| 4 comments »
Director/Screenwriter: Robert Rossen
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A young man in a suit and tie walks up a tree-lined path. Passing through a gate marked Poplar Lodge, the man emerges on a green dotted with Adirondack chairs and fountains as a dreamy musical refrain scores his movements. A great house stands before him at the end of a wide plaisance. He descends a short, stone staircase and passes by the benches where the odd person sits reading. A long-haired woman watches him through a grated window in the great house as he approaches.
The young man is ex-GI Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty), and he tells Bea Brice (Kim Hunter), the administrator with whom he has a job interview, that he has always been curious about Poplar Lodge, an exclusive mental hospital for the rich that has stood in his home town for as long as he can remember. Brice shows him around the facility, starting with the worst patients, so locked inside their own heads that they probably don’t need to be locked in the rooms that contain them. She then brings him to the day room, where the more socialized patients play games, read, and converse. Warning him the work is hard and ill-paid, Brice hires him on the spot to train as an occupational therapist.
Lilith, Robert Rossen’s final film, represents quite a departure for him. Rossen, known for writing such gritty films as Edge of Darkness (1943) and Body and Soul (1947), and writing and directing the classic films All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961), hadn’t made a film in three years. He was seriously ill when he started work on Lilith, and had nothing but trouble with Warren Beatty on the set. This time in film history belonged to a new generation with new, more inward-looking concerns, and Beatty was perhaps the king of the silver screen’s sensitive, troubled young men. Lilith can be seen as a veteran director trying to move with the times, and coming face to face not only with his own obsolescence and pending death, but also perhaps with some deep-seated regrets.
Vincent (suggesting the mad Vincent Van Gogh) has returned from the Korean War a changed man. Laura (Jessica Walter), his fiancée before he left, gave up on him when he stopped writing to her and married a rough salesman named Norman (Gene Hackman), someone she apparently never stops comparing to the handsome, sweet Vincent. Vincent doesn’t have a reason for why he stopped writing when they run into each other at a bus stop one rainy day. He simply wants to find a place and purpose again.
He makes a good start at Poplar Lodge, encouraging Yvonne (Anne Meacham), a nervous socialite, to leave her room, and befriending the shy and staid Stephen (Peter Fonda). Stephen is infatuated with Lilith (Jean Seberg), the blonde who watched Vincent from her room in the opening scene, praising her flute playing with admiration that she made the flute herself. Stephen longs to be as creative as Lilith, to win her favor, but the young woman only has eyes for Vincent. Seemingly miraculously to the healthcare workers who have been attending Lilith for some time, she comes out of her barred room and socializes freely, even going on a picnic with the group, with Vincent and Stephen her constant companions. Eventually, Lilith seduces Vincent, and they carry on a passionate affair behind the backs of everyone but Yvonne, Lilith’s other lover. Lilith, the ultimate hippie chick, wants to love everyone. Vincent’s possessiveness, however, is bound to lead to tragedy.
It is hard to imagine a more intimate film than Lilith, filled as it is with passion and cradling nature redolent of the Garden of Eden where the mythic Lilith stood as an equal with Adam. Sexuality becomes animalistic as Lilith makes love with Yvonne in a barn and then takes an enraged Vincent in her embrace, a further connection with the sexually defiant Lilith of lore. Rossen, a progressive Jew whose membership in the Communist Party in the 1930s would lead to a two-year blacklisting in the 1950s, must have identified with this defiance in a heroine who, like another strong heroine he created, Martha Ivers in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, would be destroyed.
While water is a constant throughout the film, a standard metaphor for the unconscious, it is used with the utmost expression and specificity. The gentle rain through which Vincent and Laura catch up mirrors the too-temperate relationship that no longer interests a sensitive man exposed to the horrors of war. During the picnic, Lilith, Vincent, and Stephen wander near a river with cascading rapids. Intensely white and foaming, beautiful and dangerous, the rapids are the embodiment of Lilith’s allure for both men, contained by tangible borders but churning excitedly within them. Later, wading into a calm part of the river, Lilith dares to look directly at her reflection, an evocation of Narcissus, son of a river god and a nymph whose disdain for the love of others was his ruin.
Lilith is hardly a calculating seductress, but her disturbed mind fails to look very far outside of herself. She cannot recognize the depth of Stephen’s or Vincent’s feelings, and changes her affections as simple-mindedly as a child drops one toy for a new one. Vincent’s jealousy causes him to lie to Stephen, with deadly results. Perhaps Rossen was feeling pangs over naming names to the HUAC committee, and Vincent’s recognition of his own cankerous psyche forms the final piece of his personal puzzle.
Rossen is very good at directing his actors to maintain the fragile edge between sanity and madness. Peter Fonda plays Stephen with a childlike simplicity to suggest his delicate condition; this choice seems a little wrong-headed to me, but I felt an irritation with him that tracks with how it might be to spend time with someone who is not all there. Perhaps symptomatic of his conflicts with Rossen, Beatty doesn’t appear to be all that unstable. He does seem to be drifting until he finds purpose in helping the patients, but his growing obsession with Lilith seems more like genuine love, as the pair spends time alone riding horses and bicycles, flirting gently, and loving vigorously. That he is involved with a patient certainly signals a dangerous recklessness, but when the patient is the beautiful Jean Seberg, it doesn’t seem all that mad after all.
Seberg is luminous in this film, every bit the mythic muse of her character and her own legend. She plays to Rossen’s camera angles and lighting, looking at once angelic and then lunatic. Her sensuality burns the screen with its honesty, and she carries herself with a natural grace that adds to the elemental force of the film. It is possible to see the actual depth of her affections for Vincent, so well does she give and withhold simultaneously. Seberg acknowledged Lilith as her favorite movie, and it’s easy to see why from her complex and satisfying performance.
A Blu-ray of Lilith is supposed to be available in March, but early reports are that the transfer is a little soft. Because of the visual splendor of the film, something will be lost if you don’t get a chance to see it in a pristine print, as I did. Nonetheless, this film is well worth seeing in almost any condition for the interesting performances and as an excellent representation of 60s style filmmaking.
| 7 comments »
Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick
By Roderick Heath
More than 20 years since the end of the Cold War, and nearly a half-century since the film was released, why is Stanley Kubrick’s seventh feature, a modish fantasia dealing with the perverse id and assailed mentality of its specific era, still so lauded, so beloved, so vital? How can a film with such subject matter still be considered a titanic work of cinematic comedy? Why does it stand tall when attempts to update it or reproduce its unstable blend of elements usually fall very, very short? Some answers: a great filmmaker at the height of his craft. A great comic actor also at his height, backed up by other superlative talents. A screenplay possessed of a pitiless intelligence and ornery wit. A time when taking risks in cinema was rapidly becoming more permissible, even necessary. Over and above all this, Dr. Strangelove helped to define something about the modern world that has survived even as the Cold War has faded. The apocalyptic anxiety it diagnosed and treated with mockery and gallows humour has hardly vanished, but has rather faded to the background static in our daily lives. Dr. Strangelove is a purgative rather than a wallow, however, a work of fatalistic fervour that is nonetheless perversely cheering precisely because it considers the worst the world had to offer and yet still finds the joie de vivre in it.
Dr. Strangelove began evolving when Kubrick, interested in dealing with the threat of nuclear war, had a book recommended to him credited to the pseudonym of former RAF officer Peter Bryan George. George’s novel, variously titled Two Hours to Doom or Red Alert, was a sober thriller depicting Armageddon almost brought about by a combination of human frailty and technological estrangement. Kubrick had been pushed close to the summit of Hollywood success in helming Kirk Douglas’ earnest projects Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960) only a few years after the precocious former photographer had broken into the industry with self-financed films. But frustrating experiences making Spartacus and One-Eyed Jacks (1961), from which he was fired, soured him on Hollywood. Kubrick had recently made what proved a permanent move to Britain to shoot Lolita (1962), a movie that established him as a more eccentric and individualistic director than anyone had realised, gifted at tackling taboo subjects whilst maintaining an ironic but fervent empathy for tragically human protagonists.
Kubrick was, at this time, also gravitating towards the burgeoning fringe comedy scene, and had been exploring the possibility of collaborating with edgy comic talents like Lenny Bruce and Jules Feiffer. Impressed by the raw material of Red Alert, Kubrick began working on a screenplay with George, but as he laboured, realised that there was a lode of dark, inchoate, innate absurdity beneath the surface of this seemingly sober assessment of nuclear strategy, a realm where supposedly sensible men talked in terms of “megadeaths,” politicians whose posturing endangered billions, and military leaders stuck in an earlier era could not give up the idea of winning conflicts with weapons that could raze cities to the ground in the blink of an eye and poison the earth beyond habitation many times over. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 had seen a two-week stand-off where the fate of the world seemed literally in the balance. The emotions this time stoked in people—rage, disgust, horror, fear, the despair of impotence—were primal, yet radically at odds with the post-war world’s most cherished goals of pacified insulation.
The gulf between those who had come of age before the destruction of Hiroshima and those who grew up after it exacerbated a generational disparity. A new strain of satire arrived in the late ‘50s, moving out of the coffee bars, student mags and revues, art and cult novels and onto television and movie screens. Pop culture was thus infiltrated by the influence of Dadaism, Surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and other avant-garde art movements that drew power from the century’s earlier tragedies, emphasising the impudent deconstruction of cultural maxims. Humourists, satirists, and quick-witted artists like Bruce, Feiffer, Tom Lehrer, Terry Southern, and Joseph Heller were rapidly defining the new taste for critical humour with an undertaste of blood and cyanide. Kubrick was about to bring hip comedy to the big screen properly with his adaptation of George’s novel. He hired Southern to help complete the travesty he had set in motion.
Some thought Kubrick was overreaching. His regular producer Robert Harris broke up their partnership, convinced Kubrick was headed for disaster. Bosley Crowther, the dean of mainstream cinematic taste for The New York Times, denounced the resulting film. But the howls of opprobrium were quickly drowned out by the howls of laughter and admiration. War is tragedy, the film seemed to say, but nuclear war is so inimical it lies beyond morality and human sensibility, and is thus absurd and might as well be laughed at. Dr. Strangelove, whilst moulding a definitive form of satire in cinema, clearly owed as much to slapstick tradition as to anything else, and sustained within its modish, anarchic immediacy is a strong sense of filmic tradition. In spite of its scope, intent, and the force of its impact on pop culture, Dr. Strangelove is also the cinema’s longest, most sustained banana peel gag: something goes wrong, the dumb boobs slip up, try to stay on their feet, but only succeed in bringing everything down with an almighty crash. The resulting film, whilst almost sui generis as a whole, had many progenitors: there’s a lot of the despairing joviality of Catch-22, the anarchic tilts of Duck Soup (1933) and Spike Milligan’s radio programme The Goon Show, a surrealist-slapstick pastiche on imperial-era melodrama and pulp fiction. Southern, who knew the tradition he worked in, slipped in an obscure reference to Jonathan Swift, and concludes the film with his own Modest Proposal.
Dr. Strangelove unfolds very close to real time, and this adds to the nauseating sensation of watching events that cannot be stopped, imbuing the action with a feeling of free-fall, a feeling actualised in the immortal plunge of Maj. T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), riding the bomb that brings about the end of the world. Taking advantage of a training operation that brings U.S. B-52 bombers within striking distance of the Soviet Union, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, who has gone insane and intends to start World War III, sends out an obscure battle order, Wing Attack Plan R. This allows him to order his planes to attack in case a Soviet attack has already wiped out Washington, disrupting the chain of command. The airmen in their stratosphere-cruising tin cans, tethered to humanity only by radio and with this contact strictly limited to a prearranged code to tune out false enemy messages, can only accept their orders at face value and proceed.
One plane, the Leper Colony, commanded by Maj. Kong, survives a missile attack that leaves communications cut off, but Kong proceeds regardless with determined bravado. Ripper order his XO, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a British officer present through an exchange program to ready the base for an attack and to cut off all contact with the outside world, to ensure that any attempt to capture him and halt his plan will be staved off as long as possible. Ripper hopes to force the government to commit to all-out war, but President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), resists the ministrations to do just that from his military advisor Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) and instead contacts the Soviets to warn them and offer aid in repelling the attackers. But as the Russian ambassador De Sadesky (Peter Bull) explains in horror, even one bomb falling would be too many, as the Soviets have constructed the Doomsday Device, which will automatically detonate and poison the entire planet, as the ultimate nuclear deterrent.
One aspect vital to appreciating Dr. Strangelove is the degree to which it is not a comedy at all. The grounded detail and informed perspective of George’s novel remained an important aspect of the film, and Kubrick’s insistence on tangible verisimilitude is apparent throughout in Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography, at once artfully expressionistic and harshly realistic, and particularly Ken Adams’ production design. Adams, who was to a certain extent inventing a lexicon of modernity in design through his work in this film and in the James Bond series, rendered sets like the interior of the Leper Colony and the War Room as spaces where functional technology has infused décor, and even the psyche, to become a denaturalised way of life where humans are mere aspects of the mechanism. The story is essentially believable, and plays out with thriller-like compression and logic. The notion that a U.S. Air Force general, a lunatic with a mind poisoned so fervently against Communist threats that he might abuse his authority and plunge the world into a nihilistic war, contained a note of quiver-inducing anxiety, suggested by the bellicosity of Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay and their conflicts with presidential authority. The secret root of Gen. Ripper’s rancour is, for all its hilarious paranoia, based on a genuine conspiracy theory once propagated by the John Birch Society that water fluoridation was a Communist plot.
The combat sequences and the bombing run of the Leper Colony feign a scrupulous procedural intricacy. Long before it became a compulsory aspect of cinematic pseudo-realism, Kubrick and Taylor employed handheld camerawork to give portions of the film a jerky, haphazard, grainy vibrancy, as if it’s all really happening, televised live and uninterrupted. Kubrick milks the interminable complexity and rigour of the procedures the airmen follow to build tension, like steps on some long, manual-dictated march to Calvary. The claustrophobic tightness of the Leper Colony’s interior is emphasised with camerawork where the actors’ breath all but fogs the lens. Minor technical details become the stuff of apocalyptic drama. The actual moments of violence in the film, in the battle for Burpelson and the suicide of Ripper, come without ironic distancing or farcicality.
Where the serious, orthodox elements edge into comedic style is in precisely the strange territory where the nuclear age infrastructure is revealed as both a by-product of, and new soil for, the perversities of the human condition. The most basic binary of all is constantly in evidence throughout: sex and death. The equation of fetishized military power and infrastructure with phallic sexuality wasn’t new in 1964 and is even more clichéd now, but Dr. Strangelove turns it into a key, recurring gag, and the root motive for the drama. The “Arms Race, the Space Race, and the Peace Race” are boiled down to a dick-size competition. Machismo is seen as the not-so-secret meaning of the Cold War, as the military men of the United States, a nation steeped in the mythology of manliness and exemplified by Stetson-clad Texan Kong and secretary-boffing Turgidson, suffer acute anxieties over loss of potency in the insulating and softening qualities of modern life. They’re doomed to fret that they’ll never be as real men as the Russians who have proved themselves in fire and battle, for, as Turgidson puts it, “Look at all them Nazis you killed!”
Muffley, the feminised liberal archetype, offends this type utterly with his recidivist cockblockery. Turgidson, introduced in a tryst with his leggy staffer Miss Scott (Tracy Reed, the only woman actually featured in the film soon outclassed by all those sexy, sexy missiles and curvaceous bombers), promises he’ll be back in time for “blast-off!”—a conflation of explosion and orgasm that the film later reiterates in the most spectacular terms. Indeed, everyone has their sex life interrupted by the erupting crisis, from the Leper Colony airmen leafing through their girly mags to Soviet Premier Kissoff being interrupted by Muffley’s call during a drunken debauch. Buck has to handle an irritated phone call from Miss Scott at the War Room table (“I thought I told you never to call me here!”), forced to mollify her in an excruciatingly funny vignette that conflates philandering executive and naughty schoolboy both in Buck’s ample frame: “Someday I’m gonna make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson!” he declares in a skewering of the era’s chauvinist mentality sharper than a dozen Mad Men episodes. But all are soon distracted by the promise of the ultimate climax.
The correlation deepens as Dr. Strangelove unfolds, as the dualities of life and death, sex and murder, chaos and creation, begin to infuse the visual and thematic substance of the entire work, expostulating the concept of the death instinct as inextricable from the sexual instinct, only now, the destructive element has become infinitely more powerful than sex. The carnal awareness never far from the surface in Kubrick’s cinema finds a partner here in Southern’s love for suggesting powerful, but queasily displaced erotic underpinnings to many a contemporary obsession. Here, the sex, like humanity itself, has become inextricable from technology. The opening credits, scored to a wryly lilting version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” present footage of a B-52 refuelling in mid-air, with the music transforming it into a gentle dance of aerial coitus: even the planes are doing it now. Hal 9000’s psychopathic hissy fit is only a stone’s throw away; Strangelove himself, contained in a wheelchair with self-animated limbs, is the misbegotten median of the process. Whereas in Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), Kubrick had studied the frantic rage of a ruling class in their inability to make individuals into mechanisms that obey their will and desires, here the process is far closer to completion. But the order is fraying from the other end: leadership in the modern world, both political and military, has devolved into a tangled skein of ass-covering, partisan piety, psychic fragmentation, and propagandistic fig leaves. The first breakdown of the system is the greatest, the ultimately irreparable one, that of Ripper’s sanity. The source of his breakdown? The onset of middle-aged impotence.
Dr. Strangelove is the crux of Kubrick’s career. Whereas the raw, humanist howl of Paths of Glory was obvious enough to let Jean-Luc Godard mistake him for an heir to Stanley Kramer as a cooker of cultural vegetables, Dr. Strangelove confirmed Lolita’s promise that Kubrick was now in the game for the antiheroes, misanthropes, and rogues. He would engage with macrocosmic concerns with an increasingly rarefied style that seemed, by the standards of commercial cinema, a detached, analytical, even misanthropic affectation. But what truly distinguishes Kubrick’s oeuvre, and Dr. Strangelove in particular, is the way the methodical filmmaking and the coolness of the director’s regard offsets the compulsion, the messiness, and the pathos of the human state.
Apart from a couple of minor excursions, Dr. Strangelove unspools as three extended, interlocking, cross-edited scenes, taking place in locales which are crucially, fatefully separated by space and communication, but which are also conjoined in cause and effect: the War Room, the Leper Colony, and Burpelson Base. In each locale, according to the classic rules of farce and also to the natural rules of intense situations, a slow-burning urgency, shading into hysteria, develops. What results is a tragicomedy of cross-purposes. Perhaps just as alarming as Ripper’s insanity is the way the other characters refuse to give into disintegration, trying until the last moment to do their jobs, and indeed refusing to waver from their roles, their world-views and presumptions, myopia continuing even past the point when it’s destroyed the world. The Leper Colony’s airmen (including James Earl Jones in his first film), though pushed to the limit, continue to operate with stoic professionalism. Muffley and Mandrake are linked not only by being played by Sellers, but by the fact that they each try to deal with the situation as best as they can, and resist the people around them who represent variations on a theme of martial lunacy and a love/hate relationship with the idea of mutually assured destruction. Muffley sacrifices his soldiers for the sake of peace. Mandrake is confronted by a lunatic who might possibly shoot him if he becomes too troublesome, and sways from meekness to forced bonhomie to exasperated clumsiness, but still tries constantly to find a way to save the world. De Sadesky continues to sneak photos of the War Room as it becomes clear the Cold War will now go underground.
Dr. Strangelove’s modernity is written into the textures of the film, in the chitinous flash of technocratic infrastructure, the chiaroscuro duplicity of the lighting where fluorescent glare and recessed glows illuminate the actors with unflattering harshness against enveloping darkness, the interplay of Taylor’s studiously framed and balanced photography and Anthony Harvey’s propelling edits. Kubrick had from the first balanced twin poles of realism and expressionism in his work. Dr. Strangelove is defined on many levels by the push and pull of these divergent impulses, adding to its power, as characters like Ripper, Kong, and Strangelove seem to lurch out of the shadows of the psyche, distorted and rendered hyper-real in their caricatured menace, into the studied authenticity of the rest of the film. Here, too, the later Kubrick, the notoriously spare and measured imagist, began to appear. Kubrick encodes messages of power and attitude in his visuals. Consider the framing of Scott’s Turgidson as he explains the situation for the President’s benefit. He is filmed from a low angle that emphasises Turgidson’s stolid turgidness, with a folder on the desk before him just edging its way into the frame labeled “World Targets in Megadeaths.” Kubrick maintains the same shot for much of the scene, in interchange with Muffley, who is shot almost at eye level but further away and framed between two foreground listeners, at once more reasonable-seeming but also smaller, pettier, his ineffectiveness plain. And Ripper, the animator of this situation, is shot in looming, dominating close-up from below, a glowering, inescapable death’s head, savage and unremitting. The basic technique serves its purpose in depicting the relations of these men and their characters in themselves, and resembles other moments in Kubrick’s canon, like the early exchanges of The Shining (1980), that perceive characters on their best behaviour but straining to keep cool, with a sense of quietly composing forces that will shatter the surface tension. In contrast, and yet without any sense of aesthetic disparity, the battle scenes are a maelstrom breaking up the film’s fastidious visual language, shot from the perspective a grunt or war correspondent hunkering behind a machine gun and crawling through the weeds.
Kubrick’s most obvious desire here was to achieve a documentary immediacy, compounding the film’s commitment to tactile realism. Death and carnage are rendered at once spectacular and remote, as Kubrick’s control of perspective makes space and distance an important aspect of fighting, reproducing the intent of Ripper’s orders in rendering the warring forces as an alien threat, distant moving things to be shot at. The nature of the action they’re engaged in is confused on both sides, as Ripper’s men assume the approaching force is Communist, whilst the attackers, as exemplified by Maj. “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn), have no idea what’s at stake. The suggestion that a politicised lie animates this action, and perhaps all such action, becomes inescapable, whilst the fact that the fighting soldiers are actually on the same side evokes the warrior doppelgangers of Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire (1953). They assault blocklike structures with a minimalist blandness and prefab look; Burpelson could be a school or a hospital or any other institution. The prominently featured signs proclaiming the USAF’s motto “Peace Is Our Profession,” could well be one of Kubrick and Southern’s satirical coups, except, of course, that it really was the USAF’s motto. The film’s most famous line, barked by Muffley to the wrestling Turgidson and De Sadesky, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”, simply restates this discrepancy more immediately, and echoes again through to the root premise of Ripper’s plot. His mantra of peace on Earth represents a conundrum quite understandably maddening to a warrior like him, for the only complete, guaranteed peace is that of complete annihilation, that Roman desert.
Dr. Strangelove’s connection to silent comedy was to be confirmed with a climactic pie fight, but Kubrick decided, probably for the best, that this element was best left restrained: Dr. Strangelove never gives into farce entirely. Classic slapstick comedy of early cinema heroes like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd has clawed back ground from being considered the lowest of comedic arts, thanks to analyses of the implicit drama of circumstance, of human fallibility and ingenuity at war with a happenstance world. If the root of all slapstick was the banana peel gag, such comic artists inflated that basic principle into a systematology wherein individual ingenuity and striving faces a world that conspires against them, be it through social perversity, personal maladjustments, economic troubles, unruly inanimate objects, or machines that both perfect human abilities but also mimic and metastasize their faults. Such highbrow conceptual prisms might seem like gilding the lily, and yet they did return lustre to such arts that had for a long time been lost, particularly in the mid-20th century. That’s when slapstick was largely regarded as child’s play, and satire was ennobled as the intellectual, artistic end of the comedy pantheon. As Pauline Kael became fond of complaining, for a long time after the impact of Dr. Strangelove, it was not enough for a comedy to be a comedy: it had to have a satirical edge. Pricking pomposity, assaulting authority figures, mocking retrograde values and social pillars, insulting consumerism and capitalism and militarism: these became the worthy targets for the comic mind. Satire had long been subject to that old joke: it’s what opens on a Friday and closes on a Saturday. That was largely true in cinema as in the theatre, though filmmakers like Chaplin, Rene Clair, Jacques Tati, and Frank Tashlin had attempted over the years to dovetail it neatly with more familiar comic business in their films, combining their jaundiced appreciations of modern life with character comedy and good old-fashioned pratfalls.
To a certain extent, Dr. Strangelove only inverted the focus of such filmmakers, reducing the farcical to a supernal flourish that underlines the lunacy of the supposedly serious events on screen. When Turgidson tumbles head over heels in his frantic distress when Muffley proposes bringing the Russian ambassador into the War Room to prove his sincerity, or when Guano, hesitant to damage the property of corporate power to save the world, gets a face full of Coca-Cola, all divisions between slapstick and satire dissipate. Appropriately, Turgidson’s tumble was actually an accident that Scott refused to let shake him from character, and Kubrick saw how it suited the film. The characters’ names give obvious clues to their functions in this farce: Jack D. Ripper, obsessed with sex and slaughter, the dark heart of the Freudian taxonomy. Merkin Muffley, the girly-man with a wig where his privates should be. Kong, the chest-beating ape. ‘Buck’ Turgidson, talking macho manure and military guff a mile a minute. Mandrake, named for a natural aphrodisiac that’s also a slow poison, evoking the officer’s flailing mix of tenacity and ineffectualness. “Bat” Guano, fearsome, dim, and totally batshit. The specific tenor of these names is very Terry Southern, but it’s also one of the oldest tricks in satirical writing, going back to Aristophanes—the use of a name that’s based in a pun or an assignation that reduces an individual to a type, an exemplar, a singular quality that stretches across social groups: where tragedy evokes the apotheosis of the individual even in the face of annihilation, satire details the ignominy of the species, especially in the face of annihilation.
Of course, Dr. Strangelove, as well as being a Kubrick film, is also a Peter Sellers film. Sellers had played multiple roles in films before, including in two films that seem distinctly prototypical for Dr. Strangelove, The Mouse That Roared and I’m Alright, Jack (both 1959). But not since Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) had a comic actor dominated a film so completely and provided a display of such effervescent, chameleonic wit. Sellers sustains the film’s central sequence, in which Muffley must call Kissoff to warn him of the impending danger. He finds the Soviet Premier not hard at work ploughing the fields whilst dictating foreign policy memos as propaganda might have it, but ensconced with a mistress and completely soused. Muffley has to communicate with a careful mix of brotherly affection, paternal cajoling, and plaintive appeal. Sellers’ verbal brilliance here is uncontained, as his intonations signal every register of his conversation with the unseen, unheard opposite. Muffley’s way of handling people and the character of the person he’s dealing with come through, as we gather the Premier is boozy and good-humoured, delighted to hear from his Yankee friend, but with the volatility of a drunk, a volatility Muffley’s used to dealing with, surrendering all affectation of command in favour of a housewife’s wheedling. An extended parody on the popular perception of Adlai Stevenson and Nikita Khrushchev, and a variation on a gag style popularised by Bob Newhart, this scene is both the linchpin of the movie’s warped humour, whilst also peeking under the metaphorical skirts of the Cold War to find the very human protagonists behind the monolithic facades. Dr. Strangelove constantly suggests those facades are desirable for both sides, a construction that justifies their paranoia, their raison d’etre, whilst constantly revealing the permeability of these monoliths. De Sadesky scoffs at the Americans’ denial of plans to build a Doomsday Device when the Soviets learnt about it from The New York Times, and Kissoff advises Muffley that he can get in touch with the USSR’s super-ultra-maxi secret defence command through Omsk Information.
Mandrake, Sellers’ second and most fully realised character, is a bittersweet anachronism, the last proper British officer of the WWII generation, assuming a fraternal joviality whilst nursing grim memories of war and torture, operating according to a code in an age that sees him play second fiddle to bellicose Americans and clattering computers. Sellers’ talent for physical as well as verbal comedy is subtly but beautifully revealed as Mandrake contends with the crisis, from his forced good humour in displaying the working radio playing pop music to Ripper, a sign that the world outside is continuing as normal, then working himself to a peak of officious indignation in trying to order Ripper to unlock his office door, which Ripper had locked right in front of Mandrake without him noticing, the General’s psychopathic cool completely stymieing Mandrake’s gentlemanly forbearance. Mandrake is at first the embodiment of the stiff upper lip, responding to news that “we’re in a shooting war” with the driest English perturbation (“Oh hell.”), but is driven to ever more frustrated, vibrant anger as he contends with the obtuse suspicion of Guano, who takes him prisoner after Ripper’s suicide: “Shoot it off!” he commands the Major, needing the change from a Coca-Cola machine to make a world-saving phone call to the White House, his patience finally severing and speech reduced to staccato fragments, “Shoot! With a gun! That’s what the bullets are for, you twit!” Mandrake is, in spite of being as much a satirical type as Turgidson or Kong, also the audience’s essential figure for identification, a reasonable, all-too-human individual who operates according to the necessity of the moment. Whether deciding discretion is the better part of valour in dealing with Ripper or trying to establish authority over Guano when the moment demands, Mandrake experiences every moment like a trial by ridiculous ordeal, and Yeats’ classic line about the best lacking all conviction whilst the worst have passionate intensity is depicted in all its agonising truth.
Sellers’ third characterisation as the eponymous nuclear strategist confined to a wheelchair is the even more alarming counterpart to Ripper. Whereas Ripper plots Armageddon because he’s mad and seems, in his very last moments, to regain a certain lucidity, even nobility, in his confrontation of the darkest abyss of fate, Strangelove is the spirit of pure, malicious delight in a destruction that will sweep away the world and give him a chance to rebuild it according to his own perverted proclivities. Strangelove, the title character, is actually only central to two scenes, and yet he fixates the attention and haunts the mind as a kind of laughing devil. Sellers’ most bizarre and inspired grotesque, Strangelove, with grating Germanic accent overlaid on helium tones, snaps at words with toothy eagerness like an intellectual barracuda. He’s a compendium of some of the Germanic men involved with Cold War exigencies, including Wernher Von Braun, rocket scientist to the Nazis; atomic bomb designer Edward Teller; strategist Herman Kahn; and the coiner of the phrase “mutually assured destruction” John von Neumann. Strangelove’s shallow allegiance to democratic ideals and his inner, fixated ardour for the idea of a glorious Gotterdammerung is hinted by his literally Anglicised name, changed from Merkwuerdigliebe. He also, not coincidentally, calls to mind the great mad savants of Fritz Lang’s Expressionist films: Caligari, Mabuse, and especially Rotwang.
Whilst Dr. Strangelove was in the editing room, the recently premiered TV show Doctor Who was just introducing its iconic villains, the Daleks, the next stage of Strangelove, mutants created by atomic war completely encased now in their wheelchairs, speaking with an electronic version of the same harsh, grating, savage voice. Strangelove, it becomes clear, actually embodies the nuclear age, a twisted, semi-human remnant forged by one political culture joyfully obsessed with mass murder and now having found a new one to feed off of. His weird, leering pleasure in discussing all things apocalyptic rhymes with that look of feral joy displayed by so many of Kubrick’s antiheroes. But whereas with the likes of Ripper, Alex DeLarge, Jack Torrance, Pvt. Pyle et al., that savage smile signalled the shattering of the civilised veneer by the beast within, in Strangelove they work in perverse synchronicity; Strangelove is the ultimate result, as much as the Star Child of 2001, of human evolution, its fusion with its own works and wares, into a monstrosity.
Whilst Sellers dominates, Scott, Hayden, and Pickens are the invaluable back-up. Pickens treads a fine line in presenting Kong as a broad stereotype who is, nonetheless, not excessively buffoonish, possessed of a certain level of humour and determination that could be admirable in other circumstances, but who’s also blind on the most vital levels. Hayden’s Ripper is played deadly straight even as what he says seems innately silly. Hayden had almost disappeared from movie screens in the 1960s, sick of Hollywood and ashamed of his HUAC testimony during the McCarthy era, but here he brought effortless class to a role that could have been easy to overdraw. Actor and director collaborate in rendering the character genuinely frightening in his dead-eyed stare and vicious-looking teeth biting a cigar. When the pathetic side of Ripper emerges, and he explains in evasive terms the impotence that afflicts him, Hayden slows Ripper’s confident bark down to a slightly sluggish, peevish drawl, the faintly shambolic fool of fortune under the man’s fearful veneer glinting through. Ripper maintains a sickly paternal affection mixed with a weird sexualised threat for Mandrake, who listens as if every inch of his body is puckered in discomfort. Ripper embodies the splintered psyche of the age, panicked over his waning masculinity and conceiving it in political terms. Scott’s Turgidson, an avatar for LeMay, is unassailed by such anxieties, as obtuse, myopic bigotry incarnate, his pose of professional responsibility soon peeled back to reveal the garrulous, zealous, Commie-hating, bug-eyed big kid, one for whom nuclear annihilation is rarely more real than a football match. He reaches a soaring flight of lunatic enthusiasm in his rave about the talents of the American air force pilot that concludes with sudden realisation of the meaning of what he’s talking about, smacking his forehead and cringing. Turgidson soon rediscovers his balance as he listens to Strangelove’s plan for repopulating the Earth, almost panting with enthusiasm as he questions whether this would mean abandoning the “so-called monogamous sexual relationship,” like a kid about to given the key to a candy store.
All of Kubrick’s films are driven by the same fundamental dynamic, the friction between the primal and the civilised, and pushes towards extremes in either direction discovers antitheses latent within: the deadening effect of order provokes explosions of id-welling expression, and combat with primitive forces sometimes reinforces essential human qualities. Just as the evolved ape-men of 2001 have to combat their own devices to achieve transcendence, so, too, do these characters—except, of course, they fail this time around, but discover a strange delight in the notion. Similarly, the odyssey is another Kubrickian motif here, as the flight of the Leper Colony mirrors that of the Discovery and, later, the pod used by Dave Bowman in 2001, as technical disasters must be overcome and a mysterious world penetrated. The icy, forested, mountainous wastes of Siberia (actually Canada) they fly over are as vast, alien, and spectacularly strange as the hallucinogenic oceans and continents Bowman soars across, and conjoined by a similar sensation of lurching headlong into the unknown toward an event that cannot possibly be survived, at least not in the usual way. The scene in which the Leper Colony is nearly destroyed by a Russian missile is rendered vivid without visual effects, as the pursuing missile is registered only on a radar screen, and its explosion appears as a flash, whilst the navigator’s panicky voice is drowned by a wave of eerie interference before the shockwave wallops the bomber. Kubrick gets around the limitations of his budget through the simplest, yet most audio-visually impactful of means here, and more, as it captures the keenest sensation that 2001 would be far more committed to—the sensation of danger in isolation, far from home, tethered to a machine that might be the death of you.
Dr. Strangelove is, like many like-minded films that would follow, as much at war with its own cinematic genre as with any real-world concerns. Kubrick repurposes manipulative aesthetic tricks, usually employed in celebrating martial heroism in both life and cinema, to turn them back on the war story and mock its presumptions. The only incidental music in the film is a driving employment of Laurie Johnson’s spare variations on the Civil War anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a choice that strikes at the mythology of American martial values as it accords with, but also mocks, Kong’s gung-ho purpose, and Ripper’s cry to Mandrake whilst wielding machine gun, “The Redcoats are coming!” The tune eventually drops away, leaving only driving martial drums to underscore Kong’s warlike zeal and race against time. Turgidson crows about the instilled ability of an American air force pilot to defy any obstacle, natural or military, to reach his target and fulfil his mission, only then to cringe in realisation of what this means: achievement of a goal in ignorance of the meaning and outcome of his efforts, dooming everyone else to oblivion. And indeed, the Leper Colony’s crew act just like they’re supposed to, and more; they exhibit brilliance and bravery in the course of their duty. If this were a WWII tale and they were trying to knock out a Nazi base, we’d be cheering them every step of the way, thrilling as they overcome every challenge, tearing up as the commander gives his life to make sure the payload drops. But here, it’s a horror show of nerveless proficiency and detachment from reality, with a laugh-yourself-sick punchline. Kong is so oblivious to the likely results of what he’s doing that he eggs on his men with promises of “important promotions and personal citations” once they get back. The Leper Colony crew’s resourcefulness means that even when they can’t bomb any of their assigned targets, they can try for another, which fatally takes them away from the areas Muffley has advised the Russians to cover.
Of course, at the very last second, Kong gets his bomb bay doors to open, and he plunges with the payload to the earth, whooping with joy every inch of the way, the bomb suddenly the ultimate bucking bronco and the greatest phallic substitute ever, the blast that results in redneck apotheosis and orgasmic eruption. This is the film’s most famous moment, and indeed one of the most iconic in the history of cinema, partly for its starkly beautiful reduction of the film’s themes to one singularly powerful image. Kubrick’s visualisation is perfect, camera affixed to the end of the bomb, gazing down at the yee-hawing Kong as the bomb tips and plunges toward its target with vertiginous rapidity, with only the rushing air and Kong’s bellows audible. Kong’s cries are inimitable and funny, but also unnerving in their exultant violence, and the scene, barely a few seconds long, seems to last forever. The bomb hits the ground in a flash of obliterating white, rendering this vision at once hilarious and almost heart-stopping in its force and strangeness. The concluding montage of atomic explosions, signalling the annihilation of the world, is scored to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” This choice of song is the film’s final, smirking coup, recalling its anthemic power and nostalgic meaning for the WWII era, repudiating the fatuous self-satisfaction of how-I-won-the-war types, and making an obvious point: that the notion that nuclear war can be survived is a fairy tale and the event impossible to liken to any previous conflict. Yet, Kubrick also invites us to revel in the sing-along cosiness, the communal affection and power the song communicates, as it feels like a last hug before the dark plunge, a final carouse with humankind, and an exhausted, conciliatory concession to the irrational. At its most ruthless, Dr. Strangelove is also at its warmest.
But even the end is not the end, as, faced with the certain destruction of life on earth, the cabal in the War Room listen with increasingly responsive and wrapt fascination to Strangelove’s proposal that they move a nucleus of human society underground to wait out the time it will take the Doomsday Device’s effect to dissipate. Not only does Strangelove’s idea give hope to the seemingly hopeless situation, it actually sounds like an Eden for the white middle-aged males left to repopulate the world with a potential smorgasbord of females. Whilst the world is being pummelled to pieces by atomic horrors, the men in the War Room are worrying about a future arms race and glowing with enthusiasm for living out the rest of their lives underground with a harem. Strangelove is finally unbound, his seemingly paralytic arm now taking on a life of its own, snapping as he speaks into Heil Hitler salutes with the involuntary passion of an erection, and grasping his crotch in auto-erotic frenzy. Strangelove is forced to wrestle and bite it into submission as he continues to expostulate his plan, and it becomes plain this Frankenstein’s Monster is erotically thrilled by the situation now before him, as. As he rises from his chair, restored to full working order, his final cry (“Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”) confirms that Hitler’s dream is nigh complete. Emblematic of the film it concludes, Strangelove’s last line is weird and scary, and yet capable of wrenching the loudest of laughs from me every time I hear it. As Lynn sings, nuclear blasts, all real, rupture oceans and burn in infernal power, spreading fire in the night sky like a false dawn, poetic in their dread. In spite of all, we can still laugh at Dr. Strangelove’s vision. For the time being.
| 5 comments »
Director: Seijun Suzuki
By Roderick Heath
Maverick Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has built a sizeable reputation outside of his native country, and yet he is still nowhere near famous enough. A genuinely great film artist on a level with the most reputed names of world cinema, Suzuki’s oeuvre was, for better and worse, famously defined by his struggle against being pigeonholed as a director of gangland melodramas. He subjected the genre to increasingly strange and astounding formal experiments and thematic detonations, until he finally, effectively sabotaged his career with the mighty surrealist thriller Branded to Kill (1967). Fired from Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki spent more than a decade in purgatory, spurned by other studios, before he returned as a maker of oddball, outright art films. Suzuki tested the tensile integrity of visual narrative with ever more daring force, keeping pace with and even outdoing the many western directors engaging with formal experimentalism during the ‘60s. In later work, he pushed ever closer to abstraction and complete fragmentation of narrative.
A product of the time when he was still part of Nikkatsu and yet also clearly a renegade, Story of a Prostitute is both a lacerating study of historical military and sexual insanity, and a monument to Suzuki’s own outsider bravado as a filmmaker and an relentless, ferocious commentator on his society. Breaking momentarily free from his allotted role at the studio, Suzuki inverts the usual focus of the genre films he made, with the stoic, loner action heroes he was already aggressively disassembling, to look at a determined, unruly, but ultimately self-destructive heroine and make a sustained assault on the evils of Japan’s recent past. In seguing into territory more readily associated with the female-centric works of Kenji Mizoguchi and the humanist angst of Masaki Kobayashi, whilst essaying drama with a force equivalent to the bristling provocations of Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu, Suzuki here reveals the rare depths of his gifts.
Suzuki’s jagged, rapid, impressionistic stylistics are in constant evidence throughout Story of a Prostitute. Where the title might make one assume this is to be a realistic study in a woman’s move into the oldest profession in a style familiar from Mizoguchi’s films, Suzuki introduces his anti-heroine Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) as already long immersed in the life, and with her carnal intensity and deeply asocial streak, in some ways utterly suited to it. Story of a Prostitute takes up the story of such a woman at the point where most others would leave off, and continues a thematic strand from Suzuki’s Tattooed Life (1964), where his period heroes aspired to flee Japan for the colonies in Manchuria but were constantly stymied by forces far larger than themselves.
Harumi is a creature doomed to survive on the margins of glorious enterprises. The opening is both dazzlingly artful and entirely efficient. The stark opening titles show a woman struggling across a vast volcanic wasteland that stands in for the frontier world in China where the story mostly unfolds. A voiceover states: “Prostitute, harlot, strumpet—Harumi is one in Tianjin.” Harumi is first glimpsed before a huge mural of a dragon motif, dressed impeccably for her trade, suggesting at once a formal acceptance of her role but with vivid emotional turmoil within, as the narrator explains that her Japanese lover, Tomoda, has just returned from Japan with a bride.
The declaration of Harumi’s status and profession immediately indicts her not as a meek or pathetic victim but as someone who will embrace with increasing volatility her role as a transgressor, a kind of guerrilla warrior against the entrapping paradigms of male dominance and military hierarchy. Her aggression is precisely envisioned in the very next shot: a knife hacks into frame, bright against the surrounding darkness. Harumi is wielding this weapon. The third shot is split, one side presenting a stylised tavern, represented as a table and chairs surrounded by epic darkness, and Harumi, wielding the knife, threatens her lover’s bride, telling her to go back to Japan, whilst the other side of the frame contains the wedding photo for the couple, emblem of the formal ties and powers that now weigh against Harumi. Suzuki cuts to a fourth shot, an inversion of the last in that now he offers an all-white room as the space in which Tomoda apologises to Harumi and explains that nothing need change between them. Harumi continues to insist he get rid of his wife, but then kisses him with voracity and bites his lip almost clean off, as visceral a depiction of erotic intimacy segueing into physical horror as any in cinema.
Suzuki makes a brutal jump cut then to the most innocuous of sights: the hinterlands into which Harumi travels with two other prostitutes recruited to serve at brothels in the frontier town of Buken. The crudity of the garrison soldiers is shocking to her fellows, but attractive to Harumi, who wants to lose herself in a delirium of sex, and the endless queue of virile, sex-starved soldiers at the town provides just what she wants. On the road to the town, the convoy is assaulted by the local partisan army that dogs the Japanese throughout the film. Trucks are blown to pieces by charging partisans on horseback, and soldiers crowd around a dead fellow, whose body is slung into the back of another truck, where it bobs pathetically on the continued journey. Such is the ferocity of the attack that Harumi’s fellows immediately jump out of the truck, wanting to walk back to Tianjin if they have to. But as Harumi flatly states she might as well go on because she has nowhere else to go, they climb back in and acquiesce to her cold realism. Now Harumi catches sight of handsome Corporal Shinkichi Mikami (Tamio Kawaji), just released from a stint in hospital, whilst a commander, angered by the attack, gestures to a nearby village and declares, “We’ve got to kill some men and set an example!” They reach Buken, a walled city, grimy and degraded—as unlikely a scene for imperial glory as any conceivable, on the edge of a wasteland that seems to stretch across the borders of the liminal to become an existential desert.
The girls are told they’ll be serving up to a hundred soldiers a day, but Harumi finds herself marked for a slightly different role than the one she wanted: she is swiftly claimed as the nighttime bed partner of Adjutant Narita (Isao Tamagawa), a swaggering bully and lascivious brute whose imperious claim over Harumi’s body offends her profoundly, except when he’s actually screwing her, and shocks her into a stance of resistance. When she learns that Mikami is his aide, she determines to seduce the corporal, partly out of revenge and partly out of sexual fascination. But her path to this fulfilment is made difficult by the fact that Mikami, though attracted to Harumi, is slavishly indoctrinated by the militarist ethos and truly tortured by the thought of transgressing his role. Harumi’s determination to gain revenge over Narita is illustrated with bravura as she imagines him coming upon herself and Mikami in an embrace: he turns into a photograph, and is torn to pieces. Harumi’s confident belief that her own fecund erotic power can destabilize the hierarchy is underlined as Suzuki offers a shot of her, clearly stripped but framed from just above her breasts and encompassing her grimly smiling face, as an icon of ripe, subversive intent. When she first tries to seduce him in a shed adjoining the brothel, Mikami slaps her when he thinks she’s mocking him: as her fellow prostitutes mass around Mikami and abuse him, Harumi screams in hysteria. Finally, she manages to bed Mikami by suggesting he’s a virgin, and she gradually emboldens him to sneak out of the barracks after dark to make rendezvous with her. But when Mikami is caught, he’s imprisoned, and during a partisan raid, is sent out on a suicide detail.
The small collective of prostitutes interests Suzuki in a fashion similar to Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse, except rather than a street of shame, Suzuki offers an entire world of it. Suzuki refuses to cordon off the masculine and feminine trials of war and whoredom, instead seeing them both as entwined matters of life, death, and above all, human freedom. He gives time to the prostitutes’ banter, fears, their collective sensibility, their louche deportment, play, despair, and gossipy pleasure in their moments of rest, before the columns of soldiers are marched in to begin the exhausting business of assembly-line rutting. At first, the girls doubt it when they’re told they’ll all find sweethearts amongst the soldiers—“How will we find the time?” one asks incredulously—but later they’re glimpsed rushing out to find their loved ones when the soldiers return from the front. The world Suzuki creates is at once fervidly seamy and tangible, a place of unremitting squalor and decay, and yet also littered with expressionist beauty, the town and the environs of the brothels with their décor and fine architecture long since pummelled and brutalised. Concurrent to the central matter of Harumi’s attempted rebellion, Suzuki offers two different case studies in schismatic grasps for individual affirmation. An aged colonist comes to the brothel to arrange for one prostitute to marry his son, whom the father suggests is busy working out on their remote farm. Sachiko (Kazuko Imai) takes up the offer, as she’s the most eager—she’s lugged a tea set to this godforsaken place for a traditional ritual just in case she gets lucky. She ventures into the wasteland, only to return sometime later bedraggled and dejected, raving that the son was actually a lunatic as her tea set falls from its case and lies on the sand.
This pathetic story is contrasted with that of one of Mikami’s fellow soldiers, Uno, an intellectual who keeps getting into trouble for reading things he’s not supposed to: busted down to the ranks and bullied by his sergeant, Uno comes to spend time at the brothel only to read his copy of Diderot, lounging in the room of the one Chinese prostitute at Harumi’s brothel, who watches him with confused affection. The association of soldiers and prostitutes is a time-honoured one, but what is the dividing line between the two professions actually, considering that they both theoretically surrender their individual desires for communal ones and give up control of their bodies? Suzuki keeps insidiously asking the question, and equates the demand with a surrender of will and individual thinking rights. Just as overt is the equation of Harumi’s body with the land the Imperial Army is attempting to subjugate, yielding to force and yet filled with shame for it, and attempting to mount an opposition. The first time Narita visits Harumi, he throws out the sergeant she’s sleeping with, and calls Harumi a whore. When she mouths off at him, questioning if the Emperor would use his language, as Japanese officers are supposed to be the mouthpieces of the Emperor, he strikes her with the scabbard of his sword and reduces her to cowering like an animal before he strips her violently and fucks her with impunity. Harumi does not merely give in to this force, but actually gives herself up to it, surrendering to masochistic desires, but she writhes in weepy self-loathing afterwards, and conflates Narita and her former lover Tomoda, still fantasising about clawing his face.
Suzuki’s textural experimentation was often as much about keeping himself from getting bored as it was about illustrating his films in the most original and vivid fashion possible. Story of a Prostitute is, however, an overflowing trove of stylistic riches where form and function are tethered in dazzling prolixity. Oftentimes, Suzuki’s dedication to cinematic freedom evokes the Unchained Cinema of Murnau and other Expressionists of the ’20s. After the spectacle of the early scenes, Suzuki calms down, relatively speaking, for a time, as he engages with a story that expands on two distinct planes, the personal and the macrocosmic. The personal is predicated around Harumi and Mikami, particularly Harumi’s overheated emotions, bordering on mania, and her sometimes discursive, often reactive way of conceiving the world, distorting the visual texture of the film. In the sequence in which Mikami slaps Harumi when she first makes a pass at him, Suzuki offers a slow-motion shot of Harumi stumbling out of the shed and collapsing in the dirt, accompanied by the sound of the slap and Mikami’s angry declaration, and then showing the actual moment in a flash cut, as if it’s a moment Harumi will have on loop in her mind for ages, raw in disbelief. Harumi kneels on the earth, squirming in inchoate frenzy and still locked in dazed yet urgent slow-motion, screaming, “It isn’t true!” with a passion as striking as it is obscure: Harumi’s face in the act of screaming is its own point, an expression of a primal force that can no longer be stymied.
Harumi’s fantasies occasionally flood out of her mind and onto the screen, like the ripping image of Narita, and a later moment when she imagines driving Mikami to a rebellious frenzy by running across the brothel courtyard, stripping naked and hurling herself onto Narita, causing Mikami to chase her with sword out, ready to kill his commander, only to arrive and snap into a solicitous salute. Suzuki constantly proffers shots through windows, cracks, dividing frames and bars in visualising the schisms in his characters’ psyches and assailed situations. On the macrocosmic level, Suzuki’s direction is a study in a time and place and distinct camps of entwined and also polarised forces—soldiers, partisans, men, women, mind, body. Suzuki expostulates this in cool master shots that absorb milieu and detail, and tracking shots as spectacular and revelatory as anything in Kubrick or Welles, his camera powering through landscapes of panicking humanity and war. In another quietly astounding throwaway moment, Suzuki’s camera roves up and down the length of a banquet table at which solider carouse with whores and geishas, one the girls attempting to seduce the dismissive Narita, the atmosphere raw with the frenetic boisterousness that covers deep unease; finally the camera seeks out Mikami as he sneaks about in the shadows, looking for Harumi.
Suzuki and screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa are unsparing in their depiction of militarist lunacy and colonial brutality. When a detachment sent on a punitive hunt for the partisans is wiped out, Narita leads a larger force to find them. Outside a small, abandoned town, Narita’s forces find their skeletons in a pit where their bodies have been incinerated. Narita leads the soldiers in a moment of service for their dead, the closest the film comes to any kind of sentiment for the Japanese military, and just as the service concludes, the town’s populace appears out of the dust clouds, returning to their homes. Narita promptly leads the soldiers in brutal reprisals, as random prisoners are hauled out of the crowd and hacked to death with swords. Uno is finally so appalled that he refuses to surrender to this level; he steals a horse and flees, and is last seen rising amidst exploding shells, and assumed dead by his superiors. Uno’s successful rebellion is, Suzuki suggests, clearly the result of his intellectual curiosity, whereas Mikami and Harumi are finally doomed by their lack of capacity to conceive of alternatives to their traps. Uno later turns up, having joined the partisans, and Mikami attacks him in a frenzy, asking, “Are you even Japanese anymore?” For Harumi’s campaign to liberate Mikami from his psychological fetters, products as they both are of a system and society that reduces individuals to chattel in the face of unchecked power, and Harumi’s wish to descend into an amour fou finally proves incapable of overcoming a different mad love, that of Pavlovian patriotic violence. “Die before you come back!” Narita tells his men.
Where most of the first part of Story of a Prostitute is grounded resolutely in the tension between intimate frenzy and collective oppression, the last phase gains overtures of spiritual intensity, signalled as Harumi and Mikami are found in a formalistic, sensual pose, bathed in hallucinatory light, momentarily escaping their liminal selves in a moment of genuine amatory transcendence. This intimation is expanded later in the film’s major sequence, as the imprisoned Mikami is let out to man a machine gun well beyond the city gates during a partisan attack. Whilst the town flounders in panic and the rest of the garrison race to battle and then to flee to save their necks, Harumi searches for her lover amidst scurrying refugees and fear-bitten soldiers. She finally learns that a wounded Mikami has been left at the post because it was considered more important to bring back the machine gun. Harumi makes a charge across the plain as bombs explode around her and tracer bullets scourge the air. When she finds Mikami, damaged and unconscious, she lays him on the floor of the trench and settles down to die alongside him, watching the firefight now rendered mute, turned into a dazzling fireworks display burning with all the fevered, pyrotechnic force of Harumi’s psyche, at the edge of mortality. Harumi seems to remember, or imagine, an idyll of a seaside village, perhaps her hometown.
But the couple is left tragically alive, taken prisoner by the partisans, who, in a coup of ironic disparity, are revealed as humanitarian and conscientious. Protesting that he and his fellows do not hate Japanese soldiers, a surgeon treats Mikami’s wounds in a cave temple filled with icons of the Buddha, lending the ensuing struggle not a tone of ethnic or political conflict but one between the dual poles of human identity, the communal and the personal-spiritual, with the latter, exemplified by Uno, defined as necessarily lonely. Mikami, for his part, sticks to his creed with increasingly fanatical determination, even as Harumi begs him to go with her and the partisans. Harumi evolves from whore to Madonna, singing songs with mystic power enough to delight the partisans, and praying in the midst of the carved Buddhas, suffused with angelic light. The partisans abandon them, and they’re brought home by their own side. However, far from being rewarded for his sterling patriotism, Mikami is now even more embarrassing to Narita and the Japanese command. The finale devolves into a tragicomedy in which the question becomes whether Mikami will die by the hand of the army he serves or his own. When Narita has a sergeant take him out to execute him and pass it off as a combat casualty, the sergeant can’t deliver a death blow with Mikami staring at him. His fellow soldiers refuse to shoot him and another partisan attack sends them all scurrying back to town again. Harumi finishes up tackling one of Mikami’s captors in an attempt to free him, and the confusion of the attack and a whirlwind evocation of one of Kurosawa’s rainstorms in invoking the pummelling force of the inevitable turned on humans, gives them a perfect chance for an escape.
Mikami determines to die instead with a grenade Harumi has stolen for him, slave to his personal commitment to his soldier’s oath. Suzuki offers flash stills of Harumi as she wrestles with her lover; but realising she can’t prevent his death, she grabs him and waits with him until the grenade blows them both to pieces. What their end means, if anything, is pondered over in a sadly equivocal epilogue, as their memory is abused and condemned by officers, whilst the soldiers hold their personal opinions and grief inside. Suzuki moving through the ranks, allowing their thoughts to flow in voiceover, and suggesting that the grinding gears of official reality and private truth are beginning to break down the machine, even as Narita and his superiors start out to pursue the partisans, with Narita’s superior musing worriedly that, “China is a large country,” as the soldiers march off into the dust. They are watched by the remaining girls of the brothel who have a funeral for what’s left of their friends, with the Chinese woman musing angrily over the cult of death that has claimed two new victims, no matter what private satisfaction they gained from it. By this end, the only thing that is not in doubt is Suzuki’s fulminating fury against the waste of life, the ignorance of militarism, and the strange power of love, even as it annihilates itself.
| 2 comments »
Director/Coscreenwriter: Mario Bava
Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
By Roderick Heath
Mario Bava is a name to conjure with amongst lovers of horror cinema today, after an interregnum when his brand had waned and he was remembered only by film scholars and the directors who ripped him off. His lush, visually symphonic work in the horror field did not just bridge eras in the genre’s evolution, but actively affected it. Bava oversaw both the great revival of the Gothic horror style, thanks to his rescue job on Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), which beat both Hammer Studios and Roger Corman to the mark of sparking that style, and continued with Bava’s proper debut La Maschera del Demonio (1960). Bava however also oversaw that revival’s wane, and its displacing by a new style of horror, one which Bava essentially invented, based in more modern conventions, codes, and tropes. This would become known as the giallo movie. In the wake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which gave contemporary horror an electric relevance, Bava first compiled the giallo style in 1963’s La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo and its brilliant follow-up Sei Donne Per l’Assassino (1964). Where the Gothic genre was historical, rooted in intensely psychologised images and long-settled figurations representing threat – ghosts, vampires, werewolves – the giallo was stylised according to the shape and rhythm of a less superstitious but equally paranoid contemporary landscape, reconceiving threat as a lurking, masked, gloved killer out to attack and annihilate beauty and complacency. Gothic was rooted in Victorian literary and folk-tale traditions; giallo came from pulp literature, modern art, and urban myth. Giallo latched onto the sorts of figures beloved of trashy newspapers and which seemed to have devolved along with the modern urban world – sex killers, heavy breather phone callers, alienated misogynists, and murderous anarchists.
I Tre Volti della Paura feels like a pivotal movie for Bava, not simply in that its English-language title, Black Sabbath, inspired the name of the prototypical heavy metal band and thus gave it a higher measure of fame than any other Bava work, but because it’s an omnibus movie that allowed Bava to offer variations on new and old horror aesthetics. This analytical presumption contrasts not simply their disparate preoccupations and lexicons, both visual and thematic, but also their shared roots and mutual, closely related power. Bava’s film tells three stories adapted from Anton Chekhov, Howard Snyder, and Alexei Tolstoy, a disparate triumvirate of names and modes of storytelling, ordered depending on which version you’re watching of the film, the Italian or the foreign release cut. The Italian cut commences with The Telephone, from a Snyder story, moves on to The Wurdalak, from Tolstoy, and concludes with Chekhov’s The Drop of Water. The first is clearly an exercise in giallo nerve-wracking, whilst the second is ripe Gothicism, and the third represents a distinct tradition but also presents a curious melding of the two, apt in adapting Chekhov, a writer with old-world class partly veiling a very modern, ironic mind. The horror genre has, over the years, seen more omnibus and portmanteau films than any other genre I can think of, from Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), up to this year’s V/H/S. This seems a by-product of the type of story the genre works well with, minimal mood-pieces where sometimes complication despoils the form’s inherent qualities, and the powerful literary tradition of short eerie fiction. Bava’s work came in the wake of Corman’s Tales of Terror (1961) and anticipated Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964), the multi-director fancies of Histoires Extraordinaires de Edgar Allen Poe (1967), and Milton Subotsky’s series of Amicus films, but unlike most others Bava resists mixing the bag in tone or intent too much, and each episode vibrates with concerted near-perfection.
I Tre Volti della Paura often seems aware of its place as a bridging point of old and new, and certainly Bava keeps glancing over his shoulder at both his own style’s roots, and that of the genre. He signals this most clearly by taking advantage of having Boris Karloff as a star, offering him in a prologue and epilogue as a good-humoured master of ceremonies, warning the audience about vampires who might be sitting next to them – “Vampires go to the movies too!” – and imbuing the film with a self-evident link to the heyday of Hollywood horror. Karloff’s stature as a horror star had taken him through three distinct waves in the genre’s evolution, from James Whale to Val Lewton to Corman and Bava. Karloff’s jests in the bookends suggest an extension to his salutary self-mockery in Corman’s The Raven the same year, and yet his actual role in this film, in The Wurdalak, is serious in a severe and classical fashion. The Telephone, particularly in its Italian version, is remarkable for its concise summary of the underpinnings and methodology of the giallo style. The set-up is simple: a woman alone is terrorised by an unseen threat and a taunting voice on the phone. It’s one of the hoariest of modern genre variants, one that easily turns dull and repetitive in lesser hands, and yet Bava’s version is the ür-text, crisp in its execution and telling in its supple feints and clever miscues.
The woman here is Rosy (Michele Mercier), a gorgeous young trollop who arrives home one evening, strips down, and gets ready for bed, only to start receiving phone calls. At first the caller does not answer her plaintive demands to know who they are and what they want, and then finally the raspy mystery man begins to taunt her with threats of rape and murder, before slipping a newspaper cutting under her front door. The cutting suggests the caller is a former boyfriend of hers, Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), who has since gone to jail and now escaped. The caller seems to know everything she does, and Bava privileges the audience to a glimpse of malignant peering eyes through a window blind. Rosy, distraught and told if she calls the police then the killer will come in and finish her off, instead phones up her former lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) and begs her to come over. Mary arrives and after soothing her fears ends up sleeping with her, but as Bava has already revealed, Mary is in fact the source of the phone calls – a pretext in her desire to get back with Rosy. But as Mary writes a confession to leave for Rosy to read in the morning, the real Rainer enters the apartment and sneaks up on Mary, assuming she is Rosy.
The Telephone is a masterpiece of compact storytelling, unfolding with Bava’s illustrative intelligence whilst accepting distinct formal restrictions. The lesbian twist to the episode, carefully fudged in the English-language version, gives it a darker and deeper emotional punch than would otherwise offer, making Mary’s malfeasance a keener manifestation of emotional jealousy and longing worked out through a sadistic ploy, and staking the tale in a game of reversing roles. Mary pretends to be Rainer and Rainer mistakes Mary for Rosy, the man and woman swapping parts in their desire to possess/destroy Rosy’s fecund but independent sexuality, but finally only helping destroy each-other. This element plugs into the contemporary anxiety over sexuality and changing social mores overtaking traditional morality which would give the giallo genre so much of its bite, albeit often with reactionary overtones. Only a couple of years after Fellini offered arch queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita (1960), Bava treats this element with beguiling matter-of-factness, carefully depicting Mary as driven by angry desire to duplicitous means, eyeing Rosy’s fancy rooms and wondering out loud who pays for it all. The suggestion is that Rosy has often used her as her emotional comfort whilst working her way through men who could help her financially. Mary’s bitterness at being thrown over is then all too palpable, and it’s clear that Rainer, a dangerous criminal, was one of those men. Bava’s usual punitive moralism, often even stricter than his own hero Alfred Hitchcock, is apparent as all three characters pay a steep price for their transgressions, with Rosy left alive at the end as perhaps the worst punishment of all as the victims of her romantic life lie quite literally sprawled on the floor.
At the same time, Mary’s gamesmanship replicates on a narrative level the fundamental dynamic of Bava’s direction, a reduction of drama to the act of looking, watching, hypnotised by the pure spectacle as Bava stokes Rosy’s fear with pseudo-erotic sadism, the unseen watcher/caller standing in for the camera, director, audience, willing the game to go further, deeper, and climax with orgasmic act of murder. But like his successor Dario Argento in his early work, Bava enjoys disrupting the expectations about whose viewpoint the terror represents, evoking polymorphic underpinnings to a nominally simple exploitation of phobias of sex and death: it’s like Sartre’s No Exit reconfigured as chamber piece horror. The Telephone charts Bava’s precise awareness of just how long to string along the situation, offering his key revelations, like the staring eyes behind the blind and the identity of the caller, with seemingly casual yet actually precise and forceful cuts and camera moves as if following a thread to the heart of the labyrinth. He sustains dread in the meantime with the resolute build of shots around Mercier’s terrific performance, with each new call causing a distinct mounting of tension manifest in Rosy. Whilst the pace of editing builds, the telephone itself turns in an object of adversarial power – it’s coloured red and black, looking forward to the red telephone receiver that dangles as the evocation of severed lives and ruined loves at the end of Sei Donne per l’Assassino. The Telephone sees Bava at once defining the basic principles of giallo for the future – peering eyes, gloved hands, wickedly shining knives, isolation, paranoia, the fetishistic delight in the image of a terrified woman – whilst also looking back to Hitchcock’s immediate influence. He executes the story within one room, recalling Rope (1948) and Rear Window, particularly the latter with its emphasis on voyeurism; the eyes behind the blind evoke Psycho (1960), whilst Bava mimics a singular shot from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) as he performs a delicate camera move around Rosy, as she listens to an unfolding nightmare on the telephone. A climactic shot of Rainer sneaking up on Mary with an appropriated stocking clearly appropriates from Dial M For Murder (1954).
Which is not to say Bava’s filmmaking is imitative, but simply paying nods where they’re due, whilst also presenting his own stylistic brilliance, his sense of colour and composition and genius for fluidic, sensuous camera movement, and these qualities permeate the whole of I Tre Volti della Paura. The Wurdalak, the second and most elaborate episode, is a miniature epic that offsets the contemporary vision of private hells in The Telephone with a more traditional version. Bava’s penchant for the folkish eccentricities of the Slavic ghost story canon had already seen him loosely adapt Gogol’s ‘The Vij’ for La Maschera del Demonio, and The Wurdalak like that film takes place in a netherworld version of Eastern Europe, with sonorous location shots fleshing out perhaps Bava’s a beautifully crafted exercise in gothic horror. Freda, Bava, Sergio Leone and others of their breed were always expected to make their films look like the popular and commercially dominant English-language genre films in their fields, and even as they began to distort the results towards their own interests they paid lip-service to this necessity: here Bava pays clear nods to Corman by importing the stolidly handsome star of his House of Usher (1960), Mark Damon, to play a variation on his role there as an outmatched ingenue locked in a battle with his lover’s very identity. The set-up has distinct resemblances to several of Corman’s Poe-derived or inspired cycle, as Damon’s Count Vladimir d’Urfe takes on the role of archetypal Wanderer, in a vaguely identified, eerily depopulated land where peculiar social assumptions and menacing activities permeate the onerous scenery. The Count discovers a headless corpse on a riverbank with a distinctive knife in the heart. Vladimir straddles the corpse across his horse and carries it to the nearest house, where he discovers a family living in cowering anxiety and expectation, and he’s confronted by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) who recognises his own father’s knife as the one Vladimir has removed from the body.
When Vladimir leads Giorgio outside to inspect the body, it proves to have mysteriously vanished, only to turn up a short distance away, being stabbed through the heart with punitive relish by Giorgio’s brother Pietro (Massimo Righi). Somehow this discovery is actually more unnerving than the corpse’s reanimation would have been, the sight of the headless remnant being stabbed with a need for certainty commingling with the impossibility of ever truly killing the spectre of fear, heightening the atmosphere of hysteria that builds in the forty or so minutes of The Wurdalak’s running time. The corpse, it’s explained to Vladimir, was that of Alibeq, a Turkish bandit who had terrorised the region and who was rumoured to also be a vampire-like wurdalak. Their father Gorca (Karloff) had gone out days earlier to find and kill the enemy after he had murdered the clan’s foreman, but left behind a mysterious entreaty that they should kill him in turn, if he turned up more than five days after departing, a timespan which happens to run out at midnight, for that would mean that he would certainly be a wurdalak too by then. As the family waits fearfully for the appointed hour, Vladimir’s is drawn to Gorca’s stunningly beautiful daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen). As midnight ticks by, Gorca appears, haggard and alternately fierce and strangely unctuous in his manner, displaying Alibeq’s head which he’s been carrying around with him, a strikingly iconic image of a man who’s given into savage nature even in attempting to annihilate it. His fearful children know they should obey his previous statement, and yet can’t bring themselves to. In the night, as Pietro is left to keep watch, Gorca begins moving about the house, claiming Ivan, the child of Giorgio and his wife Maria (Rika Dialina), and leaving Pietro for dead.
One of Bava’s distinctive traits as a filmmaker was his ruthlessly clear understanding of the basic underpinnings of the dark fantasies he was engaged in depicting, and just as La Maschera del Demonio expanded intelligibly on the schismatic yet eternally conjoined images of Madonna and whore, and Sei Donne Per l’Assassino would contend with the urge to exterminate beauty if it could not be possessed, The Wurdalak anticipates Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1973) as Bava’s inwardly spiralling meditations on the encaging horror that can be family identity. Here the poisoned patriarch Gorca, who had gone out to do battle with the marauding villain, comes back as the force of evil he had sought to exterminate, and swiftly causes his clan to fall victim to it, complete with clear overtones of paedophilia and incest as he singles out young Ivan and snatches him away into the night, and the net draws tighter around Sdenka even as Vladimir begs her to escape with him. Images in Operazione Paura of evil lurking outside windows, peering in on the warm and contented with baleful intent to feed on that land of life, are prefigured here, as the household eats itself from the inside out. What’s most striking and pathologically precise about The Wurdalak is its pitilessly unsentimental view of sentiment, one which plainly prefigures the similar brute logic that George Romero would examine in his best films, a tension between emotional reflex and survivalist necessity.
This tilt on the familiar dramatic necessities of fighting evil examines the way people can behave in illogical ways when their lives are at stake and disturbing facts are plainly apparent, but their taboos and intensely entrenched prejudices and loyalties, no matter how retrograde or ignorant of other concerns, have been internalised so completely that they demand people act in contrary ways. Thus Bava shows the clan destroyed by its blindness to anything but its own hermetic nature, in a pungent metaphor for this schism: the sons cannot obey the father’s own advice and destroy him, and Giorgio’s wife murders her husband when he tries to prevent her letting in their plainly vampirized son, who seems to come wandering out of the frigid night to scratch at the door (anticipating memorable moments in Tobe Hooper’s spin on Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, 1979). Many a young lover has often felt like they’re trying to extract the one desirable member from a family of monsters, and Vladimir struggles to convince Sdenka to flee with him as she believes she must stay with her family for loyalty’s sake even as they all expire. Although Vladimir does finally convince Sdenka to leave, the delay is fatal, for the clan are able to catch up with them. In a brilliant depiction of the inescapable nature of formative roots, Sdenka is caught between her transformed family members, advancing to claim her in the midst of a ruined church, shambling corpses still obeying their inculcated ideals of clannish behaviour, and ghosts of ancient repressions still overwhelming all good sense in the present. When Vladimir awakens alone, he retraces the path to the Gorca house and finds Sdenka, waiting in all luscious readiness for him to join the family circle.
Interpretative perversities aside, The Wurdalak is visual gothic par excellence, with Bava manipulating both the studio settings and the location shooting to maximum atmospheric effect, conjuring a magnificent, appropriately fairy-tale world of menace, frames teeming with overgrown thorny bushes and misted forests, frosted windows and warm hues of longed-for shelters and sunrises. Indelible images proliferate, like Gorca stalking across the bridge on his way home, the faces of the undead glaring through frosted windows, and young Ivan clawing and weeping at the door, stoking his mother to emotions so desperate she cuts through her husband to get to her son. Bava pulls off one of his most felicitous bits of filmmaking here as he cuts from Giorgio and Maria arguing to the plaintive yet disconcerting image of what they think is their son kneeling with arms spread on the front door, and then cutting back to the sigh of a pair of scissors, daubed in Giorgio’s blood, falling to the floor, the mortally wounded man still crying out to the wife who’s killed him not to open the door for the monster. The deliriousness of Bava’s sci-fi horror riff, Terrore Nello Spazio (1965), is nascent in the saturated colours and dream-like mood. If the last chapter, The Drop of Water, seems comparatively lightweight after the The Wurdalak, it actually represents Bava’s most purely stylistic coup, in the orchestral use of colour, composition, sound, and camera work utilised in compiling a growing sense of unease.
Operating in a similar mould of isolated anxiety, depicting a woman alone in her apartment afraid of lurking terrors, to The Telephone, The Drop of Water is the story of plebeian, sticky-fingered, hapless nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), who is called out on a dark and stormy night from her warm abode to attend to her just deceased charge, a reputed but reclusive medium. Distracted and irritable, Helen espies and surreptitiously steals the enticing ring on the corpse’s finger. If The Telephone and The Wurdalak explore two major strands of horror, The Drop of Water exemplifies a third, the morality play where justice, which may be supernatural or might simply be overloaded mental credulity, comes surging from beyond the grave to punish transgression. For Bava, the mechanics of this kind of storytelling are comparatively simplistic, but the elements of class envy and the depiction of property as a maddening and destructive spur look forward to the insidious supernatural class struggle again in Operazione Paura, and the war over the estate that drives the bloodshed of Reazione a Catena (1971). Bava further invests The Drop of Water with overtones of black comedy, through Pierreux’s amusingly exaggerated performance as Helen, and the minute, nuisance-like, yet cumulatively maddening proliferation of difficulties in her attempts at thievery that start to resemble silent comedy. This restrained slapstick has consequences, as these events begin to recur as increasingly dreadful portents of warning after they’ve already suggested the taboo nature of stealing from the dead, building with a rapid but precise relish reminiscent of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1957), where again the temptation to profitable transgression is met by the corrosive terror of being caught.
Whilst the episode’s tone sustains impudent humour, Bava still constructs this episode with magisterial craft, contrasting the decaying splendour of the Medium’s mansion and Helen’s flat whilst filling both with resplendent colour effects that communicate moral, corporeal, and spiritual rot, for both places are filled with hues eloquent of decay and slovenly disinterest. Bava’s camera peers into spaces where any manifestation of evil might appear and yet which don’t – until finally they do, or at least the mind, tired of waiting for them to arrive, conjures them itself. Helen’s midnight suffering as she hears dripping water and is tormented by a single, impudent fly, sees her worked up into a pitch of anxiety. Finally the ghoulish visage of her dead charge appears in the shadows, gliding with eerie weightlessly and terrible purpose, her face, distorted as on the deathbed into a gnarled and gruesome leer, is etched in sickly hues of green and red. Helen is found dead the next day, missing the ring. Perhaps the ghost came and claimed it, and yet, as Bava details the guilty face of Helen’s neighbour and zooms in for a last look at Helen’s dead face, now distorted itself into another grim leer, the neighbour has taken the ring, and the roundelay of guilt and fear invoked by this seamy fixation with possession will continue. You can’t take it with you, but you can damn well haunt whoever else thinks it’s theirs.
The title’s cleverness becomes apparent by the end, as the “three faces of fear” refer not only to the trio of spooky stories, but to the cumulative fixation each episode has with a face that encapsulates fear, whether being experienced, as found in Rosy’s or Helen’s sweat-dabbed, tremulous brows, or inspiring it, as in Gorca’s and the Medium’s funereal visages, even coalescing monstrosity and beauty in Sdenka’s enticing final clinch with Vladimir. If, as Jean Renoir once said, the face was the greatest tool at the filmmaker’s disposal, this was Bava’s response, his proof of faith in the gestural power of the human element to invoke the most extreme cinematic emotions. If Sei Donne or Operazione Paura offer complete statements that are ultimately more powerful, I Tre Volti could well be the best produced of Bava’s horror films: the production carries little of the tackiness a lot of even the best Italian genre cinema could never quite escape, and the costuming, lighting, and settings reflect craftsmanship of a rich and delightful sort. Bava’s collaboration with DP Ubaldo Terzano is superlative. This excellence is ironic, as the film finishes up making fun of its own construction, revealing in the climax the tacky charm required to conjure such visions as Karloff, in his Gorca guise, suddenly stops riding the mechanical horse he’s mounted on to jest with the audience, whilst Bava pulls back to reveal crewmen running in circles to create the effect of forest brush whipping by. This jokey epilogue is Bava laughing at his own showmanship and Karloff mocking his own legacy, but not with tiredness or self-contempt, but the knowing winks of great magicians who don’t mind giving the game away if it’s been played well enough. Or perhaps it’s Bava’s answer to his pal Fellini’s inverted study in cinematic creativity released the same year, 8½. Anyway, when it’s all over, it’s not the humour you remember, or the storytelling: it’s that primal image of the Medium’s face, sliding forth out of the darkness, straight out of every childhood nightmare.
| 11 comments »
The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Georges Franju
By Roderick Heath
Amongst early pioneers in film, Louis Feuillade, who made his famous serials between the lead-up to World War I and his early death in 1925, produced ür-texts of almost incalculable impact on subsequent architectonics of film and popular culture. For many French and German directors, in particular, his style is almost endlessly resonant: his example gave immediate birth to Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. Feuillade’s style moved beyond the theatrical wonderment of Georges Méliès to embrace a perfervid blend of realism and make-believe, utilising the realities of the then-contemporary Parisian landscape and filling it with bizarre emanations of the fantastic, populated by figures accumulated from tropes of gothic fiction and stage melodrama, and the evolving science fiction and detective genres. He did so with a deadpan grace that made him an immediate ancestor for the surrealist movement, which would bloom in the following few years, and captured, in several senses, the birth of modernity. More than that, the tensions within Feuillade’s work seem to capture an innate dissonance in the nature of film, poised to be both a tool for capturing the world as it is, and yet ripe for subverting reality and delighting the eye with wonders and perversities that take on totemic power. The images and driving ideas of his serials have been sustained and transmitted through innumerable tributes and imitations, both drawing from and contributing to the common lore of pulp heroism and comic-book super-heroism. As such, it’s arguable something of Feuillade’s spirit trickles down to us even in such contemporary product as V for Vendetta (2005) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), where the source material owes its definite debts, however distant, to Feuillade’s fantasias of masked avengers and cat-suited femme fatales dancing over rooftops and reigning over a cityscape transformed into a psychic playground.
Georges Franju, for his part, had been making short documentaries since the 1930s, most famously, his 1945 exploration of an urban charnel house, Les Sang Des Bêtes, but he retained links to the cinema avant garde, and his own surrealist sensibility remained in evidence even in explicating strange and terrible textures, constantly locating the charge of the unearthly in the seemingly harshly realistic. His fascination with cinema history became apparent when he made a short documentary about Méliès not long before he made a successful entrance into feature cinema. After his seminal horror film, Eyes Without a Face (1959), named after a Feuillade work and remixing themes from fairy tales and 1930s horror films, he decided to remake the silent master’s 1916 serial Judex. Some New Wavers made fun of him for crawling back into historical daydreams, and yet Franju has been proven smartly anticipatory of where popular fantasies were heading. Within a few years, a surge of pop-art-hued superhero mockeries would hit screens big and small, long before comic-book progeny would begin to invade multiplexes. In turn Franju would provide some inspiration to other filmmakers, especially horror directors like Don Sharp, whose The Kiss of the Vampire (1964) was immediately indebted, and French underground gothic auteur Jean Rollin. Franju’s touch is far more delicate, however, than most of his followers, and certainly more so than the blockbuster fare he anticipated. His film’s closing title reads, “Dedicated to Louis Feuillade – In Memory of an Unhappy Time: 1916,” a reminder that many of the most disturbing fantasias well out of the most troubled of eras. Franju’s take on Feuillade’s material both looked back to the hazy dawn of modernism and anticipated an oncoming age of moral destabilisation, rebellious countercultures, and anarchic subcultures.
For Franju the mocking, pseudo-surrealist possibilities of this material became paramount. Compressing the five-hour serial into a 90-minute feature, Franju dashes through narrative with a troubadour’s rollicking wit, refashioning the tale as a display of subversive surfaces and magic-realist artifice. His protagonist Judex (Channing Pollock) struts through the proceedings in black cape and hat, playing the vigilante avenger. Yet, he often seems less a force of traditional heroic potency, usually expressed through rock-solid fists and guns, than a bringer of graces, karmic balance, and atonement: he offers bleak but symmetrical punishments without violence. The film’s thematic stresses also take up where Eyes Without a Face left off in extending Franju’s insidious disassembly of the old French patriarchy through motifs torn from fairy tales and genre yarns and pasted back together in his own pattern. Like his successor as a Feuillade fan and natural cinematic rebel, Jacques Rivette, Franju was fascinated by the cinema as an assembly of carefully textured surfaces whose surface order and frippery always contain the seed of the mysterious and the chaotic.
The film offers up tycoon Favraux (Michel Vitold) as a corrupt and oppressive overlord, and as per Balzac’s great maxim, he’s a former bank clerk who’s built a fortune and become a capitalist titan through criminal acts. The first few minutes witness him contemptuously dismissing an old vagabond, Pierre Kerjean (René Génin), who took the rap for him years before for a criminal act and now has lost contact with the wife and child Favraux was supposed to protect. Favraux patronises his daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob), introduced looking shocked into immobility by haute-bourgeois conformity as inescapable as the sunlight she lounges in, with her father; having forced her into one marriage, he now plans to force her into a second with a wastrel aristocrat. But justice is already looming over Favraux: he’s received a threat of death in the form a letter from the mysterious Judex, and he calls in oddball private detective Alfred Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau). Whilst driving into town along a country lane, Favraux sees Kerjean walking and takes the opportunity to rid himself of this potential pest by running him down.
The crimes of high society will soon encounter both the reaction of repressed and degraded classes, represented by the devilish Diana Monti (Francine Bergé) and the vigilante actions of Judex, a shape-shifting, self-appointed knight. A key joke is that both of these characters are posing as people close to Favraux. Diana pretends to be Marie Verdier, a governess for Jacqueline’s daughter: Favraux asks her to marry him after she refuses to be his mistress, spurning him because of his great fortune, the perfect hook. Judex poses as his trusted elderly aide Vallieres, a benevolent guardian hovering over the otherwise blighted Favraux household. With a typical sleight of hand, Judex is, then, secretly present in the narrative even before he makes his official entrance in one of the most amusingly bizarre and iconic introductions in film history: Franju’s camera slowly tilting up from his feet, revealing a well-formed masculine body in an elegant suit, before revealing a head encased in a bird mask, gazing with an implacable raptor’s intensity at the camera. In the same year as Hitchcock’s The Birds, Franju peppers his film with constant avian images utilising them, like Hitchcock, as emblems of emotion and the inexplicable, except here they’re the tools and symbols of benevolent forces rather than the underlying chaos in nature. This imagery is also based partly in justifying one major tool at Franju’s disposal, Pollock’s gifts as a magician: the American-born performer was world-famous for his conjuring of doves.
Judex’s most famous scene follows this first sight of the hero as he proceeds through a masked ball held by Favraux to announce his daughter’s engagement with an apparently dead dove in his hand, held out before him like a pagan offering and symbol of the damage Favraux has done to others. As he reaches the stage with the eyes of the guests on him, the bird suddenly flutters to life, and the masked magician begins to release more birds that flit above the society guests. He closes in on Jacqueline, herself wearing a dove mask, and charms her with his pets, before her father, clad aptly in a vulture mask, takes the stage to announce the engagement at midnight—the time when Judex has promised he will die. Just after the clock finishes striking the hour, Favraux immediately falls to the floor and is pronounced dead by a doctor (André Méliès) who is amongst the guests.
Franju reconstructs Judex into a kind of artist-hero, an Orpheus figure standing at the gates and wielding powers of life, death, and resurrection through his artful execution, a figure with an otherworldly quality that stands in stark contrast to the equally multitudinous, yet deeply, deliciously corporeal Diana. This is partly a side effect of the fact that Franju had originally wanted to remake Fantômas (1914), and was more interested in the villains Musidora had played for Feuillade, with her potent eroticism and air of ungoverned radicalism, than in traditional hero figures, and this tension contributes to the peculiar texture of Judex. Franju clearly doesn’t care about the usual rules that are supposed to preoccupy filmmakers engaging with such material, like trying to make the flimflam logically or psychologically convincing, opting for uncovering an animating spirit of transformative delight.
Caught between the two masked protagonists is Scob’s Jacqueline, an ironic touch considering she played the disfigured, perpetually masked and imprisoned heroine in Eyes Without a Face. Scob is here just as angelic and victimised, but this time she’s just about the only major character who is not adopting some kind of disguise. She is rather the character who is the most integral being, needing nothing more than what she possesses, and for whom all decency is a private epiphany. Jacqueline is initially dominated and pinioned by her father’s prerogative; his “death” comes as both an aggrieving shock and an opportunity to declare autonomy, rejecting the poisoned chalice that is his estate in favour of raising her daughter Alice on her income as a piano teacher, and seeing off her loser fiancé with passing delight. Scob, rather resembling a blonde Audrey Hepburn with her swanlike neck and large, expressive eyes, inhabits the role of nominal damsel in distress with an ethereal grace, relentlessly hunted, snatched, drugged, and nearly murdered by Diana and her coterie of dimwit thugs. Yet, she also is the moral light of the film: after she spurns the estate, Judex changes his original plan to execute her father, who was merely paralysed with a drug, for his crimes, and instead keep him prisoner.
Judex and his band of warriors unearth Favraux from his tomb and transport him to their abode, a super-futuristic hideout underneath an ancient, perhaps Roman ruin (felicitous, given the Roman roots of his adopted name and creed), an abode reminiscent of Cocteau’s Hades in Orpheé (1949) translated into proto-science fiction, as seemingly solid brick walls slide apart, ceilings become panels upon which written words appear delivering messages of almost deistic judgement, and Judex keeps an eye on his captive with the sorcery of technology—television. Judex, like some other films of the late ’50s and early ’60s, including a small rash of period-dress Jules Verne adaptations, offers a prototypical version of the spirit that drives the more recent Steampunk movement: a delight in modern and futuristic technology viewed through the sensibility and conceptualism of the past, coupled with an effervescent, yet quietly meaningful reflection on the subtler transformations of society. Franju coats the film with a veneer of the comedic and the ethereal that don’t entirely hide its awareness of the fluidic moment it depicts, with characters, particularly the female ones, shaking off the dead weight of Victorianism to claw their way into a new era. Judex already seems to live in that new era, like a time traveller, or perhaps a Merlin, who was said to age in reverse: fittingly, then, one key image of perverse sensuality arrives when Jacqueline is shocked to discover Judex in the act of transforming himself into the elderly Vallieres, mantle of snowy white hair over his young face, her aged protector revealed as dramatically handsome potential lover/persecutor/saviour.
Judex is filled with such deft shifts of emphasis and perception, as it moves from incident to incident borrowed from Feuillade with diversions into moments of private wit and invention. Franju constantly gleans strange humour from tropes of melodrama: Jacqueline, dumped in a river by the notorious criminals, floats blithely into the arms of fishermen whilst her tormentors look on in frustration; Morales with a hand caught in a trap on Favraux’s desk, trying to hide long enough for Diana to sneak up on the interloping Jacqueline, who screams on seeing the apparently disembodied limb; Diana, pretending to be a nurse with a voluminous wimple perched on her head, checks herself out in her compact to make sure her makeup hasn’t been despoiled by lying on the ground to spring a trap on an another unsuspecting victim. The sight of Judex’s men scaling a sheer wall like so many four-limbed spiders is both physically impressive and yet, somehow, hilarious, as is the heroes’ appearance in costume dashing about in full daylight, which ought to get them arrested on general principal. The two roving bands of mysterious heroes and villains chase each other around the landscape in a roundelay of costumes and roles, both infiltrating and slipping outside the confines of society, before finally reverting to their purified roles as emblems of good and evil.
Franju rigorously contrasts environs, shifting slowly from the old-world mystique of the country mansion to the rundown Parisian suburb where the finale takes place, with the building Diana’s gang holes up in turned into a lonely castle in a gloomy waste ground at the very frontiers of a bleak and bottomless modernism, with stygian factories burning away in the background as Diana dangles above a void. Judex’s presumption in labouring according to a desire for essential human justice to be upheld is based in a sense that society is, on the level of villainy that Favraux has worked, corrupt beyond the possibility of real justice. Favraux himself is so scared of the powerful men he has done business with or has dirt on that he doubts he could ever return safely to his former life even after Diana and her cohort rescue him from Judex’s prison. This news only makes Diana happier: even better to feed off the dark secrets of high society than to steal its trinkets. The spirit of fin-de-siècle anarchist movements and proto-revolutionary zeal lie underneath both sides, whilst the lone figure of even vaguely official justice, Cocantin, is a comical figure given to excitedly flipping the pages of the original Fantômas novel.
An sly sensuality charges Judex throughout, most obviously with Bergé dancing about in tights, culminating in a delirious moment in which she strips off her nurse’s garb down to her basic bodystocking, with that absurd wimple still on her head, before finally tossing that aside, too, and plunging through a trap door into a river to elude Judex and his men. The erotic edge is, however, equally manifest in the undertones of Judex’s and Jacqueline’s encounters, crystallising in images of symbolist power, like a doped-up Jacqueline left splayed in the driveway of the mansion by Morales and Diana when they’re faced with guard dogs, one of the hounds placing one paw protectively over the girl moments before the equally watchful, beneficent Judex strolls out of the woods and carries Jacqueline back home, her white clad form aglow in moonlight and seeming to float in the arms of the nocturnal-cloaked hero.
Aided by Bergé’s mischievous, but never winking, performance, Franju delights in Diana’s displays of sexy evil and rapid alterations of attire, playing the prim Madonna for Favraux’s benefit, the sister of mercy, the urban coquette, the mannishly garbed leader of her cell of rebels, and most indelibly, slinking through the night in her form-hugging black bodysuit with silver dagger at the hip a la Musidora’s Irma Vep and many a Catwoman after her. Diana is not merely a naughty anti-heroine, however, but a cold-blooded killer constantly poking lethally sharp objects in Jacqueline’s face, as if she’s seized hold of phallocratic power, but can only fashion an intent to violate her feminine opposite with it. Diana lives with a boyfriend and partner in crime Morales (Théo Sarapo), first glimpsed lounging on his bed and looking very like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as if Franju’s making a wry link between the older fantasies and Godard’s contemporary brand of eroticised, rough-trade criminal. Turns out that Morales is actually the missing son of Kerjean, progeny of a family unit torn asunder by Favraux’s malfeasance: his father wasn’t actually killed by Favraux’s attempt to run him over, but is, in fact, another of Judex’s operatives, and father and son recognise each other when locked in a deadly battle.
Cocantin’s return to the fray late in the film comes when a village boy, a pal of Alice’s who, having recognised Diana in her nurse costume as the fake Marie Verdier, approaches the detective to succeed where Judex has momentarily failed in tracking her down. Cocantin’s childlike spirit has already been confirmed when he was glimpsed gleefully relating blood and thunder tales and stories of her namesake to the delighted Alice; now, he and the kid form a fairly effective crime-fighting duo, allowing Franju to offer a nod in the direction of Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and further undermining any pretences to seriousness. Yet, the film’s very last act is a brilliant whirl of reversals, as Judex is captured by his enemies, and fends off Diana’s attempt at sadomasochistic-hued seduction as she tries to kiss him while he’s tied up. Franju performs another pirouette in offering surprising sympathy for Favraux as a man who’s alive and yet might as well be dead, now wanting only peace. He still falls for Diana’s pretence to being the kindly Marie who will marry him now that he’s no longer rich, for she still hopes to use his knowledge. Favraux trusts her completely and understandably fears Judex, so much so that when the hero arrives to save him from the villains, Favraux knocks him out, and shoots himself rather than be retaken by his rescuers, lending of note of tragedy to the story, but also saving him from the disillusionment of learning Diana’s real nature.
Meanwhile, of course, a gentleman like Judex can’t be seen to hurt a lady, so to deliver Diana a comeuppance and save Judex from his apparently inescapable death, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of Cocantin’s gorgeous acrobat girlfriend Daisy (Sylva Koscina), whose circus caravan just happens to trundle past as Cocantin and the kid are watching the enemy hideout. Daisy reports to Cocantin that her own domineering uncle is now dead (“The lions ate him!”), so she’s a free agent now. A perfect equal and opposite to Diana, she wears a dashing white bodysuit for her act, initially entering wearing a spangled cape and tiara that she hands over to Cocantin for the duration. She is the one who will climb up the wall of the house and spring Judex, allowing him to turn the tables on Diana and Morales by substituting the criminal male for his bound and hooded form; Diana unknowingly plunges a knife into her lover’s heart, in a typically inspired, vicious twist. Diana’s own comeuppance comes as Daisy chases her onto the roof, where the mirror opposites battle to the death. Franju even offers a gleefully sexy and exciting shot showing only their legs, clad in leotards of contrasting black and white, entwining and tangling in the dance of combat. Diana loses, and finishes up sliding down the roof to dangle from the drain pipe as Judex’s men try to reach her, to no avail. That she was as much of a life force as a destroyer is suggested when her end comes, falling to her death and lying open-eyed amidst rubble and flowers, wept over by the young boy, with a mournful taps blown by one of the circus musicians: for Franju, even a villain’s end is something to be mourned. The very end belongs again to Judex and Jacqueline, who, leaving behind the past, are seen on a beach with the lady love now dressed in a sailor suit and the avenger reverted to magician, producing flapping totems of love from thin air. It’s a glorious end to a film that’s made an instant leap into the ranks of my personal favourites.
| 5 comments »
Director: Phil Karlson
By Roderick Heath
Phil Karlson is one of those indispensable figures for the enterprising movie fan in search of lost heroes: a jobbing studio hand with a chequered career whose touch, nonetheless, betrays for the attentive a wealth of individuality manifest in scattered gems. Karlson started off with C-grade screen filler in the ’40s, and finished up helming gaudy cult flicks like Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973), and a couple of Matt Helm movies; in between, he managed to produce a run of deeply eccentric and richly textured little noir films, including the belatedly beloved likes of Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), 5 Against the House and The Phenix City Story (both 1955). Karlson’s vivid sense of storytelling, with a special feel for moments of intense violence, combined in his best work with a discursive approach to structuring scenes and absorbing character that was rare in the era’s cinema. Karlson anticipates the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has included Karlson in the long list of film influences on him. Karlson’s heroes tended to be cynical proto-hipsters or hard-scrabble, blue-collar guys and girls alienated from their own society, and several of his films dealt with racial persecution and social conflict.
Just as his noir films are joyfully strange, Hell to Eternity, a film based on the life story of Guy Gabaldon, is one I saw once many years ago and could never get out of my head. Revisiting it recently, I realized why: it’s a rowdy, dirty-minded, defiantly deromanticised film that’s a fascinating marker in the era of the decline of the old studios and the oncoming age of a new realism. Karlson’s best films greatly resemble Samuel Fuller’s in taking on meaty subjects with a hard wallop to the metaphorical jaw. Although Karlson ultimately lacked the spiky individualism that irresistibly endeared Fuller to critics and filmmakers even when his career almost entirely foundered, Karlson’s films, often just as bold in their subversion and raw in style, are just as deceptively sophisticated.
This film’s uniqueness is partly disguised by its god-awful title, which tries all too obviously to suggest a melding of the Audie Murphy biopic To Hell and Back (1955) and Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity (1953). Karlson’s film commences during the Depression. Young Guy (Richard Eyer) is a member of a multiracial gang, getting into brawls with the blond Neanderthals in his California schoolyard. Japanese-American schoolteacher Kaz Une (George Shibata), father of Guy’s friend George, is disturbed by Guy’s semi-sadomasochistic displays of bravado and antisocial anger, and drives him home one day to discover he’s been living alone in his house because his gravely ill mother has been hospitalised. Kaz takes Guy to live with him, and Guy swiftly finds unexpected love and unity with the Une clan, including Kaz’s parents (Bob Okazaki and Tsuru Aoki), a couple of harmless, lovable old moths who could have stumbled in directly from an Ozu film. Mother Une begins teaching Guy Japanese, and Guy responds by helping her with her English, a task he’s surprised that none of Kaz’s younger siblings have tried. After his mother dies, Guy becomes a permanent member of the clan and remains virulently aggressive towards anyone turning racist epithets on his family as he matures into the virile form of Jeffrey Hunter. His life reaches a singular and historical crisis point when Guy, as a favor to George (played when grown by an absurdly young George Takei), takes George’s crush Ester (Miiko Taka) out to find out what she thinks of George. When they stop at a fast food joint, insults are thrown her way. Guy assaults the big mouth, only to learn that everyone’s hot under the collar because Pearl Harbor’s just been bombed.
The Unes are soon collectively bustled off to the American internment camps, or, as Guy angrily calls them, concentration camps by another name, in a blunt sequence that concludes with Guy left utterly alone, the bland and friendly suburb he’s grown up turned into a ghost town in the blink of an eye. Ironically, as his family adapts to their exiled circumstances and his brothers are able to join the famous 442nd Regiment, he’s rejected as a 4F. He eddies in frustration and anger at the government until he’s finally inducted into the Marines,because of the desperate need for translators. Guy, never particularly at ease with authority, clashes with raucous Sgt. Bill Hazen (David Janssen) and bests him in a judo match-up, which, of course, cements their subsequent friendship. They’re both attached to a special unit composed largely of skilled, hardened warriors from the Pacific theater being put together for a new campaign, and along with another friend from boot camp, Corp. Pete Lewis (Vic Damone), they raise hell in Honolulu before being shipped out to join in the landings on Saipan, an island colonised and garrisoned by huge numbers of Japanese, and about to become the site of a bloody and protracted death match.
Hell to Eternity bends aspects of Gabaldon’s tale a little: there’s no mention of the fact he was of Latino background, and the actual reason it took him so long to be accepted into the army was because he was still only 17 when he was accepted in 1943. But Gabaldon acted as advisor on the film, and presumably signed off on all that followed. The film fits nominally in with the run of ’50s war movies based on true stories, with their focus on interesting individual experiences of the war, and the sudden onrush of movies about racism and tolerance that began to increase in frequency, urgency, and bluntness throughout the decade. Karlson’s film in that regard is less like the message movies of Stanley Kramer and more reminiscent of the likes of Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and Kings Go Forth (1958), and Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1960), in blending the drama with other generic concerns, not merely presenting racial harmony as the only sane option, but simultaneously filled with violently neurotic energy as the characters are caught between world views and melodramatic crises that expose their conflicts on macrocosmic levels. But Karlson’s film, on another level, couldn’t give a damn about the message aspect of the story, compelled as Karlson really is by Gabaldon as a character, a man filled with anger at his own society and soon filled with it again by the enemy in a war zone, a man whose fractured psyche, informed by his strange, almost Candide-like variety of experiences and outsider perspective on the era, drives him to near nihilism and lunacy before finally turning him into a rare kind of hero. Hunter, an actor of whom I’ve never been particularly fond, gives what is almost certainly his best performance, coherently inhabiting Guy’s emotional extremes.
Most ’50s war films out of Hollywood sadly tended to be rather plastic, best if they stuck strictly to combat. A lot of solid war novels, like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, and other projects that tried to depict not merely raw warfare but the sexual and emotional lives of young men engaged in profound adventures of body and mind hit the screens so bogged down with prestige, prettification, and pandering that they finished up weak and interchangeable. Hell to Eternity is infinitely less self-important, possessed of a gamy vigour and a refreshingly disreputable, gritty, semi-anarchic feel, beyond even what Stanley Kubrick and David Lean then dared put in their war movies. Hell to Eternity instead looks forward, in its cruder way, to the raucous, earthy sensibility of Sam Peckinpah, whose ’60s films, like Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), have a similar feel for the overflowing joie de vivre of men who are ironically trapped in lethal situations, as well as the seamy reality of violence. Remember how Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was supposedly the first film to openly defy the Hays Code convention about not showing a gun fired and the person shot in the same frame? Well, Karlson does it here years earlier, and with the same DP, Burnett Guffey, in a sequence that’s amazing for other reasons. Long before the The Wild Bunch, Karlson depicts bursting bullet wounds close up in the midst of a grueling sequence in which Gabaldon, maddened by Hazen’s death, stalks the battlefield flushing out exhausted, wounded, and starving Japanese soldiers and shoots them in the back.
Hell to Eternity is therefore curiously anticipatory and modern in both aspects of technique, and in the tangle of raw violence and ripe sexuality that makes it into the film. Karlson had a peculiar, indulgent interest in simply watching his characters behave on screen, and a particular genius for depicting what I might call the intricacies of homosocial behaviour, or put more simply, guys hanging out. In this attribute, he is reminiscent of Ford and Hawks, but more distinctly modern in tone and attitude, less romanticised. 5 Against The House blended a heist drama not only with portraiture of the psychological damage and social difficulties of former soldiers, but also with a flip and funny collegiate playfulness, especially in its lengthy, discursive opening, that looks forward to the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) (in fact, 5 Against the House can be described glibly, but with some accuracy as “Animal House goes Rififi.” For its part, Hell to Eternity’s middle sequence in Honolulu offers for no particular reason, except to get some T&A into the tale and to suit Karlson’s taste for an epic, oddball sequence of pure behaviour, the quest of Guy, Hazen, and Lewis to get drunk and laid in roughly that order.
Guy scams a taxi driver out of a load of booze, and, hitting the nightclubs, Guy uses his linguistic skills to hook some Japanese-American B-girls, whilst Hazen points out to Lewis the Mount Everest of conquests, journalist Sheila Lincoln (Patricia Owens), stationed in Honolulu to report on the great enterprise of young men going off to war, and whose ability to brush off the most charming GI lothario has confounded all comers so far. “She writes that everyone should give their all to the enlisted man, but she don’t practice what she preaches!” Hazen murmurs with the ruefulness of one who’s tried. But Sheila does accept an invitation to a party from Lewis, only for the party to prove just a drunken orgy in a hotel room, where another one of the girls the boys have managed to pick up proves to be a former stripper who gives a show, whipping Hazen and Lewis into a frenzy. Sheila, after guzzling liquor with gusto whilst sitting apparently cold and disdainful all night, suddenly arises to do her own striptease, whereupon the males do a fair impression of Tex Avery’s big bad wolf, and Guy finishes up making out with Sheila on the veranda. This whole movement of the film is glorious in its unapologetically discursive, seamy fashion, lending the film an edge of B-movie sexploitation and superfluity. But Karlson lets it unfold as if it’s really the raison d’être of his film, possibly torn directly from somebody’s memory, maybe Gabaldon’s, maybe Karlson’s, maybe those of screenwriters Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt—or perhaps they just wished it happened to them. What it clearly does is capture the explosive, incantatory sensual energy of the characters who soon will be venturing into war and the women close to them. It also feels like an attempt to show how the scenes with Frank Sinatra, Monty Clift, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity should really have played. In any event, Karlson offers the sexual gamesmanship, frank carnality, and almost blackly comic contrasts of character and situation—with Janssen’s excitement reaching near-lunacy, and Guy, already a practiced seducer, conquering Mount Everest almost casually—with a fearless intensity that lingers long in the mind. Either way, it’s like barely anything in Hollywood cinema between the late silent era and the mid ’60s.
Perhaps such carnality and camaraderie is so emphasised because Hell to Eternity isn’t in any sense a typical war movie celebrating a hero’s competence with violence, but whose gifts for bridging cultures and charming people give him a chance to transcend war. This film is the wicked twin to Sergeant York (1941), revolving as it does around a hero whose heroism is, surprisingly, about saving lives in the midst of carnage and finding unexpected common humanity—except Guy’s not a goody-two-shoes but a man furious with the world, and for whom love and hatred are forever closely related. When the warriors actually hit the beaches of Saipan, the film turns into a grueling, slaughter-clogged slog across country, anticipating Terence Malick’s version of it The Thin Red Line (1998), and in a set-piece sequence in which a band of Japanese defenders, rather than surrender, mass for a banzai charge that engulfs the Americans. Suddenly they’re hurled back into the warfare of centuries past where what hand-to-hand combat skills they have must keep them alive, and the film turns into a Kurosawa movie.
Lewis dies in this battle, and the survivors overlook the aftermath of astounding carnage, ground strewn with corpses. Hazen is killed shortly afterwards by enemy soldiers on the charge, and Guy becomes somewhat unhinged. Where before he had difficulty shooting anyone, he becomes near psychopathic, and where he had used his language skills to talk individual soldiers and pockets of resistance into surrender, he now drops grenades on them and flushes the exhausted and ruined men out to meet his gun. By the end of the ’60s perhaps it wouldn’t be so odd to see a movie protagonist acting in such a fashion, but even then, not usually a hero and a real war hero to boot. It’s revealing then that Gabaldon let himself be portrayed in such a fashion, and it gives force to the feeling, coming on top of the film’s frankness about unfairness of the internment camps and even the dirty playfulness of the Honolulu scenes, that Hell to Eternity is perhaps the most morally complex, honest, and tough-minded American war movie of its era, in its conception of war as a place where any individual can act on both the best and the most bestial impulses within themselves, depending on the pressures in any given moment.
Finally Guy’s CO, Capt. Schwabe (John Larch), tries to intervene, weakly at first (“I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, but…”), and then by trying to talk him into resuming his translation work by taking him to watch the spectacle of Japanese civilians hurling themselves off cliffs in obedience to the Emperor: Guy sees his family in the innocents casting themselves to their deaths, and this shocks him out his murderous phase. Finally, he and another soldier locate the underground dugout being used by the Japanese commander, Gen. Matsui (Sessue Hayakawa), and are able to eavesdrop on him ordering his men to stage one last suicide charge. Guy assaults the dugout and takes the general captive, the two men engaging in a duel of wits that, oddly, evokes the deceptions and gamesmanship of the Honolulu scenes, as Matsui, like the reporter, plays coy whilst testing the mettle of his opponent. Guy outsmarts him by not revealing his knowledge of Japanese until Matsui tries to trick him, and Guy finally convinces Matsui to forego the hopeless destruction of the remnant of his army, which, when they go out to see it, proves to be a mass of barely clothed, starving, ruined humans: “God, what a pathetic sight!” Guy says with a mix of disgust, contempt, and pity. Karlson stages an unforgettable climactic shot as Matsui commits seppuku after ordering his men to surrender, sinking to his knees and dying with Guy at his side and the column of his soldiers moving past, barely able to spare their dying commander a nod as they trudge toward the safety Guy has given them. All that’s left is for one of Guy’s fellow soldiers to bestow on him the unofficial title of “Pied Piper of Saipan” as his soldiers see him leading this unlikely exodus.
| 13 comments »
Director/Coscreenwriter: Bob Rafelson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In today’s 10-minute news cycle, it’s waaaay old news that Davy Jones, the British performer who gained everlasting fame as one of the members of TV’s pop music group The Monkees, died last week. Like many other people, I felt sad at the passing of a likeable member of a band who represented the era of my youth. I was the right age to watch The Monkees on NBC—and I did—and their truly great pop music was all over the radio. But try as I might, I can’t remember much of anything about the show, and my interest in it and The Monkees faded, whereas a TV contemporary, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, is very easy for me to see in my mind’s eye. The Monkees was essentially a harmless kids show populated with cuddly pop icons parents felt comfortable letting their children idolize, and even back then, I already felt too old to really appreciate their charms.
Nonetheless, The Monkees were very popular, and a movie was sure to follow. Head proclaimed itself the “most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made (And that’s putting it mildly).” This boast, with the parenthetical phrase underlining it like a smear of cheap lipstick, kind of sums up what’s wrong with Head. The writing, a collaboration of all four Monkees (Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz), Rafelson, and coproducer Jack Nicholson, is confused and so far outside the image The Monkees created that the film’s quick failure was practically a foregone conclusion.
The film wants to be taken seriously as a statement from stars who do not wish to be confined to the G-rated TV group fans had come to know. It opens with the Monkees running from an angry horde during a bridge dedication and Micky escaping by jumping to his death off the bridge. This is followed by a spoken ditty in which the Monkees admit to being nothing more than a manufactured pop group as the frame fills up with TV screens and culminates with the infamous execution of a Viet Cong operative. Equally unexpected is a sequence in which famed San Francisco stripper Carol Doda plays a groupie who kisses each Monkee with ardor and then laughingly dismisses them all. So hit ’em with suicide, war, murder, and sex right at the start—and then it’s back to a film jam-packed with lovable hijinks that we have now been clued may have an underlying meaning.
As was typical of youth counterculture movies of the time, and The Monkees TV show specifically, a loose anarchy explodes on the screen full of non sequiturs and visual gags. The film pretends to break the fourth wall frequently, for example, when Micky is in a Western and a pioneer woman (Teri Garr) who has been bitten by a snake tells him to suck the venom from her finger. He ignores her and she “dies,” only to revive as the actress she is when he kicks her, quits the scene, and breaks through the cheap scenery. Later, a lavish birthday party sequence is cut short when Mike announces that he hates surprises and doesn’t want his birthday celebrated. His anger isn’t convincing, a reminder that only two of the Monkees had any acting experience before their show debuted and an Achilles heel in selling an artifice vs. reality premise for this movie.
Dolenz, the strongest actor and singer of the group, has perhaps the best scene in the film. After he has jumped off the bridge, he believably plays dead as he moves through the water, now solarized into many psychedelic colors. Mermaids come to his rescue, and the dreamy, trippy “The Porpoise Song” ushers in a visually intense and beautiful scene. I was reminded a bit of the profoundly moving De Profundis, which, for me, pays this part of the film a very high compliment indeed.
Peter’s hippy-dippy persona, a reflection of his early career as a folk singer, is pounded home as he visits with a guru in a steam bath who gives him the answer to the question of free will versus scripted reality the film plays with constantly. The guru has some interesting things to say about it not mattering if actions are predetermined if the actors can authentically live their lives within these actions, but this philosophy is undercut by the ridiculous setting and a final statement, “I know nothing,” that sounds like the kind of nonsensical conundrum people use to scoff at eastern philosophies. This scene takes aim at the Beatles in their quest for enlightenment, as well as their status as earthly gods to their more rabid fans. However, it’s also a bit confused, since Head seems to show The Monkees on a similar quest.
In a scene of great poignancy, Davy sings a sanitized, but still sad version of “Daddy’s Song,” written by Harry Nilsson, the man who turned down a chance to be a Beatle. Wearing an Edwardian-style suit, he performs the song on a dark, empty soundstage, a demonstration of his own personal history as a musical theatre star. When he emerges, Frank Zappa leading a steer stops to chat with him. He warns Davy not to be distracted from making his music, and then says he likes how Davy has been working on his dancing. This absurdist scene was probably included just to give Mike Nesmith’s buddy Zappa a cameo, but it does trivialize a rather moving scene.
Which leads me to wonder what exactly is going on here. Is Head a subversion of The Monkees’ personae and careers, or is it business as usual as a comedy-variety show? The hubby has explained that The Monkees wanted to be taken seriously as musicians and a legitimate band, to be allowed to grow past their prepubescent fan base. At the same time, it was that fan base who was going to go out to see Head. This film could have been a deliberate bomb designed to destroy their image and leave them free to have an adult career. The pointed moment when the boys all jump off the bridge and swim away to some kind of freedom is mitigated when the camera pulls back and shows them trapped in a tank of water being returned to its place in a warehouse. If The Monkees thought their fans would sympathize with their plight, they were not only mistaken, but cruel.
I’ve got a real problem with artists who blow a raspberry in children’s faces. There are many ways to move into independence and a mature career without disrespecting the children who have enjoyed and bolstered one’s early work. The fact that Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Tork endure as The Monkees in people’s memories shows that they did their jobs very well and they chose the worst possible way to signal they were ready to evolve. Head can be as disrespectful as it likes to the Hollywood dream factory, which can take it and often deserves it. But by being truly angry with their fans, The Monkees guaranteed they would never find their way out of their self-made box, for how could we ever trust them again.
| 7 comments »
Director/Coscreenwriter: John Cassavetes
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Without getting sucked down the hole that is the Preminger Abomination, all I can say is that I wish John Cassavetes had directed The Man with the Golden Arm instead. Unlike the silver-spooned Teuton for whom the down-and-outers of Nelson Algren’s masterpiece were alien, inconsequential toys to serve his master plan to crack the Production Code, John Cassavetes was able to say about the fringe dwellers who populate Too Late Blues:
This is a film about people I know, the night people, the jazz musicians, the drifters and dreamers, the floaters, the chicks, the smilers, the hangers-on, the phonies, too much sex, not enough love—and they live in a world of too late blues.
Nelson Algren couldn’t have said it better, and as I watched this flawed, but sincere film, it reminded me so much of Algren’s book—indeed, his world view—that I almost felt as though I were watching the remake of the film that cries out most to me to get another shot at the big screen.
Too Late Blues tells the story of a Los Angeles jazz combo headed by John “Ghost” Wakefield (Bobby Darin) as they knock about trying to make a living without compromising Ghost’s musical vision. Stella Stevens plays Jess “Princess” Polanski, a troubled, would-be singer who captures Ghost’s heart and breaks it. There are a few capillary plotlines, for example, a record deal Ghost blows when Jess gives him the brush-off, but this film isn’t really about anything. In true Cassavetes style, the film concentrates on the booze-fueled rituals of men as they work, play, and pursue sexual and romantic fulfillment. His sophomore outing as director after his breakout debut Shadows (1959), Too Late Blues suffers from being a Paramount production; the necessity of a set script and a less controversial romance than the interracial couple in Shadows make what could have been a spontaneous flowering of volcanic emotion more like the forced bloom of a greenhouse plant.
The opening image is of an unsmiling African-American boy, the arms of his mother encircling his shoulders, as they stand in what looks like a home-based school full of children and watch a jazz combo perform. At the end of their set, saxophonist Reno (James Joyce) puts his horn down, and the boy instantly grabs it. Reno calls him a dirty name and chases him as the other children laugh and impede his progress. Finally, he catches the boy and asks, “Can I have my horn?” The young audience and the impotence of the band in dealing with them signal the low-rung, vulnerable men the film will portray.
The band heads to the traditional man cave—a pool hall—where they playfully harass its Greek owner Nick Bobolenos (Nick Dennis), taking his food and beer and skipping out on the tab. Nick is bombastic, loud, and indulgent, just I imagine Cassavetes’ father might have been, treating the musicians like wayward children, a status some of them chafe at. “I’m nearly 30,” says Reno, voicing the band’s general dissatisfaction with their going-nowhere careers and lack of money. Ghost, however, would prefer to play in a park to birds and trees than do covers or write more popular music.
When Ghost meets Jess, his agent Benny’s (Everett Chambers) new client and former lover, sparks fly. She has a high, thin voice that will never carry her out of her subsistence living as a chippy, but she is touched that Ghost won’t sleep with her their first night together and hires her for the band. They quickly fall in love, but when Ghost suffers a humiliating beatdown at Nick’s at the hands of an Irish-American bigot (Vince Edwards) who doesn’t like jazz musicians who mix with African Americans, Ghost rejects Jess’ ministrations. Hurt, she runs straight for the gutter as fast as she can; Ghost, for his part, quits the band right before they are to cut a record and sells out like a male version of Jess, playing lounge music at a night club and allowing himself to be kept by a rich woman (Marilyn Clark). The film’s denouement isn’t exactly hopeful, but it does see Jess, Ghost, and the band together again performing the song they were set to record, a tenuous link to their better dreams and selves.
The script of the film is arch, self-conscious, and striving too hard to be poetic and profound. Cassavetes and his coscreenwriter Richard Carr, a TV writer who worked on Cassavetes’ series Johnny Staccato, don’t have much talent for writing poetic dialogue that can also create character and forward a strong, cohesive plot. Scenes feel cobbled together and randomly motivated. For example, the record producer (Val Avery) hates the song the band wants to record, but does a complete about-face when the band starts to play it again. Seeing the band playing to no one in a park is the worst in arthouse conceit; when they fold up shop and join the kids who have been playing baseball in the background, the film suddenly fills with vitality and warmth. I can imagine that Cassavetes thought the impromptu baseball game would show how these men are still boys, but in fact, it shows that they have the life and spontaneity to be successful musicians and men if given proper motivation and opportunity.
Nonetheless, Cassavetes’ deep connection to human pain underlies most every scene. The acting is a very mixed bag, from the too-intense Chambers to Joyce’s straight shooter, the perfect runner-up for Jess’ attentions. Clark is quite good as the jewel-bedecked “Countess,” with a harder edge of sexuality that clearly defines her desperation regarding her fading beauty. Darin exudes musician cool and ardent love, a charismatic natural who is wisely allowed to be himself. One waits for the seasoned Edwards to emerge from the background to play a significant role, and he delivers a scary, violent racist from a sketchily defined motivation.
Stella Stevens is the most talented of the film’s cast, clearly offering a version of the Cassavetes woman usually played by his wife Gena Rowlands. But she infuses the self-loathing, insecure Jess with smoldering sexuality that moves just over the line into vulgarity, and her close-up work matches up with the best in the business. Unbelievably beautiful, she is able to show some of Jess’ ugliness, for example, when she balances two johns trying to pick her up at a bar in a series of two-shot close-ups that contrast the leering men with her smothered insolence. With her Polish last name, I became convinced that Jess was directly modeled on Molly “O” Novatny from Algren’s novel, and became excited by the idea that despite its flaws, Too Late Blues provides some vindication for Algren’s vision on the big screen.
Cassavetes would return to the raw, dark nights of the soul he pioneered with Shadows, but his experiment in trying to fuse his more documentary style with a traditional, set-bound Hollywood picture is an interesting failure well worth watching for the performances of Darin, Stevens, and Clark; Seymour Cassel’s brief debut performance as band member Red; and the music of such jazz greats as Shelly Manne, Benny Carter, and Red Mitchell. Too Late Blues was a necessary trial for Cassavetes that would lead to successively more polished hybrids that would reach their apex with Opening Night (1977).
| 5 comments »
Director: Cyril Frankel
By Roderick Heath
Hammer Studios first moved into making films in the cinefantastique genres with adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s epochal TV serials in the mid ’50s. But Kneale had surprisingly little to do with the studio, except for adapting his own work with the 1957 film The Abominable Snowman, and penning the script for this ripping mid-’60s work that sports one of the House of Horror’s few imported star turns, in the person of Joan Fontaine. Director Cyril Frankel’s name doesn’t conjure many associations, which perhaps partly explains why this film has fallen under the radar: after initial film work, he acted chiefly as a TV director. But The Witches is a delicious slice of classic British genre fare offers much the same deeply neurotic mood of repression and explosive release that also marks out other great, thematically similar British horror films like Night of the Eagle (1961) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It anticipates, in many ways, The Wicker Man’s ironic contrast of idyllic hamlets and uncanny threats, if without the calculated inversions of story expectations, and looks forward to more modern studies on similar material like Wake Wood (2010) and the satiric landscape of Hot Fuzz (2007).
The Witches is an adaptation of a novel by Norah Lofts, who also provided the source material for John Ford’s last feature film, shot the same year, 7 Women, an equally interesting revision of genre film with a female-centric viewpoint. Here, a bizarre and jarring prologue immediately hits a note of frantic alarmism, as it offers a fin-de-siecle twist on colonial do-gooder tales like The Nun’s Story (1959). Fontaine’s character, Gwen Mayfield, running a school in a colony beset by a Mau-Mau-like uprising, tries to pack up and flee before the menace comes calling. Her native assistants are so frightened by the curse of the local Juju man they finally abandon Gwen. The door is bashed in, and the Juju men, one wearing a colossal tribal mask, enter, presumably to rape and abuse our heroine.
After the credits, Gwen reappears in London three years later. She’s patched herself back together but is still bearing signs of trauma, fending off an attack of nerves as she’s interviewed by the pleasant, but fusty eccentric Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job teaching at small, rural school of which he’s a patron. Gwen’s new position takes her to the hamlet of Heddaby. Alan and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh) are the wealthiest people in the area, and the town is a backwater without a government school, which is why the Baxes fund their own. Gwen shares duties with another teacher, Sally Benson (Ann Bell), and begins to settle into her job, until the romance of two of her adolescent students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), is discovered. Linda’s guardian “Granny” Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) objects to this coupling, and Gwen finds herself called upon to find a way of keeping them apart. She encourages Ronnie’s talents, and soon he wins a chance to go to a better school out of town. Rather than send him away, which Gwen thinks will make him unhappy, she begins personally tutoring him, leaving vulnerable to secret forces that control the village that want to protect Linda’s virginity. Ronnie falls into a coma one night and is hospitalised.
A disturbing discovery—a male doll Ronnie had bought for Linda as a suggestive partner for her own perpetually carried female figure, hidden in the crook of a tree with its head removed and riddled with pins—stirs Gwen’s suspicions that she’s dealing with something she has encountered before. Ronnie’s mother (Carmel McSharry) flees town with her son when he recovers, and her husband (John Collin) visits Gwen one night in the schoolhouse stinking drunk, distraught at the collapse of his life. When Gwen lets slip that she suspects Granny Rigg might have cursed Ronnie in some way, he goes to visit her, but turns up drowned in a nearby lake. Before she can report her story at the inquest, Gwen, staying overnight at the Bax’s house, is stricken down with a vision of the Juju mask and she awakens in a nursing home, having completely lost her memory of the past three years.
Like many great horror films, The Witches cunningly uses other, more humdrum genres and everyday familiarities as a starting point; although the prologue announces things are going to be sensational and garish, most of the first half is deceptively casual and evokes a traditional depiction of an English village that might have stumbled out of soap operas from The Archers through to Heartbeat. It avoids even the signposted oddness of The Wicker Man, with only a slightly tweaked atmosphere of estrangement, apparent in touches like the cheery brutality of the local butcher Bob Curd (Duncan Lamont), beaming with overemphatic friendliness as he rips the skin off a rabbit, the coolly unexaggerated bigotry of the local mothers aimed at Ronnie because of his father’s reputation as a layabout, and the discomfort Gwen experiences in trying to negotiate small-town politics. She plays the beneficent teacher helping give the poor young lad a leg up in a victimising world, almost a prototype for Kes (1969).
Frankel’s unmannered, clear-eyed direction helps the film walk a tightrope of tone, only skewing from the realistic in such odd moments as Granny Rigg telling her grey cat to follow Gwen, and a slow manifesting sense of more than usual evil lurking under the surface, as Ronnie tries to alert Gwen to his having seen Linda being punished by having her hand jammed in a clothes wringer by Granny Rigg. Ronnie’s romancing of Linda isn’t just verboten because she’s important to a witches’ rite, but also because his mother isn’t local: the other children are all so in-bred, as Sally says, it’s hard to distinguish the variations on the “Heddaby face.” Frankel wields Hitchcockian technique as Gwen notices details like the many bare footprints scattered in the mud by the lake where Dowsett drowned, only to be erased as a flock of sheep charges through, panicked by Stephanie’s dogs; it’s a moment clearly reminiscent of the erasing of Miss Froy’s dust-written name in The Lady Vanishes (1938).
Perhaps another reason The Witches isn’t as well known to Hammer fans as it ought to be is because it mostly eschews the studio’s usual gothic stylistics, preferring crisper, restrained hues in the photography to the usual saturated tones. It also sports an uncommonly good cast of actors not at all associated with the genre, redolent of an attempt to elevate studio fare that was beginning to slide into the blood and boobs formula of the later Dracula films, et al. In addition to Walsh and McCowen, Leonard Rossiter turns up late in the piece as a smug, yet hapless doctor who takes Gwen in charge after she suffers a second breakdown after being hexed. The comely Boulting was a daughter of film director John Boulting whose most recognisable role was the mysterious object of affection in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976).
Witchcraft has often been one of the more neglected fields for horror films to draw on, in part because it often demands suggestion of unseen forces at odds with the declarative demands of genre cinema, and also because the modern mind is largely inclined to give witches the benefit of the doubt. Frankel doesn’t draw out fulminating sensuality and neurotic energy like Terence Fisher or Don Sharp at their best, but he does master the necessary rhythm of slowly composing strangeness leading into outright nuttiness. Whereas Fisher’s tackling of similar notions in the following year’s The Devil Rides Out is a lushly orchestrated spectacle, Frankel and Kneale’s film builds toward something like black comedy in its depiction of dowdy villagers suddenly hurling themselves with joyous, countercultural energy into satanic rites and orgiastic preludes.
The Witches partners squarely with the same year’s Plague of the Zombies, though not played in a period setting, by invoking similar motifs: the secret link between colonialist horrors and malevolence infecting the coloniser’s homeland, an evil manipulated by the mansion on the hill, and virtually surreal visions of atavistic rites within the supposedly staid and settled English order of things. True weirdness finally, explictly manifests when Gwen ventures into the cave where the coven meets, discovering a cabalistic dial on the ground upon which a strange doll-like object seems to dance spontaneously—it’s actually got Granny Rigg’s familiar-like cat sewed up inside, and has a photo of Linda’s face pinned to it.
The Witches is fundamentally a good yarn, but it required a compelling lead performance to give the drama true pep, and Fontaine delivers. Her Gwen is shaky, but intelligent and dogged, fighting against her own brittle nerves and fear of the unknown. She is severely contrasted by the film’s other major female figure, Stephanie, a popular newspaper writer whose bracing, slightly unctuous bravado contrasts her brother’s air of tragic failure. He had wanted to be a priest, and as well as dressing as one, spends much of his time locked away in private playing church bell and choir music and drifting away in melancholy distraction when trying to explain his fixations to Gwen. Fontaine offers, in a way, a bookend to her career-making part as the heroine of Rebecca (1940), considerably older and wiser, but equally perplexed by the workings of the world where, be it in Africa or rural England, irrational, cryptic, boding forces work to annihilate or assimilate anything that disrupts their cohesive fabric.
When Gwen presents the pin-stuck doll to her, Stephanie slashes heartily through the pretences of witchcraft in describing its practitioners as mostly repressed yokels looking for an orgy. Of course, she is really the secret head of the coven, which she found operating in the town and has taken over for her own purposes: convinced of her own brilliance as a force that could heal the world’s ills, she’s looking for a way to renew herself, and has found it, planning to claim Linda’s body to transplant her soul into. Walsh’s Stephanie is posited at first as a less damaged, more outgoing version of Gwen, radiating cosmopolitan intellectual confidence and, more subtly, a hint of lesbian charisma, all but licking her lips in joy at having Fontaine under her thumb as dominated, unwilling confidant. But she’s also a colossal egomaniac with a hale and aggressive energy that operates a little like an energy vampire against those close to her, even before she reveals her true status and her ultimate intent, which is to slice off Linda’s skin and wear it as a cloak of youth.
The attraction and tension between Fontaine’s and Walsh’s differing editions of middle-aged, woman-of-the-world, strength of purpose then sustains the drama, with Gwen starting off on the back foot thanks to her traumatic experiences and ignorance of the lay of the land in Heddaby, but slowly gathering resolve in trying to penetrate the mystery. When she’s stuck in a nursing home, stricken with amnesia, her memory returns in a cathartic moment, but she’s able to keep anyone from realising it until she can get a chance to escape. She’s soon snatched and forcibly inducted into the coven. Between the women stands the castrated Alan, whose defence mechanism against his monstrous sister is to isolate himself with the apparel of the church: Gwen’s appeal to him to give aid proves ineffectual as he locks himself away again: he is as much damsel in distress as Linda. Only Gwen is capable of standing up to Stephanie.
The film’s climax is also its major set-piece, as Gwen is forced to watch over a mesmerised Linda as Stephanie whips her coven into a sensual frenzy, orchestrating their gyrations as they perform the ritual dances. The tawdry sexual element Stephanie mocked comes out, the villagers, clad in rags, beat drums and blow horns with comic intensity, Gwen is held prone by two of the village men who can’t wait to induct her properly, and the rest cavort like they’ve been choreographed by an enterprising high school dance teacher. But the latent power and fascinating intensity of the rituals also begin to assert themselves as Stephanie, wearing deer horns on her head when clad in her witch’s garb, evokes the most ancient religions, and Linda, as she enters the coven, catalyses through her body the unnerving force she represents as an adolescent female, completely unfettered, a different kind of crucible that offers manifold promises of ecstatic delights. The coven smear themselves in juice squeezed from fruits, rubbing themselves and each other down, including one moment of homoerotic punch as two of the village males gleefully caress each other. Stephanie serves up a magical glop that look like excrement to be eaten in frenzied joy, and she leaves them twitching on the floor as if in a mass epileptic convulsion.
Meanwhile Stephanie’s monstrous egotism is configured in her literally conducting her coven like a puppeteer, sensually grasping Linda from behind and guiding her like a tuned instrument. Fittingly, then, the film’s corkscrewing narrative seems to find in the ritual acts of the coven a metaphor for the genre itself, a carefully orchestrated eruption of elements other worldviews frantically suppress or ignore, and where the dichotomous choice is to grasp or destroy the young female. Fittingly, Stephanie’s arrogance proves her undoing as her reading of the ritual procedure to Gwen earlier in the film gives Gwen the knowledge to wreck the ritual right at its climax, stabbing herself in the arm and soiling Stephanie’s cloak with it, bringing down the offended power of the dark gods on her: Stephanie drops dead and the coven’s power is broken.
The appended coda is a happy ending that’s rather disorienting in its disarmingly cheery tone even as it encompasses some strange implications. A happy Alan sets about aiding Gwen as her liberated potential romantic partner, the town is suddenly dragged into the 20th century as the general store is replaced by a supermarket and the old residents scatter after the coven’s is broken, and Gwen’s students flock in to celebrate her goodness. The shattering of a corrupt order seems to have meant also throwing away that cosy insularity so often fetishized in retrospect in modern British life. In any event, The Witches is a delicious diversion for fans of offbeat horror.
| 5 comments »
Director: Vincente Minnelli
By Roderick Heath
Vincente Minnelli’s highly stylised dramas, like Douglas Sirk’s and Nicholas Ray’s, were rich and strange by-products of a ’50s Hollywood which, as the studio system went into decline and television was a constant foe, began to blend its traditional gloss with attempts to stretch the limits of its permissible dramatic repertoire. Minnelli’s dramas were appreciated in their time—Home from the Hill was entered in the Cannes Film Festival—but they resembled neither the earnest minimalism of the era’s often TV-influenced dramas, nor the emerging New Wave style. They soon fell by the critical wayside, only to be revived later as a new sense of their textured and artful artifice evolved. Minnelli made his name as a respected director of lovingly colourful musicals, but began to change focus with 1949’s Madame Bovary. His oeuvre is violently uneven, and some of his films simply don’t work, particularly overstuffed later fare like the classy yet oh so inert Gigi (1958) and the candied The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962). But he also turned out a string of impressive films defined by his own anti-realist, expressive palate, transforming Van Gogh’s life into one of his own fervent paintings for Lust For Life (1955), and his reconstruction of James Jones’ gritty bestseller Some Came Running (1958) as a delirious hunk of Technicolor-hued cues and choreography. Minnelli, who had captured with iconic perfection a sentimentalised version of American Midwestern life in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), returned in Some Came Running and Home from the Hill to portraits of that world with as much beauty of design, rendering melodrama as melody + drama, but with far darker reflections on its neurotic, oppressive qualities, the living room brutalities, facile facades, and the bleak lot of the outsider in places where everyone presumes to know your business and have a say in it.
Home from the Hill, an adaptation of a novel by William Humphrey, isn’t as flagrantly infused with Minnelli’s stylisation as Some Came Running or his next film, Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), but for me it stands up with both amongst Minnelli’s best work. Moreover, what’s especially interesting about Home from the Hill is the way it takes several fundamental mid-century American narratives and sets them in free-ranging conflict with each other. There’s the Hemingway-esque tale of the young man who proves himself in a valiant hunt; Faulknerian regional portraiture blended with a King’s Row and Peyton Place-ish evocation of multifarious small-town travesties; a Death of a Salesman-like portrait of a young man set in conflict with his father in learning his history of infidelity and hypocrisy; and anticipation of Larry McMurtry-type down-home studies. Touches of noir, women’s pictures, and subtexts that hint at gay liberation, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement bubble within, too. These elements comment upon each other and reveal fascinating blind spots and a cross-pollinating sensibility.
Like last year’s The Help, Home from the Hill depicts the pseudo-feudal precepts still infusing the (unspecified) southern setting in the 1930s milieu in which Robert Mitchum’s Colonel Wade Hunnicutt is the king, a strident bull male, famed hunter with more guns than the Belgian army, a den where he lounges in regal command with his hunting dogs and liquor, and a possessive attitude not only toward the town where he’s the major financial power but also toward its people, chiefly its females. At the outset, on a set so obvious it announces Minnelli’s wilfully psychological style, Wade is nearly shot dead by a cuckolded husband whilst he’s out duck hunting, saved only when his young squire Raphael “Rafe” Copley (George Peppard) senses threat and leaps on Wade. The offender is hurried off with Wade’s contempt: “You only had one shot in you.”
Wade’s fiefdom encompasses much of the land around the town and some of its biggest businesses, but ironically, his own home is in the grip of its own cold war and dotted with invisible frontiers. His wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) maintains aloofness, but her unnerving blue eyes radiate microwaves of fury and fixation. Wade’s 17-year-old son Theron (George Hamilton) has barely been influenced by his father owing to Wade’s long-ago deal that gave Hannah exclusive right to raise Theron. But when Theron is humiliated by practical jokers, Wade extracts the shame-faced youth and inducts him into “how a man lives,” which is, apparently, a matter of drinking bourbon and shooting things. Theron, with his spindly physique and doe eyes, soon takes to his new macho lifestyle with obsessive enthusiasm, as Wade puts him under Rafe’s tutelage. His rapid development as a hunter is soon put to the test when a huge wild boar begins harassing farmers. The locals approach Wade, who took down such a fearsome beast himself years before, to catch it and kill it, but Wade passes the job along to Theron. With Rafe backing him up and Wade’s hunting dogs at his side, Theron ventures into the woods outside of town and after a two-day chase in which two of the dogs are killed, Theron stands his ground as the boar charges and brings it down.
To celebrate his son’s epic feat, Wade throws a barbecue where the boar is served up, and Theron has to take on a tougher challenge, that of asking out a girl. He sets his mind on Libby Halstead (Luana Patten), the tomboyish daughter of local businessman Albert Halstead (Everett Sloane), but he gets weak-kneed and he begs Rafe to ask her out for him, a task Rafe performs with winning dexterity. When Theron turns up at the Halsteads’ door to pick her up, Albert abuses him and orders him away, offended that the son of the town’s most notorious womaniser would associate with his daughter. Bewildered because he has no idea of Wade’s reputation, Theron nonetheless sees Libby on the sly. One night his mother, in a frantic exposition, reveals the truth not only about Wade’s infidelities but also that Rafe is, of course, his illegitimate son. Theron is so appalled that he confronts his father and then walks out of the house, intending never to return. He takes a job as a forklift driver in a cotton mill, and slowly almost totally disintegrates as a personality. Meanwhile, Rafe encounters Libby, who’s quietly frantic in her own way because she’s pregnant with Theron’s child and despairs of getting him to marry her because of his now poisonous disdain for any type of family. Her father’s clumsy attempt to clear a path with Wade just embarrasses them both.
Home from the Hill spins its drama out of some interestingly contradictory observations, appropriately contained within the lush facades of Minnelli’s mise-en-scene. Theron’s crisis is fuelled by his realisation that not only are physical and moral courage two completely different things, but so are morality and correct behaviour and that failure to understand these disparities can be endlessly destructive. Wade’s cocksure imperiousness is carefully mediated as he often displays his humane, forgiving side, whilst never giving up an essential hypocrisy. Hannah’s anger is justified, and yet the story reveals, with its quietly ruthless sense of implication, that her sense of offence in learning Wade had an illegitimate child before their marriage finished up destroying not only her own marriage but ruining Rafe and retarding Theron’s emotional growth.
Theron’s fury at his father for his treatment of Rafe shades into adolescent self-pity, and blinds him to the fact he’s set the circle in motion again, with Libby as victim. Wade embodies not only a readily familiar image of alpha male self-contentment but, in a way, a social philosophy too, of pseudo-benign autocracy. “I won’t be judged,” Wade tells Theron when trying to conciliate with him, but Theron insists on doing precisely that, invoking all the rage of disillusionment so many people Theron’s age were beginning to feel as the 1960s began. When Theron first announces to Rafe that “I know all about you now,” Rafe ripostes with smiling, measured irony just how little Theron does know about what it’s like to not only grow up in the underclass but conscious of his status as rejected progeny. Rafe quotes Wade’s black manservant Chauncey (Ken Renard): “You gotta learn how to make out on your own. These tears and crying and carryin’ is a waste of time. Coloured folks know that, and little white orphan boys gotta learn it, too.” This fascinating linkage between various forms of social exclusion gives the film’s melodrama a resonance beyond the limits of one family, and it becomes in some ways one of the first truly honest films about the generation gap.
But the family melodrama itself is good, as Minnelli tries to step nimbly through the minefield of censorship, just beginning to give way in 1960, in being upfront about the film’s portrait of sexuality as a defining aspect of life and a cause of many of its problems. Wade staves off Albert’s appeal with a queasy quip about selling damaged goods, but immediately retracts it, as it reflects a tawdry view of sex that he himself tries, in his own way, to dismantle. The lengthy first act of the film depicts Theron’s growth from gullible stick insect of a boy, who, raised as a kind of hostage in the Hunnicutt house, at first seems ripe to provoke that eternal cry of the panicked macho father towards the coddling mother, “You’re turning that boy into a fag!” Wade’s decision to break his pact with his wife and start manning Theron up sparks her initial, frosty complaint about whether he thinks he can order everyone about like his dogs. He merely answers with wordless irony by clicking his fingers and bringing his hounds to heel. Theron at first sublimates all of his sexual energy into the hunt, in a motif that echoes all the way back to Germanic myth, and when he brings down the boar, he’s reborn as red-blooded heterosexual. So far, so square, but Theron’s subsequent discoveries and mistakes unspool the links in the chain of man’s man causality.
Hamilton, in his second film, and to a lesser extent Peppard, in his first, would eventually become notable, ridiculed exemplars of a class of polished and classically handsome male movie actor who would be left high and dry in the ‘60s. Becoming more famous as Hollywood landmarks than actors, it is too easy to forget they had both been talented. Hamilton, whom Minnelli would use again in Two Weeks in Another Town, takes on an edge of personal avatar for the director: volatile, tortured, sexually ambiguous, and trailed by dogged self-loathing. The narrative’s almost Grecian sense of tragic geometry sees one brother slide as the other rises. Rafe’s emergence comes not from Wade—“The gesture’ll have to come from you,” Rafe tells his father who begins probing about recompense, after Rafe’s already stated refusal to ask anyone for anything—but thanks to his own life experience. Rafe steps up to make an honest woman of Libby after she tearfully confesses her problem to him in a memorable sequence in a supermarket diner, and marries her, thus rising into the petit bourgeoisie as a member of Albert’s family. Rafe’s stated reason, as well as his simmering attraction to Libby, is his determination to rescue another potential solitary boy.
Theron’s crucial confrontation of his father sees him holding back in the shadows of the hallway leading to his father’s den, his crucible of manly virtues, and hesitating before delivering his first salvo: “I don’t want any part of you,” he snarls, and then delivers the most crucial line in the film, “If you were any kind…any kind of a man you’d be proud of him and love him!” The shift in definition of “a man” from Wade’s to Theron’s packs a wallop even as Theron, in several ways, reproduces Wade’s mistakes in his lambasting bluntness, not holding back from verbal viciousness even with the potential for the physical variety ever-present. Again, it’s another scene rife with multiple dimensions, including gay subtext, as the crucial moment of generational male head-butting displaces the fear of coming out into a different set of words.
Libby and Hannah balance out this secret men’s business in their differing versions of strained and stranded femininity. Parker, wielding her inimitable blue stare that seems to slice through reality into some otherworldly horror like an H.P. Lovecraft character, plays Hannah as the victim and perpetrator of schizoid social values, wielding at first the icy hauteur of a southern matriarch but slowly disintegrating as the cost of compromise passes down through the generations. She’s first glimpsed in the doorway to her bedroom, the pastel shades of her clothing and the decor demarcating the cordoned-off limits of the house’s feminine space, contrasting the dark hues of brown that define Wade’s den, studded with rifles and animal heads. Wade repeatedly makes overtures to Hannah to lower the drawbridge, and he, perhaps disingenuously, blames her refusal to make amends for his own dedicated womanising. Hannah’s disgust at realising she wasn’t Wade’s first lover as he was for her is palpable after 17 years to a degree that seems almost pathological, an ingrained reaction in a world that is supposed to be built along clear divisions—male/female, pure/dirty, black/white, respectable/trash—but often operates according to other imperatives and unstated codes that Wade explains with a well-worn catalog of aphorisms—“damaged goods,” “wild oats,” and the like. Hannah, at one point, encounters Rafe as he tends to a burial ground distinct from the main cemetery where the town’s unworthies are buried, including Rafe’s own mother, Hannah’s ghost enemy; the pair’s glancing meeting is mirrored in the very final scene where they meet again at the cemetery and a gravestone becomes the hinge for Rafe’s final ascension to become Hannah’s son.
Home from the Hill is no proto-mumblecore work of kitchen-sink authenticity, and yet it retains a curious charge of emotional honesty throughout and an attentiveness to its stylised milieu, like the mock-casual meeting of Rafe and Libby in the ordered rows of the supermarket that will soon segue into revelations of seamy guilt and noble intent, and the eloquent pussyfooting with which Minnelli approaches Rafe and Libby’s seduction of each other, after they’re married and left alone in the Halstead house by her solicitous, if unhappy, parents. Patten, who had grown up as a Disney contract player from childhood, didn’t do much else of note, but she’s a secret treasure in this movie, memorably portraying both Libby’s despair, but also a rare quality of unapologetic sensuality in a Hollywood movie of the period without losing the veneer of a good girl.
Minnelli’s sense of genuine moral complexity allows Wade, who is as often repulsive and monstrous as he is attractive and authoritative, an edge of self-awareness and philosophical depth that is at odds with the absolutism of those around him. Mitchum is customarily good as Wade, giving one of his best performances in alternating arrogance with moments of surprising tenderness and mature genuflection, though it remains a little tantalising to think of John Wayne, an actor more closely and willingly associated with the kind of swaggering machismo Wade represents in the part; Wayne wouldn’t have been as subtle, but he would have embodied the nascent schism in masculine values with inescapable force. Home from the Hill is defined by its many oppositions and doublings, and Minnelli’s staging is for the most part restrained, but erupts in two mirroring sequences, each involving Theron plunging into the woods on the a hunt, and Minnelli sets out to outdo his final murder in Some Came Running in having DP Milton Krasner’s camera rushing through the brush in frantic, flowing tracking shots, not dancelike as in the Some Came Running scene, but filled with the same urgently communicated sense of movement, and a visually coded evocation of repressed emotion suddenly finding release in hysterical action, anticipating the finale of Two Weeks in Another Town.
Inevitably, and ironically just at the point where Wade has convinced Hannah to try to revive their passion for their own sakes and for Theron’s, Wade’s wild oats come back to haunt him, as he’s shot in the back in his den. This bullet comes from Albert, who, brilliantly played by Sloane, is seen quivering throughout the film with a neurotic volatility under his seemingly mousy exterior, so ashamed in leaving the Hunnicutt house after his failed appeal that he hides in the shadows and cringes when people recognise him. This is for good reason, because the locals assume that his visit meant that Libby’s bun in the oven is Wade’s, and Albert, believing this, finally does what so many have tried to do. Minnelli depicts the flurry of characters around Wade’s slowly expiring form in a curious medium-distance shot, as Chauncey tends to his beloved feudal overlord, Theron and Rafe try to wrest the last, long-delayed words of legitimacy from him, and Hannah watches in electric, crazed intensity. Theron chases Albert and guns him down in self-defense in the same place he brought down the boar, but it’s a moment that closes the circle of generational learning and responsibility as well as completely inverting the emotional meaning of his earlier triumph. Theron tells Rafe he can’t go back to face Libby after killing her father, and instead finally departs for a larger world, leaving Rafe to be the one who watches over Hannah and finally become the heir apparent. Like everything else in the film, it’s a finish so artful in its contrivance that it satisfies deeply.
| 4 comments »
Director: Jack Cardiff
By Roderick Heath
Cinematography is a discipline that demands both technical and aesthetic skill, and seems to arm its practitioners with an understanding of all aspects of filmmaking. Yet the paucity of film photographers who start and sustain coherent directing careers has often been perplexing to cinema fans. Jack Cardiff, the legendary cinematographer of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) and Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), moved into directing his own movies in the late ’50s. After an early hit with his prestige adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1960), Cardiff pursued one of the strangest oeuvres imaginable, including the inert My Geisha (1962); the high-camp historical action flick The Long Ships (1964); the flavourful Sean O’Casey biopic Young Cassidy (1965), which he finished after John Ford fell ill; the sub-Bond action thriller The Liquidator (1966); and the early body-horror genre entry The Mutations (1974).
Dark of the Sun was half of a 1968 Cardiff one-two punch, along with his deliriously trippy adaptation of the legendary, racy novel The Girl on the Motorcycle (1968). Dark of the Sun is the sort of perfervid pulp classic that fulfils a cinephile’s fantasies about what such a film should look and sound like, evoking Sam Fuller and Delmer Daves in their capacity to boil complex themes down to dynamic examples, and say, in this unrestrained quality, things rather deeper and darker than a more prestigious, sober film could manage. The air of frantic innovation and hyperventilating cultural catch-up the late ’60s zeitgeist stoked in even the most conservative filmmakers left behind an epoch that’s still something of a wonderland of semicharted oddities like this.
Dark of the Sun, based on a novel by Wilbur Smith, is a post-Conradian, post-colonial fantasia looking at the havoc wreaked by imperialism and its sudden, disingenuous withdrawal of responsibility, coupled with the eruptive forces of cultures left poised between ancient and modern worlds: it’s the directly engaged genre cinema riposte to the rhetorical remove of Week-End (1967). Or, as Ruffo (Jim Brown), one of the film’s heroes, puts it in a fascinating moment as he grills his friend Curry (Rod Taylor), “watching the natives in their colourful puberty rites.” Ruffo is a Congolese renaissance man and perpetual comrade in arms to the truculent, but fundamentally decent Curry who is called in at the movie’s outset to pull off a tricky, two-faced rescue mission deep in the Congo’s hinterland. Like Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) and Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1966), Dark of the Sun is an African-set adventure film that evokes the chaos and violence that has so often afflicted the continent and depicts overt warfare between black and white protagonists, but sustains a questioning approach to such conflict. White antiheroes find themselves paying the price for the blunders and cruelties of official policy, and African characters’ capacity for cruelty and humanity are merely versions of everybody else’s. The Simbas—marauding, crazed forces of destruction in the film—are not revolutionaries or nationalists, but drug-crazed loonies who represent the festering after the scab of colonialism has been torn off, whilst the wan claim to European moral authority is squarely represented by former Nazi Henlein (Peter Carsten). The film is hardly politically correct, and yet it is, in a funny way, fair-minded.
The setting is the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Curry and Ruffo are hired by the unnervingly smooth inheritor of the young country, President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart), who’s moved into the mansion he’s admired “since I was a boy.” To prop up his government and fight off the Simbas, Ubi has made a deal with a Belgian mining company to retrieve $50 million worth of diamonds still locked in a vault in Port Reprieve, a town cut off by UN peacekeepers. Curry and Ruffo are given three days and promised a $50,000 payday if they retrieve the diamond. They secure a train and begin putting together a team, relying squarely on Henlein, who commands a force of regular Congo army soldiers for whom he has general contempt; Henlein, menacingly, has not abandoned his fondness for blunt final solutions to complex humanitarian problems and still wearsa swastika badge from his WWII days. The team also takes on the local-born Surrier (Olivier Despax), the good-natured Kataki (Bloke Modisane, a South African writer and activist in real life), and alcoholic Dr. Wreid (Kenneth More). Early in the mission, Surrier’s loss of nerve contributes to the loss of life when the train is attacked by a UN fighter plane. Passing a large plantation house belonging to a company agent, they only rescue the panicky, dishevelled refugee Claire (Yvette Mimieux), who rambles on frantically about the agent’s fate at the hands of the Simbas and demands to know why the rescue took so long.
Later, when the train stops and Curry and Ruffo encounter two orphaned children, Henlein promptly shoots the pair because he thinks they might be spies for some unseen enemy. Lethally charged glares of rage intensify as Curry discourages Henlein’s attentiveness to Claire, and this enmity soon evolves into a balls-and-all fight. Henlein almost cuts Curry up with a chainsaw and Curry almost crushes Henlein’s head under the train engine’s wheels before Ruffo intervenes. When the train finally makes it to Port Reprieve, they learn from Bussier (André Morell), the local agent for the mining companies, that the diamonds are locked in a time vault. The team has to wait three nail-biting hours with the train packed to the brim with refugees for the lock to open, as the Simbas draw ever closer. The safe opens, and the diamonds are retrieved just as the Simbas pour into town. The train trundles laboriously away as the soldiers shoot their way through the marauders, only for a mortar bomb to sever the rear car from the train and send it rolling with its load of refugees, including Bussier and his wife (Monique Lucas), back into the hands of the Simbas.
What lends Dark of the Sun its genuine punch is the hysterical instability it radiates and the confrontational zest of its story, far superior to modern equivalents like Black Hawk Down (2001) and Blood Diamond (2006) in offering up characters who are avatars of such chaotic and cruel times. The title, as well as offering an obvious thematic inversion, invokes the film’s peculiar visual palate, filled with sunlight so bright that the landscape is drained of primary hues, and the frames fulminate with a scorched intensity. Dark of the Sun pulsates with stylistic bravura, from Jacques Loussier’s nervy score to the slash-and-burn editing style and salt-lick screenplay. The film’s opening captures a world in transit, refugees of all colours and states crowding the retaining fences as they wait for planes out of the country.
Curry and Ruffo disembark and immediately have a charged skirmish of wills with UN soldiers who know very well the corrosive effect foreign mercenaries are having in the country. Ruffo discounts himself from a share in Ubi’s paycheque because of his personal stake in the country’s affairs, but he’s treated like an interloper by Ubi and referred to as a “big ape” by a Western journalist, unaware Ubi is a former USC student who speaks four languages. The journalist attempts to reclaim the moral high ground in grilling Curry, answered with, “I don’t like fat hacks who sit on their butts in bars waiting for trouble to happen so they can get it wrong when they write about it.”
Dark of the Sun is an entry in a specifically late ’60s branch of the action film, the “dirty bastards on a dirty-bastard mission” tale, inaugurated by The Guns of Navarone (1961) and carried to extremes by the likes of Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965), and Brooks’ The Professionals (1967). One distinction of Cardiff’s film is that the then-contemporary sociopolitical milieu is engaged more specifically, and the meaning of the heroes’ stooping to obscene violence is pillaged with a genuine urgency. The film’s portrait of a violent epoch is all-encompassing, taking the essential theme of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—modern “civilisation” finding its primal antecedent in the Congo jungles and becoming poisoned by confronting the truth that hardly anything in the human soul has really changed—and twisting it to chronicle the violent evolution of the new nation as contrasted with the devolution of the old. “I was forced to come down from the tree,” Ruffo states bluntly, turning racist quips back on themselves, “and no force on earth is going to make me go up again.”
Several moments in the film resemble an obvious antecedent, Stagecoach (1939), only to deliberately desecrate them: Wreid, like Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone, is pressed into service in spite of being shickered to help with birthing a baby, only instead of heroic resurgence, he and the rest of the patients he takes on are massacred. Also, much like John Carradine’s Hatfield prepares to do the gentlemanly thing and shoot Louise Platt before capture by marauders, but is prevented from doing so by both his own death and the timely arrival of the cavalry, Bussier goes through with killing his wife before the Simbas capture them: his own body is later found sprawled amidst dozens of other massacred refugees like so much refuse.
Dark of the Sun’s overripe, still-potent nastiness is consistently bracing and surprising, and the action scenes, when they come, are brutal and thrilling. Cardiff’s terrific camera work, with an assist from Edward Scaife, is restless and urgent, rendered as a near-constant surge in physical movement. Pregnant scenes are charged with tension, like the interminable wait Curry, Claire, and Bussier maintain outside the diamond vault as the sound of battle begins to drum outside. Early in the film, Cardiff proffers a sequence of the mercenary team assembling their battle train that comprises a blend of silent film and ’30s and ’40s montage style, full of silhouetted shots and dizzying Dutch angles. The film’s central set piece, the massacre in Port Reprieve and Curry and Ruffo’s attempt to improvise an escape and retrieve the diamonds from the Simba leader Col. Moses (Danny Daniels), is a bloodcurdling survey of cruelty, pansexual abuse, and generally gleeful shredding of civilised norms; a woman is repeatedly hurled in the air on a sheet as if it’s a party as a prelude to gang rape, a captive is dragged behind a motorcycle, another has his face burnt off by a torch; one man tries to rape a nun from the hospital, only for her to drag him over a balcony to their death. Surrier, captured during the battle, is tortured by Moses and brutally beaten by men who know him as the personal representative of the colonialist experience, even though he’s the one white character in the film who expresses a genuine love for the country. Like the early village torture scene in The Naked Prey, it seems less a vision of tribal brutality than an attempt to invoke the absolute limits of rancid depravity and chaos within the limits of a mainstream feature film of its era, a moment of complete dissolution into anarchy caused by the complete incoherence of a society. Curry and Ruffo use an old ruse: Ruffo pretends to be one of the Simbas, carrying Curry into the hotel where Moses has set up headquarters, and they stage a brilliant coup of revenge as they rain death on the Simbas, and Surrier bear-hugs Moses and kills them both with a grenade.
Like most great melodramas, Dark of the Sun has, in between the chainsaws duels and mass rape scenes, a philosophical aspect to it that refuses reduction to window dressing, but instead becomes crucial to story and thrills. The constant flow of pulpy action, particularly in the fights between Curry and Henlein, predict the hard-charging, gritty style of the Indiana Jones films if the Jones films had embraced moral ambiguity and a far more alarming immediacy in terms of real-world violence. Curry and Ruffo have distinctive personal traits and perspectives that define them, and their conversations encapsulate their differing place in a violent world from which they both make their living. Curry’s affectation of professional disinterest masks a powerful, easily stoked fury when faced with immediate brutality and inhumanity, whereas Ruffo’s weightier conscientiousness regarding differing versions of tribal savagery (e.g., those of his parents and that of Henlein) is cooler in the long run. Soul-searching is an inevitable by-product of the human behaviour displayed throughout the film.
The film introduces Claire as a nominal love interest for Curry, but once she recovers from her initial hysteria, she retains a self-sufficient quality that stands apart from the bromance of Curry and Ruffo; of course, she brings out the potential bestial instinct in Henlein when the time comes. Mimieux, a pretty, colourless starlet early in her career who appeared with Taylor in The Time Machine (1960) probably gives her best performance, even if she somehow gets hold of some remarkably resilient white slacks during the course of the film. Cardiff worked three times with Taylor, and he, Brown, and Carsten practically ooze testosterone and physical vigour throughout, a vigour that is constantly tested with some demanding stunt work. Brown wasn’t the most expressive actor on the block, and yet he had, in addition to his rock-solid physicality, a thoughtful quality that is well utilised in this film. He often played in this phase of his career black martyr figures whose tinge of the revolutionary only serves to inspire white characters to action; to an extent his role’s the same here, except that, as Curry suspects early on, Ruffo, as the man who actually knows what’s going on in the country and what he’s doing there, has an ethical authority and solidity of purpose that is the linchpin of the enterprise.
When Henlein murders Ruffo, taking an opportunity to try and abscond with the diamonds when Curry is away, the film’s moral centrifuge flies apart, and so does Curry’s character. He chases down Henlein, and in a dizzyingly staged action sequence that broaches the limits of pathological rage, the pair wrestles whilst dangling from vines and struggling in river water, until, in an inspired perversion of traditional heroism, Curry first disables Henlein, breaking his arm and almost drowning him, before stabbing him to death. It’s the traditional action-revenge finale played as humanistic Passion Play, taking Curry right to the brink of madness and stripping his act of any nobility or even backwoods justice. He squats over the river water to wash his face, evoking the desolate state of Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). This is witnessed by Kataki, who, utterly revolted, refuses to obey Curry, and berates him for surrendering so easily to the savagery they’re supposed to be trying to escape. The film’s very conclusion, with Curry, after a boding delay, handing himself over to Kataki’s custody to be tried for murder, is too neat a coda considering the rawness of what’s preceded it, but the crucial image of Kataki saluting Curry, as both men live up to Ruffo’s creed and reestablish the basis of civilisation on a level of equality nonetheless retains an unexpected pathos. Of course, Dark of the Sun is no essay or deep tract, but that’s its final strength: like its heroes, it bashes its way through and gets things done.
| 4 comments »
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
By Roderick Heath
Alfred Hitchcock’s career, after a wane in the late ’40s, gathered new steam in 1951 with Strangers on a Train, and for the next decade or so, his creative zest and cinematic brilliance seemed practically limitless. His exploits came within his official brief as the “Master of Suspense” and yet often, both covertly and overtly, tested those limits, setting and overcoming challenges of form, tone, technique, and substance even before gaining a strange, but harmless and even encouraging boost from a new generation of young French critic-filmmakers. All that seemed to come to an abrupt halt in 1964 with Marnie, an awkwardly received work that became a battleground for auteurists and their enemies. All involved came out somewhat battered.
For Hitchcock himself, the experience seemed to cause a creative crisis, and except for the coldly beautiful, maliciously funny Frenzy (1972), his final works display the hit-and-miss tone and intent of effect that characterised his lesser, earlier work. Perhaps age and the uncertainties of the suddenly permissive, authenticity-craving zeitgeist began to catch up with him; or perhaps, as some have said, Hitchcock finally let his perpetual actress crushes get the best of him on the set of Marnie, where he fell out with leading lady Tippi Hedren, who had been carried over from The Birds (1963) after an abortive attempt to get Grace Kelly to return to filmmaking. His powerhouse technical crew also began to disintegrate after its release; he lost his editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Robert Burks, and composer Bernard Herrmann ended their epochal partnership after his score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain (1966), was rejected as uncommercial.
Whatever truths pop psychology and industry rumour can extract from the situation can’t match the evidence of Marnie itself, that it is one of his most personal, intense, fervent films and one where he tried to finally bust out of the role of Master of Suspense. Marnie is essentially an expressionist romantic melodrama rather than a thriller, boiling down many of his basic themes to a basic dialogue of suspicion and passion, transgression and forgiveness. Hitchcock’s least generic film since The Trouble with Harry (1956), but also an antithesis of that film’s deceptively flip aesthetic, Marnie’s declarative style echoes through the contemporary cinema of Lynch, Almodovar, Argento, Scorsese, De Palma, and many others, and noncinematic visual artists, too, indicating the degree to which he succeeded in laying out his most electrified images in a purified visual language. That language is largely one of raw iconography, often imitated, even fetishized, yet rarely reproduced coherently: the yellow handbag with which Marnie (Tippi Hedren) spirits away her loot in the first shot, the enormous close-up of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) searching for her bright red lips in a moment of electric fear and passion, the equally huge close-up of her hand clutching a revolver as she shoots her beloved horse Florio, the repeating motifs that combine basic Freudianism with the axiomatic power of images.
Adapted from Winston Graham’s novel by Jay Presson Allan with the customarily loose approach of the Hitchcock development phase, Marnie is in some ways a gender-switch remake of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Marnie is nonetheless also a deeply ironic film that sets out purposefully to pull apart multiple forms of institution—family, sex, marriage, business and social hierarchies, even the authoritarianism of psychiatry itself—and recompose them in new, distorted shapes.
Marnie Edgar herself seems both the chicest and the most dedicatedly duplicitous of Hitchcock blondes, but that is an illusion: she’s really from a poor Southern family, scion of hellfire religion and seamy rendezvous. Marnie is almost always the smartest person in the room and yet crippled by a powerful compulsion that sees her use up her talents and intelligence in repetitive, nominally profitable, but essentially pointless crimes. The audience, as so often in Hitchcock, is invited into complicity with her crimes, her satisfaction in ripping off the smug, bottom-pinching paternalists of the American business class and showing up their frauds, incompetence, and self-satisfaction. Who is her first and most troublesome victim in the film? A man named Strutt (Martin Gabel). She pays an early visit to her mother Bernice (Louise Latham) carrying the treasure from her latest assault, only to be driven insanely jealous by her mother’s affection for a young urchin, Jessie (Kimberly Beck), and Bernice’s dislike of being touched by her daughter, who begs her mother for any kind of physical affection with the exposed pathos of a child. Psycho’s silhouetted, looming maternal figure is here still alive and quietly torturing with inchoate love, standing over Marnie’s bed as she’s stricken with nightmares from a childhood incident she can’t remember yet obsesses over. Marnie is clearly a fractured mess contained by the trappings of the Hitchcock blonde, making it Hitchcock’s most overt deconstruction of his figure of obsession. Marnie’s misanthropy and frigidity, enacted through her gratifying raids, fascinates and entices Mark, knowing full well who and what she is, after her robbery of his business associate Strutt.
Hitchcock’s jokiness always had a peculiar habit of concealing notions of discomforting profundity, and here the narrative is sustained by a restlessly clever conflation of human behaviour with zoology, a pragmatic and amoral science that balances and rivals the medical psychotherapeutic conceits with its specifically human constructs and egocentric world view (and also inevitably invoking the animal motifs of Psycho and the avian apocalypse of The Birds). This idea is introduced as Rutland’s essential interest, a form of thought which codifies his worldview of the predatory, yet frustrated, alpha male. Mark himself is a contradictory figure, a nerd forced into the role of business tycoon to protect the prosperity of his American Brahmin family. The notion of Mark being as quietly entrapped in his own, specifically masculine way as the more overtly neurotic, yet hardly more perverse Marnie is a significant substrata to the film’s psychic drama: if Marnie is near-fatally afflicted not only with profound childhood trauma, but also corrosively retrograde concepts of morality, Mark Rutland seems to be an almost purified edition of the era’s version of playboy male—aggressive, darkly charming (played by James Bond himself), entitled, and conquering. Mark’s approach to Marnie, engaging in what is basically a form of sexual and emotional blackmail with Marnie in a desire to satisfy his taste for an exotic female specimen, blends confusedly with his actual affection and interest in her, an affection that becomes mediated and complicated through an interminable array of defence mechanisms and biological instincts.
Marnie’s credits announce a literary motif as the names are presented printed on turning pages, an almost satirical touch, as if Hitchcock was delving back into the era of the oppressively vulgar romanticism of former patron David Selznick and classic Hollywood. But the romanticism is also very real, if livid in its perversity, and the film’s opening moments—Marnie, seen from behind, stalking a railway concourse carrying that yellow bag, and then a jump-cut to Strutt’s angry exclamation of “Robbed!” immediately clarifying the strange importance of the bag and the mysterious figure—represent formally arranged cinema at its height, brusquely free of the literary. This segues into a ritualised shift of identities, with Marnie switching Social Security cards hidden in her compact in a marvelous conjunction of practical trick and metaphor for the immutable impersonality of femininity, washing the black dye from her hair, and dropping the first of the film’s many talismanic keys to the bus station locker where she abandons her most recent alternate guise. One major structural difference between Marnie and other Hitchcock films is in the final melding of the figure of the ice-cool woman of mystery and the fearful fugitive, usually a male character who at some stage becomes captor or captive to the female. Whereas early films in the canon like The 39 Steps (1935) mediate the idea of being at the mercy of a criminal with humour, here the motif is explored in disturbing ways through a situation where the relationship allows neither character unsullied dignity nor freedom from culpability.
After her robberies, Marnie always rides her beloved horse Florio (“If you must bite someone, Florio, bite me!”) with all its ripe suggestions of adolescent sublimation. Marnie’s guises enable her status as a subversive agent without a cause within the structure of contemporary society, but they soon prove ineffective armour against the world, and the relentless male gaze of Hitchcock and his protagonists: “Stare,” Marnie spits in response to a word-association game Mark plays with her, “And that’s what you do!” Such a tantalising surface must be shattered. Only the forces that compel that shattering largely come from within Marnie herself rather than Russian spies or harassing police, but still Rutland, like many (usually female, sometimes equally malevolent) Hitchcock protagonists before him, becomes accomplice and protector, persecutor and lover to the fugitive. Rutland’s half-protective, half-greedy entrapment of Marnie becomes then the overture for a perverted inversion of the rituals of marriage and social courtship laced with acidic import, as the narrative moves through a quickie wedding, a first honeymoon night that turns into an oppressive disaster, a sexual encounter that grazes rape and concludes with a suicide attempt (“The idea was to drown myself, not feed the damn fish!”), and finally a return home whereupon Rutland coaches Marnie sarcastically in the arts of respectable cohabitation and newlywed rituals: “This is the drill, dear—wife follows husband to front door, gives and/or gets a kiss, stands pensively as he drives away…”
Later, Marnie is inducted into the ritual of hosting a party, where she’s almost driven to flee by the sight of Strutt, invited with malicious intent by Mark’s sister-in-law Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker). Rarely was Hitchcock’s sense of sarcastic humour and utter contempt for domestic institutions so sharp as in such scenes. This is the marriage role-playing stage of Rear Window’s (1954) many windows, replayed through a more immediate, torturous prism. Whilst the film thoroughly validates Freudianism, it proffers an intense distrust of official interventions and authority: the psychiatrist Marnie sees in the novel is conflated with Mark himself, whose amateur tilt at the art is blended in multifarious, dangerous, but also more personal and crucial ways. Marnie meets Mark’s attempts to tease psychoanalytic self-recognition out of her with equal contempt in a moment that recalls the similarly inquisitorial courtships of The Birds: “You Freud – me Jane?” The old gag, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” here is rewritten as, just because Marnie knows that she’s criminally neurotic, doesn’t mean she’s wrong to want to invert the power relations backed up by ever-present hints of brute, vindictive force that surround her.
Marnie’s sequential set-pieces are far less expansive and spectacular than in the likes of North by Northwest (1959) or even Psycho (1960), and yet represent exercises in technique and symphonic emotion just as bravura and compelling for the attentive viewer. Mark and Marnie’s relationship, which bobs to the surface first when she is sent into an animalistic frenzy by the electric brightness and saturating red of a thunderstorm, retreating to writhe against the office door in proto-orgasmic panic, attracting Mark to embrace her in an intimate moment that resolves in that colossal kiss, a moment that seems to represent an absolute reduction of one aspect of the cinema just as surely as the shower murder of Psycho. The next climax, Marnie robbing the Rutland and Co. safe, builds from the moment Rutland steals away with Marnie into a corner of the family mansion’s stables to kiss her in a moment of supposedly illicit passion, with Marnie playing along whilst keeping her mind on her upcoming theft as the price she will exact. This moment of covert retreat jumps almost immediately to the image of Marnie hiding within a toilet cubicle, waiting in the semi-dark for the office women to retreat and leave her to her peculiar, solitary form of sexual release. The actual heist makes a Jules Dassin-esque use of silence, as a cleaning lady strays unperceived into Hitchcock’s coolly framed widescreen cage as Marnie does her deed, and she strips her shoes off to make a getaway, only for one to fall with calamitous volume to the floor.
Only the cleaning lady’s lousy hearing saves Marnie, but her seemingly clean getaway is abruptly ruined when Marnie’s customary post-heist fling on Florio is interrupted by Mark’s appearance, now the glowering force of male vindictiveness, or so it seems at first, before Mark’s actual, far stranger program becomes apparent. The image of Joan Fontaine’s repressed intellectual in Suspicion (1941) reading a book on child psychology whilst keeping one eye on the gorgeous threat of Cary Grant is soon inverted, as Mark peers over the edge of a book on seashore animals into Marnie’s bedroom, with sex on his mind. He releases his frustration on Marnie, tearing off her skirt, then bundling her guiltily with his bathrobe: the switchbacks here between desire and hate, protectiveness and lust, violation and embrace, nakedness and protective layering, are articulated with stunning rapidity. Marnie’s wide, dead eyes and Mark’s predatory gaze form a dialogue of primal sensation, completely at odds and yet locked in a dying fall onto the bed. It’s one of the most brilliant, disturbing, multifaceted moments in movie history, and one that has links to the much simpler and yet so similar moment in Hitchcock’s first mature film, The Lodger (1926), in which the frame is filled with Ivor Novello’s face looming upon the camera in the act of a kiss, an image of both love and fear, threat and affection.
Hitchcock’s style, which always seems so singular as to be sui generis, actually represents a weird and fascinating blend of the two basic approaches to cinema: he learned from Fritz Lang and the Munich filmmakers under whom he served an apprenticeship a form of expressionism and symbolism, one in which his interest in psychology readily found release, and yet he was also a fundamental realist in the British school, anticipating aspects of neorealism in work like Shadow of a Doubt (1943) in his way of observing specific detail and utilising milieu. His later films offer a violently eclectic technique, and that’s true enough in Marnie, a deeply stylised film, full of grandiose shots that show off their inauthenticity but only for the sake of enriching the film’s emotional palate and elemental drama. Such tricks range from the hugely looming, oppressive ship that sits moored at the end of Bernice’s street, to the thunder clouds that hang over the Rutland and Co. offices, presaging the storm that will soon break on both physical and psychological planes. The film resolves into overtly expressionistic alternations of drained colour and sudden, violent hues and the interplay of the present and past screaming faces of Marnie, beholding the horror of her accidental homicide, practically begging for Edvard Munch’s scream to be added to the montage. Whilst it’s tempting to admit Hitchcock’s effects get too bluntly, even cornily declarative in places, like the in-and-out zoom that punctuates Marnie’s final robbery and the rush of unlocked symbols in the finale, it’s still important to recognise their place in the film’s final idealisation of image not simply as a picture but as an expressive device.
It’s taken me a long time to come around to Hedren, but lately I can’t take my eyes off her on screen, as what Hitchcock saw in her seems plainer. In comparison to his great triumvirate of female stars, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly, Hedren was much less subtle, but also had both a febrile intensity under the simpering cool, and a precise type of aggression, a spiky hauteur the other three usually rounded off. This quality works especially well here, an edge that comes out in Marnie’s bitterly self-aware humour and her serpentine defensiveness when cornered: she could alternate between softness and hardness with precise timing. Although by logical standards oddly cast as an American Brahmin, Connery is simply marvelous in one of his best performances, capturing Mark’s natural imperiousness and delight in game hunting with eruptions of shame and tenderness. Herrmann’s score is one of his most lush, irradiating the images with a swooning sense of yielding desire and unfettered feeling, which the characters constantly stymie. It’s easy to see why Hitchcock’s style has had such a deep impact on queer aesthetics and artists, with his immediate sense of illicit passion, unease, and duplicitous surfaces. It’s tempting enough to read the tale of Marnie as that of a closeted lesbian, which would probably be the first reflex of a modern analysis, as, like the heroine of Rebecca (1940), she practically trembles with the constant threat/invitation of being recognised/outed.
Baker’s marvellously supine Lil evokes Suzanne Pleshette’s antipathetic brunette Annie Heyworth in The Birds as one who stands as a nominal rival for the affections of the hero. Whereas Pleshette was easier to read in her affectations as an embodiment of same-sex attraction, Lil is more a quietly murderous sprite, an example of a younger generation for whom the weaknesses of the older are invitation to cruel sport. The grand climactic scenes of Marnie come somewhat before the actual finale’s perfervid revelations, as Marnie, made nervous by Lil’s plot to spring Strutt on her, and with Mark trying to strike a bargain with him, joins a fox hunt. She registers the laughter of the hunters and the jollity of the blood sport as a specific psychic anticipation of her own destruction, and flees, chased by Lil until she tries to make Florio jump a brick wall, the horse smashing its rear legs and sending Marnie tumbling head over heels. The interplay of editing and shooting here, ranging from helicopter shots to close-ups that feel like comic book frames in their illustrative quality, is as amazing as any of Hitch’s vaunted scenes, and the pungent emotionalism of Marnie, bedraggled and hysterical, begging a farm woman for a pistol to shoot her beloved steed, and angrily shoving aside the pleading Lil (“Haven’t you killed enough today?”) to deliver the coup de grace.
Mercy killing of her most beloved creature segues into thievery as Marnie, almost entirely unhinged though back in her near-catatonic state, tries to rob the Rutland mansion’s safe, but with her paralysing psychological blocks now preventing her from taking the money. Mark determines to drive her to the showdown with her mother that will finally unveil the base trauma that has caused her compulsions and phobias. That finale tries to pack a little too much into one scene, but the completeness of Marnie’s devolution is remarkable, as she’s reduced to a childish state, whilst Mark finally achieves the authority he’s always sought, ripping away the bandage of forgetfulness Bernice had thankfully idealised as a gift from god, relieving not only Marnie from guilt but also herself from her past. Marnie escapes the total collapse and rot that finally cocoons Norman Bates, the death wish of Vertigo’s Madeleine/Vicky, and the collapse of The Birds’ Melanie Daniels, Marnie’s immediate psychic ancestors. And that, perhaps, is truly why Marnie feels like the end of something.
| 9 comments »
Director: Ken Russell
By Roderick Heath
Ken Russell’s death last week at age 84 felt like the last in an endless series of cheats the director had suffered in his lifetime. The eternally puckish Russell had been until quite recently continuing to amuse and instruct in newspaper columns, belying his advanced years with a still-guttering mental fire, and thus his death cheated him, and us, of hope of a last good film. Also, it comes at a time when something like Russell’s due was finally coming to him. Lately, Russell has begun to be celebrated as the great British rebel he was, and like many great British rebels, ended up exemplifying something about the society he fell into struggle with. In that regard he resembled D. H. Lawrence, the writer Russell adapted for his third, and first truly, personally definitive feature film, Women in Love. Purely by living long enough, Russell became an elder statesman of British film, an unlikely end as there was a time not so long ago when Russell’s audacious, rampantly energetic, entirely wilful cinema was a byword for something nasty and crazy and degraded. Indeed, some of Russell’s essential aesthetic beliefs – that creative passion was superior to refined style, that interpretative vibrancy was more important than fidelity, that the erotic and the vulgar had a deeper and more vital place in art than they had been allowed – were red rags to the bulls of cultural guardianship, especially as one of Russell’s favourite creative guerrilla tactics was to remind us of the compost out of which much great art grows. During the 1970s, when most of his generational fellows tried to carve out places for themselves in Hollywood and British cinema almost died from a lack of passion and confidence, Russell didn’t always stay home, but he did try to stay true to his creed, and continued to shake things up until his career began to stall in the late 1980s.
Women in Love came after Russell had reentered cinema with Billion Dollar Brain (1968), the third of Michael Caine’s delicious series of Harry Palmer spy flicks, but also after he had excited audiences and attentive minds with a series of electrifying TV movies and shorts in the previous few years. Women in Love came amidst a steady flow of highbrow literary classics tackled by the young heathens of British cinema in the ’60s, some flagrantly modernist and playful, like Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), some elegiac and expansive, like John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). Russell’s take on Lawrence’s novel was something else again. Russell doesn’t seem to be filming Lawrence’s book so much as trying to live it out page by page. The superficially uncouth yet poetic, symbolic writer who tried to find the comprehensibility in things normally thought of as primal and vice versa, has been digested and defecated, reshaped into the literality of images and of feeling by Russell, who also poured his own emotional reflexes into it, and extracted in turn the potential in Lawrence’s material, true as he saw it when he wrote the book in the 1910s, to capture things nascent in the late ‘60s zeitgeist. Feminism in the form of Glenda Jackson’s ground-breaking performance and her character’s arc from frustrated parochial nonconformist to self-actualising femme du monde; frank homoeroticism in the infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates; and sundry other fragments replete with satire, social observation, and philosophical yammering, which capture and distil that sense of import in the moment which distinguished the era. Would certain great cultural institutions survive as their foundations seemed now rotten? What was the future of human relations, between classes, between genders, when so much had gone wrong with them? Lawrence had tried to make the questions palpable, and Russell tried to capture with authenticity the way the questions had found new momentum.
In terms of actual story, of course, there’s an element of soap opera to Women in Love, depicting as it does two concurrent love affairs, one of which involves shattering social classes and ends in near-murder and then suicide. The soapy element is however what gives the intellectualism flesh. Some criticism was levelled at Women in Love for, however, keeping intact Lawrence’s loopy anti-realistic dialogue, but to adapt such a novel without trying to capture its depth of thought would have reduced it to a sex farce. Russell for the most part keeps them ably counterpointed with his animated, dynamic camera, a visual entity that reproduces the thrashing sense of life found in the characters. One of Russell and screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer’s more contentious touches was to relocate the novel to after the First World War, whereas Lawrence had been writing about the fin-de-siecle mood of bohemian boundary-stretching of the Edwardian era, and which the war had been used as a justification for repressing, a cultural war which Lawrence and his novel had been caught up in. But Russell makes this work for him, using the official pieties of dedicating war memorials and visions of mangled, poverty-stricken and begging veterans, to give immediacy and mordant pep to Rupert Birkin’s (Bates) oft-satirical, always frantic attempts to synthesise a modern kind of living, and the inevitable translation of this into terms of the film’s Vietnam-era anti-war mood. Russell also depicts flapper styles and jazz-age rags beginning to infest the hidebound British landscape, as its heroines in their wilfully colourful garb strut through grey and grimy streets and filth-clad working-class men, like Birds of Paradise nesting in Mordor.
These exotic birds are Gudrun (Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), daughters of a schoolteacher who are themselves now teachers. Except that as members of their mining town’s small intelligentsia, they become intimate with some of its flashier figures, including Gerald Crich (Reed), son of the mine’s owner (Alan Webb), his friend Rupert, who works as a school inspector, through which capacity he first meets Ursula, and his pretentious aristocratic lover Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron). Rupert and Hermione’s relationship is foundering as he becomes increasingly cold and sarcastic about her affectations and greed for attention, coming to a head when he breaks up a self-indulgent dance she performs whilst trying to overshadow Gudrun and Ursula, by getting the accompanist to start bashing out a Charleston rag. Hermione, enraged by his scorn and her offended pretence to cultural imperium, tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, but he survives and runs away. Gerald, intrigued by the sisters, invites them to an annual party the Criches throw for their workers and other townsfolk, but during the party his younger sister Laura (Sharon Gurney) and her newlywed husband Tibby Lupton (Christopher Gable) drown whilst swimming naked in the estate lake. This tragedy catalyses both Ursula and Rupert’s and Gudrun and Gerald’s affairs, and also deepens Rupert and Gerald’s bond. But these relationships are fated to run very different courses, as Ursula’s conventional concept of love slowly reins in Rupert’s yearnings for multifarious relationships, whilst Gerald pours grief and anger into his partnering with Gudrun, who in turn drifts into an intellectual bond with a gay German artist, Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), when the quartet head off for a holiday in the Alps. In a nihilistic rage, Gerald strangles Gudrun almost to death, but then wanders off to freeze to death in the mountains.
Like Lawrence’s novel, most of the captivating, invigorating illustrative vignettes in Russell’s film are loaded into the first half: Tibby and Laura racing each other to the church on their wedding day; Gudrun dancing before bulls like a Cretan priestess, oblivious to danger and given up to art as life in the moment; Hermione’s assault on Rupert and his ritual-like stripping and self-cleansing afterwards in the forest; the fatal drowning of the couple and Rupert and Ursula’s frantic copulation in the bushes, transmuting death-angst into life-spark as the lake is drained to reveal the drowned bodies, the living and dead couples wrapped around each other identically; Gerald wielding the same controlling instinct he pushes on his workers on his horse, in forcing it to remain close to a speeding train; his crazed mother releasing guard dogs on workmen coming to the family mansion. It helps that Lawrence provided such episodes that stick like burrs in the imagination and gave a filmmaker such naturally intense images. Women in Love presents a panoply of thematic tropes and visual motifs Russell would play about with in increasingly effusive and unique terms, and it stands as a definite prototypical work for Russell, who would achieve his most personal and intense extremes in the likes of Ken Russell’s Film of Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), and Mahler (1974).
Russell did his best work when he was fighting against limitations of not only censorship and cultural expectations but also assumptions of technical competence and traditions of quality – the tension between the formal beauty his traditionally trained cinematographers, editors, and studio hands could give his films and his own anarchic impulses was in fine balance in his ‘70s works. Here Russell’s filmmaking, with the incomparable aid of the great cinematographer Billy Williams, attacks with physical force. They often employ hand-held camerawork, not affected like so much modern wobble-cam stuff, but charged with sweeping energy, to give the film a hungry, compulsive feel. Russell did some of the hand-held work himself in trying to upset the classic delicacies of movie photography. The sense of production detail is impeccable in recreating the ‘20s, with much of the costuming authentic stuff picked up in op shops and thrift stores. Despite this, or maybe because of this, there’s a resistance to the sort of precious, muted air that afflicts most such historical movies, an effect deepened by the material, which in part subverts our stereotypes of the era’s behaviour and personal world-views, whilst also offering up shots like the Crichs’ golden car knifing its way through knots of filthy mine workers, a concise visual nugget that reminds us what all the bohemian cavorting is being supported by. There’s Russell’s own satirical jab back at Lawrence, who, trying to wrestle his way out of the usual class presumptions and rhetoric of his time, seemed to yearn to belong to the upper class bohemians of the Bloomsbury group he nonetheless satirised mercilessly in the novel.
One irony of Women in Love is of course that it could as easily have been called Men in Love, for Rupert and Gerald dominate as much as the two sisters, and Rupert’s channelling of Lawrence’s philosophical articulateness especially, in the first half. Rupert hopes overtly for a kind of deep platonic partnership to counterbalance the familiar man-woman marriage, wanting to establish a kind of blutbrüderschaft with Gerald, expressed after the pair beat hell out of each other in a bout of Japanese-style wrestling as Rupert encourages Gerald to release his emotions following his sister’s death. The nude wrestling scene is famous for some obvious reasons – it was the first time a mainstream English-language feature allowed frontal male nudity, and two big-name actors to boot. But what makes it still a riveting scene is how unabashedly the men carry it out, and how Russell shoots it, even given that he’d worked closely with the censor chief to carefully tweak light levels and framings, nonetheless the scene doesn’t feel especially self-conscious when British cinema had been notoriously clumsy with erotic themes and nudity. Instead Russell here does some of his most vivid editing, ending with the two men entwined like lovers even in inflicting violence on each-other, and indeed the violence takes the place of sexual and emotional release. Russell ratchets up the flicker of homosexual bonding between the pair, apparent in Rupert’s glitter-eyed attempts to get the stiff-necked Gerald to understand his offer of a kind of love. The male romance counterpoints the two more traditional romances, and also the crack-up of Rupert and Hermione’s affair, which mirrors what later happens with Gerald and Gudrun, but with the gender roles reversed.
Although it’s certainly a film with a director’s powerful imprint on it, much of the force and beauty of Women in Love comes from the cast, an almost perfect confluence of talent. Jackson won the Oscar, but the film offers ensemble work of a high character, although I feel Linden’s Ursula is more distinctly whiny and petty than she should be. Amongst the supporting cast, comprising many of Russell’s stock company of actors, Bron is a stand-out. She inhabits Hermione with a mixture of gruesome egotism and defined pathos, particularly excellent in the lengthy dance scene where she both displays physical deftness, but also puts across the peculiar form of violence she’s inflicting on her so-called friends and lover, before her own exclamation of aggrieved disbelief when Rupert tells her he didn’t mean to spoil her dance, “My arse!” Bates, whom Russell reported identified deeply with Lawrence, is fantastic as Rupert, a difficult part to play at the best of times, bringing out the emotional charge, hints of drunkenness, desperation, and bisexual longing throbbing beneath his airy pronouncements: whereas Jackson’s Gudrun communicates the thrill of wilful self-liberation, Rupert suffers from a darker knowledge, of knowing new human paradigms have to be invented to survive. Bates might be at his keenest in the moment when he expounds a lengthy comparison of the fig with femininity, a scene charged with multiple levels of character revelation and tension, as the metaphor means different things to each of the people listening to it. This moment encapsulates indirectly the shift of Rupert’s affections from Hermione to Ursula, as Rupert is being honest, witty, and caddish all at the same time.
Similarly riveting are Russell’s two signal muses, Jackson and Reed, whom he would later often try to replace but usually unsuccessfully. A more different pair in terms of personal outlook is hard to imagine, but both had gusto, fearlessness, and a confrontational style, that well matched Russell’s own. Reed, whom Russell had cast before in several of his telemovies including The Debussy Film (1966) and Dante’s Inferno (1965), and would use again in The Devils (1971) and other films, became an ideal vessel for his self-projection, for, as well as bearing a certain resemblance to Russell, he could exude a quality of poeticism filtered through a primitive bluntness. This is exactly correct for portraying Gerald, who in spite of his upper class background and machine-age ambitions, retains a kind of savage volatility in him which first seeks relief in Gudrun’s arms and then begins to metaphorically and then literally throttle her. One of the film’s most riveting scenes comes when, after his father dies and his mad mother has humiliated him, he stalks through the night, dressed as a working man, squeezing the mud from his father’s grave between his fingers and then sneaking into the Brangwen house, where he finds his oblivion in her bed. The next morning, in a marvellous volte face of point of view, she awakens with his bulk upon her, trapping her in bed.
Gudrun takes on Gerald as the only man fearsome enough to take her on, and she the only woman filled with enough energy for both creation and destruction to engage his innermost impulses. Early in the film as he parades about with hookers in one of town’s working class pubs, he encounters her slumming, taunting and despising the working men, one of whom she easily rattles by answering his come-ons with a stated desire to “drown in flesh.” Jackson, who would give another galvanising performance for Russell in The Music Lovers, seems to condense all of the other characters within herself, as well as a total intelligence that refuses to be pinned down, even as she chafes and occasionally shrinks before a world largely hostile to her, which she answers with prickly arrogance. Gudrun’s dance before the cattle, and her gestures throughout, channels the style of Isadora Duncan, about whom Russell had made a telemovie in in 1966. Russell almost always included a dance or mime sequence in his films. This recurring, crucial actualisation of the kinetic-creative force in his characters reflects Russell’s own adolescent training as a ballet dancer, and it’s often through such sequences that his truest, more elegiac impulses, and sometimes also his most humorous and surreal ideas, are communicated. A certain amount of homosexual panic, which underlies Gerald’s simultaneous closeness with and rejection of Rupert, erupts in him as Gudrun, who already tempts something destructive in him, drifts closer to Loerke. But Gerald’s world-view and private madness also can only finally find a sense of conclusion in a totally nihilistic gesture, leaving the film poised in an aspect of depletion and incompleteness, true to the novel, even as the characters all, in a way, find what they’ve been looking for. Of course, in Gerald’s case it’s a tragic end, but one that satisfies and takes to a limit his own impulses, and for the others there is a sense of cost and longing still inflecting their happily ever afters. Women in Love doesn’t so much end as stop, questions still in the air, the unease of the times still heavy upon characters, artists, and audience.
| 11 comments »
By Roderick Heath
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K), started in 1988 on KTMA, a Minnesota television station, but was swiftly promoted onto Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel. After some initial line-up changes, the show settled into a formula, with comedian Joel Hodgson, cocreator of the show, playing a version of himself as a victimised everyman kept prisoner in space on the Satellite of Love by evil genius Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Forced to watch bad movies in a relentless experiment in mind control, he constructed a team of acerbic, antisocial robots, Crow (Beaulieu again) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), in a touch inspired by Silent Running (1972), that helped him mock the often dreadful movies foisted upon them. The line-up altered through the years, most notably with members of the writing team, Mike Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Bill Corbett, taking over the parts of victim, tormentor, and Crow, but the basic dynamic remained successfully intact until the show’s demise in 1999, thanks to those corporate maniacs! Damn them all to hell! At any rate, the warmly goofy tone of the witty, semi-dramatic interludes depicting the altercations of the Satellite of Love team and their hapless persecutors helped to make MST3K the most clever and sustained variation on an American TV tradition stretching back to the sepulchral quips of Vampira in the 1950s.
The limited production values gave the show’s creators a chance to exhibit much the same qualities as the material they were showcasing: low-budget, flagrantly tacky invention, but layered with hipster irony, referential dot-joining, and a genuine geek’s affection for the lame breed of cinema on display. The legacy of MST3K has been a little mixed for fans of schlock genre cinema because any film subjected to the show’s signature snark was instantly branded for all and sundry as noxious junk. That was patently untrue of a number of movies the team took on, including This Island Earth (1955), Danger: Diabolik (1967), and The Undead (1957), and other, sometimes excellent low-budget works. Also, apart from occasional dares, like roasting a tacky West German version of Hamlet from the early ’60s, they rarely took on the more difficult tasks of making fun of inflated pseudo-art, or pumped-up Hollywood idiocies like Top Gun (1986) or Pretty Woman (1990), which have no budgetary excuses for their rankness. Instead, the commentaries at their laziest replicated the standard shtick of mocking not terribly photogenic actors or cheap and obvious special effects, whilst ignoring hints of intelligence in the script or direction. But MST3K was arguably as much about a variety of audience interaction and the peculiar fraternity that has always defined fans of junk cinema as film criticism, and at their best, the team’s riffs constructed new, concurrent movie narratives.
The series’ most beloved episodes include their epic takedowns of the South African space opera Space Mutiny (1988), Coleman Francis’ rancid beatnik noir film Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966), and Ray Dennis Steckler’s freaky The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966). MST3K often foundered on the difficulties of sustaining its signature type of humour, but some of the team’s extended riffs, like the WWF-style commentary on the climactic bout of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1974) and the beach party of The Horror of Party Beach (1964), can stand up with any more polished challengers for sustained comic brilliance. Widely felt to be the show’s most definitive chapter is the 1993 episode that disinterred Harold P. Warren’s barely-screened “Manos” The Hands of Fate. Another product of that vintage year, 1966, “Manos” had failed to meet even its lowly ambition of becoming filler at drive-ins.
This film, whose title translates as “Hands The Hands of Fate,” was a labour of…well, not love, but rather a mixture of envy, gall, and entrepreneurial daring, for Warren, an El Paso fertiliser salesman. See? The jokes write themselves here. Legend has it Warren made the film after a lounge bar encounter with reputable Hollywood screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, whom he a bet he could produce a film for under $50,000. I’ve always been fascinated by the mystique of such risk-taking, low-budget cinema entrepreneurs, but for every George Romero or John Waters (whose no-frills early movies are name-checked at one point in the MST3K episode) thrown up by the cultural bayous, there are too many more like Warren, who simply redefined the depths of incompetence such fly-by-night filmmakers can descend to (a tradition still alive for us today thanks to Tommy Wiseau). Also, “Manos” The Hands of Fate is genuinely unwatchable without the MST3K crew (I know, I’ve tried) and would probably have remained in virtually complete ignominy had MST3K not disinterred it.
The funny thing is that “Manos” shows inklings of promise on a conceptual level. With its plot revolving around a nuclear family venturing into the southwestern backwoods and falling foul of retrograde menaces, it’s a certifiable first draft for the variations of that theme in 1970s horror cinema. The story setup, with the bizarre high priest of an obscure cult with a rugby team of wives and a satyr for a manservant, and the downbeat finale that was just becoming more popular in horror films, also hint at unexplored possibilities for black satire, or at least a half-decent soft-core porn film: paging Jesús Franco! There’s a vaguely existentialist air to the proceedings, as the family who are the protagonists finish up on a road to nowhere from which there is no return, and their smug presumptions swiftly unravel. There are signs Warren wanted to make a film with a lot more sex appeal, but because the modeling agency that he hired the evil cult leader’s wives from forbade anything but rather prim apparel, he spiced things up with the stodgiest mass catfight in cinema history. As Hodgson devastatingly sums it up at one point, “every single frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photograph.”
The family, consisting of dim-witted patriarch Mike (Warren himself, under the thin pseudonym of Hal Warren), equally dim-witted but slightly more intuitively aware mother Margaret (Diane Mahree), and young daughter Debbie, drive to their rendezvous with fate…and drive…and drive. The Robots start to fret, wondering if possibly this time Forrester is going to make them watch a snuff film. Finally a missed turn along a side road which seems signposted as the way to Valley Lodge (or “Valley Looge” as Joel misreads the poorly painted prop sign) brings them instead to a remote house overseen by Torgo, who mumbles uncertainly about not wanting to upset the Master (Tom Neyman).
This sequence highlights both the dire lacks of Warren’s film, and the singular inspiration of the MST3K team, as the watching trio make up dialogue for the characters that is both very funny and yet makes much more hay out of the ludicrous situation unfolding on screen than the script ever did. The spectacle of the family trying to negotiate Torgo’s physical strangeness and incoherent mix of warning and greasy hospitality is newly inflected with surreal politeness (“You got family, Torgo?”) and sarcasm (“So what does the Master approve?”), which, ironically, combine to make the scene feel much more…well, realistic—suddenly the characters have depth and pathos, as well as even deeper strangeness. Torgo himself—described initially by Servo as “Tom Cruise is Dr. John!” like a pitch for some nightmarish, yet alarming possible, musical biopic—is frustrated with his master for hogging all the women who fall into their trap, and leers over Margaret when he gets her alone, a liberty she’s appalled by in spite of the fact he’s slightly more attractive than her husband. The family dog runs outside and is later found mauled to death, and then Debbie disappears, prompting a search that brings the family closer to the shrine where the priest and his wives sleep. Quite a lot of MST3K’s comic style was attuned to mocking lazy exposition and cheap directorial tricks, but “Manos” offers a challenge in that regard, considering that Warren seems barely aware of any directorial tricks. A rare instance is a clumsy flashcut between the sight of the Master and his previously glimpsed portrait back in the house: “Ooooooh I get it,” Servo murmurs sarcastically.
It is more Warren’s lack of technique that drives the ridicule. For example, Warren offers a long, boring, opening travel montage without quite seeming to understand the purpose of such montages is to compress the experience, not fill screen time—Hitchcock’s maxim of film being life with the boring parts cut out is numbingly forgotten. When two local cops pull over the family, Joel gives them the line, “Do you guys have any idea how you was framin’ back there?” A peculiar quality of “Manos” is that it almost seems to boil some generic basic of the era down to a pure essence, in a sort of revelatory, inadvertently satirical coup, encompassing a portrait of square ’60s suburbanites trapped in an existential crisis. Mike’s utter insensibility to any sort of caution and constant pig-headed patronisation is balanced by his being completely wrong and ineffectual all the time (“When is this guy going to start showing some simple competence?” Joel demands in exasperation when Mike can’t get his car started), and Margaret’s attitude is one of fretful anxiety and febrile passivity. At one stage, she gets grossly pawed by Torgo, whom she’s taller than and could probably push over with a sneeze considering his lousy satyr’s balance, but she shrinks back in torpid fear.
Another great MST3K trait was their capacity to rip fragments out of films and drop them into different genres, here perhaps best illustrated in a moment when Margaret combs her hair with a glazed and nervous aspect, and the riffs transform it into a musical: “Torgo, I just met a guy named Torgo!” Servo sings to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story, whilst Joel gives her the line, as if we’re in a wistful romance, “Mrs. Phyllis Torgo…guess I kind of like it.” The trio are often at their best when making fun of movie music, and they eat the score of this film alive, filled as it is with long, haunting flute solos that sound like they’ve been stolen from some sensitive indie film about wandering homeless children (“It’s Herbie Mann-os!”), interspersed with dreadful jazzy lounge singing and hideous dance-pop.
There’s a sort of subplot with barely a hair’s relationship to anything in the rest of the movie that involves two teens in a convertible constantly making out and being harassed by the cops: they do serve a function of alerting the audience to the doom the family is heading into and alerting the cops to their peril. But really, the kissers are just there to kiss. “Manos”’s sleazy aspect, complete with intimations of paedophilia in the final twist, is pronounced throughout even as the film displays no idea of how to make it count for anything sexy or unnerving; instead, it is icing on the cake for the whole film’s rankness. “I’m guessing this why this whole movie was made,” Servo says during the catfight scene, whilst Crow, as one of the wives slaps hell out of the other, inserts a little Chinatown reference, “She’s my sister and my daughter!”, perhaps my favourite moment of the episode. Another is when we get our first glimpse of the Master’s crypt, which bears an odd resemblance to a bad variety club act, emphasised by the rattling drum and cymbal music. Here the MST3K team’s well of cultural references and habit of projecting them into the movies blends perfectly with the editing of the film, as Servo adopts the voice of an announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight at the Copacabana, Jules Podell proudly presents…Pat Benatar and Tricia Nixon!”
The “Manos” episode is also a prime, if not quite the best, example of MST3K’s host comedy sketches interpolated throughout, with the usually gleeful Forrester and Frank each apologising in turn for going too far for making the crew watch this movie. The increasingly distraught, exasperated robots and Joel try to turn lemons into lemonade by mocking the driving scenes in adopting the persona of a Minnesota Swede and his family enjoying the scenery with “bemused interest” and being harassed by a southern sheriff caricature, but the robots are so nauseated by the footage from the film they can’t finish the sketch. The episode ends with Forrester and Frank ordering pizza, which is delivered by Torgo himself (played by future host Mike Nelson) in his ponderously icky fashion.
To fill out the episode owing to the short running time of “Manos”, it starts with part of an old Chevrolet sales-training film Hired, a bleakly tacky and hectoring piece of work about a senior company salesman complaining to his father about his lazy underlings, but being convinced by his father to put real effort into training them. The trio’s riffing on Hired beautifully draws out the quasi-fascistic edge in the short’s theme, acting, and style, presenting Chevrolet salesmanship as a pseudo-military operation requiring deep commitment and utter perfection of technique, capturing in its way how American big business tried to transfer the ethos of military service into civilian life after WWII. The leading salesman’s gruff advice is rounded out by Crow’s adding, “Name names!” whilst Joel has another ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a Ford owner?” Hired might, in its way, showcase the felicitous sensibility of the MST3K team even more perfectly than “Manos”. As for Warren, I have no idea whether he ever collected his bet from Silliphant, but thankfully, he never made another movie.
| 2 comments »
Director: Sidney Lumet
By Roderick Heath
For a time in the ’50s and ’60s, it seemed, as if by act of Congress, that everything Tennessee Williams wrote just had to be filmed. Small wonder: Hollywood was famished for the individual blend of sexy melodrama and compensatory artsy poeticism that Williams’ writing offered, no matter how euphemistic the adaptation process had to render his work. A legendary sprawl of adaptations resulted, from heavyweight directors like Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951), Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958, and Sweet Bird of Youth, 1962), John Huston (Night of the Iguana, 1964), Daniel Mann (The Rose Tattoo, 1955), and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Suddenly, Last Summer, 1959). But my own personal favourite has been, for some time now, Sidney Lumet’s relatively neglected version of Orpheus Descending, redubbed The Fugitive Kind, and Lumet’s fourth feature film.
By the time of films like Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Lumet would be known as a director who specialised in a carefully manipulated veneer of gritty realism. But early in his career, Hollywood leaned on his capacity to inflect stagy, verbal dramas with cinematic language of tightly orchestrated camera movement, while still retaining their dramatic unity and structure—a talent evident from his electric debut, Twelve Angry Men (1957). Williams himself cowrote the screenplay for this film, for which he substituted the title of an apprentice play he’d written in the ’30s. The result was, according to Lumet, a nightmare to shoot, with Marlon Brando proving a handful on set as he entered the long phase where he’d become alienated from Hollywood and his film career whilst never abandoning it. The initial audience reception for The Fugitive Kind was lukewarm.
Yet Lumet’s film captures and explicates something vital within Williams’ writing that other film versions fail to (except perhaps for the hallucinatory flashback finale of Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer). Lumet’s vision of Williams’ gothic South treads an appropriately fine line between exotic expressionism and rancid realism, high theatre and cinematic articulacy. An air of dreamy, post-midnight melancholia pervades the screen, with the inestimable contributions of Boris Kaufman’s brilliant chiaroscuro photography and Kenyon Hopkins’ lilting score. Williams’ material here, like most of his oeuvre, would seem indigestible if it weren’t for the sleights of hand that blend frank reportage and magic-realist humbug, in Williams’ postcards from the edge of what his native society could expose and admit to itself. The Fugitive Kind is also perhaps the most pointed and bleak commentary both Williams and any mainstream American filmmaker ever made on the society in which they were rooted, and the film now seems like a contorted fever dream from the most evil days of the civil-rights-era South. Evil in the film is so endemic you almost wish someone would drop the bomb and wipe out some of the specimens of human cockroach on display.
Lumet kicks the film off with a pretitle sequence—an arty touch for the time—that immediately strikes a note hovering between realism and the otherworldly, as Valentine Xavier (Brando) is extracted from a holding tank and placed in front of a judge never glimpsed: the disembodied voice grills the exhausted, morally anguished young man as both a voice of petty parochial attitudes and godlike judgement. Brando’s first appearance comes in the wire cage of the night court lock-up, idly picking his ear clean whilst waiting: such a barely noticeable, yet telling Brando flourish solidifies his otherwise almost numinous character as a corporeal being before he utters a word.
Before the judge, Val, nicknamed “Snakeskin” because of his trademark hide jacket, confesses how he finished up in custody with what seems to be an almost angelic, certainly philosophical, air of reckoning in his fatigued state. Val, a blues-picking entertainer with his guitar in hock, took up a friend’s offer to attend a sleazy soiree with the hope of getting enough cash to redeem his instrument, but he lost his cool in what is clearly signaled as some serious decadence where he was supposed to whore himself out, and started smashing up the place. Val vows to the judge that he’s going to leave the city forever, and that’s what he does. Lumet reduces his journey to a single shot, over which the credits then roll, of a lonely rural road, reeds wavering in silhouette against a grey sky, a distant car’s headlights approaching and yet never seeming to get closer as Hopkins’ forlorn music plays.
Val’s beat-up old car finally dies in a gruesome little Southern shithole, and he is allowed to sleep out what’s left of the night in another jail cell, in the sheriff’s house, by the sheriff’s charitable, artistic, slightly cracked wife Vee Talbot (a captivating minor role for Maureen Stapleton). The cell is free because she trusted its previous inmate momentarily, and in the stormy night outside can be heard the sounds of howling bloodhounds and gunshots. “That boy said, ‘Thank you,’” she plaintively protests to her husband, and a less likely partner for her than the bristling barbarian Jordan Talbot (R.G. Armstrong) is harder to imagine.
Val seeks work and hospitality, anxious to get any kind of foothold in the regular world. Vee puts him on to a possible job as a clerk in the department store owned by cancerous old creep Jabe Torrance (Victor Jory, looking like you could catch something off of him just by watching him too long) and his Italian wife, known to all and sundry as Lady (Anna Magnani). Lady is something like a sleeper agent, not for any government, but for herself and, in a way, for human aspiration itself, carrying on an underground guerrilla resistance against the down-home fascism represented by her husband and Talbot. Years before, her immigrant father had built a wine garden, an outpost of temperate Mediterranean humanity, before it was burned down and her father incinerated alive after he sold liquor to some local blacks. Lady married Torrance only for the chance to take over his business and remake it into something like her father’s dream, a confectionary she’s coming close to launching now that Torrance is slowly dying. Val charms and bewilders Lady sufficiently to be given the job, and business immediately booms as all the local females flock to get an eyeful. Val eventually finds himself with a choice of equally thorny romantic entanglements. He flirts mercilessly with the suspicious yet simpatico Lady, and resists the attentions of Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward), a hard-living plantation princess.
Woodward comes close to walking off with The Fugitive Kind in the film’s first half, where her role as a raucous, needling, horny, drunken, desperate mess of a girl dominates. Carol stalks across a seamy bar extolling the virtues of “juking” your way through epic nights of debauchery. Carol speaks with laughing despair of her past as a “church-bitten reformer” who once mounted a campaign of dissent against the county’s vicious racism and lynch-mob mentality before her spirit broke and she gave herself up to frazzled hedonism. “They picked me up for lewd vagrancy,” she laughingly recounts of one of her more colourful protests, “Now I’m just a lewd vagrant.” Her brother, David (John Baragrey), just as big a sot as her but a married, more circumspect one, eventually offers to pay to send her to live in Europe to remove her blight on the family name. At one poin, she finishes up prostrate on the ground outside the local cemetery, breathily declaring to Val that the dead “can only say one word…over and over…live!” before trying to give him a blow job, a sexual favour Val contemptuously refuses. Val is fully aware of his sexual magnetism, but resists being turned into a “male at stud,” as he characterises Carol’s interest in him. He seems just as much appalled by Carol’s knowledge of his place in the scheme of things in New Orleans and her own air of flagrant, showy defeat: when she first appears in the film, she almost falls out of her hot roadster, helped out of the gutter by the old, black conjure man, Uncle Pleasant (Emory Richardson), who stalks the county delivered from all its evils by his simplicity. Instead of responding to Carol’s urgent flirtation, Val drifts slowly but surely into an affair with Lady.
The Fugitive Kind is quintessential Williams and rather offbeat Lumet, as the director conjures an atmosphere of perpetual early-morning blear even in daylight, and a limpid magic-realism that was largely foreign to the director’s career. As usual with Williams’ material, there’s a feeling that the boundaries of past and present, real and fantastical might melt away, as present-day squalor and struggle suddenly segue into medieval troubadour imagery or Grecian myth. The veil comes close to breaking when Val recounts to Lady a wispy, poetic metaphor about birds with no feet who have to spend their life on the wing avoiding hawks; Lady, like the audience, both senses the silliness of Val’s visions and yet is utterly captivated by them, as Lumet and Kaufman pull off a shift of cinematic and theatrical legerdemain, as the shop space around the couple falls into shadows and turns into a cathedral of pagan mystique.
The original title of the play indicates the basis of the story in the tales of Orpheus, and like this model, Val travels into his veritable Hades; rather than be torn apart by the women who hunger for his love, he’s bound to be done in by a society that’s rotten at the core. “This land used to be wild!” Carol cries at one point, “Now it’s just drunk!” Lumet offers glimpses of the world around Lady’s store and the muddy main street of the town, including the honky-tonk run by the grossly corporeal Persephone of the local nightlife, Ruby Lightfoot (Madame Spivy), where Val goes to gamble away money he steals from Lady in a calculated attempt to alienate her, only to get into a winning streak as Ruby treats his snakeskin jacket like a religious totem. Val gets a lift back across the dark-drowned landscape to the town and to his fate with Lady whilst listlessly playing a blues song in the film’s most oddly affecting interlude, completely without narrative function except to offer an islet of listless beauty and evoke the spirit of the blues, which Val treats as a religion in itself. “His name is written in the stars,” Val says of Leadbelly, one of the great bluesmen to have autographed his instrument.
It could all seem a bit airy-fairy if it weresn’t for the way Lumet’s and Williams’ eye and ear for black humour, specific observation, and salty language keep the film tethered to the immediate. Beneath every scene lurks an indescribable menace and smouldering emotions: the final act becomes almost unbearably tense even as the film slows down to linger finally on the image of Lady and Val dancing in her little wonderland of a confectionary just before, at last, all hell suddenly breaks loose. Moreover, the film’s clear basis in the torturous process of achieving civil rights gives it urgency, even if it is white outsiders who are being abused. A constant stream of seedy innuendo chases Val around, balanced by his smouldering mixture of an assumed humility, which Carol registers as self-imposed castration, a rejection of his previously inviolable wildness that carried an aura of invulnerability with it, whilst Lady fends off the world with an arch and haughty Italian stoicism that cracks when lovers old and new offend her. That quality rears its head especially in her bruising confrontation with David, who was once her lover and made her pregnant, only to abandon her after her father’s tragedy, as the story conjures exactly the right atmosphere of incestuous, suffocating small towns where everybody has a good idea where the skeletons are buried. Lady has lived in disgust and fear of every man in the county, wandering if they might have helped kill her father and simply acquiesced gutlessly to it, and in the final gross irony, Torrance lets slip that he was one of the hands-on men.
Lady’s war of vengeance is nearly won as she prepares her confectionary for opening, and Torrance, despite his malignant clinging to life, seems actually to be dying. The calliope she hires to announce the opening rings out with hollow promise as Talbot threatens Val’s life, and it becomes clear the confectionary will not be allowed to open. Val glimpses Vee stumbling down the street, blind and dazed, screaming that she’s had a vision: when he goes to help her, Talbot’s goons apprehend him and Talbot advises Val to take a cue from a quaint billboard in another town that reads, “Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in this county.” The concluding tragedy comes about as the townsfolk begin to sniff out Lady and Val’s relationship, and her complete contempt for her husband is made plain to his nurse (the creepy Virgilia Chew) aggravates this.
Brando and Magnani had, of course, become well known to American moviegoers through their performances in Williams works—Brando in Streetcar and Magnani in The Rose Tattoo. Brando gives a freakishly marvellous performance in a part for which he might seem slightly ill-fit. He was certainly good-looking enough to get away with playing one of Williams’ signature man-whores, but he’s not the sort of faintly ambiguous lover boy, like the younger Montgomery Clift, one would think more natural for the part. Also, unlike many of Brando’s characterisations of the era, he lacks an air of latent physical violence, and possesses eloquence, however florid and indirect, usually out of reach for his heroes who struggle in vain to articulate things within themselves. But Brando puts his signature gifts to work in his constantly evasive, almost supernaturally suggestive performance full of intuitive advances and retreats. Val’s sensitivity and expressiveness are matched by an air of physical solidity, and when women try to manipulate him, he does occasionally remind them of his strength as something not to be provoked. “Little girl, a man holding himself against you would break you like a bundle of sticks,” he tells Carol when she comes on to him. Although her accent is so thick at times you can’t understand what’s she saying, Magnani keeps pace with a beautifully measured performance, full of tiny flourishes of brilliance, like her reaction to Val’s “male at stud” line, ejaculating a startled sound and seeming to resist a physical impulse to jerk in every direction at once before taking refuge in a resuming a phone conversation, or a few moments later when the local pharmacist, complaining about being called out late to give Lady some sleeping pills, gets the store door slammed in his face with Lady’s growl of sublime Italian contempt.
The young Brando’s air of genuine physical power makes the final images of Val all the more painful as he contorts under the streams of fire hoses turned on him by Talbot’s and Torrance’s goons, pushing him back into the flames consuming Lady’s confectionary, as Lady, who was pregnant by him, expires from a bullet Torrance puts in her gut after firebombing her dream. It also fits in very well with Brando’s famous streak of playing masochistic antiheroes who get beaten up and die, and anticipates Brando’s return to the milieu with Arthur Penn’s similarly bleak and gamy The Chase (1966). The blunt final message confirmed in the mad conflagration with which the film concludes—that society can always crush its rebels—is mitigated by a certainty that it never wins completely. Carol and Uncle Pleasant wander the burnt-out remains of the confectionary and retrieve the snakeskin jacket, and Carol resolves to flee in search of a better place. It’s an upbeat note in the sense that at least someone is left to keep living and searching for hope, but it also means that one more corner of the world now belongs only to the creeps and the cretins. Either way, The Fugitive Kind remains a near-unique cinematic event.
| 3 comments »
Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)
By Roderick Heath
The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.
Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.
His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including his sailor, armed with rude weapons found on the street.
Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime, religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.
Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. Aand yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene he portrayed in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, something he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.
Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.
Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.
As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity perhaps out of Intolerance (1916): glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.
Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.
Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.
Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.
With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.
As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Watching it, I felt as if Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. I did not know then that one of the people who appear in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, culled from footage put together for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends; Beausoleil drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a mind-boggling subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him, as in prison, Beausoleil seemed at last to be a collaborator who couldn’t argue with Anger. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.
Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, a former German pagan site, high on great stone pillars, and seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.
Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, visions zipping past with urgency and threat, swooping tracking shots describing vignettes of people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.
| 5 comments »
Director: Albert Zugsmith
By Roderick Heath
Albert Zugsmith was one of those characters who make cinema history much livelier. Like Samuel Fuller, with whom he shared many artistic traits, he was a former journalist with leftist ties—his sister was an author of “proletarian” novels in the 1930s. After a time as a lawyer, during which he represented Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster in their suits against DC Comics over Superman profits, he became a maverick cinematic entrepreneur and landed a job high in the ranks of Universal Studios. He gave Orson Welles his last Hollywood project, 1958’s Touch of Evil, and produced several films for Douglas Sirk before striking out as an independent filmmaker during studio Hollywood’s sharp decline. Zugsmith’s produced or directed films of the period are a series of startling switchbacks in style and ambition, including the teen exploitation flick High School Confidential (1958), the camp satire Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), and the failed Disney-imi Dondi (1961).
Zugsmith also tried to cash in on the early tremors of the counterculture and managed to beat Jack Kerouac to copyrighting the phrase “Beat Generation” for his 1959 film of that name. Zugsmith’s best film took its title and essential mood from the infamous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of English essayist and critic Thomas De Quincey. At the start of the 19th century, De Quincey wrote about his drug-state visions, and became perhaps the first legitimate psychedelic artist. Zugsmith’s film is not an adaptation, but a kind of purple-poetic fever dream spliced with a swashbuckling noir tale, infused with morbid, semi-tragic pseudo-philosophical discursions and a delight in pounding into unexplored territory, all worthy of a high Romantic artist. Filming on an evidently very low budget, rather than trying to hide that fact, Zugsmith made the mixture of thrift-store hype and underground film invention part of his film’s uniquely woozy texture, and created the world’s first cheapjack pulp-surrealist masterpiece. Confessions of an Opium Eater anticipated not only the trippier excesses of ’60s cinema, but also elements of later action cinema and modern pulp revivalism, including the directly influenced Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and other East-meets-West remixes. It also represents a weird and fascinating islet of virtually experimental cinema in the context of B-movie thrills, rampantly assaulting settled mores of both art and culture in a violently deconstructive fashion.
Vincent Price plays Gilbert De Quincey, apparently a relative of Thomas, following in his existential footsteps, an adventurer and occasional opium fiend who washes up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1902. In a lengthy prologue, his voiceover helps weave a fantasy texture as a gang of tough-looking men on a beachfront discover a rotting skeleton wrapped in seaweed, one eye gazing out malevolently, whilst out at sea a boatload of captive Asian women are being transported to the shores of America on a huge junk. The women are hauled out of the hold, and the crewmen herd, batter, wrestle, and hurl the girls into a great cargo net to get them off the ship and onto a waiting schooner before a Coast Guard cutter reaches them. When the schooner’s crew bring them on the beach, the waiting men prove to be rescuers who try to overcome the slavers. One of them, who is revealed later to be crusading newspaper editor George Wah (Richard Loo), engages in a battle with one of the pirates who threatens one of the girls, Lotus (June Kyoto Lu, credited as June Kim). George is knocked down by his opponent, but the pirate is suddenly attacked by a panicked white horse, which kicks him over a cliff. Some of the pirates’ confederates arrive in a car and quell the battle with a blast from a tommy gun. The drag away Lotus from Wah’s crumpled body.
The images of death, the exotic ship emerging from the mystic ocean as reported through De Quincey’s eyes (“I see a junk…”), and the metaphysical image of good easily recognised in the white horse immediately establish a mood of dreamlike strangeness and symbolic perfervidness. De Quincey enters the story in downtown San Francisco, mulling over his own aimlessness, as a seagull portentously drops dead at his feet. He has to sneak into Chinatown, which the police have cordoned off because of the threat of tong wars. There he encounters the shadowy factions vying for power in the Chinese community, with Ching Foon (Philip Ahn) seemingly among those trying to continue the crusade of George Wah to end the sexual slavery in Chinatown run by mysterious, ancient kingpin Lin Tang. On the opposing team is ravishing femme fatale Ruby Low (Linda Ho), Lin Tang’s chief madam and operational chief, who runs the labyrinthine demimonde. Breaking into Wah’s offices, he discovers Ching Foon is hiding Lotus in a secret room, but Lin Tang’s tong goons break in and force them to flee via a secret elevator that takes them into the sewers, where, after a valiant effort, De Quincey is knocked out and Lotus spirited away by the slavers. Awakening deep in the bowels of the underworld, De Quincey encounters Lo Tsen (Caroline Kido), and the midget Child (Yvonne Moray), two women who were sold in Lin Tang’s flesh market and are now imprisoned in bamboo cages where they are being starved to death to rid their husbands of their inconvenient persons. De Quincey and the women try to escape, but that proves a very tall order.
Zugsmith’s mise-en-scène, conjured with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, who did similarly great work for Fuller and Robert Aldrich, is at once solid and stripped-down in a fashion familiar from low-budget cinema of the era. Yet it is replete with swiftly glimpsed, oddly elusive environs: riddling secret passages, characters who vanish and return, people who seem to switch sides and back again with swiftly adopted and swapped identities, glimpses of corpses, drug-dream visions, inanimate objects filmed as if they’re alive and menacing. Most clever are the ghostly mechanisms of the crane system that the slave girls’ cages slide about on that sees their captives whipped from room to room, sliding unexpectedly out of shadows like spectral emanations.
The effects are often ropy, from the camera speed effects used to give action more pep throughout, to the mid-film surrealist dream where distorted faces and stock footage commingle to wonderfully tacky effect, yet it’s precisely the film’s bald-faced lack of hype that’s part of its unique style. For example, early in the film, De Quincey follows Ruby Lo out onto the street, only for a banner to drop unexpectedly into the frame, signalling the eruption of a tong battle. The soundtrack is filled with the screams of women and children and the rattle of machine guns, and Ruby Lo dashes into a doorway, only for a sliding panel to drop, stopping De Quincey from following and leaving him outside on the completely deserted streets. Trying to break into Wah’s office, he’s assailed by a suddenly looming vision of a dragon’s face, which proves to be only a menacing kite, which he then cleverly uses to hitch a rope to the roof so he can penetrate the building.
Whilst its fleshy texture is clearly compiled from generations of trash sources, Confessions has a tone quite unlike anything before and little since, as De Quincey, a bizarre and uncommon kind of movie hero, is constantly thwarted in his attempts to escape and rescue the captive women. An adventurer who’s scoured the world in search of his destiny, beset by an awareness of his own rootless alienation, he’s a fan of the opium pipe, and gains initial introduction to Ruby Lo because he sports the tattoo by which fans of the drug recognise each other. De Quincey’s literal act of infiltrating Chinatown immediately plunges him into a serpentine jumble of motivations and mysteries, as nobody’s quite sure who’s on what side of the coin, and indeed the notion that there’s no coin lingers threateningly. Wah, the liberal hero of Chinatown, so famous that even Lotus had heard of him back in China, is the film’s yardstick of decency and upright morality, and yet he’s believed dead. Everyone else is improvising. The falling bird at the start is definitely the albatross around the neck of the doomed mariner, as he encounters his idol/enemy/lover/angel of death Ruby, who likewise sees in him a personification of something ecstatic and annihilating. Hilariously, at one point when Ruby has De Quincey bound in her apartment, and comes on to him in a lengthy scene where the camera only studies her sensually rapacious features, she kisses him and it seems that they’re about to consummate their forbidden passion. However, they’re both wily survivors, and when De Quincey grabs Ruby’s hair to try to manhandle her, she promptly bashes him unconscious.
The screenplay’s flagrantly weird twists and turns are in accord with screenwriter Robert Hill’s dialogue, a free-styling mix of fortune cookie Orientalisms, philosophy, and hard-boiled noir quips. When De Quincey awakens hanging from a hook in a room filled with exotic costumes and he complains he’s not a side of beef, Ching Foon retorts, “Not sure if you side of beef or a side of man. Look like you man of many sides!” Gilbert De Quincey’s peculiar wandering character and his deep knowledge of Chinese culture mixed with an age of Yankee sarcasm is an interesting prefiguration of a contemporary multicultural ideal, the Indiana Jones type of globetrotting buccaneer who also would cross-cultural barriers, and a kind of prototypical hipster in search of experiences beyond not just the ordinary, but perspective-altering, life-changing, perhaps even life-ending. It feels as if Zugsmith was aware that he was making not just a period fantasia, but also a film about the nascent yearnings of the drug, psychedelic, gay, and general counterculture, discernible in the secret signs by which members recognise each other, the way portals into different realities swing open and slap shut, and cultural tropes that blend and polarise. More than a decade before Robert Towne used the word “Chinatown” to invoke everything unknowable and deceitful in the world, Zugsmith and Hill had already investigated that notion into the ground, for whilst the mystery world of Chinatown is here certainly filled with exotic threat, it’s also a place where the heroes are fighting for its soul and definition. Community is one of the film’s underlying themes, as De Quincey searches for connection with other human beings, a connection he constantly snatches at in trying to make contact with captives through bars and doors, chasing Ruby Lo, Ling Tan, and his own fate like the proverbial white rabbit.
There are hints that Zugsmith’s work with Orson Welles laid seeds that sprout here. The seamy, multitudinous, trash-romantic universe he evokes both resembles The Lady from Shanghai (1946) and Touch of Evil in many places and anticipates Welles’ adaptation of The Trial from the following year in the paranoid atmosphere, the use of sets, lighting, and busy frames with deep-focus photography. Intentionally or not, too, the film’s accords reach out to fellow exploit/liberate artists like Russ Meyer (with whom Zugsmith would later work on the failed Fanny Hill ) and Jesus Franco, experimentalists like Kenneth Anger and Jean-Luc Godard, and dashes fit for classic serial makers like Louis Feuillade. But a comparison that jumps out to me is the same year’s Dr. No, the first James Bond film, which likewise reinvented pulp and serial material in a pop-art fashion, but completely avoided this film’s self-aware, reality-bending appropriation of De Quincey’s alternative reality trippiness, so that the racist fantasies are more or less left intact. You’d have to look to much more recent crossbreeds like The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) to see the mainstream assimilation of Zugsmith’s sensibility here, in almost all characteristics—the blend of elemental action and philosophical enquiry, post-modern genre and cultural blending, dream-or-reality quandaries—but still lacking the vitality of this film’s humanism and eroticism.
Speaking of eroticism, like Meyer and Franco, Zugsmith could both gain familiar grindhouse sex appeal from his material, as in the lengthy sequences towards the end in which Lin Tang’s men make their captive women dance in alluring fashion for their would-be purchasers, and at the same time critique this objectification. Zugsmith in Sex Kittens Go to College had cast Mamie Van Doren as a genius no one takes seriously because of her looks; here, ironies proliferate as the brutality of the kidnapped girls’ slavery is emphasised. In one gloriously camp moment that evokes Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1963), one of the audience of girl-buyers irritably tears off the wig hiding the baldness of one of the dancing girls. The sex appeal is literally pasted on to hide the de-feminising punishment doled out to the would-be escapee. Yet the whole project is orchestrated by Ruby Lo, who dresses up to play the part of Lin Tang, who died years ago, leading to the delightful image at the very end in which she tries to stamp on Gilbert’s fingers as he hangs on for dear life, lifting her masculine dress to reveal stilettoed heels. Ruby dreams of using the accumulated treasure of Lin Tang to muster an army of conquest back in China.
De Quincey’s main helpmate is the perverted image of a courtesan imposed on the midget Child, whose own blackly comic sensibility marks her out as one of cinema’s rarest characters. Completely immune to emotional degradation or intimidation, she giggles over the most sadistic designs and sighs laughingly over her fate, having once been the real Lin Tang’s “baby doll” before he sold her to a lettuce farmer in Salinas: “I pick lettuce long time!” When Lo Tsen cries out to De Quincey from her cage for food, Child mocks her: “She crazy. They fed her last week!” And when De Quincey, trying to horsetrade with Child, offers her “her life,” she retorts, “No good. What else you got?” In a particularly nightmarish moment, Gilbert is shown the body of a girl who’s been drowned in a tank with a rock tethered to her neck. There’s an undercurrent of honest brutality in the film that makes the urgency of Gilbert’s mission more than theoretical.
The film’s most memorable scene comes halfway through, when, having been separated from the women in escaping from Lin Tang’s dungeons, Gilbert hides out in an opium den to which he finds a secret door in a toilet cubical. After smoking a pipe and going into a delirious dream in which severed hands crawl around and Ruby’s face merges with that of a grinning alligator, De Quincey wakes up as enemy goons assault him. Replicating the hero’s dazed, drugged-up state, Zugsmith shoots the next five minutes of the film in woozy slow motion, at first without any sound, as De Quincey makes an escape by leaping from bunk to bunk in the opium den, knocking over his assailants, and then leaping out a window, only to find he’s on a high floor, hanging desperately from a gutter. Zugsmith draws out the quickest motions to unbearable lengths (aided by composer Albert Glasser’s eerily droning Theremin music), as Gilbert wavers on the edge of a great drop, unable to got back or forward, as a hatchet-clutching henchman leaps after him from one balcony, and another with a gun lines up a shot from a distance away. De Quincey makes a leap through an awning onto an adjoining balcony and climbs through a window, only to encounter a smiling, yet creepy butcher who wields a huge cleaver to cut the head of a pig’s carcass in half. Gilbert runs on through the building, passing through a disarmingly quiet tea parlour and then hearing someone shouting “help!” and following the sound. It proves to be a squawking cockatoo, which is scared off its perch as bullets smack into the wall behind it, and Gilbert is chased again by goons, driving him to take a fall off a balcony where, instead of falling normally to earth, he’s transmogrified into a spinning cut-out. When he awakens next, he gets a dish of water from Ruby right in the face (the camera), ending the dreamy state with a shock. It’s one of the most original and unique action scenes I’ve ever seen, and, in its way, as formally radical as anything being done in the era’s art cinema.
Confessions vibrates with a polymorphous take on many different surface realities within its structure, building to the dizzying finale in which it is revealed that George Wah is still alive, posing as an elderly girl-buyer and then tries to pass off plaster casts for bushels of opium in payment for buying Lotus. Gilbert and Wah punch their way out, back to back, like Ladd and Heflin in Shane (1953), as George congratulates De Quincey: “You wreck the joint as fast as ever!” The rush of action here is surprising, as both Lo Tsen and Child die battling their captor—Lo Tsen takes a fall with one from a high stairwell, Child gets a knife in the back, beseeching De Quincey through the portal of a sewer grate to say hello to her ancestors—and a wounded De Quincey and Ruby are swept away in the sewer waters. De Quincey’s final voiceover, as purple as ever, is almost exultant, declaring “all passion spent, all evil behind us…as once again I put out to sea, were these the widening waters of death, or the gates of paradise?” Like the film as a whole, these last moments are both ludicrous, yet rare in their depth of feeling.
| 4 comments »
Director: Tony Richardson
By Roderick Heath
There are two films sharing the title of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous encomium to English heroism in the face of impossible odds. The first is the Michael Curtiz-directed, Errol Flynn-starring 1936 film, recasting the charge as a revenge mission aimed more at a nefarious Pakistani khan allied to the Russians than at the tsar’s armies themselves. It’s hugely entertaining, and it’s also complete and utter bunk, one of the ultimate examples of Hollywood’s romanticised version of British imperial history. More than 30 years later, the mood of the moviegoing public was incredibly different, so the second film to be called The Charge of the Light Brigade, helmed by Tony Richardson, was a radical departure. After a roaring start in films with Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Richardson had finally gained Oscar laurels for his 1963 reinvention of the historical movie, Tom Jones; ironically, it was only then that his career began to falter. Like many of the other talents spawned by the British film industry in the era, his career was defined by an early continent of excellence and years of much less amazing stuff afterwards. Nonetheless, a lot of his work is today undervalued, and the most undervalued of all is his brilliant revisionist take on the infamous assault by Lord Cardigan’s cavalry on the Balaclava Heights on October 25, 1854. If Curtiz’s film offers lies that are hard not to love, Richardson’s tried to tell truths hard to stomach at any time.
Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade is very much a modish work of the late ’60s, balancing, like many of its contemporaries, unusual, almost clashing stylistic and intellectual impulses reflecting a war within the texture and assumptions of the film itself, rendering it a distinctively dialectic work. Charge moves blithely from coal-black satire of the British upper classes and militarism, to a lush romanticism, to a brand of raw, tactile realism. In doing so, it’s trying to recapture a bittersweet flavour in looking back at a summit era in British history, from a time when awareness of the finish of the imperial era and the changing social paradigm was provoking many new questions. At the same time, the hoary history offered a wealth of contemporary relevance in attacking whipped-up militaristic fervour, easily finding echoes of Vietnam and the Cold War in looking back to the last time Russia and the West squared off over the issue of some third party’s problems. The screenplay, the first draft of which was written by playwright John Osborne but finally only credited to Charles Wood, commences with Cardigan, played by Trevor Howard in a splendid performance mixing blockheaded arrogance and swaggering masculinity, surveying his smartly dressed troops, a voiceover privileging us to his personal beliefs about what makes a good soldier: “If they can’t fornicate, they can’t fight, and if they don’t fight, I’ll flog their backs raw!”
Richardson’s scabrous portrait of high imperial-era England is riddled with incompetent hereditary scions in important jobs and a general social philosophy that expects rich men to slap good-looking clothes on poor, roughly treated men to be used as cannon fodder, thereby making everything fine. The film commences a year or so before the Crimean War begins. Cardigan’s officers loll about indolently waiting for something to happen; fresh recruits are not so metaphorically beaten into shape to look good on parade. Cardigan has total contempt for the experienced, professionalised veterans who have served in India who comprise the only front-line troops in the British Army who have seen battle in the long, placid peace after the Napoleonic wars. This attitude puts him on a collision course with Capt. Louis Nolan (David Hemmings), a recently returned cavalry expert, who joins Cardigan’s regiment because his friend Capt. William Morris (Mark Burn) is already a member. Nolan, after first getting Cardigan offside by having kept his Indian retainer and showing up his less competent officers, finally incurs some serious damage when hosting a friend at the officer’s mess by ordering a bottle of moselle. Because of the bottle’s near-black colour, Cardigan presumes this to be a “black bottle” of porter beer, a drink popular amongst cavalry officers of the time but banned by Cardigan as too common. Nolan is a principled, doggedly energetic young man determined to modernise the army, but also proud, self-righteous, and unremitting. Rather than apologise to Cardigan, he bucks for a court-martial to get the matter official attention, hoping to establish some sort of precedent, but Lord Raglan (John Gielgud) stalls embarrassedly and eventually talks him into taking a post with his office. Unfortunately, the matter has gotten out to the public, and mocking cries of “black bottle!” resound from the crowds when Cardigan goes out.
This tragicomic portrait of the peacetime army is punctuated by more broadly satiric scenes of the distracted, aged, almost senile Raglan, whose office is overshadowed by a huge statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback temporarily parked outside it, and his staff, who are momentarily befuddled by war with Russia, with the French as allies, when all their maps and plans are intended for another war against France. In counterpoint to the travails and absurdities of the upper-class characters come vignettes of working-class men who join Cardigan’s regiment, focusing on Sgt.-Maj. Corbett (Norman Rossington). Corbett is a man who’s spent 20 years climbing to the highest noncommissioned rank, uses practised, persuasive patter to garner potential recruits out on the street, and bellows with impressive bellicosity once they’re in uniform; the least-educated have to be taught left from right by having straws planted on their feet. Corbett is undone when Cardigan asks him to spy on Nolan and his friends to find out what they’re saying, a task Corbett immediately, near-tearfully declares an insult. Cardigan contemptuously dismisses him, and Corbett, who hasn’t drunk alcohol since being promoted in his pure dedication to his rank, immediately gets falling-down drunk before parading the men. This earns him a brutal flogging before the entire regiment: one junior officer faints, Nolan disdains, and fellow officer Mogg (Adam Dobie) retorts, “They will not fight unless they’re flogged to it. What would you ask them? Would you ask them to fight like fiends of hell for money, or for ideas? That would be un-Christian!” Richardson offers glimpses of the enlisted men’s cramped barracks, which they share with their families, their wives labouring at washing the glittering linen and uniforms Cardigan gives them.
Naturally for a film from the height of the Swinging ‘60s, Richardson investigates period varieties of sexuality, bubbling in bawdy fashion under prim and flashy surfaces. Cardigan’s formula of fighting and fornication as entwined capabilities sees him teased for the brazen homoeroticism of his soldiers’ dress (“You see ’em tight, my cherry-bums? I keep ’em tight!”). Fanny (Jill Bennett), the wife of dim-witted Paymaster Duberly (Peter Bowles), lusts after Cardigan—one of her voiceovers informs us that her husband insists she stop looking at the general like she wants to be ridden by him. She finally bags him when the army is in the Crimea, the pair of them nonchalantly peeling off their clothes after getting rid of dinner guests, before, once in bed, Cardigan starts smacking Fanny’s backside to her horror/enthrallment, declaring in mortification, “This isn’t love!” before exploding with the giggles. Next morning, she packs her soldier-god off to battle with his aides, squeezing him into his corset and too-tight uniform.
On an entirely different level is the affair between Nolan and Clarissa Morris (Vanessa Redgrave), his friend’s wife, a tacit ménage à trois that’s part soldierly fellowship, part unspoken recourse after Morris’s sexual failure. When they’re disembarking, Morris gives Nolan a letter from Clarissa, calling it “orders from Her Majesty,” but Nolan tosses it overboard. The sequences depicting Clarissa and Morris’s wedding, and the subsequent lives of the trio, are exceptions from the visual texture and social structure of the rest of the film: with their country house and riverside environs, dappled sunlight and quaint churches, they live in a remnant of classical, earthy, lush William Blakeish England. Later, Clarissa, left alone by both her husbands, waits like a figure out of a pre-Raphaelite painting (specifically, if anachronistically, evoking John Byam Shaw’s The Boer War), pregnant and boding, waiting for their return, dancing on the grass lawn when she gets word from them.
Richardson wields a large, polished production befitting an old-fashioned epic with determinedly new wave cinematic techniques, employing jump- and cross-cutting, and discursive use of sound that shake up the way period detail is employed in a movie. Interspersed throughout The Charge of the Light Brigade are animated interludes by Richard Williams that wittily mimic Victorian engravings and newspaper cartoons, evoking the sweep of imperial enterprise and its heroic official imagery of industry and military, as well as the Crimean War’s emotive rhetoric. Britain is alternately characterised as a gallant lion acting as a policeman, heroine Britannia with armadas hidden up her skirts, and dozens of bulldogs ready to gnaw the marauding Russian bear to pieces. Turkey, the victim of Russian bullying, is both a bird being chased and a swooning maiden needing to be saved, a point echoed later in dialogue by Raglan. These are more than humorous, pop-art flourishes: they offer a broader context to the drama and excuse any need for cutaways to exposition-spouting politicians. They also lay bare the social outlook of high imperial Britain and its self-image, which the live-action parts both give the lie to and obey.
The way Richardson and Williams zero in on the nature of propaganda and make it part of the texture of the film explain not only why the characters are going to war, but eye, with telling and perhaps now even more relevant analysis, the emotive rhetoric used to steer populations into wars that have no object relevance to them. John Addison’s brilliant score swirls in mock Olympian flourishes, with grand chorales, sweeping strings, and elegiac passages. Together, Richardson and Williams create a visual and aural moment of harmonious beauty when William’s animation portrays the British fleet sailing past Gibraltar, which turns into the British lion, Britannia, and mounted Wellington pointing the way.
The film’s contemporary parable isn’t hard to grasp, though it’s not as crass as in some of the more obnoxious revisionist films of the era, like Soldier Blue (1970). Cardigan and his officers, when out riding, gleefully charge a peace rally, smashing down their placards. Hemmings’ Nolan, with his proto-counterculture home life and frustrated desire to reform the army and take on the elderly blowhards, clearly stands in for the ’60s youth movement. When the army heads off to war, the film becomes a kind of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta without the music, and with lots of men dying because of the comedy. Cardigan loathes his brother-in-law Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews), who’s placed in supreme command of the expeditionary force’s cavalry. In spite of Raglan’s entreaties, they continue their petty bickering in the field, forcing the men under their commands to pull down their tents constantly and erect them again at differing spaces apart to gall each other. Raglan aggravates them even further by keeping them out of battles, for which they’re basically pretty window dressing.
The London Times correspondent William Russel (T. P. McKenna), whose reports from the front are considered pioneering instances of what we now call embedded journalism, advises “You shouldn’t believe everything you read in The Times, you know,” when triumphant reports appear in the paper that the army has captured Sebastopol when it’s actually still encamped outside it, as the official narrative of the army riding to the rescue needed its instant, orgasmic consummation. The film’s bitterly realistic streak presents horses battered to death in the holds of the transport ships being dumped overboard in job lots, and the army columns, after moving out from their landing point in a gallant show, are seen later riddled with men withering and dropping into agonised bundles from heatstroke and cholera. One panoramic camp scene finds men blithely playing cricket and others having their shattered limbs hacked off. Raglan has his soldiers march up a near-sheer cliff to sweep some Russians off the heights, finishing up with hundreds of men sprawled in bloody masses, whilst Raglan responds with distaste to Nolan’s insistent, pushy addresses, stating, “That young man Nolan, I don’t really like him. He rides too well, knows a lot, but he has no heart. It’ll be a sad day when England has her armies officered by men who know too well what they’re doing. It smacks of murder.”
There’s something of the remnant spirit of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) in the film’s corrosive mix of irony and wry empathy for such outmoded, strangely idealistic foolishness, but it’s no longer mediated by the communal spirit of WWII, but by the furious mood of the 1960s. The Charge of the Light Brigade is an irate film partly concealed by its playful touches. Interestingly, the film decries the callous incompetence of the old school of militarism, but finally, shows itself to be equally suspicious of a more modern, businesslike version represented by Nolan. His pushiness and barely repressed fury with the men in charge sees him goad Lucan and Cardigan into action when conveying an order from Raglan to flank a Russian artillery position. Lucan and Cardigan assume, in spite of their uncertainty, he means they’re to attack the position, thus commencing the infamous charge. Nolan realises their mistake and tries to alert them, but a shell explodes overhead, and, in the film’s most bitterly, horrifyingly pointed moment, Nolan is killed. Richardson’s cutting here (one of his editors was Kevin Brownlow, the director and film archivist), and the use of manipulated sound, is startling, leaping from a shot of the exploding shell, to Nolan being hit, to a close-up of Raglan lifting into the frame as he watches in shock from afar, and then back to Nolan, coughing blood, his dying scream resounding as he still tries to warn the cavalry before dropping dead to the ground. It’s a masterful little moment that rams home the shock of violent death and raises a curtain on a tragedy.
Richardson’s shooting of the war sequences was criticised in some quarters, but he wasn’t after the sort of illustrative, thrilling clarity Curtiz and his action directors were going for in their version, or in most other war films. Especially in the climactic scenes, Richardson alternates distant, almost painterly shots that reproduce the views of observing commanders, artists and reporters of almost serene action, and then plunges into the midst of that action, with telephoto lenses, forced perspective, and rapid editing used to present a whirl of frantic motion, blood, murder, explosions, dust, and chaos. The resulting vision is of a kind of warfare usually viewed through romanticised lenses as brutal, churning, bludgeoning, and hideous. The survivors of the charge, caked in blood and soot, stumble out of clouds of dust and smoke like they’ve been hurled in a hurricane. The film’s most vicious dialogue, which serves as an epitaph of sorts, comes when Cardigan, emerging from battle with the remnants of his troops demands to know where Nolan is so he can bust him for screaming “like a woman,” and is informed that he just rode over his dead body. The kicker there is the line is absolutely true. The film leaves off with the officers arguing worriedly about who exactly will take the blame for the miscued command in the battlefield littered with broken men and horses, waiting for the poets to step in make some sense of it all.
| 3 comments »
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Screen debut of: Bernardo Bertolucci, director and screenwriter
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At the unripe age of 21, Bernardo Bertolucci made his directorial debut directing a film Pier Paolo Pasolini lost interest in making after he had started work on Mamma Roma (1962), only his second directorial effort. Of course, Pasolini had been writing for the cinema for some time, so his acquaintance with the mechanics of movie-making weren’t entirely casual—not like Bertolucci, who first stepped onto a movie set when Pasolini took the young man on as a production assistant when shooting Accattone (1961). Until that time, Bertolucci had been following in the footsteps of his father, the renowned poet Attilio Bertolucci. Pasolini talked to the producer of La commare secca, Antonio Cervi, and suggested that Bertolucci work with Sergio Citti, Pasolini’s frequent collaborator, to come up with a script. Cervi eventually handed Bertolucci the directing reins with the instruction to make it “Pasoliniano”—in the manner of Pasolini. Despite Bertolucci’s attempts to put his own stamp on the film, “Pasoliniano” is how the Italian press categorized it. Nonetheless, La commare secca is a formidable debut from a real film greenhorn that reveals a lush visual eye Bertolucci attributed to his poetic sensibilities.
La commare secca is a murder mystery that resembles Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), relying on the recollections of witnesses—in this case, various young men who may have been involved in the death of a prostitute—to tell the story. This style is a reversal of the usual narrative style of focusing on the detective as he or she moves around town interviewing people, looking for clues, and so forth. This strategy affords the viewer several advantages—we can tell when the actual memory does not match up with what the interviewee is telling the police and we get to see the actual murder through the mind’s eye of the killer, which a cop never can.
Bertolucci adds a poetic touch by imagining the movements of the victim as she wakes up from an afternoon nap, makes coffee, and gets dressed for her evening stroll. Even the discovery of her body at the opening of the film is treated with delicacy—the same classical guitar music that attends her movements during the film plays as the camera follows some pieces of torn newspaper off a bridge and into the open field near the Tiber River where she lies face down. A close-up reveals a pretty ring on her finger and chipped nail polish, marking her as shabby genteel. We can’t be sure that she’s a prostitute until a cop in an interrogation room says so to a cocky young man he is questioning. The young man’s recounting of his movements that day will form the first of several vignettes that offer a look at the daily goings-on in Rome’s underbelly that will form the real text of this film.
Our first suspect, Canticchia (Francesco Ruiu), is unemployed. He tells the cop that he went to meet two priests for a letter of recommendation for work; in fact, he’s a thief who met two friends with whom he roams the woods looking for lovers who aren’t watching their belongings. Bertolucci follows their restless prowling through a wooded area that has become Rome’s lovers lane, watching them take turns creeping up on the distracted couples, succeeding and failing at their thievery. Eventually, Bertolucci brings Canti to the point where all the suspects converge—a park where the prostitute was last seen alive. In what resembles a night constellation, a soldier is bent forward sleeping on a bench, three men stand conversing, and in the distance, like the North Star, the prostitute (Wanda Rocci) stands under a light, her large, patent-leather purse glimmering softly.
Bertolucci spends a good deal of time on the stories of each of these men, and of several, like Canti, who pass through the park and particularly, their relationship to women. The two teenagers, Francolicchio (Alvaro D’Ercole) and Pipito (Romano Abate), who are talking to the third man (Silvio Laurenzi)—a crucial player in the resolution of the murder—are romantic and foolish, thinking they will rob the man of his solid-gold cigarette lighter so they can raise the 2,000 lira they need to buy groceries for a meal their two girls and their friend will cook the next night. Pipito is timid, terrified by the interrogation and anxious about the fate of his friend, who jumped into the fast-moving Tiber to avoid capture.
Francolicchio and Pipito are the least loathsome of the men whose stories Bertolucci tells. Teodoro, the soldier (Allen Midgette), harasses women as they pass down a street, trying to get them to talk to him. He stops at an art gallery and caresses the center of a metal statue that looks like a woman’s spread legs. When he escapes from the sudden thunderstorm that plagues all of the characters, he hides under a bridge and is soon joined by a bevy of women trying to stay dry. His smile, more like a leer, shows his delight at this turn of events.
The longest and most annoying story is of 30ish Natalino (Renato Trioni), a two-timing leech who lives with a very unpleasant and violent madam name Esperia (Gabriella Giorgelli) and her equally unpleasant mother (Santina Lisio). He takes her money and buys himself a sportscar, cheats on her, makes the rounds with her as she collects her cut from her whores, and confiscates a puppy from one who can’t pay Esperia what she owes. Natalino is pretty much a complete waste of space, and the shouting and threats and stereotypical Italian “love” match made me wish Bertolucci had cut it from the too-long film.
Despite Bertolucci’s lengthy digressions into real life, he doesn’t forget the event that brings all these characters together. The murder is a very affecting scene, injected with a strangely hard-edged pathos as the prostitute lays down on the concrete retaining wall next to the river, turning her head to one side, looking like an unattractive side of meat not wishing to see what will happen next. Her stunned pleading at the feet of her killer quite reminded me of Nancy’s murder in Oliver Twist, and yet the entire scene is short and perfunctory, not bathetic.
There are images in this film that point to Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist: two girls dancing together, the murder, the concrete retainers on the Tiber looking as monumentally ugly as the fascist constructions of Mussolini’s Rome. Bertolucci said that he wanted a peripatetic camera to contrast with Pasolini’s static, full-frontal shots in imitation of Tuscan religious art, and indeed, the camera’s motion gives a feeling of teeming life in this crowded capital city to contrast with the bombed-out locations where a lot of the action takes place. The desperate landscape and lives attest to the continued hardships recorded in the neorealist works of Rossellini and Fellini, and Bertolucci certainly owes much to their visions in this first film. The story, however, is so “Pasoliniano,” including explicit and veiled references to homosexuality, that the director delivered what his producer wanted, in spite of his best efforts to make this story his own. Nonetheless, hybrid of styles though it is, La commare secca signals the promise of Bertolucci’s eventual mastery as a film director.
| 7 comments »
Director: Sydney Pollack
By Roderick Heath
In the wake of the wishy-washy fare that clogged the latter part of his career, it is easy to forget just what a talented filmmaker Sydney Pollack had been. His excellent early dramas, like The Slender Thread (1965) and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969), and his genre outings that offered up two of the best American films of the 1970s in The Yakuza (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), display that talent in spades. His best work was defined by a fervent thread of black humour and a painterly verve, as he shot dramas like thrillers and thrillers like art films. Unfortunately, it was the polished nostalgia of The Way We Were (1973) that scored the biggest hit and pointed the way forward for Pollack to tone down his style and become best known for slick prestige pieces. In his later career, only the sleek pulp of The Firm (1993) stands out as a return to his roots. Looking more closely at the shape of his career, it’s easy to see two poles in Pollack’s films, rhapsodist and ironist, cynic and ardent romantic, duelling in his best work. At a time when oddball antiwar films were a dime a dozen, Castle Keep, his fourth film, didn’t get much admiration on release, but in finally catching up with it, I have to admit it floored me. Here, perhaps, are Pollack’s different, opposing temperaments in intricate balance, and the result looks very much like a classic now.
The basic story, of the sort Samuel Fuller employed so well and often, is relatively conventional: a ragged bunch of military misfits is banded together under a gritty leader who melds them into a fighting force to carry out a dangerous, doomed mission—except Castle Keep immediately bellows its strangeness by commencing with the words “Once upon a time” in hinting that what follows will be a fairytale.
In the first few moments, a rapid montage of explosions devastating statues and ancient signifiers of culture give way to a glimpse of a battlement gargoyle with a raptor’s head, the cry of which seems to echo out across the wooded landscape and reach the ear of Pvt. Rossi (Peter Falk). Earthy former baker Rossi, former critic and intellectual Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal), green and angst-ridden Lt. Amberjack (Tony Bill), redneck Cpl. Clearboy (Scott Wilson), budding author Pvt. Allistair Piersall Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr.), and the plebeian Elk (James Patterson) and DeVaca (Michael Conrad) have all been press-ganged into serving the formidably competent cyclops Major Abraham Falconer (Burt Lancaster). The eight men, collected together from the stragglers and survivors of the American advance into the Ardennes in the winter of 1944, try get to the crossroads town of Saint Croix and take command of the castle of Maldorais.
Trying to push a broken-down jeep along a muddy country road, these men are astounded to see a couple on horseback charging by, one a stunning female with a cape billowing behind her like a vision out of a chivalric romance, the other a neatly attired gentleman in a red hunting suit. The pair proves to be the Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont), and his wife Therese (Astrid Heeren). “We came to the wrong war!” Rossi blurts upon seeing this pair who seem to have ridden out of another age. The situation, and the dilemmas that will face the characters, are soon polarised. Falconer, predicting the German assault that will precipitate the Battle of the Bulge, recognises that Maldorais will be an important defensive position necessary for stemming an attack on the army’s main body, and determines to fortify the castle. Beckman is captivated by the Count’s trove of art and antiques from the last nine centuries of European civilisation. The Count wants to save them all, willing to make any compromise, be it bivouacking German or Allied soldiers or letting any man who can swing it bed the Countess to provide the heir he can’t. The enlisted men want to get laid and follow the Count’s directions to the local brothel, the Reine Rouge. Amberjack wonders if following them can help him rebel against his authoritarian father. Clearboy forms an obsession for a Volkswagen that belonged to the former German occupants of the castle. When Falconer’s predictions come true, however, the cost for everyone is bound to be high.
Castle Keep mediates between the first breed of more cynical war film, like Paths of Glory and Bridge on the River Kwai (both 1957), and the antic, counterculture-inflected breed like MASH, Catch-22, and Kelly’s Heroes (all 1970). One irony of this period was that these films were still being made on the theory that war movies were popular, even if the general mood was against war, and so the peculiar, invigorating quality was in watching such films trash the genre even whilst being produced on the biggest of scales: shot in Yugoslavia with incredible photography by Henri Decaë, Castle Keep employs a high-budget, cinematically walloping spectacle, with the huge main set of the castle and town ready to be pulverised. Castle Keep is ambivalent about the traditional hierarchical and moralistic assumptions of the war epic. Interestingly, Steven Spielberg specifically cited it as one of the strongest influences on his Saving Private Ryan (1998), and that influence is particularly evident in the harum-scarum, tragicomic battle scenes. Norman Mailer once commented that he had been glad to be posted to the Pacific, and therefore wrote The Naked and the Dead because he did not imagine himself equal to the greater challenge of writing about American intransigence crashing headlong into European culture indicative of WWII’s European theatre. Castle Keep, on the other hand, adapted from William Eastlake’s novel, dedicates itself to examining precisely that nexus, and more.
What renders Pollack’s film fascinatingly, perversely distinct is the way present, past, future, fact, and fiction are rendered in a state of flux. Castle Keep calls attention to its own artificiality throughout, as the story is mediating through a lapping structure; at the end, the story loops back again, and the fact that the story is being “written” and “recalled” by Benjamin is repeatedly iterated. Such a fact explains and mitigates the film’s loopy flourishes of anachronism and surrealism, and how it dips in and out of what might be fantasy, embellishment, or genuine rupture in reality. The notion that the characters are all embodiments of primal traits is soon outlined, as the landscape unveiled in the film populated by figures that could come from any century. The Major, with his one eye, channels ancient myth as a warrior incarnate. The Count is a virtual pharaoh in his elitist desire to conserve within his domain all possessions: even his wife is a relative, whether his niece and sister is not clarified, but still firmly suggested. Rossi, upon arriving in Saint Croix, seeks out not the brothel, but the bakery, on the theory that’s where there will be a baker’s wife. He finds one (Olga Bisera) and immediately steps into her dead husband’s place, taking over the shop and trying to drop out of the war.
Rossi’s understanding of war is one of a job. In a bizarre, haunting interlude, Amberjack and Rossi converse in the woods outside the castle. Amberjack tries to play his damaged flute when a German soldier’s voice sounds from the forest: he asks to fix Amberjack’s flute, and recognises Beckman’s name, recommending the book he wrote as a civilian professor. Rossi casually shoots the unseen German in spite of their amicable conversation: “That’s what we do for a living, lieutenant,” he tells the despondent Amberjack. He also tells off a flock of soldiers turned conscientious objectors led by the self-appointed apostle Lt. Billy Byron Bix (Bruce Dern), who haunt Saint Croix’s streets like stragglers from Peter the Hermit’s Crusade, singing hymns outside the bordello and preaching to columns of wounded and bewildered men bearing a rude crucifix of twigs. The idea that time is folding back on itself hovers with both humour and menace throughout, as the Major becomes the image of a knight-errant, riding a white horse in leading men to battle, with Bix screaming accusatorily at him that he knows him, as the image of strife incarnate. A simple threat from the Major is all that’s needed, however, to turn these pacifists back into Crusaders; following the Major back to Maldorais, they’re instantly wiped out by the a shell.
The Count exploits Beckman’s reverence for art to get him to labour to save the castle and its contents, and the petit bourgeois Beckman stands between the actually philistine sensibility of the Count, who regards himself much more as a warrior (“I am the bravest man I know”) and the gruffly debased, yet in many ways far more sensitive sensibility of the enlisted men, particularly Rossi. There’s a touch of genius in making the artist-witness figure, whose philosophical and psychological enquiries filter the film and its portrait of a civilisation’s Euclidian reboot, an African American. “I wonder if my moving in here will reduce the real estate prices,” Benjamin quips sardonically when first settling down in the castle. Castle Keep seems set up for a showdown between militaristic and cultural values. But the film cleverly elides such a simplistic central conflict. Instead, the running argument between Beckman and Falconer evolves as Falconer retorts to Beckman’s proposition that saving the things worth fighting for is the whole point of their mission with the coldly diagnostic statement that “Europe is dead. That’s why we’re here.” Instead of simply decrying the Major as a vandal, the film makes the not-negligible point that he’s also one of the last remnants of the potent spirit that built such a world, and he’s the one who mans the battlements to the last along with Beckman, and lending weight to the amazing ferocity of the film’s final 20 minutes.
The castle and the Countess, initially a passive-seeming love object whom the men aspire to and envy each other for having, are conflated in Benjamin’s estimation (“That was three weeks ago when the castle was occupied. Nobody knew when the Major occupied the Countess…”). In another of the film’s weirdly textured interludes, the Major and the Count, out riding on reconnaissance, realise the grounds of the estate have been infiltrated by a German patrol; they hole up in a summer house, and the Major takes out the patrol with lethal efficiency, only to realise they were missing their officer. He realises that the officer went straight to castle, tracks him there and kills him, and the Count confirms he was formerly bivouacked in the castle: he had led his men back merely so he could see the Countess, and the Major took his place. Beckman is jealous of the Major (“Bitch!” he declares after he’s had to interrupt them in bed together, and she indolently ignored him) and when Falconer calls Beckman a collector, the Captain admit that if he were poor “I’d probably collect old string…newspapers…fallen women.” To which Falconer retorts knowingly, “Don’t judge her. She’s not a painting.” The grazing roundelay of jealousy and vanity around a woman who sees them as all more or less the same is finally ended when the Countess proves to have different values to the Count and warns Falconer he intends to use one of the escape tunnels under the castle to reach the Germans and help them infiltrate in order to save the castle. The Count dies in a hail of long-distance bullets, viewed at a remote remove by the Countess through binoculars.
Like many films of the period, the temptation to crawl back into the nominally bawdy, yet rather oedipally boyish world of the brothel beckons the heroes. When they first arrive at the Reine Rouge, the women are sprawled like props in a wonderland, mirroring, with insolent eroticism, the corps of soldiers, who gaze on in gobsmacked wonder. Later on, both hookers and soldiers are sprawled about between jobs lazily sucking on cigarettes and wondering what the hell to do with themselves. Falconer arms the prostitutes with Molotov cocktails. Clearboy predicts their failure: “There’s been a lot of sentimental junk wrote about whores, but they’re just plain defeated women!” But they proceed to rain down with gleeful, punitive relish on the German soldiers. Amberjack and Elk attempt to capture a Leopard tank with a bazooka, luring the colossal vehicle into the church, Amberjack, praying as the juggernaut roles up the centre aisle crushing the pews, desperately tries to load and fire the bazooka before being crushed. He and Elk manage to knock out the tank’s crew, and commandeer it, completely demolishing the rest of the church, and then promptly ditching their hard-won prize when the order comes to abandon the town. Rossi has to be talked around from his equanimity as a baker, reciting philosophical meditations with his face caked in flour, to return to the fray.
The film’s flaws are easy to pick. Michel Legrand’s music score is sometimes in the right key of trippy elegy, but far too jazzy and modishly ’60s at other times. A comic interlude in which Amberjack and Benjamin try to destroy the Volkswagen to save Clearboy the tragedy of seeing it destroyed in battle seems to have stumbled in from a different movie. Heeren belongs to the vast number of good-looking nonentities who decorated ’60s cinema. I dare say the whole stew could seem ungainly and strange to many, and yet Castle Keep’s poetic streak is powerful and original. Pollack pulls off the last act with an authority that’s impeccable. The magic realism crystallises in a bizarrely beautiful scene in which, trapped in the castle’s rose garden, Amberjack, Clearboy, and Rossi try to decide on a strategy. Rossi heads off to swim the moat, and the remaining two are trapped, becoming increasingly badly wounded. The image becomes more ghostly and strange, until Benjamin, in voiceover, explains their next action to woozily beautiful images of star shells and gunfire flashing over the field of roses. This is immediately nullified as it proves only an authorial flourish, for Benjamin reports to Falconer that the trio are dead. The final moments possess something of the same orgiastic, apocalyptic flavour of its film contemporary The Wild Bunch. Falconer and a badly wounded Beckman hold the castle against Germans who try to scale the walls by using a fire engine ladder as Benjamin flees with the Countess, whom he has to carry away from the fray. The petrol-coated moat ignites and the entire scene is consumed in stygian flames. It’s a delirious end to a film that ought to be far better known.
« previous page