and then bullying him into drinking poison. Even for Marlowe, it’s so nasty and depressing a spectacle that he spends the rest of the film restraining a glimmering ferocity that finds equal expression in forcing Mars’ wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen) to recognise the monster her husband is. Marlowe finds Mona with the help of Agnes, whose words of regret for Harry’s death are, “I got a raw deal.” Agnes puts Marlowe onto the actual whereabouts of Mars’ wife, and he arrives at a rundown service station where a kick on the door brings out the gun-wielding, nerveless owner Huck (Trevor Bardette) and, more portentously, Canino, solicitously inviting Marlowe in to make an easier catch.

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Hawks’ classical, spacious mise-en-scene is at its most open and free-flowing through The Big Sleep. Cuts only come when necessary, as Hawks generally prefers to choose camera set-ups that allow for nimble shifts of focus. His camera drifts with and amidst characters in settings like the Sternwoods’ mansion and Mars’ gambling palace, where geography is at once carefully unified and hard to read, camera peering through into adjoining rooms and the sense of secret forces always at work, a notion confirmed when Mars offers to let Marlowe see the rooms behind the gambling tables. Marlowe replies, “No thanks, I’ll go out with the rest of the suckers.” Hawks avoids the more expressionistic edge of noir for the most part except for odd moments, as when Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones’ death, the silhouetted victim and villain seen through glass with the camera deftly taking up a position where it can see Canino through a gap in the door, privileging the viewer. Yet the frames are often flooded with darkness, the lighting a careful alternation of dark zones and hazily embracing lights.

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The camera quite often becomes the observant eye that Marlowe is, reading promissory notes, car registration slips, street signs, or spying on a stick-up going down. Such are the readily absorbable details of the modern world, the signs and wonders Marlowe’s understanding depends upon, but, of course, nothing compared to reading people, like Vivian’s insolent mandarin visage when Marlowe first sees her. Praising any single performance in The Big Sleep feels pointless because of the general excellence, the machine-tooled refinement of the actors’ rhythms, which make the film seem to work like a racing engine, fast and efficient and utterly integral. Hawks’ beloved, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue patterns turn all that great dialogue into an aural dance of precise musical intensity.

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The typically cheap Warner Bros. sets, swathed in mist and rain (I think more rain falls in the course of the film than in the average L.A. year), nonetheless imbue the film with its pervasive air of enclosing gloom, and even when Marlowe heads out of town the landscape offers no respite. Even a moment of overt slapstick to relieve the mood—Huck running for the hills at a shot from Marlowe—is still rendered as a moment of hysterical energy, particularly thanks to Max Steiner’s scoring. In spite of its nominal pretences as an account of the very real dangers and depths of American society and idealised vision of the battle against them, some perhaps well known to members of the cast and crew, The Big Sleep, as its weird, pithily poetic title suggests, is far from realistic. It is indeed one of the most fervently delirious works from classic Hollywood, moreso than John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s most stylised creations in The Maltese Falcon (1941). This is a world of golems lurking in the shadows (Canino), lesser imps and demons (Brody and Lundgren) capricious witches (Agnes and Carmen), royal priestesses (Vivian), ruined kings (Sternwood), and thieving pretenders (Mars), with Marlowe as muddied knight-errant. The tale occurs in a zone of the fantastic, a grotesque netherworld where every character is harbinger of either sex or death.

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The evolving relationship of Marlowe and Vivian, who turns out to be hiding with Mona in a last-ditch effort to put Marlowe off the scent, pays off naturally as she not only frees him, but proves gutsy and loyal enough to help him trick Canino. Canino finishes up on his back with a gut full of bullets, and Marlowe sets out to entrap his boss. In the book, it was revealed that Carmen shot Regan in a moment of druggy, jealous anger when he rejected her advances, and that Mars has both covered up the crime but used it as a way to siphon the Sternwood fortune. Here that’s passed over and inferred in favour of a fiendishly nasty climax (one Hawks would later recycle in 1966’s El Dorado) that sees a casual aside earlier in the film, Mars’ invitation for Marlowe to step outside when his goons are patrolling, turned into a trap. Marlowe drives the criminal out of Geiger’s house so that his own thugs machine-gun him down, his fate traced out with ghoulishly memorable concision by a line of bullet holes erupting through a door before his limp and perforated body falls back. Hawks fades out on the sound of police sirens as Marlowe and Vivian face each other in a moment of triumph, but before their besiegement actually ends, poised between past and future, with the pure moment of anticipation now theirs—the immediate prospect that at last someone’s going to get laid. However you view it, The Big Sleep is one of the classics that define classic Hollywood.


22nd 07 - 2014 | no comment »

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg

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By Roderick Heath

After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.

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Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus the town had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.

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The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the nature of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.

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The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.

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Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.

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Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.

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As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.

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Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.

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The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.

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Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.

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By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.

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Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.

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Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.

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Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.

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Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She point a gun at Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye, and only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.

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Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.


28th 02 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)

Director: Norman Foster

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Despite the bone-chilling weather, February 26 marked a joyful (if probably temporary) return of the Northwest Chicago Film Society to the Patio Theater. The theater’s 87-year-old boiler was returned to life, and though it wasn’t up to keeping us toasty warm in sub-zero weather, nobody seemed to mind—it was just great to gather with old friends and other classic film fans to see another of the rare films on film NCFS specializes in showing at an appropriately vintage movie theater.

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After paying tribute to Harold Ramis, who died this week, by showing the trailers for Ghostbusters (1984) and Groundhog Day (1993), NCFS fired up a short film about motorcycle racing in the British Isles to coordinate with the main attraction, a romance/noir hybrid set in London—the luridly, but not inappropriately, named Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. This film was the first Burt Lancaster made under the aegis of Harold Hecht-Norma Productions, the independent production company he started only two years after his star-making debut in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) to capitalize on his own popularity. Lancaster’s company in a couple of different incarnations would produce some excellent movies, including Best Picture Oscar winner Marty (1955), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). One only has to look back to the company’s first film to see that Lancaster had more than acting ability and charisma—he knew how to make great pictures.

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In true noir fashion, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands zeroes in on a damaged World War II veteran whose precarious postwar existence almost inevitably collides with crime and violence. The film opens in a pub that is closing for the night. The patrons dutifully file out, save for petty criminal Harry Carter (Robert Newton) and a nervous, drunk Bill Saunders (Lancaster). When the publican (Campbell Copelin) tries to rouse Saunders from his place at the bar, Saunders reacts violently. He punches the publican, who fall, hits his head, and dies. A scream from the barmaid (Marilyn Williams) sends Saunders running. He eludes a policeman who gives chase by climbing into a flat occupied by hospital worker Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). A former inmate in a Nazi POW camp, he’d rather die than be locked up again, and when Jane does not turn him in the next day, he feels safe for the first time in a long time. She feels drawn to him, too, but naturally, Saunders’ crime, however accidental, will cast a shadow over their relationship and lead to violent consequences.

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In many ways, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands has a predictable set-up, but it is shot through with surprises. Of course Carter comes looking to blackmail Bill. Of course Jane rejects Bill when his impulsive violence pops out, and of course she takes him back. But I was genuinely shocked by some of the scenes. For example, Bill is much more vicious and immoral than I expected. He mugs a man for his wallet and uses the stolen ration coupons to get some new clothes so he can call on Jane, a shocking touch of plot and character that doesn’t feel forced. His assault on a passenger on a train he and Jane are taking and subsequent attack on a police officer are sudden and vicious, but his punishment—six months hard labor and 18 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails—drew a literal gasp out of me. The lashing was a very difficult scene to watch and reminded me that postwar England was not so far ahead of the medieval tortures for which the country has long been infamous. I was also surprised that after Bill “goes straight” as a driver of a medical supply truck, he agrees to let Carter set up a robbery of the supplies in exchange for keeping Bill’s secret. In a previous scene, Bill saw how the supplies stopped an epidemic, but his personal survival always comes first.

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While obviously shot mainly on a soundstage, the evocation of the physical atmosphere and mood of postwar London is pretty realistic. It is a world of ration books and black market trading, broken buildings and ongoing relief efforts, grieving widows and shell-shocked veterans. Seasoned DP Russell Metty, who would help create the look of Douglas Sirk’s famous Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s, paints a classic noir landscape of dark corners, narrow alleys, and menacing close-ups. When Bill and Jane go to the zoo on their improbable first date, Metty switches from an open, happy collection of boys mimicking a chimpanzee in a cage to a keeper feeding a ravenous lion. The camera moves swiftly from one caged predator to another, while Bill grows more anxious by the minute. The pacing, abetted by film editor Milton Carruth, is like a sudden eclipse of the sun, providing a hard-to-evoke state of mind for the troubled man that lasts throughout the film. This sequence is echoed later in the film when Jane joins Bill in psychic pain, wandering the streets in a daze, each corner harboring a menacing face that mirrors the face of the man she stabbed in self-defense.

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Those who are looking for a hot romance between Bill and Jane will be disappointed. Although Lancaster can easily play the seducer, his Bill is a wounded boy. The first sign we and Jane get of this is at the zoo. Bill joins the boys in imitating the voice and face of the chimpanzee, a clear case of arrested development. Although the extended chase scene at the beginning of the film shows off Lancaster’s extreme athleticism and strength, he always seems small and pleading when he is with Jane. He barely reacts when he climbs in her window and sees her in her nightie, and doesn’t display a manly jealousy when the man on the train seems to be trying to make time with his girl. Even when he bemoans how his influence has screwed up Jane’s life, he knew what he was doing in pursuing her; she is a born helpmate.

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Fontaine always seems to be the girl who wears glasses. In so many of her roles, she’s fragile and slightly aristocratic, as though her pure lineage has made her weak. As Jane, she falls in love with Bill’s need for her, his boyish vulnerability. When she leaves her room to get milk the morning after Bill has broken in, I half-expected her to put some in her tea and pour a full glass for him. She is always clearly in charge, finally overriding his survival instinct by making him accompany her as they both turn themselves in, thus kissing the blood off each other’s hands.

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Robert Newton is always a pleasure, and his ingratiating crook is penny ante and not at all a match for Bill in the violence department, though Lancaster never lays a glove on him. It was a real relief not to see a fiendishly clever or super-powered villain, so dully common today. Screenwriter Leonardo Bercovici and adapter Ben Maddow were both to become victims of the Hollywood blacklist, and I have to think that their sympathy for common people brought out the vulnerability and sheer ordinariness of these characters. A large cast of bit players adds wonderful atmosphere and puts some real flesh on the bones of this scenario. Sadly, this film is not available for home viewing, but perhaps you can urge a programmer in your area to book this pristine 35mm print of a nearly forgotten gem.


29th 10 - 2013 | 3 comments »

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Director: Mark Robson

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By Roderick Heath

Not the most popular or famous of Val Lewton’s epochal series of low-budget horror films made for RKO Studios, The Seventh Victim is the deepest, the most original, perhaps the darkest, a film that tends to weave a powerful spell on those who tune into its peculiar wavelength. The fourth film in Lewton’s horror cycle, it was the directorial debut of Mark Robson, who, like Robert Wise, had worked as an editor at RKO. He was promoted after Lewton’s first director collaborator Jacques Tourneur graduated to bigger-budget productions, and who would go on to a long career with many strong films as well as some shamefully shoddy late career labours that bespoke cruel truths about the decline of the studio system and the talents it fostered.

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Tourneur’s films with Lewton had clearly reflected both men’s status as immigrants, fascinated and alienated by the American landscape. Robson and Wise were more parochially alert, and facilitated a shift in focus in Lewton’s series to foreign and historical settings, where a similar sense of unfamiliarity could be sustained. The Seventh Victim looked back to the initial success of Lewton’s series, Cat People (1942), and to silent melodramas that had blended aspects of realism with fable-like storytelling precepts, like Victor Sjöstrom’s The Phantom Carriage (1920) and D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1922), whilst also looking forward to many films, and indeed genres that didn’t yet exist. Jacques Rivette would strive to recapture its atmosphere with several films, particularly Duelle (1976). Alfred Hitchcock may have remembered it in the most famous scene of Psycho (1960). Roman Polanski would engage its ideas for Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Dario Argento channelled it for Inferno (1980). Stanley Kubrick would partly remake it as Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Hints of its influence are detectable in urban horror stories of Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma.

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One reason for this slow yet indelible effect of The Seventh Victim was that it followed Cat People in proving a horror film could be set in a completely contemporary urban landscape, transformed into a world of dreamlike vignettes and private netherworlds, and unlike its precursor was able to do so without any hint of the supernatural, presenting a situation where human folly creates horror. Robson’s directing wasn’t as smoothly fluid and sophisticated as Tourneur’s had been, but to a certain extent his neophyte coolness helps exacerbate the sequestered mood. Like all of Lewton’s productions, the title came down from RKO honchos. But the erstwhile Ukrainian aesthete, who had immigrated to the US in the company of his aunt, the silent tragedienne Alla Nazimova, took an active interest in every level of his creations, as Lewton excelled his former employer David Selznick in fulfilling the ideal of producer as auteur. Lewton’s approach had a twofold strangeness stemming from linked urges, as he tried to set his dramas in a demonstrably real world, but also psychologised his narratives, and pared them back to simple, almost fairy tale-like precepts, an approach which Lewton would take to an apogee with the next film, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which bypasses horror altogether in spite of the title, and becomes instead a gothic-edged children’s film. Lewton’s fondness for deliberate naïveté is also apparent in The Seventh Victim, which tells the story of young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her first role) and her coming of age whilst on a Snow White-like adventure in the concrete forests of Manhattan. The film kicks off with a quote from John Donne, a quote so suitable it serves almost as the mission statement of the horror genre: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”

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Like many fairy tales, this one starts with an exile from home, albeit a place that’s not really a home. The two Gibson sisters, Mary and older sibling Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) are orphans. Jacqueline has earned a living whilst Mary has grown in a girl’s boarding school. Called before the principal Mrs. Lowood (Ottola Nesmith) and her aide Miss Gilchrist (Eve March), she is told that her sister has been out of touch, and her tuition hasn’t been paid for six months. Mary is offered a post at the school, but Gilchrist encourages her to make a break: “It takes courage to really live in the world,” she says, both as imploration and warning. The narrative’s use of staircases as symbology is plain in the first shot, showing the main staircase in the school, with religious-themed stained glass windows above it, as Mary ascends through a throng of other students, an intimation of Mary’s status as an almost holy innocent about to swim against a tide of human decay. Her departure from the school is one of the brief yet indelible, almost magical Lewton moments, as she smiles both sadly and wryly to herself, descending the stairs this time, in listening to the students in the classrooms being chided and reciting Latin conjugations and Romantic poetry. Mary’s excursion to New York sees her come in contact with a peculiar sprawl of vividly contrasted personalities, most of whom are engaged in duels with their own mortality and searching for meaning in existence.

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Mary learns Jacqueline has sold her successful cosmetics business, La Sagesse, to her former assistant Mrs Esther Redi (Mary Newton), and seems to have vanished. Mary begins following a breadcrumb trail, firstly a clue provided by one of La Sagesse’s employees, Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), who leads her to a boarding house run by the Italian immigrant couple, the Romaris (Chef Milani and Marguerita Sylva), above their restaurant in Greenwich Village, where Jacqueline has rented a room that proves to contain an ominous array: a noose suspended above a chair, waiting for someone to take their place at the end of the rope. Such disturbing discoveries point Mary to the morgue in search of her sister, and this leads her to another person seeking out Jacqueline, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont). A prominent lawyer, Gregory says that he loves Jacqueline, but keeps his marriage to her secret from Mary. Such secrets teem in the situation Mary finds herself in, as she soon learns the nature of adulthood seems to be ever-metastasising confusion.

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This Snow White gains a single dwarf as helpmate, diminutive private eye Irving August (Lou Lubin), who is taken with her vulnerable desperation. When he’s warned off the case by a bigwig, August’s interest only intensifies, and after checking out La Sagesse, tells Mary that there’s a mysterious locked room in the factory where Jacqueline might be held prisoner. Mary and August steal into La Sagesse, whereupon both freeze up when faced with the long, dark, ominous corridor down to the secret room. Mary can’t work up the will, and instead encourages the timorous August to go in her stead. August finally does disappear into the dark, then reappears, moving strangely and silently, not answering Mary’s appeals, until he drops dead on the floor, bleeding from a wound in his chest.

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This terrifically eerie sequence, with the photography (by Nicholas Musuraca) and lighting turning humdrum factory space into a nebulous zone of existential danger and infernal threat, is one of the great moments in the Lewton canon. It also provides an interesting contrast to the famous pool scene in Cat People, which it sustains a similar concept and mood to, insofar as that it pays off with actual violence rather than mere self-induced fright. Except that, fittingly for the film’s themes, August’s death later proves not to have been a malicious killing but one caused by fear, fear of the dark and the quiet just as beset the interloping pair. The way Mary encourages August to venture forth into the dark in her stead reveals the degree to which Mary is still a child, getting the adult to go where she daren’t, whilst the pair of them also resembling a couple of kids standing outside a haunted house daring each-other to go in. But Mary’s has growing capacity as an adult to persuade, an ability to make another do something that has an unexpectedly ugly consequence because of her weakness. This resonates interestingly with the Lewton films on either side of this one, with the ponderings of the nature of free will in The Leopard Man, and the more urgent contemplation of a desire to impose will with fascist overtones in The Ghost Ship (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945): indeed in the Lewton cycle this tendency is considered a genuine evil. Later in the film group will is exerted on an individual for destructive ends.

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Mary loses her innocence here, and is sent running out into the night. Riding the subway back and forth in a daze, she’s startled to see two society swells propping up a third who seems passed out drunk, except that the third’s hat tumbles off and she recognises August. Mary chases down a transit cop, but the duo slip off with their charge, making it all seem like some nocturnal imagining. The mood of this scene, with the clamour of the train, sharply contrasts the pellucid silence of the factory scene, and yet compliments it, presenting another perversely claustrophobic, alienating urban environment. I can’t think of another scene like it in film before it, except perhaps in a Hitchcock film like Blackmail (1929), but it certainly anticipates in acute ways the fascination with New York’s fecund, deteriorating infrastructure in ‘70s cinema as a wonderland for evoking anxiety, and specifically a sequence like the one in which Nancy Allen dodges a killer on the subway in Dressed to Kill (1980).

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One of the Lewton series’ singular qualities was this way the filmmakers were able to turn limited resources and set-bound productions into precisely atmospheric invocations of place. Just as The Leopard Man (1943) captures the mood of a town on the fringe of the wild, The Seventh Victim follows Cat People in tangibly recreating the feeling of a big city in the hours when its streets might as well be wilderness. That canard of “eight million stories in the naked city” is suggested in Mary’s visit to Missing Persons, a simple tracking shot absorbing an array of similarly befuddled by the ease with which it’s possible to get lost in a big city, even as August tries to reassure Mary that it’s only “nine miles long and three miles wide.” The most overt poetic invocation in The Seventh Victim comes from an actual poet character, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), in whose mind a searchlight above the Manhattan rooftops becomes “Cyrano’s sword,” cutting through “the blue cloak of a prince.” Jason invokes Cyrano de Bergerac, Byron, and is glimpsed at one point sitting “at the foot of Dante,” that is, under a mural in the Romaris’ restaurant under the boarding house, named for the poet. For the jocular Mrs Romari, all intellectual and emotionally complex propositions are humour. “Do you actually want to find your sister?” Jason asks Mary, who catches his eye when she first arrives at the Romaris. Mrs Romari laughs at him, but Jason’s sense that tracking down Jacqueline might involve soul-rending damage proves prescient. The gentle, Hart Crane-ish poet, who’s haunted by a romantic tragedy that killed his burgeoning career, begins finding his way back to functionality as he’s stirred to action on Mary’s behalf. Jason learns he’s not to be Prince Charming, but finds other things that make the effort worthwhile.

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Another peculiarity of the Lewton series is the fashion in which it touches on metatextual ground without quite making it overt. Similar characters and roles recur from film to film, whilst actors appear often in interestingly, deliberately contrasting parts. For instance, here the velvet-voiced Ben Bard, who had played a stern but empathic policeman in The Leopard Man is here the leader of a Satanic coven. The Seventh Victim features the most explicit example of this tendency, as Tom Conway reiterates his role from Cat People, the psychiatrist Dr Lewis Judd. Except that he’s not quite the same Judd. For one thing, the character in the other film was mauled to death. For another, this one isn’t as coolly amoral, even if he seems at first just as superciliously obnoxious, phlegmatically brushing off a secretary’s pleas for help for her alcoholic father: “Dipsomania’s…rather sordid.” It soon proves that both Jason and Gregory have reasons to distrust the psychiatrist, who was seen with Jacqueline and Jason’s former sweetheart years before, shortly before they both vanished. Echoes of Cat People’s emotional quandaries are also apparent, the fear over loss of a loved one to mental instability and the abuse of privilege by a physician. The possibility that Cat People might indeed have been a story written by Jason as a j’accuse screed aimed at Judd, converting emotional damage into metaphorical terrors, is entirely conceivable. It’s clear enough why Lewton and regular screenwriting collaborators DeWitt Bodeen (who co-wrote this with Charles O’Neal) would bring back this character: his insolent charm, given body by Conway who was a minor marquee star, provides an engaging cynical, worldly counterpoint to the idealists and placeless drifters who populate the film, as well as a constant hint of sexual evil. Except that here the filmmakers take a chance to divert the outcome of the previous drama, as if deliberately engaging in an act of self-reflexive revision.

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Judd first appears approaching Gregory as an apparent emissary from Jacqueline, shaking down the lawyer for money to support her, and remaining cagily impenetrable about what exactly is going on. He then goes to Mary, offering to bring her to Jacqueline. He takes her to an upmarket hotel, but finds that Jacqueline seems to have vanished: “She’s left me to meet them alone,” he murmurs in alarm, and flees, leaving a bewildered Mary to face “them” alone himself. The knock at the hotel room door Mary answers proves however to be Jacqueline, glimpsed only for a few seconds like a fleeting mirage. Few movie characters can ever live up to the levels of mystique as are built up about Jacqueline (notably, like Rebecca de Winter, Jacqueline is spoken of in rather awed terms, and identified by totemic monogrammed effects), and that makes the Brooks’ appearance here all the more unique. When she’s finally glimpsed, with her weird Egyptian-flapper hairstyle and haunted, moon-bright eyes, it’s only for a few seconds: Jacqueline raises a finger to her lips, warning Mary to be quiet lest she attract any of the people searching for her. She’s undoubtedly corporeal and acting for real reasons, but also, seems like some emissary of the underworld, urging silence like an enforcer of taboo and mystery. The film’s obsession with doors and staircases – leading Mary to Jacqueline, Judd wryly comments, when presented with two staircases up to the next floor, that he prefers the “left or sinister side” – as passages between worlds accords with Jean Cocteau’s use of mirrors in his intensely similar Orphée (1949).

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Eventually the truth of Jacqueline’s situation begins to emerge: through Mrs Redi she became involved in a group of Satan worshippers known as the Palladists (based on a French society of Satanists rumoured to have practised in the 1800s), and because she told her therapist Judd about them, they’ve declared she must die. The Palladists are hardly however a shocking cult, but a collective that runs the gamut of bohemian oddballs, bored socialites, saturnine malcontents, homosexuals, and the physically damaged. They give a face both to the overwhelming anxiety manifesting in the darkness that crowds the edges of the film, and also suffer from it themselves, and have adopted one method of trying to feel they master life and death. Judd and Jason even move in the same social circles as the Palladists, amongst whom Redi, Mr. Brun (Bard) and one-armed hostess Natalie Cortez (Evelyn Brent) seem to be the senior members. Jason is canny enough to bring Mary and Gregory within close proximity of the coven on a hunch. Judd seems like an ideal Palladist, but he rather stands distinct from them, too intelligent to fall for their folderol, too interested by their strangeness to ignore them, and too scared of what they might do if provoked. Brun expostulates at length the peculiar dichotomy at the heart of the society’s sensibility, its insistence that anyone that breaks its oath of secrecy must die, but also its pledge to non-violence. The only legitimate way they can, then, punish Jacqueline for her transgressions is to force her to commit suicide, but failing that, a few members are willing to go further, not because Jacqueline broke their rules but because she could possibly expose and embarrass them.

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The notion that Jacqueline joined the group for erotic as well as emotional and spiritual stimulation percolates below the surface as you’d expect from a 1943 film and yet nudges me constantly, apparent in Frances’ suggestive worship and unconcealed love for Jacqueline (“The only time I was ever happy was when I was with you!”). Redi’s husky-voiced ambiguity is also telegraphed, giving a particularly piquant charge to a scene in which Redi enters Mary’s apartment to warn her off the search for Jacqueline. Mary is caught naked and dripping wet in the shower, with Redi’s silhouetted form glimpsed through the curtain. The prefiguring of Psycho here is unmistakable, although less violent, the note of erotic threat less immediate than a big knife but no less unsettling for the naïve and vulnerable girl. Redi makes a mistake, however, by doing this, because she informs Mary that Jacqueline was in fact the prisoner in the secret room, and she killed August in fright. This fact gives Jason the inspiration to finally pressure Judd, who’s been hiding Jacqueline since she escaped that night, into letting him, Mary, and Gregory take her into their care.

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Jason’s tracking of Judd through a skeletal studio version of the Village offers stark, lunar-surface alleyways and blankly silhouetted, shadow-play windows, islets of warmth between oceans of dark. When Judd finally does lead the trio of searchers to Jacqueline’s door, she proves to have now lodged in some mysterious abode, descending into a deep focus frame with peculiarly numinous effect, her waiting cohort of would-be friends and protectors gathered in the foreground. Lewton’s films were usually too starkly budgeted to offer the kind of oversized Expressionistic effects found in Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau’s early work or in Rowland V. Lee’s delirious Son of Frankenstein (1939) with their carefully contrived and constructed games with space and architecture as mimetic canvas, and besides Lewton was usually after something a touch subtler. Here Robson captures something closer to the French 1930s template of “poetic realism,” where more realistic environments were carefully manipulated to create expressive settings, here managed on the back-lot sets with an almost theatrical minimalism. Robson was following on from Tourneur’s work, and pointing the way forward to the similar mix the most visually vivid noir films would sport within a few years. Many of the personnel who worked with Lewton, including Robson, had indeed worked on Orson Welles’ costly but deeply influential works at the studio, and indeed in many ways Lewton and team found practical applications for much that Welles had helped evolve.

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Jacqueline’s “return to life” however proves disorientating: taken to Jason’s studio, she recounts August’s killing in a spellbinding moment, with Robson tracking his camera in slowly to her wan and haunted face, and then finally her eyes, a shot that summarises, for me, the essence of Lewton’s achievement and perhaps indeed the genre. Where before she had ministered silence to hold the abyss at bay, now she confesses with words but those eyes say more about abysses she’s seen into. As tawdry as the Palladists are, the terrors they’ve evoked for Jacqueline after a life of frantically seeking sensual experience have pushed her to the edge of sanity, of liminal awareness, which with her morbidly fixated nature she feels experiences with all the acuity of a Dostoevsky character. At the same time, Jason, realising his romantic hopes are fading as Mary is gravitating more to Gregory’s paternal charm, tries to hint, by way of his extended Cyrano metaphor, to Jacqueline that her husband is in love with her sister. A dance of attraction has been in motion behind the scenes, between the carefully calibrated types: Gregory as upholder of order, Jason as protean creator, Judd as guardian of the psyche and healer, with Mary and Jacqueline, objects of their affections, as mirroring siblings, who embody Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, in William Blake’s parlance.

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The dance ends unsatisfyingly on one level: it’s hard to believe Mary would fall for Gregory, if only because, like too many of Lewton’s heroes, he’s played by one of RKO’s usual, deathly dull leading men, in this cause Beaumont, who would later find his role comfortably numbing us all as the patriarch of Leave it to Beaver. It does make sense on a psychological level, as Gregory has presented to both Gibson girls the ideal of the settled, paternal male, and through him an illusion of familial solidity. Jason, denied the girl, is rewarded with renewed creativity and also in discovering his accord with Judd, who proves to actually have been a benefactor, protecting Jacqueline and Jason from harm by life’s crueller facts. When he explains that Jason’s long-ago sweetheart, the one he saw Judd with, is now irretrievably insane, “a horrible, raving thing,” he recognises that Judd has been his friend all along. Judd’s own admissions to jealousy of Jason’s accomplishment with his first book gives way to his scepticism over his new work: “the time is out of tune,” he says, for such a romantic artist in a bleaker time. This touch reflects the peculiar status of Lewton’s films, their blend of darkness and light, homey emotionalism so nimble but frail in contrast to overwhelming evil, which marked the producer’s sensibility out of place in ruder environment of Hollywood, and yet came closer than almost anyone else to recording the psychological undertone of his era: The Seventh Victim, after all, was made in the midst of World War 2, and if any epoch could shake a person’s faith in common humanity and yet also offer many proofs for it, that was the one.

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As Tourneur and Wise went on to make some definitive films noir, Robson’s different touch would become clearer as he would make some excellent works situated rather at the nexus of noir with urban drama and social realism, like Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956), whilst fervently emotional melodramas amongst like Peyton Place (1957), From the Terrace (1960), and Valley of the Dolls (1967), coherently extend the female-centric sensibility he could adopt, apparent here and in his follow-ups for Lewton, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam (1946). Like Wise, Robson essentially became an all-round artisan who could be relied upon by the studios even as they floundered: it’s hard to imagine a film more diametrically opposed to the delicate horrors of this film than Earthquake (1974), Robson’s second-last work. The melancholy effect of The Seventh Victim is strong and genuine, especially considering that Lewton had used it to express his own mortal anxiety: he would die aged 46, whilst Gage would be killed in combat in the Philippines a year after the film was shot, and Brooks would die young from alcoholism.

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It’s remarkable, considering how dense and suggestive the narrative of The Seventh Victim is, that the film only runs a fraction over 70 minutes. The sense of compression is leavened slightly by the artificial effect of Mary and Gregory’s romance, although their couple’s last scene together, as Gregory asks Mary not to look at him as he both declares his ardour but also states his intent to deny it for Jacqueline’s sake, is delicately lovely and only needs a more convincing context. Judd and Jason’s rebuke to the Palladists awkwardly approaches a note of standard-issue piety Lewton usually artfully avoided. But this is both more complicated and simpler than it seems as it bears out a consistent aspect of the Lewton series, a belief that sometimes the most complex things are summarised best by the simplest words, especially matters like human interdependence. Judd offers the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses” – with a direction to actually consider what it implies in retorting to Brun’s respect for “Satanic majesty and power” by implying his belief is far cornier, with the implication that, to quote another Donne poem, no man is an island, and that the Palladists, rather than finding exclusive power, have instead left themselves tragically cut off from the only things that make life bearable.

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Apart from these stumbles, the last fifteen minutes are remarkable, as Jacqueline, brought out from the shadows by her friends, proves to have only been made vulnerable to her enemies. Kidnapped from Mary’s rooms, she’s kept by the Palladists in Cortez’s place, browbeaten by the gathering into drinking a cup of poison, with Robson’s framings teeming with Dutch Master-like faces looming out of chiaroscuro lighting, and Brooks with her nemesis, the glass, looming before her, voices of encouragement, alternately bullying, seductive, and despairing, whilst Jacqueline resists with cool boredom: “No, no, no…” When she finally does raise the chalice to her lips, Frances knocks it from her hands, an act of mercy from a friend moments after Frances was hysterically imploring her to drink. Jacqueline is released, but one of Palladist goons who had helped spirit August away now stalks her through the dark streets in perhaps the most epic of the many sequences of anxious midnight wandering in the Lewton series. Like Mary in the subway scene, Jacqueline finds herself utterly alone in the midst of the great city. She can’t appeal to the oblivious passers-by to protect her from the almost abstract threat that pursues her, the stalker’s face gleaming deathly pale out of shadows and looming out of shadows, building to a point when she edges her way along a wall in trying to escape a blind alley, only to feel the coat of her pursuer, lying in wait for her. A hand grasps her wrist; a knife flicks open.

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Jacqueline is only saved by the sudden eruption of a coterie of actors from their theatre’s rear entrance: one of the male actors grabs Jacqueline up offering to buy her a beer and a sandwich, and spirit her away to safety. They’re more than actors, they’re like an explosion of the life essence itself, emerging from doors with the Comedy and Tragedy masks painted on. The irreducible linkage of the two faces lies at the heart of The Seventh Victim’s obsession with mortality. Jacqueline cannot follow the actors into the tavern to share their Bacchanalian love of life, wandering away instead back to the Romaris’ boarding house, where she encounters one of the other residents, who throughout the film has only been glimpsed shuffling from one door to another. This is Mimi, a withering, consumptive woman waiting to die, played by another Lewton regular, Elizabeth Russell.

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Just as Russell played the sinister foreign woman who mysteriously recognised her “sister” in Cat People, here she recognises Jacqueline as fellow lost soul, and states her intention to go out and have fun rather than wait for death, in a monologue that’s both chilling and pathetic: “I’ve been so quiet, oh so quiet, I hardly move, yet it keeps coming for me all the time.” The firelight from within her room casts infernal flickering on the scene. Jacqueline’s final realisation that Mimi will die anyway precipitates the seemingly off-hand, yet bone-chilling final moment. Mimi, dressed up, leaves her flat and moves down the stairs, only distracted for a moment by the odd sound of a toppling chair in Jacqueline’s room, the confirmation that Jacqueline has finally taken her last option. A throwaway touch here underlines the overtone of inevitable fate being met: where the Palladists had mentioned that so far six deaths had been listed for the six betrayals their organisation had recorded, so Jacqueline’s apartment is numbered 7. The final effect is tragic, and yet as a whole, like all of Lewton’s films, The Seventh Victim is peculiarly life-affirming: enjoy it while you have it.


21st 05 - 2013 | 6 comments »

Forever Amber (1948)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Otto Preminger

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By Roderick Heath

Cinematic adventuring tends to be a macho occupation filled with derring-do for the hell of it, but Forever Amber depicts a different kind of adventure and adventurer at its heart. Amber St. Claire, eponymous heroine of Otto Preminger’s rollicking, deliciously colourful take on a female rake’s progress through the underbelly and high society of Restoration England, one forced to extremes to survive whilst determinedly indulging in a life outside the safety zone of normality, no matter the cost. Forever Amber doubles as one of the more striking crossbreeds of late 1940s Hollywood cinema, as Preminger combines the lush Technicolor expanse of an historical melodrama with a powerful dose of female-centric noir. At the same time, Forever Amber also belonged to a batch of films, including producer Darryl Zanuck’s near-simultaneous production Captain from Castile (1947), that revived the prestigious historical epic with new hues of darkness and complexity not found before World War II. Sexuality and class struggle, psychopathology and feminism percolate with feverish intensity under the surface of Preminger’s fast-paced and artful rendition of Kathleen Windsor’s hugely popular, dauntingly thick bodice-ripper.

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Forever Amber proved a wearisome project for Zanuck and Preminger, the latter of whom disliked the book and was far outside his comfort zone. The big-budget production ran into serious problems early in its shoot when the original lead actress, Peggy Cummins, chosen in a much-publicised Scarlett O’Hara-like hunt for a new actress, proved too inexperienced, and original director John M. Stahl, who knew his way around both strong melodrama and noir with films like Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1936), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), was over budget and behind schedule. Both director and star were swiftly replaced. Preminger, for all his disaffection, was a smart choice to take over, however, as he shared at least one trait with Stahl. Perhaps the strongest strand in Preminger’s cinema, apart from his delight in controversial subjects and moral complexities, is his fascination for transgressive, even criminal heroines: certainly such figures recur in such films as Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Carmen Jones (1954), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and in degrees in several more of his films. That Preminger, one of the most dictatorial and caustic directors in classic Hollywood, had a rich and fascinating feel for maladapted feminine subjects is notable. Many of his anti-heroines attempt to twist the world to suit their own egos, but find they are impossibly outmatched. Amber (Linda Darnell) certainly fits the mould.

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Amber is left as a foundling on the doorstop of a rural Puritan family by the driver of a coach speeding to elude Roundheads in the midst of the Civil War. The coach is overtaken, the passengers lost to history, but Amber is raised in the secure surrounds of a Puritan squire’s household. Once she’s full-grown, however, Amber feels the boiling blood of a tempestuous and easily tempted nature and, far from struggling with it, resolves to leap in feet first when she encounters a cavalier, Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). Bruce, along with his friend Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Greene) and other confederates, are returning from exile and extended guerrilla warfare to claim rewards for service during the war, now that Charles II (George Sanders) has been crowned. Thrilled by these good-looking emissaries of the larger world, Amber contrives to follow Bruce and Harry to London, and despite Bruce’s misgivings, she becomes his lover.

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Winsor’s novel had been a huge hit because it captured something in the zeitgeist of the immediate postwar era, coinciding neatly with the United States circa 1946. Amber is the prototypical rebellious girl dreaming of wider pastures via media-informed images of beauty and esteem, maintaining a fervent secret fantasy life even under the stern and watchful eye of her adoptive father Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll), who whips her to keep her wilful nature at bay. Amber keeps a scrap of paper sporting crude illustrations of elegant ladies and tries to imitate their dress and posture by candlelight in the dark of night, cleverly adapting her modest nightgown into a revealing approximation of glamour. A billion daughters who had been to the movies were doing the same, and before the new repression of the 1950s kicked in, and the flux of the late ’40s comes through in the excitement of the Restoration, where everybody’s on the make. This is, of course, counterbalanced with a regulation moralism: Amber is driven by desperation to morally null acts and constantly attempts to manipulate situations for her own ends only to have her efforts blow up in her face. Winsor’s tale relied on a similar dynamic to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and its film version, the singular paradigm of such popular storytelling, in presenting an anti-heroine who continually ruins herself through her attempts to manipulate people and her determination to snare one special man, whom she wants but can never quite have because of his stolid conscientiousness.

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When Bruce and Harry join the long queue of loyalists seeking rewards, and they find themselves fobbed off and ignored by courtiers like Charles’ gatekeeper Sir Thomas Dudley (Robert Coote) and the King’s mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine (Natalie Draper), a former flame of Bruce’s. On a visit to the theatre, Bruce ventures into the royal box where the Countess is already ensconced to prod her for a remembrance. Amber, jealous, contrives to have the King catch them together: this works, but the upshot is that Charles calls Bruce to the palace late at night and grants him all of his petitions, including ships for his planned privateering ventures, in an effort to get him out of the Countess’ life. Bruce leaves some money for a sleeping Amber and quietly departs; Harry leaves the next day to his reclaimed family estates. Amber, now alone, soon finds out just how rapacious London can be, as her dressmaker Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and her friend Landale (Alan Napier) offer to keep Amber’s money safely for her, and then of course steal it and testify at court that she owes them money. Amber is incarcerated in Newgate Prison, where she learns she’s pregnant with Bruce’s child, and befriends pickpocket Nan Britton (Jessica Tandy). She attends a debauch organised by the jailers with visiting gentlefolk on Christmas Eve, where she encounters imprisoned highwayman Black Jack Mallard (John Russell), who treats prison like a winter hideaway between arrests and escapes. He offers to spring them both.

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Forever Amber structurally mimics classics of picaresque literature like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Moll Flanders, taking its heroine through an anatomisation of society in a period setting. But it’s really a thorough-going product of the mid-20th century, following familiar templates for women’s films: elements of the story distinctly echo the Bette Davis hit Jezebel (1938) as a scheming woman accidentally creates havoc between two men and gets one killed in a duel, but proves herself redeemable by nursing the one she loves through sickness. It also has aspects in common with another ripe costume drama of the postwar period, the British film The Wicked Lady (1945), which similarly deals with quandaries of then-contemporary femininity through the tropes of period England, with the highwayman as the scarcely disguised avatar for an expert sexual partner freed from the rules of conventional society appealing to bad girls who want the same freedom. However, whereas Margaret Lockwood’s character in that gleefully proto-camp British film was an out-and-out sociopath, Amber only takes recourse in the gutter with Black Jack due to circumstances. When she escapes with Jack, he takes her to his base of operations and proves to be in thrall to a dark matriarchy, for Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) is the head of a ruthless shadow capitalism that quite literally only puts value on humans as far as they can generate profit.

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Amber is forced to work in league with Jack in rolling drunks to pay for her infant son’s keep. But Jack is soon killed in a battle with lawmen, and Amber, fleeing through the grimy, vertiginous streets in a deliciously visualised sequence of quasi-expressionist colour, takes refuge in the house of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Morgan conceals Amber and makes her his mistress, arranging the perfect legal protection for her by getting her a job as an actress, as all actors have been made wards of the Crown. Whilst Amber resists the entreaties of Charles, when she learns Bruce has returned, she immediately runs to him and gives him a chance to meet his son. But Bruce is less than thrilled when he learns that Amber’s attached herself to another man, and even less thrilled when the territorial Morgan challenges him to a duel. Forever Amber is thus sustained by a narrative dynamic that sees Amber eternally torn between material gain and her love for Bruce, which overrides all concerns and constantly results in self-sabotage: Bruce is insufferably self-righteous at many turns, repeatedly spurning Amber, at first for fear of corrupting her and then because of her willingness to get by using every means at her disposal.

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Winsor’s novel was a loaded project to take on, condemned by the Hays Office even before the film rights were sold, but of course, therein also lay the challenge and potential reward of a success d’scandale. Underlying the film’s half-hearted moralism, which accords accurately with an underlying eye for the double-standards of both 1660s England and 1940s America, is gleeful celebration of Amber’s bed-hopping and survivalist, social-climbing cunning, constantly provoking the intensely egotistical, proprietary conceit of the men she hooks up with, but always tellingly remaining independently minded regarding where she places her loyalty and affection. Black Jack and Morgan, who is killed by Bruce in their duel, give way to the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn), an icy, aged patrician who collects beauty like others collect paintings: shades of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” enter the film as it’s hinted Radcliffe may have had his last disobedient wife killed. Radcliffe approaches Amber initially when she is still working on the stage, and, after Morgan’s death and Bruce’s furious departure, he returns to offer Amber marriage. The union could make her immensely rich upon his death, but this requires living with him first, a dicey proposition. Radcliffe’s chill English brand of brutality is spelt out as he beats his Italian servant Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames), a veteran of the Earl’s residence in Italy where occurred his first wife’s untimely demise. And so Amber reaches the ultimate destination of her experiences, as the most sovereign of ladies tethered to the most ruthlessly controlling of men, one who takes the prevailing social tendency to reduce human being to property to a logical extreme: too old to provide her with any physical affection, he nonetheless demands perfect fidelity.

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The story’s underlying vein of noir brought out in the film’s second half is given special piquancy in its resemblance to noir tales that revolve around female protagonists, including Laura and Whirlpool, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name Is Julia Ross (1946), and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1951), all of which include a heroine entrapped by controlling and destructive men. Amber fatally offends her husband when, hearing that Bruce has returned to London yet again, leaves their wedding reception to track Bruce down. She finds him at the dock, but Bruce quickly keels over, stricken with plague. Amber undertakes his care, bribing a soldier to let her take him into an abandoned townhouse, a shadowy cavern that becomes a battle zone of life and death. Thanks to Amber’s hardiness and grit, including killing Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), a hired nurse who tried to kill Bruce and steal his valuables, Bruce recovers, only to be confronted with Radcliffe who arrives looking for his wife.

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If there’s a major fault with Forever Amber, it probably lies in part with the film’s troubled production and the resulting pressure to turn a profit from a whopping investment, something it didn’t quite manage. The film moves a touch too quickly at several points, especially its marvellously melodramatic climax, as if the filmmakers didn’t quite have time to piece the film together properly. But in spite of the fact that Preminger later described this as his worst film (very hard to swallow, especially in a career that also includes Hurry Sundown,1967), the director’s usually restrained sense of style is a great part of the pleasure of Forever Amber. Preminger, like Orson Welles, had been a stage director before entering cinema, and like Welles, had an interest in using camera mobility to imbue a sense of theatrical space, which would give way in his later films to a rougher and readier interest in realistic location work. His camera direction is fluidic, sustaining some dynamic shots in weaving about the sets tracing movement, whilst also offering a diagrammatic sensibility in the way he positions actors, evoking Renaissance painting with a theatrical tinge that Preminger sets up in one of his droller scenes, in the early playhouse scene with the players enacting Romeo and Juliet in similarly blocked poses, launching into dance-like duelling which they break off momentarily to bow at the royal box before recommencing. Interpersonal dialogue scenes are rendered less usually in the familiar over-the-shoulder two shot than in squared-off diptychs, triptychs, and group shots reduced to ritualised forms, as in the moments before Bruce and Rex’s duel, where the seconds spread out into geometric positions in front of which the two duellists cross in slashing movement to balance either wing, all before a dreamy, fog-gnarled approximation of a parkland setting.

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Amber was shot by Leon Shamroy, arguably the first great visual poet of colour cinematography, having contributed superlative work to Zanuck’s other productions, like The Black Swan (1942) and Captain from Castile. Here, working with “Technicolor Director” Natalie Kalmus, Shamroy creates the film’s saturated visual palette, swinging from poles of candy-coloured foppery in the daylight to dark-flooded, cleverly lit and expressive recreations of a tangled, medieval London about to meets its cleansing reckoning in fire. His saturated blues and inky black dotted with pools of brilliance from fire and lamp, and the Hogarthian confines of Newgate, Mother Red Cap’s house, and the plague-stricken city of night, all offered with painterly care in source lighting and tonal lustre.

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Amber’s stint as an actress is inevitable, as she’s already played many roles to survive, and a note vibrates through the whole film that it’s really a long-shot metaphor for the exigencies of survival in Hollywood. Certainly, deliberately or not, Winsor’s original tale rests on a sensibility informed by the common fantasies of a largely female readership, much of which would inevitably have included success in the Dream Factory. Just as Amber fantasises about a swankier life, practising her act by candlelight early in the tale, so does she tackles her various parts, in thrall to powerful men but also using them deftly, as a protean being. Both Zanuck and Preminger would have affairs with ill-fated starlets, Bella Darvi in Zanuck’s case and Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s, that would echo this story, and star Linda Darnell constantly placed herself in bruising conflict with the hierarchy of Hollywood since rising from bit parts to play alongside Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941). Darnell, surprised when she was rapidly transferred onto this film after preparing for a lead role in Captain from Castille, was a talented and stunningly good-looking actress, possessed of a certain truculence toward the studio system’s attempts to reduce her to a glamour-puss, and usually typecast in parts that relied on her darkly exotic looks. There was an irony in her landing Amber after Zanuck, Stahl, and Preminger had placed emphasis on getting a natural blonde like Cummins or Lana Turner for the part. Darnell doesn’t give her best performance here—three years later, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, she showed her true mettle—but Forever Amber was her greatest star moment.

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Inevitably, Amber is drawn into Charles’ orbit again in the theatre and as Radcliffe’s wife, presenting a tempting morsel to the King at a dance, after Charles has just broken off with Castlemaine and where the bored and restrained Amber makes it plain she’d very much like to be Charles’ next concubine and Radcliffe resists with stern resolve, a full-on macho pissing contest with Amber as the stake taking place under the genteel phraseology and strained politeness. Radcliffe’s patience with Amber finally burns out, aptly on a night when the Great Fire, blazing in the background, comes weeping towards Radcliffe’s city mansion. Radcliffe sees a chance to rid himself of another problematic spouse, and tries to lock her within the house to die in the flames, only for Nan and Galeazzo to come to the rescue. Preminger sweeps in for a dramatic close-up of the Italian servant’s face, transmuted into a mask of wrath, as he marches over to Radcliffe: in a delirious moment of violent revenge, Galeazzo picks up the Earl and hurls him bodily into the fire that’s consuming the house, before he, Nan, and Amber flee ahead of the fiery collapse, concluding a brief but effectual rebellion of the underclass that completes a circular movement from the blaze that consumed Amber’s birthplace in war at the start to this fiery consummation.

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Forever Amber is too hampered by it concessions to punitive morality to really be a feminist work, especially in the film’s concluding phase, in which Amber is emotionally blackmailed into giving up custody of her son to Bruce and loses favour with Charles after being his mistress for a time. But it’s arguable the film reflects the problems of being an adventurous female in the era far more accurately than a more liberal depiction would, and the film never entirely abandons a winkingly mischievous attitude to its sexuality. Bruce, who has since settled in America and returns with a bride, Corinne (Jane Ball), has become a big enough prig to fit in with any Puritans in the New World. He approaches Amber to convince her to let him take their son back across the Atlantic to let him grow up in a more morally fecund environment than the British upper-class (he has a point). But his American-born spouse proves to be a better sport. As Amber tries another of her tricks—bringing Charles and Corinne together so the King will seduce her and sunder the Carltons’ marriage—Charles spots her ploy and pleasantly sends Corinne on her way. He posits as she leaves, “What if we hadn’t both realised we were both the victims of a plot, if you had simply been my guest here tonight, what might the result of been?” to which Corinne replies with fearless good humour, “It’s a pity we shall never know, your majesty.” Amber fails doubly, as Charles feels disillusioned by Amber’s plotting and reveals his own peculiar pathos in having to settle for approximations of love when his social role was predetermined, and so commands Amber to leave court. It’s made clear that Amber won’t be falling on hard times—she has Radcliffe’s fortune and quickly has Dudley calling dibs—but as Bruce takes away her son and she’s faced with exile from the pinnacle of her dreams, Amber is left a tragic figure. Her tragedy is of someone who liberated herself from the repressiveness of her society but not from its deeper hypocrisy: the tendency to reduce human being, even loved ones, to playthings and properties.


23rd 02 - 2013 | 13 comments »

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

Director: William A. Wellman 

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Mike Smith gave an interesting talk at a local library about the history of the Academy Awards that featured clips from several Best Picture winners representing different eras of filmmaking. He chose the much-honored The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to represent the World War II era, and commented that while American audiences today seem to need several years to pass before a film can address an important historical event such as 9/11 or Columbine, no such time lag existed for previous generations. Particularly during World War II, movie audiences got dispatches from the various fronts through newsreel footage that spared no one the horrors of war. With the immediacy of the war touching large numbers of Americans, feature filmmakers felt both a freedom and an obligation to present their war stories with the same unflinching reality. The Best Years of Our Lives, released right after the end of the war and dealing with the challenges of repatriated veterans, did nothing to sugarcoat the difficulties faced by double-amputee Harold Russell, who won an Oscar for his affecting portrayal of a soldier coming to terms with the loss of his hands and how his disability will affect the rest of his life.

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In a similar vein, The Story of G.I. Joe premiered in June 1945, a mere two months after the death of its central character, Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who was mowed down by machine gun fire on an island near Okinawa four months before the end of the war in the Pacific. Like illustrator Bill Mauldin, who concentrated on the lives of the ordinary “dogfaces” fighting the war on the ground in his cartoon “Willie and Joe,” Pyle attached himself to the infantry and wrote in plain-spoken style about the lives and deaths of the various G.I. Joes he met. The Story of G.I. Joe, a mournful one if ever there was, can be looked on as a public display of grief for a man who dignified the pain and loss of so many Americans.

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The film focuses on C Company, 18th Battalion, a small outfit stationed in North Africa. The CO, Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum), has to deal with two stowaways. One is Pyle (Burgess Meredith), who approaches him and asks to ride with the company to the front. The other is a stray puppy one of the younger soldiers has tucked into his jacket at the back of the truck. Walker orders little Arab off the truck, but ultimately relents as both Pyle and Arab become unofficial members of the company. This sweet moment is almost immediately shattered when enemy planes swoop down on the company. The men follow their training and scramble for cover while the gunner remains on the truck to shoot at the planes. After the attack, they reassemble, only to discover that Arab will need a new master. It’s a slightly predictable, but nonetheless wrenching moment. “The first death’s the hardest,” says Walker, in understated acknowledgment that there will be more. When the company hunkers down in the evening, we get a sense of the cold desert nights, as Pyle wraps up tightly in the sleeping bag he carries, and Pvt. Murphy (John R. Reilly), too tall for the Air Force, extends his long legs outside his tent, letting a draft in on his complaining tent mate.

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As with a real company, men are killed and new ones rotate in. As the soldiers’ identities get obscured by quick succession, beards, mud, and rain, it’s hard to tell one from another. The film provides a core group of soldiers with character-defining behaviors to help us stay connected—‟Wingless” Murphy, horny Pvt. Dondaro (Wally Cassell), family man Sgt. Warnicki (Freddie Steele), dependable Pvt. Spencer (Jimmy Lloyd)—as they manage to survive actions from North Africa to Italy. But it is Ernie Pyle who forms the strong center of the movie. Pyle functions as something of a Greek chorus, which normally would relegate him to the sidelines, particularly as he drops in and out of C Company as his war coverage takes him all over the map. However, Wellman manages to keep him at the forefront, giving audiences familiar with his written dispatches a sense that they are still seeing the war through his eyes. Wellman performs this sleight of hand in a number of ways. For example, Ernie waits with little Arab for the remnants of the C Company veterans with whom he started his “tour” to return from a rain-soaked battle; like Ernie, we don’t see the battle, only its aftermath. We feel the weariness of the men as they come back, one by one, and perform their after-battle rituals, and wince with open emotion along with Ernie and Arab when one of them doesn’t return. In addition, Ernie earns the nickname “the little guy,” putting him on even footing with the troops, and is acknowledged every time he returns to C Company as one of them.

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The Story of G.I. Joe doesn’t offer a strong chronology or an orderly passage of time. True to the experience of the GIs, the war just keeps going, and the soldiers keep going with it. The grim conditions are occasionally lightened, even during battle. In a tense sequence where Walker and Warnicki are hunting three German snipers holed up in a ruin of a church, the Americans dart in and out, laying down covering fire and counting with happy grins of camaraderie when one of the Germans falls. During the same action, Dondaro ducks into an inn where he comes face to face with a young Italian woman (Yolanda Lacca). He speaks her language, and the entire scene takes place in Italian with no subtitles. After the battle, Warnicki attempts to find a record player for a recording his wife sent him of their son saying hello. He gestures to the Italians, rotating his finger in a circle to show what he’s looking for, but instead of a turntable, one of them returns with a coffee grinder. What wonderful touches of realism and human connection!

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A sense of futility descends frequently. As American troops are pinned down by Germans perched in the culturally significant monastery of Monte Cassino, Warnicki, a Catholic, says he’d rather live for his family than die for a piece of rock. When Allied bombers at long last appear to destroy the monastery, the GIs cheer, only to discover that the rubble of the monastery is as useful a position for the Germans as the intact building was. Eventually, Warnicki loses his battle with the demons in his own head and is shipped off to a psych hospital, a reminder, perhaps, of Pyle’s near crack-up. The question comes up frequently about why Pyle stays when he could go home, a question he can’t seem to answer for himself. The film betrays nothing of his troubled home life, but broken marriages aren’t skimmed over, as Walker’s split is signaled economically when he receives no letters from his wife during mail call.

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The central performances of Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum form a strong core for the action going on around them. Meredith, age 38 at the time, seems rather older than the 43rd birthday he celebrates in the film, but as Steven Spielberg said when he talked about casting Saving Private Ryan (1998), the faces were older back then; 43 in the 1940s could look like 63 today. Meredith carries the gravity of those years, the quiet patience and unembarrassed emotion of a person secure in himself, and remains present but unobtrusive throughout the film. Mitchum has always seemed grizzled beyond his years to me, but in this film, he not only looks his age (28), but also acts it as a man barely old enough to lead a command of men not much younger than he is. He is world-weary when he talks about having to write condolence letters to relatives of his fallen troops, but the scene ends rather innocently with Ernie waxing philosophic, only to turn and find Walker has fallen asleep. The two actors work beautifully together and build a relationship that feels solid and genuine.

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Although relieved by actual war footage, the sound stage shooting threatens to undermine the reality of the unfolding story. Fortunately, Wellman had such a good grasp on the rhythms of ground warfare and paid such close attention to detail that the film never loses its grip. For example, ensuring bodies retrieved from a battlefield show signs of rigor mortis not only adds veracity to a scene, but also defies those heroic final speeches dying soldiers always seem to have time to spit out before their eyes flutter and their heads drop abruptly to the side. The soldiers carry their rifles butt-up in the rain to prevent water from going down the barrel. There is no final victory to end the film on a high note either, only Ernie Pyle’s gut-twisting final line: “For those beneath the wooden crosses, there is nothing we can do, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks pal, thanks.’” Given Pyle’s vain hope that the horrors he has reported will convince nations not to make war again, that “thank you” belongs to the men and women who served alongside the fallen soldier, not to those of us who have risked nothing. We, it seems, have not learned any lessons at all.


2nd 08 - 2012 | 8 comments »

The Black Swan (1942)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Henry King

By Roderick Heath

If The Sea Hawk is the working model of the old-fashioned swashbuckler, The Black Swan is its disreputable younger brother, a study in lascivious über pulp in rest and motion. Starring Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn’s chief rival for the mantle of swashbuckling heartthrob during the late 1930s-1940s, in one of his nearly a dozen collaborations with director Henry King, The Black Swan is another essential genre avatar. King, a cinema pioneer and usually a soberly artful, thoughtful director, here threw out the niceties and reduces the serious themes of the Curtiz-Flynn model to window dressing. He charges through the narrative like a whirling dervish to wrap up his narrative in 84 minutes of Technicolor-swathed foreplay. The theme usually treated cheekily, even suggestively, but ultimately decorously in Flynn’s movies, the dance of dangerous seduction between roguish outlaw and a prim lady fair like Olivia de Havilland, is here transmuted into an extended S&M fantasy. Apart from Duel in the Sun (1948), The Black Swan is, in its circuitous way, quite the filthiest, mind-bogglingly kinky and campy film I’ve seen from a major Hollywood studio in the 1940s. Whilst The Sea Hawk took the oncoming mood of war seriously enough to sail on those ill winds, The Black Swan is entirely a rejection of contemporary reflection, except perhaps in its aggressive underlying celebration of warrior masculinity as a newly desirable ideal.

Some of the films that helped to invent what would later be called the camp aesthetic (and The Black Swan surely is one, along with the likes of Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman [1944] and the most florid Bette Davis and Joan Crawford melodramas) welled out of the underground reservoirs of this seemingly more serious era’s frenetic anxieties and perfervid fantasies, which would also disgorge film noir. Shot in Technicolor that pools with the luscious vivacity of Renaissance art, all the better for soaking up the texture of leading lady Maureen O’Hara’s vulva-red lips and the hues of Earl Luick’s costuming, The Black Swan prefigures the painterly aesthetic of King and Power’s fine later collaboration, Captain from Castile (1947). But whereas the latter film was coolly resplendent in its use of storybook colour and offered its melodramatic story as a sober epic, The Black Swan is little more than a romp through the tropes of the pirate movie.

Working from a script by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s novel, King whirls through what should be a first act of a standard swashbuckler film in a solid 20 minutes of delirious fights and captures, rape and bondage, torture and pistol brandishing, door-entering and stair-climbing, that starts to play like French bedroom farce done in buccaneer costume. This is, as an opening title tells us in a manner suggesting cowriter Hecht lampooning his archly romantic foreword scrawl for Gone with the Wind (1939), a “story of the Spanish Main — when Villainy wore a Sash, and the only political creed in the world was — Love, Gold, Adventure.” The very first shot, of a young Hispanic gallant serenading his lady love far below her high balcony, hits a romantic note the film only wants to subvert. Within moments, the Spanish Caribbean port is infiltrated by a band of English privateers who leap from the rooftops to overwhelm the guards and plunder the town of everything that can be carried away; the pirates are glimpsed hefting tethered girls onto their ship like sacks of grain.

Pirate captains Jamie Waring (Power) and Billy Leech (George Sanders) celebrate by getting sozzled on the beach with two trussed maidens wriggling like puppies at their feet. Leech makes a play for figurative fellatio as he tries to force one captive to drink from his mug, but as she resists, he instead splashes his symbolic seed all over her face. Spanish soldiers resurge from the night, driving out the pirates and capturing Waring, who is then stripped to the waist and hung on the governor’s rack for a little gratuitous torso-ripping and rippling. Now it’s Waring getting the wine goblet/penis substitute waved in his face. Thankfully, in bursts Waring’s chum Tommie Blue (Thomas Mitchell) with a relief party, and soon it’s the Spanish governor on the rack. Jamaica’s British governor, Lord Denby (George Zucco), comes downstairs to intervene, protesting that England and Spain have now made peace, but Waring, even more infuriated, has him promptly hurled into the dungeon as a traitor. His daughter, Margaret (O’Hara) descends too, wielding a pistol and demanding to know her father’s location: Waring swats the gun from her hand and tries to kiss her as prelude to ravishing her, but the arrival of Waring’s friend, Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), distracts him so much he drops Margaret like so much laundry under his arm. Morgan’s arrival doesn’t mean, however, that the pirating business will continue as usual. Morgan, whom all of his pirating friends thought had been hung in London after being captured and shipped there by Denby, has returned as the new Jamaican governor, because he’s the only one who can persuade the pirates to hang up their cutlasses now that England has made peace with Spain—or, if he can’t, can use his knowledge to hunt them down.

Unsurprisingly, Morgan is initially spurned by Denby. Leech and fellow cutthroat Wogan (Anthony Quinn) in turn spurn the idea of giving up piracy, whilst Waring reluctantly sides with Morgan and Tommie. As he and Tommie escort Morgan into the governor’s mansion, they fight like children over the best rooms, and Waring eagerly claims Margaret’s former chamber, all the better to lounge upon her pillows to imbibe the scent she’s left on them. Tommie tries to impress a lady friend he’s picked up by making love to her in Margaret’s bed, only for Waring to catch them and kick them out. Waring tries to reinvent himself as a gentleman, or at least as close as he can get to one, in order to pursue Margaret in his new station. She, understandably, is less than thrilled initially, playing the cobra to his mongoose in a lengthy game where Waring tries to suppress his natural inclination to bend Margaret over the nearest barrel and have at it and play the gentleman suitor. When Margaret falls from her horse while fleeing from him, he tends to her in his approximation of gallant fashion, including peeling her eyes wide to check she hasn’t suffered a stroke and fetching her a drink of water using a lily pad as a cup, only for her to then clout him on the noggin with a stone. Waring has a love rival in the form of Denby’s foppish friend Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley), a strutting ponce who seems by far the more ideal gentleman—except that Ingram is plotting to make himself extremely rich, destroy Morgan, and help Denby take back control of Jamaica by feeding information to Leech on where and when to attack ships, and how to avoid Waring and the other loyal captains under Morgan.

Piracy is to King as jewel thievery is to Lubitsch and Hitchcock: an extended mating dance. Whereas for the latter directors, that finer illicit occupation symbolised adult sexuality at its most sophisticated, piracy under King’s watch becomes a fundamental metaphor for baser, more primal processes, as the drama, whilst set nominally in a specific historical milieu, portrays a moment in human evolution that is far more remote, when animal needs and raw force give way to the relation of individuals. King isn’t the slightest bit interested in either the finagling of the villains or in delivering a comeuppance to Ingram—that’s left to be resolved after the final fade-out—but rather focuses purely on the randy energy of his stars, complemented with some neat action.

Power, who was King’s discovery, was catapulted to stardom after appearing in King’s Lloyd’s of London (1936) as an artful, but largely static romantic lead. When he played the title role in King’s 1939 drama Jesse James, and then the masked avenger in Rouben Mamoulian’s more classical The Mark of Zorro (1940), with an epic bout of swordplay between Power and Basil Rathbone that ranks as one of the most genuinely fierce ever filmed, Power became a legitimate rival to Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling idol. The air of physical discomfort that would beset Power increasingly in the later 1940s and 1950s owing to the inherited heart ailment that would finally kill him, was still nowhere to be seen, and he bounds through The Black Swan with the swaggering confidence of a movie star at full force: actually this was the next to last movie Power would make before he joined the Marines and served as pilot through the end of World War II. He was bisexual according to Hollywood scuttlebutt (but then, who wasn’t?), and certainly was no stranger to letting himself be eroticised on screen. He spends about a third of the running time of The Black Swan sans shirt, starting with an interlude of homoerotic torture.

O’Hara, on the other hand, seems to have possessed some innate quality that brought out the latent S&M fantasist in so many of the directors who worked with her: bound, gagged, and hooded in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), kidnapped repeatedly and subjected to medieval torture in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), dragged across country on her rear end at John Ford’s behest in The Quiet Man (1952), and thrown in for a bout of mud wrestling and spanking in Andrew V. McLaglen’s McLintock (1963). What was it about O’Hara that exposed the nakedly eager chauvinist in such filmmakers? Was it her capacity to seem at once rigidly proper and cast-iron in character, but also provocatively, lawlessly sensual under the surface? Certainly The Black Swan is predicated on just this balance, as the more ferociously contemptuous and dismissive O’Hara gets the more and more certain Waring is that Margaret secretly adores him. After he’s clobbered Ingram, who ill-advisedly tried to start a duel, he demands to know what on earth she sees in such a flop of a man. Margaret spits a stream of insults at him: “You black-hearted bully! What do you know about men or women or anything human? All you can do is shoot and kill and prey on women, with your beastly senses slobbering at the sight of anything fine!” Waring swishes his cape and struts off with a confident flourish: “I repeat my lass, you’ll have to choose between us, and very soon too.”

The idea of making an action-adventure movie as an excuse to put two roaring hot stars together was once one of the essential creeds of Hollywood; Howard Hawks was the past master of it. I recall a few years ago when watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), one of the direct descendants of this film and its brethren, how much I was struck by the blinding arc of electrochemistry between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in one singular scene together. That chemistry was otherwise entirely ignored in the series, leaving us instead with Knightley’s romance with Orlando Bloom’s blockish ingénue and Depp to romance his own CGI simulacrums. It felt like an offence to cinema and nature, one neither Hawks nor King would have committed. The classic notion that the on-screen action is only an essential backdrop to the contemplation of human mating rituals is not necessarily a degradation of the adventure movie ethic; on the contrary, it has long been one of the genre’s distinctive traits. The essential motif of misconstrued character between potential lovers is again ancient, though the peculiar tweak it’s given here is that Margaret really isn’t wrong to mistrust Waring’s “reformed” character, given what we see of the way he acts, a pure caricature of troglodytic masculinity who obeys a fundamental belief in the truth of immediate biological reaction rather than any social nicety. Freudian and mythical symbolism is invoked as Waring plants a sword between his and Margaret’s beds as both a fittingly phallic and deadly totem of the space that must remain between them until the romance is finally mutual. Whilst it could hardly seem a greater distance from King’s next film, The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Black Swan treats playfully a theme that consistently preoccupied King in his more evidently personal works: characters attempting to transcend their character flaws and evolve towards a yearned-for state of grace and enlightenment, usually within the context of a great social moment that not only offers the chance for such transcendence, but also forces it.

Chief villains Sanders, who, equipped with his great bushy red beard and broad accent, seems to be relishing playing a less gentlemanly kind of rotter for once, and Quinn, sporting an eye patch, feel like avatars for the perverse, consuming pan-sexuality of the “pirate” breed, imps from the innermost realm of Waring’s psyche who must be defeated if he is to truly evolve as he says he wishes. When Waring and Margaret are forced to pretend to be married for the sake of fooling Leech, he comes snuffling into their room looking as if he very much like to climb into bed with both of them, brandishing a nightgown for Margaret that he seems to like the idea of wearing himself. Meanwhile, Quinn’s Wogan lounges shirtless in the window bay of his cabin.

Whether Waring really can evolve is the chief stake of the plot. He gives in, apparently, to his most anarchic impulses when, faced with a schism between ardour and duty, he haphazardly combines both by intervening to keep Margaret from marrying Ingram by kidnapping her, cueing another of O’Hara’s bondage scenes, as Waring ties her up and wraps a big thick gag about her yap. But once he has her on his ship, Waring tries to maintain a gentlemanly forbearance, even as circumstance dictates he pretend to be signing back on with Leech and Wogan. The necessities of political loyalty are also seen as essentially erotic, just like the dance of force and seduction, softness and hardness between Margaret and Waring; Morgan’s ennobling by the King and his new suppliance to authority demands he attempt to quash his former colleagues and the roguish activities he himself still wishes he could indulge, just as Waring must give up his ravaging.

Cregar’s gleeful performance as Morgan is another highlight of The Black Swan, walking an exact line between high comedy and imperial force, appearing initially in a vision akin to the climactic moment of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) when King Richard reveals himself as nobility and order incarnate, as he appears unexpectedly, resplendent in the full Restoration drag. And yet Cregar’s Morgan constantly scratches underneath his mighty black wig of state and finally tugs it off in a fit of pique. He’s almost glad when the conspiracy of the snotocracy in Jamaica forces him to flee and find his only possible salvation in one last bit of seafaring action, to try to ensnare Leech and Waring, whom he believes really has turned rascal again. As a film, The Black Swan is a work of pure illustrative élan in the most classical Hollywood fashion. In avoiding standard swashbuckling until the finale, King pares back exposition to almost comic book proportions, like the course of an attack on a treasure ship depicted in swift montage, resolving with a victimised ship’s nameplate, still affixed to a broken piece of hull, drifting in the water. The early scene in which Leech and Wogan split from Morgan, with a pie-eyed Waring unable to actually decide whom he wants to follow, is a Hogarthian litany of seedy humanity and ye olde fakery. The ultimate sympathy of The Black Swan leans distinctly towards the pirates’ side, or at least the gentlemanly ones: Morgan considers chucking in his commission for a return to sea, having gotten a taste of the more refined buccaneering of politics and high society, whilst Waring’s swashbuckling prowess is finally proven to have heroic uses.

Whilst neglecting the usual action until its last reel, The Black Swan finally lets rip in one of the most visually inventive and dazzling action sequences of its era, making the fullest use of Leon Shamroy’s photography—he very deservedly won an Oscar for his work—and some ingenious special effects, including using a mixture of matte and model work to give the battling ships the kind of crawling liveliness that wouldn’t be much seen in such fare until the arrival of CGI. Waring, finally cut loose in action, cripples Wogan’s ship by cutting its rudder lines, causing the vessel to crash headlong into the shore, and then swims to and boards Leech’s ship to engage in the compulsory death-duel with his nemesis. Sanders, never pressed for much physical acting, nonetheless rises to the occasion with some surprisingly deft swordplay, making the final battle a convincingly feral clash. Waring is skewered in the hip by his opponent, giving him a terrible wound that nonetheless also hands him the chance to dispatch his enemy with one good jab to the belly. Of course, the spectacle of Waring’s selfless and prodigious derring-do, and his newly prostrate, weakened state, finally win Margaret over, and she contemptuously dismisses Morgan’s offer to see her beastly kidnapper hung. The final clinch, rather than offering Waring secure reinstatement into polite society, offers instead Margaret, now transmuted into a pirate wench, a sexually sovereign being who feeds back to Waring his own suggestive catchphrases (“I like to sample a bottle before I buy it”) and recites “Jamie Boy’s” name thrice according to an ancient and pagan nuptial vow. It’s as sexy as movie punchlines get.


20th 06 - 2012 | 12 comments »

The Sea Hawk (1940)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Michael Curtiz

If Raiders of the Lost Ark represents the adventure film reborn, The Sea Hawk is its classical ancestor at zenith. Few director-star collaborations provided more pleasure, and yet have resulted in surprisingly few encomiums of the kind that, say, Hitchcock and Grant or Stewart, or Ford and Wayne, have earned over the years, than that between Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn. That could be, perhaps, because both men are feted for what they did obviously well, whilst remaining strangely under-regarded. The Budapest-born, eruptive, malapropism-prone Curtiz, born Mano Kurtesz Kaminar, first rose to fame in European cinema before he followed a path to Hollywood that was well-worn, and yet he quickly installed himself as one of the town’s arch professionals, and one of its most inimitable stylists, surviving and flourishing where so many others sank or settled for less. Curtiz’s development of a muted but acutely animated kind of expressionism proved a perfectly adaptable style that loaned a veneer of intrinsic mythos to even the most humdrum and realistic material, mixed with an eye for quicksilver visual exposition and mise-en-scene, and a grasp on shooting and cutting together action sequences that deserved comparison with Eisenstein and DeMille. Curtiz’s style found its most perfect purpose in a run of filmmaking from 1935 to 1945 that produced several of the works by which people still define the very essence of Classic Hollywood, including Angels With Dirty Faces (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, which Curtiz took over directing when William Keighley was taking too long), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945).

Similarly, Flynn, who tackled almost every type of lead role, is nonetheless one of those stars bound to be associated forever and ever with one specific kind of movie and part. His embodiment of the swashbuckler was here at his absolute height: he brought his own distinct mix of romantic sensitivity and a certain ardent, intrinsic rebelliousness to the template first laid down by Douglas Fairbanks, of the grinning, devil-may-care, impudently charming, infinitely athletic man of action. The Sea Hawk both continues and slightly distorts the formula laid down by Curtiz and Flynn in their earlier collaborations, Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which also set Flynn’s personality in high-contrast conflict with the imperious Renaissance matriarchy of Elizabeth I. Here the terms of reference were closer to the historical action of the other entries. Flynn’s usual object of romantic interest, Olivia de Havilland, is swapped for the under-used Brenda Marshall, a slightly harder, chillier personality, albeit one who melts darn well, fit for a slightly harder, chillier brand of the genre. If I’ve chosen to speak of The Sea Hawk rather than The Adventures of Robin Hood, perhaps the most perfect swashbuckler ever made, or Casablanca, a study in the chamber-piece adventure movie, to celebrate this one, it’s partly because The Sea Hawk fascinates me in how, whilst sustaining the innocent, ebullient traditions of the pre-WW2 swashbuckler, it can be seen assimilating a darker new reality into its form, intuitively reshaping itself to match an oncoming era of total war. On the cusp of the era that would spawn film noir and see the adventure film sink largely to candy-coloured lampooning, The Sea Hawk looks at times awfully like proto-noir in the least generically familiar of contexts. The Sea Hawk flaunts Warner Bros. production resources, not stretched to a limit as Robin Hood did, but employed with an exacting sense of talent employed for appropriate results, crammed to the rafters with terrific character actors and technical wizards.

By the time The Sea Hawk was made, WW2 had begun in earnest, and whilst released still in the time of the US’s official neutrality, this Warner Bros. production took an overt tilt at an historical parable of Hitlerian ambition through the prism of Elizabethan England’s conflict with imperial Spain. Warner’s adventure films might have seemed the escapist flipside to the studio’s famous run of social-realist and gangster films, and yet they internalised similar values; Flynn’s heroes were usually patriotic, but in a fashion that demanded they fight corrupt oligarchs and tyrants domestic and foreign, often even driven to sacrifice or destroy themselves or commit an act of betrayal, if a greater cause demanded a forbidden act. The Sea Hawk tweaks the dynamic insofar as the Flynn’s often outright rebellious attitude to authority, which often segued late in the tale to a new loyalty as the corrupt fell and regimes changed, here his relationship with Elizabeth is based on differing definitions of defensive patriotic action. The Sea Hawk’s opening immediately establishes the agenda: Philip II (Montagu Love), characterised as a majestic egomaniac, gesticulates at the world map upon his wall, his shadow falling in classic Curtiz style upon the continents fashion like a stain, as Philip airily declares that soon “it will no longer be a map of the world, but of Spain!” Philip’s wrath has been drawn by England’s recalcitrance, in particular its sponsoring of privateers, or “Sea Hawks” as they’re dubbed here, to justify the film’s title after tossing out the Rafael Sabatini source novel. Secretly planning to build the Armada to swamp England’s resistance, Philip sends his ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) to browbeat Elizabeth (Flora Robson) into curbing the Sea Hawk raiders.

The galley taking Alvarez and niece Maria (Marshall) to England, under the captaincy of Lopez (Gilbert Roland) and driven by slaves committed to the oars by the Inquisition, falls prey in the English Channel to the most infamous of the Sea Hawks, Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn), who swoops upon the Spaniards and pulverises their ship before boarding. The Sea Hawk thus really kicks off with its biggest action set-piece, signalling an intent to play with the usual narrative structure, and, as Flynn and several of his familiar company like Alan Hale appear, deliberately evoking a feeling of stepping in where one of the earlier Flynn-Curtiz swashbucklers left off. The action that follows is close to perfection in form and function, and, like the desert chase in Raiders, has a solid spot in my private list of all-time great action sequences. If all the infrastructure of classic Hollywood was worth anything beyond putting interesting actors together in small rooms, it was to put together a bit of filmmaking like this, an escalating series of visually thrilling, artful, yet perfectly expedient shots that stands at such a remove from the endemic gibberish of so much modern action filmmaking. Even The Sea Hawk’s classiest twenty-first century offspring, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), couldn’t come close to competing with it for managing both livid intensity and clarity at the same time in depicting close-quarters carnage.

Curtiz and the production team were evidently trying to match the finale of Captain Blood – a couple of shots from which augment the sequence, including snatches from the first silent version of The Sea Hawk (1923) that film itself interpolated – and to outdo it for flow and tactile detail, a quality of the film as a whole that leaps out. The eternal assumption of the classic swashbuckler, that British sailors were incontrovertibly better shots than anyone else, sees Thorpe’s crew cripple their lumbering, slave-driven foe and board it, albeit a little earlier than Thorpe wished because one of his men, Eli Matson (J.M. Kerrigan), jumps before he gives the order. The battle sequence proceeds with a micro-managerial sense of detail outlay: the cannon balls of Thorpe’s ship, the Albatross, shattering the hull of the enemy; grappling hooks skewering enemy soldiers; the galleon’s oars shattering as the two ships are pulled together; the frantic, multi-levelled, impossibly teeming shots of the two crews battling; Thorpe getting his trusty lieutenant Pitt (Hale) to force the Spanish trumpeter to sound surrender, saving Lopez in the nick of time from Thorpe’s blade; Lopez requesting that Thorpe leave his ship so he can be the last man to abandon the sinking vessel, the Spaniard finally swinging over to a general cheer.

A level of gentlemanly forbearance and essentially anti-chauvinistic feeling is evoked in Thorpe’s attempts to mollify the outraged Spaniards, giving them run of his decks and treating his unwilling guests to fine dining with captured Spanish silverware, and Maria’s maid (the compulsory, evergreen Una O’Connor) gives the English sailors a tongue-lashing for speaking contemptuously of Spanish culture. But the underlying emotional kick is delivered when Thorpe is reunited with a former crewman, Tuttle (Clifford Brooke), one of the galley oarsmen who could recognise the English Channel purely by the shifting of the swell. Thorpe’s sense of justice and outright contempt for the draconian tyranny Philip is asserting across the globe is established in front of Alvarez and his daughter, planting a seed in her sensibility that proves inseparable from Thorpe. In spite of her attempts to remain icy towards Thorpe for his freewheeling piracy and disregard for international diplomatic niceties, Maria slips quietly and quickly under the spell of his charm.

Hollywood in the late ‘30s avoided engaging with contemporary political realities with an oft-astonishing amount of pussyfooting: when Confessions of Nazi Spy (1940) was released one critic quipped that it was only five years too late. Strangely, but with intuitive aptness, the historical remoteness and playfulness of the Warner Bros. swashbucklers reflected the era’s undercurrents with the greatest concision, growing in force throughout the Curtiz-Flynn films, with the air of oncoming fascism in Captain Blood and the ethnic repression in Robin Hood, as Flynn’s characterisation became increasingly revolutionary: “You speak treason!” “Fluently!” as the classic line in Robin Hood goes. The cheery pseudo-socialism that often bobbed up in these films resurges, here with a cheeky tilt at imperialistic plunder. When Maria furiously spurns Thorpe over his acts of piracy, Thorpe, asks, oh so innocently, whether she considers a thief to be only “an Englishman who steals.” “It’s anybody who steals!” she retorts, only for Thorpe to question, then, just how the Spaniards obtained the Aztec gold she has in her jewel collection. Game, set, match. The Sea Hawk sees Thorpe, constantly warning Elizabeth about the dangers represented by Philip’s ambition and overtly breaking the rules in order to fight the threat before a properly sanctioned war has started between England and Spain, looking like the archetypal premature anti-fascist, and an equivalent of an international volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, contrasting Elizabeth, who tries Chamberlain-esque peacekeeping, until she’s pushed too far and unleashes Churchillian rhetorical force.

It’s made clear right at the start of the film that Philip’s intentions are entirely malevolent, planning to sweep away the single bulwark against his spreading influence, so the audience knows that Thorpe’s assumptions are correct whereas Elizabeth has to work purely by instinct, protocol, and expedience. The film’s most insidious villain, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) is characterised as a Halifax or Quisling type, arguing from the midst of Elizabeth’s royal council for mollification of Spain whilst secretly plotting with Alvarez to weaken England as much as possible, including destroying the credibility and effectiveness of the Sea Hawks, in order to ensure the ease of the Armada’s eventual victory, and hoping to be installed himself as a puppet king. Re-armament is the chief plot stake: Philip’s arms build-up, in constructing the Armada, and diplomatic bullying, is, like Hitler’s before the war, put off onto the demands and rights of a sovereign nation, regardless of the logical targets and obvious intent. Thorpe, in turn, prods Elizabeth to build a fleet to meet any threat, but she staves off the necessary moment in not wanting to empty the national coffers, so Thorpe hatches an ambitious plan to step up his plundering, and attack Spanish gold shipments in Panama.

Elizabeth approves the plan, but Alvarez and Wolfingham, hoping to get the jump on Thorpe’s next venture, try to spy on his activities, but actually discover his intention through clever deductions: Thorpe’s efforts to maintain secrecy extend to having charts prepared without place names, but Alvarez and Wolfingham manage to steal a glance at the charts whilst under preparation and are able, thanks to an astronomer (Halliwell Hobbes), to determine the location purely by the shape of the land and an unexpectedly revealing decorative motif. Such a deftly clever little plot pivot is another reason I love The Sea Hawk, as it points to the genre’s counterbalance of physical action with a demand for wiliness and intelligence in both heroes and villains. Alvarez and Wolfingham are splendidly smooth, aristocratic bad guys, although Alvarez is less a villain than a man doing his national duty, and who gets his comeuppance not on a sword but when, in delivering grim news about Thorpe’s venture to Panama, he tries to needle Elizabeth, only for his own daughter to faint in a heap in despair: “Your arrow hit the wrong mark,” Elizabeth chides him drolly.

Thorpe’s ill-fated Panamanian venture sees him stumble into a well-laid trap, seeming to capture the across-land gold caravan, only to then be almost caught in an ambush: Thorpe and his men flee into the jungle, cueing one of the all-time great examples of the much-satirised “stumble through the swamp” sequence, complete with random, separated members of the crew lurching through the parboiling, mosquito-infested marshes, going mad and dying one by one: “It’s too bloomin’ hot!” one screams as he claws at his own flesh before collapsing. What’s left of Thorpe’s crew fights its way through to the coast in sight of the Albatross. But the Albatross proves mysteriously deserted as they row back to it, in a sublimely eerie sequence that builds to the inevitable realisation that the crew of the ship has been slaughtered, with corpses hanging in the rigging, and Spanish troops, under Captain Lopez, waiting for what’s left of the would-be raiders. No gentlemanly courtesies for these prisoners: Thorpe and company are soon committed in a show trial before the Inquisition and sentenced to die at the oars of the galleys. Suddenly The Sea Hawk’s reversed structure becomes coherent, as the film deliberately destroys the Merry Men crew and reduces Thorpe to the abject slave he was set upon freeing at the start, bringing a new edge of threat and suffering to the scene, and homoerotic S&M fantasy blends weirdly with perfervid concentration camp parallel, with anticipations of Ben-Hur (1959). Thorpe, his last remaining fellows, and the potential new crew of English prisoners have to concoct a plan to escape.

Within the more realistic confines of Hollywood cinema, Curtiz’s visuals in The Sea Hawk both reflect the lingering influence of the art-moderne touches that permeated the gnarled dream-state historicism of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1923) and the futurism of Metropolis (1926), whilst also anticipating the total stylisation of Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: Part One (1944), in utilising the geometric precision of Anton Grot’s sets, which largely reject the twisted contours of Expressionism that had been the familiar influence on such settings in favour of a kind of historical wonderland by way of Bauhaus, to create Elizabeth’s royal court. An overt, deeply stylised contrast then is constructed between the tangled, busy environs of the ships, the open sea, and the fetid jungle, where power is a matter of guts and muscle, with spaces that express power through voluminous reaches, reducing the players to twisting figures arranged like chess pieces in the political gamesmanship. Curtiz’s love of carefully shaped compositions infuses even the most functional and throwaway shots. The opening battle is a whirl of shots balanced geometrically or on lines of Renaissance perspective painting, conjoined by the newer arts of montage, weaving all into an organic mass. Sol Polito’s camera glides with gossamer grace at low angles as Elizabeth and her cohort of ladies-in-waiting, like petticoated paladins, sweep through the ranks of armoured warriors and plumed, hose-clad courtiers, investing the feminine not simply with beauty but strength through its spectacular contrast with the surrounds, and the reversal of the hierarchy.

Robson’s marvellous Elizabeth, not the grouchy spinster Bette Davis played nor the masochistic self-made idol Cate Blanchett espoused, is a warrior in frilly collars wide enough to serve as radar dishes, strutting about in costumes that contain her homely features within declarations of monarchic strength and wealth. This Elizabeth’s lack of good looks is initially the sport of men’s talk (“They say Elizabeth surrounds herself with beauty in the hope it may be contagious,” Lopez quips), but her flirtatious relationship with Thorpe is a dance of patriotic and erotic fascination, crystallising Thorpe’s similarity to Walter Raleigh – I love the big, hearty, satisfied breath Robson takes in after meeting with Thorpe, his descriptions of gallant action and explanations of daring plans, mixed with flattery, leaves her with orgasmic pleasure. Such liaisons reflect The Sea Hawk’s place in a genre that was always defined by a playfully anarchic take on sexual mores, so often played out in the dance of fascination and repulsion between mischievous, swarthy, criminal, usually lower-class males and ladies fair, dying to be ravished even as they spit in the rogues’ faces. The Sea Hawk however sustains the courtly, restrained take on this essential element of the swashbuckler that Flynn’s films offered, keeping the star’s overflow of randy energy on a tight leash, in comparison to the out-and-out kink in Henry King’s deployment of Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in the reflexive self-satire The Black Swan two years later.

Here Marshall’s Maria, like De Havilland’s ladies from Captain Blood and Robin Hood, is the daughter of the oppressive regime won over by the untamed but innately good male, but whereas in those earlier films the final kiss of hero and damsel set the seal on a reconciliation of social spheres – classes, races, and genders – here Maria is left behind by her father and forced to pick a side in the upcoming war, choosing her mate’s side rather than her sire’s in a matter of moral as well as sexual gravity. Curtiz pulls off a marvellous visual coup in a sequence in which Thorpe visits an increasingly smitten Maria, who gains an almost religious solemnity in regarding the man she now loves whilst holding an armful of roses: “That’s how I’ll always think of you from now on,” Thorpe says to her, likening her to a religious icon he once say in South America, “As Our Lady of the Flowers.” Simultaneously, the image of the two standing in the garden, underneath the palatial sprawl, in a symmetrically balanced shot, gives true visual resolution to the notion of the film’s driving oppositions, the masculine and the feminine, the natural and the civilised, the warlike and the civil, meeting in perfect harmony in the English country garden. Later, in a ripely iconic scene that hovers on the edge of a semi-mystical gulf of longing, just as the last scenes of Casablanca offer, Maria’s attempt to warn Thorpe before he leaves that her father has unlocked his intentions, sees her gazing tragically at his just-sailed ship from a foggy wharf, and Thorpe, not knowing he’s just missed her, still gazing back to land clearly thinking of her, from the stern of his boat.

Of course, in spite of its modernist touches and the elements that reflect a sub-genre entering a state of flux, The Sea Hawk still often embraces and defines the big, unabashedly fanciful, theatrical, slightly campy quality that defined the classic swashbuckler, in moments like the lengthy, rivetingly structured escape sequence that resolves in the liberated crew burst into singing, in perfect harmony, along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music. Korngold’s music, like Max Steiner’s, although arguably in a more sophisticated manner, maintained direct links between Hollywood scoring and the Vienna music schools, capital-R Romanticism, and the legacies of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, both of whom had praised the prodigious young Korngold. Korngold’s lush style eventually fell way out of favour before becoming, in the late ‘70s, the model again for anyone who wanted to make an adventure film and needed the sweeping emotional thunder Korngold’s work offered. Here his work, particularly the major heroic theme and its constant partner, the central romantic theme which ebbs and soars to the rhythm of ships upon the waves, is indelible and arguably even better than his great work on The Adventures of Robin Hood. The effect of that fade-out upon the boisterously singing crew is precisely the glory of films like this, even if it’s a touch embarrassing, especially in how it caps off the escape, the culmination of the steady, musically intricate build from deadly, intense silence to frantic, liberating action.

The escape from the galley is just as good a piece of filmmaking as the opening battle in a subtler fashion. Again, there’s a ferocious sense of realistic detail and storytelling rhythm as the galley slaves, grimy, sweaty, hairy, quietly and carefully work their plan to escape, picking away at the embedded hooks that keep them chained to their oars, sliding the chains out from their shackles, in feverish, desperate, ingenious labour. The English then slowly, remorselessly work their way up through ship as an embodiment of the resurging repressed, strangling their captors and infiltrating the neighbouring ship where the plans that confirm the Armada’s purpose are in the hands of Spanish officers, and Thorpe has to wrestle with one as he tries to dispose of them over the side. Doubtlessly Spielberg was thinking about this scene for the opening of Amistad (1997), and it feels like a draft for generations of prison escape movies and heist movies – as in Rififi (1955), the escape sees the men attempting to break their bonds in as near-complete a silence as possible – and other entries in more familiarly realistic genres. The finale shifts gears into another proto-genre, the spy movie, as Thorpe has to sneak back into the queen’s palace where now he’s a proscribed outlaw and Wolfingham’s cadre has cut off access to Elizabeth, to bring her news of Philip’s plans. This demands using the cover of Maria’s carriage: she’s incidentally at the wharf as her uncle plans to leave on the Spanish ship that Thorpe and his followers now possess, only to find the mysterious stranger in her cab is her lost lover. Thorpe then has to make a dash through the cordons of spies and guards, and Flynn gets to cut loose as a swordsman, ticking off the now-iconic moments of any good swashbuckler, including taking on three enemies at once in a whirlwind of physical genius, until Thorpe tries to elude his pursuers only to lock himself into a room with Wolfingham.

The essential, ritually demanded climactic duel promptly erupts, for a third and final piece of bravura cinema, with the witty touch of Thorpe being the one clad in a Spanish uniform, which Wolfingham airily announces he should be wearing. Curtiz enlarges some of the flourishes of Robin Hood’s final battle as the duellists leap and tumble, crash over furniture and through windows, and dance across the cavernous spaces, shadows projected like titans against the castle walls. Daniell, though a great actor, clearly wasn’t as athletic an opponent for Flynn as Basil Rathbone, and the duel is augmented with more stunt doubling therefore than Rathbone needed on Captain Blood, Robin Hood, or The Mark of Zorro (1940), and thus the near-lethal sense of physical unity those duels provide is slightly despoiled by deft edits. And yet you’d have to be paying the closest kind of attention to really notice before the twentieth viewing. By this point, the Kafka-esque quality of the settings, the grand halls of the palace now shadow-flooded and oppressive, and the attendant mood of oncoming tyranny, has become dominant. Thorpe bests Wolfingham but, unlike other Flynn heroes, he is finally driven into a corner and at the point of being skewered by Wolfingham’s guards when Elizabeth, fetched by Maria, arrives to save his neck. The fade out leaves the audience not with the sense of missions fulfilled and final romantic clinches, but conflict only just begun, as Elizabeth gives a rousing speech upon launching the first of her new fleet to take on the Armada with obvious morale-raising purpose. In movie terms and in real life, a long fight was only just starting.

The great old swashbucklers seemed to have sadly short lives, with Fairbanks dead at 56, Power at 45, and Flynn had only another 19 years of life ahead of him, albeit years he crammed with experience and indulgence far beyond most and which accorded strangely with the aura he gave off on screen of mercurial manhood. He died with an awful swan song, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), just after he’d gained new appreciation as an actor with The Sun Also Rises (1957) and Too Much Too Soon (1958), where he exhibited the harsher lessons of growing old with a fearlessness equal to his heroic image. And yet, as long as the cinema continues to exist, I think, the image of Flynn in his prime will continue to reign over cinema’s fantasies like his Sea Hawk ruled the oceans.


4th 06 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Director: John Ford

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The year 1939 stands out in film history as a banner year, when such megaclassics as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair, Dark Victory, and John Ford’s Stagecoach came out and competed for the best picture Oscar. You might say that 1939 was an especially good one for Ford as well. He premiered two other noteworthy films that year, both starring Henry Fonda—Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, his first Technicolor film. All period films, Drums Along the Mohawk has the feel of a Western, but covers the period just before to just after the Revolutionary War. Noteworthy for its realistic period detail and a level of hardship and brutality I had not remembered from my first viewing of this film many years ago on a local TV show called Family Classics, Ford exposes just how hard and fragile was the life of early American homesteaders.

The film starts in the elegant city home of the Borst family, where Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert) is being married to Gilbert Martin (Fonda). After the simple ceremony, the film cuts to the young couple leaving in a covered wagon for a homestead in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, towing a wedding present—a dairy cow—behind them. The long day’s journey through varying terrains, shot with Ford’s signature expansiveness, brings the Martins to an inn, where Gil persuades Lana to have some vodka to toast their marriage. The innkeeper (Spencer Charters) embarrasses them by teasing them about their newlywed status, and a patch-eyed colonial named Caldwell (John Carradine) asks them about their political affiliation—American or Tory—in an intrusive and sinister manner.

The following evening, the Martins arrive at the cabin Gil built on the homestead. It is very cold and a very far cry from the type of home Lana left behind. As she tries to put on a brave face, Gil builds a fire in the hearth and goes out to shelter the livestock. While he is gone, Lana is scared out of her wits by the intrusion of a Native American. Blue Back (Chief Big Tree) is a friend of the white settlers in the region and a Christian convert given to shouting “Hallelujah,” but Gil barely calms Lana’s hysterics before she says she intends to return to her parents. Gil brings her around slowly, and Lana eventually integrates into the community and starts working the land with Gil.

The primitive conditions of life on the farm don’t factor much into the hardships the Martins face; instead, war is the “natural” element that heaps tragedy upon the Martins and their community. Native Americans in the employ of Caldwell gather a war party to attack. They burn the Martins’ home and crops and send every homesteader in the vicinity running for their lives to the nearby fort commanded by the genial Gen. Herkimer (Roger Imhof), where Lana collapses and has a miscarriage. Economic necessity forces the Martins to work in the house and farm of Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), a scrappy, well-to-do widow. They hope to save enough money from their earnings to rebuild. Unfortunately, the approach of British troops and their Native American mercenaries pushes every member of the settlement into battle in one way or another, as more homesteads are burned and more attacks are made on the fort. By the time American troops reach the remote Mohawk Valley to inform its residents of Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington, the homesteaders claim the right to raise the Stars and Stripes themselves as the defenders of their piece of the United States. After witnessing the grueling trials of the homesteaders, the audience wouldn’t have it any other way.

Drums Along the Mohawk doesn’t romanticize the war for independence, nor does it make the eventual victory of the Americans seem a forgone conclusion for the people it portrays. Indeed, the Mohawk Valley settlers are in trouble from the get-go—isolated, loosely organized, outnumbered. So outnumbered, in fact, that every eligible fighting man is told that if he does not report for battle, he will be hanged. Even the preacher (Arthur Shields) is a reluctant sharpshooter and the women work on reloading the one-shot rifles and dumping boiling water on the attackers when the fort is under siege. The fort itself looks like it could blow down in a good wind, and its walls are easily breachable by the fairly short ladders the Native Americans carry for that purpose.

Ford handles graphic violence in a suggestive way that only slightly blunts the horror. After a face-to-face battle, one-third of the men who went out to engage the British return. Gil, looking shell-shocked, sits against the wall of a make-shift infirmary and recounts the battle to Lana, who is busily cleaning and dressing his wounds. Every detail is burned into his memory, including the fact that his friend Adam (Ward Bond) actually was enjoying himself. His last memory is of a Native American mercenary being impaled on a pike. Gil complains that Gen. Herkimer sat holding his knee after being shot early in the charge; he is not aware that the general will lose his life in an attempt to amputate his gangrenous leg, a procedure we know will happen but will not be allowed to hear or see. Another shattering scene occurs when the simple-minded Joe (Francis Ford) volunteers to try to reach reinforcements. After apparently getting away, his friends can only look on in horror as the mercenaries wheel into the open a smiling Joe, who is tied to a wagon stuffed with hay. The homesteaders try frantically to keep the mercenaries from setting fire to the wagon, only to fail and force the preacher to shoot Joe to spare him burning to death.

Ford’s superlative facility with ensembles and the details that bring a time and place to life are on full display here. We watch the community help Gil and Lana clear their land, cutting trees and pulling stumps using oxen and fulcrums made of young birch trees, and burning the felled timber to make ash to fertilize the soil. A scene in the church shows the organist playing an instrument made with two bellows that must be pushed by hand. The sacrifice of livestock and belongings when the Native Americans come a-burnin’ is done without endless complaint—homesteaders do what must be done.

I very much enjoyed the interplay between Edna May Oliver and Ward Bond. Bond’s Adam is more than a little flirtatious with Oliver’s widow woman. He clearly loves her and gives her a passionate kiss at one point in the film, rather a surprisingly wonderful moment that she brushes off as her due. Mrs. McKlennar is a woman who never liked being confined to domestic duties and does what she pleases now that she’s a widow. Imagine a woman, and a pioneer woman at that, actually saying she doesn’t like cooking and cleaning! Imagine a woman like Edna May Oliver being considered desirable by a strapping man like Ward Bond. In Hollywood, it’s just not done. In John Ford films, however, it is!

Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert have a tremendous chemistry, playing a passionately in love couple with very convincing feeling. I must admit being able to see Fonda’s brilliant, blue eyes added to the believability of Colbert’s ardor, but her initial shock at seeing the cabin and Blue Back was horrifyingly real as well. Other supporting characters, like the snobbish Mrs. Demooth (Kay Linaker), add color and humor, but not a great deal of depth. Like many Ford films, the teeming mise-en-scene and expansive vistas of a wild country (filming took place in Utah) create the big slice of life Ford seeks to capture more than completely rounded characters.

On the other hand, the enemy Native Americans are allowed to be people, not caricatures. In the final scene, Ford gives us close-ups of a number of characters, including Daisy (Beulah Hall Jones), a free black woman who works for Mrs. McKlennar, showing us the diversity of Americans present at the birth of the nation. It’s a bold statement from a man who felt peace should be as inclusive as war. Drums Along the Mohawk is a fine film that more cinephiles should take the time to rediscover.


27th 05 - 2012 | 7 comments »

Let There Be Light (1946)

Director: John Huston

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This past October, I started my 2011 Chicago International Film Festival coverage with a review of a harrowing documentary called On the Bridge, in which director Olivier Morel documented the sufferings of Iraq War veterans afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the invisible wound that scars witnesses to war, and some individuals so afflicted die physically or psychologically from this traumatic wound through suicide, homicide, or incurable psychosis. In 2012, this disorder is recognized and understood in ways it never was before, which is making it possible for more traumatized men and women like those documented in On the Bridge to get the help they need. War-related PTSD, however, certainly is not new, and when the 20th century and its technological might ushered in massively brutal, worldwide conflicts that buried forever the “gentleman’s war,” it also upped the psychological pressures on combat troops.

Motion pictures, a beneficial technological marvel of the 20th century, have been used almost since their beginning to document the many aspects of war. The United States government, a major producer of documentaries, commissioned a number of films that look at soldiers returning from theaters of war to reintegrate into the society they left behind. Such films include The Reawakening (1919), which shows doughboys of World War I, many of them amputees, getting medical treatment, prosthetic limbs, and occupational therapy as they reacquaint themselves with life free of the discipline and danger of armed conflict. Perhaps the most famous documentary about returning soldiers is Let There Be Light, but its fame derives mainly from being kept in the dark for 35 years after it was made by a War Department uncomfortable with the notion that there is any lasting downside to war for the returning veteran. So uncomfortable was the War Department with this documentary that it had it remade as Shades of Gray, a propaganda docudrama based on Let There Be Light that not only eliminated African-American soldiers from the cast, but also suggested that only soldiers who were soft in the head before they went to war cracked up upon their return.

Now, thanks to a National Film Preservation Foundation grant for the donated services of Chace Audio by Deluxe, the National Archives and Records Administration has restored the badly damaged soundtrack to an improved print of Let There Be Light. To commemorate Memorial Day this year, the NFPF premiered the film on its website  May 24, and will run the film through the end of August through a generous donation of web hosting by Fandor. For those who took an interest in our recently completed blogathon to stream the Cutts/Hitchcock film The White Shadow, the online presentation of Let There Be Light is a preview of the high-quality streaming, expert research, and copious film notes we can expect when that silent film makes its debut. For Let There Be Light is an amazingly powerful experience, even on my laptop, and one that left me in tears by its conclusion.

The first line of the opening title card must have gotten this film into hot water with the Army brass right off the bat: “About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” Along the side of a ship bringing the troops home, Huston shoots a deep shadow of men carrying a stretcher, a graphic depiction of the darkness attending the wounded in spirit in postwar America, as his father Walter Huston offers a sober narration to match. Ambulances back up to the admission department of Mason General Hospital on Long Island, New York, as the “psychoneurotic” soldiers step out one by one and pass through intake. A group of 75 new arrivals will be the subjects of Huston’s film, taking them from the start of their treatment in a common room where they are told not to feel self-conscious about the cameras, to the hearings eight weeks later in which doctors will determine whether they can be discharged to home.

We see individual sessions in which a psychiatrist tries to get to know the soldiers and find out the circumstances that triggered the uncontrollable shakes, stuttering, leg paralysis, and amnesia of the more physically manifesting patients, as well as the severe anxiety of others who jump at loud noises or dart their eyes nervously, as though reliving some horror. Hollow-eyed men who can’t sleep or whose sleep is interrupted by terrifying dreams that replay some scene of war haunt the screen in between these sessions. We hear the men testify that they have lost the ability to feel happy and that they feel useless. One man in particular, the only survivor of the original group he went into the service with, wished to go back into battle to do something for someone, feeling not only survivor guilt, but also a lack of purpose. One African-American soldier breaks down into tears when he tries to tell the psychiatrist how much his sweetheart means to him because of the sense of self-worth she gave him. I’m only playing armchair shrink here, but it seems to me that these men understand that their hopes and dreams, lives and achievements mean absolutely nothing to the men sent to kill them, and perhaps even to those who sent them to face the enemy. Cannon fodder, in other words, less than human in a dehumanizing enterprise.

Then, however, are the apparent miracles. Hypnosis and sodium amytal, aka truth serum, is used on several patients to free psychological material in the unconscious and help the psychiatrist effect a talking cure. One solider with hysterical paralysis gets up on his feet and walks after one such session once his paralyzing impotence to help his ailing mother and financially strapped father is released. Another solider with a severe stutter repeats over and over again in relief and amazement “I can talk. Oh god, I can talk” when the moment his stutter started—men in his unit teased him for mispronouncing a word with the letter “s” in it—is connected with his fear of the “s” sound made by a German weapon. The film cautions that it takes more than one dose of amytal to cure these soldiers, and that they have only been freed to benefit from follow-up therapy.

Slowly, the men begin through occupational therapy and recreational sports to regain a sense of usefulness, a respite from their psychotic episodes, and a reengagement with the people and world around them. Family visits are fragile moments, and family members must be carefully prepped so as not to undo all the hard-won gains made so far. It feels good to see one patient play catch with his young son as his wife looks on, or the African-American soldier smiling with his sweetheart under the sun.

The last meeting of the men in group therapy focuses on what they want when they get out in the world. Most simply want employers and the people in their communities to give them a chance to show that they can be productive and good to be around. They don’t want to be different from everyone else, an understandable desire. In time, they may be treated the same as everyone else, but it’s certain they will never feel the same as others—they don’t even feel the same as the people they used to be before the war. No amount of therapy will erase the scar of war. The chance to understand the costs of war that live on long after the conflict is an encyclopedia entry is the value of this finely crafted, compassionate documentary from one of our most gifted directors. On this Memorial Day, reflect on these mangled souls, the miracle of therapeutic understanding, and the obscenity of the endlessly recurring war chants of those who will never see a day of combat in their life.


18th 05 - 2012 | 7 comments »

Suspicion (1941)

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Paroma Chatterjee

Welcome guest blogger Roma Chatterjee.

“Let me go! Let me go!” screams Lina right at the beginning of the radio play, Suspicion, made barely a year after the film. No introduction, no lead-up to the characters, no sense of place; just a woman shouting frantically at her assailant.

If the play darts straight to its point without wasting a minute, the film saunters along, gazing at the flowers, humming a tune, until it is surprised (repeatedly) by dark shadows on its ambles. We meet Lina and Johnny on a train, at a hunt, at Lina’s house, and on the way to a church, until we get to those climactic words, “Let me go! Let me go!” The first 15 minutes or so of the film read suspiciously like a drawing – room comedy. The characters make small talk, pose for a local photographer, flirt on their way to church until, without the slightest warning, we cut to the top of a hill where a man and a woman seemingly struggle for dear life. Articles of clothing fly off, one after the other, and the fact that none of them denude the woman in the least, takes away nothing from the unexpected violence of the scene. The music, chirpily bucolic until this moment, soars and sustains its pitch, a suitable analogue to the height of the hill, and the goings-on on top of it.

Barely a minute later – nay, less – the struggle is over. The man teases the woman with talk (again, of the small variety). We are back in the realm of light comedy. There is an infinitesimal moment when the comic threatens to shade into something more richly erotic a la Hitchcock, when Lina says that Johnny “need not touch” her “ucipital mapilary”, but the moment is undone no sooner than it begins. Johnny blithely messes with (and messes up) Lina’s hair, and that is that.

Why would Hitchcock, for whom every scene counted, insert such ostensibly superfluous business in this film? Oh, one could argue that each moment, no matter how inconsequential, only adds yet another nuance to Johnny’s superbly insouciant amorality, that each scene goes toward heightening the layers of suspicion that surround and threaten to overwhelm Lina in the second half. And yet the gravity of the “light” episodes in Suspicion are still worth some thought. In no other picture did Hitchcock extend these as much. No other work of his, to my mind, teeters so precariously on the line between mild comedy and full-blown drama.

And, I suggest, that that is part of the very suspense generated by Suspicion. This suspense does not simply consist of us, the audience, wondering with Lina how much farther Johnny will go – whether he’ll cross the milestone from cheating at cards to mercenary seduction, from confidence-trick(st)-ing to embezzlement, from embezzlement to murder. It is also the audience wondering when the cinematic codes capturing each of those misdemeanours will shift, when a melody played by an orchestra will become a tune, whistled nonchalantly – and with a touch of menace – by a feckless young man, when a bland churchyard peopled by worthy parishioners will transform itself into a windswept hill with a couple, fiercely locked, at its summit.

Suspicion reiterates this effect constantly. In the process, it triggers off suspense even in those arenas of life that do not, on the surface, seem to merit it. Right up until Lina elopes with Johnny, suspense resides in whether Johnny will ever call Lina again, if he’ll ever write to her (remark the scene in which Lina keeps asking the postmistress if there’s a letter for her, if it has been misplaced), if he even remembers her. Suspense animates, if in a rather more humorous vein, the story Johnny will come up with to explain the disappearance of those priceless chairs that are Lina’s family heirlooms. There is an interesting and surely deliberate resemblance between this scene and an earlier one in Lina’s father’s study, when Lina and Johnny run away from the ball. When they kiss, the camera moves from their left profile all the way to their right. It doesn’t envelope the lovers completely; it merely offers us both sides of that osculatory exchange. It is the only prolonged kiss between the two in the entire film – a strange phenomenon, as Lina is passionately in love with Johnny in every sense of that word, and Hitch was certainly not one to shy away from exploring erotic obsession. But this picture doesn’t delve deep in that sphere.

There’s a point to that lone, long kiss, nonetheless. When his foolishly amiable friend Beak, goads Johnny into telling him and Lina what happened to those chairs, Johnnie is shown moving from the mantelpiece on the right in a half-sphere toward the left, behind the sofa. It is the other half of the sphere described by the camera during their kiss, its delayed counterpart, if you will. In both cases, Lina and Johnny are accompanied by a third person, even though the dramatic content of the scene involves just the two of them. (In the case of the kiss, they are constantly surveyed by the portrait of Lina’s father in full military regalia.) As Johnny moves, the audience can literally see him trying to decide whether to evade the question of the chairs altogether or whether to come up with a lie so thumpingly good as to be applauded as the truth. This is the cross Johnny bears throughout the picture – he is continuously being put on the spot as a performer. Being a good liar takes skill and patience, after all, for his story must convince.

If Johnny’s persuasive powers (including his innate charm) are constantly put to the test against Lina’s burgeoning suspicions, then Lina herself is measured against her doubts. How well does she bear up under them? What does an ever-thickening mist of suspicion literally do to a person?

In Lina’s case, one cannot help but notice that for all her inner anguish, she looks better for them. Clothes, especially female apparel, was stuff that Hitchcock took seriously. In the second half of Suspicion, Lina looks every bit the belle of the ball. Her clothes get darker (she is in mourning for her father), and her figure is more pronounced. Her evening dress when she puts together the word, “M-U-R-D-E-R-E-R”, is magnificent – simple, sophisticated, and with a very low, very elegant neck. I was tempted to ask upon my fourth or fifth viewing whether Lina deliberately made up this fantasy of a scoundrel-spouse precisely so it would enhance her attractions. It is almost as though Hitch is suggesting that suspense – living with it, responding to its shadows – can make us sexier! Not a bad campaigning point for one whose livelihood was based on it.

And speaking of sexy, what are we to make of the fact that Lina wears reading glasses? This certainly doesn’t impede Johnny from flirting with her, though she hastily tears them off when he shows up at her house. All through the narrative, when she must read a telegram, a newspaper, or a letter, Lina looks at the piece of paper, adjusts its distance somewhat, then fumbles for her glasses. The few seconds that it takes for Lina’s sense of vision to come through, clear and unobstructed, correspond to the sudden changes of register from the comic to the dramatic that punctuate the entire picture. A telegram turns out to be an entirely unexpected missive from Johnny that draws Lina out of the depths of depression into ecstatic expectancy; an innocuous newspaper sows the seeds of suspicion that Johnny murdered Beaky; a mundane letter from the insurance company convinces Lina that she will be Johnny’s next victim. The reading glasses thus become instruments signaling a series of vital changes in the narrative, never mind if some of the changes they effect are erroneous perceptions on Lina’s part.

Which brings me to the final coup of the film: the ride in the car when Lina fears that Johnny will somehow push her over the precipice. (As a friend of mine commented, the “chaser” and self-proclaimed “chase-ee” occupy the same space and the same shot here, quite cozily, even though one of them is terrified out of her wits). When it comes to these sweeping vistas – the top of the hill, the steep drop to the sea below, the winding roads – Lina doesn’t require her glasses. She isn’t called upon to read anything, though she does, insistently and maniacally. She spins her own narrative parallel to the one that is being played out, reading the various signs her life with Johnny have thrown at her. The original ending, of course, revealed that Lina’s made-up narrative coincided perfectly with the “real-life” narrative, that Johnnie was indeed a merry ladykiller. Although the ending of Suspicion as we know it today is a let-down, I’d suggest that in one (albeit feeble) way, it maintains a marvelous spring of tension: it carries Lina’s obsessive “reading” to the point where she manages, for a few moments, to force the “real life” story to coincide with the one in her head. She actually almost falls out of the car, with no help from Johnny.

What follows are the weakest moments of an otherwise quite brilliant and unexpected narrative. Can the “happy ending” be attributed to yet another twist of the plot? Can we read it as the “ever-after” for Lina and Johnny, the two basking in mutual trust and assistance for the rest of their lives? Or is this a brief hiatus that will transmute into another series of suspicions?

I prefer to believe it is the latter.


3rd 04 - 2012 | 14 comments »

Playing by Different Rules: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Through the years, Hollywood has given audiences a fair number of great acting teams. Bogey and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis are among the duos cinephiles follow, relishing each collaboration and seeking to be completists by watching all of a team’s work. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to watch three of the four films that comprise the oeuvre of a pair of actors who were not really a team, but who left their indelible mark on movie history.

Versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, an elite among elites who won the universal admiration of costars, directors, film critics, and moviegoers alike, and lesser light Fred MacMurray, a Paramount contract actor who would go on to become one of America’s most beloved TV dads in “My Three Sons” and a Disney family film regular, put together quite a hat trick. The first film, Remember the Night (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen, is a screwball comedy crossed with a women’s film in which Stanwyck plays a habitual thief whose vulnerability is unearthed by MacMurray’s honest and true prosecutor who aims to put her in prison. In a strange twist of . . . something, their next pairing saw Stanwyck and MacMurray create two of cinema’s most memorably rotten characters in arguably the most iconic film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Finally, Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) has the pair fight their longing to be together for the sake of preserving MacMurray’s marriage and family life. The progression of this pairing is a classic study in how social attitudes and directorial points of view can take the same two actors and create three very distinct films—the opposite of the predictable product audiences demand from Hollywood teams—that still remain true to the lead personalities involved.

Remember the Night is an unconventional romance whose superficial position—that people are basically good at heart and will behave decently if they are treated with kindness—is undermined by the unsettling undercurrent of economic want and the unnatural hatred of a mother for her daughter. Stanwyck’s character, Lee Leander, is about to be acquitted for a crime she committed when ace prosecutor John Sargent (MacMurray) finds a way to get the case continued until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We are saved from a miscarriage of justice with this trick, but John can’t help being decent to his quarry and bails Lee out of jail. This isn’t exactly a kindness, however, as she is homeless. Her crime was an attempt to keep a roof over her head, something the prosecutor with enough money to have a live-in manservant couldn’t imagine when he made his grand gesture, despite his line of work. Finding out that Lee is from his home state of Indiana and hasn’t seen her mother in years, John offers to take her there for a visit as he drives home to see his family for the holidays.

The script, written by Preston Sturges, packs a lot of irresistible comedy into the film, including MacMurray trying to squeeze some milk from a cow into a thermos bottle. But then Leisen, whose homosexuality had given him more than a grazing acquaintance with psychoanalysis and the stigma of being a social outcast, brings Lee’s mother into the picture. A more cold-blooded portrayal of a rejecting mother is hard to imagine. The cure for Lee’s emotional pain is a big dose of rural warmth and nostalgia. It’s clear that John just wants an old-fashioned girl, and when Lee is corseted and costumed in a turn-of-the-century pinafore and enormous hair bow for a barn dance, she completes the process of revirgination and becomes a fit woman for John to love. After a talking-to from John’s mother (Beulah Bondi doing Ma Bailey again) about how John has worked too hard to get where he is to throw it away for love of Lee, Lee accepts her fate. She walks willingly to prison at the end of their Indiana idyll to keep his prosecutorial rectitude intact and return to him cleansed of her sin by accepting her punishment. Under Leisen’s direction, the sacrifices of love are given a shocking dignity, confounding a Sturges-style happy ending that resolves the plot without reforming the characters. Importantly, the women who surround John save him from himself, an interesting thread of male passivity running through the Stanwyck-MacMurray films.

Billy Wilder’s noir classic couldn’t be more different from Leisen’s in tone, nor Stanwyck and MacMurray’s characters more despicable. Wilder and his coscreenwriter Raymond Chandler created types with no past and no future—now is the only thing that matters to them. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson isn’t in need of money or driven compulsively to crime by some hurt in her past. She’s mean, greedy, and murderous just because. But, of course, there is a strong psychological schema to the film, just as there was with Remember the Night. MacMurray’s patsy, Walter Neff, the stereotypically unctuous insurance salesman who only wanted to renew an auto policy and ended up dead, was caught in the spider’s web of his malevolent anima. Wilder ensures from our first look at Stanwyck that there’s no doubt about her intentions—wearing nothing but a towel and a knowing smile, she slips on some clothes and clicks down the long staircase to Walter, an ID anklet hugging her leg like a link in Jacob Marley’s chains.

Walter Neff isn’t just in thrall to his negative anima. Caught in a strangely close relationship with insurance investigator Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, he is driven by an Oedipal urge to outsmart his “father” by plotting the murder of Phyllis’ husband in a way that will pay double on an accident policy he sells to Phyllis. The audience can plainly see, however, that he hasn’t a prayer of getting away with it. Neff has no real agency of his own. He’s brash enough to lay his cards on the table with Phyllis in a scene with the clipped, crackling dialogue for which this film is justly famous, and he’s got no problem killing a man even the audience can’t like. But his essential immaturity makes it impossible for him to stand for anything. Faced with a choice to go “straight down the line” with Phyllis or follow in his “father’s” footsteps, he balks at both and ends up destroying himself.

Wilder’s view of humanity is essentially jaundiced. A fugitive from Hitler’s Germany, he had seen the irrational rise up in Europe and spent the better part of his career exposing the world to its own grotesqueness. His transformation of an actor known for his nice-guy roles into a fatuous thug is as perverse as his glorification of pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Wilder, the ultimate manipulator, takes the same psychological approach to his material as Leisen did, but sends his characters over the cliff.

Stanwyck and MacMurray’s final collaboration, There’s Always Tomorrow, is a film in which women take the strongest hand against the hapless male lead, toy manufacturer Clifford Groves. Groves has been left by the side of the road, as his wife of 20 years, played by Joan Bennett, dedicates herself completely to her home and children. It seems to Cliff that he was just a means to this end, and when a former employee—childless, divorced, fashion designer Norma Vale—comes back to town and looks him up, he’s ripe for a change.

Of course, Norma loved him in vain way back when, and like many people in midlife who aren’t where they thought they would be, she looks to the past to see if she can make the road fork in a different direction. After some hesitation, she’s reconciled to being a home wrecker, that is, until Cliff’s two older children beg her to give him up—which she does in a “mother knows best” kind of way. Cliff returns to his corner, telling his wife that she knows him better than he knows himself, an unconscious victim of the Babbitty kind of conformism the 50s demanded.

Sirk delivers another one of his meaty melodramas with an underlying heart and purpose. As is the norm with women’s films, Stanwyck is front and center, and we are meant to identify with her torment over not realizing the “right” of every woman to a home and children. Indeed, Bennett voices this sentiment as she tells Cliff that she feels sorry for Norma. When Norma is shown jetting back to her independent life, her profound sorrow is difficult to watch, and yet, isn’t this film just more 50s propaganda about a woman’s place? Women, the audience for which this film was made, were being sold the party line, and the relative powerlessness of the men in these films gave women some sense of control and authority when they were being kicked back into the kitchen following their necessary duty in the wartime workforce.

Yet Sirk doesn’t let the triumphantly traditional woman off the hook that easily. Bennett’s character is so smug that she doesn’t see, can’t even imagine, that the attractive woman her husband invites into their home for dinner could possibly be a rival. Ann (Pat Crowley), the girlfriend of Cliff’s oldest son Vinnie (William Reynolds), breaks with him because he suspects his father of having an affair. It is she who is utterly naive, buying the party line of the happy family with its upstanding patriarch who can do no wrong; and again, Vinnie starts fluffing the pillows in his move-in-ready corner by giving in to Ann’s fantasy of love, and receives her condescending compliment, “long pants at last.”

In each of these films, Stanwyck is the architect of MacMurray’s plan of action. Would it be fair to say that another actress might not have brought the authority to stand at center stage and compel her leading man in so many directions, or that MacMurray’s good-guy type lacked the authority to match her blow for blow, the way Tracy could with Hepburn? Despite the very different points of view of all three of the talented directors involved, something immutably human in the art of acting puts each of their efforts in a more realistic perspective.


28th 08 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Slattery’s Hurricane (1949)

Director: André de Toth

By Marilyn Ferdinand

 A torrent of windswept rain is now smashing against our windows and outside the water is filling the streets, and the wind is intensifying, swaying power wires and trees. Miraculously we still have power, but I fear for a cessation as the eye of the storm is predicted in about four or five hours. Few if any cars are on the streets, with only police sirens heard in the distance. It’s a real sight to behold. So far the sewers are holding up. We have three leaks in the house, and have strategically placed plastic containers to gather the water. I just applied plastic packing tape on the front windows in the kitchen and living room to guard against glass splattering. Weather forecasters are saying, however, that the storm has lost a bit of its severity by staying on land, but warn against anyone letting their guard down.

Film blogger from Wonders in the Dark, frequent FonF commenter, and good friend Sam Juliano sent this dispatch from the front as Hurricane Irene has New Yorkers and New Jerseyites hunkering down for an unaccustomed bit of weather. Facebook is all abuzz with hurricane talk and FB friend Lesley Gaspar asked for suggestions of hurricane movies to watch while waiting out the storm. Slattery’s Hurricane came immediately to mind.

Slattery’s Hurricane is a noirish kind of film in plotting and casting. It establishes a self-reproachful voiceover narration by Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) as he reviews the selfish, stupid moves he made in the previous few weeks as he flies an airplane into a Category 1 hurricane. A naval airman during WWII who was busted out of the Navy for disobeying orders so that he could sink an enemy vessel, Slattery has lived for money and the moment as a private pilot for Miami “candy” (drug) distributor A.J. Milne (Walter Kingsford). Like many a great noir antihero, Slattery’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of former flame Aggie (hot-as-hell Linda Darnell), married to Will’s buddy “Hobbie” Hobson (hunky John Russell), when the old Navy pals run into each other on a Miami street and later have dinner.

Hobbie is still with the Navy, attached to their meteorology division, and he takes Will up on a mission and right into the eye of a hurricane to show Will what he does. Will returns the favor by taking Hobbie and a reluctant Aggie up in the plane he flies for Milne; his stunts, meant to impress Aggie, frighten her instead, and they head back to the Milne estate where Will is reprimanded by Milne’s nervous partner Gregory (Joe De Santis). Dolores Grieves (Veronica Lake), Milne’s secretary and Will’s girl of the moment, senses that Will and Aggie seem to know each other, but lets it go. Will doesn’t. Will and Aggie arrange to keep bumping into each other until the initially resistant Aggie responds to Will’s declaration of undying love with passion. The affair is back on.

Fortunately, De Toth’s strategy to skirt the Hays Office keeps this adulterous affair off the screen, and we are left with a very exciting “man against the elements” feature. The film is a wonder in the way it depicts what storm trackers did in the days before satellite radar could paint an accurate location for a hurricane and make landfall predictions to aid evacuation efforts—fly planes into the eye of the storm and have them send back coordinates. The sequence in which Hobbie and his crew take Will through each step of their work is fascinating, and the airplane interior shudders and creaks believably in the heavy weather; a process shot of the cloud wall of the eye is breathtaking to contemplate. Just as with Day of the Outlaw, De Toth makes great use of real locations to lend atmosphere. The tropical exteriors in Florida and the Caribbean, with their cloud-filled skies and strong breezes, lend the elemental force the film needs, and the drug-running sequences resonate with what we know about the illicit drug trade in that part of the world.

The opening sequence jumps us right into the action, as we see Will, already fighting the building wind, walk onto Milne’s estate, punch out another one of Milne’s employees when he tries to stop Will from taking the plane, and take off. Hobbie and his commander (Gary Merrill) threaten Will by radio with a courtmartial (Will has been cleared and reinstated as a reservist by the Navy and given a medal for his bravery), but the stubborn Will insists they use him for storm tracking as long as he’s up there—he wants to die doing something good. This sequence is almost a mirror of the climax of Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero, but audiences in 1949 were not in the mood for any downer endings after a world war, and the film suffers as a consequence.

More problematic is Will’s shift from Aggie back to Dolores at the close. Will has treated Dolores like a convenience—it’s clear that even if Aggie hadn’t come back into the picture, Dolores was little more than a placeholder. Bold for 1949, Dolores is a drug addict (“Please Mr. Milne, I’m sick, I’m very sick,” she says in a moment of upset); later, she shoots up (off camera) and ODs at the naval base when she sees Will and Aggie together after Will’s award ceremony. Will’s guilt is how the script has him discover his deeper feelings for Dolores, but I just didn’t buy it. When he says repeatedly that he never got Aggie out of his system—and when you compare the two women—there’s no question that he’s telling the truth. Aggie is gorgeous and alive, whereas Dolores is mousey and a walking shadow. De Toth and his wife Lake, who was actually addicted to drugs and alcohol, wanted to break her out of her femme fatale roles. While she is heartbreaking and shows how brave an actress she is in this film, the script doesn’t offer the kind of support needed to really change her image; she needed a complete break from noir for that. Slattery’s Hurricane was her last picture for a major studio. After one more film, an independently made Western called Stronghold, her big-screen career was over.

Widmark gives a tour de force performance with energy to burn. We don’t need the voiceover to tell us that Will is scared, that his impulsiveness has him close to the edge. In a scene where Gregory demands what he took from Milne when the drug boss died of a heart attack on the plane, you can practically see Widmark calculate his odds if he lies to them about having the drugs. In a film shot today, we’d see a gunfight; in Slattery’s Hurricane, we see a man who knows he’s not quite smart or strong enough to rob a drug smuggler and get away with it. It’s a shame that crime has gotten so stupid in the movies today. If you look at it objectively, his guilt-driven daredevil routine is 90 percent suicide attempt, as his odds of having a successful mission are close to nil and his exposure of the drug smuggling ring might never have come had his failing radio truly gone dead. In honor of his success, the naval mission is called “Slattery’s Hurricane,” but this “hero” really never stopped being a heel.


6th 07 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Odd Man Out (1947)

Director: Carol Reed

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In life and art, the blackest of humor has always been a part of the Irish sensibility. Although the lace-curtain Irish have fought for respectability against the more anarchic elements that surface regularly from the Irish collective unconscious, their own rioting at the premiere of John M. Synge’s patricidal and immodest Playboy of the Western World shows a nature that simply won’t be denied. Odd Man Out provides another unflattering portrait of the Irish, mixed with the noble image they tend to have of themselves and their struggles. In the end, only love proves honest, if not entirely honorable.

Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the head of an unnamed organization no one could fail to recognize as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He has barely paused to take a breath following his release after a long stretch in prison before getting back to business, meeting with his compatriots at the Belfast home of Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) to plan a payroll robbery to help fund the organization. Guns are issued, and as Pat (Cyril Cusack) brandishes his buoyantly, Johnny scolds him not to be quick to use it. Johnny’s second in command, Dennis (Robert Beatty), urges him to sit out the robbery, observing that he seems shaky. Kathleen, who is in love with Johnny, agrees with Dennis, but Johnny feels that he needs to assert his command and that his rightful place is alongside those taking the risks.

Johnny and his three co-conspirators walk into the mill they plan to rob and empty the contents of the office safe into their valises. As they make their way down a hall, the alarm sounds. As the others exit and hop into the getaway car, Johnny is momentarily dazzled by the sunlight. A guard catches up with them and wrestles with Johnny, shooting him in the shoulder. Johnny draws his weapon, kills the guard, and is dragged alongside the car by two of his men as Pat speeds away. Pat takes a sharp turn, and Johnny is flung free of the car. As Pat argues with his comrades about his fears of capture if he backs the car up to rescue their fallen leader—making his argument legitimate by wasting oodles of time—Johnny staggers to his feet and disappears around a corner.

Johnny’s gang exemplifies the opposite of the discipline and loyalty that would have characterized the IRA when Johnny and Dennis were coming up. Dennis is aghast that the gang left Johnny behind, but it’s clear that Pat was only thinking of himself. Pat’s lies to Dennis about why Johnny didn’t make it back with them forces Dennis into the streets to find his comrade.

Johnny evades capture when Dennis, having located him, lures the cops away by pretending to be the injured Johnny and rather carelessly sacrificing his own freedom by punching a couple of cops on a crowded bus. Johnny gets past a roadblock in a hansom cab that the police searched earlier. The cabbie (Joseph Tomelty), astonished to see Johnny in his cab, settles him into a washtub discarded in a dump on the edge of town. There Johnny sits, ridiculous, with snow falling around him, until a ratty little man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) finds him and contemplates whether to turn him in to the police to collect the sizeable reward on his head or negotiate with Father Tom (W. G. Fay), the priest the Catholic community turns to when looking out for their own best interests.

At this point, the story veers sharply from the IRA story and transforms into a strange burlesque in which Johnny becomes almost incidental, serving merely as the catalyst by which we view the Irish character as it is constellated by a talented and varied cast. Shell favors amusing, elliptical blarney to communicate his insider information, for example, bringing one of his pet birds to Father Tom and using it to allude to his discovery of Johnny in the washtub. He goes from planning to claim the £50,000 reward to agreeing to come to terms with the priest, though it’s pretty clear that he’ll probably get nothing but a florid thank-you. Is he inept? A fool? A patriot? McCormick dances with the highly literate dialogue provided by F. L. Green, screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film is based, and transforms Shell into a Beckett character, waiting for his ship to come in, yet seeming to conspire to ensure that it won’t.

The other half of this Godot pair is the iconic mad artist, here named Lukey and played broadly by Robert Newton. Lukey lives in the same tenement as Shell and waylays him whenever possible to pose for endless hours as a model for a series of Christ paintings. When he finds out that Shell has a lead on Johnny, Lukey is overcome with the idea of being able to paint the eyes of a dying man. The machinations that get Johnny out of a private booth in the Crown Bar (shot on location in Belfast) and in front of Lukey are too absurd to detail here. The stereotypical Irish thirst for booze and brawling takes the spotlight as Johnny hallucinates the heads of people he’s spoken with during the day in the bubbles of beer spilled on his table.

The outside world is a mixed bag that Reed carefully locates with his set decoration in the various strata of Belfast society. Two women trained in first aid during the war come to Johnny’s aid, and bring him into their thoroughly bourgeois home. Their goodness won’t allow them to turn him in, but they disapprove of him and don’t want to be mixed up in his criminality. War profiteer and vice lord Maudie (Beryl Measor), on the other hand, lives in a resplendently tacky home that has its own phone booth. Maudie is a Mother Courage knock-off—not so far from Reed’s most famous character, Harry Lime—selling Pat and his comrade out to protect her interests with the police. In this sense, what goes around comes around for the selfish and stupid Pat.

You couldn’t ask for a better-looking, more atmospheric film than Odd Man Out. Many noirish elements, including deep shadows, nighttime exteriors, shooting down stairwells, skewed camera angles, cages, and bars mark Johnny as a trapped animal. During Johnny’s fevered meanderings through Belfast, director Carol Reed treats us to frightening and absurd hallucinations, like the aforementioned, surreal “bubble heads,” but more poignantly, Johnny’s hallucination of his jailor as he hides in the air raid shelter and imagines it is his cell. We come to understand Johnny better from his imaginary conversation with this jailor than in many of the real-world interactions he has.

James Mason emphasizes his character’s weakness, not strength, his foolishness, not his resolve. Johnny’s self-defeating pride, his wavering commitment to armed resistance to achieve a united Ireland while failing to take his own advice to Pat, his offhandedness about Kathleen’s love, and his relative passivity as he’s passed around like a hot potato by wary locals make him less a Christlike figure than a pawn, an idea.

But it’s not that he doesn’t have a prayer—in fact, Kathleen intends to escort him to Father Tom while they wait for a boat that will take them to freedom. Of course, the symbolism of the boat signals death (one is reminded of James Mason on another boat—a cursed ship in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), and Kathleen provides an angel’s love to escort him beyond life to a place where she can protect him for all eternity. Kathleen seems to be the moral center of this film because of the purity of her love that seems very motherly (is she chaste as well?), but the life of the guard Johnny killed means nothing to her in the grand scheme of her devotion.

Most of the characters in this film seem quite childish. In an early scene, a group of children are playing soccer in the street when their ball lands at the feet of a grown man. Instead of passing it back to them, he kicks it as hard as he can in the opposite direction—a nice device that eventually will lead to Dennis’ discovery of Johnny, but also a needlessly mean and infantile reaction from the man. Late in the film, Johnny quotes a famous line he learned from Father Tom: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ironically, Johnny’s pangs of adult conscience and an awareness of mature feelings for Kathleen are only awakened when he is at his most helpless and dependent—in the last hours of his life, after he learned he had killed a man. Odd Man Out is an Irish tragedy indeed.


29th 06 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Kenneth Anger: Films from the Magic Lantern Cycle, 1947-1981

Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)

By Roderick Heath

The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.

Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.

His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including his sailor, armed with rude weapons found on the street.

Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime, religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.

Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. Aand yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene he portrayed in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, something he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.

Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.

Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.

As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity perhaps out of Intolerance (1916): glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.

Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.

Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.

Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.

With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.

As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. And, indeed, one man who appears in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, which was culled from footage originally intended for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends. Beausoleil instead drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a tragic, disturbing subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the cultural fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.

Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, naturally-formed stone pillars that have long been a site of pagan and then Christian religious rituals. Lilith seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.

Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, and visions zip past with urgency and threat. Swooping tracking shots describe mysterious vignettes, like people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.


31st 05 - 2011 | 8 comments »

They Were Expendable (1945)

Director: John Ford

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Memorial Day tends to bring out the tennis elbow in everyone. Flags are waved especially hard as though to fan away the stench of death the day represents. Once you’ve seen, as I have, a graveyard as endless as the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach, Memorial Day loses its heroic luster.

Nonetheless, war does make a certain kind of hero out of ordinary men and women—the kind who recognize their common humanity with people they don’t know and do what they can to act with compassion in the face of insanity. They Were Expendable is a war movie that takes viewers into the experience of war, but not to satisfy a need for vicarious thrills or glory. If anything, They Were Expendable shows us just how little we understand of the experience of those living and working in combat zones, how ideals and ambition often get lost in just trying to see the next day, and how confusing and uncertain the outcomes of battles and entire wars themselves really are. John Ford, an eminently humanist filmmaker, handles an enormous cast and confusing story that takes place over a large geographic area just about as well as any director who ever lived. That he resented doing this picture because it pulled him off active military service during World War II never upstages the emotional truth in the film.

Naval Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery) commands a small fleet of patrol torpedo (PT) boats—swift craft that launch torpedoes off their decks—at Manila Bay in the Philippines. Brick believes strongly in the value of the boats because they can intercept large destroyers and aircraft carriers with greater speed and lower risk that larger naval vessels. He parades his boats in front of Navy brass, who commend him on their maneuverability but think they are too slight for warfare. After this disappointment, his second in command, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), decides that PT boats are not the ticket to furthering his naval career, and sits at the bar of the officers club writing to request a transfer while the rest of the Clark Field personnel enjoy dinner and dancing. An announcement comes in that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and that all military personnel are to report to their posts immediately. Rusty crumples up his letter and heads to the harbor to await instructions.

Reflecting the prevailing attitude about the boats, one is assigned to patrol the harbor on a fixed schedule and one is made available to carry messages among the various island command posts. However, when enemy aircraft that are spotted in three deadly perfect V formations, the PT boats move into action. The gunners bring down three planes, lose one boat, and return to a base that has been completely pulverized. Little about the rest of the film proceeds in an orderly fashion. The boats and their crews move from base to base, engage enemy ships and airplanes, get bombed, lost, and beached, break down, get fixed up, and lose crew members to death and reassignment to army battalions badly outmanned by the Japanese.

War films rely heavily on action sequences, and They Were Expendable has its share, though far fewer than might have been expected. Footage of real PT boats firing their torpedoes and the missiles moving underwater is edited in with accurate continuity with the action Ford films with a sure hand. Unfortunately, heavy reliance on process shots, staged explosions that look staged, and stunt planes that don’t quite crash before a burst of flames issues from behind some palm trees mar the realism. However, the model ships the PT boats take out are seen far in the distance, which helps reestablish the illusion of reality.

It is in the less demonstrative scenes that reveal character where They Were Expendable excels brilliantly. For example, when the grumbling PT crews find out the alert they thought was a drill is the real thing, they scramble out the door, including “Squarehead” Larson (Harry Tenbrook), the cook, who hurriedly takes his pot of soup off the stove and throws a towel over the biscuit dough he was mixing. When the PT boats are assigned to take Gen. Douglas MacArthur to a protected airfield to be transported to Australia, one of the crewmen asks for his autograph, much to Rusty’s disgust. Ford also cast several teenagers as the kids who decided to make the Navy a career. I can’t remember ever seeing a war film in which combatants this young are part of the action, and where they are allowed to be scared.

Then there is nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed), the only woman with a speaking part in the film. She is shown working on assembly-line surgery to care for 200 casualties from Bataan. Her face is subdued with concentration and repressed horror at what she is seeing; indeed, her entire performance is filled with the cares of the world, even her flirtatious scenes with Wayne, who meets her when he enters her infirmary suffering from blood poisoning. When she and Rusty say good-bye when he calls her to tell her he is shipping out, the conversation they know might be their last is plain-spoken: they had a “swell time,” and “it was nice,” and then two generals commandeer their phone line abruptly, and that’s that. There is no reunion at the end of the film; Sandy, stationed on Bataan when it fell to the Japanese, could be in hiding, dead, captured—nobody knows or will know. And when Rusty and his small band of surviving crew members go into a bar after burying two of their men and hear about the fall of Bataan from a San Francisco-based radio announcer, the looks on their faces say, “What am I doing here? How did I get from my sane, normal life to this hot, dirty place halfway around a world in flames?” And they are enlisted men, not draftees!

The film is helped enormously by Ford’s experiences making documentaries for the Navy during World War II. His familiarity with the rhythms and details of daily life for combatants and support personnel helps make a bit of sense out of the chaos; yet, he doesn’t hesitate to leave viewers in the dark about all the details. I watched this film twice in two days, thinking I’d get a better handle on the movements of the PT crews around the Philippine islands. I didn’t. When one missing crew show up after a long period, I had no idea where they had been, what island any of them were on, or how the lucky black cat that adopted the crew survived the loss of the boat. A comment Brick makes during horse trading for torpedoes about who played Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1932, and “Does your crew know?” went over my head until I caught the crucial words “at the naval academy” during my second viewing. This scene hints at the secrets known between servicemen and women and how supplies and equipment moved outside of official channels through just such forms of blackmail.

Robert Montgomery brings a matter-of-factness to his role, again aided by his having served on a PT boat. He grits his teeth and follows orders, even when they mean leaving what’s left of his crew behind when he and Rusty are ordered to fly to Australia to strategize ways to find a larger role for PT boats in the war. And what of those men? We’ve been treated to highly inappropriate patriotic music throughout the film—the studio and the Navy intended the film to be a morale booster—including the playing of “Shenandoah” (?) as a civilian nicknamed Dad (Russell Simpson) who repairs boats prepares to stand his ground against the Japanese. We get more uplifting heroics from the crummy score, but Ford knows better. The men limp down a beach as the sun sets. Where are they going? What will they do? They’ve been abandoned like everyone else on the island, and while they fought their fear heroically and tried to do their job, they’ll probably die far from the home they seem to be fighting for.


15th 05 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Director: Alberto Cavalcanti

By Roderick Heath

World War II is rightly regarded as a renaissance period for British cinema. A rare mixture of necessity, duty, urgency, and cramped invention stimulated British filmmakers like Michael Powell, Carol Reed, David Lean, Humphrey Jennings, Anthony Asquith, and many others to create ambitious, dramatic, and relevant cinema with a new sense of purpose. Long virtually forgotten, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? was a film I had only heard trumpeted by the English critic Leslie Halliwell before it recently made Time Out magazine’s list of the 100 best British films of all time. It well deserves disinterment and admiration. Cavalcanti, a Brazilian-born director with leftist allegiances, had made experimental and avant-garde films in France in the 1920s, and then moved to Britain to work on documentaries with the famous film unit run by John Grierson. He graduated to making features, including the excellent Nicholas Nickelby (1948), which can stand up with Lean’s concurrent Dickens adaptations, and the two best chapters in the otherwise overrated Dead of Night (1945), before his wandering and his politics saw him edge off the mainstream map again.

Went the Day Well?, based on a short story by Graham Greene, is very much a product of the wartime atmosphere, portraying the potential for grit and resistance in the average English community in the face of intimidation and violence. Yet in a way, it’s also timeless, a perfect blueprint not only for something suspiciously similar like John Sturges’ The Eagle Has Landed (1977), but also for any action thriller where everyday people take on invading villains, with echoes through Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) to Red Dawn (1984) to Die Hard (1988) and beyond. Went the Day Well? (the title comes from an epitaph by John Maxwell Edmonds) also shares some characteristics with some other good British movies of the period, like Asquith’s We Dive at Dawn (1942) and Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944), by depicting utterly ordinary people suddenly elevated into heroic roles by dint of necessity. Cavalcanti’s film is, however, a speculative fiction about the enemy coming right to the doorstep. The atmosphere he presents in the small, pacific village of Bramley End is very similar to what Powell and Pressburger captured for their A Canterbury Tale (1944), but whereas the latent communal strength of the latter film’s locale was chiefly spiritual, here it’s very literal.

The film commences with an interesting hook: using a first-person camera, Cavalcanti enters and explores the town, and comes upon church warder Charles Sims (Mervyn Johns) at what’s supposed to be some time after the war. Sims addresses the camera as if it’s an interested tourist, points out a gravestone marked with German names, and commences to tell the “famous” story behind them. Flashback to some time during the war, as a detachment of soldiers arrives in Bramley End, seemingly an ordinary group of sappers looking to ready the defences of the village in case of invasion. But they are, in fact, a force of Germans chosen because they speak English and can pass amongst them, some better than others, including their commander, “Major Hammond” (Basil Sydney), really Kommandant Orlter, and “Lt. Maxwell,” actually Jung (David Farrar).

The opening scenes carefully, but seemingly casually, lay out the persons and personas of the villagers as the strangers come into their midst: Hefty, cheery, local post office manager and telephone exchange operator Mr. Collins (Muriel George) and her shopgirl Daisy (Patricia Hayes); young sailor Tom Sturry (Frank Lawton) and his bride-to-be Peggy (Elizabeth Allan), a member of the Land Army along with Ivy Dawking (Thora Hird), charged with delivering milk in the locality; and hale, bossy lady of the local manor, Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr), who gets miffed when she finds out the local vicar, Ashton (C.V. France), and his spinster daughter Nora (Valerie Taylor) have beaten her to the trump of billeting the detachment’s CO. Nora has a secret crush on Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), the commander of the local Home Guard, who liaises between the soldiers and the townsfolk, and, with his fellow Home Guard officer Harry Drew (Ellis Irving) from the next village of Upton, shows them the layout of the town’s defences. Of the town’s troupe of evacuee children, George Truscott (Harry Fowler) is the most accomplished scamp, having made friends with Bill Purvis (Edward Rigby), the accomplished local poacher. These characters and many others all have a part to play in the oncoming battle.

Signs of the hidden beastliness of the strangers are discernible, as when a glowering radio operator, catching George fiddling with his equipment, grabs him by the ears and wrenches them, and when one gets confused over landmarks in Manchester, where he says he comes from. But no one quite notices until Collins loses a telegram she’s supposed to deliver to Mrs. Fraser and finds the soldiers have been using it to score their card game on; when Mrs. Collins gets it to Mrs. Fraser, Nora recognises the soldiers’ numbers are written in the continental style. Later, when George nosily pokes through Hammond’s belongings, he finds a bar of Viennese chocolate. Nora, alarmed, goes to tell Wilsford, not knowing that he’s the agent guiding the invaders.

The unassuming realism and homey portraits of the village life, intriguingly tweaked by the social changes necessitated by war are, of course, necessary to ground such a drama—the general absence of young men and the women taking their place in keeping the gears of the society turning; the Home Guard warriors taking time out from doing their delivery rounds; the blurring of class boundaries in the collective effort. Went the Day Well? was produced by Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios, the company that went on to make the canonical series of low-key comedies, and Went the Day Well? feels almost like a rough draft for those, that is, if the cast of The Titfield Thunderbolt or Whiskey Galore! were abruptly tossed into Saving Private Ryan. The screenplay, by Angus MacPhail, makes their interactions and quirks familiar and charming without being too forced and stereotyped; indeed, the film takes some delight in undermining the stereotypical roles which the people, especially Nora, seem faintly, uncomfortably aware of inhabiting, or generating a shock when they suddenly behave in fashions contrary to that character. True to Cavalcanti’s socially progressive bent, he’s interested not just in the need to defend a settled order, but also in the transformative capacities and secret strength of ordinary people working together. There’s none of the subtlety to the Germans that there is in Powell and Pressburger’s not-dissimilar The 49th Parallel (1941), apart from Jung and the decision to kill children. But really they’re the great unknowable Other; they could be aliens.

Whilst there’s a lot of patriotic sentiment in the characters and their reasons for taking a stand, it’s subdued to a terse, survivalist necessity, as the English respond to intrusion and bullying with a feral force beyond imagining. The film also has a real claim to being, amongst other things, a true early feminist work in context, as the ladies of the village get stuck in to warfare, murder, and espionage with grit and competence. For contemporary filmmakers who congratulate themselves for sticking a gun in a chick’s hand and calling it empowerment, here’s someone who did it long before you. When Nora’s keen attention provokes Wilsford, it precipitates the Germans showing their hand earlier than they planned, waiting as they are for a general invasion. The locals are rounded up into the village hall, where the gloves come off. Vicar Ashton, appalled and refusing to obey Orlter, tries to ring the church bell—the signal to the Home Guard of parachutists—and gets a bullet in the back.

Having to keep their presence secret for two more days until the invasion starts, the Germans allow some of the townsfolk to go about their business under supervision, and they begin a tragicomic campaign of trying to get word to the people who pass through the village. Peggy and Ivy paint messages on the bottom of eggs they give to a young newspaper boy. Mrs. Fraser tries to sneak a note into the overcoat of her chirpy chanteuse sister who passes through on the way to a performance: she finishes up using the paper to jam her rattling car-door window. The evacuee kids are rounded up and kept in Mrs. Fraser’s manor, but George sneaks out and makes contact with Purvis, who is only convinced of the veracity of George’s story when a few bullets smack into a tree by his head. As is often a theme in these sorts of dramas, the traits of the characters which seem oddball and individual, from young George’s scampering, to Purvis’s asocial knowledge of all the secret paths through the woods, to Mrs. Fraser’s proprietorial sensibility towards the town and Nora’s repressed, heightened awareness, become weapons in the war.

The really startling quality of Went the Day Well? is in the potency and pointedness of its violence; whilst, in deference to the censorship of the time, there’s little actual gore on screen, the viciousness of what does happen is certainly not as aseptic as it often was in lesser war films, and indeed still packs a wallop, as the bodies piles up,and likeable characters are killed off with unsentimental rapidity. The Germans ambush the local Home Guard, blasting them off their bicycles and shooting the wounded in the back with revolvers. In a simply amazing moment, Mrs. Collins, treating the German charged with keeping an eye on her and the exchange to a meal, abruptly tosses a pot of pepper in his face and then wallops him in the face with a hatchet. Desperately trying to contact the exchange in the next town, she’s ignored by the gossiping girls there, and before they answer her, another German arrives and bayonets her. Purvis dies in a hail of bullets trying to cover George’s escape after taking out a German with his shotgun, and even the kid catches a bullet in the leg and squirms away in the mud. Mrs. Fraser, to stop the other evacuee kids being killed by a hand grenade, snatches it up and dives through a doorway; she’s blown to pieces, but saves the children. Ivy and Peggy, wielding arms with aplomb, propose keeping score of the Germans they shoot. The film possesses a kind of heady emotional heft under the stiff upper lip resolve, building to a head most brilliantly when Nora, knowing that Wilsford is a traitor, a fact he’s managed to keep hidden and to undermine the actions of the others, calmly takes a loaded revolver from the arsenal Tom has assembled, marches downstairs through the manor, and fills the villain with lead.

It’s not just amazing this stuff got by the British censors, who were notoriously fusty (they banned all horror films for the length of the war), but fascinating how much the film revels in the dreaded, apocalyptic spectacle of warfare erupting in England and consuming its populace. The film is both reassuring in the sense that it aimed to depict a scenario in which the difficulty in conquering Britain would be in the individualistic determination of its citizens, and also deeply disturbing in suggesting the way violence lingered so omnipresent in the age that its actual eruption might have been considered a relief. On at least one level, it’s almost less an entertainment than a training film, Cavalcanti emphasises the physical effort the English characters have to muster to overcome their humanist instinct, but also the determination they display once engaged, as displayed by Mrs. Collins as she fights a sobbing fit after killing the German, but resolute to make the vital telephone call that will bring rescue. The evolution of Nora, who seems at first a kind of Celia Johnson-esque sufferer, into a punitive assassin, both plays on and subverts that image of resilient formality, racking up the payment for a betrayal on both the personal and political levels. This hits a hysterical note that resounds elsewhere, most literally when Daisy momentarily gives in to a fit of blind frenzy after seeing Tom and his father (Norman Pierce) kill two Germans in front of her. There are more than hints of the expressive avant-gardist Cavalcanti had been in the bristling scenes of explosive violence and the portrayals of emotion and action clashing fiercely. It’s apparent on a tactile level in the suddenly rupturing of placid, almost bland shots in the character interactions and the quietly revelatory, documentary-like explications of the village geography, with sudden, intense displays of furious cutting, ultra-close-ups of pain-distorted faces and thrashing limbs, and swooping motion in and out of the frame.

There’s humour to alleviate the ferocity, particularly in the reaction of the children, who seem less fazed by invasion than the adults, and the excruciatingly chirpy song “Cherry Ripe” is as amusingly employed here as in Night of the Demon (1957), sung by Mrs. Fraser’s sister as she obliviously trundles to and from the captive town. The excellent cast works in harmony throughout; it’s amusing to note that Lawton and Allan, playing partners here, had played mother and son in George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935). Tension ratchets up to impressive degrees in the finale as the villagers are forced into action when, after an escape attempt, Jung announces the occupiers will shoot five children in the morning for punishment. That proves a real mistake, as a core guard of the Sturrys, Ivy, Peggy, Sims, and some others manage to overpower and outwit their guards and fortify the manor house. The Germans planned to use that house themselves, necessitating an assault on the manor as real British soldiers close in, precipitating a battle to the death. Nora’s killing of the traitor in their midst as he tries to open up the house to the Germans only temporarily keeps the enemy from literally invading the living room, and the heroes, anticipating perhaps their children in If… (1968), rain death upon their enemies to the last bullet. It’s an exhilarating and hair-raising end to a masterpiece of its kind, but it also proves that an inspiring film can be alarming as well.


1st 05 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Captain from Castile (1947)

Director: Henry King

By Roderick Heath

Henry King, like King Vidor, with whom I once used to often get him confused, was a director who evolved with movies from the silent era to sound and then the threshold of Hollywood’s first great decline. As with many luminaries of that heyday of studio filmmaking, his last few films, including neutered adaptations of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were a flat end to a good career. Nevertheless, King made some of the best, most substantial Hollywood films of the 1940s, including The Song of Bernadette (1942), A Bell for Adano (1945), and his masterpiece Twelve O’Clock High (1949), movies in which he mustered a spacious, sober, humanistic intensity worthy of William Wyler and George Stevens. He benefited especially from collaborating with 20th Century Fox titan Darryl F. Zanuck, taking the hefty, detailed productions Zanuck could set in motion and turning them into excellent cinema. Captain from Castile stands apart in that run of good films for being an attempt to revive, in a rigorous, grown-up fashion befitting the more muscular, realistic postwar mood, the period melodrama and the swashbuckler, genres that had lost traction during WWII. The film is also worth attention for being just about the only English-language film of note to deal with one of history’s most pivotal incidents: the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez. Sporting an unusually strong lead performance by Tyrone Power, it’s a minor gem of high Hollywood’s Technicolor filmmaking.

Power plays Pedro De Vargas, a privileged, but decent young caballero in 16th century Spain who, when out riding one day, meets his oily neighbour De Silva (John Sutton), a bigwig in the local Inquisition (or, as it’s inaccurately called here, the “Santa Hermandad,” the Spanish rural police of the time). A slave of De Silva’s, whom he was trying to force to convert to Christianity, has escaped, and Pedro decides to help, utilising his superior hunting skills to track the slave. He finds, however, that the slave is Coatl (Jay Silverheels), a kidnapped Aztec prince he knows and likes, and instead of handing him, over gives him money to help him make his escape. Power also helps a young woman, Catana Perez (Jean Peters, making her film debut as a last-minute replacement for Linda Darnell), who is harassed by some of De Silva’s goons. Pedro takes her back to the tavern where she works, and meets Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb), a recently returned colonial who’s grown rich in Cuba and is now seeking to extricate his mother from the clutches of the Inquisition. Pedro himself falls foul of the Inquisition, as De Silva, infuriated at Pedro’s interference with business, has the entire De Vargas family arrested, including his respected former soldier father (Antonio Moreno) and his 12-year-old sister (Dolly Arriaga). De Silva has the girl tortured, and she dies, earning De Silva one of film history’s most memorably lethal stares from Power.

Luckily, in his plan to get his mother out, Garcia has bought a job as a turnkey in the local prison; Garcia’s mother has died before she was scheduled to be burnt at the stake, so he helps the De Vargas clan escape instead. Just before the appointed hour for the breakout, De Silva comes to demand a confession from Pedro in his cell, but Pedro’s been smuggled a sword by Cobb. After a speedy duel, he delivers a mighty comeuppance: he fools De Silva into renouncing God before running him through. A thunderous horseback chase follows as the family and their helpmates, including Catana, who’s smitten with Pedro, flee across country. Forced to separate into two groups, with the others heading to Italy, Pedro, Garcia, and Catana make it to a seaside port. They decide to sail to Cuba, and join up with the expedition Cortez is planning. Once signed on with Cortez (Cesar Romero), Pedro encounters the expedition’s appointed priest, Father Romero (Thomas Gomez), and confesses what he did to De Silva. Romero gives him the penance of having to pray for De Silva’s soul, and tears up the arrest warrant sent out by the Inquisition. But as Cortez’s expedition penetrates the Mexican interior and wars with the natives, Pedro gets a shock when De Silva turns up. Having recovered from his sword wound, he’s been sent as an emissary to make peace between the Spanish authorities and Cortez and set up a branch of the Inquisition in the New World.

Captain from Castile was based on a noble doorstop of a bestseller by Samuel Shellabarger. It shares aspects with other films based on such popular tomes, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Anthony Adverse (1936) and Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947: in fact, Linda Darnell jumped ship to star in that), in straining to include the huge, incident-packed sweep of that brand of florid pulp. This attempt results in some narrative diffuseness, sheering off the novel’s last act in favour of an interesting in medias res conclusion depicting Cortez and his by now multinational, conglomerate army of followers marching on the island capital of Tenochtitlan. Captain from Castile was, of course, made some 20 years before the revisionist strand of cinematic history gained traction, and the historical events here are painted in the legendary, rhetorically triumphant terms classic Hollywood was fond of. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t mince many words about Cortez’s motives as a greedy adventurer and presents an interesting portrait of the man, played with wit as well as bravado by Romero. Cortez is offered as something of an historical used car salesman in cavalier’s clothing, using a beaming demeanour and professional veneer to conceal his awareness of how far out on a limb he is. He bluffs both his Spanish masters and the Aztecs as he convinces his men with the argument not to accept the bribes of gold the natives offer when the whole caboodle can be gained. His most memorable scene comes when threatened with the wrath of the Aztec gods by a prince, he has a canon pound an idol, and asks whose wrath the prince thinks could be worse.

Real incidents of Cortez’s adventure are woven with some finesse into the narrative, and the film’s opening scrawl proudly announces that it was shot in many of the real locations through which Cortez moved. Cortez’s lover and translator, La Malinche or Malina (Estela Inda), the slave who is often depicted as both mother of Mexican culture (and one of Cortez’s sons), and also the model of the phrase “Malinchista,” akin to Quisling or Benedict Arnold to denote a disloyal Mexican, is glimpsed as an exotically dressed, Pocahontas-like icon of cultural bridging. In one of the film’s more cunning, colourful incidents, Pedro is assigned to watch over some treasure, handed over to the Spanish, stowed in the peak of a pyramid. That structure proves, in a pure Indiana Jones moment, to be riddled with secret passages through which some of Cortez’s rebellious men manage to make off with the treasure whilst Pedro’s distracted by a drunk and violent Garcia. Told by Cortez to find the treasure or be hung, Pedro tracks the thieves on board one of the expedition’s ships. After recapturing the loot, undoing the rebels, and being gravely injured in the process, Pedro is promoted to captain, hence the title, and this is also the cause of Cortez deciding to burn his fleet rather than risk a repeat.

As Cortez’s army drives deeper inland, Pedro has to hole up in the village of Cholulu with the advance guard whilst Cortez doubles back to fight a battle. The town becomes a kind of frontier not just of empire, but also of the spirit and history, as Pedro encounters Coatl again, restored to his homeland and rank, who pointedly asks Pedro why he’s invading Mexico and what value the religious polarisation the white man is bringing has. Whilst the battle Pedro and Coatl have with De Silva is arch melodrama, it also prefigures a theme about the first severing point of the Old World from its certainties. Paracutin, the famous volcano which grew out of a farmer’s field, was still in eruption at the time of the film’s production, and King made sure to make use of this extraordinary example of nature as art director, including its plumes of smoke in as many shots as possible. Towards the end, as Cortez musters military might, Father Romero brings together a congregation of Spaniards and Aztecs in front of the rough-hewn crucifix he’s set up, delivering a sermon that serves as an institution of a New World religion, whilst in the background volcanic smoke imbues the frame with an apocalyptic lustre. It’s a moment that manages to be spiritually engaging whilst avoiding piety, as well as framed and visualised with the keenness of a Renaissance painting. The variegation repeats in the very last shot of Tenochtitlan bathed in streams of golden sunlight like the promised land itself at the end of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) but also with the heavy cloud looming, as if the whole world’s on a tipping point between the great and the tragic.

Whilst it encompasses themes of substance, then, Captain from Castile is still 90 percent rollicking tall tale in the straightforward, old-school mould. King, however, avoids action except for the central set-piece escape from prison; he’s really more interested in atmosphere, and in the intense ambient emotion that hovers about Pedro and his rage at De Silva, a rage that’s easily empathetic thanks to Sutton’s terrifically arrogant performance. It’s interesting that the usual revenge plot, which has easily identifiable echoes in modern movies like Gladiator (2000), is essentially ditched less than halfway through. What develops when De Silva turns up in the New World is decidedly off-beat, as Pedro struggles to contain his hate and obey Romero’s prescription. In an early scene, when Pedro visits Luisa De Carvajal (Barbara Lawrence), his lady fair, it’s in a garden that’s a swooning feast of blossoms, an image that is an encapsulation of a romantic, chivalric past the film begins immediately and steadily to deconstruct, laying bare class and religious injustice as central to the way the Old World works. Luisa’s father, a marquis, (George Zucco) is a supposed friend of Pedro’s father, but won’t aid them when the Inquisition comes knocking and promptly marries Luisa to De Silva once Pedro’s out of the picture. Once in the New World, romance blossoms between Pedro and Catana, who’s anxious that her low-class status can never erase Luisa in his heart, and gets the expedition’s surgeon and astrologer Botello (Alan Mowbray at his most dissolute) to sell her a love charm. After she and Pedro dance in the inevitable flamenco scene, with both actors scorchingly sexy, Pedro suddenly erupts in fiery passion for her and Luisa freaks out, afraid she’s bought his love unfairly. Peters is surprisingly deft in her debut performance, long before Howard Hughes ruined her.

There are interesting undercurrents, too, in Cobb’s role as Garcia, who warns Pedro early in the film that he turns murderous when he’s drunk and so stays clear of the booze. When the treasure thieves get him liquored up, Garcia’s ranting makes it clear that the cause of his madness is his rage at the Inquisition, and when De Silva turns up, it’s revealed that Garcia actually strangled his mother in the prison to save her from a hideous death. “We talk of gold, but maybe we mean something else,” Garcia states vaguely, pointing to the film’s underlying theme. In the end, someone strangles De Silva in his tent after he’s had a heated exchange with Pedro, who is immediately arrested and sentenced to be hung. The killer is actually Coatl, eking out some revenge of his own, and he confesses to the murder in time to save Pedro. But as Cortez enters to tell Pedro of his good fortune, Catana, who has been waiting with Pedro and thinking Cortez has come to perform the execution, stabs Pedro in the chest to save him from the ignominious death. I thought that would have been a brilliant end, but it’s quickly revealed that Pedro’s not mortally wounded, and when he recovers, the expedition continues on to its destined end. That last-minute hesitation from ironic tragedy underlines the film’s failure in the end to work up enough narrative confidence and originality to make it build the mythical drive of the greatest screen adventure-melodramas.

The screenplay, written by Lamar Trotti, who also produced under Zanuck’s aegis, is spotted with some gilded clichés, including variations on “It’s too quiet!” and “I wish the drums would stop!”, and the finale is a bit rushed in detail—what happens to Coatl is oddly left by the wayside. But Captain from Castile is thoroughly worthwhile for anyone who likes their adventure high, villains villainous, history dubious, and heroes hot. It’s also a must for Technicolor fetishists, thanks to the work of DPs Arthur E. Arling and Charles G. Clarke, who render locations in the cinematic equivalent of illuminated manuscript.


31st 03 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Railroaded! (1947)

Director: Anthony Mann

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are often great pleasures in the programmatic films churned out by Hollywood’s independent film studios. Like Roger Corman’s productions, many of these movies gave future cinematic titans experience and chances to experiment. Such a film is Railroaded!, a fairly routine crime drama made by Poverty Row’s Producers Releasing Corporation that flirts with being a full-blown film noir thanks to the edgy direction of Anthony Mann and his cinematographer Guy Roe and the obsessive performances of John Ireland and Jane Randolph.

We start in noir country—a nightscape of a city street lined with bright theatre marquees. The camera moves down the street and swoops down to a close-up of a shop window advertising “Clara Calhoun: Your House of Beauty.” The door opens to Clara herself (Jane Randolph) ushering a happy patron with a new coif out with hopes that she gets home safely. The remark was meant to flatter the patron, but it has portends of a tragedy soon to befall the shop.

Clara runs an illegal bookie operation in the back room of her shop. After she closes up, she and her assistant Marie (Peggy Converse) start counting the take. Marie goes to the front of the shop to lock up, and Clara opens and closes the back door three times to signal two men in a laundry truck. They enter the shop to steal the gambling money. At the same time, a policeman patrolling the street hears Marie scream and shoots into the shop. He hits one of the robbers, but is killed by the other. The two men flee, with the unharmed man, Duke Martin (John Ireland), abandoning the truck and his badly injured partner, Cowie Kowalski (Keefe Brasselle), in front of a doctor’s office. Clara and Duke, lovers and conspirators, bemoan their bad luck but begin their campaign to frame the owner of the truck, Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly), as the gunman who killed the cop.

The film has a fairly standard plot that moves through Steve’s arrest by Det. Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont), Ferguson’s growing suspicion that Steve is innocent, and his progress at uncovering and apprehending the real murderer and making time with Steve’s beautiful sister Rosie (Sheila Ryan). Among the complications are Rosie’s independent attempt to find the killer, which causes her to cozy up to Martin; Martin’s growing paranoia about anyone who could tie him to the murder and his greed for the money his employer, Jackland Ainsworth (Roy Gordon), makes off the entire bookmaking operation. The final showdown between Martin and Ferguson, with Rosie as the damsel in distress, plays just as expected, as does the closing clinch between Ferguson and Rosie.

It is the bizarre and atmospheric elements in this film that make it more of a standout than its filmic brethren. The robbery has some lurid, adrenaline-inducing moments that raise it above its unpromising beginning. Martin, wearing a Navy scarf belonging to Steve, pushes Marie into the beauty salon, where he intends to rob the cash register as Cowie bags the money from the book operation. A hand rattling door knobs proves to be the unlucky cop, O’Hara, who we soon see in full approaching the salon. His shadow plays against the window, warning Martin and causing him to raise his shotgun and walk toward Marie, warning her not to scream. Mann directs the camera to look straight up the gun barrel, cutting to close-ups of Marie as she backs away and does exactly—and inevitably—what she is told not to do. The menace of the scene almost had me doing the same.

Another crazy, erotic scene occurs when Rosie goes to Clara’s apartment and confronts her, sure she lied when she identified Steve as the killer. Martin is in the apartment, but hides behind some curtains. Accusations and tempers start to fly, and soon we find ourselves in an extended cat fight, with the two women shaking and hitting each other, falling over couches, knocking over lamps, and eventually landing on the floor for the obligatory hair pulling. Martin, like we, watch this fight with a voyeuristic excitement. Rosie eventually stands up and leaves, having gotten denials from Clara, but also the location where Marie has gotten a new job. Clara’s revelation of this information and Martin’s awakened sexual interest in Rosie will cause him to turn on Clara and have her seeking solace in booze.

Ireland and Randolph easily walk away with this film. Ireland plays a psychotic killer and abuser of women with an ingratiating hardness that is fascinating to watch. We just know he’s going to kill everyone he can! Randolph is just as hard and cynical at the beginning of the film; she projects an insolent toughness, and her set-up of the robbery is carefully calibrated. She can’t be shaken from her identification of Steve as the killer, but Martin’s changed attitude toward her turns her into a desperate neurotic who knows she’s suddenly become expendable. Clara goes to a nearby shop to phone Ferguson and take him up on his offer of protection, but Martin has spotted her and crept up on her on the sly. While she stands in the phone booth, too nervous to notice Martin has cracked it slightly to listen in, the cuts between their faces ramp up the tension. The pathos of Clara looking behind her as she walks home to meet Ferguson is rather touching, since Martin is already waiting for her there and certainly intends to kill her.

By contrast, Sheila Ryan seems like a high school girl trying to act tough, and, well, Hugh Beaumont was born to play Ward Cleaver, not a romantic and rugged cop in a proto-noir. They have no chemistry and nothing interesting to say. Check out this dialogue, symptomatic of most of the script:

Criminologist: You know, there are only two kinds of animals that make war on their own kind – rats and men… and men are supposed to be able to think.

Mickey Ferguson: I think you’ve got something there, Doc.

Zzzzzz. And dig those crazy shoulder pads—they fairly mesmerized me with their outrageous awfulness.

I was quite taken, however, with several actors in small roles. Kelly has a great face, and his character is no pushover. He protests his innocence, but expresses cynicism about the wheels of justice. It was good to see a suspect with some balls. Ainsworth’s girlfriend Wilma, unfortunately uncredited, quite reminded me of Claire Trevor. She sits in smug obedience to her keeper in the first scene in which she appears; in the second, however, she’s full of insolence and insults toward the man. In another scene with an interesting walk-on, Martin has agreed to pay a wino to take the fall for the robbery, getting Steve off the hook. The wino, also uncredited, repeats by rote the story he is supposed to tell the police, as though the thought of having money to buy as much alcohol as he wants brought his mind into focus. Neither of these characters has a real role to play in the plot, but as in most great B-films, and especially noir, these small touches add atmosphere that pays big dividends.

In this film, although the police want to get someone to pay for killing one of their own, they expressly state that they don’t want to convict an innocent man. Despite the noirish lighting and truly bizarre set pieces, the lines of good and evil are far too carefully drawn to make this a true noir. In a few years, noir would blossom fully, and cops would be as rotten as robbers. In the meantime, however, Railroaded! provides a crucial and entertaining link in the development of a future noir master, Anthony Mann.


23rd 03 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Ivan Groznyy, 1944; Ivan Groznyy: Skaz vtoroy – Boyarskiy zagovor, 1958)

Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, M. Filimonova

By Roderick Heath

The creation myth for Sergei Eisenstein’s final work is as vast in scale and resonance as any epic movie. Like most other Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein was forced to flee east during the German invasion and near-capture of Moscow during World War II. Away from the capital, Eisenstein, whose relationship with the state and Stalin had gone through many rollercoaster switchbacks, had been ostracised when his initially successful Alexander Nevsky (1938) had been embarrassedly put away following the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, and then rehabilitated after Operation Barbarossa. Eisenstein struck upon the idea of making a film about one of classical Russia’s most controversial figures: Tsar Ivan IV, the self-declared first “Tsar of All Russia,” whose nickname “Groznyy” (usually translated as “Terrible”) encompassed the awe-inspiring and fearsome figure he remained in the Russian memory. Stalin himself made no secret of his admiration and emulation of the man, and this helped Eisenstein get the project off the ground. The result was another of many fiascos that plagued Eisenstein: the second part of the proposed trilogy was shelved and left unseen for more than a decade, well after Eisenstein had died at only 50 years of age. Eisenstein’s film, whether deliberately or not, commences as an expressionist panegyric to ruthlessly strong leadership and curdles steadily into an hysterically gothic, insidious portrait of power corrupting. Ivan’s reign of blood, enforced by his cabal of loyal bodyguards, the Oprichniki, bore too potent a resemblance to Stalin’s purges and the horrors wreaked by the NKVD.

The actual film moves beyond the dead-ahead narrative simplicity of Alexander Nevsky, whilst pushing Eisenstein’s interest in stylising his cinema to the point where it started to resemble Wagner’s ideal of the “total work of art,” encompassing not only drama and visual artistry, but also music and a quality akin to dance, mime, and opera in the acting styles. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein’s friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had encouraged him to regard his movies as “moving frescoes,” a phrase which describes much of Ivan the Terrible perfectly.

The first film commences with young Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan being crowned with splendid pomp as the Tsar of the new super-state and declaring his nation as the third and enduring Rome. Ivan’s openly announced plan is to break the power of the aristocratic boyars, whose in-fighting and factional cynicism he blames not only for the deaths of his parents, but for keeping Russia from achieving unity against its enemies. His young fiancée Anastasia Romonova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) comes from a family that seems to be behind him, but Ivan’s friends are still few. At his wedding feast, one of Ivan’s friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) still tries to woo Anastasia, his former flame, and another, Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov), announces he’s going to avoid the inevitable power struggle by becoming a monk. The feast is interrupted by infuriated common folk, led by hulking Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) and the chained, seer-like Nikolai (Vsevolod Pudovkin), who threaten to kill Ivan if he doesn’t follow through on his promise to break the boyars. To everyone’s surprise Ivan blesses Basmanov and repeats his vow.

Ivan faces many formidable opponents, but the most formidable is his own aunt, the fiendishly glowering boyarina Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to place her own simpleton son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) on the throne. Even neighbouring Kazan Khanate declares war on him, but Ivan, with Kurbsky as his general, musters a great military force and conquers Kazan instead. The potential power of a united Russia is confirmed, but Ivan falls ill while returning from the war, and the boyars, with Staritskaya leading, refuse to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son. Only Kurbsky emerges from this smelling like a rose, because while trying yet again to seduce Anastasia, he hears of Ivan’s recovery and so makes the pledge to the young prince. This pleases Ivan, who sends him off to war in the west against the Polish and Livonians, who are conspiring to stifle Russia’s trade with England. But Kurbsky, after losing a battle, goes over to the enemy, and Staritskaya sets out to assassinate Anastasia because her attachment to Ivan keeps her relatives in check. She tricks Ivan into letting her drink from a poisoned cup. After Anastasia dies, Ivan is convinced by his chief henchman Malyuta (Mikhail Zharov), Aleksei Basmanov, and Alexei’s son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to confederate a force of commoner supporters who will become totally loyal to him. Ivan does so, creating the Oprichnina, and then leaves Moscow for a small town to wait for the people to demand his return.

Eisenstein had moved a long way from Socialist Realism, as well as the mostly efficient, but rather stagy style then dominant in most western national cinemas. His work here is a constant flow of synergistic illustrations in which the actors are as angular and bristling as the set details and props. Eisenstein never meant, of course, for Ivan the Terrible to be his final, summary work, but that’s what it became, and it’s interesting that the film stands at a nexus, filled with allusions not only to the historical past, but also to cinematic past. It references silent film expressionism, particularly Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924, the last episode of which was a similar fantasia on Ivan), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) throughout in the sheer organic tangle of the historical Russia on display. The amusing casting of Pudovkin, one of Eisenstein’s greatest colleagues/rivals of the silent era, adds to this impression. Yet it’s also a forward-looking work, newly sophisticated in the blending of Eisenstein’s belief in a symphonic, constantly flowing imagism and the techniques of sound cinema. Where Alexander Nevsky needed its Prokofiev score much more than it needed dialogue, here the anti-realistic dramatic exchanges are nonetheless important. The next generation of Russian directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov would build upon Ivan the Terrible’s precepts for constructing a totally immersive kind of cinema.

Eisenstein had become interested in kabuki theatre when visiting Japan in the late ’20s, and that experience bore fruit here in the intense, highly formalised gesturing and precisely choreographed movements and expressions of the acting. Such an element is easy to mischaracterise: within these theoretically stifling parameters the actors are still good, and Cherkasov pulls off the difficult demands made on his performance with fixity of purpose in uniting disparate and original approaches to filmic drama, particularly as his Ivan deepens from self-righteous crusader to sardonic, mocking ogre. But it’s also a long way from traditional realism. The architecture throughout the film’s elaborate set design subordinates humans to the caprices of space or the lack of it, like the many low doors that require the actors to bow to get through, and the Escher-like, criss-crossing stairwells and passages where nothing is either truly private or expansively free. Ivan the Terrible takes the historical remoteness and Byzantine atmosphere of dread and deceit as licence to paint the setting as a primal and psychologically manifest expression of a corrupt and dangerous world.

Initially, however, Eisenstein’s film enshrines a vision of Ivan that is idealised and idolising, and geopolitical resonances are easily and aptly mined. Ivan, first glimpsed as a fresh, energetic man in his prime who declares he’s going to take on the world and win with a young man’s self-conviction, is feted as a hero standing up for his nation and his subjects against entrenched aristocratic interests. He declares his plans whilst still in the cathedral, to the shock and outrage of both the boyars and the church, to tax everyone, maintain a standing army, and secure domestic control over seaports and trade routes currently controlled by other nations. Foreign envoys watch and peevishly predict his failure in his reforms and mock his pretensions to being Tsar of all Russia, except for a bespectacled Pole who notes, “If he’s strong enough, all will agree.”

Ivan is painted as the man willing to do anything to ensure the unity of his nation as the only way it can stand up to the invasions of other countries. This point is proven quickly when the envoys from Kazan come to declare war on Muscovy, and the delegate gives Ivan the gift of a knife with which to commit honourable suicide. Ivan instead reacts with exultation at the challenge, eager to prove the potency of his new super-state. When the band of furious common folk, led by Nikolai, invade the palace wanting to clobber boyar heads, Ivan comes to meet them and promises them that criminals trying to stir up panic by falsifying bad omens in the populace will be caught and executed, a promise that impresses them. “We will crush sedition, eliminate the treason!” Ivan declares in repeated variations, and even on the battlefield he’s being warned against the potential treachery of boyars, seeming to justify Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Red Army. A subplot invokes Ivan’s efforts to trade with England, sending envoys to tell the English to send their ships into the White Sea to Archangelsk, both a true historical detail and a neat echo of the convoy supply route between Britain and Russia still running when the first film was released. Ivan’s retreat from Moscow and subsequent restoration resemble that flight from Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein, and the government when the Nazis reached the city’s suburbs.

Gold coins poured on Ivan at his coronation prove to be the first line of a narrative rhyme, for later, dishes are filled with coins by soldiers marching to war with Kazan, to be collected after battle to accurately count the dead: such is the precise totemic reflection of Ivan’s power over the people and theirs over him. The subsequent siege sees Kurbsky stringing up Mongol prisoners on the Russian barricades, the arrows fired by their brethren in the city killing the pinioned captives, before the sapping under the city results in a colossal mine blowing a hole in the fortifying wall. When Ivan falls ill after capturing Kazan, he begs the boyar grandees to swear allegiance to his son while sprawled weak and disoriented on the floor and pleading with physically helpless. but emotionally powerful despair. Their stone-faced gloating makes clear just how much he’s alienated them; Ivan’s determination leaves him increasingly isolated and lacking people he can trust, losing first Kurbsky, and then his wife, a lack he sets out to correct by forming the Oprichnina.

Ivan even begs Fyodor Kolychev to return to civic life and take over as Metropolitan of Moscow, but even he proves more an enemy than friend, as he lets his boyar relatives talk him into trying to curb Ivan’s power with his religious authority. When Kolychev tries this, Ivan ruefully declares, “From now on, I shall be exactly what you call me—terrible!” The general tone of the film is increasingly dark and twisted, played out quite literally in the acting styles, in the perpetual glower of Staritskaya and Ivan’s hawkish, increasingly gargoyle-like appearance, his swooping, bowing, and hunched-over stances. Yet there is still humour in the film, particularly in Eisenstein’s wittily framed, visual puns and dense, Brueghel-esque shots. Ivan’s European coronation guests, reacting in outrage to his plans, have great, frilled collars that fill the screen and seem to interlock, a wall of impressive, yet easily demolished starched cloth. The King of Poland’s court possesses a chessboard floor upon which the knights and bishops and pawns pose. At Ivan and Anastasia’s wedding, the camera peers directly down the length of the table as the guests strike their cups together over the rows of identical candelabra. Mulyata, to unnerve the boyars, stalks about the palace literally peeling his eye to remind all and sundry that he’s always on the lookout.

Interestingly, however, whilst the first part is generally regarded as the best, I found it merely a cheque that Eisenstein wrote and then cashed with the second part. Part II – The Boyar Conspiracy sees the rush of pageant-like, sprawling historical detail give way to only a relative few, almost operatic key scenes, and the flat, declarative, dramatic pitch of the first part likewise resolves into something more subtle and emotionally penetrating. I suspect the Ivan the Terrible diptych had a large influence on how Francis Coppola conceptualised the first two The Godfather films for the screen, for those gangster films follow a similar arc in setting up Michael Corleone as a self-justifying antihero, and then slowly revising the portrait into that of a craven, self-deluding monster. The second episode alters the meaning of the film considerably, as the characters and their different viewpoints become more substantial, and Ivan alters from posturing hero to sardonic, mean-spirited tyrant. The boyars likewise cease to be a mere implacable mass of impediments: the moral quandary of Kolychev is given credence as he tries to curb Ivan’s power and save lives. When the two clash in church before an audience of boyars, a piece of religious theatre plays out with children acting out a parable about the King of Babylon who would have executed three Israelites if not for an angel’s intervention, a part Kolychev is called on to play; the parable is pointed enough to make children watching realise Ivan is the wicked king. There’s a tacit acknowledgement here of the power of smuggled messages in drama that hints why the film’s portrayal of Ivan is being revised. Small wonder Stalin was so furious at Eisenstein the second time around.

In Part II, Ivan is still mourning Anastasia’s death, and, realising that she was poisoned and that Staritskaya was almost certainly responsible, faces a crisis that violates one of his few remaining ideals, the untouchable nature of the royal family. Similarly, he gives Kolychev permission to retain power over him in condemning people for the sake of retaining at least one nominal friendship, but this decision provokes another crisis: Ivan can’t be seen to be accountable. Instead, he lets the Basmanovs and Malyuta talk him into letting the Oprichniki off the leash. They scour the royal palace, drag out the boyars who had resisted paying his war tax or otherwise interfered with their plans, and slice their heads off. As this is happening, Ivan contorts in conscientious anxiety, but when he comes out and sees the dead bodies, he bows to them, crosses himself, and declares, “Not nearly enough!” Meanwhile the boyarina’s attachment to her dimwit son, whose high cheekbones and large eyes make him look more than a little like a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich, is portrayed as blending peculiar, discomforting impulses. One supposes initially that Staritskaya wants to put her son forward as Tsar because she can control him easily, but it also proves to be because she worships her twit of a lad. She cradles him comfortingly and sings a lullaby about a beaver being killed to provide him with clothing for his coronation, a display of maternal care that’s more than a little perverse and disquieting, least of all in how power, violence, and child-rearing have become inextricable in her psyche.

The portraits of a Vladimir as a man who can’t really grow up and a mother who’s all-controlling counterpoint a long flashback in which Ivan recounts to Kolychev his own childhood: he saw his mother die from poison and grew up surrounded by boyars who manipulated him and ran the state for him, until he finally rebelled and confirmed his own power by having a bullying minister dragged away. This tale lends psychologically deterministic weight to the portrait of Ivan, and also elucidates how his idealism is tempered by a constant, vengeful hatred that all too easily leaks out to infect his entire political life.

With Anastasia dead, he essentially marries his bodyguards. This peculiar relationship culminates in the film’s greatest scene (shot in colour), a bizarre, florid, homoerotic banquet sequence during which the Oprichniki dance in drunken hysterics, led by Fyodor Basmanov clad in drag, and sing a childish song about chopping off heads. Here, Sergei Prokofiev’s score cuts loose in dizzying, raucous strains as the Oprichniki stamp feet and clap hands in rows and fling themselves about in breathtakingly energetic kazatchok moves. It’s clear that Ivan has created a kind of morbidly erotic cult in his followers. When Vladimir drunkenly warns Ivan about an assassination attempt awaiting him when he leaves the banquet to attend to morning prayers, Ivan, instead of being grateful, mockingly dresses his guileless cousin in his own royal vestments, and then sends him out in his place to be stabbed to death by the lurking assassin. Staritskaya rushes out to crow over what she imagines is her defeated foe’s body, only for Ivan to strut out unharmed. The boyarina gathers up her son’s body and starts singing the same lullaby to him. Ivan won’t touch her, and even has the malicious gall to free the assassin, for he has “killed our greatest enemy.” He’s Ivan the Terrible, and he’s also a real stinker.


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