7th 02 - 2014 | 6 comments »

The Naked Jungle (1954)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Byron Haskin

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By Roderick Heath

Eleanor Parker’s death last December at the marvellously ripe age of 91 saddened me greatly. On top of the loss of a link with history, Parker had long been one of my favourite female stars from classic Hollywood. I’d had a powerful crush on her ever since first seeing her in Scaramouche (1952), where she whips up a storm as the hero’s fiery actress-mistress. The Naked Jungle is sublime stuff for the Parker fetishist and a quintessential work of ’50s adventure cinema. Adapted from an admired short story by Carl Stephenson, the film was produced by George Pal, a former animator who moved into live-action films and became one of the most successful filmmakers feeding the science fiction craze of the post-War era, commencing with Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Pal had ambitions to becoming the next Cecil B. DeMille, to whom he paid overt tribute by adapting two of his failed projects, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and mimicking his mix of epic largesse and religious piety. The quasi-biblical flavour of tribulation and transcendence found in Pal’s movies was corny, but bolder than rivals staking out a place in the scifi race in seeking to capture the psychic polar extremes of the era.

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Pal’s brand reached its height when he hired Byron Haskin to direct War of the Worlds (1953). By that time, Haskin had been working in films for 30 years, having made his directing debut in the late ’20s, but was known mainly as a cinematographer until he made the superb Technicolor hit for Disney, Treasure Island (1950). His work with Pal was the next high point of his career, as the pair developed a grand, hysterical, almost hallucinogenically lush Technicolor brand of scifi cinema with War of the Worlds that plugged vividly into the era’s fantasies and colonised the minds of a generation of budding filmmakers: Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and a host of others have paid homage to it over the years.

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Haskin, like Jack Arnold and Gordon Douglas, actually directed only a handful of scifi films but remains associated with the genre because he did his most famous work in it and indeed seemed most at home there. The much-derided Conquest of Space (1955) ended the Pal-Haskin partnership until they reunited for The Power (1968), but that sadly confirmed how out of place their brand of craftsmanship was in the late ’60s. Haskin had, in the meantime, continued to work occasionally in the genre, directing important episodes of the TV show “The Outer Limits,” including the famous ‘Demon with a Glass Hand’ episode by Harlan Ellison, and the eerie cult film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The Naked Jungle was the immediate follow-up to War of the Worlds and represented a digression into period exotic adventure, though it has aspects in common with scifi cinema’s “creature feature” impulses insofar as the climax involves combating a monstrous animal force. Here, however, the monster is entirely earthly and real, but no less alien. For much of its length, The Naked Jungle is not a film about man vs. wild, but rather a tale of man vs. woman, though the two are definitely linked within the narrative logic.

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The Naked Jungle is definitely of a piece with When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, with its emphasis on collapsing “civilisation,” individuals standing in the way of almost cosmic-level nihilism, and Haskin’s powerful, colour-sodden, cleanly contextualised images of fire, corrosion, and calamity. However, it avoids piety, perhaps reflecting the strong influence of coscreenwriter Ben Maddow, blacklisted at the time and fronted by Philip Yordan. Maddow’s incisive gall inflects the film’s vision of a capitalist empire run by a repressed yob and very literally eaten away by hive-mind labourers; or perhaps because of its historical 1901 setting, the need for such reassurance was negated. But it certainly has the same thematic stresses as other Pal films, with the emphasis of the film as a whole on the peculiarities of human willpower to both create and destroy and the ghost in the machine itching to tear the works down. There’s an intimacy, however, to these transcendent/apocalyptic visions that far outstrips many of Pal’s inheritors in modern cinema of spectacular destruction like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. As War of the Worlds finds its poetic center in a young woman’s anguished recollection of lost peace and safety, The Naked Jungle is, for most of its length, squarely and as unabashedly as you could get in the ’50s, about sex. The title isn’t entirely a tease in that regard: animalistic impulses threaten self-appointed titan Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) from within and without. Parker is Joanna, a mail-order bride from New Orleans who travels via steamboat to Leiningen’s coffee plantation in the Rio Negro area of the Amazon jungle.

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When Joanna arrives in Leiningen’s whitewashed castle filled with trappings of Western civilisation tediously brought in by boat, a trove Joanna is intended to round off, she finds the workforce of tribal folk more welcoming than Leiningen, whose Olympian attitude apparently borders on contempt for her. After several exchanges of strained politesse, Joanna finally loses her cool in a memorable eruption of verve: “Yes – I am exactly as represented. I speak several languages, play the piano, converse intelligently, and have very nice teeth. Would you care to count them?” Joanna then compares herself to a horse Leiningen bought, though at one point Haskin frames him with a statuette of a stallion, indicating he’s the would-be stud. Leiningen’s response is even franker in its conceit: “You’re very beautiful – intelligent – accomplished. There must be something wrong with you.” He soon enough sniffs it out: Joanna is a widow, a friend of Leiningen’s brother who recommended herself as the best candidate after he asked her to help him find a wife for the Amazon plantation owner. This leads into the film’s cunningly portrayed central problem. Leiningen is a virgin, having begun his empire building as a teen and resisted the temptation to sleep with the native women: “They have a name for the white men who sneak into the native villages at night. I was determined that no one would ever call me by that name.” As such, he’s initially repelled by the thought of a sexually experienced wife. Gleeful metaphors abound as Leiningen and Joanna compare her presence to the never-played piano he had shipped in. “A good piano sounds better when it’s played,” Joanna retorts pithily, and we all know what she means. Leiningen’s adamantine control begins to crack almost immediately. Taunted by Joanna’s preference of her own perfume to the brands he had imported, he gets drunk, kicks down her bedroom door, and splashes scent all over in a moment of tactile, erotic frenzy before his willpower returns.

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Leiningen begins schooling Joanna in “what you’re up against” in introducing her to both the world he’s carved out with his two hands and the glowering force of sexual frustration. The plantation used to be a swamp, but the water is now held back by lock gates (plot point!); Leiningen extrapolates that a similar mental gate is required to hold the physically and spiritually corrosive power of the jungle—nature itself—at bay, pointing out one of his workers who has Mayan ancestry, “one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known,” but who has devolved into a head-hunter. Lest we mistake Leiningen for one of them exploit-the-natives capitalists, fellow planter Gruber (John Dierkes) turns up with a full head of steam, believing some of his contract workers have run off to Leiningen, and indeed he finds two hiding amongst Leiningen’s crew, identified by the whip marks on their backs. Leiningen outwits Gruber with the aid of the state commissioner (William Conrad), who’s been waylaid by Gruber to help reclaim the workers, by the somewhat torturous but successful ploy of accusing the two men of murder—the shrunken head carried by another worker is used as a prop—and moving to hang them; the commissioner must hold them rather than deliver them back to Gruber’s tender mercies. Joanna meanwhile is momentarily shocked out of her formidably wide comfort zone by the spectacle of a native justice ritual that results in a man being killed. She abuses Leiningen’s foreman Incacha (Abraham Sofaer) for letting it happen, but, of course, the dead man is Incacha’s son.

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The Naked Jungle looks back over its shoulder to fetid melodramas like West of Zanzibar (1927) and Red Dust (1932) in using a jungle setting as mimetic canvas to paint perfervid fantasies, whilst its themes both pay heed to and mock late Victorian Freudian theories of repression as the key to constructing civilisations. Neither Haskin nor Heston and Parker step back from the campy edge to the hothouse melodrama, and indeed push gleefully toward and over the edge as Leiningen moves from chilly Pharaonic recline to panther-like lunges and poses over the piano as he probes Joanna about her past and her knowledge of men with the energy of a prosecutor grilling a murderess, with Parker’s blue eyes registering insult and provocation and converting them into energy. Parker, just before delivering that crack about pianos, rises whilst pounding a discordant note on the keyboard, as if the soundtrack has invaded the movie itself to declare infinite offence. Relations devolve into a comically grotesque show before the commissioner as Joanna tries to inform him that she’s leaving but not because the Amazon has proven too much for her, whilst Leiningen tries to feed her dictatorial cues, and the film moves into the territory occupied by Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk as Technicolor satirists of bourgeois gender relations.

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Young Heston’s odd mixture of physical strength and ability to play febrile personalities was rarely better exploited as Leiningen strikes poses worthy of Bauhaus sculpture, a study in masculine strength who almost immediately starts crumbling within when confronted by Joanna’s all-but-irresistible cache of feminine virtues. Whilst Heston had made his mainstream debut in a DeMille film, the invocations here of primal struggle with plague and flood more clearly point the way forward to his role as Moses. Yet as a protagonist, Leiningen more recalls John Wayne’s Matt Dunston in Red River (1948), a haute macho icon with a vein of rich hysteria just under the surface, and like Dunston, Leiningen engages in a titanic, almost mythic enterprise only to feel the ground slipping out from under his feet: “I was afraid you were disappointed in me,” Joanna announces excitedly as she cottons on to Leiningen, “Instead you’re afraid of me.” Superman loosens up and confesses to having read the books of poetry he has piled around the house. The moment with the perfume has its mirror later as Joanna entices him to put insect repellent on her back, in a scene that approximates the temperatures inside supernovae whilst not even resolving with the traditional kiss. The kind of primeval power a man can obtain in the jungle is transmitted by signs and legends: “Beyond that next bend, your husband has more power than a king,” the commissioner tells Joanna on the boat taking her upriver toward this Amazonian Heart of Darkness. But the jungle’s power is signified at the same moment, as the captain of the steamboat (Romo Vincent) notes birds flying far out of their climes, the first mark of something happening deep within that heart that can upend the peace treaty Leiningen has made with the earth.

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The tension and mystery about what’s out there are built carefully but marginalised for most of the first hour of The Naked Jungle. It’s made amusingly clear just how dreadful it could be, as the commissioner confirms he’s ventured upriver to find out what it is, and utters the dread word, “Marabunta!” to Leiningen, who is so alarmed he makes sure no one could possibly be listening before allowing the conversation to continue, whilst scorer Daniele Amfitheatrof lets loose with his oft-repeated theme of the threat for the first time, a wild-sounding, high flurry on wind instruments that sounds like a bird’s fearful cry. When Leiningen decides to go with the commissioner, he packs Joanna along, intending to send her across land to catch a boat out. But the signs of dread proliferate, with wildlife and villages all deserting the locale. A floating canoe proves to have a dazzlingly clean skeleton in it, albeit still clad in clothes that identify it as Gruber’s. Finally the heroes are confronted by the awesome sight, far more destructive and dangerous than any monster of myth, of the Marabunta: a colossal column of soldier ants, or, as the commissioner dubs it, “40 square miles of agonising death,” devouring all in its path, and working irresistibly toward Leiningen’s plantation. Leiningen, of course, decides to defend his turf, pitting immoveable object against unstoppable force. Joanna half-coerces him into letting her stay rather than leave with the baleful commissioner, pointing out that her presence gives him power over the workers. Not taking chances, however, Leiningen steals a leaf from Cortez—surely a deliberate echo—and burns his workers’ boats to prevent escape.

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The Naked Jungle belongs in a blurred genre zone. In addition to its variation on the themes of Pal’s scifi series and an historical adventure, the story patterns and audience-appeal tropes recall films like The Hurricane (1937) and The Rains Came (1939) as sexy dramas set in exotic places with climactic deus ex machina transfigurations, and looking forward to the ’70s craze for disaster movies and the horror films of an oncoming age. Although there’s little overt gore in the film, the visceral nature of its implied horror laid groundwork for a significant subgenre. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) followed the model of the Haskin-Pal film in concentrating on a tense romance foregrounding calamitous animal attacks in a vision of truths behind the human condition, and beyond to the craze for animal-attack films in the ’70s exemplified by Jaws (1975), by which time the metaphorical force of this narrative pattern as displaced portrait of invasive forces eating at the western body politic would be more starkly obvious. Paul Verhoeven, a fan of War of the Worlds in his youth, may have remembered The Naked Jungle for Starship Troopers (1997), where the ideas are the same but the bugs bigger, whilst Spielberg quotes it for a gleefully nasty trope in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), though there, the ants eat the communist. Most intriguingly, perhaps, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo likewise essays the same theme in the same setting. There, the secret brittleness of Haskin’s white übermensch was exchanged for Herzog’s beautiful, nonconformist visionary, but both heroes test their own potential to gain dominion against natural forces and fail in a fashion that confirms them as titans who refuse to become Promethean victims, but instead find revelation in loss. The common link between Pal’s monster movie and Herzog’s arthouse drama is the immediate sense of existential peril, a vivid interest in the contrast of powerful individual humanity against implacable surrounds.

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In Leiningen’s case, this comes in contending with a force that overwhelms and outwits his efforts to hold it off, but finds other things in defeat. Not least of which, natch, is that it seals the deal in his marriage, and the mission is changed not just by the threat of the ants but of Leiningen’s changing perspective and circumstance to become one of protection, and not mere defiance. Haskin’s sense of style is unobtrusive and yet undeniable: the cinematography by Ernest Laszlo, a fin-de-siècle trumpet blast for the beauty of Technicolor Academy-ratio pictorialism as the widescreen age was burgeoning, offers rich depth of field and space in the boxy format, seeking out balancing elements in compositions, and smooth tracking shots that dog the characters incisively, like the deft little track forward as Joanna and Leiningen provoke each other as she plays the piano. A keen eye for colour coding is plain as the white walls of Leiningen’s buildings, his outpost of civilisation, and are echoed by the characters’ dress. Joanna arrives clad in a blazing white jacket, an emissary of alien cleanliness and angelic beauty that makes her instantly iconic to the native workmen, whilst Leiningen first appears filthy and clad in earthy colours. Later, as the two stand together to form a united front for the native labourers, both are dressed in pale hues matching the house, symbolising their unity with the world they’re defending, not long before the insinuating masses of black ants begin crawling over the plaster. Pulsating greens dominate exteriors and, as disaster comes, fire rendered in nightmarish hues call back to War of the Worlds, as Leiningen’s last bulwark against the invaders burns away.

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Haskin and Pal’s special-effects team do more restrained work here than in Pal’s other scifi works, offering painterly matte depictions of the oncoming swarm, first glimpsed as a great, grey, teeming gash in the jungle, and then cleverly layered shots of the ants crawling on limbs, stripping away leaf and stem, and reducing Leiningen’s plantation to a skeletal desert. The sense of staging reaches a crescendo in the film’s most famous and excerpted scene, as Leiningen’s rotund lock keeper (Jack Reitzen), performing the vital task of keeping the canals Leiningen’s dug as a barrier to the ants filled with floodwater, falls asleep at his post, with the camera tilting down from his sleeping face to note the masses of ants crawling up his legs. Awakening, he’s flung into a thrall of terror, screaming as his eyes are eaten in their sockets by the horde.

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Haskin returns to the same image, of a man’s hand curling up in pain as the ants swarm on his body, the second time with Leiningen himself as he makes his last desperate effort: whereas that binary moment of him rubbing fluid on Joanna’s body carried potent erotic meaning, here the corporeal sensation is equally powerful and far more terrible, whilst the efforts of both men to hang on to life is reduced to the singular picture (interestingly, the poster of Saul Bass’s new-age variation of the story, Phase IV [1972], depicts an ant burrowing its way out of a hand) that calls back to Luis Buñuel’s love of crawling ants as symbol of irrepressible forces, the tingling sensatory quality of dozens of tiny feet evoking the finest patterns of the nervous system. Of course, Leiningen fares better than his employee and escapes the gnawing death to induce his own destructive flood, destroying the lock gate entirely and allowing the waters to wash the ant horde away, saving lives at the cost of rolling back his labours. Leiningen is caught by the boiling waters, but lurches his way out of the mud and into Joanna’s arms on a water-logged plain as the end title appears. It profits a man everything, it seems, to lose his world but gain his woman.


7th 12 - 2013 | 9 comments »

All About Eve (1950)

Director/Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The end of each calendar year brings with it a flood of new films vying for attention from audiences with holiday time on their hands and awarding organizations like the one to which I belong, the Online Film Critics Society. Because critics generally see so many films in a year that we presumably can’t possibly remember them all, publicists send bundles of DVD screeners and, increasingly, links to online screeners so nothing will escape our notice. It is at this time of the year, when I most feel the pressure to celebrate the new, that I realize how important it is to shine a light on films, even famous and well-recognized films, that have been forgotten or unseen by new generations of film fans.

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Which brings us to All About Eve, one of Hollywood’s most honored and iconic motion pictures. Winner of six well-deserved Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and especially, Best Screenplay, this endlessly quotable film has been a staple in my life for decades, so much so that it never even occurred to me that a well-established cinephile like the hubby might not have seen it. Yet, when after scrolling through the cable desert looking for something watchable, I landed on All About Eve as winner by default—my views are, after all, in the double digits—I had no idea what kind of a “bumpy night” I was in for. Watching Shane whoop and holler and dish on what the characters were doing during this, his first viewing, was a revelation to me. This supremely theatrical film about the supreme world of the New York stage was playing like Brando on Broadway for my enthusiastic newbie and left me thinking about the strengths of an art form whose death has been predicted for decades.

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Calling a film stagebound normally would be considered a criticism, but for All About Eve, it is the highest of compliments. Nothing, in fact, is more distasteful to the title character, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), than to hear that one of her theatre idols has taken work in Hollywood. “So few come back,” she says to director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), the paramour of Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the Broadway legend Eve worships. Sampson has indeed taken a few weeks’ work in Hollywood, a move that has 40-year-old Margo worried that her 32-year-old lover will be tempted to stray.

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She might have worried more about taking Eve under her wing after her best friend, Karen (Celeste Holm), wife of Margo’s regular playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), brings her to Margo’s dressing room after finding her standing by the stage door. Eve gives a short account of her life—a farmer’s daughter, a secretary in a Milwaukee brewery, and wife of a coworker named Eddie who went to the Pacific to fight in World War II. She says she traveled to San Francisco to meet Eddie following his discharge. Eddie, however, didn’t show up, and a State Department telegram informing her that he wouldn’t be coming home at all reached her after being forwarded from Milwaukee. She says she decided one aimless evening to see a play starring Margo, “The most important night of my life until now.” Eve followed the play to New York, attending every performance, flattering Margo into offering to help her. From that point on, Eve insinuates herself into every aspect of Margo’s life with the goal of displacing her as the toast of Broadway and the woman in Bill’s life.

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It is almost impossible to overstate how much this film gets right about a life in the theatre and how shrewdly Mankiewicz heightens the melodrama of the milieu—hoisting the theatre on its own petard might be a more accurate way of describing it—while paradoxically peeling away the artifice to reveal some painful truths. By shooting the film in what amounts to a series of Noël Coward’s patented drawing rooms with a script so loaded with bon mots that Coward must have been panting with envy, All About Eve does “meta” better than any newly minted movie could hope to achieve.

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At the same time, Mankiewicz keeps one foot in Hollywood. He uses a voiceover by Karen to provide the flashback narrative that would be difficult to recreate on stage. His grand set-piece is a party at Margo’s home that moves episodically through the many stages of Margo’s morose jealousy and inebriation by telescoping time with something similar to a cinematic b-roll. Would-be star Miss Caswell, played by soon-to-be movie star Marilyn Monroe, comes on the arm of the king of debonair cynicism, George Sanders, playing theatre critic Addison de Witt. Her attempted seduction of producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) is open and above board, which contrasts the deviousness that seems to characterize the New York scene in movies ranging from this one and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) to Tootsie (1982) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994). (Mankiewicz fires one across the bow for himself and his colleagues when he has Bill tell Eve off: “The Theatuh, the Theatuh! What book of rules says the Theatre exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City?”)

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In his infinite wisdom, Mankiewicz never shows Margo and Eve performing on stage, not even a closing curtain line. What we know of their abilities—all we need to know—is how they play-act and self-dramatize in their offstage lives. Eve (née Gertrude Slescynski, an ugly, ethnic name for an inwardly ugly climber with a fake backstory), going for the ultimate long con, literally gives the performance of her life playing Eve Harrington, the humble, worshipful fan of the grand dame. She must be absolutely convincing to disarm her marks and get them to accede to the requests she calculates will pave her road to stardom. No one smells a rat except Birdie (Thelma Ritter), a former vaudevillian who acts as Margo’s dresser. After Eve tells her hard-luck tale, Birdie cracks, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” The others protest her callousness, and she herself says she was moved by Eve’s story, but the seed is planted; later, Birdie says outright that she doesn’t like Eve, that she seems to be studying Margo. Sadly, Ritter’s character disappears for the rest of the film—one can imagine Eve packed her off somehow to avoid detection, but I wish she had been around for the run of the show.

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Margo, of course, has played the star so long that she can display artistic temperament in her sleep. The problem with that particular script for a woman, however, is that it has a shelf life. Even extraordinary talent will only go so far once a woman has passed her peak of physical beauty. When she sees Bill off to California, Margo warns Bill not to “get stuck on some glamor puss.” He chides her for being childish, to which she responds helplessly, “I don’t want to be childish. I’d settle for just a few years.” His increased irritation only pushes her further, “Am I going to lose you, Bill? Am I?” And like the proper denouement to a truthful scene played for high theatricality, Bill takes her in his arms, tells her “As of this moment, you’re six years old,” and starts to kiss her. Their scene is interrupted by Eve handing him his airline ticket, a suggestive statement of theme that is itself theatrical.

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Where Bill remains loyal to the woman he loves, Addison is ready to throw Margo over for a new temple idol. When Margo characteristically arrives hours late to read with Miss Caswell, who is auditioning to replace a pregnant cast member, Eve steps in. Addison, who has witnessed her remarkable performance, wounds Margo by saying that Lloyd “listened to his play as if someone else had written it, he said, it sounded so fresh, so new, so full of meaning”—in other words, it had an age-appropriate actress in the role. This exchange highlights the black hole that swallows up middle-aged actresses who find it hard to find characters their age to play. Mankiewicz shows his compassion for these mature artists by writing one of the best parts a mature actress could hope for; Davis was 41 when she made this film.

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The conventional wisdom of the time gets an airing, too, as Margo’s only option at her age seems to be to get married while someone still wants her. Mankiewicz has her say to Karen after she and Bill have broken up, “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not woman.” The feminist in me bridles at this scene every time, but a secondary theme of All About Eve, one that edges it toward women’s film territory, is the desire for love. Eve wants the love of the audience, Bill wants Margo to marry him, Karen wants to keep her loving friendship with Margo, Addison, yes even poor, closeted Addison, wants a companion and blackmails Eve into being that person. Margo’s philosophizing feels both true and another part she seems to be convincing herself she wants, fearing that the age difference between her and Bill will become a yawning chasm. I can hate the sentiment while acknowledging that there’s truth to it even today.

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The third act has Eve exposed and baring her teeth as she moves aggressively to capture Bill, who rejects her, tries her luck with Hugh, and finally loses all of her early benefactors as they see her for the conniving careerist she is. In a heavy-handed ending, Eve, successful yet still unhappy, finds a young woman (Barbara Bates) in her suite. As Eve starts to use her as a gofer like Margo used Eve, we see the young woman don Eve’s elegant wrap, hold an award Eve just won, and bow before a three-way mirror, multiplying many times the image of the young hopeful set to exploit and displace the established star. This is a Hollywood image that gives just a little bit of dignity back to a theatre that, after Mankiewicz’s takedown, really needs it.


15th 09 - 2013 | 6 comments »

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Director: Jack Arnold

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By Roderick Heath

A clawed hand, seeming to reach out like the living spirit of a deadly, animalistic past trying to grab at prey, looms at the camera. But it’s only a fossil jutting from a rock face, uncovered by the workmen of geologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) in the heart of the Amazon. Carl knows he’s found something remarkable and immediately intends returning to civilisation to exhibit the world-changing artifact, even as a very live, very dangerous-looking counterpart to the hand reaches out of the water and rests on the riverbank, indicating the lurking presence of a creature watching Maia pluck free his ancestor’s remains. During the night, whilst Maia is away, his two workmen, camping in the jungle, are attacked by the roaring, scaled beast and brutally killed…

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For people who delight in the brassy glories of ’50s scifi cinema, William Alland must count as a relatively unsung hero. He began his career under Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre, and won a claim to cinematic immortality playing the shadowy journalist Thompson in Citizen Kane (1941) before becoming a film producer. Alland’s success in this field was found in a comparatively peculiar niche. Like Val Lewton at RKO in the ’40s, Alland captained a series of productions for Universal-International aimed at artfully exploiting a popular trend in a profitable, but not especially prestigious cinema. For Alland, these were scifi movies, built around the lurid, poster-ready appeal of impressive bug-eyed monsters, a subgenre with which Alland’s name became synonymous.

3487342Universal was reacting to the success other filmmakers like George Pal had gained in this territory, but also aimed to reinvigorate their brand as the home of movie monsters, in shifting the official genre prism from the horror style the studio had found such success in over 20 years earlier, a style which had nearly gone extinct. By the mid ’50s, the trickle of scifi became a flood of movies replete with UFOs, aliens, robots, and rampaging beasts, with all their quotidian metaphors for Atomic Age anxieties and frontiers. Alland’s success as a producer was relatively brief, a six-year reign during which he also made several B-Westerns, but in that time, he produced 11 scifi works that run the gamut from major classics to tepid time wasters.

imagesAlland displayed one gift his mentor Welles would have appreciated—an eye for apt and talented collaborators, one of whom was director Jack Arnold, who successfully lobbied Universal and Alland to helm It Came from Outer Space (1953). Arnold started out as an actor but moved behind the camera under Robert Flaherty during World War II. The Oscar-nominated pro-union documentary With These Hands (1950) made his name, and he soon broke into helming B-movies. What made his collaboration with Alland particularly fruitful was that, unlike so many filmmakers trying to make a few bucks from the scifi craze, Arnold had real affection for the genre from his boyhood spent devouring books. Arnold could well be the first proper auteur of scifi cinema, in close competition with Ishirô Honda, who emerged the following year with Godzilla (1954). Fritz Lang, James Whale, Howard Hawks, and Robert Wise were some major directors who had all displayed affinity for scifi, but their works in the mode were limited and used it to offer variations on a worldview expostulated equally well in other genres. Arnold, on the other hand, although he would make some fine noir works and Westerns, was clearly most at home in this field. His influence, worked through a handful of major variations on basic themes, echoes through the next few decades of filmmaking in the genre: ambiguous aliens in It Came from Outer Space, the primal monster of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Atomic Age giant in Tarantula (1955), the transformed man in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and antiwar parable in The Space Children (1958). Even something like his bizarre teen thriller High School Confidential (1958) seems close to scifi in its shrill evocation of modern anxiety and moral rot.

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The idea for Creature from the Black Lagoon reputedly began forming when Alland met the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at a party in 1941 and heard from him the legend of a half-man, half-fish that haunted the waters of the Amazon. Years later, Alland carefully developed this notion as a follow-up to It Came from Outer Space, with a story by Maurice Zimm and a script by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross. Whereas It Came from Outer Space had struck a peculiarly ambivalent and intelligent approach to ideas of the alien, Creature represented an attempt to craft a genuine crossbreed of the motifs Universal had exploited so well in its ’30s horror films with a more contemporary edge. Indeed, the specific success of the Alland-Arnold model was in its deeper awareness and embrace of the psychological element of the genre, the notion that, as in the horror genre, the monstrosities seen on screen were essentially signifying something else, something within the psyche, reflecting another, more genuine anxiety.

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The strange humanity of the monstrous (and vice versa), a theme most obviously explored in the canonical Frankenstein and Wolf Man films, was in Creature grafted onto an explicitly evolutionary investigation of both humanity’s progress and limitations, unpeeling the notion that under the stellar-aimed mindset of modernity lurks the slavering, adapted beast for which the basic drives of sex and eating are the only true motives. These motifs are introduced in a prologue that strikes the same pedagogical stance that a lot of these films did, but with an underlying quality of curiosity and a faintly haunting note, as a chronicler narrates the birth of the Earth in fire and cataclysm, and then then emergence of life, seen as strange-looking footprints dotting a primeval beach. This promptly segues into an image of the past looming into the present with fearsome immediacy of the fossil hand.

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Primeval past and space age present soon come into jarring contact as Maia presents the fossil hand to the remarkably good-looking collective of American nerds running the Brazilian Instituto de Biologia Maritima. Maia gains the interest of guest field researchers David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), and they, in turn, present the find to their boss Mark Williams (Richard Denning), a blonde he-man who’s always eager for anything that can bring glory and funding to the institute. Along with another of the institute’s brainiacs, Dr. Ed Thompson (Whit Bissell), they form an expedition to head to Maia’s dig site and extract the rest of the remains, hiring the steam launch Rita, captained by the shabby genial Capt. Lucas (Nestor Paiva) for the voyage upriver. Finding the mutilated bodies of the diggers, the scientists are momentarily shaken, but press on to find the rest of the skeleton. They have no luck because much of the rock face has been washed away by the river, and the fossil bones along with it. Deciding to take a chance on the theory that the eroded fragments might have collected downstream in the fabled Black Lagoon, the expedition packs up and moves into the recessed waterway, only to discover they’re not alone: the immensely powerful and devastatingly violent Gill Man proves to be the product of an evolutionary cul-de-sac that is nonetheless smart and aggressive enough to have survived into the twentieth century in this locale. Mark, hungry for glory and the thrill of battling something as relentless and motivated as he is, sets out to trap or kill the beast, browbeating David and the others into helping. But it soon becomes clear that the Gill Man has its own hunt in mind: the solitary anthropoid recognises Kay as a potential breeding partner and traps the expedition whilst making constant attempts to snatch her away.

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Scifi cinema in the ’50s is now recognised as occupying the same place as film noir did in the late ’40s, that is, that in beholding the genre, one sees the id of the age closest to the surface: aliens in place of Communists, monsters in place of A-bombs, UFOs in place of ICBM missiles and jets. Like most of Arnold’s best films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon actively invites symbolic readings, in part because it’s a meld of styles, with its chiaroscuro visual style and reflexes of phobic intensity in the narrative that stray very close to the gothic horror film. Other aspects of the film fit the ’50s scifi craze at its broadest: there’s a high level of pedagogy, straining to relate all fields of scientific interest with the great and glorious projects of the space and nuclear age. David gives a speech, nominally to his fellow scientists but really for the audience’s benefit, linking research into life on Earth with space exploration and questions of adaptability. The film’s cosmic overtones, set in play at the outset, soon resolve into something more interesting, however, as the story unfolds. Both the forward rush of evolution and its basic, unchanging driving impulses are observed in unison, and the lack of evolution on display becomes crucial. Scratch the rational man and quickly the bully, the mighty hunter, the mate-shielding chest-beater, the savant of survival, the animal on top of the food chain makes clear its determination to claim dominion. All it takes is a close cousin with two-inch claws to shake it all out.

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Another hallmark of the Alland’s series was his efforts to always entwine a strong genre concept with a kind of core social or psychological idea and character conflict to feed into its themes and give propulsion to the plot. As in the later, under-budgeted but interesting The Land Unknown (1957), here the propensity of human rationality to devolve quickly and accept arcane principles, particularly those to do with sex and power, are explored. The central conflict between thoughtless enquiry and defensive authority explored in Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s genre-defining The Thing from Another World (1951) here is reversed and reconfigured into a pattern that’s become, over the years, close to an essential motif in cinematic scifi. David’s conscientious, curious perspective becomes the default heroic pole against which Mark’s grasping, greedy, warmongering delight in the hunt is contrasted. Mark is identified quickly as a man who takes credit for the work of others, a relentless political operator who represents the corruption of the institutional sensibility, whereas David is a proto-hippie environmentalist in a film that does, indeed, have some claim to being one of the first to engage with this vital modern idea. Creature avoids total didacticism, however, as both sides are ultimately revealed to have strengths and weaknesses. David’s refusal to countenance killing the Gill Man soon appears naïve, whilst Mark’s ferocity proves equal to the task of combating the beast, a nightmare figuration that taunts and fascinates him like some gnawing part of his own id that must be beaten. But he eventually overreaches in trying to wrestle the monster; in the film’s most floridly epic sequence, man and monster lock in a death match, churning in the mud on the lagoon floor that is akin to some extraordinarily weird mating clinch.

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The actual heart of The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the darkly erotic frisson provided by the beast’s pursuit of the gorgeous Adams. The Gill Man becomes a phobic reconfiguration of the basest masculine desire turned on the most fetishized of feminine physiques. In this regard, Creature reveals is roots in the kinds of pulp magazine covers of Amazing Stories and Weird Tales where tentacles and otherwise repulsive things drooled and fondled scantily clad damsels, id-beasts in adolescent fantasias of lust. There’s also the long shadow of King Kong (1933) as a variant on the Beauty and the Beast theme, as the monster in the heart of darkness is stricken by the woman it can’t have. Unlike with Kong, however, where the mechanics were obviously difficult, there’s a more genuine sexual as well as physical danger in the situation. Creature would scarcely exist without Adams as its raison d’être, as the object of desire all events flow to and from. The cleverest and most specific spin on the Beauty/Beast figuration found here, in fact, is the idea of making a kind of eternal triangle into more a quadrangle, with a sliding scale of eligible masculinity offered by David, Mark, and Gill Man. David and Kay are introduced as a couple, with David resisting marriage: “I’m waiting for Williams to give her that raise—then she can afford me.” But David’s laggard romanticism and Kay’s excessively grateful demeanour give Mark a toehold in his initial project of prying Kay away from David, before the even greater challenge of the catching the Gill Man. The two projects become entwined for him, signalled in a hilarious display of phallic aggression early on when Mark exhibits the spear gun he’s brought for hunting, firing it off with pointedly potent accuracy after catching David and Kay canoodling: “All you have to do is aim it and squeeze.”

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Ironically, of course, ’50s prudery precluded the Gill Man costume from sporting a phallus—his enormous claws serve as stand-ins. One of Arnold’s gifts as a director was his ability to root scifi in a gamy physicality, mapped out at its most extreme in the endless castration of the hero of Shrinking Man, which begins when mysterious fluids coat his bared body, and the switchbacks of familiar guises and repugnant actuality in It Came from Outer Space. Creature is all about sex, and Arnold’s eye through the intermediary of William E. Snyder’s photography, laps up the barely coded fetishism that fuels the tale, replete with Denning and Carlson constantly going shirtless and the proximity of the Gill Man’s scaly form to Adams’ bubble-butt shorts and bare legs. From practically the first moment Kay steps ashore in the Amazon, the Gill Man’s webbed hand comes groping out of the water, desiring tactile communion with the glossy perfection of Adams’ calves. Adams, who had been an agreeable starlet in a couple of westerns for good directors (Raoul Walsh’s The Lawless Breed, 1952, Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, 1953), never had another moment like this one, which put her name up there with Fay Wray and Evelyn Ankers in the annals of monster-sought damsels, setting a record for Amazonian costume changes and a dip in a bathing suit that would make Esther Williams jealous. Adams’ Kay feels throughout much of the film like the islet of amity and good-natured openness compared with the thickening atmosphere of macho neurosis. She refused to have her genuine feelings of conflict between David and Mark dismissed by Thompson when he tries to play elder-knows-best with her.

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The film’s most singular and famous sequence is the perversely romantic scene in which Kay goes swimming in the lagoon. The Gill Man, fascinated, swims after her and begins to mimic her motions underwater, unseen and unsuspected by her until she treads water and the creature tries again to touch her legs. That image echoes back to Jacques Tourneur’s famous pool scene in Cat People (1942) (inspired by Tourneur’s own near-drowning whilst swimming at night) in invoking an intensely reactive sense of personal vulnerability. Many ’50s scifi movies are held today as examples of ‘50s cinematic sexism, filled with brainy heroines reduced to quivering balls of fear in the face of monstrosities, and to a very large extent that charge is true, including here. And yet the era’s genre entries are also curiously driven by the powerful question of gender relations and equality, in part as a necessary gimmick for putting pretty faces into some otherwise sweaty masculine jobs and locations, or even bravely ignoring them altogether, as Roger Corman’s fascinating no-budget movies of the period tended to do. Kay’s scientific know-how is never doubted, but keeping the female safe is still the major plot stake: “Well there’s just one thing Mark,” David warns when the proposal to venture into the Black Lagoon is first raised: “Going into unexplored territory with a woman.” Kay laughs him off, and Mark himself drawls that “I’ve always found Kay can take care of herself.” David’s caution is vindicated, naturally, but the voluble urgency of the film’s notion that biology drives everything undercuts even his wisdom: in the end, it all boils down to the survival of the fittest.

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One of the less bracing aspects of Creature’s immediate success was the number of tacky imitations it sparked in the following decades: sticking a guy in a hair or rubber suit and having him terrorise sundry isolated people became a basic template for B-movie makers. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg remembered Arnold’s vision for his own variation on the theme with Jaws (1975), echoing this swimming scene for the opening and quoting elements of the visuals and storytelling in his blockbuster, as in a sequence in which the Gill Man gets caught up in the Rita’s boom net and almost rips off its mast trying to escape. The specific influence of Creature on a single, later blockbuster hides its larger contribution to modern genre film as a model of dramatic compression and intensity. Once the Rita reaches the Black Lagoon, the narrative scarcely relents, in a fashion that looks forward to works like Aliens (1986), as the Gill Man’s campaign of terror commences. Arnold’s reveal of the Gill Man’s full appearance, like Spielberg’s revelation of the shark in his film but coming much earlier in the film, is a real surprise, with the creature suddenly rearing up out of the depths behind Mark and David when they’re casually patrolling the lagoon. Once seen, the creature scarcely disappears, constantly probing the Rita, attacking and murdering Lucas’ crewmen. As the cast dwindles, the expedition team find themselves hard-pressed to even keep the Gill Man off the boat, paying off in a delightfully odd moment in which the Gill Man reaches in through a porthole whilst a bandaged, faceless, voiceless man tries in vain to alert his comrades. Nine years before Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the idea that nature can throw up terrors that can encage all-conquering humankind still is clearly mooted, and indeed as in the Hitchcock film, there’s a sense of confluence between the still-present dark of the primal in the human soul and the strange, inimical wisdom of the inhuman world even in the over-lit age of science and reason.

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Snyder’s photography expertly charts the sensatory communication of this essential theme: daylight shots are blazes of light, but nighttime sequences are semigothic, noir-influenced islets where the lights on the Rita seem lonely and assailed bastions against the terrible dark. In spite of the moments of cheese and patronisation, Creature still rises to the best of its genre in its conscientious, inquisitive spirit. Thompson is presented as a voice of reasoned contrast to the rest of the team, pointing out early on to a careless Mark that “Dedication doesn’t mean risking the lives of others,” and playing relationship counsellor for Kay moments before he’s assaulted and horribly mangled by the Gill Man. The challenge of defeating the Gill Man on his own turf with wits is raised by David, and in spite of Mark’s drive to turn it all into a raw battle, the native trick of drugging fish with a root-derived drug is repurposed into a method of catching him and holding him at bay. David and Mark do manage to finally catch the Gill Man with the drug, but only after it kills another crewman, and the monster still manages to escape from its cage. Thompson manages to bash it with a lantern after it mauls him, in a striking shot of wild motion and fire as the burning monster struggles, wreathed in flames, before leaping into the water. A major aspect of the film’s stature and appeal is, unavoidably, the creature itself. The Gill Man was designed by Millicent Patrick; the bodysuit was executed by Jack Kevan, who had made prosthetics for World War II vets; and Chris Mueller Jr did the mask. Although limited in some ways and certainly an exemplary “man in a rubber suit” monster, the Gill Man is nonetheless easily one of the most recognisable and tangible screen monsters of all time, particularly when animated by the gutsy underwater adventurer Ricou Browning, who did shot after shot in the costume holding his breath and going for broke.

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It’s not really belittling the film to note that an enormous part of its appeal lies in its cheesiness, particularly the blaring, alarmist score provided by Hans J. Salter’s scoring company, with contributions from Henry Mancini, amongst others. Creature is constantly spiked by blasts of brass and ferociously churning strings that underpin appearances of the Gill Man, unsubtle but certainly contributing to the headlong rush of the film’s pace. Paiva provides a sweet counterpoint to the main drama with his gleefully insouciant performance as Lucas, lounging about watching the savants labour, blissfully unconcerned with scientific knowledge, and utterly immune to the temptations and pressures apparent in the other characters: when Mark tries to bully him as he does the others, Lucas simply pulls out a knife, holds it to his throat, and asks, oh so cheerfully, “You wish to say something, señor?”

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Happily, Arnold was able to bring back his character, albeit briefly, for the following year’s sequel, Revenge of the Creature, after the finale of this film, which showed the bullet-riddled Gill Man drifting in the inky depths, was just ambiguous enough to justify a sequel. Arnold and Alland did their best to sustain an organic connection in the series, but budget limitations and weak scripting make Revenge a bit of a chore to sit through. A third film in the series, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), directed by John Sherwood, had far too little action, but managed to reinvigorate the basic concept with some interesting twists. All three films end with a touch of vagueness, the monster seeming to die each time but with a crack left open for survival (and another sequel, of course). For all his deadliness, the Gill Man even by the end of the first film clearly represents something we both fear and prize: the essential pride of natural force.


25th 08 - 2013 | 6 comments »

Niagara (1955)

Director: Henry Hathaway

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the fifth installment of Noir City Chicago, the programmers decided to take a risk: they devoted an entire day to Technicolor noir. For most people, it’s not noir without the black shadows and knives of white light that pierce the dark doings of society’s underbelly in a black-and-white film. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation and opening-weekend host of Noir City Chicago, says that he considers noir to be a state of mind, a place of psychological pathology, and therefore, the candy-colored films of the day’s line-up earn their place on a film noir program. While I can’t agree that all of the films, even Leave Her to Heaven (1943) and its deranged central character played by Gene Tierney, were anything but an approximate fit, one was noir in spades: Niagara.

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For many people, Niagara is the Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made, employing as it does some of his typical devices—a blonde, the threat of nature, a famous location, murder most foul. But the resemblance stops there. Niagara’s blonde is a nasty bit of work, not an essentially good-natured damsel in need of rescue, and Niagara Falls is no mere trick to goose up the film’s climax, but rather an integral part of the entire film. Oh, and the bell tower employed in Niagara and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) are both borrowed from other films that reach at least as far back as the first iteration of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1911.

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Noir is also associated with cities, where it is thought that crime and vice find their natural home. Thus, the incongruousness of the setting—not only the falls, but also having the action take place in the parklike town of Niagara City in Canada—offers a more egalitarian notion of where corruption lives. Instead of a dark nightclub or seedy motel, our cast of characters meet and play out their furtive drama in a clean, well-run motel with individual cabins overlooking the falls. It is through the ingenuity of director Henry Hathaway that such wide-open spaces provide so many claustrophobic hiding places for the treacherous and tormented souls with lust and murder on their minds.

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A voiceover that is dropped after the opening scene comes from George Loomis (Joseph Cotten), a down-on-his-luck Korean War veteran and failed sheep rancher who is recuperating from a nervous breakdown at the motel with Rose (Marilyn Monroe), his bored bombshell of a wife. He tells us he was drawn to the falls one very early morning, and we watch him slip, fall, get soaked, before returning to his darkened cabin, where only moments before, Rose quickly put out her cigarette and feigned sleep so as not to have to deal with him.

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Another couple, Polly Cutler (Jean Peters) and her salesman husband Ray (Max Showalter), are questioned about their visit to Canada by a border guard. The Cutlers won a trip to the city where Ray’s company, which manufactures shredded wheat, is headquartered, and are using the prize as the honeymoon they never had. They are booked into the cabin where the Loomises are staying, but Rose begs the motel manager to let her exhausted husband rest, and the Cutlers agree to take another cabin. The reason for Rose’s plea to let George sleep becomes clear to Polly when she and Ray visit the falls that morning, and she spots Rose kissing another man (Richard Allen) in a secluded area next to the cascading water. She and Ray will soon be up to their necks in trouble as the adulterers’ plot to kill George takes some unexpected twists.

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It would easy to dismiss the film as part travelogue, as the attractions of Niagara Falls—the Maid of the Mist, the Cave in the Winds, Prospect Point, Rainbow Bridge—are explicitly named or photographed. But the operations of these attractions provide markers to the unfolding plot, while offering chills of their own. For example, people who go on the Maid of the Mist, or indeed, any attraction near the falls, suit up with hooded raincoats and boots, leaving their shoes behind. This becomes important when George is lured to the falls by Rose’s lover, with his unclaimed shoes as evidence that he went into the dark caverns beneath the falls but never emerged. When Polly is pursued by George at the Cave in the Winds, the flimsy-looking, slippery wooden walkways and railings, which are as they appear in real life, look like the recipe for disaster they almost prove to be. The falls themselves are a metaphor for rampaging, reckless passion, a current not usually commented upon even though Niagara Falls is one of the most popular honeymoon destinations in the world. It may look ridiculous for Monroe and Allen to kiss while wrapped head to toe in rain gear (shades of the full-body condoms in The Naked Gun [1988]!), but the aptness of the wet and wild image in a remote corner of a very public place is perfection.

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In spite of a beautifully haunted performance by Cotten as a good man driven to the dark side by his bad luck and cheating wife, this film is all about its women. Monroe is at her best in this film, conveying her feelings with a look of 100-proof emotion. She lies convincingly about being worried about her missing husband, yet gives herself the chance to display a self-satisfied look when nobody’s watching. An impromptu party in the motor court has her request the kids with the record player put on “Kiss” (an original song written for the movie by Lionel Newman and Haven Gillespie). Monroe sings along with the record, but not every word, the thought of her lover Patrick occasionally silencing her to revel in her erotic memories. A more nakedly carnal look has never passed over a face than when she observes Patrick in a souvenir shop where they pass a quick glance to set the wheels of their plot in motion. For every leer Monroe gets from the men in the film, this one look exposes the potent inferno of a woman’s lust, a repudiation of everything ’50s morality tried to preach. And when the jealous, neurotic, morose George suddenly shows a happiness and vitality the morning he is supposed to be murdered, there’s no doubt how Rose lulled him into a compliant frame of mind. She’s a quintessential femme fatale, and little about her sexual manipulation is hidden from view.

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Peters, a beautiful woman, nonetheless is knowing about her appeal when compared with Monroe. When Ray asks Polly why she doesn’t wear the type of midriff-baring, form-fitting dress Monroe has on, she says ruefully, “ For a dress like that, you’ve got to start laying plans when you’re about 13,” knowing full well that puberty separates such forces of nature as Rose from other women. (As a side note, sexy Anne Baxter turned down the role of Polly because she didn’t want to compete with Monroe.) Polly is no patsy, however. She feels sorry for George, but she understands that he’s not as much of a victim as he pretends to be and may have a violent relationship with Rose when she sees him break the recording of “Kiss” into pieces with his bare hands.

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The film takes perhaps an unintentional dig at company men—Showalter looks and acts like he stepped out of a used-car commercial, as does his boss, played by Jack Benny’s jovial announcer Don Wilson. However, the police in this film aren’t the standard-issue bumblers and blusterers. I would feel pretty safe being protected by Denis O’Dea’s Inspector Starkey, and a rescue at the falls is well coordinated and suspenseful.

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A realistic, well-wrought script by Billy Wilder’s regular collaborators Charles Brackett (who also produced Niagara), Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen fills the film with details that ensure the entire enterprise isn’t overwhelmed by either Monroe or the falls. Hathaway realizes those details to make this film come alive, from the daily routine of the security guard at the carillon where song requests turn into killers’ codes to provisioning a boat for a day of fishing. I particularly liked a small moment when George picks a lipstick tube off the floor, its case glittering with multicolored rhinestones, as beautiful and false as his wife. Indeed, in this moment alone, Hathaway shows that Technicolor in the right hands fits noir like a blood-stained glove.


4th 07 - 2013 | 18 comments »

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) / The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Directors: Nathan Juran, Gordon Hessler

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By Roderick Heath

Ray Harryhausen’s death this past May genuinely pained me, like so many fellow film lovers who had grown up with his works. Harryhausen’s work kept the faith in cinema’s capacity to make the illusory and the impossible come to life on the big screen. Whilst the grand old man of movie magic hadn’t done any new work of note since 1981, his life provided a link with the golden age of studio cinema, and beyond that, through his mentors, to the pioneering roots of film. Nerds of many stripes loved Harryhausen, not just for fashioning images that fuelled their imaginations and brightened up the dolour of existence, but also because he seemed one of us. Like a much later generation of filmmakers who would try conjuring epic cinema through backyard thrift and wit, Harryhausen began as an adolescent enthusiast and tinkerer, one who watched King Kong (1933) one too many times.

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Harryhausen sought out the mentorship of Kong’s effects maestro, Willis H. O’Brien, who had forged his famous stop-motion techniques, a version of animation working with malleable figures rather than drawn cells. In 1949, having worked under Frank Capra and George Pal, Harryhausen gained his first feature film credit alongside O’Brien with Mighty Joe Young. Four years later, after crafting a handful of shorts, he helped make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, partly inspired by a story by his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, but really a variant on King Kong, albeit one that dragged the mythos into the Atomic Age. Harryhausen’s effects immediately became a kind of film star in their own right.

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Harryhausen followed up Beast with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), all produced on tight Columbia Pictures budgets that severely limited their scope and drama. Nonetheless, they were highly profitable and are still huge fun, quintessential experiences of the era’s scifi craze, shot full of imagery that helped create a lexicon of the fantastic in cinema that’s more powerful than ever. Harryhausen forged a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer that would hold until Harryhausen’s retirement. The team first paired with Nathan Juran on Twenty Million Miles to Earth, a former art director who had won an Oscar on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and had moved into fantastic cinema with the weak Beast rip-off The Deadly Mantis (1957). Looking for a more expansive and spectacular field in which to exercise his gifts, Harryhausen spearheaded a turn from scifi monsters to mythology and adventure for the first time with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, crossbreeding special-effects-based spectacle with traditional swashbuckling heroics. For the first time, Harryhausen got to make a feature in colour, and he debuted his new technique, called Dynamation, which allowed more sophisticated, layered interaction between photographic elements.

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Harryhausen was always deeply involved with developing his projects and the aesthetics of his films, writing storylines and often dictating their visuals. This was one reason he became identified as their essential auteur over the credited director, on top of the fact that he was often accused of picking journeymen over greater directors to make sure the spotlight remained on his work. This wasn’t exactly true: amongst the directors Harryhausen worked with were Juran, Cy Endfield, Don Chaffey, Gordon Hessler, and Desmond Davis, all talented and engaged smiths of genre cinema who had a way with arresting imagery. Harryhausen and Juran meshed particularly well, as Juran had a sense of decorative colour and design that fleshed out Harryhausen’s worlds, as well as a strong sense of craft. 7th Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) stand as Harryhausen’s best films, both triumphs of a particularly lustrous and stylised, yet also earthy and robust, brand of adventure filmmaking.

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Harryhausen’s material was cleverly pitched on a level that appealed both to the youth audience, which loved the colour and fantastic intricacy of his work, and to older filmgoers. His films stood fairly lonely throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was widely assumed that to be hip, fantastic films had to be either self-mocking or else loaded with loud satiric or allegoric import: Harryhausen stuck mostly to a tone of bare-boned, unself-conscious intensity, but with suggestions of a deeper awareness. One of the most memorable sequences in 7th Voyage comes when evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), for the sake of entertaining the Caliph of Baghdad and his court, transforms a princess’s middle-aged, uptight handmaiden Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a bizarrely erotic, blue-skinned snake woman who dances with liberated, but deeply disturbing joy, until she almost strangles herself with the new tail she’s not quite aware of. The undercurrents of this scene exemplify the sensibility behind the Harryhausen brand, distilling suggestive and polymorphic ideas into a colourful and deceptive sequence, and also presenting a perfect unity of the special effects and Bernard Herrmann’s scoring.

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In 7th Voyage, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) is transporting his fiancé, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), whose marriage to Sinbad will seal a peace between Baghdad and her native kingdom Chandra. On the way, he rescues Sokurah from the rampaging assault of a cyclops when his ship anchors off the mysterious island of Colossa. In the process of escaping the cyclops and protecting Sinbad’s crew, Sokurah loses the magic lamp that is his most prized possession. Sokurah is desperate to return to Colossa to recover his lamp, which contains a genie in the shape of a boy, Burani (Richard Eyer), who can emerge to perform feats of wondrous magic. He tries to charm the caliph (Alec Mango) into granting him the ship he needs with displays of sorcery, but Sinbad convinces the caliph it’s too dangerous. Sokurah forces their hands, however, by shrinking Princess Parisa to the size of a small doll: the princess’s father threatens war on Baghdad if they can’t restore her, and they have to accept Sokurah’s word that the princess can be restored with ingredients only found on Colossa. Because so few regular sailors will dare the voyage, Sinbad hires a crew of criminals, who naturally prove mutinous; they are tamed by the terror of encountering Sirens that drive them mad off the Colossa coast. Landing on the island, Sinbad takes a party inland to search for the nests of the fabled Roc, a bird whose shell is a necessary ingredient for Sokurah’s potion. But the island proves a relentlessly dangerous place where Rocs and the Cyclops decimate Sinbad’s crew.

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7th Voyage starts with a motif that would recur throughout Harryhausen’s subsequent fantasy works and that helped mark a new phase in Hollywood’s approach to historical cinema—engaging with the past through approximations of period aesthetics. The credits unfurl over illustrations that mimic the style of the art of the from which cultures the stories are drawn, introducing the audience to the iconography and traditional background of the stories before the narrative proper begins, and grounding the material in a sense of the arcane suddenly brought to life, in much the same way that Harryhausen shocks lumps of latex and metal to life. Juran’s sense of colour and design balances the lustrous location shooting, which, like many epics of the period, was done in Spain. The candy-coloured costuming of the court scenes treads close to pantomime, but the use of old Moorish structures as stand-ins for Baghdad helps give the film a sense of solid physicality, one that pays dividends as it moves to the Colossa coastline, a place filled with genuinely interesting and odd-feeling locations that give lustre to the sense of transportation: Harryhausen’s effects conjure a colossal carved face through which the adventurers must move to penetrate the inland of Colossa, with suggestions of lost civilisations and daemonic power.

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Juran’s direction is canny in his sense of event: knowing a character like Sinbad doesn’t really need an introduction or an origin story, the film dumps into the narrative, with Sinbad’s ship crawling through the dense fog near Colossa, and dissolving to a inward tracking shot that finds the good captain himself at the wheel of his ship, face stricken with keen attention and electric curiosity as well as concern as he ventures into a new unknown, thus immediately identifying the hero’s perspective with that of the audience. 7th Voyage actually strip-mines a couple of different Sinbad stories from the tales of Scheherazade, freely mixed with touches from The Odyssey, notably the Cyclops and the Sirens off Colossa, whose hideous screeching drives Sinbad’s mutinous crew mad but that he, Sokurah, and loyal mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) block out with waxed cloth in their ears. And again, King Kong’s influence is apparent in the motif of a lost world where monsters weird and fantastical stomp, visited by a ship penetrating a veil of fog.

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The first time I ever saw 7th Voyage, I was struck by the unnerving predication of the film’s being partly set in Baghdad—this was around 1990, I was a kid, and the Gulf War was brewing, lending dark immediacy to the threat of the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) to reduce the city to “rubble and bleached bones.” Of course, being a kid, I still had an occasionally confused sense of film chronology: I recall exclaiming during the finale, when Sinbad and Parisa swing across a chasm on a rope, “Hey, they ripped that off from Star Wars!” Of course, it was the other way around. Indeed George Lucas’ love of referencing Harryhausen’s works was a recurring motif in his glitzy series.

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The beauty of Harryhausen’s work always lay in the exacting sense of behaviour, the articulation and physicality of his figures, and the mischievous qualities of humour and sensitivity so often invested in them. It’s this aspect, difficult to describe, which helped them transcend the realm of mere effects and become creative visions. The Cyclops, great two-legged beasts with horned heads and centaur legs to match their singular eyes, seem like cruel mistakes of nature trapped by being too large to be agile and too dumb to think logically, but with their cages for prey, spits for roasting game, and cumbersome, spiked clubs seem barely less civilised and intelligent than the creeps who comprise most of Sinbad’s crew, and with whom they engage in a battle of brute force and arrogance. When the crew come across a hatching Roc, they promptly spear the huge, fluffy chick and roast it, the newborn’s thigh offering a hunk of meat the size of a buffalo leg. When the chick’s mother, a far larger, two-headed, eagle-like bird, returns and finds what’s happened, she understandably ravages the remnants of Sinbad’s crew and plucks Sinbad himself away to devour at her convenience. This was a quality Harryhausen had partly learnt from O’Brien, who offered such touches as his prehistoric birds scratching behind their ears and an often jarring sense of detail, like the broken-jawed Tyrannosaur King Kong defeated lying prone, dying but still breathing. Harryhausen followed O’Brien in this, his monsters often displaying wrenching, surprising emotion, peculiarly sensitising an audience to their plight: you feel sorry for the Ymir of Twenty Million Years and the Cyclops of these films even as they rampage, often because their human persecutors seem much less lively and individual: so often in Harryhausen there’s a sort of ecological spirit underlying the message. The overt violation of a tenuous balance of a rarefied natural order wrought by Sinbad’s crewmen is replicated less crassly but more dangerously by Sokurah’s alchemist arrogance, having gone so far as to chain a colossal dragon outside his cave laboratory as a watchdog.

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The colour of 7th Voyage, the vivacity of its pace and the mutually complementary power of Harryhausen’s effects and Herrmann’s music rest on the bedrock of a well-shaped narrative, with a kind of simple but rigorous care that’s even rarer in modern equivalents than the exacting personality of Harryhausen’s effects. Characterisations are, of course, one-dimensional in an authentically mythic fashion: Sinbad is brave and honest, Sokurah is evil and wily, Parisa is sweet and plucky, Harufa is loyal and doomed. The younger audience gets a figure to empathise with in Burani, who is essential to the narrative and whose desire to escape his supernatural life accords with Sinbad and Parisa’s tragic frustration in her plight, and contrasts Sokurah’s merciless hunger for power and the threat of war hanging over their respective cities. The clarity of the plotting in Kenneth Kolb’s script, which borders on the naïve but retains integrity, keeps its flow of cause and effect surprisingly precise, even elegant, each element informing another. Parisa’s plight is not just a plot motivator, but a superbly utilised device: with her tiny stature, she can help spring the lock of the cage where the cyclops puts the crew. There’s a lovely sequence of chintzy fantasy in which Parisa realises she can slide down the spout of the lamp to visit Burani within and learn the phrase that calls him out. She finds a pellucid space where fog flows out a tablet and a poem-puzzle that holds the key to freeing Burani, and the boy himself in solitary imprisonment, delighted by the Princess’s visitation but melancholy in his fate as a slave to the will of men: the film aptly fades out on the lad, now human, gleefully taking the helm of Sinbad’s ship. The cyclical rebirth of Burani is echoed by the self-induced destruction of Sokurah. The amusingly literal device he provides for Sinbad’s crew to defend themselves from the Cyclops, a huge crossbow that takes a dozen men to load, is finally used on Sokurah’s pet dragon, which then promptly falls in death on its master.

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The finale, in which Parisa drops the lamp into lava according to the rhyme, looks forward to Peter Jackson’s finale for his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Jackson, of course, being another contemporary movie wizard much influenced by O’Brien and Harryhausen. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) betrayed the influence in its Mines of Moria scenes that mirrored the environs of Sokurah’s underground castle, whilst its dragon protector surely inspired the one guarding Gringotts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its film version. It’s not just the ingenuity of Harryhausen’s effects and Juran’s design here that made their work so powerfully formative, but its genuine artistry, the care of the lighting and framing, the gift for capturing the flavour of the arcane with ruins of lost civilisations and lost lore rediscovered, in the midst of primal terrors and alchemic nightmares. Juran’s fondness for high and low angles turn every element in the film into an aspect of a drama built around size in a dialectic of relative strength. Sokurah appears as a silhouetted figure sneaking into Parisa’s palace bedchamber to curse her, her arm seen getting smaller and smaller on the bed, whilst later he looms over her as colossally as the Cyclops do over the others. The taboo is evoked throughout, from Sinbad’s initial knock on Parisa’s cabin door, rebuked by Sadi, to Sokurah warning crewmen he leads not to drink from a stream he claims is poisoned, but they soon find tastes like wine, a different kind of poison in the context of a dangerous land.

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The finale’s eye-popping set-piece is Sinbad’s battle with a skeleton animated to glowering, ferocious life, armed with sword and shield and duelling the hero in the midst of Sokurah’s castle. Sinbad, faced with the impossibility of killing such an enemy, tricks the skeleton into following him up a spiral staircase from which it falls and breaks to pieces. Over a half-century later, this sequence is still astounding, and perhaps more so for knowing that the choreography wasn’t being exactingly mapped out with computers, but rather by Harryhausen’s hand and eye. Of course, Harryhausen tried to top this in the climax of Jason and the Argonauts with a small army of such skeletons battling the heroes. If there’s a dated aspect to 7th Voyage now, it lies only in the blandly American presences of Matthews and Grant, whereas British character actor Thatcher’s magnificent hambone zeal is hugely entertaining. Juran went on to make with Matthews the more overtly juvenile Jack the Giant Killer (1961), almost a remake of 7th Voyage that also featured Matthews and Thatcher, and the horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1972).

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Harryhausen did not return to Sinbad as a subject for 15 years. The changes that went on in the world and the film industry in that time were enormous, and Harryhausen relocated to England, joining a small band of American filmmakers who were finding a more rewarding production base there. The interval between 7th Voyage and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is telling, less in the look and quality of Harryhausen’s work and the film, which does a great job of evoking the saturated colour and epic craft of the earlier film, but in the approach it takes to the same basic story: where 7th Voyage is bouncy and comic book, Golden Voyage is terser in dialogue and storyline, tougher and less primly naïve, if also less spectacular and vibrant. The success of One Million Years B.C. (1966), largely owing to the incandescent sex appeal of Raquel Welch, was followed by the nearly ignored The Valley of Gwangi (1968), and a five-year gap intervened before Golden Voyage’s release. Harryhausen’s product had been battered by inconsistent commercial performance, and he had learnt one lesson: Golden Voyage puts the busty beauty of English starlet Caroline Munro front and centre. Director Hessler, fated like too many other interesting directors to spring out of British genre cinema in the late ’60s to essentially disappear, had done striking work in horror films before this, and his subtly oneiric take on Harryhausen’s visions is loving and rich.

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Although it’s often suggested that Harryhausen’s brand was ultimately rendered obsolete by the explosion of fantastic cinema at the end of the ’70s, I think it’s also true that explosion was largely due to the success of Golden Voyage, which revealed there was a new audience hungry for old-fashioned thrills. Sinbad was played this time by John Philip Law, the most conspicuously Aryan of movie stars appearing with dyed-black hair, an American who had become a stalwart in European cinema. His Sinbad is a touch more roguish, if no less ultimately good, in a fashion that looks forward to Indiana Jones as a gritty soldier of fortune leaping into the unknown for good and glory. Like its predecessor, Golden Voyage pits Sinbad against an evil sorcerer and sends him to a mysterious land filled with atavistic peril: Tom Baker earned his epochal run as Doctor Who by playing Prince Koura, the magician with designs to ruling an Arabian city-state, trying to unite the three pieces of a wrought-gold dial that will give him unlimited power, anticipating the plot of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), by another Harryhausen acolyte, Guillermo del Toro. One of the pieces of the crown falls fortuitously into Sinbad’s hands via a Coleridge allusion—the piece is dropped by a tiny winged homunculus created by Koura. The finger of fate is on Sinbad, as he’s visited by that dream of a mysterious dancer with a tattooed eye on her hand and visions of Koura. He finds the dancer, Margiana (Munro), is a slave in a merchant’s house, and, seeing the tattoo and recognising her import, manages to extract her at the price of also accepting the merchant’s bohemian son Haroun (Kurt Christian) as a crewman. Sinbad is enlisted by the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has been so disfigured by Koura’s magic in his efforts to resist that usurper that he has to wear a mask. The Vizier gives Sinbad clues that point to the lost continent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean as the location of a fountain of divine power, and he accompanies Sinbad in the adventure to retrieve the relic.

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Harryhausen often turned his own showmanship into a subtext of his films: Sokurah’s malefic delight in exhibiting the transformed Sadi in 7th Voyage—“Behold!” he cries before shattering the urn that contains herr transformed self—is the cinema magician’s sneaky avatar, whilst Golden Voyage more darkly suggests the exhaustion as well as the thrill involved in conjuring life from clay. In one of the most fiendishly achieved, but subtle moments of Harryhausen’s craft, Koura is shown resuscitating one of the homunculi, patient and delighted father to an unholy, yet charming beast rising from a lump of artificial flesh to alert, scampering life ready to do mischief. Koura is slowly being aged to the point of wizened collapse by working his magic, a note that accords with Harryhausen’s explanation of his eventual retirement as owing to his wearying of labouring so long and hard on single projects when other filmmakers could make many more. Elsewhere in the film, Harryhausen proffers two sterling scenes of combat by the heroes with animated statues, the first with the figurehead of Sinbad’s own ship, brought to life by Koura to steal a map, and later a figure of Kali, the Indian goddess of cyclical destruction and rebirth, whose six arms present Harryhausen with one of his greatest challenges of articulation, solved with superlative skill.

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Golden Voyage romps gleefully through its essentialist plot: screenwriter Brian Clemens, a stalwart hero of British film and TV genre writing at the time, is mischievous in developing some familiar themes but then distorting them, like orphaned Margiana’s anointed status by the eye tattoo that proves to mark her not, as usual in pulp fare, as a lost heir to a kingdom, but actually a chosen sacrifice/mate to a centaur worshipped as a god by the devolved inhabitants of Lemuria. The film moves through the crucial motifs of the mythic quest, a reminder that Harryhausen and Clemens had a grip on the innate structural sense Joseph Campbell identified. Such motifs come complete with riddle prophecy, delivered by the “Oracle of All Knowledge,” a horned spirit (played by an uncredited, marvellously weird Robert Shaw) that appears in a sacred flame like an eruption of the secret id of humankind. Although the narrative is determinedly traditional, it laces contemporary ideas as well as classical references throughout: whereas 7th Voyage is concerned with frustrated mating rituals, perfect for the repressed ’50s, here Haroun is a coded stoner-slacker needing some advanced application, whilst Margiana offers unabashed cheesecake in a role ironically defined by nascent emancipationist reflexes, as Sinbad, after glimpsing her delirious dancing form in a prophetic dream, liberates her from slavery and makes her one of his crew. There are hints of perverse metaphor as Margiana encounters her intended fate as bride of the centaur, whilst Haroun offers some comic relief redolent of Willie Best: “My heart is full of bravery!…But I have very cowardly legs.” Of course, Haroun mans up enough to become a possible successor to Sinbad, giving the Kali statue a shove over a precipice to save his master.

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“There’s an old proverb I choose to believe in,” Sinbad says at one point, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” This becomes a running gag, and also reintroduces a thematic strand that runs through so many of Harryhausen’s works—counterbalancing the seriousness with which they question the nature of what’s alive with a belief in human audacity in the face of primal forces. Just as Jason in Jason in the Argonauts tells Zeus to his face that he wants to prove men can challenge the infinite, Sinbad repeatedly proves the value of his blend of guts and caution in taking on the mystical. The polycultural wonderland that Hessler, Harryhausen, and Clemens evoke here encompasses a variety of mythological traditions, keeping its hero in focus as a figure of early cross-cultural outreach and dynamism. The usual climactic battle of monsters takes on overtly symbolic aspects, as the Oracle predicts good and evil battling at the edge of eternity, fulfilled when the centaur is attacked by a griffin. Golden Voyage could have used a little more story complication, but the feel for storytelling minutiae is still strong, in Harryhausen’s effects, like the displays of fear on the homunculus’ face and the bewildered aggression of the centaur, and the production, particularly the excellent sound design that gives corporeal conviction and dread to moments like the figurehead tearing itself loose from its place with the crack of splintering wood. Care and vision are also apparent in the directing, culminating in the finale in which Koura becomes invisible, only to be caught out standing in the waters of the magic fountain, his shadow revealed; Sinbad stabs him, and the fountain turns blood red.

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The success of Golden Voyage gave Harryhausen renewed vigour and clout, but fate proved unkind, as his next film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), was released in the same summer as the first Star Wars hit. Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects themselves weren’t yet outmoded: inspired to take up the form by 7th Voyage, Phil Tippett would work on the likes of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Robocop (1987), and use his knowledge to help make the first CGI blockbuster Jurassic Park (1992) more convincing. What was rendered passé was Harryhausen’s attempt to make special-effects-driven cinema without blockbuster budgeting, that could have added greater artisanal vigour and input to the almost cottage industry approach he had to his work: Eye of the Tiger, whilst not as bad as often painted, is still badly hampered by the sluggish, shapeless direction of Sam Wanamaker. Harryhausen bounced back for his final film, the glorious if camped-up Clash of the Titans (1981), but it was the end of an era.

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It’s too tempting to turn a tribute to Harryhausen into another excuse to bash the era of CGI. CGI special effects’ crimes have been exaggerated, as many who work with the form are spurred by the same spirit as Harryhausen’s, but often without that crucial sense of personality and sparing approach to detail and problem-solving that invested his creations with unique life. One doesn’t have to be a luddite to see the difference between, say, the engagement with these creatures as entities with, say, the whirling robots of the Transformers movies or, indeed more aptly, the Kraken of the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), which become amorphous, characterless blotches of pixels by comparison with Harryhausen’s creatures. More importantly, too many of the movies around them are, compared to these voyages of Sinbad, equally amorphous and dreary successors. Harryhausen did not specialise in cinematic realism: he specialised in cinematic dreams.


30th 03 - 2013 | 9 comments »

I Confess (1953)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

1129cc6This week, Rod and I learned that someone we knew from our past affiliations with the New York Times Film Form and Third Eye Film Society, Wade Ehle, died at the age of 48. Wade was a vocal and volatile film buff, a New Yorker by choice, an out and proud homosexual in a long-term relationship, a graphic designer, and despite his evil temper, a gentle soul. I had not been in touch with Wade for some years, as in one of his foul moods, he made me a target, a situation I could no longer abide. But I still remember fondly a lovely New Year’s Eve spent with Wade and his partner Scott drinking champagne in my living room as they stopped in on their way back from their yearly car trip to Minnesota to visit Scott’s family for the holidays. In his way, Wade was an important piece in the puzzle of my life, and I feel the need to honor and remember him in the way that brought us together—talking about film.

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Wade’s favorite actor was Montgomery Clift. Clift was a handsome avatar whom Wade’s partner resembles, but there are other qualities he had that I think must have spoken to Wade. Clift’s emotional vulnerability and homosexuality formed a mirror for Wade, and his anger and tenderness integral parts of Wade’s personality. Clift also had a certain type of passive determination, a holding back, that Wade might have wished for himself. I don’t know which of Clift’s films Wade held most dear, but I have to imagine that I Confess, in which director Alfred Hitchcock fetishizes Monty’s beautiful face almost as much as he did any of his blonde muses, must have been on the list.

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Apart from its wrong man theme, I Confess is as atypical a Hitchcock film as I can think of. Based on a 1902 French play, Nos Deux Consciences, I Confess retains a French flavor with its setting in Quebec City in Canada and the casual use of French character names and dialog. The screenplay cowritten by George Tabori capitalizes on the writer’s own familial experiences as the son of a Jewish journalist who perished at Auschwitz and turns Clift’s character, Father Michael Logan, into a World War II veteran who throws over his prewar sweetheart, Ruth (Anne Baxter), for the priesthood. The themes of many 1950s films are in evidence here—the plight of refugees, the effects of the war on the nonprofessional soldiers who fought in it, a certain dread and distrust of authority, and justice served up through the courts. I would go so far as to suggest that I Confess is the most fully realized noir film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, with much credit for that going to his regular cinematographer Robert Burks, whose inspired shooting on location in Quebec City is both less showy and more emotionally nuanced than one usually associates with Hitchcock films, pushing I Confess out of genre suspense and into something that more closely resembles Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).

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Father Logan is in a similar predicament to Holly Martins—a man he likes and wants to help has done a terrible thing. Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse), a German refugee who with his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) Logan and the other clerics at St. Marie’s have taken in as servants, has killed Monsieur Villette (Ovila Légaré), whose garden Keller tends, in the course of a burglary. Logan takes Keller’s late-night confession right after the murder during which Otto claims it was an accident and that he only wanted money to free his played-out wife from a life of serving others. Bound by the sanctity of the confessional, Logan can reveal nothing of what he has heard to others, and like Holly Martins, risks becoming a victim of his friend. Keller finds a way to raise suspicions against the priest and justifies his desperation to remain free by the suffering he and Alma underwent during the war—as Jew or Nazi sympathizer is never made clear, further complicating our emotional response to his despicable actions.

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During the course of the investigation led by Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), Ruth’s past love affair with and still burning love for Logan comes out, giving him a motive for killing Villette, who was blackmailing the married woman with his knowledge of a night they spent together at his country cottage. Although Larrue compelled her confession of the relationship, yet another of Logan’s intimates has tightened the knot around his neck. Logan’s murder trial comprises the final act of the film.

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Burks and Hitchcock make good use of the Quebec locale to disorient the audience. French signs for “One Way” are labeled “Direction” and point the way through the streets to an open window and the body of Villette laying on the floor with a lead pipe lying near his cracked skull. Dimitri Tiomkin’s slightly off-kilter opening music crescendos at the reveal. The camera pans to some hanging beads swinging in the doorway to the study and then cuts through the wall to the street, where a man in a long garment—a cassock, it turns out—hurries out the door. The camera shifts to a side view of the street as the man descends down a steep hill, with two girls following casually behind. The darkness, the skewed angles provided by the locale itself, the juxtaposition of the guilty man with the innocence of the two girls, and the deep shadows of Keller on the street provide cause and psychological effect. This taut opening economically sets the stage and provides visual markers for the rest of the film, one in which Keller will always be going down or viewed from above by people of more moral fiber than he has, particularly Logan.

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Being who she is, Anne Baxter smolders in every frame, her hair colored Hitchcock blonde. Yet, the script offers her a certain demureness, particularly in protesting the need to reveal the details of her romance with Logan, that also sets this film outside the usual Hollywood framework. Putting her in a dirndl during the flashback sequence was a misguided and unnecessary choice, however, as Baxter’s straightforward honesty with her husband, Logan, and the investigators signals all we need to know about her innocence at all stages of her relationship with Logan. She really did a fine job.

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Of course, it is Clift who occupies our concern and the majority of the screen time. We wonder why he ends every question that could point to Keller’s guilt with “I can’t say.” Not even a word that he took a confession that night escapes his lips. With his life at risk, his dedication to his duty and his faith communicates volumes about why he chose priesthood over matrimony and helps put his relationship with Ruth into a believable, much less tawdry context than would be the norm. While Clift is smoking hot in I Confess, he does not play the flirtatious games that, for example, Jean-Paul Belmondo does in Leon Morin, Priest. His fear of death expresses itself in prayer, but his trust in God also drives him to turn himself into Larrue. His contained performance is a bit frustrating to the audience, who know he’s innocent, but absolutely true to his character. His ardor in his prewar scenes with Ruth also communicates his innate passion: “He was always so serious about everything, even love,” she says ruefully.

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The trial is a fascinating piece of filmmaking, with proceedings quite decorous and, therefore, alien to the sensational standards for such scenes set by Hollywood films. I was so enamored of the judiciousness of the proceedings and the editorial comments of the jury regarding their verdict—no simple “guilty” or “not guilty” here—I would have been content to watch the trial for the entire film. The film devolves in its last few minutes due to studio interference, and Hitchcock punts to his more theatrical genre instincts to pull it off, but the sense of the community’s betrayal lingered with me and put me in mind not only of recent scandals in the Catholic Church, but also of the Cy Endfield noir Try and Get Me. Interestingly, Hitchcock meant for this film to be an indictment of capital punishment, but it serves as a portrait of the dangers of mob mentality almost as urgent as Endfield filmed. In straying from pure genre filmmaking, Hitchcock made a film less susceptible to his personal stamp, but more rich and engaging than anyone might have expected.


19th 03 - 2013 | 10 comments »

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai, 1954)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Coscreenwriter: Akira Kurosawa

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By Roderick Heath

It’s now a cliché to describe Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the father of modern action cinema. Undoubtedly its DNA, whilst not entirely original in itself, has since colonised genre cinema on a worldwide scale. But Seven Samurai is, of course, far more than a blueprint for recycled multiplex fare. Few films attempt to encompass as much as Kurosawa’s narrative does, which depicts through its microcosm of struggle and triumph something close to a philosophy of life as well as violent drama in its most elemental and entertaining of forms. Kurosawa and his writing collaborators attempted to create not just a movie script, but an artefact, with life extending far beyond the margins. The finesse of detailing put into creating their samurai and the villagers who hire them reflected the desire to create a self-sufficient fictional universe. Kurosawa was reviving a mode of filmmaking, autocratic and exacting in a hunt for tactile force and authenticity barely seen since the heyday of director-gods of the silent era, like Stroheim, Gance, and Lang. For the Japanese film industry, still straitened after the war even as it was entering a golden age of artistic brilliance, such ambition seemed outsized. The arduous shoot at a remote location lasted nearly a year. Kurosawa’s vision cost his backers, Toho Studios,  half a million dollars. Production was shut down three times, but Seven Samurai was completed, and the rewards were soon apparent: a huge hit, over time it has become perhaps the most famous film ever produced in the country, and one regularly and justly cited amongst the greatest films of all time.

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Kurosawa’s original idea had been to make a film about a samurai as an institutional figure, possessed of great esteem and power, and yet whose life always rested on a knife edge of responsibility and decorum. But in researching his story, Kurosawa unearthed an anecdote about some samurai who had defended a village from bandits during the incessant civil wars of Japan in the 1500s. His imagination captured, he collaborated with screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni to construct a story that, whilst not adapted from specific mythology, nonetheless managed to seem, in the perfection of its operating parts and the microcosmic intensity and graphic clarity of its drama, as if it told a story reaching back to prehistory. The creators based their samurai on real models, except for odd-man-out Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), an avatar for the pressures of social change, held in check by ruthless feudal politics in the film’s time period, but depicted as straining against their fetters. Kurosawa, whose name was about to become synonymous with Japanese historical cinema, had made few period movies up to this point. His proper debut, Sanjuro Sugata (1943), had dealt with the tension between prowess in violent arts and conscientious action in historical context, but his other forays into the past had generally been deeply cynical about Japan’s historic social structures.

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Kurosawa nonetheless set himself the task of analysing the mystique of the peculiar national warrior, a mystique that had been used to give a fig leaf of traditionalist honour to recent orgies of imperialistic warfare. The risk of glamorising a passé profession associated with oppression and militarism was present. But Kurosawa, whose family had been samurai for generations, was evidently searching for some worldview, questioning what it meant for past and present, according to the ethical theme that dogged Kurosawa throughout his career: how does one do good in an often unforgiving and evil world? The choice of a group of ronin, loyal not to feudal power structure but to their own proclivities and traditions, helped leaven Kurosawa’s interest in the code that the breed lived by, placing it in contrast to a more venal reality. The heroes of Seven Samurai are defined by their willingness to take an essentially thankless job because it accords all the more purely with their code and gifts. Kurosawa’s choice of study also allowed him to channel another cultural influence: the rugged heroes of the private eye and western novels and films he loved, and the films of John Ford, in particular. Ford’s films kept the near-mythical gunslingers and warriors of the West in resolutely social contexts, consistently translating the genre’s essential tension between vagrant heroes and settler factotums into a cosmology, and Kurosawa wanted to engage in a similarly encompassing form of storytelling.

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The opening shots of Seven Samurai, with silhouetted horsemen riding across the horizon, obey the essential creed of genre masters as stated by the likes of Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller: a film’s first shot should possess instantly arresting power. The sound of the horses charging the landscape is like that of ominous thunder, full of wordless malevolence and their riders with chitinous black armour, looking like locusts, about to consume everything in their path. When the bandit army comes upon the hapless, unnamed village whose fate the film depicts, they propose stripping this one bare, but one bandit reminds them that they raided it not long before, so they decide to return once the work of growing and harvesting the rice is completed. Once they depart, a hiding villager rises from his nook, the bundled sticks on his back having blended in with the surrounds.

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The contrast is immediately purposeful: the bandits are malevolent insects feeding off the landscape of which the villagers are a part. The geometrical arrangements of the villagers, situated in the clear ground in the centre of their hamlet, reconfirms the notion, capturing the mass in the context of their lives and refusing to release them from it (shades of Lang and Metropolis). But the fibre of the villagers emerges, as individual character resists the pressure of history to crush it into a lumpen mass: angry and haunted Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) loses patience with the consensus to grovel before the bandits in the hope they’ll leave enough to live on next time. Self-interested Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) upholds this view, but when Rikichi convinces the villagers to think about another course of action, they’re advised by the village’s ancient patriarch Gisaku (Kokuten Kôdô), who once saw a village guarded by samurai, to try the same trick: “Find hungry samurai,” he advises.

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Poverty is a reality in Seven Samurai in a way it is in very few films: early scenes, filled with vivid shots of the gnarled, suffering faces of the farmers, ensures their reality tempers the narrative, even though the samurai come to dominate it. Farmers, samurai, and bandits are united by one inescapable truth: the world they live in has been picked clean by an age of war, the clash of factions across the length of Japan has left everyone defined by what power they have. The bandits have no real power; the farmers perceive themselves to have none at all, taking recourse in whatever trickery they can, a necessary amorality and craftiness that is nonetheless held against them as it grazes against the complex ethical system of the samurai.

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The marginal nature of subsistence labour is brought out with excruciating immediacy as Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the most timorous of the farmers who go in search of samurai aid, finds the small stock of rice he’s been charged with protecting, crucial for luring in the wayfaring ronin they need, awakens at one point to find the stock stolen, compounding desperation with a shame and fear that’s bone-shaking. In this way, Kurosawa indicates that although he’s making an epic adventure film, he has no interest in historical escapism, a la the Hollywood swashbuckler, or even most Westerns: rather he’s portraying the human condition in both static and active states, probing the past for its own essence, a time when, without technology or the manifold insulations of modernity, humanity was no better than the immediacy of its physical and mental gifts and needs. The overwhelming physicality of Seven Samurai gains drive from this urgency. “A battle is running,” one samurai advises with import that colours the entire film: “When you can’t run any more, it’s time to die.” And so goes life.

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Yohei, Rikichi, and Manzo venture into a small town to find protectors, and fate, chance, whatever, steers them to Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), a ronin introduced having his head shaved, with excitable onlookers flocking about. The striking image of the shaven-pated samurai—paid tribute with amusing literalness in the film’s American remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960), by casting Yul Brynner—is disorienting at first for the witnesses and audience because the act of a samurai surrendering his topknot is one associated with ritual humiliation and shame. It turns out to be in preparation for a ruse, as Kambei has been enlisted to rescue a small child, kidnapped by a thief who’s taken refuge in a hut: he takes on the guise of a disinterested priest bringing food to the besieged pair. But the sense remains that Kambei has left behind the worldly pride of being a samurai and become, in his way, a priest. He is the narrative’s sage of war but also of interconnectivity, of communal responsibility and strategic awareness, an awareness that’s grown beyond mere military contemplation to the relationship of many levels of necessary relationship. As a kind of warrior-philosopher, he tethers together the myriad personalities and desires of the farmers and samurai into an axiomatic whole. In keeping with his new status, he attracts disciples—the farmers who, dazzled and sensing the exceptional character and skill of this paragon, try to hire him—as well as samurai. He is dogged by a schismatic duo who witnessed his feat, and want to pay homage and gain his favour. The youthful, well-attired, privileged young Katsushiro (Isao ‘Ko’ Kimura), is the son of a wealthy landowner who, wanting to be a samurai, has left home in search of a cause and a master, whilst the man claiming to be called Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is scruffy, showy, and rude. Katsushiro’s eager obeisance wins him a friend and, finally, a reluctant mentor, whereas Kikuchiyo’s simultaneously pushy and reticent attempt to gain introduction is a failure.

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Kurosawa’s most pervasive stylistic influence on the action cinema that followed was in the many directors, most importantly Sam Peckinpah, who imitated his then-startling use of slow motion as a flourish in violent moments. Kurosawa’s use of this gimmick is as restrained as it is often excessive in followers, however: here it comes in moments where the talents of the samurai allow victories that scarcely best their opponents by more than a hair’s breadth, and yet that is, of course, all the difference. When Kambei plunges into the hut where the kidnapper is holed up, for several awful moments it’s like he plunged into the very maw of hell. The thief runs out, seemingly escaping, only to pause and in a drawn out moment of interminable wonder and horror, drops dead. The moment of death, the very crescendo of existence, becomes an eternity, the slow plunge to earth, kicking up  a cloud of totemic dust, a vision of extinction at once ignominious and astrophysical.

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The effect is repeated when Kambei finds the most skilled of his team to aid the farmers, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), whose swordsmanship is as great as his dedication to a Zen-informed detachment and stoicism. Kyuzo competes with another swordsman who angrily claims victory in a pass with sticks, and so demands a repeat with bare blades. Kyuzo’s victory is inevitable: Kambei predicts it with mortification, groaning at the waste of the man who’s about to throw his life away. Kyuzo’s unflappable poise and impassive dedication are demanded by his understanding of his warrior art, knowing very well that life and death have become, in his rarefied zone, nothing more than the grace of a slightly better nervous reaction, the move practised until it becomes reflex, and the vagaries of chance and nature. Kyuzo initially turns down Kambei’s entreaties because his desire has only been to perfect his art, not to actually fight, and yet the pointlessness of his opponent’s death hangs in the air and surely informs his change of heart: for what good is the ability to beat any man in battle, if there is no reason to battle? Kyuzo’s innate existentialism suddenly requires, purpose, for the void waits. The art of the samurai, then, is not one of mere spiritual fence-sitting.

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The team Kambei forges is tested at first with the amusingly simple trick of placing Katsushiro out of sight ready to conk contenders on the head to see if they’re up to standard as he looks for a vital synergy of elements. The team Kambei builds includes his former lieutenant Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), with whom he spent much time fighting losing wars and who he had not seen since a burning castle fell on top of him. The cheery and intelligent Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), laughs at spotting Kambei’s test, and in turn he recruits Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), a penniless ronin who’s taken to axing firewood for food who introduces himself to Kambei as “a swordsman of the woodcut school.” Kambei’s artisanal talents offset Kyuzo’s icy brilliance with stolid reliability and earthy humour. The talents and characters of the samurai, of course, form a functional balance, translated into an apt design by Gorobei when he creates a standard for the team that depicts its samurai as six circles, with Kikuchiyo as a triangle. Kikuchiyo, brought to be interviewed by Kambei by a gambling spiv who’s previously only been interesting in teasing the farmers, is humiliated by the samurai, who quickly discern his larceny and illiteracy: he claims descent from a clan whose family tree he carries about, except he has chosen to claim the name and estate of a 13-year-old girl. Kikuchiyo’s drunken, hysterical fury, after being caught out by Katsushiro’s test and this unpleasant detail, provokes the samurai to act like teenagers, teasing him until he falls down into a snoring slumber, the most perfect of disgraces and exposures.

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The code of samurai behaviour of courtly courtesy, respect, deference, obedience, and above all, ability is then one that Kikuchiyo repeatedly offends. He has the impudent energy of an upstart and a rebel, replete with showy bravado and natural rather than honed physical wit. But he also provokes new reactions and levels of thought in his confederates. The samurai code also has elements of aristocratic pride and snobbery, one the farmers have to overcome in seeking their saviours. Even Kambei retains these unwittingly, until the first major social crisis hits the partnership of farmers and samurai. Kikuchiyo provides a vital bridge between classes, though he doesn’t do so willingly: with his feral aspect, flea-scratching and perpetually twitchy, and gruffly macho demeanour, he’s clearly neither of the farmer nor samurai worlds, though he has roots in one and aspires to another. Kikuchiyo defies his earlier mockery and outcast status by following the samurai to the village and, along the way, showing off his survival skills, resoluteness, and willingness, in spite of his braggadocio, to prove himself when challenged. Mifune’s performance imbues Kikuchiyo with a quality of the vaguely inhuman, his way of moving, grunting, eating, barking, all possessing an animal grace, seemingly imbued by years of surviving on the very fringes of society. Kikuchiyo is man out of time, and yet he’s also the most distinctive of the heroes, the one who drives it on the most elemental levels, with his passion, his humour, his buffoonery, his filthiness, his grit as a man of war. The feeling arises constantly that, in some way, Kikuchiyo represents man as a primal being, unevolved and yet loaded with immense potential, as he often really as, rather than how the samurai see the ideal to be fulfiled.

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Nonetheless, Kikuchiyo knows well and loathes the character of the farmers, their dirty secrets and crimes, which include killing samurai scattered by wars and lost battles to strip them of valuable armour and weapons. This lowest devolution for human worth and economics offends the samurai to their innermost core, and for a moment it seems possible the samurai might turn their blades on the farmers rather than the bandits. But Kikuchiyo launches into an incendiary, hypnotic rant that lists the faults of the peasants and then contends that such barbarity is only the result of being degraded and mistreated for centuries by people calling themselves samurai, whose crimes stack up beyond tallying. As movie scenes go, it’s one of the most memorable in the medium’s history, in part thanks to Mifune’s acting: Kikuchiyo unleashes verbal articulateness at last, though hacked up into aggressive phrases barked out with the anger and self-disgust of centuries behind them. Kurosawa contrasts coolly even in the face of enormous emotional heat, fixating on Kikuchiyo’s prowling, leonine demonstration in close-up, and then cutting back to the neatly arranged, silent, and sullen samurai. It’s both one of the great character moments and moral exegeses in cinema. Kikuchiyo, who was a foundling left over from some slaughter, aims not just at the hypocritical pretences of the samurai, but speaks for a long, deeply suppressed fury of any repressed and angry populace tortured within inches of losing humanity and yet refusing to become less than human. He aspires clumsily but genuinely towards the status of samurai and all good that it represents, but refuses to lie. Finally it becomes clear why Kikuchiyo transfixes attention: he’s not just primal man but also, in a beautiful contradiction, modern man—angry, dynamic, classless, rootless, raging, joyous, pathetic, ridiculous, and tragically heroic.

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Many of Kurosawa’s heroes wrestle in solitary agony with evil on a social scale, perhaps with a mentor, but often with the mentor falling in battle somewhere along the line. In Kurosawa’s genre work, many a “villain” proves to be pathetic and driven by forces beyond their control. Here, the action is collective, a vision of social concord that’s often a prize and rarely a reality in Kurosawa’s oeuvre: the final vision of Dreams (1990) of a rural village in beatific harmony is anticipated, but on the far side of a great and necessary trauma. Tellingly, Kurosawa refuses to characterise the bandits in much detail: the one bandit anyone shares many words with, a sniper Kikuchiyo approaches whilst pretending to be on the same side, proves to be a griping, famished grunt who is cowardly when separated from the herd. In the final battle, some of the bandits die bravely, but many go out in an ugly reversal of roles and perverse pathos, as the villagers hunt them with spears of bamboo, scrambling in desperation as they’re hacked to death with the crudest of implements: the thrill of payback and liberation felt by and through the farmers is countered by exacting depiction of its physical and metaphysical cost. Not that the bandits don’t deserve to be beaten good and proper: the thoughtless rapacity of the bandits is the flip side of the desperation of the farmers, but like the gamblers the farmers encounter in the town, they have only contempt for the people who nonetheless actually produce what they live off of. Unlike in The Magnificent Seven, which conforms to the conventions of Hollywood melodrama by providing a definite antagonist, here the bandit chiefs, including the rifle-wielding leader (Shinpei Takagi) and his one-eyed lieutenant (Shin Ôtomo), do not resolve as characters except in their single-minded ferocity and embodiment of malevolence: they might as well be the wind or the rain, elements that batter the world of the farmers, foreshadowing Kurosawa’s ever-vital, more literal use of elements to offset mortal and psychic struggle.

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The shade of forces that will end the age of the samurai are already at the bandits’ command, in the three rifles they wield, and the problem of taking out these weapons becomes a special one the samurai must employ wit and special bravery to achieve. Kyuzo’s prowess sees him capture one gun with his customary deadpan lack of fuss, provoking Katsushiro to transfer his hero-worship from Kambei to him, which in turn inspires Kikuchiyo to do the same, only to earn a rebuke from Kambei for acting alone. Kikuchiyo grows to become a true samurai, albeit enforced as much through the experience of making mistakes and losing friends as through proving legerdemain. He drills the villagers with impudent humour and swaggering style in scenes clearly reminiscent of the repeated moments in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy of Victor McLaglen breaking in feckless recruits. The affectionate, if often cruel relationship between buckaroo Kikuchiyo and cringing Yohei, who could be Kikuchiyo’s caricatured internal vision of his own murdered father, sees the timid old man becoming Kikuchiyo’s increasingly empowered wingman, but finally Yohei dies on a bandit spear when Kikuchiyo’s foray leaves him in charge. Kikuchiyo meets intimate grief both in losing Yohei and in trying to save Gisaku, who had wanted to remain in his outlying house in spite of the probability of death, and his son and child-bearing stepdaughter. Kikuchiyo arrives only for the mother to thrust her baby into his arms and drop dead. Kikuchiyo, the rugged brawler suddenly a mockery of a maternal figure a la Three Godfathers (1949), is left weepily telling Kambei the same thing happened to him as a baby. And the cycle starts again.

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For a film as essentially masculine as Seven Samurai, the place of its major female characters is surprisingly consequential, as is their otherwise general absence: in this world, to be female is essentially to be either property or prey. The villagers hide their younger women from the samurai, provoking the resentment of these hearty males. Manzo worriedly forces his attractive virginal daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) to cut her hair and pretend to be a boy. The bandits prey sexually on peasant girls, snatching many away into forced prostitution, including Rikichi’s wife, a source of shame and anger for the farmer that drives his determination to take on the bandits even as he keeps this secret from the samurai until a fateful, and fatal, moment. Rikichi leads Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyuzo on a raid on one of the bandits’ strongholds, whereupon Kurosawa suddenly changes viewpoint and moves to that of Rikichi’s captive wife (Yukiko Shimazaki), awakening amidst a sprawl of fetid, orgiastic humanity, with the bandits bedded down with other women. The sense of near robotic, sensually battered and emotionally alienated dislocation conveyed by Shimizaki contrasts the fearsome animation of Kikuchiyo, the gap between slavery and self-willed liberation all too apparent but with its own dazed acquiescence: the wife blinks in astonished and silent approval as the walls of the fort, set on fire by the attackers, begin to smoke and blaze. Acquiescence ends when she sees her husband amongst the attackers determined to drive out the human termites within: rather than run tearfully into his arms, she revolves and dashes back to die in the flames, and the hysterical Rikichi fends off Heihachi, who tries to drag the farmer back to shelter, only to be gunned down, the first of the samurai to die.

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Such a grim fate is then one from which the villagers want to save their women, and, as Kikuchiyo’s rant makes clear, historically, the samurai have been as bad as the bandits in this regard. Manzo wants to save Shino from such a fate, and yet his act of forcibly cutting off her hair and getting her to dress as a boy has a series of ironic knock-on effects that destabilise the traditional hierarchies he wants to maintain. Katsushiro’s coming-of-age story is woven throughout Seven Samurai. Katsushiro looks for heroes and action, and finds rather love and social responsibility, signalled first when he tosses coins to Yohei after the rice is stolen so he can buy more. When he discovers Shino in the forest when he’s wandered away from Kambei’s side, daydreaming, he sees her and thinks at first she’s a boy: “Why aren’t you working instead of picking flowers,” Katsushiro demands, only to hastily throw down the blossoms he’s clutching. The game with gender coding apparent here signals the potential of the young to break down barriers and forge new paradigms. Later, as the young couple escape again into the woods and loll amongst the flowers, Shino erupts into hysterical laughter as she eggs the young man on to make love to her, leaving Katsushiro absolutely stricken before the thankful intervention of bandit spies. Tsushima’s unnerving laugh, straddling delight and terror, helps make this just as amazing a moment as Kikuchiyo’s rant as one of the film’s few fixated close-ups, reaching beyond Kikuchiyo’s stab at articulateness into the nonverbal angst of sexuality at its most vivid cusp, with the sharp jab at Manzo’s patriarchal protection given its most apt rebuke in Shino’s desire for the handsome young samurai to be her lover. Later, when the couple are found out on the night before battle, it sparks another of the crises that beset the alliance of social groups, and Kambei tries to mollify Manzo’s offence and fear. But the next morning, in the face of the enemy and daylight, Kambei uses the night’s events for a joke, declaring that Katsushiro is finally a man and he has to fight like one. Everyone laughs, and that’s that.

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When battle finally comes in Seven Samurai, the long build-up and exacting clarity of construction pays off for both the heroes and the director. Whilst Kurosawa’s techniques helped point the way towards modern cinema’s far more dynamic sense of space and movement, Kurosawa has never less than an iron grasp on both the sense and sensatory intensity of his filmmaking, to an extent that embarrasses most successors. Just as physical bravura defines warrior capacity, so space defines action in Seven Samurai: the diagrammatic clarity of Kurosawa’s framing and editing, with his “wipe” interchanges, swiped by George Lucas, amongst other things, for his Star Wars films, utilised to give the film’s flow of scenes a quality of dynamic movement. A central sequence of Kambei and Gorobei assessing the village layout intercuts a sketched map and a clear sense of locale that makes their planning explicit. When the bandits finally appear sweeping over the top of the cleared hill above the village, the viewer expects this move and also knows what’s been done to forestall it. With the heroes each given their side of the village to defend, the “stages” of the drama can be coherently cut between. War is, indeed, running, but it’s the precision of the samurai’s physiques that form islands of technique in a sea of lunatic violence, like Gorobei’s lethal grip on his bow or Kyuzo’s fencer poise or Kikuchiyo’s ferocity with his colossal ōdachi, contrasting the madly frenetic, spidery masses of the villagers as they try to spear the bandits, and the bandits’ own attempts to use madcap speed or clambering sneakiness to overwhelm the defenders.

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The rain that comes plummeting like heaven’s sprung a leak in the final bout enhances the visual drama and gives a fitting complication to the physical difficulty of the fight for these wearied, hungry fighters. It’s this quality of incidental effect that gives greater force and substance to this, as the most famous and crucial of Kurosawa’s use of natural elements as symbol for human emotions, as the muck and water enshrouds everyone, mimicking the tears Katsushiro bawls as his comrades fall and the blood that pours from their wounds. In the course of the battle’s three days and two nights, bodies thrash in ponds and pools of rain water, roll in heaving mud and shoot out of the gnarled and primal forest, squirm through troughs and dance between flames, writhe as they’re punctured by gruesome edges and flop down like refuse once dead. Kyuzo is tragically, inevitably brought down not by another swordsman, but the bandits’ last rifle. The gun is wielded by their boss, the last survivor, who in a last act in keeping with his expedient brutality, takes the village women hostage, only for Kikuchiyo, finally achieving almost mythic proportions even as he finally falls prey to his own bravery, expiring in a twisted mass on top of the last enemy, having answered his bullet with a katana in the gut.

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Kambei’s flat declaration of victory over a sea of mud and dead flesh, and Katsushiro’s heartbroken sobs, closes the scene in the most understated and depleted of fashions. Yet the cumulative effect of Seven Samurai is not downbeat, for a definite victory is won, if not, as Kambei’s famous final words indicate, for the samurai, but rather for the people they defended and finally liberated. Katsushiro leaves the company of the samurai to rejoin both Shino and his roots in the land, whilst Kambei and Shichiroji stand by their fellow warriors on a burial mound, having dedicated their lives, unlike many, for an ideal that seems suddenly possible.

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8th 03 - 2013 | 7 comments »

Journey in Italy (Viaggio in Italia,1954)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Roberto Rossellini

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Perhaps it is to be expected that following the great destruction of World War II, even the unflinching Neorealist Roberto Rossellini would do as many others around the world would do—retreat to private life, particularly as his private life included his wife and muse Ingrid Bergman. But, of course, private life can be a war zone as well, and Rossellini and Bergman suffered through a cold war of miscommunication during the eight years of their union. They made nine films together, with Journey in Italy coming right in the middle of their married years. The fissures were already starting to gape.

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In this domestic drama, Bergman and George Sanders play Katherine and Alex Joyce, a wealthy couple who have traveled in their Rolls Royce from England to Naples to sell a villa Alex’s uncle left to him in his will. Alex hopes for a quick sale, as he does not like being away from work. He particularly doesn’t seem to like having so much unstructured time with Katherine, who is driving the car in the opening scene, a tacit signal that this togetherness was her idea. Once the couple arrives at the villa, they get a quick tour (a sunlit sitting room “was your uncle’s favorite room”) and settle into separate bedrooms per the European custom.

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Both Alex and Katherine are made jealous by the apparent pleasure each takes in other people’s company. In the aristocratic circle of some of Alex’s relatives, Katherine makes a big hit, her gay abandon annoying Alex, who considers her no fun at all. Alex runs into a female friend who is in Naples with some friends, and his intimate conversation with her over a meal draws Katherine’s ire. Alex goes about his business of trying to sell the villa as Katherine heads off to the museums and the sulphur banks of Vesuvius. Eventually, Alex joins his friend and her group in Capri, as Katherine sits lonely and worried at the villa playing solitaire. With Katherine feeling like a lifeless appendage and Alex suffocated by Katherine’s duty-filled approach to life, divorce seems the only solution.

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Regardless of the intimacy of the story, Rossellini’s approach to filming Journey in Italy is to play it against the vast weight of Italian history. It is uncomfortable to watch Rossellini put Bergman in precarious positions like a mere speck in time. For example, when she visits the sulphur banks, her guide shows how exposing any of the vents to heat, even that of a cigarette, will cause the entire field to fill with plumes of gas. When Katherine tries it with the guide’s cigarette, they are enveloped, as though she had been swallowed up in hell. In another scene at an art museum, Katherine is unnerved by the painted eyes of the Roman sculptures, and Rossellini deliberately frames her being menaced by one of them or overshadowed by gargantuan men of marble. Her leopard coat made her look like a predator at the start of the film, but as the events of the film gradually unnerve her, her protective clothing gets thinner and thinner. Is she becoming less guarded with Alex, or is Rossellini just defanging her?

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Sanders is given much less direct focus, but his performance is interestingly vulnerable. He seems genuinely pained about his inability to reach through Katherine’s wall to her. Yet, it can’t be a coincidence that the man who didn’t like to work with actors chose one known for his oeuvre of cruel and cynical roles, especially Lord Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). I couldn’t help thinking that despite the suggestion of family wealth, Alex was a war profiteer, and the abundant images of death in the film—catacomb skulls, the leopard skin coat, the figures frozen at the moment of death at Pompeii, Vesuvius in the background of a relaxing Alex and Katherine—though signifiers of the death of a marriage, probably have more to do with the war and the Joyces’ filthy lucre. Giving the characters the surname of Joyce further alludes to death, as Katherine relates a memory of a young man pouring his love out to her in the driving rain that is more than reminiscent of Gretta Conroy’s similar memory in James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

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The film feels like a very personal document for Rossellini, with Bergman and Sanders seeming to pick up threads of old arguments without provocation or context. Their bickering is intense, but you can feel each wound they inflict on each other. When we’re not entrapped in this hothouse of rancor, the filming becomes less precise. Scenes inside the Rolls appear to have been done as process shots, and scenes around Naples could be stock footage, hardly of the quality one expects from the Father of Neorealism. The film has a cheap, cobbled-together quality to it, perhaps the result of several different cuts that reportedly were made of the film.

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If I could accept this film as wholly personal, I would feel less acutely its very troubling subtext—that a marriage can exist only if the wife is broken. Alex becomes attracted to Marie (Maria Mauban), a young woman hobbled by a broken ankle, during his time on Capri. He holds her arm as she moves awkwardly with the assistance of a cane, and begins to declare his feelings when she says she has reconciled with her husband, who is to join her in Italy soon. He backs off, and briefly flirts with the idea of hiring a prostitute to assuage his disappointment. Instead, he returns to Katherine with instructions that he wishes to sleep late, setting up a situation for another argument the next day, as they tour Pompeii, when he will ask her for a divorce. As they drive back from the ruin, shaken by the sight of a couple lying side by side, hollow figures of ash preserved with plaster pumped into the cavities, they get stuck in a throng of people celebrating a holy day. Katherine exits the car and is swept up by the crowd. She yells to Alex for help, and he runs to her side. She declares she doesn’t want to lose him, and he says he loves her. Shaken by the thought of divorce and frightened by being torn into a mindlessly menacing crowd, Katherine capitulates. Her call to be rescued means victory for male domination, and their embrace, to me, tastes of the ashes that entombed the couple in Pompeii.

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Offering none of the usual assurances of all being right with the world now that the institution of marriage has been affirmed, indeed, revealing this illusion for what it is—a power struggle that in the 1950s meant that women had to lose—doomed this film at the box office. In 2013, the gender war has not yet ceased, but the conversation has moved forward to a higher level of awareness. From this vantage point, Rossellini and Bergman’s fearless, painfully raw collaboration looks to be the stuff of genius.


2nd 02 - 2013 | 10 comments »

Try and Get Me! (aka, The Sound of Fury, 1950)

Director: Cy Endfield

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“I didn’t know he was going to kill him!”

Really, Howard? You’re in film noir! Of course your partner was going to kill your hostage!

images-1On Saturday, January 26, I had the unique thrill of being at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the premiere of the restored 35mm print of Try and Get Me! at Noir City 11. Try and Get Me!, whose original title The Sound of Fury was scrapped, changed to something more lurid, and remarketed for national distribution when the film flopped in California, is the powerful film that blogathoners turned out in force to support during 2011’s For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, thanked a large coalition of organizations and people whose efforts were responsible for bringing this film back to pristine condition for future generations; yes, blogathoners, you received your due and the grateful applause of a sold-out audience.

From working with the Film Noir Foundation on the blogathon, I knew this film pushed the warning needle far into nasty. However, I was not adequately prepared for its visual and narrative power, or the nakedly emotional performances of Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, and Kathleen Ryan. Based on a real incident that took place in San Jose, California in the 1930s, Try and Get Me! is one of the darkest—and best—noir films I have ever seen.

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When we first meet out-of-work ex-GI Howard Tyler (Lovejoy), he is in Seattle convincing a truck driver to give him a ride back to his California home. His young son Tommy (Donald Smelnick) is sassing his mother Judy (Ryan) when Howard comes through the door and gives his son half-a-dollar so that he can go to a baseball game with his friends. Judy is overjoyed that this extravagance indicates that Howard has found work—but he hasn’t.

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One afternoon, after trying and failing to get day work, Howard heads for a bowling alley to get a beer. He ends up talking to Jerry Slocum (Bridges), fetching the conceited bowler’s shoes and following him home when Jerry hints that he knows about a job for Howard. He throws Howard an advance on his pay, and the elated man runs home to treat his family to gifts, groceries, and a good time. He has second thoughts when his job turns out to be getaway driver for stick-up man Jerry.

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After the duo commits a series of robberies, Howard’s discomfort grows unmanageable. Jerry says they will commit the inevitable “one last job” that will set them on Easy Street for good: the kidnap for ransom of a rich man’s son. Snatching Donald Miller (Carl Kent) goes smoothly, but when the three men go to a quarry where Jerry says they will hold Donald, Jerry orders Howard to tie the victim’s legs with a belt and push him down a gravel pile. The kidnappers follow, and Jerry bashes Miller’s head in with a rock. He and Howard dump the body in the water at the bottom of the pit and leave town with Jerry’s girl Velma (Adele Jergens) and Velma’s friend Hazel (Katherine Locke) to provide themselves with an alibi. Eventually, Miller’s body is found, and Hazel, who thinks Howard is single and interested in her, soon learns from the conscience-stricken man that he and Jerry killed Miller and turns them in. Newspaper columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) and his profit-minded publisher Hal Clendenning (Art Smith) try the case in the press, and public sentiment turns ugly. Stanton realizes too late that his appeal to emotion has set irrepressible forces into motion that will mean a horrible end for Howard and Jerry.

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Lovejoy fills Howard with a genuine pathos, portraying a man too desperate to understand what kind of person he has gotten himself mixed up with. Jerry treats him like a lackey from the start, having him fetch his shoes and fasten his cufflinks, bullying him into increasingly reckless crimes. Any confidence and command Howard might have had drained out of him long ago; his son loves him, but runs wild, and his wife’s quiet acceptance of their situation is almost worse for Howard. He feels he is not good enough for them, and his rapid slide into crime seems almost a fatalistic attempt to get out of the way of a better future for his family, a wish he eventually voices explicitly in the last act of the film. Howard has our sympathy, a decent man with a loving but stressed family life, whose own lack of guile brought him a form of mob justice we feel he doesn’t deserve.

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Lloyd Bridges is insanely good as Jerry. A supreme narcissist without the brains to pull off anything as sophisticated as a kidnapping for ransom, his Jerry seems entirely without conscience. Obviously a sociopath, he knows a patsy when he sees one and closes one door after another behind Howard until there is no hope for escape. His partying with Velma, a blonde B-girl whose instinct when at the courthouse where Jerry and Howard are being arraigned is to pose seductively for the photographers, shows that he hasn’t given Donald Miller or Howard, for that matter, a second thought. When the angry mob forms outside the jail where the two men are being held, Jerry moves like a caged animal, pacing rapidly in his small cell, rattling the bars, bashing his head against the cell wall, and whining in a pained panic. His fear gives way to defiance: “Try and get me!” he challenges. Howard’s worried face is almost too painful to watch.

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Ryan, playing a version of her loyal Kathleen Sullivan from the British noir Odd Man Out (1947), Irish accent and all, is quite affecting in pleading with Stanton not to characterize her husband as a monster. Her understated fear runs as a steady undercurrent throughout the film and economically characterizes the financial hardships and privations so many families felt in postwar America, the unease that defines much of what we call film noir. Katherine Locke has a truly kooky role—the plain friend of the sexpot Velma who lives in a fantasy of finding true love, believing Howard is actually her boyfriend whom she has a right to scold for his drinking. We’d laugh at her in another film, but she has just enough edge of crazy to her to make us hold back. Cliff Clark brings a no-nonsense authority to his supporting part as the town sheriff trying to uphold the law and keep his prisoners safe.

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What makes Try and Get Me! truly extraordinary is Cy Endfield’s direction, his last major American film before the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s gobbled him up and forced him into exile in England, where he continued to make powerful films such as Hell Drivers (1957) and Zulu (1964). His camera is always on top of the action, as we can practically feel Miller rolling down the hard gravel to his doom and imagine his murder from indistinct movements Howard only hears and interprets with a wretched, horrified face. I have always wondered how a well-guarded jail could be breached by a mob. Now I know. Endfield’s climactic scene builds in intensity as the mob masses and works together like a colony of army ants to overpower the tear-gas-wielding cops with fire hoses and pull open the doors of the jail with gangs of men pulling on ropes in unison to the cries of “heave, heave, heave.” The audience in the Castro Theatre was breathless with horror, watching with compulsive fascination the extraordinary staging of one of the most compelling scenes ever committed to film.

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Endfield was radicalized by the Depression of the 1930s, an era that produced Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s version of this true story that accorded more with the zeitgeist of its time. Try and Get Me! appeared just as audiences and critics alike were turning against dissent and discord to achieve the artificial peace of the 1950s. Endfield’s nihilistic vision of group think and the court of public opinion was not destined to find favor in its own time. Looking at the film now, it seems timeless in the brutality of its psychology, making the haves of society as represented by Stanton and his circle seem decadent and profit-driven, and showing how desperation and lack of opportunity can prove a breeding ground for criminality of every type. Blogathoners, you should be very proud to have contributed to bringing this important, brilliantly realized film back to life for future generations to view and ponder.


29th 12 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Fear and Desire (1953) / Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

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By Roderick Heath

With the mystique sustained by Stanley Kubrick’s reputation for despotic precision and lofty solitude as a mature film artist, it’s at once amusing and fascinating to imagine him as a messily inventive ingénue with the usual roll call of geeky obsessions and filmic touchstones. Kubrick evolved from a camera-happy Bronx teen into a legendarily exacting visionary, and produced one of the most determinedly individualistic oeuvres in mainstream cinematic history, even as Kubrick attempted to hide from posterity the fruits of his apprentice days. Critic Pauline Kael backed him up in this, once commenting that his career began properly with The Killing (1956) and that, like a developed novelist, he ought to have been able to buy up and destroy his first two works. Kubrick almost managed this: thanks to the bankruptcy of its distributor, he was able to hide his first feature, Fear and Desire, for decades, and it has only recently reemerged from the realm of shadowy enigma known only to a handful of scholars and viewers with long memories. His follow-up, Killer’s Kiss, was never effectively impounded. Kubrick, a middling student with literary tastes, found a prodigious success as a photographer in the late ’40s, whilst still in his teens, first as a freelancer and then as a staff member of Look magazine. He married his high school flame Toba Metz, moved to Greenwich Village, and began to teach himself techniques of film production, a hobby that soon turned into an ambition. Kubrick made a handful of short documentaries and a brief foray into TV work before he finally set out to make his first feature-length film at the ripe old age of 25.

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The circumstances were hardly auspicious. Kubrick scraped together a budget of about $10,000 for the shoot, mostly thanks to his chemist uncle and his father’s cashed-in life insurance policy. The screenplay was written by another of Kubrick’s high school friends, the budding playwright Howard Sackler, who would later find repute with his 1968 work The Great White Hope. Kubrick had five actors, five crew members (including Toba), and a team of Mexican agricultural workers to lug around the film equipment. Shooting took place in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, and the cast and crew were poisoned at one point by residual insecticide in a crop sprayer being used to create fog. Like most beginner works from notable filmmakers, there are obvious and powerful anticipations of Kubrick’s recurring interests, attitudes, and images. As movies unto themselves, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are near-equal mixtures of successful and unsuccessful elements, but for intriguingly distinct reasons that plainly reveal the young Kubrick trying to balance out the key aspects not only of his aesthetic repertoire, but also his personal intuition, perspective, and intellectual refrains.

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Fear and Desire is beset by the limited cinematic scope on offer, with its handful of actors, props, and settings. Kubrick leans heavily on Sackler’s script and the actors to imbue the project with a conceptual scale far larger than the production elements would allow. The film’s literary affectations, replete with broadly obvious metaphors and archly meditative dialogue, often suggest exactly what this project is: a bunch of young bohemian neophytes trying to make a high falutin’ statement about “the nature of war” in such a way that places them on a far “higher” plane than the grunt work of mere genre filmmaking. At times, Fear and Desire recalls Coleman Francis’ Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) for wedding cheapjack warfare to muddy existentialist posturing. Yet Fear and Desire, even at its most awkward and affected, bears the imprint of real artists, if ones still learning the meaning of art and the specifics of their own talents. Sackler’s dialogue occasionally possesses the music of poetry with hints of the influence of Eugene O’Neill, and Kubrick’s direction is consistently confident and fluent, especially considering the limitations upon him, and occasionally remarkable. Fear and Desire depicts a war without a defined setting, era, or antagonists. It’s conflict boiled down to essentials, a primal saga of lost and maddened individuals seeking personal meaning even in the midst of impersonal and indiscriminate killing, going up against men no different to themselves, emphasised by the fact that Kubrick makes them literal doppelgängers, the actors playing their opposite numbers.

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A similar dynamic and mood to Kubrick’s later war films is clearly present in a blunt and embryonic form, as the struggle seems to stumble far beyond its nominal boundaries and the protagonists attempt to keep their heads and their souls together deep in enemy territory, for example, the beset patrols of Path of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the bomber pilots of Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The landscape they fight through is an eerie, atavistic zone of dispute, with a forest out of the Grimm Brothers and a sludgy river that calls to mind Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. Four soldiers are stranded here after their plane crashes: the educated, slightly supercilious Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), who reflects sardonically on their situation even as he tries to think of a way out of it; the likeable, poetic, but mentally fraying Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky); the stolid Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit); and the yearning, working-class philosopher Sgt. “Mac” Mackenzie (Frank Silvera). Stranded several miles from the front line, the quartet decide, after some argument and digression, to build a raft and float down the river to their own lines. They encounter an obviously domesticated dog, which they fear might be a tracker’s animal, but it instead runs off in confusion. As they bundle together logs into a makeshift vessel, a low-flying aircraft shoots over them, and the soldiers are worried that it saw them, but it proves to have landed in a field close to a hut where an enemy general seems to be residing. Desperate for food and weapons, the soldiers stage an assault on an outpost, successfully sneaking up on and killing two enemy combatants dining within, and then killing two more when they arrive.

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This sequence is where a future great director seems most clearly emergent, with a burst of technique, rapid montage, which Kubrick offered only sparingly later in his career. He depicts the ambush of the two enemy soldiers, caught eating their dinner, as a frenetic explosion of physical and cinematic brutality, his edits carving them up into furiously squirming limbs, savage and desperate mouths, and spilt food mashed and clawed by desperate fingers into a whirl of corporeal mush. Kubrick entwines sustenance and death into the most basic of the essential parallels that will extend throughout his career, the closeness of primal experience to the surface of the human condition no matter how becalmed and effete its self-erected circumstances. The victorious raiders settle down to claim the weapons of the men they’ve killed and eat their food, with Mac slobbering down stew with wolfish glee, celebrating his victory—his proclaimed right to live another day and beat his competitors—with the most direct of statements and the least evolved animal enthusiasm. The anticipations here are redolent of the Neanderthal discoveries of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The script archly contrasts plebeian vulgarity, embodied by Mac, with the educated Corby’s quietly insufferable pontifications, as when he watches Mac and comments he’s found the perfect metaphor for war, “cold stew on a blazing island…with a tempest of gunfire around it to fan the flames,” and surveys the dead soldiers sprawled in the blank-eyed shock of sudden death and notes, as if sarcastically rebutting the title-expressed thesis of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, “No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago—before the Ice Age—the glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands.”

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The enemy general, also played by Harp, shares with his fellow officer this tendency towards overt philosophising, in a darker, even weightier fashion, reclining with distinctly aristocratic poise as he reflects on his status as a destroyer and sacrificer of men with pain and misgiving. The schematic split of the characters remains ponderously obvious even as Kubrick’s cinematic wit and actors try to shake them into independent life. But it’s clear that Kubrick would reiterate the schisms he describes here, in increasingly sophisticated terms, to become statements enacted on macrocosmic and cultural levels in his later works, and most immediately in Paths of Glory and Spartacus (1960), where culturally elevated and educated figures parade their civility as justifications for oppressing others dismissed as subhuman. Mac, for his part, makes a play for existential victory: in recognising his essential inconsequentiality and probable fate after the war is finished to return to a life of effaced labour, he determines to destroy the enemy general, even if it means dying in the process, simply to prove his existence has meaning and effect on the larger scheme of things. To this end, he talks Corby into approving his simple but effective plan to row downstream on the raft and distract the general’s guards, giving Corby and the others time to strike at the general himself. Mac’s voyage down to the river is a thrilling moment sporting the most successful of the film’s attempts at presenting interior monologue, as Mac meditates on his motivations, at once pathetic and transcendent, shot from a low angle by Kubrick with dark sky and looming trees sliding by above and giving mystical force to Mac’s self-constructed destiny.

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The film’s second great scene arrives as the team are forced to take a local peasant girl prisoner. The girl has been washing clothes in the river with some other women and comes across the soldiers hiding in the bushes,cueing an electrifying moment when the girl spots the eyes watching her from the behind the leaves and as her own eyes widen in alarm, the men suddenly erupt to grasp her. As even Corby’s interest in their captive seems a touch too intense for a moment, it’s Mac who drawls, half-sarcastically, “Let’s try to remain civilised.” Worried that this girl might have seen their raft, still sitting on the riverbank half-finished, the men tie her to a tree. Corby leaves Sidney to watch over her, but this proves to be a mistake. Sidney’s fermenting trauma from the killings in the hut begins to boil over, and the silent, uncomprehending girl becomes a blank slate for Sidney to write his insecurities and caprices upon, trying to entertain her with a grotesque dumb show in which he pretends to be a general dining, in between molesting her with a pathetic, dissociated neediness. When he unties her because she seems responsive, she runs off, and Sidney shoots her in the back. Sidney spirals into complete madness, randomly quoting The Tempest before dashing off into the woods. Kubrick’s career strand of vividly visualised, fetishistic, erotic textures is insistently nascent here, as he zeroes in on Sidney’s and the girl’s legs as he embraces her when still tied to the tree, his fatigues and combat boots and her bare legs in a sickly dance. Mazursky, who would become a noted director in his own right, offers a performance that anticipates Kubrick’s contradictory fondness for blackly comedic, violently expressive, almost cartoonish performances that would punctuate—and puncture—the veneers of studious realism in his movies. Among such performances are Timothy Carey and Peter Sellers’ turns for him, Malcolm MacDowell’s Alex DeLarge, and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.

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Mac’s plan proves fairly successful, but he is seriously wounded by fire from the riverbank. He drifts downstream, where Sidney, still deep in delirium, gets on board, and the two pieces of human wreckage float toward their lines. Corby and Fletcher succeed in assassinating the general and his aide-de-camp, with the inevitable irony that they are killing their own doppelgängers: the wounded general drags himself across the floor and out the door and manages to croak, “I surrender!” just before Corby kills him. Corby and Fletcher manage to flee in the general’s plane, making it back to their own base and then trudging back to the riverside to await Mac and Sidney as they drift through the enveloping fog. Kubrick returns to the opening shot of the forested landscape just as the pair on the raft float in toward the pair ashore, with Sidney plainly mad and Mac possibly dead. The haunting, numinous visuals filled with wallowing haze, and the awkward attempts by Corby to find words to rationalise their experience, all look forward to the coda of Full Metal Jacket.

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Despite the film’s main fault, an inability to discern and sustain its best instincts, it is, in spite of Kubrick’s later dismissal of it as an amateurish work, actually marked out by a general avoidance of many pitfalls of such low-budget cinema. Kubrick’s blocking of his actors is usually strong, and sometimes he achieves some artful compositions. Kubrick is plainly fascinated by the spectacle and meaning of death, repeatedly presenting moments of demise as first a pounding wallop of mortality and then a sudden emptiness. He constantly returns to study the faces of the dead—the girl’s, the enemy soldiers, the general’s—to contemplate their shocked, staring emptiness, to ram home a sense of curtailed existence, the humanity suddenly gone from these puppets whose strings have been cut.

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The initial cost of Fear and Desire was blown out considerably by post-production work, and despite impressing some notable culturati like James Agee and Mark Van Doren, it failed financially. Kubrick hurriedly signed on to make another short documentary for the Seafarers International Union to raise money for his next attempt, but he again needed added help from family and friends to fund Killer’s Kiss. Again, it was almost a one-man production for the erstwhile auteur, but this time, Kubrick firmly made his mark on the people who saw the result. Killer’s Kiss sees Kubrick seemingly more at home in the precincts of Manhattan he had spent his teenaged years haunting as a photographer, to the point where the film often feels less like a narrative movie than a photographic record and portfolio showing off the manifold attractions, both glitzy and seamy, of the cityscape. Certainly, immersing himself in this world allowed Kubrick to fill his film up with cinema verite inserts, and celebrate his native city with a zesty immediacy and authenticity that contrasts the studiously crafted, perfectly controlled facsimiles he came to prefer working in. Killer’s Kiss is an apt follow-up to Fear and Desire in some ways, similarly taking up a hoary situation and endeavouring to essay it with a stripped-down focus on psychological turmoil and experiential intensity. But where the debut film was literary in tone, Killer’s Kiss presents raw cinematic values tethered to a thin story pretext, one that shows Kubrick had been busy consuming movies, particularly recent noir films, as well as a panoply of Expressionist and Soviet filmmakers, and the dean of young America filmic geniuses, Orson Welles.

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Kubrick’s subsequent move to always provide himself with a solid literary base for his films explained by the fact that his script for Killer’s Kiss is only sufficient. Sensitive palooka Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) and degraded princess Gloria Price (Irene Kane) never quite feel real as characters, and the story is exceedingly simple. Nonetheless, Killer’s Kiss provides constant hints as to the diastolic nature of Kubrick’s eventual oeuvre. If Fear and Desire anticipates the hemisphere of Kubrick’s work preoccupied by human devolution, violence, and corrosive destruction, most usually apparent in his war films, but often emerging in others, Killer’s Kiss follows on from Sgt. Mac’s existential mission. It presents a hero who is beset by trials on an almost cosmic scale, and the questing protagonist, sometimes heroic, sometime not, but always driven in Kubrick’s films, comes fully to life here in its basic St. George and the Dragon tale of burnt-out boxer Davey who falls for his neighbour Gloria, but has to win her from mid-level gangster Vincent Rapallo (Silvera).

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Gloria works in that common euphemistic profession of dance hostess in the club Rapallo runs. Kubrick stages his opening sequence as a study in urban alienation with underpinnings of mysterious connection, as Davey prepares for his evening’s bout and Gloria for a night’s work in their flats with facing windows over a narrow alley. Kubrick makes an oddball visual pun as he peers at Davey through the distorting glass of his fishbowl, likening it to the fishbowl proximity of the two apartments and lives whilst suggesting the perversion of natural community such city living sustains. He follows them as they leave their flats and emerge from the building simultaneously. Welles’ influence is immediately in evidence here in the deep focus and use of distortion effects, but the overall design of the sequence, tracing the two characters in their separate paths to events that will see them both put their bodies on the line for other people’s benefit, evokes more the Russian and German directors Kubrick went to school on: whereas Fear and Desire is replete with Soviet Realist close-ups and edits, here Eisenstein is present in the use of dialectic montage, and the holistic analysis of Dziga Vertov looms, too.

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Kubrick dynamically intercuts to continue the sense of synchronicity conjoining the man and woman as Kubrick intercuts Davey having his hands the taped for the fight with Gloria dolling herself up in a dressing room at Rapallo’s club. The synchronicity continues as Rapallo mauls Gloria on the aphrodisiac high of watching Davey on television, as he is pummelled and finally knocked down in a fight scene. Their bout is depicted in a seemingly endless, nightmarish series of shots from below at the very edge of the ring, the fighters looming and reeling with sweat-sodden skin and forming near-abstract patterns of force, whilst Rapallo gathers up Gloria, fingering her back with consuming purpose like a spider crawling on a flower. After his fight, Davey goes home and suffers through a nightmare in which he’s flying along empty city streets rendered in a hallucinatory negative image, anticipatory of no lesser moment than the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Davey is spiritual antecedent to the peculiar avatars of the human condition who bob up again and again in Kubrick’s films, as a hero who is beset and outmatched by great systems of power, but ennobled by his contradictory mix of civility and brutality to become almost mythic in scale. Whereas this figure became increasingly more ambiguous in Kubrick’s work, Davey’s eventual outright battle with Rapallo over Gloria is simple in the extreme, almost on the level of the scuffle of the apes over the water hole in 2001, a contest for breeding rights.

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Davey is awakened from his nightmare by the sounds of Gloria screaming, and he looks through the window to see Rapallo assaulting her. Rapallo flees, and Davey solicitously puts Gloria to bed and watches over her. Gloria explains how and why Rapallo came to be in her apartment, and recounts her tragic life story. She came from a fairly well-off family that sadly disintegrated with her father’s death. Her dancing prodigy sister, who had given up dancing to marry a rich man to help ease the family’s debts, committed suicide, an act for which the young Gloria blamed herself. The insertion of this odd, dreamlike sequence sees Kubrick straining to avoid lapsing into mere conversational filmmaking with sophomoric technique, and coupled with the uncertainty of the writing adds to the patchiness of the film’s total effect. But again, it’s an anticipation of Kubrick’s more concerted, applied games with chronology in The Killing, whilst the contrast of the brutal emotions Gloria describes with the artistry of the dancing on screen predicts Kubrick’s obsessive fascination with immediate contrasts of human civilisation and fragility.

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Having at last breached the divide between them, Davey invites Gloria to accompany him as he quits New York and boxing for his family’s ranch near Seattle, and Gloria accepts. When they head to Times Square so Gloria can end it with Rapallo, Davey asks for his manager Albert (Jerry Jarrett) to come and pay him off there. Rapallo’s goons (Mike Dana and Felice Orlandi) mistake Albert for Davey and kill him, and they snatch Gloria away. Following Gloria’s disappearance, Davey goes back to his apartment, only to have to skip out ahead of some policemen who think that he killed Albert. Davey, realising what’s happened, follows Rapallo to a warehouse district, where his goons are keeping Gloria captive, and almost successfully bails them up long enough to get her away; but, of course, no dragon ever gives up a princess easily.

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Whereas Fear and Desire saw Kubrick denaturalising his embryonic art by venturing deep in alien territory, Killer’s Kiss sings Kubrick’s familiarity with the environs he’s depicting. The story is plainly an assemblage of elements Kubrick obviously enjoyed in several contemporary noir films, including 99 River Street (1953) and Body and Soul (1947), and Kubrick presents some excellent noir-infused shots and sequences. But Killer’s Kiss still often feels less a genre pastiche than a rough draft for the New York indie film scene, which would explode within a decade, with aspects of cinema verite realism and improvisatory zeal: Cassavettes, Scorsese, Lumet and De Palma are lurking in its genome. Whereas in Fear and Desire there was nothing to point his camera at but the faces of his actors, this movie is often at its most engaging when simply, metaphorically glancing over its shoulder at street scenes and enjoying New York as more than a glorified set, a microcosm where romantic glamour and grit sit cheek by jowl, and the city’s protean strangeness can upset the best laid plans, most fruitfully illustrated when two fez-wearing bohemians at play in Times Square prove a nuisance to Davey, precipitating the narrative’s swerve into melodrama. Whilst the contrast with the stylised, set-bound New York of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is self-evident, the same essential atmosphere is evident, of a world unto itself filled with places offering both romantic sanctuary and soul-distorting experience. Gloria’s pointed, almost brutal rejection of Rapallo as too old (“You smell!”) suggests Kubrick’s understanding of the mercilessness of youth, later crucial to Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, showing that already Kubrick’s sense of character ambiguity and the way biology often trumps civility was even-handed and encompassing.

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Kubrick’s visual patterning, so clearly developed in a work like The Shining, is nascent here, as he notes the painted ads for Rapallo’s dance hall with their lacquered, beaming fantasy girls, contrasting the realities of Gloria’s life. This seemingly casual but recurring piece of editorial illustration twins functionally with both Gloria’s ghostly sister dancing in hyper-feminine perfection whilst her sad end is recounted, and the climax, where Rapallo and Davey battle, quite literally, over their mutual object of desire in a space filled with idealised feminine forms— mannequins arrayed in endless variables on the essential human form, headless or handless, smashed as shields and cleaved into fragments in the ultimate dumb-show variation on the film’s obsession with the human body as battlefield. The scenes leading up to this final duel are dazzling in their way, indeed already quite masterly, apart from the awkward moment of Davey’s actual escape by jumping through a window, a stunt that’s poorly staged and a trifle unbelievable. Kubrick’s staging of Davey’s raid on Rapallo’s hideout, his near-defeat by the goons, and the subsequent chase through back alleys and across rooftops, the cityscape stretching around them like an alien landscape, emphasises raw physical force and experience again, with Rapallo leering over the captive Gloria with a punitive blend of erotic delight and fury, mocking her efforts to appease him, and the hero and villains equally composed of nerve, muscle, blunder and skill as they all contend with the danger of the chase. Here the hero and villain, with the villain clutching an axe exactly the same as the one with which Jack Torrance would menace his family in The Shining, are still cleanly demarcated, whereas by Kubrick’s later films, they would often coalesce into Janus-faced singular figures like Alex and Jack. The Welles influence becomes acute again in the mannequin warehouse fight, and possibly that of Michael Powell, too, for as the ballet sequence invokes The Red Shoes (1948), so this scene and aspects of the film in general recalls Powell’s Contraband (1940), where the kidnapping villains were undone in a warehouse full of plaster busts. The film’s final, cheering triumph for assailed lovers right on the cusp of apparent surrender to alienation again looks forward to Eyes Wide Shut.

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Kubrick’s collaboration with Silvera in these first two movies is worth noting. Silvera was an African-American actor who was able to get away with playing a wide variety of ethnic roles, and he inhabits the characters of Mac and Silvera with a seamless, professional capacity that the young Kubrick must have appreciated, especially when compared with the more awkward, theatrical performances around him. Silvera offers strikingly different characterisations that sustain a common thread of frustration in being stymied in a desire for the better, sweeter, grander experiences in life, and it’s hard not to empathise with Rapallo’s pungent offence when Gloria spurns him, even if he is a monster. It’s certainly the first of a string of memorable collaborations Kubrick would have with reliable star actors like Kirk Douglas and Sterling Hayden, and, more particularly, peculiar or chameleonic character actors like Peter Sellers, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Philip Stone. Kubrick benefited from the changing state of the American film world in the 1950s, as the rise of television and legal blows to the hegemony of the studio system were beginning to create new avenues into the industry as producers and stars looked further afield for talent. Within a year of wrapping Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick would achieve his first truly impressive balance of form and function in The Killing, and within seven years of handcrafting Fear and Desire, he was stepping in to rescue the multimillion production Spartacus. Young Stanley was going places.


11th 09 - 2012 | 7 comments »

Duck Amuck (1953)

Director: Chuck Jones

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It takes all kinds to make a movie. From actors great and small to sound and lighting technicians, set decorators, make-up artists, and writers—all held together by the producer and director—movie-making is one of the most interdependent endeavors around. Yet, it is not the only one, and 1953’s Duck Amuck is one of the most universal and subversive films ever made. Despite its reflexive look at the world of animated filmmaking and its use of catchphrases of its time (“What a way to run a railroad!” and “Oh brother, I’m a buzz boy!”), there isn’t a soul alive who can’t relate in some way to the sometimes cruel and unrepentant ways Big Brother takes over our lives and makes a holy hash of our plans and assumptions.

Daffy Duck is the star of the Warner Bros. cartoon Duck Amuck, which starts slyly as a tale of the Three Musketeers—you know, all for one and one for all? Ready to work on a thrilling adventure film, Daffy finds that he has entered the Twilight Zone instead. He finds himself parrying and thrusting onto a blank background. Like a performer awakening a sleeping stagehand, he calls for some scenery to be painted behind him. Alas, instead of 17th century France, he gets a farm.

Daffy is what I’d call the solid citizen persona of his creator, Chuck Jones. He knows and has internalized all the rules of his universe. If the scene suddenly changes to a barnyard, he runs off and reappears wearing overalls and carrying a hoe. If he suddenly notices an igloo on the back 40, he exchanges his hoe for some ski poles. If he is confronted with palm trees and ocean, he grabs a lava lava from wardrobe and plays the ukelele with outsized enthusiasm. When he’s tortured by this tyrannical and capricious behavior, he looks for fault in himself, muttering aloud that he’s sure he has complied with his employment contract and hasn’t he kept his figure in tip-top shape? In other words, he’s an actor, though unlike what that label implies, he really reacts to changing circumstances with little complaint, the better to keep his precarious existence assured.

Indeed there can be no more precarious existence than being a cartoon character, relying on an artist to provide his body and environment and, in this case, Mel Blanc, to produce his voice—or a sound engineer when the fellow in charge decides to substitute some strange sounds for Daffy’s vocal protests. The humiliations continue when Daffy gets redrawn as a daisy-headed platypus, but what can he do? He can’t even quit if his creator decides to cast him in a movie he doesn’t enjoy, like Duck Amuck.

Jones may not have had it top of mind, but his godlike manipulations of poor little Daffy bear a striking resemblance to the petty torments of the office environment hilariously chronicled in such films as Office Space (1999) and Office Killer (1997). The 1950s were the heyday of the Organization Man, with Daffy perfectly channeling the conformist worker in companies that often operated on the whims of their founders or charismatic leaders. Jones may have been glancing in the direction of the Disney empire and its straitjacket of innocence, imagining what his uncontrolled id could do to the likes of Alice in Wonderland or Wendy Darling. He rebelled against the use of a dynamic filmmaking technique for doing what parents could any night of the week—read their kids a story. Jones sought to free their imaginations with the gleeful anarchy of his many superb animated shorts.

In the end, Chuck owns up to being a very naughty boy. “Ain’t I a stinker?” his cartoon surrogate says. Without a doubt, thank goodness!

Watch Duck Amuck here on Vimeo.


25th 08 - 2012 | 8 comments »

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957)

Director: Arnold Laven

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Over the past week, Chicago cinephiles have been treated yet again to another installment of Noir City, the celebration of film noir staged by the Film Noir Foundation each year. As a satellite festival of FNF’s 10-year-old main event in San Francisco, Noir City Chicago has brought film fans out to the historic Music Box Theatre for only four years, but presenter Alan K. Rode, a good friend made during our fundraising blogathon for FNF, has assured us that the festival in Chicago will continue as long as the current level of enthusiasm and support remains. That’s good news for film buffs in search of the rarities regularly presented at the festival alongside the more famous fare that forms essential viewing for film neophytes.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is just such a rarity. While not completely unknown or forgotten, the film has never been officially released on VHS or DVD. Most people who have seen it remember it from commercial television in the 60s or 70s, or misremember seeing it because it shares the same title as the famous ballet set to Richard Rodgers’ music and committed to film twice, first, with the original Balanchine choreography in On Your Toes (1939) and then in 1948’s Words and Music, with new choreography by Gene Kelly. While Laven’s Slaughter includes the Rodgers music, rendered in a tasteful, effective score by Herschel Burke Gilbert, the film bears no resemblance to the ballet’s story of a love triangle that ends in murder.

Instead, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue has been hung with the unfortunate label of stepson to  On the Waterfront (1954). While both films focus on mob corruption in New York’s longshoremen’s union, each deals with it in its own way and from different angles. Elia Kazan’s masterwork, told from the point of view of the longshoremen, is greatly elevated by the towering performances of Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and Karl Malden, whereas Slaughter’s cast, though fine, is packed with yeoman actors like Dan Duryea, Charles McGraw, and Sam Levene, and anchored by a much weaker leading man, Richard Egan. Slaughter has one virtue On the Waterfront lacks: based on the nonfiction book The Man Who Rocked the Boat cowritten by former New York district attorney William J. Keating, it tells in compelling fashion the true story of the only murder conviction achieved against a mobbed-up union official from the prosecutor’s point of view.

In a very suspenseful opening sequence, we watch three men arrive at an apartment building on 10th Avenue and spread out to cover all exit routes, climbing on the roof and entering the stairway from the top and stationing themselves in blind spots from below. A car pulls up in front of the building—it is Benjy Karp (Harry Bellaver), who always gives his friend Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) a ride to work. Solly’s wife Madge (Jan Sterling) yells down that Solly will be right there. After some affectionate banter, Madge hands Solly his metal lunch box and sends him off with a kiss. Moments later, Solly is cornered and gunned down. As the gunmen flee, Madge runs to her husband who says, “‘Cockeye’ Cook (Joe Downing) and two of his gorillas did it.” He is taken to the hospital, gravely injured.

DA Howard Rysdale (Levene) sees the Pitts shooting as an impossible nut to crack, another of the 150 waterfront murders unsolved because of witness fear and payoffs. ADA Keating (Egan), two months on the job, steps forward to take the case: “I have to catch one of those sooner or later.” Rysdale, his resources spread thin, reluctantly agrees. Keating works with police lieutenant Anthony Vosnick (McGraw) to locate witnesses and build a case.

Slaughter is a police procedural in The Naked City mold that has more in common with the politically conscious films of the 1930s than with the postwar fatalism that informs the thoroughly pessimistic outlook of many classic noir films. Keating, the son of a union coal miner, is a crusader for justice for a man who dared to stand up to the mob and paid the ultimate price, but he’s strictly by the book, not shadowed by a painfully guilty past. Vosnick, a trusted member of the waterfront community, is more the pragmatic veteran who convinces a reluctant Benjy and Madge to testify and gets Solly to change his “I didn’t see them” statement on first being shot to repeating what he told to Madge. But because he does it “off the record,” he jeopardizes Keating’s case when extremely crafty mob attorney John Jacob Masters (Duryea) casts reasonable doubt on the defendants’ guilt by highlighting the flip-flop statements (even calling into question Solly’s deathbed testimony) as evidence of police coercion. The fragility of truth and justice does get a slightly noirish sort of airing, but this film doesn’t admit those noir shades of gray in depicting its battle between good and evil.

Nonetheless, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is extremely satisfying. Sterling’s performance as a tough-minded widow is beyond good, showing the various emotions of a worried wife tending to her dying husband and a strategic witness who avoids taking the stand until after Christmas to ensure that the killers will be convicted and get the electric chair. Duryea, not at his most evil but certainly at his most articulate, has a field day with the excellent dialogue and legal logic screenwriter Lawrence Roman provided to him; Duryea certainly is one of the best actors to emerge from mid-century American cinema. A wonderful turn comes from diminutive Nick Dennis, who plays a longshoreman nicknamed Midget who goes ballistic the day after the attack on Solly, drinking and cursing the union bosses who had him hit. As the goons who shot Solly chase him around and through the dock machinery, we see how vulnerable a single man is, with only his speed to keep him ahead of deadly force, as his coworkers opt to keep their mouths shut to live to see another day. Mickey Shaughnessy spits his contempt for the men who attacked him during his deathbed deposition, lifting his hospital gown to show “Cockeye” exactly what his guns did; while we see only blood-stained gauze, the gesture is still shocking. Julie Adams plays Keating’s fiancée and wife with more presence and authority than her “little woman” role normally would have afforded her.

Egan is a bit pallid as our central character—Laven reportedly wanted Robert Mitchum in the role—but he is believable as a straight arrow dedicated to upholding the law. When he gets involved in a wildcat strike on the docks, he forgets himself and behaves as he did when at his father’s side on the picket lines, slugging it out with the hired muscle trucked in to quell the protest. It would have been nice to see more of that side of Keating from a dramatic point of view, though I imagine this fight was a script embellishment, not reality.

A surprise is seeing Walter Matthau in his fourth big-screen appearance as union boss Al Dahlke. His charisma is unmistakable, but his acting, sliced, would go well with cheese on rye. He is both too big with his sarcasm and oily “friendship” and too small with his menace. He comes off more as a skinny bully made bold by having big guys surrounding him than a genuine made man with the notches on his gun to prove his mettle.

DP Fred Jackman Jr. makes the most of the dockside settings (Long Beach, CA, doubling for New York) to lend a verité look to the film, and his lighting and camerawork in the stairwell where Solly is shot is appropriately ominous; kudos to film editor Russell Schoengarth for making that scene coil and pounce with thrilling menace.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue should have been a contender, because it’s got class written all over it. Here’s hoping more people will take the chance to enjoy the action and artistry of the talented cast and crew who made this fine mid-century movie.

You can view the entire film for free here on YouTube.


13th 08 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Imitation of Life (1934/1959)

Director: John M. Stahl/Douglas Sirk

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among master directors of women’s films are two men whose careers are intertwined. John Stahl, whose heyday occurred during the 1930s, and Douglas Sirk, the 1950s king of technicolor melodrama, each made versions of the same three novels: Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, Lloyd C. Douglas’ Magnificent Obsession, and James M. Cain’s Serenade (Stahl’s film was called When Tomorrow Comes, and Sirk’s film was titled Interlude). It is hard to say what attracted Stahl and Sirk to genre films often disparagingly described as “weepies” and “soapers,” but it is fair to say that these two men wanted more from these stories than to give women a vicarious romance and a good cry. Neither Imitation of Life is a run-of-the-mill women’s film in any case. While its main story involves the fortunes and loves of a central female character, this story intersects with the racially charged travails of an African-American woman and her light-skinned daughter. Both films offer the view that a white woman can improve her circumstances with enough guts, ingenuity, and physical attractiveness, but that African Americans, even those light enough to pass for white, are inherently unable to realize the Horatio Alger dream of the self-made person that infects Americans to this very day.

Stahl’s film, a faithful adaptation of the Hurst novel, centers on Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a widow barely supporting herself and her three-year-old daughter Jessie (Baby Jane) by running her late husband’s maple syrup business. On a very busy morning, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her four-year-old daughter Peola (Sebie Hendricks) fetch up at Bea’s door answering an ad for a live-in maid. They have come to the wrong address, and Bea offers her regrets. Just then, Bea runs upstairs to rescue a crying, fully clothed Jessie from the bathtub she slipped into to retrieve her rubber ducky. When Bea comes back downstairs, she sees that Delilah has been fixing her breakfast. Delilah basically volunteers to be Bea’s servant in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter, who has been a handicap to Delilah’s job search. Thus begins a relationship that will see an uncomplaining Delilah give up her secret pancake recipe, come along with Bea as she sets up a pancake house, and become the face of Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour and a household fixture as Bea’s success affords her a luxurious lifestyle and the attentions of ichthyologist Stephen Archer (Warren William).

Sirk’s film maintains the basic outline of the novel, but provides all but the Stephen Archer character with new names, and makes Bea, called Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) here, an aspiring actress. Lora and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) meet at Coney Island beach while Lora is looking for her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). Lora brings Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) home because they are homeless. Lora also meets Steve Archer (John Gavin), an aspiring fine-art photographer, on the beach. Lora finds the same success as Bea, and like Delilah, Annie comes along for the ride.

Both of these films remark on race and gender relations, as well as the times in which they were made. Stahl’s film reflects the social consciousness of Depression-era America, saving its sympathy for the economic precariousness of women without men. Although the story makes both Bea and Delilah widows, many women lost men to the road as they looked for work and to despair through the bottle and abandonment. Bea must finagle her store using hard bargaining, charm, and a generous amount of bull. Delilah’s character is just as desperate to hold her family together, but Stahl plants her character firmly in a caricature of the jolly mammy.

Stahl’s treatment of Bea’s story is standard Hollywood glamour. Bea wears one luscious gown after another in the success part of the story, falls into a very quick and intense romance with Archer, who despite his seemingly ordinary career as a marine biologist, seems to be independently wealthy. The pair steals kisses, Colbert’s head tilted so far back I thought it would break off (couldn’t they have provided her with a step stool?). Finally, Bea and Stephen deal with the complication of a college-aged Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falling for Archer by delaying their marriage with tortured longing until Jessie has gotten over him.

Delilah and Peola’s story is treated in both a demeaning and paradoxically realistic way. Louise Beavers’ Delilah is simple-minded, ignorant, emotional, and religious. There are ways to ask for room and board in lieu of payment that aren’t so butt-insulting as the way Stahl directed Beavers, making it sound like Delilah’s main delight in life is serving white folks. A close-up of Beavers posing for the image Bea wants on her restaurant sign is a caricature of the Aunt Jemima caricature; I can just hear audiences of the time busting a gut at her lengthy, demeaning mugging. During Delilah’s death scene, we get a full chorus of the black servants in Bea’s employ singing a field hand lament from behind closed doors, and Beavers is never accorded the dignity of a close-up. We really never see her full face in a scene normally so important that Alla Nazimova rewrote the story of her Camille (1921) so that she could die without Rudolph Valentino’s character in attendance to pull focus from her.

The paradoxically realistic parts, however, are Delilah’s religious faith and Peola’s perception of how different her life would be if she hadn’t been born black. Peola persistently tries to pass for white throughout the film. Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African American, plays Peola as a young woman who hates the restrictions on her, yet Fredi, with those same restrictions, never denied her race; indeed, she refused to pass for white when the studio bosses wanted to build her up, and went on to form the Negro Actors Guild to expand opportunities for African-American actors and fight discrimination. Although her character disowns her mother and comes to regret it in two emotionally wrenching scenes, Peola’s feeling of being white, which I read to mean she knows she’s as good as everyone else, announces her as a member of a new generation, one that would eventually go on to fight and win the battle for civil rights.

Delilah’s attempts to get Peola to accept who she is arise from her deep faith. She believes God made folks black and white for a reason and that it is nobody’s place to question that decision. Beavers makes Delilah’s professions of faith so effortlessly sincere and idealistic that she manages to flesh out a character and provide some believable motivation for her acceptance of a second-class role in Bea’s household and business. When, in the end, she is given the grandest funeral New York has ever seen, the film brings into focus the success of Delilah’s lifelong goal—her glorious assumption to heaven. That Bea honors her wish to keep house and accedes to her decisions about her daughter, for example, suggesting Delilah send Peola to an all-black university in the South, may seem as though she is reinforcing the limitations on the black community. Yet I felt more camaraderie between her and Delilah, a shared fate as widows and mothers, than would be evident in the 1959 version. Perhaps the most famous moment of this inventively shot film, one in which both women go off to bed, Bea climbing the stairs of her mansion and Delilah descending into the below-stairs quarters, may be Stahl’s one statement about the inequality that all the characters but Peola accept as the natural order of things.

Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is a different animal altogether. With a script much more layered and explicit with regard to the evils of the world, it poses a greater indictment of the relationship between Lora and Annie. At the same time, it indulges in its own stereotyping, offering either objectification or infantilization of the women in the film.

Right off the bat, Steve, a photographer, snaps Lora’s picture as she searches frantically for her missing daughter. He insinuates himself into her search, wheedles an “invitation” to her home by offering to hand-deliver a photo of Susie and Sarah Jane, and then assumes prerogatives over Lora that seek to control how she pursues her acting career—a far cry from the genteel Warren William who is willing to do anything Bea says. While Lora puts him in his place, as well as talent agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), who agrees to get her work in exchange for her “escort” services, the choice to make Lora an aspiring actress puts her squarely in the 50s mold of objectifying women; while post-success Bea was certainly a glamorous figure, she herself was not characterized as an object. Using her intelligence as well as her feminine wiles to get started in business was made to seem admirable, whereas Lora’s outright lying about being a film star to get in to see Loomis seems tawdry.

Lora and Annie are nowhere near equal footing. Annie exchanges domestic duties for a place to live. She offers no secret recipe or services that could help Lora advance her career aside from answering the phone “Mrs. Meredith’s residence.” Although Lora only rents the apartment in which all of them live, it is clearly her home, not Annie’s. There doesn’t seem to be any real camaraderie between Annie and Lora—the bonding that developed when Delilah rubbed Bea’s tired feet has no real match in this film. There is one foot-rubbing scene between Lora and Annie late in the film that is fleeting and rather perfunctory, and the film takes pains to show that Lora barely knows anything about Annie. When Annie describes who she’d like to have come to her funeral, Lora says she had no idea Annie knew so many people; Annie’s reply is the gentle rebuke, “You never asked.” Therefore, while Annie has a much richer on-camera (or, at least, scripted) life in Sirk’s version, the “all in this together” ethos of Stahl’s Depression-era film is largely lost.

Sarah Jane’s character, beautifully played as a young woman by Susan Kohner, is much more blatant in her contempt for the place of African Americans in her world. When Lora finds out Sarah Jane has a boyfriend, she asks if he is “the Hawkins boy”—the black son of the chauffeur in a neighboring household. Sarah Jane is deeply offended, and later puts on a shuck-and-jive show when her mother asks her to bring a meal tray into Lora and her guests. Sirk expressly ensures that we understand why Sarah Jane wants to pass. When her white boyfriend finds out she is actually black, he asks her if it’s true that she’s a nigger, slaps her silly, and leaves her laying in a puddle in a dark alley. This scene is brutal, but tracks with the ambivalence shown by the white lover in Cassavetes’ Shadows, which also premiered in 1959, and the general unease of the white community toward the burgeoning civil rights movement. On a less generous note, Sarah Jane leaves home to find herself as a scantily clad showgirl, not the respectable store clerk Peola tries to be before Delilah and Bea track her down. The 50s didn’t leave women who wanted to make their own way in the world many options, and call girls and actresses abound in films of this time.

Among the supporting characters in each film, I found the contrast between Rochelle Hudson and Sandra Dee, who plays the college-aged Susie, to be almost freakish. Hudson’s Jessie is young, but not unintelligent or lacking in social graces. She and Stephen keep company together while Bea is tied up with work or helping Delilah find Peola; despite their age difference, Jessie manages to be decent company for Stephen and seems justified in thinking she could be a good wife for him. Sandra Dee’s Susie is a blithering idiot who seems hopped up on amphetamines. It’s hard to believe Sirk couldn’t rein her super-fueled perkiness in, so I smell a bit of studio interference on this one to keep the controversial aspects of the story from infecting their virginal starlet.

Ned Sparks is a wonderfully comic presence as the general manager of Bea’s company who begged for some free pancakes at her restaurant and gave her the million-dollar idea to box the flour and sell it. By contrast, Robert Alda’s presence in Lora’s life is an insult. He practically rapes her, and yet later, she’s happy to have him represent her and get his 10 percent cut. Maybe this is a comeuppance for Lora, whose crime of neglecting Susie and Steve is pure 50s sexism.

Finally, 50s notions of where a woman’s place should be, as well as the era’s blatant racism get the final word. Annie’s funeral offers a thrilling performance by Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World,” but truncates Sarah Jane’s moment with her mother’s casket. In the end, Lora shepherds Sarah Jane into the mourners’ limo, as the camera lingers lovingly on Lana Turner throwing a meaningful look at Steve and Susie that signals family life has finally won out over self-actualization.


13th 05 - 2012 | 14 comments »

Vertigo (1958)

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Roderick Heath

It’s a long fall into sonorous places, where fetish and film, love and murder, mind and body, disguise and internal truth are all thrown into an ecstatic flux, even as all seems composed with the finest artistic lucidity. It’s a film seemingly situated directly on the nexus at which cinema ultimately converges, in the taunting image with its charge of elusive sensuality, the obsessive hunt for visual perfection, a reconstructed reality filled with trapped moments of time, overwhelming and always intangible. It’s the height of screen romanticism, a swooning vision of emotion as a world-shaping, and world-warping, force, filled with aching emotional immediacy. It’s a bleak and nasty study in varieties of neurosis, misogyny, and folie-a-deux perversity. It’s a triumph of mythopoeic construction and exposition. It’s a thriller and a mystery that subverts most every familiar imperative of those forms. It’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s Hitchcock, it’s Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s style and persona had begun generating an increasing number of imitators by 1958, and he was working out his black-witted joker side more thoroughly on TV. Many artists would start to feel thinly stretched at such a time, but for Hitchcock, it seemed to liberate something within him. Vertigo followed one of his occasional shifts of gear, with the impressive but compromised realism of The Wrong Man (1957). Vertigo swung to an opposite pole of pure expression, and represented Hitchcock’s entry into one of the most dizzying runs of cinema in history: North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964) followed. Those four films, alternately playful, ruthless, apocalyptic, and homeopathic, all to a certain extent revisit, revise, and contend with the implications of Vertigo, a work essayed in a state of dream-logic. The film that is probably Hitchcock’s most acclaimed work today, if not at the time of release, was based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the bleakly witty duo who had previously provided source material for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1954), the film rights to which Hitchcock had only been beaten out for by a few hours. Whereas Clouzot had turned their patented narrative style, always cunningly morbid and usually sporting a nasty, head-spinning twist, into one his customarily icy, carefully paced studies in moral rot espoused in material terms, Vertigo embraced the mythical element of the novel’s patterning after the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, as well as transforming it into the tale of a psychological haunting. Hitchcock’s volatile, kinky, romantic streak had always been lurking in his films through the ’40s and early ’50s, where characters chain themselves to people they despise or want to possess so thoroughly that they try to exterminate them, in dances of sadomasochistic emotion.

In Vertigo, Hitchcock left himself and his creative process newly exposed: indeed, “exposed” is the word that constantly flitted through my thoughts in my most recent viewing. Hitch offered up his seminal fetish of the chic, aloof, yet tantalisingly sensual blonde as a constructed, crumbling fantasy, and deliberately hacked off familiar and reassuring resolutions for his tale, leaving only its singular, central matter at hand to be played out to the bitterest end. The feeling of exposure is acutely realised as antiheroine Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) awakens stripped nude by a man she doesn’t know in a strange place, an unclothing that precedes a process of creating an artificial version of a presumably real person, a process that rips away a veil and leaves an ugly truth all too visible. The opening, which only sports one superfluous line of dialogue, sees a criminal pursued by two policemen, one in uniform (Fred Graham), the other, Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), across the rooftops high above San Francisco, a flat plane that soon gives way to chasms over which Scottie finds himself dangling by his fingertips. The pursuit of the criminal is left off; the uniformed cop returns to help but plunges accidentally to his death, leaving Scottie still hanging, how he escaped this fate ever unclear. Instead he has his first attack of vertigo, a delirium where the bottom seems to drop out of the world, leaving Scottie transfixed by the spectacle. The film’s circular structure sees these elements repeat in the finale, and the sensation that Scottie never actually escaped, in a sort of Incident at Owl Creek Bridge variation, is neither specifically suggested nor entirely dispelled. The narrative and visualisation return obsessively to the familiar dream-state terror of falling: Scottie’s semi-crucified pose at the end recreates his dream of plummeting into hell.

Set in a San Francisco rendered as eerie and depopulated as Val Lewton’s New York, splayed out as a sharply relieved topographical map of its hero’s terribly cracked mind, Vertigo provoked audiences of the time, and still does, by shifting from an eerie mystery to a patient study in psychopathology. It reveals the destructive flipside to the romantic-idealising cocoon, essayed in the same high Technicolor terms as the contemporaneous works of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, and Vincente Minnelli; lush, aestheticized, antirealistic worlds all the better for penetrating the overtaxed 1950s psyche. Working from an uncommonly good script by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor with some help from Maxwell Anderson, Hitchcock, by giving his game away early (not that it’s hard to spot), turns the film into the very opposite of the Shyamalan-style twist, as the moment of realisation is dreaded rather than anticipated, and the trap binds both characters and audience, forcing the latter to fear what its protagonist might do when the truth comes out. As a reversal of expectation, it’s as perturbing as those in Psycho, but subtler in method and effect: just as Psycho jars with rapid alternations of protagonist and forced changes in attitude to them, so, too, does Vertigo take his hero from lost Quixote to crucified dupe to vengeful sadist.

Scottie’s early entrance into the realm of the dead leaves him crippled: physically, yes, but he recovers from that, but also mentally, his vertigo now a powerful impediment and one that demands he give up his former life. He has a pally, gregarious, but faintly uneasy relationship with former fiancé Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), first glimpsed painting ads for brassieres, crouching with pregnant boding over her work as Hitchcock dives in for an electric close-up, redolent of a later deep-focus shot of Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds, where the seemingly blasé quality of the subject is charged with painful interior intensity. The cocktail of emotions within Midge is thus encoded in one precise moment: regret over an opportunity thrown away balanced by a probing, cautious appraisal of whether this was a good or bad move, and awareness that the march of time is rendering alternatives increasingly unlikely. Scottie’s status as middle-aged flunk-out sees him facing a future without apparent purpose. He’s ripe in his phobia for the plots of former college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now smoothly ensconced in the plutocracy. Elster wants him to follow his wife Madeleine, who is supposedly haunted by an ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, destroyed by passion and misogyny a century before. Madeleine possess the allure of the unknown, of a kind of unobtainable, ethereal sensuality sheathed in an aura of detachment from the present that a man as fundamentally romantic and isolated as Scottie is cannot resist. She’s also everything that Midge, who, with her gawky glasses, her association with a tawdry, commercialised modern version of sexuality, and her curiously maternal way of holding Scottie when he nearly collapses from a bout of vertigo, is not.

Vertigo has its debts, of course: Hitchcock, a cineaste’s cineaste, was surely keeping Lewton’s films, William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jenny (1945), Luis Buñuel’s El (1953), and possibly even the film that made him want to be a moviemaker, Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), in mind. In such progenitors, the preternatural forces of psychological desperation and wilfulness warp reality, and symbols of Freudian fluency multiply. Vertigo seems to tease falsely with promises of the supernatural, from the haze of the otherworldly that hovers around Madeleine in her early cemetery visit to the green light that is the chrysalis for the reborn Madeleine in Judy’s hotel room. One of the most strange and disorienting moments comes when Scottie follows Madeleine from a back alley into an unknown building, a brief trip through a shadowy labyrinth that resolves when Scottie opens a door to catch sight of his quarry in the midst of a flower shop, a commercial space transformed into a sea of impressionistic colour outside of reality, with Madeleine a spindle of spectral grey and platinum amidst a wealth of fecundity. This pretext of the unearthly is nominally in place to pull a fast one for a plot involving very corporeal murder and conspiracy, and yet by the end, the uncanny texture has not dissipated, though the film becomes bruising in its immediacy: the motifs of haunting, possession, unseen forces, of the past’s death grip on the present, of romantic period melodramas of tragic ladies and imperious men, are all revealed, far from being remote, unreal, and storybook, as literal and dangerous.

Scottie’s attempts to play the white knight of centred male rationality to save suicidal damsel in distress Madeleine backfires, not simply in leading her to the place where death is predestined to occur, but in his incapacity to discern the way forces beyond the literal and apparent can shape people and events. The notion of individuals acting out not merely parts required for a murder plot but something far more primeval runs into seemingly obvious Freudianisms like Madeleine tracking down Scottie’s apartment thanks to the eternally phallic Coit Tower: just as Madeleine embodies a feminine archetype, so does Scottie as a man—any man, everyman. To learn the truth, Scottie has to repeat the same death-dance that Elster and Madeline, Carlotta and the “rich man” (he has no name: the rich are always with us), and, by implication, a multitude of men and women have repeated over and over, in a tötentanz. Hitchcock’s roots in German Expressionism were showing again, and there’s Wagner in the score, to boot. As the story moves in a circular fashion whilst seeming to move forward, so, too, does time and human identity: both Elster and Scottie step into the role of Carlotta’s husband in their quests, albeit for very different reasons, whilst Carlotta, the real Madeleine, Judy’s false Madeleine and Judy herself all play the maiden dancing before the bulls. When Scottie goes to meet Elster for the first time, the businessman speaks wistfully of an old San Francisco of “color, excitement…power…freedom.” These words sound like the admissions of another romantic nostalgic like Scottie, but they soon turn out to have rather different meanings, as the narrative’s spirit-guide, city folklorist and bookseller Pop Leibel (Konstantin Shayne) specifically defines the kind of power wielded by men like Elster to be the power to kick a woman aside like refuse.

This is precisely what Elster does to his own wife, the most enigmatic figure in the drama, a woman who only exists for Scottie in a purified, ritualised form, through the approximation filled out by Judy. Mirrors recur constantly throughout the film, not simply evoking the interplay of false surfaces and the act of looking, but, as Jean Cocteau also did in his version of the Orpheus myth, lending the mirrors a numinous power as portals. In one vital scene, in which Scottie spies on Madeleine in the flower shop through a slightly opened door, a mirror on the door places his face in darkness and hers surrounded by riotous blossoms, all contained in the same shot, inviting Scottie to leave behind the busy workaday world he’s just come out of and enter a rarefied realm of beauty and decay—or perhaps the opposite, as Madeleine will stumble into Scottie’s personal underworld. Later, again in a shop, as Judy begins to acquiesce to Scottie’s desire to remake her, the duo appear, locked in a twinning image as each now begins a shift in identity. As Scottie begins his pursuit of Madeleine, he is framed creeping through a graveyard, low-angle shots revealing the church steeples over his head: fate is encaging him already, as Madeleine drifts in Vaseline-infused eeriness. On top of everything else, Vertigo, now the quintessential San Francisco movie, is uniquely cunning in the way it sees Hitchcock’s usual device of using famous locales as settings for suspense here carefully rebuilding the city’s tourist-board tropes—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor—into stations of a private mythology, markers in a tale of desperate wanderings and the search for identity.

Everything becomes charged with a significance in this world, from the paintings that enclose secret meanings and reflect essential, half-sensed truths for the attentive, to Madeleine’s subsequent pause before the waters of the Golden Gate to crumble a bouquet into the bay, perhaps the film’s most famous image, possessing an intangible, atavistic power. Of course, in America there is no boatman for the River Styx, but rather a suspension bridge suddenly transmuted into a totem as weightless and fragile as the equally totemic petals that Madeleine casts into the waters, followed by herself. In a sequoia forest, as silent and reverential as any cathedral, Madeleine tries to measure her “past” life as Carlotta upon the rings of a sequoia cross-section upon which other markers of history passing are fixed—the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence—triumphs of the official version of history, inimical as that often is to subtler truths. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus called history the nightmare from which he was trying to wake up, but in Vertigo, the nightmare is ongoing, inescapable. Scottie’s nightmare, which precipitates his total collapse after Madeleine’s death, ends without a sense of awakening, but rather, as Scottie sits up, grief and fear afire in his eyes, it’s plain that the dream has invaded his life.

Just as individuals create chains of behaviour that result in recurring tragedy, contemporary California rests on a colonial background, an older world transposed onto new shores and almost—but not quite—smothered by the modern, still glimmering through the haze, much like the tell-tale sign that is the necklace which finally enlightens Scottie, and the small, preserved Mission San Juan Bautista becomes the crux of colliding past and present. Such motifs evoke not only the secret, mostly subsumed, yet still lingering hints of a past based in invasion and forcible claiming of a foreign land, something that’s not supposed to haunt America but does, and also of spiritual reckonings, as the ghostly black shape that looms out of the darkness that causes the very last ironic tragedy proves not to be a ghost or a killer, but a nun, incarnation of a judgement that falls on everyone.

Vertigo contains scenes that are near-unbearable to sit through, not because of any overt violence, but rather the sense of interpersonal pain and pathos they provoke. Hitchcock had long possessed the gift for creating such moments, and those here are as acute in their understanding of the potential for masochistic cruelty inherent in exposing one’s self in affection. Hitchock had memorably worked this same note in the wince-provoking scene in Rebecca (1940), when Joan Fontaine’s heroine, expecting to delight with her dress copied from an old painting, is instead the figure of revulsion and rage. Midge’s attempt to goad Scottie by placing herself into the painting of Carlotta, an act of Dadaist satire and emotional revenge in the guise of a joke, clearly resembles that scene from Rebecca, and works similarly like nails on a chalkboard for Scottie. Inserting Midge’s clunky glasses into the lush classicism of the painting violates and desecrates the texture of romanticism and provocative sensuality radiated by the enshrined exotic woman of beauty and calamity. Midge’s self-castigating frenzy after Scottie leaves is dismaying, not simply because it’s so easy to empathise with her sense of losing her last grip on Scottie through a naked, passive-aggressive play for his affection, but also because she had a point: Scottie’s attachment to the ethereal mystery woman will destroy both him and the woman. Whilst Rebecca is often seen as one of Hitchcock’s less personal films because he had producer David Selznick’s foot on his neck, it clearly offered up motifs of inestimable power to Hitchcock. He essays many of them again here—evocative paintings, borrowed apparel, love objects both conflated and tauntingly dissimilar, vertiginous heights, the mysticism of the coast, and the half-maniacal, half-distraught male protagonist. But whereas Rebecca’s Max de Winter fought tooth and nail to prevent his lower-class, young bride from coming to resemble the deceased former idol who still haunts him, Scottie does the opposite, attempting to effect the perfect recreation, as Orpheus becomes Pygmalion. Judy, however, gives in for the same reason that Fontaine’s heroine did, as the allure and promise of transformation seems to guarantee a love that is elusive and painful, evoking in folkloric terms Hans Anderson’s original Little Mermaid, who, giving up her natural state to join the world of men and play the mate, must live with the constant sensation of knives slicing into her feet.

Similarly difficult to sit through is Midge’s final attempt to reach Scottie in the pit of his psychological collapse, and her exit from the film. The crucial last act commences as Scottie begins the process of remaking Judy into Madeleine. The essential similarity of this movement to the process of creating a movie star, and even more specifically to Hitchcock’s own attempts to mould a string of starlets into the “Hitchcock Blonde,” gives it a special pungency, but it’s hard to enough to watch without such meta-narrative concerns, in the precise interplay of Scottie’s obsessiveness and Judy’s masochism.

Jonathan Rosenbaum once persuasively reevaluated Novak’s career to point out how conscientious she was, and through her, the filmmakers who utilised her, that her aura of glamour was false, and that she had a working-class Chicago background. She let the audience glimpse the disparity all the time. Novak told a story about her first screen test where the director said to others watching it, “Don’t listen to her, just look.” It’s hard to think of an anecdote that summarises more precisely the contempt for the actual person behind the façade of beauty fetishized by Hollywood, and the tension of this lies behind Novak’s performance here as Hitchcock explores the process. Hitchcock’s later professed dissatisfaction with Novak only solidifies how apt the casting was, for he could not end up with a new Grace Kelly, but rather an actress who makes the audience conscious of her not being Grace Kelly. Robert Aldrich later used Novak in his even more hysterically self-analytical The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), in which a film director moulds her character into a precise recreation of a long-dead movie idol. Novak’s performance here is a masterpiece of behavioural acting, most acute when Judy-as-Judy first enters the film. Novak contrasts the floating movements of Judy-as-Madeleine, so apparently blithe that she can vanish when Scottie looks away, with the tigerish way Judy backs off from Scottie when he penetrates her hotel room for the first time. Novak reveals her alertness to the distinct difference between the Brahmin Madeleine and the plebeian Judy, in her physical vulnerability and the entirely different way of moving, feeling, and sensing this entails. The fatal move Judy makes in returning to Madeleine is in surrendering this sovereign force.

When Scottie takes Judy out to dinner for the first time, returning to the restaurant where he first saw Madeleine to more deeply test the accuracy of Judy’s facsimile of his lost love, the way she gauchely drains her liquor shows she is both aware of and signals her gaucheness and communicates a subtle but lethal observation: Judy can no longer be just Judy because it entails another kind of acting, playing up the pretence of being the shopgirl from the remote wastes of the Midwest, even as Judy longs to be loved by Scottie in and for herself. Now, she will always be two people, a fact finally elucidated as she becomes Madeleine again and all her mannerisms shift. Her decision to risk being found out goes beyond simple willingness to risk her life for her love, for her character has been left as permanently fragmented as Scottie’s. The final revelation that Judy is, in a peculiar way, innocent of murder even though she is complicit, gives the finale its last ingredient for tragedy. Her final rush from Scottie’s arms to ascend the fateful church steeple was a last-minute and hopeless tilt at saving them both by saving the “real” Madeleine, who Elster has already killed before he hurls her body away.

Just as Judy is not entirely guilty, Scottie becomes increasingly less innocent in his subjecting her to the ritual of exorcism by again ascending the tower, hauling her up the stairs with a savage exultancy to his anguish. Novak as Judy lets her capacious breasts hang freely under a sweater whilst her face is overly made-up to lend her a cheap and brassy ring that is nonetheless less far more earthy-seeming; Madeleine’s passively blank façade gives way to the lynx-like tilt Judy’s face offers as she wards off Scottie. Whereas in Rebecca, Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), and later in The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock was willing to suggest, with differing amplitudes and intentions, a protean sexuality underlying the drama, here, same-sex attractions are kept out of the equation. The tale becomes rather a passion play for the way men see women and women see themselves through men, therefore ironically drawing out even more precisely the element so prized by camp aesthetics—a heightened awareness of the construction of femininity through carefully wrought signifiers.

Stewart’s career-best performance as Scottie is a thing of awful beauty, shifting his character from a neurotic, but avuncular presence in early scenes to an excruciatingly single-minded zombie in the later sequences: even when he’s oppressive and frightening, it’s still all too easy to empathise with Scottie’s sense of howling disillusionment, aggrieved rage, and still-guttering desire for a lost ideal. Like Norman Bates, a much more overtly mad and homicidal antihero, Scottie is an attempt by Hitchcock to explore more deeply a unity of opposites, hero and villain, victim and perpetrator, always constantly lurking under his variations on the “wrong man” tales. Like Norman, the battle sees Scottie reduced to a virtual catatonic, locked like a bodhisattva in a state of profound collapse, personality and perspective in total flux, and like Norman, he engages in an extended act of perverse ventriloquism for a dead woman. Unlike Norman, Scottie emerges from his crisis, but his end is scarcely any better. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in Vertigo is the brief window between Judy’s transformation back in Madeleine, and Scottie’s realisation that she was her all along and the hideous joke that’s been played on him. Scottie is at his most relaxed and good-humoured since the start of the film, and Judy is newly joyous. This idyll lasts about 30 seconds, but the pull it exerts is powerful, as it suggests that both of them have actually found the happiness they sought. Yet here Hitchcock is at his most consciously unremitting: the illusion, however gratifying, most immediately crumbles. As Judy realises where Scottie is taking her, her acute discomfort is well-founded (has anyone done a survey of the many scenes in Hitchcock’s films where people have dramatically telling trips in cars together?), and Scottie, in his moment of exorcism and revelation, becomes the animal, wolfish and savage, Judy now cowering like a rabbit until he exhausts himself and gives in to her entreaty, but fate still has its very last card to pull. Unlike his counterpart in Boileau and Narcejac’s novel, Scottie does not murder Judy to close the circle, but instead puts her in the place of the dead woman, and whilst her death is accidental, Scottie is still irredeemably tethered to Judy’s sad end and can only hover on the edge of oblivion, look upon his own works, and tremble.

Vertigo was released right at the cusp of the emergence of the French New Wave directors who would both make his influence on them a matter of international argument and interest, whilst eating away at the fundamental principles he represented in their films. Yet with Vertigo, Hitchcock created something like a new lexicon for filmmakers who would follow him. The delicate dissolves and camera dollies that tether together the stages of Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine whilst heightening the somnolent mood; the famous zoom-in, pull-back effect that literalises the effect of vertigo; the swirling 360° camera move, complete with an apparent change in setting from Judy’s flat to the stable at San Juan Bautista, as Scottie embraces the reconfigured Madeleine, a flourish that captures the soaring rapture and reality-shattering intensity in finally embracing a lover. All these tricks and more reconfigure the quality in scenes that would usually be expressed through dialogue and performance into the purely expressive imagery, working on both physical and intellectual levels. Thus, Hitchcock finally did something he had tried to achieve throughout his career: he dovetailed narrative interest and the cinematic device into a perfect union. Hitch, for all his brilliance, had often failed to employ such effects within a cohesive whole, one reason why more suspicious and literary-minded viewers had always regarded him as a gimmick-monger. Vertigo, however, is a continent entirely sufficient to itself. Whilst he hit possibly even more powerful heights in Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie, where he wrestles profoundly with the schism between his annihilating and redemptive urges, a schism dispatched with pitch-black sarcasm here, those films are all admittedly patchier and less perfect.

Hitchcock had invaluable aid from the technical team that was working like a crack military outfit at this time, especially costumer Edith Head and cinematographer Robert Burks, whose pictures at once absorb the physical reality of his settings and yet transform them into imagistic haiku. Of course, composer Bernard Herrmann also hit the pinnacle of his cinema career here, and his score is the aspect of the film that has arguably sunk most deeply into the pop-cultural landscape. Whilst writing this review, I was listening to a British TV mystery show where a recurring musical motif was baldly copied from it. And why not, when he created a perfect tone for sustaining a sense of spiraling mystery and all-pervading, oneiric fantasy? The recent hoo-hah about the use of a passage from the score in The Artist (2011) simply highlighted its invasive, iconic power.

One last, personal thought: something I’ve found about Vertigo is what a different movie it becomes when revisited at distinct stages of life. For myself, the movie-happy teenager who first saw it after being converted irrevocably into a Hitchcock fan and proper cinephile by a viewing of North by Northwest, I found it a decent, creepy mystery ruined by a plunge into weird melodrama. For the thirty-something haunted by constant sensations of both furtive disconsolation and exultant possibility, it’s a staggering and grueling study in life’s regrets: just about everyone has been Scottie, Judy, Midge, and/or even Madeleine at some time. What will it seem at 40, 50, 60? It’s still a film for anyone who genuinely loves cinema; it’s also a film for anyone who’s been wrung by life, both in their own expectations of it and the shifting perceptions of time.


6th 04 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Gate of Hell (Jigokumon, 1953)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Teinosuke Kinugasa

By Roderick Heath

The postwar rebirth of Japanese cinema and its eruption on the world stage reached its apex in the years 1953-54. Almost every great Japanese director of the age released a film within an 18-month period, and examples of the national cinema burst upon the international scene to general acclaim. Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse made multiple works, including Mizoguchi’s eclipsing classics Ugetsu Monogatari and Sanshô the Bailiff, and Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums; Yasujiro Ozu released his most famous film, Tokyo Story; Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Nobuo Nakagawa likewise had movies in theatres; and Hiroko Inagaki made the first of his three-part Samurai series, which would win what was then a special Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1955. What would eventually prove the two most famous Japanese movies ever produced, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, came out in their homeland, headed for slow but permanent infiltration of Western culture. Of all the films amongst this cavalcade, it was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell which captured both the 1954 Cannes Grand Prix, which was the festival’s top award at the time, and multiple Oscars the following year. Gate of Hell was Daiei Studio’s first colour production, utilising imported Eastmancolor technology, and adapted from a play written by Daiei’s erstwhile chief, Kan Kikuchi.

Kinugasa, by comparison with the other Japanese greats of the time, is now largely obscure, partly because little of his work was released overseas, and is also poorly represented on DVD. But Kinugasa’s life and career were multifarious, somewhat analogous to someone like King Vidor as a restless and innovative director whose oeuvre spans great shifts in cinematic modes and tastes and who settled into an uneasy relationship with studio cinema. Kinugasa began as an actor who had specialised in onnagata (female roles) in kabuki theatre before moving into film. In spite of his stage background, when he broke out as an independent filmmaker, he rode at the vanguard of emboldened, semi-experimental directors who severed Japanese cinema’s hitherto close relationship with the stage, in a flowering of revolutionary technique roughly equivalent to movements occurring then in Germany and Russia. Key to his early importance was his virtually self-financed, much-hailed, only partly extant drama A Page of Madness (1926), cowritten by the future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata. Kinugasa then went overseas, managed to get one of his films distributed and praised in Germany, and studied for a time under Sergei Eisenstein. When he finally returned to Japan, he settled down as a studio hand. Kinugasa wasn’t particularly proud of Gate of Hell, disliking the studio interference he had to contend with, and was bewildered when it became such a sensation overseas.

Gate of Hell’s impact abroad was based chiefly in its use of colour, resplendent in the eye-gorging cinematography by Kôhei Sugiyama and set and costume design by Kisaku Ito and Sanzo Wada, to wilfully transform the cinematic space into a sprawl of segmented tones that often resemble the hues of classical Japanese ukiyo-e art. Depending on the emphasis of the scene, the effect was to imbue the drama with both naturalism and a saturated, psychologised air of abstraction. Whereas most serious Western filmmakers in the mid ’50s were still often embarrassed by the decorative quality of the era’s colour as a less-serious form of expression that that found in the black-and-white sparseness of television, Kinugasa’s work embraced the idea of high artificiality as an artistic device. Otherwise, Kinugasa’s film would almost invite an audience challenge to prove just how it was so much better than Seven Samurai and Sanshô the Bailiff. Well, it has neither the overflowing narrative richness nor psychological depth of either of those films, but then again, few things do. Kinugasa’s film is still a formidable drama that is something close to a noir film wrapped in the guise of historical exoticism, and Kinugasa’s formal control of the film is superlative.

Like Luchino Visconti’s near-concurrent Senso, Gate of Hell reverses the common structure of historical dramas by starting off with large-scale events and epochal ructions before spiraling inward toward a personal crisis that mirrors and subverts the presumptions of the larger battle. Set in the late 1100s, during the Heian period that was the dusk of Classical Japan, Gate of Hell’s main protagonist is Moritoh Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa), a mid-ranking provincial-born samurai attached to the imperial Taira clan. He finds his moment to show his worth during the Heiji Rebellion, an attempted coup d’etat against the ruling emperor that occurs when his chief supporter, Tairo Kiyamori (Koreya Senda), leaves the capital city of Kyoto to visit a monastery, giving rivals an opportunity to attack his stronghold and take over the government.

The imperial loyalists at the film’s outset frantically try to arrange to smuggle the emperor’s sister out of the Sanjo Palace, and Moritoh is called upon to stage a diversion where he and a band of retainers will defend a carriage carrying a decoy in the princess’ place. One of her handmaidens, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô), volunteers to be the decoy, and Moritoh and his men have to fight their way through a pursuing force. Moritoh finally arrives alone with Kesa at his family villa in the country, only to encounter his brother Moritada (Kunitaro Sawamura), who announces that he’s siding with the rebels. Moritoh is outraged and refuses to join his brother, and as Moritada restrains his own men from killing Moritoh, Kesa runs away. Moritoh manages to reach the temple and report to the emperor and his men. He also kills one of the emperor’s retinue who tries to sneak away and warn the conspirators that the emperor is about to strike back. A battle follows that sees the emperor’s loyalists victorious and Moritoh distinguish himself again, but his brother is killed.

Moritoh visits a shrine for the dead set up just next to the Sanjo palace’s jigokumon, or, literally, hell gate. Moritoh encounters Kesa and her aunt Sawa (Kikue Môri) there, also intending to pray for the fallen, and Moritoh’s interest in the comely courtier hardens into ardour. When the time comes for the emperor to reward his followers for their aid, Moritoh asks to be given Kesa’s hand in marriage, and only then learns that Kesa is married to one of Kiyamori’s ministers, Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata). Moritoh refuses to retract his request, asking the emperor to annul the marriage and thus entering into a public and conscious rivalry with Wataru.

Unlike Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), the film which largely opened the curtain on awareness of Japanese cinema in the outside world and which is set in the same period, Gate of Hell has a rigorously straightforward narrative, if a tad difficult to grasp towards the start as the film engages history presumably more familiar to Japanese than Western viewers, and a deceptive simplicity that nearly disguises the skill with which the tale has been pared down to its essentials. It could easily have been a mere sprawl of candy-coloured prestige pageantry, but it is instead a tightly wound and skilfully paced study in obsession, albeit one that proceeds with the clear delineations and iconic rigours of classical literature. The film barely runs an hour and a half, but fits in a whirlwind of events that flows with the same descriptive precision as the historical scroll painting that is unfurled at the film’s very outset. In his use of such motifs and his colour effects, Kinugasa anticipates and probably influenced aspects of Kobayashi’s dark plunge into the national mythology with Kaidan (1964): Gate of Hell is conscious of itself as not merely a film set in the past, but of the artistic prisms through which we conceive the past, lending depth to his stylisation. Kinugasa also downplays the sprawl of historical events and personages after the opening, and concentrates instead on his antiheroic protagonist, who for the film’s first half at least seems the definition of a loyal cavalier.

The rush of action in the first 10 minutes is worthy of Eisenstein or Michael Curtiz in its precise design and flow. Kinugasa’s camera is either at eye level or dizzyingly high above the action, in shots filled with actors and extras arranged in streams of colour, the panicking populace and chasing armies churning like multicoloured flotsam under boughs of hallucinogenic green leaves, more like an explosion in an orchard than a battle. This leads to the hard, vigorous edits of the decoy carriage and its guards fleeing, Kesa within the carriage fainting from the heat and bustling motion as the pursuers catch up with the retinue, who turn to engage in a few seconds worth of brutal combat. Moritoh cuts his way through a swathe of enemies with devastating panache, and repeatedly demonstrates his utter loyalty to his chosen master, even going so far as to riposte to his brother’s entreaties of pragmatism with the assertion that once a man’s given his loyalty, that’s the end of the matter. Moritoh’s race to reach the emperor’s friends at an island temple is another dazzling little sequence, as he chases a team of enemy assassins, shooting arrows at their backs, one plunging from his mount and lolling on the beach dying, his furled fingers leaking sand in symbolic place of his blood and life; but a few minutes later, Kinugasa offers a jarring moment of gore as in Moritou’s duel with the traitor, he lands a katana blow to the enemy’s face, bright gleaming blood seeping between his fingers before Moritou lands the coup de grace.

Moritou is offered literally anything he wants for his service, except, as the ruler jokes, “my head on a plate!”, but immediately finds this is a dishonest offer, if hardly without a good reason. Moritou’s obsession apparently transcends any materialist interests, but erotic fixation blends with awareness of Moritou’s subordinate role as a lesser samurai and a provincial outsider in the aristocratic, urbane ranks his new fame lifts him to, in a society that rewards the values he espouses but only in selective degrees. Moritoh’s singular determination to possess the lustrous Kesa warps him steadily into a lethal bete noir for the courtly, noble, but finally deferential Wataru, and the loyal, genuinely conscientious Kesa. The emperor even indulges Moritoh’s obsession so far as to invite Kesa to the palace to play the koto for him, and arranges for Moritoh to corner her and try to wring out an admission of mutual admiration for him, which he’s sure she feels.

Michiko Kyô soon became the closest thing Japanese cinema had to an international star after Toshiro Mifune, appearing in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) opposite Marlon Brando. She presented a specifically old-fashioned, specifically Japanese ideal of feminine beauty, with a sensual edge, emphasised here in her lips daubed a delirious red, which glisten throughout and lend a distinct quality of sexual intensity to Kesa. She is otherwise defined strictly by her rectitude and decency, which readily explains why Moritoh is so ardent in his quest to possess her. The film’s narrative revolves around the explicit likeness between the attempt by the emperor’s enemies to impinge upon his domain and Moritoh’s attempt to impinge upon Wataru, both eroticised acts of violent grasping and overthrow, and a distinctly Buddhist motif of desires that sooner or later dominate reason and torture men into irrational acts. In her suffering purity, Kyô’s Kesa is a practically archetypal distillation of feminine qualities, stoically attempting to hold her life together under the incessant battery of masculine force with the stoic determination of Mizoguchi’s women , but unlike, say, the ethereal remnant of such victimization found in Ugetsu’s Lady Wakasa, Kesa is provocatively corporeal.

The story’s underpinnings as a tale of sexual jealousy and fidelity amidst of a warrior culture evoke plentiful examples in the western canon, like Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece. Kinugasa’s background as an onnagata, a profession which leading man Hasegawa had also once essayed, supports a hint of an actor’s delight in Kesa’s role as tragic pivot for outsized passions and moral quandaries. As I’ve said, there’s also a hint of the noir film to Gate of Hell, as it zeroes in on a situation that’s a heady mix of desire and power, one that can only resolve in crime. In a mode with links to the same traditions Mizoguchi’s films also invoked regularly, and close to the Hollywood style of women’s pictures, Gate of Hell conflates the usually disparate figures of the femme fatale, whose sexually pulchritudinous existence taunts a man to the limits of sanity, and the self-sacrificing female apostle. The specific cleverness of the tale is in the way Moritoh starts out as a hero and finishes up as a murderer, viewers following him towards his calamity with perfect logic and forced to ponder its loyalties constantly. Like Moritoh, the audience has no idea Kesa is married until it’s revealed to him before the emperor, and Moritoh’s humiliation before the watching audience is palpable precisely when his triumph should be complete. But where a cheaper narrative might have made Kesa’s spouse unlikeable or cold, Wataru soon proves to be a patrician who is decent, good-natured, and deeply in love with his wife. He presents only a solicitous concern when he hears about the story that’s amusing the court involving his wife, and proves ready—perhaps, finally, too ready—to roll with Moritoh’s antagonism.

When Moritou enters a horse race held on an annual religious festival that Wataru is recognized for consistently winning, the challenge of the now-notorious suitors becomes a must-see event. When Moritou wins, Wataru graciously applauds the victory, but Wataru’s friends and others of the aristocratic party are boisterous at the banquet afterwards and suggest that Wataru let Moritou win, a bone thrown to a dog to keep him quiet. Moritou, hearing this, angrily challenges Wataru to a duel, but a courtier forestalls this, forbidding a fight at a holy event. The film’s title has a certain portentous quality, one fulfilled right in the last shot, but it’s interesting to note that like Rashomon, the titular gate is a real location in Kyoto, which becomes a fulcrum for a social, historical, and spiritual understanding of the action. Early in the film, the severed head of Shenzei, a Confucian monk and minister for the emperor, is hung from the gate, and the common folk flocking about it state that he deserved his fate for his past acts of repression. Kinugasa zooms in to the faded murals on the gate depicting the tortures of hell, amazingly similar in spite of the vast separations of culture and distance to Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions. Monks often sit apparently oblivious to the worldly goings on that swirl near this landmark. The notion of hell on earth takes on macro- and microcosmic, sociopolitical, and emotional overtones in the course of the narrative, with the gate arching over all.

Moritou literally and figuratively passes through the gate of hell several times, including when he approaches the shrine to the rebellion’s dead with his brother’s name on it, murmuring, “The poor bastard!” whilst steadily marching toward the fate he becomes agent of, entrapping Kesa through a ruse and promising, in his fearsome state, to kill her and her relatives if she will not help him to eliminate Wataru and become his wife. Moritou’s transformation of himself into a kind of demon in his pursuit of his desired one is matched by Kesa’s act of martyrdom, built up to in a spellbinding sequence reminiscent of the best Val Lewton films, in which Moritou sneaks up on the Wataru house through moonlit fields whilst Kesa, inside, cajoles her husband into swapping rooms. When Moritou strikes at his quarry in bed, he finds that he’s skewered Kesa, which, with bleak irony, breaks the spell of obsession on Moritou. Shocked and aggrieved, he awakens Wataru and demands that Wataru kill him as punishment and atonement for his crime.

But the stunned and horrified Wataru rather thinks about the implicit message of Kesa’s decision to offer herself in such a fashion, for he feels it reveals she did not trust him to protect her from the danger, and in fact, took it upon herself to protect him. Thus, both men are framed together in the house’s courtyard, Wataru standing over the kneeling Moritou who begs for death, in a shot that somehow castrates both of them, even before Moritou cuts off his samurai’s topknot and pledges to live the rest of his life in shame, probably as a monk. For both of them, not simply the woman they loved, but also the ideals and structures that guided them are dead. Kinugasa provides an interesting ending, partly for its explicit rejection of violence as an answer to violence, the acidic commentary on a culture where the capacity to wield lethal force is heralded but will inevitable cut into the very heart of its presumed sanctuaries, and the idea suggested by the final shot, of Moritou emerging out of the mist and heading through the hell gate, that his new life may give him something of the same selflessness and redemption Kesa was able to find.


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.


21st 01 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955)

Director: Mikio Naruse

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is a fine line between love and obsession, and perhaps cultural norms are the deciding factor. Here in the West, ex-lovers who can’t let go have been given a fairly new label—stalkers. Back when Floating Clouds was new, steadfastness in love wasn’t seen as something so sinister in either the West or the East; in fact, unrequited love was the basis for many satisfying love stories, including such classics as Jezebel, Gone with the Wind, and the ultra-romantic Wuthering Heights. Mikio Naruse, a man who lived a desperately unhappy life and whose protracted estrangement from his actress wife Sachiko Chiba during the 1940s led to divorce, offers a mainly unsentimental, even jaundiced look at love. Yet, no love affair starts unhappily; Naruse’s wistful look at the beginning of the affair is the flower struggling for light in a crowded field of weeds.

A flashback to the first meeting of Yukiko Koda (Hideko Takamine, Naruse’s regular leading lady) and Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) in a rural area of Japanese-occupied Indochina during World War II follows shortly after Yukiko has shown up at Tomioka’s Tokyo house, which he shares with his aging, sickly wife Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita). Yukiko knew he was married from the first, but she believes he will welcome her return to Japan and fulfill his promise to divorce Kuniko and marry her. Tomioka agrees to walk with her, one of many walks the couple will take during the film, but he says that their passion died when they left Dalat. Tomioka’s behavior during the film—sending Kuniko away so he can sell their house out from under her and start one of several doomed business ventures, enticing the young wife (Mariko Okada) of a gracious host (Nobuo Kaneko) away from him, using and rejecting Yukiko—marks him as an opportunistic cad who does not, maybe cannot, return Yukiko’s affection.

In a defeated and battered Japan, however, Yukiko has nothing to cling to but her bliss with Tomioka, born in the heightened reality of wartime and displacement. Keeping alive memories and feelings in the face of bitter disappointment, subsistence living, and distasteful alliances, Yukiko is emblematic of a country trying to survive and go on after a devastating war that unleashed the full fury of the atomic bomb on a civilian population. This film came out in 1955, the same year that Akira Kurosawa’s disturbing meditation on the bomb, I Live in Fear, debuted, and it seems no coincidence that both films traffick in irrational emotion and denial, though Naruse’s is based in romanticism.

Unlike Kurosawa’s deeply depressing film, Floating Clouds could be considered almost trite in its focus on claustrophobic emotional entanglement. Indeed, Yukiko’s hectoring bitterness toward Tomioka gets exasperatingly repetitive. Yet, the squalor of the characters’ history and circumstances tends to elevate the tale in a peculiarly compelling way. Yukiko briefly prostitutes herself to an American G.I., yet seems to be doing so more to make Tomioka jealous than to survive—that she succeeds confirms that there may be more under his callous surface than meets the eye. She continues to punish his faithlessness by going into the employ of the brother-in-law (Isao Yamagata) who raped her, a fact known to Tomioka. She stands in constant reproach to his every failure, a hurt but loving presence he tries fruitlessly to deny.

Takamine is a luminous presence in a vérité film with few visual graces. She is as beautiful in her moments of anger and despair as she is in the full bloom of her affair with Tomioka. Yet Naruse manages to find the age in her face, making Tomioka’s defection to a younger woman—as Yukiko once was in comparison with Kuniko—all the more banal and expected. Her nagging, her jealousy, her assertions that she knows Tomioka better than he knows himself strike an ordinary note for her character and their affair, and it is hard to believe that she really does love him or that he could have loved her so much. The Japanese reticence toward displays of affection make this passionate romance one of suggestion that may be too subtle for our sex-drenched Western appetites. However, a scene in which Tomioka goes to the public baths with the young wife with the full knowledge of her husband and Yukiko is startling in its own right to Western sensibilities.

One of the striking motifs of Floating Clouds is movement. Naruse trains his camera on Yukiko and Tomioka taking walks everywhere they are. Yukiko favors platform shoes, and her dainty, unsteady steps over some of the uneven surfaces she treads with Tomioka heighten her vulnerability. The restlessness of these scenes keeps the relationship provisional, homeless, but Tomioka almost never tries to outpace Yukiko. Perhaps he knows that to do so would be futile—everywhere he has gone, she has found him.

Finally, when all impediments to their union are gone, Tomioka more or less surrenders to her. It is not just that Yukiko has waited out all of his wrong turns and romantic distractions; Tomioka himself has found a purpose again by landing a job as a forest ranger on a distant island, mimicking the work and remoteness of his time in Dalat. Yukiko, saying she cannot live without him, seems a natural companion for Tomioka as he prepares again to exile himself from mainstream Japan. Finally, his remembrance of their love breaks through just as it finally seems to have a chance to take root and grow. But life is too cruel to offer true happiness to counteract all the misery each of them has suffered, and so we are left to reflect on whether a life of romantic illusion is one worth living at all. The answer to that question may depend on how one views the alternative.


13th 01 - 2012 | 3 comments »

Gone to Earth (1950)

Directors/Screenwriters: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

By Roderick Heath

Almost all of the famous films made by “The Archers” team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger came in a blinding whirl of creativity in the 1940s, including The Thief of Baghdad (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1945), Black Narcissus (1946), and The Red Shoes (1948). By contrast, although the creative partnership continued until 1958 (and resumed again in 1966 for Powell’s Australian adventure They’re A Weird Mob), their output in the 1950s has little of the same reputation or visibility. Perhaps that was because of a shift in audience tastes and the narrowing of expressive options which characterised the period, and also perhaps because Powell and Pressburger’s partnership, which seemed in the earlier decade informed by an almost messianic passion for sustaining the spirit of individualism and creative zest in the face of the glummest of epochs, began to turn inward and distinctly darker. Some of their works, like the impressive but lumpy Tales of Hoffmann (1953), seem a drift toward the total stylisation and historical fantasy that parts of The Red Shoes presaged. The duo tried, wielding their characteristic eccentricity and playful discursiveness, in The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1958), to cater to the appetite for retrograde wartime heroism. Gone to Earth, on the other hand, channels the darker fairytale notes of The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann and anticipates elements of the psychosexual neurosis of Michael Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960). Also apparent is Powell’s fascination with obscure regional settings and their peculiarities, a recurring quirk in his work since as far back as The Phantom Light (1935) and The Edge of the World (1937).

Gone to Earth’s status as a secret treasure was enforced by the film’s poor box office, and then by its being released in the U.S. in a badly mutilated form, thanks to coproducer David Selznick. Gone to Earth has striking similarities with another film by a great British director losing his previously steady grip on moviegoers, David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970), in depicting a wilful heroine caught up in an adulterous passion. The differences are as marked as you’d expect between The Archers and Lean, of course: Lean’s expansive pantheism and elemental expressionism is altogether distinct to Powell and Pressburger’s more overtly psycho-spiritual use of landscape. The rural Welsh borderlands of the later Victorian era that Powell creates is an ironic realm full of examples of human frailty and the limitations of reality. Yet it’s also a mystical world where the Green Man seems to lurk in the woodland shadows, fairies may hide in the leaves, and the mountains are primal temples reserved for mystic rites, whilst the valleys are the preserve of domesticated Christianity and stalked by the masculine Hunter who chases little foxes down. Jennifer Jones plays Hazel Woodus, a half-gypsy girl who lives with her father Abel (Esmond Knight, the Archers’ do-anything character actor) in a thatch-roofed yeoman house in a secluded corner of Shropshire. Hazel has a pet fox, Foxy, which she protects from the local hunters and keeps close to her so obsessively that it starts to resemble one of the animal daemons from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and with a similar meaning. In the film’s peculiar, sparse, menacing opening, Hazel plucks Foxy out of the grass as the hunters’ horns echo about the hills, and she runs back home where she sits before the fire with her faintly unhinged father tuning the harp from which he makes part of his living, with Hazel as his singer. A sign on the front gate lists his roster of services as “Beeman, Harping For Every Occasion, Wreaths, Coffins.”

Hazel, with her old dress falling apart, travels into the nearby town of Much Wenlock and buys a new, fancy replacement. She tantalises her already smitten cousin Albert (George Cole), but also invites the sniffy disdain of her Aunt Prowde (Beatrice Varley). Angered, Hazel storms out of their house after Albert had invited her to stay, and, walking home in the dark, she is first frightened on the road and almost run over by the carriage of Jack Reddin (David Farrar), a local squire and one of the local hunters. Reddin takes her back to his house, a practically medieval abode studded with the trophies of thousands of hunts and as much a relic of another, different England as her own house, with a general isolation and dilapidation that is eloquent of exhausted treasuries and fetid devolution. Nonetheless Hazel and Reddin’s status as people who seem slightly out of time and place in the placid, smug atmosphere of Victorian rural England blends nimbly with their identity as icons of Freudian gender warfare, the masculine hunter and the little fox. Reddin aggressively tries to seduce Hazel, but she flees, aided by Reddin’s old, sarcastic, ineffectually moral caretaker Andrew Vessons (Hugh Griffith), who gives her a quiet place to sleep for the night and takes her back to her father in the morning. Reddin remains fixated on her and gallops all around the countryside in an attempt to track her down. When Hazel and her father perform at a church gathering, she is introduced to the local pastor, Rev. Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), who, in his own seemingly serene, impassive fashion, is immediately besotted with her.

Mary Webb’s source novel, which was neglected on first release just after World War I but then became hugely popular in the late ’20s, reputedly inspired Stella Gibbons’ famous “something nasty in the woodshed” satire Cold Comfort Farm. Nonetheless, the story has obvious thematic parallels with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (which the Archers could have made a hell of a movie out of) and lying within the same effervescent strand of high Anglican romanticism. Unsurprisingly, Powell and Pressburger transform it into the sort of film only they seemed to be able to make, blending an almost neorealist sense of precision toward locale and behaviour—the supporting cast was made up of many Shropshire locals, and even Jones gives herself up to the peculiar syntax and slang of the region—with dashes of wilful fantasy, a heady psychosomatic fairy tale with a solid, grounded heart. It makes a corner of rural England as exotic as the Hindu Kush of Black Narcissus, a constant and recurring theme in the Archers’ work, in the way backwaters become distorted mirrors to the values of mainstream cultures. The film’s driving motif of two men pursuing a woman clearly echoes the gentle iteration in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the fiercer variation in The Red Shoes, whilst the sustained note of sexuality bubbling beneath prim surfaces and drawn out by an aggressive male evokes Black Narcissus, but with a more emphatic sense of feminine desire. Hazel, unlike the mad Sister Ruth of that film, is swayed by desire but not destroyed by it, but rather by the hysterical response to that desire.

One of the most fascinating, tantalising, and often disquieting traits of the Powell and Pressburger oeuvre is their fascination with jarringly divergent impulses and systems of thought that grip characters and, by implication, sometimes whole cultures. Rather than try to resolve those tensions like more familiar kinds of drama do, the duo practically revelled in the breakdown of order, the surrender to wild impulse and glorious insanity. Gone to Earth is one of the more particularly infernal examples of this strand, as Hazel is caught between the varieties of masculinity, the milky Marston and the grasping Reddin. Yet within each man is more than a few shades of contradiction: when provoked, Marston reveals a surprisingly tough and sensually forceful man, whereas Reddin quickly collapses when faced with real resistance. Hazel’s bizarre father, in a fit of amused pique, goads her into promising to marry the first man who should ask her, and the first man proves to be Marston. Marston, gently courting Hazel in his peculiar yet equally unshakeable fashion, vows to God, whom he sees in the pastoral landscape about him as surely as Hazel sees spirits and elves, not to approach her sexually until she asks him to. This proves a major blunder, for the intuitive Hazel feels rather spurned and is unable to shake off the terrible, hypnotic force of Reddin and the constant thrumming of his horse on the roads, hunting her down inexorably. As usual, too, for the Archers, they skip with surprising skill around the limitations of censorship to get their point across.

The most immediate stumbling block of entering into Gone to Earth’s world is Jones’ constantly slipping accent, and yet soon enough one becomes infinitely more concerned with what she’s doing; her vulpine quality, let off the leash in Duel in the Sun (1947), is here exploited to the utmost in a marvellously intuitive performance. Whereas Farrar is fine in a less cagey, more entitled variation on his Black Narcissus role, Cusack is fascinatingly cast as Marston (perhaps the only time in his career he played a romantic lead), his visage and apparel calling to mind Robert Helpmann as the lover turned priest in the core ballet sequence of The Red Shoes. Indeed, the film as a whole has a quality of being an explication of that vignette. And yet the tone and method of Gone to Earth is far from the ebullient, supercharged artistry of the ’40s Archers films, being far more dominated by mysterious, intense quiet filled with unspoken tension and awareness, punctuated by strobing passages of extraordinary, yet restrained artistry: Hazel’s flight through the woods with eyes peering out from trees, or the moments when the sound of Reddin’s horse moving through the roads becomes a kind of demonic reminder of fate, and the sequence in which Hazel ascends to the top of a nearby mount to perform a piece of witchery and await the decision of the fairies about which of her men she will find her fate with, silhouetted against the twilight sky with a blanket that provides a map of colour in an otherwise grey and unearthly space. As ever, the Archers’ sense of colour is like visual music (though Christopher Challis had taken over as the team’s cinematographer from Jack Cardiff), down to the inevitable emotive reds flooding the screen at intervals throughout, when Reddin is on the hunt, and in the climactic confrontation between the central trio.

The deeply concerted rhythm and quietly composing elements that give Gone to Earth its hypnotic intensity is visible in one of the mostly unobtrusively brilliant scenes, that of the church picnic, where congregants listen to her singing, rhythmically switching between the momentarily uplifted faces of the parishioners with Hazel framed against the sky, an angel doomed to fall. The collective then settle down to mundane activities, from Marston’s haughty, secretly jealous mother (Sybil Thorndyke) cautioning him against girls not of his class, to the fatuous senior deacon Mr. James (Edward Chapman), having been kept from hoarding all of the pastries, mumbling irritably during Marston’s saying Grace, “I have not received tartlets…I am not thankful!” This fillip of amusing blasphemy and several other small gestures in the scene pay off in later, more volcanic moments. Powell and Pressburger stretch their symbolic acuity here to new limits, especially in their handling of Foxy as the emblem of Hazel’s sexuality, encapsulating the sex-is-death motif in a mordant scene where Hazel helps her father carry one of his coffins from their house, placing Foxy within the casket for the trip, a motif prefigured when Hazel first enters her own home in the film, plunging through the door to be visually entrapped by the frame for a coffin her father is making. Later, when she marries Marston, she keeps Foxy on a leash at her side through the ceremony, a decision others object to but that Marston acquiesces to with a well-aimed Biblical quote. Freudian analysts could have a field day with this film, particularly the vaginal chasm of a mine shaft that Hazel nearly stumbles into on her way to that fateful church picnic, and, gazing down into unknowable depths, becomes aware that one day she will die.

The world that the different characters and the forces they represent and channel is the same zone of oft-idyllic pastoral beauties—the low, sharply rolling hills, the woods in the hollows, and the fresh grassy peaks—yet is filled with multitudinous perspectives on the same thing. Even the mountain that dominates the locale is called “God’s Mountain” and yet is crowned by the “Devil’s Chair.” Hazel and Reddin trail associations of a faded English landscape of entitled lords and saucy wenches, the sort that made for jolly good yarns in then-recent British films like The Wicked Lady (1945) and Blanche Fury (1947). When Reddin first takes Hazel back to his house, he tries to get her changed out of muddied clothes and into one of the low-cut Regency dresses jammed in a trunk. He then literally chases her around and then over the kitchen table, finally actually catching her atop it and kissing her. Each is subsequently unable or unwilling to break out of an almost primal, Lawrentian game where the conscious self is entirely in thrall to basic drives and timeless patterns of behaviour. The virginal Vessons channels his feelings into carefully clipping a tree into the shape of a swan and furiously shooting birds when he’s mad at his master. Marston seems a pillar of Victorian bourgeois establishmentarianism, and his sternly critical mother has hooks of emotional vampirism in her son. Soon, however, he reveals himself to be a deeply contradictory figure who plainly hungers for what Hazel offers—contact with the flipside of his own, spiritual sense of the landscape. The first time Reddin and Marston meet, it comes literally at a crossroads, and Marston deflects Reddin for a time from his relentless search for Hazel.

Class tension, of course percolates, along with psychosexual strain and gender schisms, in this clash of realms, but again Hazel and Reddin represent extremes that somehow lie distinct and therefore unified apart from the Victorian town. As the drama unfolds, Marston amusingly reveals the degree to which he actually hates his environment. Marston seems in fact closer kin to Sister Ruth, dedicating himself selflessly and purely to his wife but slowly driven to lose his upright composure when confronted with her eventual infidelity. whilst castigating himself for spurning Hazel, he also seems to take permission from her infidelity to unleash both his own sensuality and his contempt for his world, tossing a dish of jam at the wall when his mother tries to talk him out of his depression, and not spurning Hazel but rather confronting, if only momentarily, the tacit permission he feels to treat her as a purely sexual object: “Never mind,” he snarls, “I’m not particular!” His peculiar equanimity of outlook is signalled throughout with his indulgence of Foxy at the wedding and his unruffled fascination with Hazel’s maternal inheritance, a notebook filled with obscure spells that encapsulate potent metaphors of feminine and outsider lore, especially the warning about keeping clear of the “black hunter” unless you want to “drop down dead.” Such lore is filled with meaning for a sensible mind, but Hazel’s is not a sensible mind; she takes things literally and ascends in the night to perform her atavistic rites on the Devil’s Chair. She hears the revelatory music that signals she should go to Reddin, but in a blackly witty cutaway, it’s revealed this music is actually her father playing his harp in the moonlit solitude of the woods.

The film’s slow burn pays off in the climactic moments, when Marston goes to reclaim Hazel from Reddin, who has snatched Foxy from his cage at Marston’s house, and drops him writhing in a sack at Hazel’s feet, viciously smug with his triumph, as Hazel wrestles with him and Marston tries to untie the bag. The married couple return home, only for Marston to have to reject his mother in order to keep Hazel: his mother moves out, as does the housekeeper, segueing into the telling sight of Hazel the next morning trying to arrange the breakfast into a paragon of bourgeois decorum. But the deacons barge in to confront Marston, demanding he put Hazel out, and James claims to speaking for the Lord. Hazel berates them for persecuting him, and Marston retorts by stating he’s leaving the ministry and delivers a memorable harangue: “How do you know it was Hazel’s fault?…It was mine…I’d like to flog you off the Mountain, James…But you rule this world, little smug pot-bellied gods!” Marston deflects the challenge for a moment and the couple have a moment of triumph. But then Hazel goes looking for Foxy, and finds him on the mountain just as Reddin and the others hunters have gotten his scent. Hazel tries to flee back to Marston with Foxy in her arms, chased down by the hounds and by Reddin trying desperately to snatch the animal from her arms to lead the animals away. This genuinely hair-raising ending caps a film that isn’t just an underrated work by some major filmmakers, but a true capstone for one of the most amazing runs of cinematic brilliance in the medium’s history.


25th 08 - 2011 | 8 comments »

Take Me to Town (1953)

Director: Douglas Sirk

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I had a Top 10 best time at the movies last night as the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society treated film buffs to another rare morsel—Douglas Sirk’s Old West confection Take Me to Town—something this classic film program has done for 40 years. When it lost its home after the last of a series of bank owners sold the Portage Park bank building where the cinema was housed, young film buffs Julian Antos and Becca Hall struck a deal with the nearby Portage Theater to join their revival programming. When the NCFS had to move from its previous Saturday-night slot to Wednesday night, many of us were worried that audience numbers would dwindle and that the program would gasp its last. Happily, audiences have been enthusiastic, and NFCS will be back in September for another season.

Antos and Hall seem to be stuck on Sirk, inaugurating their new home with Written on the Wind and securing the very rare The First Legion at the previous venue. Hall explained that the 35mm archival print of Take Me to Town they secured from Universal is rarely screened because it was made with a transitional soundtrack that most projectors are not equipped to read. However, a simple change of a red LED bulb to a white bulb made the sound, if not perfect, quite acceptable, and the Technicolor print was visually vibrant. By showing Take Me to Town, Antos and Hall have championed yet another film in the Sirk canon that deserves to be better known.

Take Me to Town is a Western with music and dancing girls, cops and robbers, preachers and pious townspeople—the whole nine yards. It is not a musical, but rather another one of Sirk’s brilliant realizations of a milieu that seems familiar from a hundred different films, but that takes the time to be individual and confound our expectations with careful observations of how people really live and act.

The film opens on a train. A vendor is hawking apples, magazines, cigars, and other sundries as he walks the aisle of the two-car train. Isolated in one of the cars is a “fancy” woman—Mae Madison (Ann Sheridan)—sitting with two men. She asks the vendor for something to keep her cool, pulls a magazine out of his basket, and hands the vendor a quarter, though he says the stories are not likely to cool her off. She begs to differ, as she fans herself with her purchase. When Mae learns they are an hour from their destination, she announces she needs to use the facilities. Only then do we see that she is handcuffed to the man sitting next to her. The man sitting opposite her unlocks her cuff, locks his own wrist to the man, and Mae steps into the ladies room.

Mae breaks out the window and jumps to freedom. The man she was cuffed to, Newton Cole (Phillip Reed), is dragged out of his seat by the U.S. Marshall, Ed Daggett (Larry Gates), as he investigates the noise. Cole takes the opportunity to brain Daggett with a vase and grab the key to unlock the cuffs. He dumps the unconscious Daggett off the train. Mae makes her way to a train station where she buys a ticket north to the logging community of Timberline. She assumes the name Vermillion O’Toole and stars in the dance-hall show at the Elite Opera House, which is owned by her friend Rose (Lee Patrick).

In a neighboring town, folks aren’t too happy that the Elite Opera House exists. Most of the residents are pious and prudish, particularly Edna Stoffer (Phyllis Stanley), who has her eye on handsome widower Will Hall (Sterling Hayden). She offers to look after his three young sons, Corny (Lee Aaker), Petey (Harvey Grant), and Bucket (Dusty Henley), while he takes off for a few days’ work at a nearby logging camp. The adorable, blond boys don’t like her (“I hate her,” Bucket says, which, with “I like her (it),” is the only sentence he utters.) and decide to look for a more agreeable woman to be their new mother. The three boys ride together on one horse to the opera house, dismount with the help of a convenient tree stump, and are instantly smitten with Vermillion. They invite her to stay with them, and when both Cole and Daggett show up in town after having seen her picture in the Pictorial Gazette, she agrees. While cooling her heels away from Timberline, she and Will meet, fall in love, and confound the prejudices of the community by making their “housekeeping” relationship permanent.

With a plotline as old as the West, what makes this film so different from so many others? Without question, it’s the film’s honesty, sincerity, and willingness to engage with reality. In a film of the same era and ilk, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the lumberjacks swing their axes in time to the music and fall in love with the first women they see. In Take Me to Town, Sirk allows his actors to do real tree-felling work, like putting their shoulders into cross-sawing, and he seamlessly inserts footage of tree-topping, which is as dangerous as it is awe-inspiring to watch. Will repeatedly rejects Edna, while declaring her a good woman nonetheless, and knows how to respect his own space when Vermillion must spend a night in his cabin. We also hear about Daggett’s determination to get Cole and Vermillion because he was nearly killed when he was thrown from the train—this isn’t a cartoon fall, where a character punches a 10-foot hole in the ground and crawls out of it. A final fight scene that occurs is uniquely staged, as Cole scrambles up a steep incline, with Daggett and Will chasing after him and holding onto vegetation to keep from sliding down. A steep drop into a pool of water fed by a waterfall looms in the background, but instead of ending the scene with Cole’s death, he merely rolls toward the edge and stops, knocked cold from the fall.

Will turns out to be a part-time preacher who is trying to build a church. He forces his congregation to live their ideals when he welcomes Vermillion to stay on and pushes her into community affairs. When a congregant openly challenges him on letting a woman of Vermillion’s type sit in their church—an open-air affair until funds can be raised to build a proper one—Will points out that they are outside where the church wall would have stood and belts him for his unchristian insolence. It’s also the first substantial clue we have that Will has fallen for Vermillion.

Vermillion herself is a little too good to be true, perhaps a sign of the repressed times in which the film came out. She’s been convicted of being an accessory to Cole’s illegal operations at his Denver dance hall, but she asserts she didn’t know what was going on—in other words, it’s o.k. with the Hays Code for her to go free. She clearly is a good-time girl, but she knows how to cook, sew, and clean house, and she falls instantly for Will’s three boys. In other words, she’s actually a good mother and homemaker trapped inside a vavoom body and eager to clean up her act and serve as the town’s schoolteacher, as her theme song “The Tale of Vermillion O’Toole” tells us she becomes.

However, this is Ann Sheridan we’re talking about. Sheridan is one of the most talented actresses to come from mid-century America, infusing clichéd scripts with nuance and showing a willingness to play against the grain of the story. She’s given exceptionally good dialogue in the smart, full script by Richard Morris (who rather specialized in good-time girls, with The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Thoroughly Modern Millie to his credit). And she makes the most of it, treating the boys’ declaration that they are “looking for a woman” with a little surprise, but a lot of understanding and dignity. She’s a hard taskmaster to the townspeople as she rehearses them like the pro she is for a fundraising theatrical she has organized. When Edna quits, taking her piano with her, Vermillion is venomous to her. While we might understand Vermillion’s emotional outburst based on how she’s been high-hatted and put down by Edna, there’s an edge to Sheridan’s attack that makes it clear she’s got a strong streak of nasty in her that is pushing some good people too far. She’s also a sensualist who dances uninhibitedly and displays her sexual attraction to Will openly. Thus, Sheridan risks alienating our good will toward her character for the sake of a more truthful performance.

This is also Douglas Sirk we’re talking about. He was a religious man who explored faith in quite a few of his films. This film is no different, as Will’s congregation voices sincere and convincing belief that sin is real, and that Vermillion and the Elite Opera House are bringing it unwillingly into their lives. Their view is intolerant, and Will confronts them on it, but the debate is serious and not offered up for laughs the way other aspects of the film are. Hayden is a sexy, believable lumberjack, but he’s also a very convincing man of God, a departure from his more numerous tough-guy roles.

Sirk is also well known for racy innuendo in his famous melodramas, and he indulges the double entendres in the script with relish, allowing that Will likes Vermillion’s “meat pies,” a line put into little Corny’s mouth for a little extra kick of perversity. He ends the film happily, but leaves a question dangling in the air about whether the rather boring life of a preacher’s wife in a backwoods town will be enough for a worldly woman like Vermillion. As long as the sex with Will is good, I think it will be.


24th 07 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Singing in the Dark (1956)

Director: Max Nosseck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the annals of American independent filmmaking, there is little that is as rare and distinct as A.N.O. Productions’ Singing in the Dark. The production company initials are taken from the last names of the three principals who decided that 1956 America needed a real post-WWII Jewish movie—Joey Adams, Max Nosseck, and Moishe Oysher. These three star-struck Jews had comfortable, but fairly marginal careers in show business, and the experiences of each would find their way into the structure of this somewhat confused, but fascinating film that was only the second American film to have a Holocaust survivor at its center.

Adams (nee Abramowitz), who produced and stars in Singing in the Dark, was a writer and comedian who worked in vaudeville, the Borscht Belt circuit, and nightclubs, and attained some notoriety in New York for his “Strictly for Laughs” column in the New York Post. Nosseck, a German director who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, spent most of his career on Poverty Row making crime films—Dillinger (1945), for Monogram Pictures, is perhaps his best-known film. Last, but certainly not least, Oysher was one of the first celebrity cantors, unkosher in his hambone inclinations toward the stage and screen and jazzy inflections of cantorial repertoire; despite his desire for a big Hollywood career, he mainly recorded and toured, one foot in the secular and one in the sacred, and labored in Yiddish films, including one directed by a landsman well-known to cinephiles—Edgar G. Ulmer. Singing in the Dark is his only English-language film.

So what would you expect from a team like this? A lot of singing, a lot of Jewish-style humor, and some American-style gangsters to please the larger American public. What you’ll also recognize, particularly if you are Jewish, is a certain kind of feeling about Jewishness that I have not found in any other Holocaust-related film I’ve seen. These Jews don’t feel sorry for themselves. They may need help, but they accept it like normal people, not like supreme victims. And Oysher’s survivor is filled with a kind of generosity that cheers people up and attracts them to him; he is the personification of a benevolent god that Jews did not forsake even when they were so forsaken themselves.

The film begins in Germany. Stock footage shows the mass arrests and terrors of Nazism in a frenzied montage. Eventually we see a line of Jews being told to go left or right by a concentration camp guard. A man goes one way, the way toward life, and must watch his mother move toward death. His struggles to reach her earn him a beatdown off camera.

The film flashes forward to the end of the war. An American aid worker, Ruth (Phyllis Hill), is processing refugees who want to go to the United States. When she asks one man about himself, he stands quietly and shakes his head. Another man who was with him in a concentration camp says the man has no memory of who he is, and he and his fellow prisoners called him Leo. Ruth gives Leo an understanding look and says she’ll sort it out. The next scene shows a ship sailing toward New York. Leo and Ruth, now his girlfriend, step onto American soil together.

Leo gets a job as a desk clerk at a second-rate hotel with a failing nightclub called Luli’s Gypsy Paradise. Luli (Kay Medford) is seeing Joey Napoleon (Adams), a third-rate comic with a weakness for gambling. Joey, always hard up for money and owing a tough bookie named Biff Lamont (Lawrence Tierney, who also played the lead in Nosseck’s Dillinger) a lot of money, evades two of Lamont’s muscle men (Mickey Knox and Dave Starr) by telling them Leo is a millionaire and will pay off the debt. When they insist on getting Joey’s story confirmed, Joey tears Leo away from a dinner at the nightclub with Ruth and her uncle (Henry Sharp), a psychiatrist who has been helping Leo try to regain his memory. Leo, nervous about lying to the two thugs, starts drinking for the first time in his life. Lo and behold, he discovers he has a great singing voice that he can unleash when drunk. Joey, seeing a gold mine, signs on as Leo’s agent with a handshake and a quickly scrawled contract.

Leo becomes a headliner at Luli’s, garners rave reviews, and starts packing in the customers. Lamont demands that Joey hand over his napkin contract with Leo to square the debt, and then becomes worried that Leo, who is making progress with his amnesia, will stop singing if he learns the truth. Lamont plots to have Leo conked on the head to erase whatever he’s learned, but in an odd twist of circumstances, Lamont is mugged by his own enforcer (hilariously played by Abe Simon), and Leo, accidentally hit on the head by Joey, remembers everything.

The cheap and ugly sets and silly, threadbare plot certainly make this film far from a masterpiece. The vaudeville shtick, for example, Al Kelly doing his very impressive gibberish routine to the befuddlement of everyone in the film, as well as the audience, offers a bit of Marx Brothers anarchy. Joey Adams isn’t very funny, though I liked his banter with Medford, at her best as a hardbitten dame. Hill has little to do but gaze admiringly at Oysher while he sings and be a prim and proper girlfriend and wife as befits the characteristic prudishness of Jewish audiences.

Singing in the Dark is well worth seeing, however, for the singing and moving performance of Moishe Oysher. The film seems built around his nightclub performances of popular music, which are entertaining, if rather badly served by the cheap surroundings and limited camera work, and his flickering memories. In one powerful scene, Leo lays on the psychiatrist’s couch after receiving sodium pentathol, his eyes closed, his forehead beaded with perspiration, and tears welling in the corners of his eyes. He relates a memory of walking with his father to a place alit with candles, and a blackout takes us to this place, and an outline of a cantor (Oysher playing his own father) standing in the bima and singing a prayer Leo translates as one of peace. Leo remembers that he also sang in the same place for his proud parents, and how “they” came, took him away, and how he never saw his parents again. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this scene.

Scenes such as this, as well as an early one of Leo wandering through a bombed-out temple, were filmed on location in Berlin in the soon-to-be-razed Levetzow Synagogue by none other than Boris Kaufman, who filmed On the Waterfront and who only rarely gets a chance to stretch his skills in this film. Seeing this grand ruin, used as a Nazi deportation center during the war, powerfully and economically sums up the destruction of European Jewry. The temple’s fate under Allied bombs seems a fitting one for a place so defiled that it was a blessing to be put out of its misery.

It is only at the end of the film that the darkness lifts enough for Leo to see the Star of David on the wall of the great building and remember that his name is David and that he was a cantor. When he gives up show business to return to his sacred work with the happiness of knowing who he is, he seems serene, untroubled by his harrowing experiences. While this is rather simplistic, and out of step with Oysher’s real career that toggled between the theatre and the synagogue, I felt rather exhilarated to see a Holocaust survivor find comfort in the one thing that made him a target for annihilation. It has always seemed such a paradox to me that centuries of persecution and murder had not turned Jews away from their beliefs long ago, but this film offers a glimpse of how life-sustaining those beliefs could be. I’m not a believer myself, but I rejoice in the beauty of Jewry this dedicated group of filmmakers unself-consciously revealed to the world.


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