14th 09 - 2017 | no comment »

The Ladies Man (1961)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jerry Lewis

By Roderick Heath

Jerry Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin had terminated in 1956 as Lewis increasingly dominated their movie collaborations. For every filmgoer who found Lewis a testing presence, there seemed to be another who adored him, and his slapstick talents were so spectacular, so percussive in their cinematic impact that Martin, for all his suave, romantic stature, was increasingly out of place beside Lewis’ one-man-band vibrancy. Herein lay an irony, a strange victory for a man seemingly cast by life as ridiculous second-fiddle, as the Jewish impersonator of male America’s neurotic, semi-infantile Atom-age id outpaced the slick Italianate mouthpiece of its ego. Lewis gave the classic figure of the farceur an added, potent dose of modernist mania, but was nonetheless obviously in the screen tradition of film comedy heroes like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati, so it might have seemed logical that soon enough Lewis would follow them and begin making his own movies. Lewis the director made his first foray with The Bellboy (1960), a modestly crafted debut shot in black and white, that allowed him nonetheless to articulate his abilities both behind and before the camera through a basic premise, casting himself as a bellboy romping through the halls of the Fontainebleau Hotel, the manifold rooms and jobs presenting him with a gallery of types to monkey with, from sexpots to celebrities. For his second project, Lewis exploited a higher budget and his own swiftly developing skills to attempt a similar concept in a radically different fashion. A script initially penned by Mel Brooks was mostly thrown out and rewritten by Lewis himself. Rather than utilise a real location, Lewis built a vast set to exploit, and The Ladies Man arrived as a monumental act of vaudevillian chutzpah mating with authentic cinematic vision in weird and intricate ways.

Lewis’ comedy style of course was never for everyone. Rather than the unflappable everymen Chaplin and Keaton played or the bewildered outsider trying to be sociable Tati affected, Lewis’ characters were usually closer in mould to the persona of Harpo Marx, if representing a slightly later stage of development, having achieved verbal facility. The opening scenes of The Ladies Man work as both a challenge and a sensitising process to the meaning of Lewis’ sense of comedy, as he portrays his hero Herbert Heebert, a young man just graduating from college, who is broken-hearted by the spectacle of seeing his girlfriend in the arms of another man, and so vows to his parents that from now on he’s going to entirely give up on women and love. The expenditure of jokes and precepts here comes on with such speed and dexterity it’s hard to process. The short, gangly, excitable nerd finds himself outpaced by a towering, anonymous jock – Lewis cuts off the man’s head in his framing, reducing him to a body that says all – in a basic riff on Lewis’ familiar persona as a man all too aware he hasn’t been cast by nature or society as the star. Lewis mediates this through the acting and film styles he quotes, as Herbert’s distraught reaction mocks the hammy affectations of Yiddish melodrama and silent film, whilst also converting them into a strange kind of android body language. This collides with a third level of referencing as Herbert runs to his mother, who is played by Lewis himself in drag: the stock figure of the Yiddisher mamma is given a Freudian makeover and a dose of drag chic as Herbert’s instantly born neurosis sees him turning inwards in a hall of psychological mirrors.

The very first shot of the film depicts the sign outside Herbert’s home burg of Milltown, with a hand reaching into frame to shakily revise the population count, and a statement underneath that describes the town as “a very nervous little community.” Lewis segues into a tracking shot moving through the quiet streets of Milltown, following a little old lady as she makes a morning promenade, only to stumble and set off a chain of accidents amongst her townsfolk, all laid out in their tight little boxes, the shops and stalls and vehicles on the main street. Lewis here offers both a kind of explanatory history not only for Herbert but his persona in general, the product of a cordoned little society defined by nerve-induced clumsiness – there really are more like him at home – whilst also hinting this is now an existential state of being. The slightest nervous tic and misplaced motion can disturb a delicately poised equilibrium and set this entire little universe in chaos. Although The Ladies Man eschews overt social satire, it’s not so hard to see why many commentators since have seen him as a true poet laureates of the Cold War’s first phase. The Ladies Man somehow manages to point the way forward to the way Dr. Strangelove, or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) would take up the idea of marrying the banana peel gag to unstoppable exigencies of nuclear war to illustrate the psychic landscape of the age. Lewis deals with the symptoms as well as the cause, and mixes in other aspects of cool mockery played as harum-scarum farce too, especially the constantly arousing and frustrating tease of mass media evolving in the era of television.

Lewis also finds a way here of giving his perversity as a performer, the total stylisation of his comedy method, a quality of depth gained precisely by rejecting depth, like a Japanese painter – an aspect of Lewis’ art echoed by the way he utilises the massive set that will soon be the playground for Herbert’s gradual recovery, which opens before Lewis’s camera in a manner reminiscent at various points of the theatrical stage and ukiyo-e-like illustrative sprawl. Herbert is presented for the early part of the film as a series of totally contrived and excessive gestures, screaming and running off from women, curling up in a foetal ball when someone advises him there’s “always hope,” and generally reacting like a man-sized mass of hysterical tension. The basic concept of The Ladies Man offers up a ripe male fantasy – a hapless nebbish finds himself in the centre of a veritable harem of lovelies – that’s the basic stuff of sex farce, whilst also making sarcastic sport of it. Lewis takes on another stock character, that of the spiky, lovelorn woman who’s sworn off men, and inverts the gender expectations. Herbert’s anxiety and mistrust of women leads him to constantly attempt to leave what’s supposed to be the average Joe’s idea of dream gig.

After answering a number of job advertisements that see prospective female employers seeing him instantly as a potential love object, Herbert is attracted by a sign in a window of a boarding house calling for a “young bachelor” to apply within. Venturing inside, he’s put at ease to see this time the woman interviewing him, Katie (Kathleen Freeman) is middle-aged and matronly, and when he makes Katie teary with his tale of woe, she presents him as an ideal candidate to be the new houseboy to the owner of the house, retired operatic star Helen Wellenmellen (Helen Traubel). Both Helen and Katie suppress the truth about their establishment out of a peculiar brand of therapeutic intent, for the boarding house is filled to the brim with comely young ladies. Herbert’s arrival in the boarding house sees him installed in a bedroom where appearances are deceiving. A bunk bed proves to be a magnet for the boyish savant, but the top tier proves to be false, and then the lower one also gives out on him, resulting in Herbert slowly sinking into the bed frame in a manner at once utterly hilarious and curiously heartbreaking. By morning he’s glimpsed simply as a blunt posterior jutting out of the frame. Around his obliviously sleeping self, the boarding house comes to life to the tune of a swinging jazz trombone, played by one of the resident girls, who provides musical accompaniment to the morning rituals of her housemates.

Although Lewis’ famous vanity as a performer-director is often evinced throughout The Ladies Man, this sequence is the core set-piece of the film and doesn’t involve him at all except in negative inference, as Herbert sleeps in blissful ignorance that his greatest nightmare is looming all about him. The awakening household is choreographed in sinuous and slippery fashion, the women riding from bed and doing their morning routines of exercise and make-up before slipping out into the halls in jive-hipped ranks, a sultry radio voice rapping out cool missives to get the day started. This sequence is reminiscent of the musical accumulation of street sounds at the outset of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), whilst also playing out in manner that can only be likened to a hip be-bop artist’s deconstruction of a big band tune in relation to the flashy, filled-out musical sequences of rival directors of the time like Vincente Minnelli. Indeed, the comedy of The Ladies Man always feels like bebop, skipping when you expect it to stride and ambling when you expect it to gallop, hitting a sour note and then pivoting into a passage of delirium on a dime.

Lewis extends the musical motif as Helen leads the girls in choral greeting of Herbert when he first claps eyes on the dining room crammed with breakfasting tenants. Helen’s background as a singer helps explain the boarding house’s rich trove, as it’s plainly a natural way-station for girls chasing performing careers. Herbert is put through a training process that sees his natural bafflement by the physical world given free and calamitous reign as he shatters priceless décor and accidentally unleashes a prize collection of butterflies – a priceless joke of pure surrealism (one of Brooks’ few touches left in the film, apparently) as the pinioned and seemingly very dead insects spring out of their frame when Herbert opens the glass over them, only to then return and snap back into place at a whistle. But the ladies are still eager to have Herbert around because they’re desperate to keep someone in the houseboy job, and at Helen’s encouragement in the belief Herbert only wants to be wanted and will be cured of his misogyny this way, the tenants weigh him down with requests to perform odd tasks and chores, which Herbert works up all his pluck and nerve to fulfil. Such tasks include play-acting opposite one perpetually rehearsing actress who pivots from seductive to friendly to face-slapping abusiveness within seconds, and trying to feed the house’s unseen but apparently monstrous pet Baby. Herbert’s attempts to feed Baby, which releases the roars of a lion from its private room, see him try and feed it first with a tub full of milk that gets spat back in his face in a torrent of white, and then with a huge leg of beef that gets swiftly gnawed to the bone. Baby not so subtly represents Herbert’s terror of, well, the pussy, a ravening monster hidden behind a door that he can only satisfy with spectacular and abasing effort.

Throughout his life, over and above his sometimes prickly nature and gauche public statements, Lewis was dogged by accusations of egocentrism and self-indulgence, qualities that seemed to stand in stark contrast to his officially boyish, even self-demeaning comedy act. And yet it’s hard to deny The Ladies Man gives its auteur scope to show off in highly impressive fashion, particularly when you consider some of the people who call themselves comic actors today. To watch The Ladies Man is chiefly to watch Lewis working hard throughout, trying to show off every facet of himself and his talent, whether it be hanging upside-down from a door-frame or balancing on a mantelpiece whilst trying to clean or managing to totally destroy a collection of precious glassware, and to watch this is to see a great comic actor at the top of his game. The motif of work is a telling obsession of Lewis, his interest in what his characters work at and his love of building his comedy around it. This topic became the central motif one his later films, Hardly Working (1981), where life takes him through a series of brief spells of employment constantly stymied by clumsiness and happenstance – a film that was also a sour charting of his own waning career and obligation to find new ways to make things happen, looking forward to a last decade of his directing career mostly expended on random TV episodes. His interest in the job of work as locus of comedy was also once again clearly following Chaplin and Keaton, whose heroes were also similarly defined by their travails in trying to hold down employment and stumbling from life phase to life phase in such a manner. Ironically for an artist who so often enjoyed burning natural orders to the ground, Lewis celebrates the work ethic in many dimensions, whilst also exploiting it for the ore of his comedy, noting like Chaplin and Keaton how such shifting scenes provoke new and ingenious problems and solutions from a nimble protagonist.

Lewis’ approach combines elements of both comics, but also defines itself against them. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Herbert is a stranger in a strange land. Lewis’ approach couldn’t be more different to Keaton’s even as both were sublime physical performers who knew how to direct themselves. Keaton’s stoicism in the face of a universe constantly attempting to destroy him cast him as the perfect American, whilst Lewis is his perverse and impish twin, constantly close to tearing apart a settled order by dint of his discomfort within it. Lewis’s sarcastic disavowal of both men’s variations on the sad clown persona is also constantly evinced throughout, as is his contempt for a certain brand of gooey, platitudinous sentiment, one that contextualises his approach to comedy, for he constantly pushes his sarcasm into the realm of physically enacted hyperbole. Lewis pushes his cheek and joker’s license to the point of ending the film with a title card reading, “We wish to thank the United States Armed Forces…(But only if they came to see the picture.)” And yet Lewis zeroes in on the quality that defines his understanding his characterisation when Herbert converses with one character on the subject of loneliness, a state that can subsist even in the midst of many others, to be “alone with noise.” The interludes of outright earnestness that usually punctuate his works, like an underlining of the moral of the story delivered towards the end of The Ladies Man, seem jarring in their contrast to this cynical streak, but really work in adjunct to the hyperbolic quality, a winnowing down of the point to a basic epigram even as the true energies of life explode every which way. Lewis’ work with Frank Tashlin had also left a powerful imprint on his method. Like Tashlin, Lewis’ engagement with the artifice of cinema in the context of comedy, where any disrespect of otherwise rigid rules of popular narrative cinema was permissible, found ebullient release in its sense of freedom and delight in ignoring traditional narrative flow. The lack of a developed story structure in The Ladies Man is an aspect that might strike some as a flaw and others as one of its most mischievous and subversive qualities. Although it stumbles through a kind of story to a form of conclusion, The Ladies Man is more a series of blackout comedy sketches strung together by a central conceit.

In the same mode as its grand central set, the dramatic architecture is more psychological and emblematic than traditionally narrative, and aspects of the boarding house’s random access portals that make a new form of sense in the age of computing and the internet. Many saw Lewis’ most famous work as director, The Nutty Professor (1963), as a travesty of Lewis’ relationship with Martin. Whilst that was probably an aspect of Lewis’ intentions, it misses the degree to which the two performers’ act had always been a purposefully dichotomous creation, two halves of a functioning human being split into two bodies, an idea The Nutty Professor simply made more literal. The Ladies Man uses the same essential idea whilst commenting less on the shape of the male ego than the bewildering threat of woman to it, fragmenting many possible images of femininity, all given designations like Vitality, Hypochondriac, Intellect, and Sexy Pot. Herbert is repeatedly warned not to venture into the innermost sanctum of the kind, the room of Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis), and just like the bride of Bluebeard Herbert is afflicted with the kind of curiosity that must eventually take him across the fateful threshold.

Pierrot finds his perfect Pierrette in the form of Fay (Pat Stanley), a wannabe actress who’s a comparatively shy and unschooled figure amongst all these other flashy and accomplished ladies, one who unveils an empathic look when Helen explains Herbert’s hang-up, and connects with him as another lonely and outmatched outsider in the big city who daily has to face the rejection Herbert conscientiously avoids. Not only does Fay bring out Herbert’s calmer side but also offers him a human project, and the otherwise frantically clumsy man suddenly finds his mojo helping Fay master various arts like playing the trombone and jive dancing. Fay eventually gives her fellow tenants a chewing out over their rather too ready willingness to exploit Helen’s advice and make Herbert a flunky. Meanwhile the household around Herbert offers not merely a bounty he’s incapable of taking advantage of but a psychological landscape of compartmentalised hang-ups mediated through pop cultural images, as Lewis’ deconstruction of his own hysterical sexism as matched to an exploration of his own ways of looking. Lewis’ greatest coup in depicting this aspect of himself comes when Herbert is confronted the by the massed ladies in the boarding house dining room. Where Martin would’ve grinned like all his Christmases had come at once, Herbert runs screaming from the room, and Lewis cuts to a long shot that sees Herbert seeming to split apart into multiple, madcap incarnations running up and down the stairs and corridors of the house, his character split into pieces, his being literally disintegrating in the face of all that taunts him and tantalises.

The elaborate set that Lewis spent a great deal of time, effort, and money on fashioning – at a reputed $1 million cost – is as much a player in the film as any of the actors, a multi-tiered, multi-dimensional stage for Lewis and his cast romp around in. Lewis constantly reminds the viewer this is a creation of theatrical artifice, even contriving, as a television crew invades it, to let the viewer see the elaborate, messy, cacophonous business that goes into creating the façade of well-oiled entertainment. In his next film, The Errand Boy, peeking behind the scenes of Hollywood infrastructure became the overt theme. Here, much as the windows in Rear Window (1954) project the hero’s hopes and anxieties for a looming life of marriage and commitment, the boarding house becomes an open gallery, bedrooms without walls and mirrors without glass. All of Lewis’s actress crushes are actualised, and a panoply of Hollywood stars processed into a certain set of codified behaviours, in various impersonations, as performers offer jokey impressions of the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Carol Channing. Traubel’s Helen maintains an obvious sense of connection with type of dowager dames Margaret Dumont played for the Marx Brothers, only Lewis offers her the foil not of Groucho’s patented demimonde shysters but a gawky man-boy thrilled by rather than disaffected towards the apparatus of pop culture. Other women in the house offer various types and traits, from rowdy rock-‘n’-rollers to glamour pusses to bespectacled intellectuals. Lewis’s worst nightmare of being infantalised before such a bevy is swiftly fulfilled as, after protesting he never eats breakfast, is stuck in a high chair and spoon-fed by Katie.

Lewis extends the game of emasculation as Herbert in the course of his job encounters the boyfriends of some of the women in the house, including a scarred and fearsome heavy, Willard C. Gainsborough (Buddy Lester), and a man famous for playing the same types, George Raft. Herbert is intimidated by Gainsborough, who bosses him about and warns him off paying any attentions to his girl. But when Herbert sits on his hat and he awkwardly attempts to restore it to shape, he steadily ruins Gainsborough’s sharp façade and his hyper-macho persona dissolves into delirious pathos, tough guy utterly defeated by a few swift and efficient revisions to his appearance. This casually brilliant piece of physical business also serves as a master class in comedy costuming, as Lewis shows the audience here a key part of his art even in the course of making hilarious comic capital from it. Raft meanwhile finds himself frustrated when he can’t convince Herbert he’s really himself, failing the crucial test of reproducing his own coin-spinning trick from Scarface (1932). Instead obliged to prove his identity by demonstrating his dancing skills, takes several turns around the parlour with Herbert in his arms, their turns lit with a spotlight. Lewis’ nods to movie history and the complications of a movie star’s projected persona here pivot on Raft’s willing conspiracy to mock his own aura of bulletproof machismo and readiness to show off his gift for dance, a gift he shared with James Cagney and was perhaps long frustrated not to utilise more on screen, now pressed into service in Lewis’ games with gender, offered not with overt mockery but instead as interlude of witty, oddly romantic grace.

As if to let the viewer know that he’s well aware of his own absurd streak even if he can’t quite conquer it, Lewis makes his tendency towards attention-hogging becomes a major component of the film’s last third, worked out with peerless comedic invention. The boarding house is invaded by a TV crew for an episode of a show called Up Your Street – a spoof of Ed Murrow’s roving interview show Person to Person, complete with a gaunt and intensely serious host constantly hidden behind a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. Herbert turns into an instant camera hog who desperately tries to stay in the camera frame whilst Helen is interviewed, at first hovering by her side and then scampering into the rear of the shot. Lewis makes fun of his own reputation for loudness as he blows a TV sound man out of his seat whilst helping him test his microphone setting, inspiring the sound technician to avenge himself only to soon be subjected to the same aural pummelling from one of his colleagues. Herbert also appears in a selection of pre-recorded performances he and the tenants have thrown together to show off their talents and celebrate the ethic of show business, the common cause of most of the people in the boarding house. Herbert’s antic enthusiasm and sparked desire to get in the spotlight also has the positive effect of giving some exposure to the women as well, even as they find they’ve bitten off just a little more than they can chew, like a frantic tap-dance and a prissy ballet routine.

The film’s apotheosis of strangeness, and of Lewis’ unique blend of the farcical, metaphorical, and aesthetic, comes when Herbert finally ventures into Miss Cartilage’s room, a surreal space with melting white walls and a veiled bed. Here Miss Cartilage dangles from the ceiling in a black cocoon sack, and greets Herbert with a lusty, “Hi, honey!” as he tugs down the covering on her face, revealing a deathly white pancake of make-up and a pair of yawing, red-lined lips. Suddenly The Ladies Man is skirting the edges of a horror film with Miss Cartilage as man-eating spider-woman whilst Lewis also somehow weaves this into a setting more like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers art deco musical fantasy. Lewis tips a nod to Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) in the sight of Cartilage withdrawing behind the veiling curtains of her bed and reclining stiffly in mimicry of Boris Karloff’s mate-mesmerising villain in that film. Cartilage pursues Herbert around in a chase that is also a dance, to the blaring strains of Harry James’ big-band orchestra which magically manifests on her balcony. Here Lewis and the film make ultimate entry into a rhapsody of sickly erotic delirium under cover of spry absurdist effrontery. The film’s twinned punch-lines must inevitably involve Baby, as the monstrous beast is released only to prove a small dog with a mighty roar. But just as he’s convinced to stay at the boarding house and give up his attempts to leave, Herbert is confronted by a real lion strutting through the dining room, one that sets all the women scurrying in panic and which drives Herbert to scream for his mother again. Though he may finally be regaining his ease around women and even have love in his future, Herbert will still have to learn to tame the beast one day.


24th 08 - 2017 | 5 comments »

Le Samouraï (1967)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Melville

By Roderick Heath

The initial and defining image of Le Samouraï is held for a long time, about two and a half minutes, as the credits unspool across its face, with a fixity that becomes in turns nearly unbearable and then mesmeric. A man lies on a bed, smoking a cigarette, in an apartment that seems forgotten to the memory of humankind. A title gives the time with the exactitude of an official record. Tones are muted and crepuscular. Rain gushes against the window. The only noise we hear is one that recurs through the film with needling insistence: a bird’s chirping. The animal is kept in a cage of surprising refinement but tarnished by time and neglect, something once fine retrieved from a flea market, used to house an animal that’s not so much a pet or companion as a proof of life, an alarm system, and the embodiment of its owner’s inner self. The camera makes an ever-so-slight move in, subtly reframing the same scene from an illustrative space reminiscent of ukiyo-e art into a performing zone. The man on the bed is Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a man who exists in a zone of pure transience, the abode he dwells in a shell he’s occupied like a crab, ready to vacate again at a moment’s notice. There is no future, no past, no state of being that is not purely of the moment, the existential being laid bare in all his futile determination. So begins Jean-Pierre Melville’s great etude in genre aesthetics – not in action but in repose. The film’s opening quotation, supposedly from the Bushido code of the samurai, nudges us to understand what follows as a tale of a man dedicated in silent, stoic manner to a certain creed, a way of life that precludes other considerations: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle, perhaps.” A bogus quote, of course: Melville made it up purely to illustrate his theme.

The romantic lustre of such a legendary historical likeness in discipline seems to stand in heightened contrast to Jef’s actual job, as an underworld hit man, an imp of society’s abysses. Certainly, Jef was not the first assassin to be the focus of a thriller film, but he has become the archetype of the version of the character we’re now quite familiar with as the example of Le Samouraï, and its maker, Jean-Pierre Melville, have permeated popular cinema. Like Sergio Leone in Italy, Melville was a filmmaker who developed a powerful and specific imprimatur based in dichotomous creative references, mating a very European sense of style to an unabashed love of American genre stories, lending them such stature in texture and spectacle they rise far above grubby roots to seem akin to neo-mythology. There similarities between the directors end there, of course. Where Leone was a high if ironic romantic at play in the primal arena and the theatre of death, Melville was cool and pitilessly rational, and his ardour for the stern, implacable dramas found in pulp crime tales and Hollywood gangster dramas accorded with Melville’s personal experience on a vital level. Melville made his filmmaking debut with the grim and eye-catching submarine drama Le silence de la mer (1949), emerging a little later than the clutch of major talents who arose in French cinema during the Nazi occupation including Rene Clement, Robert Bresson, and Henri-Georges Clouzot. Yet he shared with them a rigorous sense of how to purvey his vision and an edge of technical mastery that earned him admiration from the next generation of French filmmakers, the Nouvelle Vague directors. They followed Melville in subjecting their love of Hollywood cinema to an exacting nativist eye and mind and their exhibiting the results.

Melville surely remained the most colourful directorial personage of his place and era, however, fond as he was of cruising about Paris in a massive Cadillac and sporting a Stetson hat. Melville, whose real last name was Grumbach, had served in the Resistance during the war before he fled to Britain, joined the Free French forces there, and returned with them to liberate Paris in 1944. In the Resistance he had chosen as his codename the name of his favourite author, the writer of Moby-Dick, and found it stuck even when he didn’t want it to any longer: Jean-Pierre Melville thereafter became a kind of fictional character at large in the real world. It’s also not hard to detect a note of rebellion in Melville’s practiced appropriation of American aesthetics. His affectations and his cinema both speak of a man who no longer felt he had much in common with the society he had helped to liberate. The condition of his characters is one of being jammed between a cosmic rock and a social hard place. Le Samouraï is perhaps his most distilled and iconographic vision of such a condition. Melville offers up Jef not simply as a man in a despicable profession but a man who invites being seen as a philosophical paradigm, the life instinct whittled down to an essence: Jef can only be brought to life by missions that send him out to kill. Jef’s habits are those of a man at once aimless and eternally waiting, for a job or for the law, either a motive or the coming of death, that is, freedom from motive. Whereas Army of Shadows pinned that state down to a specific moment in history and experience, Le Samouraï has the advantage of articulating it free of such associations, boiling the legend of a lone wolf down to a perfect ideogram.

Jef’s slow rousing from his initially prostrate state sees him fondle a bundle of cash, the notes sliced in half, a promise and also a compulsion to perform the job before him. The job, the motives for which are barely elucidated in the course of Le Samouraï, is to kill a nightclub owner. Jef accomplishes this task swiftly and without difficulty, even giving his mark a fair chance to defend himself before shooting him behind his desk. The real art of Jef’s trade is depicted in exacting, near-fetishist detail before and after the moment of truth, is one of setting up alibis, obtaining a gun and car that cannot be traced to him, and weathering the inevitable ordeal of being netted by the cops as they round up the usual suspects. So, Jef’s work day commences with leaving his apartment and looking for a car to steal. He gets into a Citroen and pulls out a ring loaded with car keys, and tries them one by one until one starts the car. He meets with a woman, Jane (Delon’s wife of the time, Nathalie Delon), a prostitute who will form part of his alibi, and then with some poker players who will provide the rest of his cover. He takes his stolen car to a man (André Salgues) who lurks in a shed in a dreary and crumbling sector of town, waiting for people like Jef to come for his services. He provides Jef with clean number plates for the car, and a gun.

The alertness to detail and the patience with which Melville documents forms both the film’s backbone of cinematic exposition and gives context to the story it is telling on more than a literal level. The process of criminal enterprise is viewed with a precise and lucid eye for the minutiae a man in Jef’s profession must orchestrate with utmost care, whilst also accumulating cinematic images based around these details that can only work in the way they do as film. Such details can be listed in prose, but they can’t be tracked and studied in all their laborious glory, consuming time and energy, demanding an exact and inescapable attentiveness to the ticking clock and the itinerary of necessary acts. Jef’s pet bird isn’t just there for companionship, but as a natural alarm system, for intruders into his apartment send the bird into of fits of panic, shedding feathers as it flits about its cage – exactly the sort of overt display of distress Jef keeps himself from offering, and yet which Melville forces us to intuit and comprehend. Melville’s feel for life as a series of labours and swerves in the face of a hostile universe has a certain intriguing generational sympathy with Clouzot’s similar outlay of agonising problems for his characters to solve with the tools at hand in movies like The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), and Bresson’s crucially similar interest in characters trapped within their world and themselves. It’s tempting to conclude that the exigencies of surviving the war had instilled in such filmmakers a rigid sense of practical consequence. Unlike his fellows, however, Melville is pointedly non-psychological. We are never told who Jef is, where he has come from or what his experiences have been, except for clues that dropped, like the fact that some cops who break into his apartment to bug it wield just like Jef a ring of many keys – might Jef once have been a cop himself?

Such questions don’t really matter, though. All that matters in Jef’s life are the cold equations of what’s in front of him, and to keep swimming like a shark. Jef’s carefully wrought plan unfolds near-flawlessly. Many people see him in the club, including jazz pianist Valérie (Cathy Rosier), an entertainer in the club, spies him emerging from the assassinated owner’s office. Jef simply walks past her and out of the club, and once he’s paraded before the employee witnesses in the police line-up a mysterious affliction seems to descend upon them all, so that only one definitely identifies him, whilst Valérie emphatically denies he is the killer. This tips Jef off to an interesting and eventually consequential detail, that the club employees have all been ordered not to identify him, and that forces are working he is not aware of. Otherwise Jef’s plan works like the clockwork, but this is in itself a fault, one that sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually destroy him: the very perfection of Jef’s cover story, which included contriving to be seen by Jane’s fancy man, Wiener (Michel Boisrond) as he left her apartment building, tips off the investigating Commissaire (François Périer) that he must be the assassin, because no-one else netted in the police dragnet has such a beautiful alibi. The Commissaire does his best to shake Jef and find some hook to hang an excuse to keep him in jail on. At one point he obliges Jef to swap hat and coat and stand in a room with a dozen cops, and asks Wiener pick him out. Wiener’s precision as a witness in this feat, after telling the Commissaire that he’s not particularly perceptive, leads the cop to quip ruefully, “Just imagine if you were observant.” The Commissaire releases Jef after obliging Valérie to double down on her denial that he is the killer, but continues to have him followed, and has a bug concealed in his apartment. Melville offers an ice-cold joke when the men who secret the bug turn on their listening gear, only to hear the bird’s endless chirping.

Melville’s time in the Resistance would be chronicled more directly and exactingly in Army of Shadows (1969), but it feels self-evident that Le Samouraï is his first draft for capturing the sense-memory of that time, the feeling of being an exile within one’s own society, duelling with authority and inexorable fate. It’s so very tempting to read Jef and his lifestyle as a mere transcription of Melville’s time as an insurgent. Like a spy or a provocateur or member of a terrorist cell, Jef awaits orders, asks nothing about the whys of his business that he might divulge if he’s caught and tortured. He looks for only the immediate matters before him, and then proceeds out into a world that he necessarily supposes is a place of hostile occupation. Another of the film’s few fillips of humour is also a visual statement along these lines, as Jef walks across a street, a poster behind him showing a man on the telephone seeming to track his movements, with the camera panning over to find a man who actually is phoning in his report on his movements. A lengthy sequence late in the film, one that seems inspired by a similar vignette in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), depicts the cops’ efforts to track Jef around Paris with surveillance equipment, the reports of each agent registering as a glowing bulb on a map on the police station wall. One crucial aspect missing from Jef’s life that might otherwise sustain the spirit of an agent or radical is that sense of purpose, a larger cause. Jef seems to hold himself together with a resolute code of personal honour, detached from motives beyond doing what he does perfectly. But that ethic can only carry him so far.

Jef’s almost surgical excision from the regular world of people is illustrated in a haunting episode early in the film, as he steals the car for the job. He sits bolt upright, trying not to make any move to attract attention as he tries each key on his ring, the rain water smeared on the windscreen, as if he’s losing form and solidity. When he gets the car started he drives off only to pull up at an intersection, and an attractive woman tries to catch his eye from a neighbouring car, only for Jef to turn his gaze away in declared disinterest. In scenes like this, Melville’s work with cinematographer Henri Decaë creates a specific ambience of romantically picturesque, even elegant alienation. Jef’s solitary melancholy registers constantly in Delon’s stringent blue stare, and indeed the very frames of Le Samouraï. Paris becomes a bleak and seamy labyrinth under Melville and Decaë’s eyes, variously rain-drenched or oppressed by grey skies. François de Roubaix’s scoring winds itself into such images like smoke, like the throbbing organ theme that chases Jef around, neurotically describing his crawling-ant nerves when he’s staying calm committing crimes. Melville delves into forgotten corners of the cityscape, like the ironwork railway bridge where Jef meets a contact, and other places of decaying infrastructure and run-down, workaday blandness. Fittingly for Jef’s algorithmic method, Melville repeats several scene in variations, including one incidental shot he offers twice, as Jef drives the then super-modern Citroens DSs he steals up a back alley to a garage. The environment Melville maps here is so magnificently cheerless, drab, shattered, and crudely anonymous, the car so sleek and chitinous, it’s as if a flying saucer is winging its way through the ruins of a lost civilisation.

There’s an echo in this motif, moreover, with the way Melville shoots scenes of Jef’s encounters with Valérie in the club, and her apartment, both of which are spaces of haute-moderne blandness, like sets for a science fiction film. Melville gives hints not only about individual identity and unspoken loyalties through such touches but also hints at tensions between the worlds he sees cohabiting. Jef belongs to an older age, a vanishing world, being busily colonised by newness and novelty, playthings of a new breed, cynical and deracinated. Perhaps Jef hopes to make enough money to one day be one of them. But he seems more often like the remnant spirit of that age, subsisting as a reminder that behind every flashy, polished surface is something turned tarnished and weathered. Delon’s face embodies the dichotomy perfectly, his sleek, almost alien handsomeness and his limpid, bleakly inferring eyes. Such visual patterns, matched to a narrative that emphasises the hero’s disconnection from the world, betray Le Samouraï as indebted to the recent examples in art cinema like Michelangelo Antonioni’s films as it is to classic Hollywood crime dramas, similarly transfixed as they were by modernity grafted onto tatty cityscapes. Melville’s specific genius was in purposefully setting out to fuse the two.

Some other filmmakers had predicted the same movement, including some of Melville’s influences and rivals, like Don Siegel, whose own doomed hitman drama, The Lineup (1958), staged a similar drama amidst the jagged geometries of California, Robert Alrdich’s radiation-noir epic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and White Heat, which walked its antihero from the age of medieval titans to finally be snuffed out amidst explosions declaring the atomic age. John Huston, on The Asphalt Jungle (1949), and Jules Dassin, with Rififi (1954), had similarly predicted Melville’s fascination with method and hyper-professional attentiveness to the little bits of business, but not his attempts to render the drama on a near-abstract plain. It’s that aspect of Le Samouraï that has surely made it an obsessive object for cinephiles ever since, particularly for other filmmakers who have taken inspiration from Melville’s cool blend of stylisation and authenticity and methodical paring away of regulation dramatic functions. Melville’s love of American noir doesn’t entirely conceal the fact that Jef also readily evokes the traditions of the ‘30s poetic realist strain in French film, as an upright and impassive underworld hero who attempts to stave off fate only to finally embrace it. Melville’s careful use of colour and décor, worked in confluence with art director François de Lamothe, reinforces his visual language. Almost the entire film is painted in hues of blue, grey, and green. Michael Mann, one filmmaker whose oeuvre has obviously been deeply inflected by Melville’s work here, drew upon a similar scheme for dictating the sunnier but no less controlled palette of the TV show he provided the design blueprint for, Miami Vice.

One of the few elements that defies the colour scheme is the presence of Rosier, whose brown skin and flashy wardrobe, like the fur coat she wears in the police station scenes, appear like islands of exotic promise, a voice from yet another world, one that’s creative, zesty, sexy, and fecund. Jane tries to claim Jef’s romantic attention, but he remains indifferent to her, whilst Valérie is an unwitting femme fatale. She is lover to Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier), a business partner of the club owner who’s arranged his killing and who’s been pulling the strings jerking Jef around. She seems to pull Jef through some indescribable magnetism that first manifests when they nearly collide just after his killing, a magnetism that is has an erotic edge but which soon reveals a different, altogether graver aspect: Valérie is the embodiment of Jef’s fate, beckoning him on to his end. Jef’s near-subconscious interactions with women are contrasted by a dry scene in which the Commissaire attempts a form of seduction on Jane that might also be the more traditional kind, turning a mixture of vague threat and cajoling appeal on her as he tries to pressure her into removing Jef’s alibi with the promise that if he can prove he killed the club owner she’ll go down for perjury. The Commissaire’s air of savvy knowing and dogged, instinctive method are similar to Jef’s ways of working, even as his person could not be more different, emissary of official French life in his three-piece suit. Like that most eminent of fictional French detectives, Maigret, it’s very easy to imagine him going home at night to a wife and three kids. But his job is too onerous, the police station his natural habitat as much as seedy apartments and alleys are Jef’s: “That takes care of our Sunday,” he says as he’s faced with nine more protracted interrogations after releasing Jef. Police work is a painstaking shuffle towards a desired goal.

Whilst Jef successfully, even easily defies the forces of official justice, he finds his job turns complex and threatening in his interactions with the cabal employing him. Not understanding that being arrested was part of Jef’s plan, Rey sends a blonde hood (Jacques Leroy) to meet him for the pay-off, who instead tries to shoot Jef when they meet. Melville stages this rupture in the film’s sleek and nerveless rhythm as a sudden and spectacular pivot from charged stillness, conveyed in close shots of the actors, whose similarity of appearance suggests they’re all but doppelgangers, to lunging motion and violent disorientation, as he suddenly cuts to a shot from the perspective of a passing train, as if this is just another moment of life in the raw to be glimpsed from the Metro. Jef is wounded by a bullet but he manages to drive the goon away, and returns to his apartment where he cleans up the wound. Jef is left to improvise as a vice tightens about him, left broke and betrayed and unable to get the cops off his back. He attempts to use Valérie to contact the boss behind the operation. The blonde man returns to ambush Jef in his apartment, not to kill him but to explain the misunderstanding and offer him more money to complete another hit. Jef takes exception, stating he never speaks to a man holding a gun (“Is that a rule?” “A habit”). The goon puts his gun away, only for Jef to then spring on him and beat him until he gives up his employer. “That’s how you end up unemployed,” Jef tells him after he breaks easily. Jef is the pure practitioner of his faith. Jef however saves his real wrath for Rey when he finds him, clarifying Jef’s subsequent actions as being, on some level, a serve of necessary retribution for violating the rules of his trade, rules that, however tenuous, construct something like a tenable existence for those who live by them.

The theme is, of course, honour amongst thieves and the necessary punishment of any who violate such an arcane creed. The ultimate crime fiction cliché has been carefully alchemised here into an essential proposition, a runic scrawl denoting the obvious and pointing the way forward for filmmakers dabbling in this kind of movie forever more. Le Samouraï’s imprint has been tremendous on genre cinema in the intervening fifty years, beyond overt homages like Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999) and stated fans like Mann, Walter Hill, and Johnnie To, who have remixed themes and images and essential qualities throughout their careers. Something of its sway was already observable in Hollywood a few years after its release amongst younger directors attentive to European cinema – it’s there in the procedural finesse and gritty urban adventures of The French Connection (1971) and the earliest entries in the icy criminal professional subgenre, like The Last Run (1971). But a deeper influence can be discerned on The Godfather (1972) and its legion of imitators, an influence built more around its stated thematic presumption that the crime world is worthy of comparison to bygone cultural phenomena, the code-driven professions of warriors, left adrift in an impersonal modern world inimical to basic values amongst certain sectors of society. Where Melville offered this concept as a piece of cool jazz, Francis Coppola and others would inflate it on a epic stage, proposing its heroes as inheritors of the state-of-siege mentality of Roman equites and medieval warlords.

In that regard Le Samouraï’s influence might be considered pernicious in introducing this dubious if attractive romanticisation of criminals into the pop cultural lexicon. That said, the fact that Melville made up the quote at the start of his film suggests a level of puckish sarcasm to the likeness. Yet Melville also takes the comparison a step further than most followers. He certainly takes Jef seriously as a man who sustains a code, his downfall and his ultimate march to self-destruction, which echoes that in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) two years later but which pays off in a radically different manner: where Peckinpah’s criminal knights choose to go out in an orgiastic act of self-immolation, Jef chooses to erase only himself, with an aspect of self-abnegation that does actually finally render him worthy of a Zen consideration. Aware that the second contract the blonde man offered him was to kill Valérie, and equally aware that she’s protected by hidden police, he approaches her with a look of bottomless of sorrow and exhaustion, and takes out his gun, only to die in a hail of bullets.

The Commissaire soon learns his gun was empty, his death something like seppuku, an honourable way to go out when the suppositions that made his existence tenable if not fun have one by one been kicked out. Jef turns the spectacle of his own futility into a kind of rite, given strange final solemnity and import by the exchange he has with Valérie – “Why Jef?” “I was paid to.” Jef cannot complete the contract, and so he must pay his own price Melville’s camera retreats to a deadpan long shot of Valérie seated in the midst of the club whilst the mess is cleaned up, as if to take bewildered stock of a drama that has been both radically simple and impossible to fully grasp. This shot closes a rhyme with the opening, but with telling contrasts – past has yielded to future, male to female, killer to artist, one life lived as running improvisation giving way to another. Le Samouraï wields a cumulative impact that defies dissection, the undercurrent of piercing sadness all the more powerful for Melville’s refusal to weep for a killer. It is precisely the sense that Jef knew he didn’t deserve anyone’s tears, the portrayal of a life nullified, that provokes sorrow, for the sense that anyone should exist in such perfect solitude and pain is almost too awful to face.


9th 08 - 2017 | no comment »

The Immortal Story (Histoire Immortelle; TV, 1968)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen published under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story is also a story of two immortals, Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau. Welles’ career as a director had long since become a victim of his own clarion work Citizen Kane (1941) and the stature it had gained him the film world. For too many, Welles was more valuable inhabiting the role of defeated hero, the great artist and colossal talent defeated by commercial concerns, than he was as a working director. Many of the films Welles had made since Macbeth (1948) had been pieced together over years, funded from piecemeal sources including his own earnings as an actor, and sometimes abandoned altogether. A brief return to studio filmmaking with Touch of Evil (1958) had concluded in box office failure, and by the late 1960s Welles, who had long been a footloose creature with artistic roots planted on either side of the Atlantic ever since he bluffed his way into working for the Gate Theatre in Dublin in the early 1930s, had essentially become a European auteur. Even then he could not gain traction even as he had found new champions in younger critics and filmmakers like those of the French New Wave.

Chimes at Midnight (1966) was to be the last of Welles’ completed and released full-length, fiction feature films, but not for lack of trying. Amongst a clutch of projects that finished up as piles of unspliced celluloid, there was his long-gestating version of Don Quixote, the thriller The Deep, a film version of Blixen’s The Heroine, and the perpetually promised The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ final works completed to anything like his satisfaction proved to be the deliriously entertaining and inventive documentary-cum-conjuring act F For Fake (1974), and another Blixen adaptation, The Immortal Story, financed by a French TV channel although also shot with theatrical release in mind. Welles had intended this as the first part of a Blixen anthology film, but Welles’ unease over the second instalment’s looming shoot in Budapest eventually saw him abandon the project, leaving The Immortal Story as a curtailed but viable effort. Welles had collaborated with Moreau on The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight, where she had played Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress, the first of her two roles for Welles that see her playing whores who snatch at sources of affection in a degrading world. Blixen’s story must have instantly appealed to Welles, a work treading the edges of what we know call meta-fiction in the way it is both the act and art of storytelling and also a contemplation of these, an inward-folding story about stories, about how they mimic and make life sometimes, formed as they as a mimesis from the stuff of life both waking and dreamt.

Welles approached it with a cinema raconteur’s own understanding, turning it in part into a mystical burlesque on the arts of the director, a Promethean act that give strange semblance of life to fictions. At the same time it’s a bite back at the forces that had harried Welles and constantly thwarted his creativity in the medium that suited him best, however much it might have frustrated him. The protagonist of his testimonial work is the sort of figure Welles visited again and again, a man of great power enthroned in his Xanadu, but stripped of the fascinating qualities and fluid natures that made earlier variations on this figure, like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer, and Gregory Arkadin something like tragic figures, or at the very least charming devils. Here the tycoon figure is Mr Clay, an American businessman who has made his fortune in Macao and now resides in a house built for his former business partner, a man named Ducrot. Clay lives entirely alone apart from employees, and now that’s he’s dogged by gout and ill health at the age of 70, all Clay does now is sit around whilst his sallow and shy clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him old ledger books.

One night, when Levinsky realise he’s read the same ledger to Clay before, the ponderous old businessman suggests Levinsky find some other sort of material to read. The clerk immediately learns the problem with this suggestion: Clay despises any sort of fiction or material that does not relate to immediate matters of sense and profit. He reads Clay a scroll containing words of the Prophet Isaiah, given to him by fellows Jews when they were being chased out of Poland by a pogrom, but clay irritably dismisses “prophesies.” Instead, he begins to narrate a story he heard on his one voyage, the one that brought him from America to Macao: the tale of a young sailor once picked up off the beach by a rich but decrepit old man, with the offer of money if he’ll spend the night with the rich man’s much younger wife on the chance it will provide him with an heir. Levinsky shocks Clay when he finishes the story for him, before patiently explaining he heard the same tale, only from four different mouths on four different voyages, a commonplace fantasy with strictly delineated rules and form and courses of events. Clay is infuriated to learn that he’s been taken in by an untrue tale, and his immediate solution to his vexation is to make the story take place. Obviously cast by providence for the role of rich man, he tasks Levinsky with finding someone to play his young wife, before they then head out to locate a real sailor who, when presented the same apparent facts necessary to the story’s essential form, will then be able to recount it as true history.

From its opening images of Macao’s streets, through which Erik Satie’s piano music echoes in ghostly strains, The Immortal Story wields a strange effect, like a tale told underwater, submerged and echoic, as if being remembered and experienced all at once. Welles manages this feeling of dialogue between hazily remembered past and equally hazy present without need for the elaborate mechanisms of flashback and framework he had utilised on Citizen Kane, instead conveying his disorientating mood through the gently insistent music and the concise yet elusive flow of his images. Welles, who amongst his many gifts was also an enthusiastic magician, dressed up areas in and around Madrid, where he was living at the time, and staged The Immortal Story as an elaborate conjuring act, a visitation to a time and place both authentic and legendary. In The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Welles’s Irish sailor hero had referred to Macao as the wickedest city in the world, an idea The Immortal Story revisits as if with a mind to explaining the comment, identifying the island city as a place between places, a locale of veritable myth where old forces still reign, and the wickedness he had in mind was not so much one of petty vices so much as the possibility of calamitous gluttony of the spirit too often mistaken for success and power. Welles had always balanced schismatic sensibilities within his increasingly great girth, the brash American who kept all the world’s culture at his fingertips, a leftist artist who found himself utterly transfixed by spectacles of power and greed and offered half-willing empathy for men caught out of time, dreaming of vanished romantic and hierarchical pasts.

The longing for the past and the unbearable state of the present defines the collective of exiles who play out the tale – the Chinese citizens of the city are glimpsed only as servants and street faces, the appeal of colonialism for those who practice it seen as the chance to become petty emperors. Only Clay has no apparent nostalgia, but he ironically is in complete stasis. Only the triumphs and losses of the past, recorded and described through cold lines of numbers, have any meaning to him. The house he inhabits, intended as a home for a family, is a captured castle. Clay purposefully bankrupted and destroyed Ducrot in the course of his business dealings, purely to lay waste to just another rival. Ducrot, before killing himself, set to work on the house with the nihilistic ferocity of a biblical patriarch, removing every feature and piece of furniture save mirrors affixed to the walls, to reflect Clay’s monstrousness back at him in occupying the mansion, the familial happiness they had once reflected left as corrosive background radiation. The legend of the house is reported by a random onlooker in the street (Fernando Rey), to other men like him, a revisit to the chorus-like groups who flock in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to contemplate the heroes and villains of their time. Kane, as he had surrendered to the gravity of his own fatuousness, had like Clay become cocooned by similarly yawning spaces and mocking, infinitely self-perpetuating mirror images, but unlike Kane Clay never seems to have fought the temptation, who seems a psychopath who kills and orders with money rather than knives.

Certainly Clay seems indifferent to all symbolic curses, and probably unaware of them. Levinsky, coolly described at one point as “another Wandering Jew,” has memories of being flung out of his homeland and now wants nothing more than to entirely retreat from the world without the pressure of having to speak to another soul. In this regard Clay suits him as a boss perfectly, but his new assignment pushes even the most detached yes-man to think Clay is about to commit such an act of hubris it will destroy him. Nonetheless he sets out to be play casting agent for Clay’s opus, nominating for the role of young wife the not-so-young Virginie (Moreau), the mistress of another one of Clay’s employees. Levinsky soon finds he’s accidentally stumbled upon a far more perfect actor in this farce than he thought at first, as Virginie reveals to him, after initially flinching in offence at his job offer, that she was Ducrot’s daughter. Her father had made her vow never to set eyes upon Clay or enter their stolen home, and when she realises that’s exactly what Levinsky wants her to do she slaps him and walks away. Nonetheless Levinsky convinces her to break the vow in the hope of regaining something like her former station with her pay.

Levinsky’s courtship of Virginie for her ready-made role takes up much of the film’s first half, a study of personalities at once tellingly similar and fascinatingly oblique. Both are people thrust far out of their original lives, subsisting in cheap rented rooms. But whereas Levinksy’s space is absent personal details in his desire to erased from the eyes of men, Virginie’s is an islet of tatty splendour, where a photo of the Empress Eugenie fills in for her own lost and fondly imagined mother. Clay’s house, her father’s construction, stands taunting amidst its splendid grounds on the far side of town, a lost inheritance like the Amberson mansion. Virginie recounts with bitter sarcasm the myths of her childhood as her father had raised her on promises she would become a great lady and equal of royalty, as she now subsists as kept woman in a city utterly indifferent to her fate. Virginie is the ultimate nexus of so many of Welles’ obsessions. Like Bernstein in Citizen Kane, she’s a person haplessly locked into reminiscing on a past idyll (whilst Levinsky resembles Bernstein as dwarfed yet oddly happy toady). Like the Ambersons, she’s toppled royalty, doomed to forever to wander darkening, spreading streets of alien cities. She’s Tanya, the wearied sortilege of Touch of Evil, given backstory. She’s Duncan and Prince Hal, the avenger of her breed.

Moreau had never exactly been an ingénue in cinema, having made her name on the stage for the Comédie-Française, and she was thirty when she became a movie star proper, in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), fully-formed as, at once, muse of filmmakers and entity existing within and slightly apart from their labours, flicking the odd dubious gaze at the cage of fantasies about her. This late-to-the-party quality was part of her unique allure. She inhabited the post-war French spirit expertly – glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humour and knowing cosmopolitan scepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either. She was existential adventurer for Malle, Tony Richardson’s embodiment of the cauldron of the irrepressible, a brittle and raw-nerved exemplar of the occupied era for John Frankenheimer in The Train (1965), the symbol of culture bowing before industry in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and, eventually, a director herself of personally-inflected, self-reflexive dramas like Lumiere (1979). Her most famous role as the mercurial, waywardly sensuous yet insubstantial Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) for Francois Truffaut had nonetheless not been a typical part for her. Moreau’s provocative wit and air of louche desire were earthier, and yet somewhere in there was a wounded nymph. She is both spirit of air and creature of earth in The Immortal Story, wafting into frame swathed in tight white clothes like a breeze through a window curtain, in shots filmed by cinematographer Willy Kurant with sunlight deliriously bright on her white clothes, confronted by Levinsky in his black top coat, butterfly and beetle dancing through the stony old streets that have shrugged at a thousand such dramas.

Virginie’s face itself is a map of crushed dreams and loss borne and partly masked for the needs of survival. Like an actress, Virginie is in the business of looking perpetually youthful under powder and rouge. Levinsky’s smooth, wan, untroubled visage contrasts her vividly, detached from all apparent care, in conviction of its hopelessness. Virginie finds him impossible to shame as he asks her to do the most shameful things. The peculiar atmosphere imbued by the Spanish locales dressed to look like a never-never Chinese shore exacerbate the sensation of peculiar linkage to Sergio Leone’s westerns. Although in story and style it’s hard to think of more diverse creations, nonetheless like Leone Welles here grasps for a world on the fringe of the memory, the tattered fever dream of a genteel age, the last echoes of the Gilded Age and the belle époque, eras to which Welles so often looked in pining. Another peculiar similarity is with Italian gothic maestro Mario Bava – the haunted, shattered streets of Macao, the tatty remnants of nobility and caverns of monstrous egotism, as well as Welles’ evocative colour palette, call to mind Bava’s labours on works like I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) and Operazione Paura (1966). Like Bava, if in less overtly supernatural and generic terms, Welles tells tales of people caught in traps of time and memory. Welles’ meteoric ascent as a youth had been the partial result of essentially losing his family at an early age, his brilliant inventor father ruined by alcoholism and his mother dying when he was nine, and even from Citizen Kane onwards it obvious that as the avatar of mercurial youth Welles was constantly looking over his shoulder at the past. Here he cast himself ironically as the embodiment of all forces that rob people of their own innocence, whilst Virginie is the robbed. She sits down with tarot cards, trying to divine the future, but as Levinsky promises, as far as she and anyone else in Macao is concerned, there’s only one deity to pay homage to and look for favour from. Her self-consciousness over her inability to fit the role of young and virginal bride proves a strange felicity for the project; the same act of arch make-belief will transform her for the part.

One overriding characteristic of Welles’ cinema until his last few works had been his brusque indifference to the usual niceties of pacing and parsing of effects found in Hollywood film. His films come on instead as delirious visual ballets where the images and sounds often seem to be battling like horses in a race to beat each-other to the finish line. His first two Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), are both dazzling and jarring for precisely this quality of discord between the experience of listening and that of seeing, vision always winning out except when Welles purposefully reduced all vision to rippling mist for the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. The vertiginous effect of Welles’ cinema was sometimes enforced by the catch-as-catch-can manner in which some of them, like Othello, were shot and patched together like action collages. This is part of their great and eccentric worth, of course, but also readily explains why Welles was constantly frustrated in his efforts to regain his standing – they’re works that refuse to wait for the slow kids to catch up. By the time of Chimes of Midnight however his temperament was cooling noticeably and The Immortal Story sees balance restored, to the point where it fits a cliché, as an aged master’s melancholy and contemplative summative work. Indeed, it might well be the most perfect example of it in cinema. There’s a deceptive aspect to this, of course. The Immortal Story marches along with a deft and precise sense of image flow allowed by the story’s thrust and the brief running time that requires no padding or subplots, an aspect that allows the simplicity of the plot to retain its quality of subtraction and abstraction.

The Immortal Story was also Welles’ first work in colour. Welles had disdained colour in the past, arguing it took something away from performances, and besides, his filmmaking style was based in the expressionist model of cinema, a made etched in tones of black and white. To think of Welles’ cinema in general is usually to envision works filled with riotous configurations of chiaroscuro light and dark, alternating looming, carved faces and environs turned into cavernous dream-scapes. And yet the use of colour in The Immortal Story has a care to it that ironically makes a superlative case for colour as a medium, sometimes desaturated to a nearly monochrome degree, but at other times lacing the images think as perfume. Scenes in Virginie’s apartment offer a space where shades of amber yellow, saturated red, and sickly green battle with corners of darkness, suggesting her attempts to maintain a fecund little bole of private subsistence turning fetid and corrupt. These scenes contrast the later consummation of the project as Virginie assembles herself and her settings to create a florid and rapturous space amidst glass and gilt, flowers and gauze, perfect cradle for a virginal bride, ironically in what surely was once her bedroom and potentially the actual scenes of such nuptials, deep within Clay’s mansion. Exteriors are largely bled of colour, save the bold hues of bill posters and signs covered in ideograms, as the outdoors areas here are arenas where people are exposed and preyed upon.

Many of Welles’ shots obtain a virtually diagrammatic simplicity and implicit meaning, in a manner aptly reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Barred gates seal off the levels of admittance to Clay’s imperious, solitary grandeur, through which Virginie peers from far off and Levinsky much closer but just as alien from the centre of worldly motive and theistic power. Perhaps the film’s wittiest and most crucial shot comes when Kurant pans up from the tarot cards Virginie urgently lays out, urgently looking for a future, to the sight of Levinsky watching her from the square below, standing stark upon the pale, dusty earth, the bringer of that future in sleazy, inescapable garb. Levinsky walks through deserted streets like the last man on earth, a carrier of scraps of the Torah into distant lands and the deaf ears of gnome kings. Later Levinsky finds for Clay the last player in his gruesome play, a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul, his clothes bedraggled and filthy and his hair bleached by salt and sun, is only too perfect a heroic young ingenue, who’s not only beached and broke but has just been rescued after spending months alone on a remote island, where he was stranded after his ship sank. Paul is a romantic and quixotic figure, spreading out the collection of shells he accumulated on the island before Clay’s feet as if it’s a sprawl of treasure greater than anything Clay has, and quite obviously it is, a trove harvested from nature, each item invested with totemic lustre. Paul, like any good member of the audience, quickly begins to deduce the story he’s faced with here, and starts to walk out the door, only for Clay to draw him back with the same method, more bluntly delivered, his underling used: fulfil my dream and the wage will buy yours.

It’s hard to remember that Welles was still only 54 when he made The Immortal Story. Life was starting to catch up with the version of himself he often constructed, ageing, grizzled, corpulent, a figure not of youthful bravura but premature worldliness. The caricature then rapidly encasing Welles cast him as a once-great figure too easily seduced now by fine things, immobilised by indulging incidental splendours, and the part of Clay stoops to make use of the image. Welles’ heavy make-up turns Clay’s American visage into a Noh mask, fierce but rigid and somnolent, as if Clay is fossilising by the minute. Casting himself as the manipulative “director” of events, imposing his lurid fantasies on actors only to leave himself calcified and impotent, seems all too apt a self-burlesque. But of course, just as Welles could make a movie like this and then come back a few years later with a work as effortlessly energetic and spry as F For Fake, Welles refuses to be just one thing. And here he stands behind all the characters at hand. He is as much hurt and dreaming Virginie and Paul laying out his glistening baubles before disinterested pragmatists and philistines and Levinsky hoping for an escape from expectation, as he is mouldering puppeteer. It’s hard to escape the feeling Welles ultimately agrees with Clay in thesis if not intention, that to make a film is crudely and hubristically turn imagining into crude form of reality, a reality created by the actors inhabiting roles and a mastermind orchestrating events, in defiance of nature and obedience instead to the fancies of the mind, a recourse for artists who engage in cinema as in no other. Harry Cohn had once purportedly been furious with Welles for marrying Rita Hayworth on the grounds he wasn’t good-looking enough to be paired with the woman he set up as fertility idol for all. Welles knew what it was like to be miscast in life. Clay is imposer and mediator of fantasies, mogul rather than the artist, constructor of weary pornographies, an appetite that enervates in being satisfied.

And yet Welles had made the careers of many actors he’d worked with over the years, and likewise Clay’s conjuration ironically gives his actors a chance to become better versions of themselves. Virginie and Paul, thanks to a few hazy drapes and smoking candles and aspects of frustrated desire within themselves, readily become the heroes out of fable they’ve been appointed to play. Welles finds not falsity but truth in the night Virginie and Paul spend together, after the young sailor uneasily treads into her bedroom, glimpsed through veils that soften the hard edges of Virginie’s face. Welles makes a splendid miniature rhapsody just before this, out of the simple act of Virginie stripping naked and blowing out candles, the cutting suddenly turning fast, the framings pressing in but the images becoming vaguer and softer, the act of setting the stage a transformative moment, replete with magical inferences. Virginie’s nakedness is of course also Moreau’s, and there are few moments where any actor seems as utterly exposed and vulnerable as Moreau does as the moment of performative truth approaches. And yet Moreau pulls off the ultimate conjuration that even Welles can’t contrive: she becomes a woman ageing in reverse, rediscovering the blanched and virginal girl of the story. Is The Immortal Story perhaps in part an exploration for Welles as to what is preferable, the lordly art of directing or the intimate and protean one of acting? It seems his answer is acting, all the way.

Virginie rattles the seemingly unshameable Levinsky when she starts to strip down before them, kicking off a tantalisingly erotic sequence in which the clerk hovers at the door to her bedroom set, the clerk’s own deeply suppressed and eternally disappointed erotic side stirred – after all, did he not cast her for his desire for her? – but also merging with hers as she stands on the other side of the door, the two of them commingling in the half-dark. In such moments Levinsky seems much more the director, symbiotic creature with his actor, collaborating to remake the world. Levinsky’s plots the play out with meticulous detail because he half-hopes, half-fears it will bring about Clay’s downfall, the grotesque old tyrant a force of gravity that, like it or not, makes everything else happen. Part of the immortality of a story lies in its inevitability – Achilles will always kill Hector, Macbeth will always grasp his fate and fall victim to it, Lizzie Bennett will always marry Mr Darcy, Superman will escape the kryptonite and keep hope alive – in a way that defies the obsession today with “spoilers” and the illusion of novelty, for it is precisely the moments that are not surprises, the pieces that click into place with most telling finality, that strike with most profundity. The Immortal Story plays out in perfect obedience to the precepts of the story Clay lays down, but in dimensions beyond what he saw. The young enact the basic business of the young to replenish the well, allowing the old to die. It’s immortal because it happens over and over again, even without Clay’s postures of godlike design, because the names of the parts imposed upon the story are mere guises in themselves, for the role of youth and age, death and birth.

Levinsky sees a flash of the divine in the events that unfold, theorising that possibly Isaiah strikes down Clay for failing to heed his prophecy. The difference between myth, even religion, and mere story lies in there somewhere, in the aspect of the inevitable, the pattern that returns inexorably to its starting point. Either way, the aftermath of the night of magic is the fresh dawn where mist rises amidst parkland trees, the fleeting lovers kiss and part, and the triumphant tycoon savours his victory and then expires. The mood of morning is quietly ecstatic and expectant: lives have been renewed, connections made, will reclaimed. Paul presents Clay with a shell to give to Virginie, unaware the man is dead, a trinket of rubbish that carries the music of the sea with it, retrieved by Levinsky as he settles to down before Clay’s cold bulk to contemplate the meaning of it all. “It’s very hard on people to want something so badly,” he murmurs, considering Clay’s success: “If they can’t get it, it’s hard, and if they do get it, it’s even harder yet.” It’s a line that echoes one in in Citizen Kane, just as the dropped shell recalls the snow globe in that film: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.” There’s a basic contradiction torturing us all, Welles so often inferred, that to achieve and gain is a basic drive of life but also a bane, for to gain too much is to lose what drives. For Welles, and for any artist truthfully, perhaps even any human, it is only the struggle, the act of becoming, the always doomed but ever-perpetuating state, that has reality. Or as another voice put it, he not busy being born is busy dying.


31st 03 - 2017 | 4 comments »

Fellini ∙ Satyricon (1969)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.

Fellini had first moved beyond ’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.

Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.

Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.

Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.

Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.

The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.

Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.

Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.

Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.

And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to ’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.

Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.

One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.

In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.

The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.

Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.

Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence. Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.


20th 03 - 2017 | 3 comments »

Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur les Pianiste, 1960)

Director/Coscreenwriter: François Truffaut

By Roderick Heath

The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm, both in taking advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities are becoming, and excited by the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).

Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute. Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview.

Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears. Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.

This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s. Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements.

Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect: Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.

Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.

Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.

The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).

The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.

Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.

Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.

Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.

Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.

Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.

A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be allowed him to dare offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.


6th 02 - 2017 | 8 comments »

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Director: John Frankenheimer

By Roderick Heath

Almost since the day it was released, The Manchurian Candidate has known an aura of perceptiveness bordering on the prophetic. This quality extends from its alarming anticipations of the spate of assassinations of high-profile American political figures in the 1960s, to the dogging accusations of conspiracy and corrupting influence of Russia behind Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, which sent political journalists scurrying to use the film’s title for an appropriate likeness. This, if nothing else, proved that The Manchurian Candidate remains a touchstone, in spite of the fact that John Frankenheimer’s fourth and greatest film is hardly a cool, analytical, realistic take on the exalted spheres of power and policy at the height of the Cold War. It is, rather, a wild, perverse, near-surreal study in personal and political horror, a look into a point in the modern psyche where all opposites blur together and evolve far faster than our ability to comprehend them. Perhaps, indeed, only such a film could really hope to encompass the schizoid extremes of the age. Cinematically and generically, the film is just as unique. The Manchurian Candidate plays out one level as straightforward and gripping tale, and indeed could well be the first truly modern political thriller, replete with the usual paraphernalia of the style–conspiracy by cabals within government, the lurking sniper, and the relentless, almost outmatched lone hero. Generations of such films, from Alan Pakula’s tense 1970s conspiracy dramas to the Bourne series, owe it something. But on another level, it’s a madcap fever dream that captures the tone of the most hysterical conspiracy theory, and on yet another, a bleak and epic revision of the Greek tragic mode for a malign epoch, one where the entities on high playing infinitely cruel games with people’s fates are no longer gods, but nations and ideologies, with the fixtures of identity that hold us to fate remaining unchanged.

Like many of his generation’s talents, Frankenheimer emerged not from the studio system or direct from the stage as before, but from television in the late 1950s, ranks that also included the likes of Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, Franklin J. Schaffner, Martin Ritt, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer had learned how to deal with the straitened productions and how to put across the intimate, often socially conscious vicissitudes of early television drama. He gained particular credit for shooting a Rod Serling script for The Comedian, which established Frankenheimer’s interest in tales about difficult and obnoxious characters, whilst his first two films, The Young Stranger (1957) and The Young Savages (1961), both wore their civic ethics on their sleeves and boasted titles concerned with teen misfits whose resentments and short fuses put them at the mercy of hypocritical power or leave them stranded between communities and afflicted by alienation and troubled states of mind. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) was a portrait of dogged humanism persisting in a man totally removed, for good reason, from humanity. Such straightforward studies set Frankenheimer neatly amidst the likes of Mann and Ritt as a maker of solid, adult, if rather middlebrow dramas. But his third film, All Fall Down (1962), whilst still revolving around a young man’s attempts to make sense of the world and people around him, signalled a shift into more complex and pensive dramatic concerns, and also made him acquainted with the potential of Angela Lansbury, largely untapped in her time as an ingénue in Hollywood. With The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer was handed a doozy of a script by George Axelrod, adapted from Richard Condon’s novel, which took as its starting point an eerie and widespread legend thrown up in the early years of the Korean War that captured GIs and allied soldiers were being subjected to “brainwashing” techniques of intense indoctrination induced under stress to make them mouthpieces for propaganda. Condon’s concept went several steps further in proposing that some might well have been programmed as unwitting sleeper agents waiting to be pressed into some covert action.

The Manchurian Candidate’s antihero, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is glimpsed at the outset as a barking martinet, rounding up his unit for a night patrol to their sneering contempt and dutiful obedience, as he’s forcing them to abandon their off-duty boozing and whoring to go hump around enemy territory in the dark. But the squad, under the command of Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), is lured quickly into the hands of a waiting Communist outfit by their double-agent guide Chunjin (Henry Silva). The enemy leap out of the dark, successfully knock out the entire squad, and take them to waiting helicopters to be spirited away. The opening credits set the seal on this brief and creepy opening (in a way, not so coincidentally, reminiscent of the prologue commercial break as used in TV), and when the film recommences, Raymond is being met on his return home by saluting senior officers and wildly enthusiastic crowds celebrating his homecoming as a hero and Medal of Honor recipient. The return of Raymond and his fellow soldiers sees all apparently easily reabsorbed into everyday life. Even Raymond, who lives under the thumb of his archly political and vicious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Lansbury), uses his new status to get a job working for a political journalist, Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), and break out on his own. But a gruelling, terrifying, recurring dream begins to afflict the former squad members, including Marco and Cpl. Allen Melvin (James Edwards), in which they remember their time in captivity. Russian and Chinese military leaders and scientists have gathered to listen to Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who boasts of the effectiveness of his new hypnotic controls over them, and even demonstrates this control by having Raymond murder two of his squad mates. The terrible immediacy of these dreams is enough to have Marco and Melvin awakening in the night in blind terror and muck sweats. Ironically, only Raymond seems not to be afflicted by such dreams, but this proves to be because he’s the special object of these machinations, deeply implanted with a series of controls and commands, chosen specifically as a programmed weapon that can be switched on and off on cue, and destined for an ultimate goal that will shake the world.

It’s easy to imagine that if The Manchurian Candidate had been made today (not discounting Jonathan Demme’s solid remake from 2004) it would have hinged much more on the question of whether Marco’s obsessive dream-memories are real or imagined. Frankenheimer’s opening offers outright depiction of the unit’s entrapment and capture, giving the game away right off the bat. But it’s actually a very clever move, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s similar ploy in Vertigo (1958), one that stops the audience from wasting energy asking if all this is real to watch instead to see what’s going to give the game away, thus building tension and dread about what will happen when the veils drop. The missing time during which the squad was in Communist hands is slowly revealed in two dream sequences replete with virtuoso cinema work and brazen wit. Frankenheimer’s camera pivots in long, deadpan revolutions that see the apparently anodyne surrounds of a hotel lobby filled with lady flower fanciers turn into a technocratic amphitheatre where Soviet and Chinese bigwigs listen whilst the hypnotised soldiers lounge in various states of attention and boredom, and the chirpy chairlady of the flower fanciers (Maye Henderson) transforms into Yen Lo explaining he’s given the soldiers the suggestion they’re being forced to wait out a rainy day in New Jersey in their company; African-American Melvin sees the women as black. “Always a little humour,” is Yen Lo’s motto, and Frankenheimer’s, too: the funny aspect to all this both introduces the film’s key motif of bottomless evil wearing an everyday face and also mediates the slow pivot from humorous disbelief and strangeness to a horrifying understanding of what is actually happening. Intimate displays of violence result, as Raymond shoots the squad’s young “mascot” member through the head, his brain matter spurting with iconographic precision across a giant poster of Stalin’s face.

The creed of the surrealists is made manifest in The Manchurian Candidate, as dreams point the way to reality, knitting connections that would seem otherwise ridiculous or tendentious with startling alacrity. It’s true both within the story and in contemplating how the film’s ideas work. At its heart, though, is a simple observation, that the so-called extremists of modern life need their opposites to gain definition, to provide meaning, feeding off them and gaining strength, even finding common ground of outlook in the desire to shatter the status quo. In this regard there’s nothing fantastical about The Manchurian Candidate: it simply exacerbates and provides a thrillingly strange metaphor to illustrate this point. Undoubtedly, in 1962, the aspect of Condon’s satire that would have seemed most timely was its biting portrayal of McCarthyism: Tailgunner Joe is transmuted into Raymond’s stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (a pearl of a comedic performance from James Gregory), who breaks into the press conferences of the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) and gives fiery speeches on the Senate floor denouncing Communist infiltration. Iselin is quickly revealed as an alcoholic twit whose gift for theatrical display is manipulated and pushed along by Eleanor. One of the film’s broader (if still very funny) gags comes when Iselin, frustrated by trying to remember the number of communists that are supposed to be in the State Department, begs Eleanor to give him one that’s easy to remember: Frankenheimer cuts from her staring at the bottle of Heinz steak sauce he’s shaking to him announcing to the U.S. Senate that 57 Commies infect the department  (indeed, given the recent outbreak of “alternative facts,” this also feels weirdly timely again). The droll depiction of Iselin as stooge and feckless puppet of the imperious and ruthless Eleanor, again like the dream sequences, soon shades a comic element into something much more foreboding and terrible, as Eleanor soon proves to be connected with the plot that has turned Raymond into an unwitting puppet himself.

Whilst the plot takes the paranoid essence of the fear of Communism evinced at the time to a perfect consummation – they really are trying to take over our minds! – central to The Manchurian Candidate’s impudent take on Cold War politics is its exploitation of the suspicion that the far wings of both sides of politics at the time, and perhaps in any time, are essentially the same, with motivations that seem completely opposed but often hide mirroring wants. This note is sounded both comically here, as Yen Lo takes the chance to go to Macy’s when in New York whilst the manager of the local cover operation takes pride in turning a profit, and with daunting seriousness, as Eleanor plots a scheme wherein she uses the Communists to stage a coup that give Iselin, and thus her, powers that will “make martial law look like anarchy” as prelude to a savage and possibly cataclysmic war of revenge. The essence of the Marxist view of history, that it is driven by impersonal forces, is embodied in Raymond’s loss of identity and control, and sublimated into greater causes; but so, too, is the faith in the individualistic and the entrepreneurial in American capitalism, as Eleanor carefully crafts her ascent to absolute power, complete with studious brand-building. Another biting observation here is the way republics fosters a peculiar but extremely potent aristocracy, to which Eleanor and Raymond belong–Raymond’s horror for sentimentality and other common pursuits (“Twelve days of Christmas  one day of Christmas is loathsome enough”) stem both from his schooling in such snobbery and his attempts to rebel against the precepts of slogans and officially prescribed feelings.

Not mentioned in the film is a telling touch from the novel, in which some of Eleanor’s monstrosity is revealed to be the product of sexual abuse by her own father, a deeply buried mandrake root of evil based in the desire, like that of the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt, to keep power entirely within a gene line through incest. This last aspect, constantly lurking under the dense Freudian-mythical matter at the heart of the human drama, does come out when Eleanor, with her son seemingly under perfect slavish control, kisses him in definite erotic prelude. There’s scarcely a taboo untouched in The Manchurian Candidate, befitting a film about the utter perversion of contemporary communal life by forces within it and working upon it. Thanks in part to Harvey’s dynamic if, unavoidably, often unpleasantly phlegmatic performance, “lovable Sergeant Shaw” is one of the great cinematic characters, so uncommon in his barely suppressed fury layered over a very deeply repressed sexuality, his stringent honesty and astringent snobbery, his detachment from and contempt for the usual signifiers of healthy all-American identity, as well as his mother’s relentless perversion of the bodies both politic and familial. He has much in common with the tortured young heroes of Frankenheimer’s early films, with his feelings of exclusion from the run of everyday life, his bitterness towards his parents, and his status as puppet being manipulated for other people’s ends. Sometimes he seems like the barely human cyborg he’s been programmed to be, except that a constant undercurrent of virulent trauma and raw feeling sometimes slips his façade, as when he drunkenly narrates to Marco the story of his one busted romance, with Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), the good-natured daughter of her mother’s political enemy, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver).

Raymond is privileged a flashback that seems initially much less gruelling than Marco and Melvin’s dreams, a recollection of romantic happiness in which he met the energetic and outgoing Jocelyn and her upright liberal father, only for Eleanor’s swift action in killing the romance to present a spectacle of coercion and emotional violence that makes being captured and brainwashed seem almost preferable. Slowly but surely, the deep humanity of Raymond emerges, even as his helplessness before his programmed state constantly asserts itself when he’s triggered into his mesmeric state, marching out with calm, detached demeanour to kill. Raymond is pushed to kill both of the positive father figures he gains in the course of the film, his mentor Gaines and then Senator Jordan, whilst his actual father is a ghost supplanted by the grotesque Iselin. His only connections are with Marco, who grudgingly becomes something like a friend with the underlying understanding that Marco’s path to salvation is probably Raymond’s way to hell, and Jocelyn, who, after marrying Raymond when she’s reunited with him thanks to a contrived but backfired attempt by Eleanor to make an ally of her father, convinces Marco she can help repair him, inspiring a moment of sentiment that has utterly hideous results. Eleanor, heading off the new danger such an improvement in Raymond’s life portends as well as his own anger, suddenly takes control of him and sends him back to his new family, shooting down Jordan and then Jocelyn when she tries to intervene, just as he’s been ordered to. There are few scenes as heartbreaking in cinema, particularly in Harvey’s use of body language, his languid heavy limbs and attitude of a sleepwalker as he leaves the scene, reminiscent of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, another misbegotten son.

Moments like this point to the paradox at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate’s almost sui generis status. As rich with ideas and as clever in its machinery as it is, it’s the film’s strong grasp on the human level that makes it so powerful, the urgency with which it telegraphs the way its characters experience life and the torturous travails they’re subjected to, with the added irony that the qualities of the inhuman are seen as politically valuable. Only Eleanor seems excepted from the normal roundelay of suffering and confusion everyone else knows, and even she’s trapped to a certain extent, her carefully cultivated plots and ties having been turned around on her by the deliberate use of her son rather than some anonymous patsy as the perfect killer she wanted. Eleanor’s psychic twin in American cinema is Psycho’s Mrs. Bates (never actually seen, but also a monster who manages to infest her son’s body and mind), and her ancestor Livia, the relentless force of imperial tree pruning in Robert Graves’ I Claudius, from which Condon might have taken possibly a little too much licence. Lansbury’s bravura performance communicates the degree to which Eleanor is the nonartificial version of the thing her son has become, a series of guises and gestures, clasping, wheedling, crassly self-promoting, all hiding a will to power that would make Stalin wince.

Although the science fiction element in it is only very slight, nonetheless the film constantly nudges more psychologically into the genre with the feeling that it is depicting the birth of a bastardised race of mutants (interestingly, Frankenheimer would tackle that theme more directly decades later on the debacle The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996). Paul Frees’ voiceover near the film’s beginning signals the latent connection with George Pal’s scifi, posthuman myths like The War of the Worlds (1953). Yet the film’s structural influence is ancient, borrowing motifs from Greek myth and theatre and dressing them in such contemporary drag. “It’s like listening to Orestes gripe about Clytemnestra,” Marco quips to Raymond during a bout of drinking and maudlin reflection, as the latter explains his hatred for Eleanor. It’s a knowing line that underlines the already-percolating atmosphere of something primeval lurking below the surface of all the atom-age angst, as well as nodding towards the narrative’s sarcastic approach to that vital populariser of Greek myth, Freud. Has humanity changed at all in the intervening millennia since Sophocles and Euripides? Are even the new theatre of mass media and the arts of mind control still subject to principles laid out in the infancy of rational contemplation? It is ancient, it is the future, and everything flows to and from the great Oedipal swamp. Frankenheimer’s image-play leads into the epic climactic scene in which Marco tries to tap Raymond’s programming and a false card deck of queens of diamonds, their faces bleeding sweat, glowing-eyed in states of extraordinary awareness, Marco finally emerging as conjure master and Raymond’s buried alternate identity plumbed. The vital aspect lacked by Frankenheimer’s otherwise superlative follow-up, Seven Days in May (1964), was this edge of the fantastic, the super-theatrical, of taking the theme of malfeasance in power and placing it into the nightmare realm where it proves endlessly metamorphic.

The Manchurian Candidate is deeply involved with the new age not just of politics and technology, but also of mass media. Frankenheimer’s background in television both equipped him with technical smarts so that he was able to startle many when he was able to use TV pictures on film and also a deep awareness of the medium’s new role in civic discourse and the creation of shared reality. During a scene in which Iselin makes a ruckus during the Defense Secretary’s press conference, which Marco haplessly tries to orchestrate, Frankenheimer makes a show of the duel of faces as seen through television screens, elucidating the new arena of battle. The mantra programmed into Marco and the rest of the squad attesting that Raymond Shaw is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I ever met in my life,” feels comically reminiscent of both smile-and-be-damned political endorsement and advertising spin, a ready-made catchphrase coined all the better to sell Raymond as the perfect American hero. Again, a joke mediates the deepening of the theme, as Raymond quips after Jocelyn turns on a TV that the world is split into those who turn them on and those who turn them off. The war of iconography glimpsed throughout the film stretches out onto a more classical field of combat as Raymond’s programming is switched on by playing cards, in particular the queen of diamonds, perfect avatar for the brittle and glittering empress Eleanor but also, in a brilliantly visualised twist, leading him back to Jocelyn, who turns up at a fancy dress party dressed as that oh-so-totemic suit. Frankenheimer makes a constant motif of Lincoln’s image throughout as the inverse of meaning but mirror of use in terms of political iconography as the Communist heroes blown up to titanic size. Iselin and people at the climactic political convention dress as him, busts of the president festoon Iselin’s house, and Honest Abe’s noble nose and beard seem to jutting everywhere in solemn, silent mockery of the republic’s stagger into the atomic age, constantly ripe for a slide into anarchy or authoritarianism.

Sinatra, although a producer, took the less showy role of Marco, and it served him well, as although Harvey and Lansbury dominate much of the film, he plays river guide on the trip up to Hades. Sinatra’s persona as the knight of cool purveyed as a singer almost always gave way in his mature screen career to far more thoughtful and ambivalent characters, perhaps as a way of mediating the intense discomfort that made him such an infamously dichotomous character. Either way, Marco as a role plays on his bulletproof aura to lend power to the spectacle of him as sweltering crack-up. Marco’s recovery and return to able and persistent hero cuts across the increasingly neurotic and fraying tone of the story. In an early scene, Marco is visited by an army pal, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), who surveys the great piles of unhealthily intellectual reading matter Marco’s been consuming in his insomniac hours, reading which, ironically, has equipped Marco, in the mould of the perfect Kennedy-Camelot-era hero, for a new frontier of struggle, one for control of the mind (one reason why in spite of its abyssal cynicism, I still often think of this as the exemplary Camelot-era film), and Marco listlessly explains his reading habits, giving himself away as a closet intellectual, not the muscular man of action the military needs. Sinatra’s punch-drunk performance sells the scene and invests the first half of the film in particular, with a sense of aching, fraying anxiety, one that begins to ease once he meets kind-hearted hipster Eugenie Rose ‘Rosie’ Chaney (Janet Leigh), who readily falls into an exchange of brittle punning and queasy humour to ease him out of his panic attack.

Once again there’s a mirroring aspect in the appearance of female saviours for the busted heroes–Jocelyn’s rescue of the snake-bitten Raymond in flashback rhymes with Marco’s freak-out on a train attracting the Rosie’s attention, except the two romances lead in gruellingly diverse directions. Parrish does a particularly good job inhabiting the role of knife through mouldy cheese, a force dispelling miasma (better than Leigh manages, frankly, one reason perhaps why many see ulterior motives in her, however unsupported by script or source); in the moments when she’s on screen and Raymond’s repression vanishes, replaced by a fervent if stunted romanticism, everything seems possible. The film’s purposefully dissonant tone is perhaps most strongly illustrated when Raymond is accidentally triggered into his dissociative state by a yammering barkeeper rattling off an anecdote about his brother-in-law, with the punch line, a suggestion to go jump in Central Park Lake, sending Raymond off to do just that, chased by a bewildered Marco, who deduces important details from the ridiculous incident. This scene is both driven by and resembles a barroom joke, whilst also elucidating an aspect of the film and all its fanciful paraphernalia, a tale of generations of men gone off to war and returning only to find themselves plunged back into again by casual jests and everyday moments. The Manchurian Candidate could be regarded as a study in what would eventually be called PTSD, with Raymond’s periodic shift into another persona and Marco and Melvin’s traumas the manifestation of broken psyches urgently trying to tell them something is wrong, something hidden by the official resumption of peace and the even flow of history.

The narrative’s roots in the Korean War, so often called the Forgotten War, gives this aspect particular piquancy: Raymond anointment as official hero carries with it symbolic power, a desire to find a perfect icon in the midst of a very imperfect situation, and for that reason has been willingly and calculatingly supplied. Also, like Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) and Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) (the best combat dramas set during the conflict; Edwards had been in both, embodying the new, smart, forthright black soldier in the desegregated army), the landscape of a new America is in play and in contention, with African-American characters, including Melvin and Marco’s major sounding board, a wry black army psychiatrist (Joe Adams), playing distinctive new roles. Even the Fu Manchu-esque quality to the theme of wicked Chinese brainwashers is purveyed with jabs of burlesque drollery, particularly in Yen Lo’s talkative, pleasant demeanour and his shots of weird humour, like quoting an advertising line (that connection again) when noting he has the captured Yankees smoking yak dung just for kicks, and the protests of a Russian delegate to his presentation over the necessity of sacrificing a whole imaginary company for the sake of Raymond’s heroic cover story. Chunjin turns up posing as a would-be lackey begging Raymond for a job, all the better to actually oversee his control, at least until Marco turns up seeking answers and, on first sight of the supposed minion, launches into a balls-and-all karate fight that sees them lay waste to Raymond’s apartment in a sequence that might well have inspired the tussles between Clouseau and Kato in the Pink Panther films.

Like many an eager young American director before him and after, Frankenheimer’s style was powerfully influenced by Orson Welles. The influence is obvious in Frankenheimer’s forced-perspective shots bristling with Hogarthian energy and looming faces, people turning into aspects of the landscape or relics of ages and objects turning faintly animate. Canted camera angles illustrate moments of nauseous disorientation, as when Marco confronts Rosie with a newspaper revealing the murder of Jocelyn and her father, and desperate action, during Marco’s final rush to try to head off the final act in the long and torturous plot. Hitchcock’s influence is also certainly in the mix, in the punch-at-the-camera shot that commences Marco’s fight with Chunjin, in the brutalist jump cuts conveying the sleep-rupturing power of the awful dreams taken from Vertigo, and The Man Who Knew Too Much’s (1934/56) imprint on the carefully orchestrated climax in a bustling forum. But there’s also the incipient influence of new wave and TV news techniques informing the creeping super-modernity of the story, handheld camerawork suddenly and vibrantly creeping into the lexicon of mainstream Hollywood during moments of furor in public places like the press conference and the political rally. Indeed, as prejudicial as it sounds, Frankenheimer’s use of handheld technique probably planted the seeds for the eventual evolution of the pseudo-realist habits that would later grip mainstream cinema. Certainly the most famous flourish Frankenheimer conjures, one he’d revisit in variations in later films, comes when Raymond shoots Senator Jordan, his bullet passing through the milk bottle he’s holding, the white liquid spitting out in sickly simulacrum of blood.

Just as Frankenheimer appropriates Hitchcockian gamesmanship and relocates Vertigo’s swooning sense of dissolving reality where, nonetheless, hidden facts scuttle into the light, in a political realm, he also drags the frames of reference of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) into the post-WWII world, one where the thwarted American aristocracy has sought new ways to control a metastasising body politic. That world’s saturnine scion is pulled into the game of representation called democracy by an apparatus far beyond the relatively straightforward and easy comeuppance Charles Foster Kane received: no singers in love nests can derail this train, and consent will be manufactured with Hollywood bravura. Jordan’s determination to resist Eleanor is easily dealt with by the simple expedience of having him killed, and the pompous, central-casting-delivered presidential nominee, Benjamin K. Arthur (Robert Riordan), is set up in the crosshairs to be a prop in a piece of political theatre that’s been crafted with all the exacting showmanship of any televised extravaganza. Marco’s attempt to return autonomy to Raymond is a dangerous act of faith that the machine can be smashed and that Raymond’s will is strong enough to withstand the truth.

The riveting finale, endlessly ripped off, is still charged with an ambiguity and a surprise pay-off that most imitations never think to offer, as Marco tries to track down Raymond amidst the clamour and excitement of a national convention where the frenetic excitement of American politics at a zenith rages on but the crosshairs of Raymond’s sniper scope zeroes in on the nominee, blending newsreel and staged footage. Raymond’s final gesture, gunning down not his assigned target but his mother and stepfather, is both a cracking good comeuppance and last-second twist, and also designated importantly not merely as personal revenge but Raymond’s ultimate act of self-liberation, a feat of self-sacrifice and faith in the thing he was supposed to destroy. The superfluous, but affecting epilogue underlines the symbolism of Raymond’s last act of pinning on his Medal of Honor before shooting himself: he had earned it at last. Surely Raymond’s act of faith will be lost, unprovable, in the swirl of conventional understanding, with only Marco left to bear witness. Raymond’s tragedy is everyone’s, every citizen brought up in our world where words of no worth feed us, and all of us do without knowing why. His triumph is that he needs no applause for standing up for himself and everyone else.


31st 10 - 2016 | 2 comments »

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director/Co-screenwriter: George A. Romero

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It began when a short filmmaker and production aide working for host Fred ‘Mr’ Rogers’ Pittsburgh-based children’s TV show decided to make a horror movie. 27-year-old George A. Romero and his friends, bored with making anodyne entertainment and looking to make a splash, pooled resources financial and technical and formed a production company called Image Ten. The company set out to film a script Romero had written with pal John A. Russo, drawing on a short story Romero had penned, strongly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1958 novella I Am Legend. With a budget trickling in from several sources that eventually added up to just over $100,000 dollars, the film shoot was largely restricted to weekends over a seven month period when cast and crew were free, out in the Pennsylvania hinterland. The best audition for the lead role the filmmakers saw was that of former academic turned performer Duane Jones, making the film one of the few of its kind to that date with an African-American leading man. Members of the crew and production staff doubled as cast. Rogers supported Romero’s efforts but wouldn’t let him use an actor from his show star in the project, which seemed destined to exemplify the phrase “cheap and nasty.” Romero and his team, shooting on cheap 16mm black and white stock, fashioned their artisanal epic until they had a real film in the can, but then had a hard time selling it to a distributor because of the visceral gore and bleak ending. Even the estimable schlock palace AIP wouldn’t touch it. Their work, first entitled Night of the Flesh Eaters, was finally taken on by a low-rent New York company, the Walter Reade Organization, and premiered in 1968. Reviewers like Roger Ebert and moviegoers promptly freaked out, as the film was being shown without a censor classification, so children were being admitted to a film that features cannibalism and murder. The distributor had also retitled it Night of the Living Dead whilst forgetting to update the copyright, meaning that the movie slipped into the public domain almost immediately.

Why are people still talking about this forlorn labour a half-century later?

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To be sure, Night of the Living Dead is no perfect artefact. But it’s the blend of cinematic intelligence and homespun crudity enforced by the circumstances of its production that made it instantly galvanising: the result vibrates with pitiless gall and insolent power, a statement from the fringe that hits right at the axis. Night of the Living Dead exemplified several new trends already in motion when it was released. The old Hollywood was splintering and a void had opened, where there were huge sums of money to be made from an audience TV and mainstream cinema couldn’t touch. The likes of no-budget goreteur Herschell Gordon Lewis had already proven the potential punch of low-budget horror movies made by filmmakers not just outside of the studio cinema system but also labouring away in what seemed to be backwaters of American cultural life. The low budget of Night of the Living Dead gave it a quality that money would have spoilt, a sense of closeness to genuine experience and a brusque countercultural authority. That latter quality was given a steroidal boost by the cruelly sarcastic finale, so similar to the one that would follow a year later in another legendary low-budget film, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. Romero’s thumb was feeling for the pulse of the zeitgeist, trying to say something about the psychic life of America in the late 1960s. Riots and protests were everywhere, institutions were rocked, the fabric of modern Western life tested in all quarters. Somehow, Night of the Living Dead records that landscape for us now more effectively than just about any other product of the age, even though it never tries to be overtly political, for it hit upon a near-endlessly malleable metaphorical framework to explore what’s happened to the modern body politic.

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Surely that’s part of the reason why today Night of the Living Dead has conquered the world. A vast swathe of the entertainment industry today owes Romero and his ragged band royalties and suitable celebration. The explosion of zombie-themed entertainment that’s cropped up in the past decade or so, from the comic book and TV series The Walking Dead to films like World War Z (2013), only offer slight variations on Romero and Russo’s basic concept and Romero’s subsequent variations on it, in his follow-ups Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Then again, what Romero owed Matheson and Alfred Hitchcock and the sci-fi monster flicks of the 1950s is not so negligible either. Romero had worked on the set of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) but it’s The Birds (1963) that Night of the Living Dead picks apart and stitches back together, a tale of besiegement by savage beasts featuring a blonde heroine who goes largely catatonic after peering grim fate in the eye. But where Hitchcock leaves off is where Romero starts, a point made obvious in the fate of initial, apparent protagonist, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), whose blindsiding experience of world-cracking terror and loss comes scant minutes into the film and leaves her ruined and near-mute for most of the next hour and a quarter. Hitchcock’s film used his inexplicable outbreak of hostility for a lesson that he not busy being born is busy dying, whereas Romero sees a point where everyone might just be dying. Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as the next way station on a trail blazed by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in creating the modern horror film, both in their approach to intimate violence as the new barometer of horrific effect and also in the way they look at the landscape, literal and figurative, we have lived in since the post-World War 2 settlement.

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The film’s opening scene also incorporates a commentary on horror film history, as Barbra and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive in a cemetery out in rural spaces, on their ritual yearly visit performed on behalf of their incapacitated mother to their father’s grave. Johnny employs an impression of a Boris Karloff-like creep to scare Barbra. Like the same year’s Targets, which actually employed Karloff for the same end, Romero here zeroes in on the way the argot of classical horror represented by the venerable English star had become campy and passé, but still possessed an unsettling quality needing a new context to find effect: Johnny’s jokey evocation of horror immediately sets the scene for the real thing. But it’s daytime, in the quiet expanses of the Pennsylvania countryside – surely nothing bad can happen here. The mood is one of tolerance and tested nerves and banal frustration. The string tethering the siblings to this show of familial loyalty is perilously thin, and Johnny keeps testing it, claiming to barely remember his father. He cynically notes that they might as well have bought the same memorial wreath for the grave a few dozen times – mourning is another tacky industry. The toey, distracted tone of this opening suggests disquiet and discomfort already roiling under the surface – Johnny’s irritable distaste for the business he’s been forced to perform is all but tangible as he clearly wants to leave behind his past, with his affectations of hipster playboy, whilst the nervy, already suggestively fragile Barbra can’t escape it and perhaps doesn’t want to. They’re chicks who have clawed their way out of the shell of the classic nuclear family variably well. Johnny can still send Barbra spiralling back into childhood with his sardonic mockery. But the shambling figure Johnny takes for a roaming wino and nominates as one of the looming monsters (“They’re coming to get you, Bar-bra!”) proves to actually be a brute, attacking Barbra and stirring a show of actual brotherly feeling from Johnny, who immediately pays the price as he gets his head bashed in against a gravestone. Barbra flees back to the car but doesn’t have any keys, so tries to escape the ravening stranger by freewheeling down a slope. This gives her enough space to flee on foot towards a nearby house.

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The qualities of Night of the Living Dead that distinguished it from the pack are made instantly apparent in this opening movement. The deceptively calm and tepid atmosphere, loaned a sombre unease by the black and white photography, gives way to a sudden ferocity that’s still remarkable, conveyed by the actors and Romero’s intense camerawork and editing. Most low-budget and independent horror films before this were laborious in their use of the camera; now suddenly the limitations of the form became an asset, in the free and kinetic deployment of the camera matched to the urgency of the action in a manner that’s never exactly documentary-like – Romero’s framings and use of canted angles are far too careful for that – but has something like the same immediacy. The mean jolts of irony that underpin the narrative as a whole first are first felt here. It’s in the switchback from sardonic calm to survival scramble, in the actualisation of Barbra’s unease in the graveyard, in Johnny’s swift demise springing to defend the sister he was teasing seconds before, joining the father he can’t remember as a corpse in a cemetery in Nowheresville. Barbra’s flight from the pursuing zombie takes her to a refuge that proves a trap, the contradiction that defines the rest of the narrative. She finds the farmhouse apparently empty, with only a gruesomely mutilated corpse lying on the stairs for company. The phone is out. The solitude is terrible. She runs for the door only to be pinioned by the glare of headlights: a pick-up truck pulls up and its driver, Ben (Jones), leaps out to urge her back into the house. Ben has just barely survived his own encounter with more of the mysteriously animated corpses lurching around the countryside, and with the fuel in the truck he appropriated nearly exhausted, sees no choice but to make a stand in the farmhouse.

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Ben’s appearance, suddenly thrusting his face into frame, at first an apparent threat swooping out of the dark to grab Barbra, is a brief but notable rupture in the otherwise crisp visual textures: the nominal hero arrives in a blur, a shock to Barbra’s already fried sensory organs. Like one of the film’s spiritual descendants, Alien (1979), the apparently random choice of lead performer loaned potent subtext that isn’t acknowledged in the script or surface drama, but still inflects what we see. Barbra’s shrinking, quaking behaviour as Ben enlists her in his survival efforts could be the fear of someone out of her depth and thrust into an intense situation with a total stranger, and also that of a prim suburban white girl who’s never been so close to a black man in her life. Ben’s got-his-shit-together coolness under pressure seems to contrast Barbra’s rapidly fraying nerves – her rapid spiral into almost disembodied hysteria as she makes account of what happened to her contrasts Ben’s curious, bewildered but cooler narrative, and his implorations “I think you should just stay calm,” voiced as he goes about his business. But this is in part a miscue, as Ben’s experience replays Barbra’s at greater length. Soon, after Ben battles and kills several of the ghouls and begins makeshift barricades, they’re joined by more survivors, revealed to have been hiding in the basement: middle-aged, balding Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the younger couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). A fault-line quickly splits these would-be survivors as they’re faced with weathering this storm, as Harry advocates holing up in the basement where they only have a single door to worry about, whilst Ben wants to continue barricading the house, to have open ground to fight in or flee to. Tom mediates between the two men’s heated exchanges, whilst Ben declares himself in charge of anyone who wants to remain upstairs with him.

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It goes almost without saying that most of the nascent power and specific inspiration of Night of the Living Dead lies in the way it constantly looks past the zombie horde, whose appetites are basic and instinctual and whose threat is close to abstract, to consider the living instead. But the zombies deserve appreciation. Romero didn’t think of them as zombies, a name with roots lie in specific religious traditions, black magic, and spell-casting, as beings under the will of manipulators or influenced by curses. Romero’s zombies are described here as mutations, animated by a mysterious radiation cloud released when an experimental deep-space probe rocket was destroyed before it could land on Earth, an idea that connects Night of the Living Dead less with precursors in zombie cinema like Victor Helperin’s White Zombie (1932) or John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies (1966) than with sci-fi like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and atomic monster flicks in the Godzilla (1954) tradition, as well as strong similarities to Terence Fisher’s cheap but creepy The Earth Dies Screaming (1964). The idea of making the living dead cannibalistic killers was drawn from the source myth behind the word ghoul. But zombie is such a cool word. Romero would drop this explanation in later instalments, in part because it was unnecessary. The zombies are the ultimate Other, a tabula rasa of terror, possessing no motive, no will, no identity, beyond what natural drive dictates, gruesome shells of being that both defy and embody death. This helps explain their easy popularity today. Moreover, the basic narrative of Night of the Living Dead has many echoes not just from earlier sci-fi and horror films but also Westerns and colonialist adventure stories with the zombies subbing for Indians or tribal Africans laying siege to a microcosmic collective, but allowing those narratives to be sustained without socio-political and racial specifics, which can then be suggested at will. Romero’s undead lurch around dazedly, seeking out any form of sustenance with the appetite of the damned, advancing not with great speed or force but relentless intent, and turning on like ravening animals when they have what they want in their sights.

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By contrast, the humans want above all to survive their ordeal. The will to survival, a trait usually granted respect in the types of narrative Night of the Living Dead takes inspiration from and depicted as informing noble efforts to band together and act selflessly, here is probed at with a ruthless sense of the way character and outlook affect the way we approach situations, finding the opposite tendency. When alone, Ben’s activity seems entirely sensible, as he boards up the house’s doors and windows, seeks out weaponry, and prepares for siege, but the emergence of others in the house instead of relieving tension only provokes a concurrent conflict. The clash between Ben and Harry doesn’t just polarise the movie but still feels like the basic archetype of modern communal quandary, interpretable on several levels – black fight versus white flight, communal action versus self-interest, internationalism versus isolationism, on and on. The microcosmic conceit sees Ben and Harry taking on their separate kingdoms, barking orders and warnings at each-other, with Tom trying to mediate for an outcome. The women are by and large relegated to staying out of the way (in his interesting if comparatively saggy remake in 1990, Tom Savini revised this element smartly so that Barbra, instead of going catatonic, turns into a killing machine, detaching from humanity in a different way) or settling for commentary, as Marilyn acerbically cuts her husband down to size (“That’s important isn’t it – to be right.”) in miniature Albee scenes, paving the way for Romero’s more overt and pointed engagement with feminist themes on Season of the Witch (1971) and the later Dead movies.

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Ben has the gun, retrieved from a cupboard in the house; Harry’s overwhelming need becomes to gain possession of this symbol of male power over his antagonist, who is in turn determined not to be reduced to passively waiting to see if the monsters break in on him or not. But none of these people are absolutely right or wrong, or entirely competent. Harry’s clammy, truculent yet actually timorous demeanour is based in part in concern for his family, particularly his daughter, who’s wasting away from an injury, whilst Ben has no-one he must be personally responsible for. He’s the kind of guy you want in the trenches with you, but his instinct to get away from the house and make for a rescue station pushes him to advocate a risky and eventually catastrophic venture. This sense of human frailty is another aspect of Night of the Living Dead’s adroitness, perhaps indeed its greatest aspect. Romero refuses to stroke our egos and present the usual avatars of our best imagined selves, but provides instead figures desperately improvising, spiralling into panic or thrusting themselves into risks for the sake of action in the belief it must be preferable to inaction. Barbra’s instincts work beautifully in fighting for her life but then collapse once necessity wanes and she’s left to ponder just what happened, and in a similar way Ben’s own attempt to rationally solve his problem proves self-destructive. Ben’s attempt to lead an escape from the house, with Tom’s help and Judy’s fearful imposition, by obtaining petrol for the truck from a locked pump near the house devolves into a comedy of errors and then hideous tragedy. Nothing quite goes right, and the end result is the truck exploding in flames, killing Tom and Judy, and Ben, running back to the house, finds himself locked out by Harry. Harry does eventually let him in, only to get a beating from Ben. Another jagged irony is thrown up, that the ultimate as Harry’s belief the basement is the safest place is proven correct.

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Part of the mystique of Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s early films in general lies in their pungent sense of time and place, their genuineness in evoking the lives of suburbanites and the citizens of out-of-the-way places – the lives of quiet desperation in There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Season of the Witch, the decimated small town of The Crazies (1973), and the blasted urban drear of Martin (1977), films that locate a zone somewhere between genre film and neorealism. Romero’s unknown, sometimes amateur casts and location shooting informed this authenticity that often also shades into awkwardness in acting. But his characters are deftly sketched, arriving as people who seem to have walked right into the films from life. Nobody in Night of the Living Dead is particularly special – that’s why their fate is compelling, the sense this is happening to anyone and everyone. The film’s novelty as horror lay not just in the graphic depictions of cannibalism that comes as the zombies feast on the nicely cooked remains of Tom and Judy, but in its extension of a note sounded in Psycho. Horror is now based in the utterly humdrum modern world, welling out of septic psyches, the effluence of scientific-industrial progress, and decaying bodies, clinging like a faint, indefinable, yet certainly noxious aroma to things formerly thought of as clean and upstanding and mundane, from noble old houses to quaint churchyards and open country spaces, as well infesting the good old family unit.

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Night of the Living Dead is preoccupied with both the bonds that tie people together and also the forces that hold them at odds and foil best intentions. In its way, then, it’s a profoundly neighbourly film – perhaps Romero hadn’t come so far from Mr Rogers perhaps after all. You can imagine the dull potpourri-scented parlours at home and the bus rides Barbra takes back in the city, something Jonny has declared independence from with his flashy sports car. And what’s he doing on the weekend? Ferrying his sister out to place a plastic memorial wreath on his father’s grave on the behest of a senescent elder. Ben tries to create a safe zone and invites everyone to share it even as he and Harry take “my way or the highway” attitudes. The film’s survivalist theme plugs into a system of anxiety that had begun buzzing in the early nuclear age and was starting to go into overdrive in the context of the late ‘60s: Harry is the archetypal white suburban father anxiously shepherding his family into a bunker and hoping to get hold of a weapon in case he needs to hold off social collapse. In this regard Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as an extension of Ray Milland’s little-known but intriguing attempt to portray post-atomic war straits engulfing a normal family, Panic in the Year Zero (1962), and looking forward to a generation of films like Damnation Alley (1977) and Mad Max (1979), obsessed with the post-apocalyptic landscape. Romero also drew on the lone film work of another director from well beyond the pale, Herk Harvey, who like Romero had roots in making pedagogic shorts and helmed the shoestring classic Carnival of Souls (1962). Quite apart from Harvey’s example as a low-budget filmmaker for Romero, his ashen-faced, black-eyed ghouls stalked locations that evoked corners of the American landscape left vacant and decaying in changing times grasped the same mood of blasted alienation and parochial anxiety.

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Romero’s background in regional television and his interest in the way communal infrastructure is both erected to handle calamity and is disturbingly vulnerable to it is constantly evinced throughout the film. The characters in the house urgently try to tune into radio and TV to glean understanding of the situation and find what they should do: Romero understands the modern world as a zone of networks people rely on scarcely without thinking. Night of the Living Dead evokes the eerie, paranoid sensation of tuning into some emergency broadcast station in the middle of the night, beaming out test pattern in boding readiness for the moment when it might be needed. It’s chiefly access to communication devices that entices Harry and his fellows out of the basement for any length of time. The news anchors trying to fill people in on apparently incoherent and unbelievable events contextualise the impossible in familiar terms: the zombie revolution will be televised. Ben and the others make their ill-fated venture out of the house partly in hope of heading to one of the rescue stations advertised on the TV. Tellingly, at the outset of Dawn of the Dead, Romero depicts behind the scenes at a TV station with an argument about beaming out details about rescue stations that might have been overwhelmed by ghouls already. Romero’s follow-ups became increasingly apocalyptic in tenor, each one less a sequel in the usual sense than a revision that ups the scale of the problem each time, reflecting the metastasizing nature of Romero’s concerns. As it’s made clear here, the best method of handling the zombies is quickly established and the roaming National Guard and militias out in the countryside are having no particular problem cleaning up the fiends. This suggestion of possible containment of the problem makes this sharper as a drama of personal endurance on one level and perhaps more sardonic too as it throws more emphasis onto the failings of the heroes rather than the inevitability of their predicament, even if it robs the tale of the biblical scale touched on in Romero’s later takes.

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The word “taboo” is often employed when discussing Night of the Living Dead, and for good reason, as it’s a work dedicated to demolishing them on both the dramatic and thematic levels. In a film driven by its contemplation of the tenuousness of human relations, Romero resolves this motif by locating dark, nihilistic revelry in the worst possible permutation of those relations with the cold, unremitting aim of an Enlightenment satirist like Swift, De Sade, or Voltaire, sharing with their ilk an unfettered readiness to unravel just about any presumption of Western civilisation from Homer on. With the bonus of gleefully trashing just about every nicety of genre storytelling and the presumptions of commercial storytelling. So, the handsome, innocent young couple are roasted alive and then eaten. The two alpha males, far from learning to work together and respect each-other, devolve into primal battle for control of a weapon, resulting in Ben shooting Harry like a commander in the field executing a mutinous officer. Marilyn and Barbra all die at the hands of loved-ones, as Barbra is snatched by the revived and zombified Johnny and fed to the horde of ghouls he’s joined, whilst dying Harry becomes dinner for his daughter who has succumbed to the malady too, before she stabs her horrified mother to death with a trowel. One of Romero’s finer gifts as a filmmaker was his ability to shoot physical action in a manner that invests it with a voluble sense of physical immediacy (at least in his early films – his more recent work is ordinary in this regard), and this is particularly vital in the film’s climactic scenes as the defence of the house swiftly and brutally collapses when the ghoul horde becomes large enough to bash through the barricades – death comes at the protagonists from every direction. Barbra finally snaps out of her daze right at the moment of crisis and leaps into action with surprising energy, to no avail.

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Most pungently and infamously, Ben, suddenly alone and faced with a seemingly unstoppable tide of the marauders, is forced to take refuge in the basement with two half-eaten bodies that revive, forcing him to shoot them, and await the dawn. At long last daylight creeps in, the militia arrive gunning down ghouls all about, and Ben ventures out of his hiding place to cautiously investigate his rescuers – only to get a bullet in the forehead in the presumption he’s just another zombie. Ben’s body is dragged out with hooks to join the ghouls on the bonfire under the opening credits. Jones would go on to star in Bill Gunn’s black cultural riposte, Ganja & Hess (1973). This chilling, utterly deadpan final act exacerbates the film’s political dimensions of course, but also plays in part as a MAD Magazine-like lampoon extending Romero’s attack on narrative clichés. The cavalry has arrived to rescue our hero from siege by the savages, but just a little too late, and he’s just another moving target for a mob of trigger-happy hicks. In a year that had seen Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy gunned down by reactionaries, in which racial and countercultural action constantly nudged the edges of overt insurrection and in which the potential looming spectre of a whole race of angry Harrys emerging from their basements now armed and eager to blast anything dissenting and threatening, Ben’s death didn’t just feel ironic, or tragic, but inevitable. I particularly like the leader of the militia’s jaunty cockaded hat, a touch that gives him a spiritual link to the burgomasters leading mobs in Universal horror films, and with the suspicious undercurrent of lynch mob justice in those films suddenly brought out into the open. But what seems most chilling about watching Night of the Living Dead today is the revelation just how deep Romero’s insight into his culture went. On many levels, the film seems to be just as true about 2016 as it was about 1968.


28th 10 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Viy (1967)

Directors/Co-screenwriters: Konstantin Ershov, Georgi Kropachyov

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By Roderick Heath

Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy” was included in a volume of his story collection Tales of Mirgorod. Like his most famous tale, the historical novella “Tara Bulba” included in the same collection, “Viy” was a tribute to the wealth of history and traditions of rural Ukraine and southern Russia and the people who live there, particularly the Cossack nations. Gogol nominally based his story in real myths he harvested in the region, but the tale’s basic underpinnings have a vital similarity to ghost story traditions from right around the world, those stories in which a callow young man on the road encounters an evil spirit in the form of a woman. Gogol essentially invented his variation however, including the title character, a troll king who appears in the climax of the tale, whilst trying to capture the flavour of the parochial traditions he was steeped in and was trying to convey fervently, in an age when literature was often urgently engaged with trying to define the supposed ethereal quintessence of national cultures. Although his literature was often devoted to excoriating the absurd and backward aspects of his time and its culture, Gogol was a committed Slavophile, and eventually finished up subscribing to a brand of fervent religious nationalism. This faith first pushed him to try and extend his novel Dead Souls into a parable exploring the whole Russian character, before burning the new material he had written, depression and ill-health reinforcing his new conviction that art was profane. In the following century, the Soviet government was notoriously averse to morbid and mystical themes in art. When Viy was filmed in 1967, it was the first horror film ever produced in the Soviet Union.

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Writer and filmmaker Konstantin Ershov and production designer Georgi Kropachyov joined forces to create a more faithful adaptation and shared directing credits on the result. Another filmmaker contributing to the script was Aleksandr Ptushko, known at the time in Soviet cinema for his special effects work and for directing fantasy films, including a 1935 version of Gulliver’s Travels, and the 1956 epic Ilya Muromets (which Mystery Science Theatre 3000 aficionados might recall under the title The Sword and the Dragon). Ptushko also provided Viy’s simple yet ebullient, ingeniously deployed visual effects. Perhaps to clear ground for a work in a genre held in such opprobrium by the authorities, Viy offers a wry, even comic take on horror film, albeit one that also works up a peculiar intensity in its second half. Gogol’s story was an ideal subject to break the moratorium. A work resting squarely in the classic canon of Russian literature, it was based in safely historical, distant regional traditions and without any suggestion of psychological metaphor or transgressive meaning. Viy is rife with black humour mediating the onslaughts of supernatural menace, with a streak of anti-clerical and socially critical humour that squarely mocks institutions of Russian society held as old, decrepit, and outmoded under the Soviets. “Viy” had already served as inspiration for Mario Bava’s great debut film La Maschera del Demonio (1960), although that story had taken the setting, a Slavic backwater, and the theme of an evil witch tormenting men of learning, and married it to a more traditional type of vampire story and Bava’s potent brand of erotically charged evil. Viy, on the other hand, is closer to “The Wurdalak” episode in Bava’s I Tre Volti della Paura (1963), in conjuring a sense of blasted, paranoid anxiety in the sharp opposition of the great expanses of the Steppes and a claustrophobic outpost under supernatural siege.

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The opening scenes hit a note of raucous good-humour as it depicts a mob of young seminarians in a Kiev monastery being released into the unsuspecting world for vacation, molesting washer women, lampooning their rector by trying to make a goat read, stealing food from vendors, and generally running riot. The distinctly unholy behaviour of the religious students, told off by the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) for their wild ways before they flee into the countryside, sets off a tale where the vital tension lies between the way things are supposed to be and the unruly reality beneath, where the ultimate evil is a creature that can see all, as long as it can keep its eyes open. The seminarians travel on foot in gradually shrinking groups as they split and head towards their home towns. Three of the students, theologian Khaliava (Vadim Zakharchenko), rhetorician Tibery Gorobets (Vladimir Salnikov), and philosopher Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), are eventually all that is left of one of these travelling bands, and, as night falls, they get lost in the hinterland. Balking at camping under the stars, they keep groping in the dark until eventually they come across a farmhouse. They beg the old woman who seems to be the householder (actually played by a man, Nikolay Kutuzov) for a place to sleep for the night. The crone replies her house is already full of guests, but eventually agrees to stash them in different places. Khoma gets his bed in the stable on a pile of straw.

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During the night, the crone enters the stable and advances on him with an apparently lustful look: “No, it’s Lent,” Khoma exclaims: “And you couldn’t tempt me for all the gold in the world!” But the crone picks him up with peculiar strength, manipulates him like a toy, and climbs on his back, making him carry her like a horse. Once she gets him outside, she grabs a broom and levitates, carrying him under her legs, for a flight across the countryside reminiscent of Faust’s journey with Mephistopheles in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film of that story. Khoma realises he’s in the clutches of a witch, and when the crone lands, Khoma grabs up a stick and furiously beats her. Suddenly, the crone turns into a beautiful young woman who gasps that he’s killing her, and Khoma recoils in shock. Leaving the battered and bleeding girl in the field, Khoma dashes off through the reed-choked swamps and eventually makes his way back to the seminary. But there he finds that his peculiar destiny is not going to let go of him. A gang of Cossacks from an outlying village has arrived in search of him, and arranged with the Rector to ensure he goes with them back to their village, to say prayers for a girl who has died. All Khoma is told is that he was specifically insisted upon by the girl’s father, and that he’s going to attend whether he likes it or not, as the Rector feels he needs a good punishment for his rowdy ways. When they reach the village, Khoma learns that the dead girl, Pannochka (Natalya Varley), named him as the man to pray for her, and her father is local boyar. He demands that Khoma pray in the church over his daughter’s body for the prescribed three night period on the promise of 1,000 gold coins if he fulfils the task or 1,000 lashes if he doesn’t. And, of course, Pannochka proves to be the witch he killed.

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Viy has a strain of sly, even cruel irony underlying its playful surface that slowly emerges, as it studies a situation Khoma falls into and realises he has no way out of save death or triumph. To triumph means he must draw on resources he, as a man officially studying to become a religious and philosophical luminary, knows he doesn’t have. The tumult of the raucous, randy, hungry students fleeing the seminary at the outset gives way to glorious surveys of the open Russian countryside, a place of seemingly endless bounties. Only then does the scope of the drama compress, the trio of pompous scholars promptly getting lost in a field as the sun goes down. Khoma finds his world reduced first to the village he is brought to, a septic little kingdom where the boyar rules, and then to the confines of the village church, a place cordoned off from the normal rules of reality, where elemental battles will take place. Khoma however is a citizen of a grey zone that permits him no easy identity: unwilling to devote himself to religious strictures but, as an intellectual in a theocratic society, having no other recourse but the church, he’s been ripped from his roots in the Cossack village: he can still sing along with his fellows from the region, but is left an object of curiosity mixed with contempt. Much of which Khoma deserves. He is, by his own confession, a slovenly student and potential clergyman. Whilst trying to talk the boyar out of forcing him to make his vigil, Khoma denies he’s known for his piety: “I visited a baker’s wife on Maundy Thursday!” He’s better at carousing and eating, but these prove futile escapes from the duty he is obligated to perform. His attempts to escape the village constantly prove embarrassing jokes, as the boyar’s men easily corral him.

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This aspect of Viy has a certain thematic similarity to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), as an outsider finds himself trapped and pressganged into meeting the needs of a tiny, virtually forgotten community on the fringes of civilisation. A quality in Gogol’s writing that anticipated the later emergence of surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and the peculiar imaginings of Franz Kafka is also detectable. Khoma’s situation plays like an inversion of Kafka’s The Castle, in which the protagonist can’t escape being locked in rather than locked out (Dead Souls pivots on a similarly surreal notion, a plot to make money from serfs who are literally dead, but alive in a bureaucratic and financial sense). Meanwhile, the ritualistic structure of the churchman repeatedly going into battle with an evil force that possesses a young girl anticipates The Exorcist (1973), although that film’s iron-cast moral certainties are mocked well beforehand as the representative of holy certitude here is hardly an ideal avatar, and his battle against evil is more like an extended, drunken attempt to simply weather the storm. Ershov and Kropachyov play up the sardonic side of Gogol’s tale in regards to religion and also social power evinced by various forms of elder, be it the Rector who sends Khoma off gruffly to his fate, or the boyar who forces Khoma to do his bidding. In the style of the morality-play quality apparent in many a real folk tale, Khoma represents hypocrisy, drunkenness, and self-indulgence.

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Under pressure, Khoma’s roots in the hard-drinking, hard-living Cossack way are swiftly revealed, whilst to the villagers he represents a momentary insight into a way of life usually cordoned off from their own: “Just what are you seminarians taught?” one demands to know: “What the deacon says when he’s in church, or other things?” Khoma, hardly paying attention, performs an expert trick with his vodka cup, making his drinking companions coo in wonderment, “What a great scholar! I want to be a seminarian too!” The filmmakers inject a visual joke as Khoma, thoroughly soused, sees three different versions of the same man emerging from three tavern doors. For all his faults, though, once Khoma feels the heavy hand on his shoulder the smiling face only briefly distracts from, and is forced to go through with his terrifying vigil, he has our sympathy, for his reactions are only to a strange, arbitrary, humiliating world only slightly more coherent than the manifestations of the supernatural that dog him. The sight of the old witch turning Khoma into her personal pony-boy, laced with perverse erotic suggestions even as it’s played for laughs, is echoed later when one of the villagers recounts how Pannochka ran off with one of the young men of the village, who carried her out on his shoulders. The villagers were well aware Pannochka was a witch; only her father had no clue, and although he senses something strange in her dying wish to receive holy rites from this specific, unworthy representative of religion, nonetheless he commits grimly to the task.

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Although very different in style with its breezy, straightforward storytelling to the more esoteric aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, two of Soviet cinema’s highest-profile talents of the day, Viy shares a spirit in common with their works nonetheless, for it tries to convey an authentically folkloric vision and a quintessence of one corner of the cultural inheritance. That’s the part of the psychic landscape within that inheritance, where the collective memory has hazy fringes, the place where ancestors lived and the things they took to be trye still takes on a type of reality, if only in the freakish fancies lurk and the monstrosities parents use to keep their children in line in grimly prophetic parables. The Viy itself, although made up by Gogol, has exactly that quality of something plucked out of a bedtime boogeyman tale. The actual root for the creation is, perhaps ironically, thought to be the Christian Saint John Cassian the Unmerciful, a religious hero who strangely gained a quality close to demonic in later folklore because of his reputation of extremely harsh judgement, and who had similarly incisive, excoriating vision that nonetheless was only selectively uncovered when he brushed back his long hair. Fittingly, Ershov and Kropachyov’s aesthetic in Viy’s fantasy sequences is rooted in stage pantomime and magic-lantern shows, rejecting the realism that was just starting to become dominant in Western horror cinema. Ershov, Kropachyov, and Ptushko utilise the space of the village church as a theatrical space where illusionism reigns. The old wooden carvings and creepy icons painted on the walls and carefully manipulated candle lighting sets the scene, surveyed upon first entrance by the slowly pivoting camera movements, like a bullring or battleground in a Sergio Leone film, ideal for the basic spiritual conflict all the infrastructure of the settled, Christian world is supposed to hold at bay. Stray cats and birds suddenly scuttle through the old, creepy space.

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The mounting spectacle of Khoma’s vigils starts with the witch girl climbing out of her coffin and searching for him, whilst Khoma has, in obedience to Ukrainian folk ritual, drawn a magic chalk circle about the lectern from which he reads Bible quotes. The witch is blind to him and held out of the circle, meaning she can only frantically slaw at the invisible barricade, before the cock’s crow drives her back into her coffin. The second night sees the witch levitating her coffin and trying to use it to bash her way through the circle, flying around the church as if in her own personal zero-gravity dodgem car, whilst Khoma bellows panicky prayers and tosses boots at her. When she fails she curses him, leaving him momentarily blind and also with his hair turned snowy white. Moments of pure fairytale strangeness flit by, like a tear of blood sliding down Pannochka’s face as she lies on her bier. The staging in these scenes conveys both a sense of absurdist humour in the confrontations between terrified churchman and vengeful witch, and crescendo of the beguiling strangeness of the supernatural as envisioned here, with the camerawork suddenly turning frantic and aggressive, as when Pannochka furiously stalks around the limits of Khoma’s protective circle, and the sight of her trying to bash through the barrier with her flying coffin. These scenes also get a kick out of the peculiar manifestation of evil in the form of Varley’s pale-faced, dark-eyed teenage witch, a lovely visage possessed of a wilful desire to destroy Khoma. She anticipates Linda Hayden’s flower-decked pagan priestess in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) in embodying malevolence with the most seemingly innocent, beguiling surface imaginable.

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The special effects are lovable for their refusal of complex artifice, and retain that magic-lantern show quality. When the witch levitates with Khoma under her, it’s obvious that they’re on a rotating stage as if in some theatrical production. Khoma’s attempt to flee the village, charging through underbrush, is depicted through looping reversals of film stock, his complete inability get anywhere dictated by the film technique. The finale goes for broke as the filmmakers offer pantomime monsters and skeletal hydras whilst playing games with the visuals – Khoma remains in colour whilst the arising army of the night loom and leer around him in sepulchral black and white. Each of Khoma’s nights of vigil leaves him increasingly fraught and desperate to escape his lot, alternating with vodka-brave pronunciations. When he’s brought out of the church after the second night, he starts into a bizarre dance, an attempt to convince himself he’s just spent a brief, hair-raising time-out from the more important business of carousing, but succeeding only in testifying to his own fraying nerves and sanity. His dance is a pathetic but also vigorous sight, the only likeness I can think of being the infamous “Flashdance” scene in Dogtooth (2010), in depicting someone who knows they’re about to go mad if they don’t escape but also knows they can’t escape and so converts raw panic into a furious proof of life. Kuravlyov’s performance hits grand heights here.

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The film reaches a riotous climax as Khoma ventures into the church for his third night with airy, drunken hopes for his future, only to face the final onslaught of the witch’s efforts to break him, as she calls up all manner of ghouls and goblins to attack him. The final monster she conjures is the Viy itself, a monstrous, misshapen troll with outsized droopy eyelids that conceal crystalline eyes that can see through the mystical protective barrier protecting Khoma: the Viy has to get other ghouls to lift its eyelids back so it can see, but then is able to point out their prey and the monsters attack Khoma just as the cock crows for dawn again. Khoma loses his battle with fate, dying from fright as he’s assaulted. But this proves the downfall of the witch and her minions too, as they perish dashing for the shadows because they’ve lingered into the dawn, the witch reverting to her crone’s appearance and her coffin disintegrating, leaving her exposed as a monstrosity. The sarcastic punch-line for all this sees Khoma’s two friends Khaliava and Gorobets back at the seminary, working on restoring artworks and supping vodka on the sly as they try to work out why Khoma failed in his vigil, eventually deciding he didn’t believe in his own spiritual authority enough to fight off the evil, when a true holy man would have simply commanded the monsters to go. Talk about Monday morning quarter-backing. Viy certainly never exactly goes for pulse-pounding horror, more a spry and mordant frisson that evokes the way you get scared when you’re six years old. It’s a delightful annex of the horror genre nonetheless.


25th 07 - 2016 | 9 comments »

West Side Story (1961)

Directors: Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The United States is a young country with an old history. Rising to the highest heights of power in the blink of an eye through rapid expansion across a broad land rich in natural resources, achieving unity more than 100 year before the much more ancient Europe even made a start at it, and now prematurely gray as it struggles to adapt to a global economy and a shattered self-image, the American story has been a tough one to tell. The mirrors held up to Americans have often been fractured and one-dimensional, and perhaps with the exception of the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn, no work of art has broken through as a wide-ranging reflection not only of who we want to be, but also of who we really are. So it may be a bold declaration to make, but if I had to pick the one work that has been and will continue to be the greatest telling of the Great American Story, it would be West Side Story.

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The enduring legacy of West Side Story could not have been predicted based on its reception when it premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1957. It garnered generally good reviews and had a respectable initial run of 732 performances, but that was nowhere near the 2,717 performances of My Fair Lady during the same Broadway season. Its hold on the imaginations of an international audience would not be secured until it was in a form that could be disseminated widely. When the film, codirected by its theatrical director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, came out in 1961, it was a smash hit, earning the equivalent of $300 million in today’s dollars in the United States alone and winning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. The huge audience for the film has made WSS a perennial favorite of school, amateur, and professional theatrical companies the world over. What is it that has attracted so many admirers across time and continents to this musical?

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The extremely high standard of the classical/popular score spanning styles from mambo to opera, the tight choreography that comes from life itself, and the sarcastic/tragic lyrics that offer not platitudes, but truth, place West Side Story in a class by itself. However, WSS’s power does not come from its technical virtuosity alone. Riding on the timeless popularity of tragic love as rendered by William Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet while delivering that play’s crucial message about the costs of hate, West Side Story also poses a direct challenge to the complacent belief in the American Dream and the elusive principle for which it stands, “liberty and justice for all,” through the most American narrative of all—immigration. Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—all members of despised and persecuted groups in American society—crafted a coming-of-age tale for America itself and those who would lose themselves in its myth through its focus on adolescents struggling to mature and find a place for themselves in the world.

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Some people may be familiar with WSS’s original working title, “East Side Story,” as the musical was first conceived by Robbins in 1948 as a tale of rival Jewish and Irish-Catholic gangs on New York’s Lower East Side. However, it would take eight years for the embryonic idea to come to fruition, during which time the team would jettison their outdated conflict for an updated approach that would reflect the sharp rise in Latino gang violence in America’s big cities. The creative team centered the rivalry among the children of poor European immigrants precariously established in New York City and those from the American territory of Puerto Rico arriving during “The Great Migration” of the 1950s. As Sondheim’s lyrics to “America” ironically suggest (“Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America”), the members of the Sharks might have an earlier claim to being American than do the teens who make up the Jets. This conflict already distinguishes WSS from Shakespeare’s blood feud of two aristocratic families as a pointedly American concern.

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Laurents, who was brought in to write the book based on the strength of his treatment of anti-Semitism in the play Home of the Brave, quickly took to the new focus. Robbins made exploratory trips to Spanish Harlem to study the dance styles of Puerto Rican youths, and Bernstein’s love of Latin rhythms fed his creativity as the men continued to work on an array of projects before they were free to turn all of their attention to their theatrical masterpiece. When Bernstein realized that he would be unable to write lyrics for WSS while under pressure to compose Candide (interestingly, another musical that tracks, albeit satirically, with WSS’s themes of true love and striving for success in an Enlightenment version of the American Dream), up-and-comer Stephen Sondheim was contacted and persuaded to join the team despite his misgivings about this “step down” from composer to lyricist.

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The film version of West Side Story features a magnetic cast of dancers and actors, with George Chakiris and Rita Moreno as standouts. Natalie Wood was put in the unfortunate position of being an Anglo playing a Latina and disliking costar Richard Beymer, the man she was supposed to be passionately in love with, but her professionalism (if not her dismal Puerto Rican accent) carried the day. All of the singing was dubbed, with veteran singing double Marni Nixon taking on Maria’s songs and Jimmy Bryant taking on Beymer’s. This is understandable considering the difficulties of the Bernstein score and does not, in my opinion, detract from the overall effect. The film takes few liberties with the stage version, with the notable and welcome exception of moving the panicked “Cool” from before the fateful rumble between the Jets and the Sharks to just after it, thus bumping the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” to an earlier, more appropriate location after the first encounter the Jets have with the cops. In addition, Wise opens up the otherwise soundstage-bound film by shooting the opening “Prologue” on location in New York, thus creating a mise en scène of the contested turf that lingers in the audience’s mind as the rest of the film progresses.

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Robbins, comfortable with stage choreography, manages to combine the best of both worlds throughout the film. He opens up his choreography in the “Prologue” to illustrate the Jets’ exuberant dominance of their turf. The ultimate gesture of cool—finger snapping—begins the “Prologue,” as the Jets survey their domain. Robbins moves them wordlessly from playground, to street, to basketball court in a combination of random, everyday movements by individual Jets that build to a coordinated dance. Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) whoops happily as some children run past on the street and leaps joyfully with his gang, only to run immediately into Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris). Bernardo handles their taunts, only to strike an obviously symbolic red stripe on a wall with his fist. Robbins dances Bernardo and two Sharks down a narrow gangway, snapping their fingers in a show of their own cool as they run over the word “JETS” painted on the street. Small gestures again build, only this time aggressively, and the “Prologue” ends in an all-out brawl. Camera cuts, overhead shots, close-ups of smug and resentful looks form a dance of their own, one the dancers assault by running directly at the camera lens, forcing it to cut away. Robbins may have been a novice filmmaker, but his dancer’s understanding of space and how a frame can open and choke it is second only to Gene Kelly’s.

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Against the sense of belonging gang life provides to kids whose untethered home lives are mentioned in passing (“Gee, Officer Krupke”: “Dear kindly Judge, your Honor/My parents treat me rough/With all their marijuana/They won’t give me a puff./They didn’t wanna have me/But somehow I was had.”), the possibility of a real connection between Bernardo’s sister Maria (Wood) and former Jets leader Tony (Beymer) is hopelessly fragile. Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight during “The Dance at the Gym”; in an otherwise statically shot dance sequence (Wise, left on his own when Robbins was fired during the shoot, conservatively follows Fred Astaire’s philosophy of full-frontal framing), the lyric “I saw you and the world fell away” from the enthralling love song “Tonight” is produced visually, as all but the lovers fade into a white haze.

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Another superb sequence is “Cool,” in which the Jets struggle to regain their composure after the murders of Riff and Bernardo. The song and dance take place in a dark, low-ceilinged parking garage to mirror the very dark turn of the plot and how trapped the gang is. First, Ice (Tucker Smith), a new character added to fill in for Riff as the Jets’ leader once the song had been moved, sings in barely covered shock at the harm they have just witnessed about how the Jets need to keep cool “‘Cause, man, you got/Some high times ahead/Take it slow and Daddy-o/You can live it up and die in bed!” The gang struggles to contain their emotions, doing a parody of the polite dancing they engaged in earlier at the community dance where Maria and Tony met. Finally, the gang moves in crouched unison like a soft crab hiding in its hard shell, their solidarity reinforced, their desire for vengeance deferred but not defused. Belonging is more important than living, and so the cycle of violence is doomed to repeat itself.

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One of the great challenges for Robbins and his terrific crew of dancers was to hit their beats to the multiple time signatures contained in Leonard Bernstein’s majestic symphonic score. Moreno, who played Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, said that dance coordinator Betty Walberg had to count the beats out loud for the dancers as the music played. Since I’m no music expert, I will quote from Misha Berson’s valuable book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination about some of the hallmarks of the score:

1) The frequent use of minor chords

2) Melodies that don’t neatly resolve but hang suspended

3) Fingers snaps and claps, as prominent percussion elements

4) Driving rhythms from a trove of percussion instruments (including trap drums, xylophone and vibraphone, timbales, and bongos)

5) Cross-rhythms that overlap two signatures to create a sense of agitation and unease

6) Swiftly cascading and ascending string lines

7) Jazzy bursts of brass and winds

8) Latin accents

In addition, many music scholars have commented on Bernstein’s use of tritones—playing a key note followed by a note three whole tones away from the key note—which is an important method of introducing dissonance in Western harmony. Berson comments that during the Middle Ages, tritones were considered diabolus in musica (“devil in music”) for being hard to sing in tune. While many people consider “Maria” one of the most beautiful songs in the score, it is sobering to realize that its first two notes form a tritone; considering that Maria’s admonishment to Tony to stop the rumble ends in the deaths of her brother, Tony’s best friend, and Tony himself, she certainly does seem to have done the devil’s work, however unwittingly.

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Bernstein’s operatic elements are my favorite parts of the score. Anita and Maria’s duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is a cry of anguish, one for a lost love, the other for a love she is helpless to deny. Anita’s minor-key “A boy like that wants one thing only/And when he’s done he’ll leave you lonely/He’ll murder your love/he murdered mine” counterpoints with Maria’s “I hear your words/And in my head/I know they’re smart/But my heart, Anita/But my heart/Knows they’re wrong.” Reminiscent of Mozart’s operatic quartets, the “Tonight Quintet” offers musical variations on “Tonight” with lyrics that cleverly interweave the word “tonight” with the expectations of each party—the Sharks and Jets getting ready to rumble, Anita dolling herself up for a post-rumble tumble with Bernardo, and Maria and Tony planning for an endless future.

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Again and again, the songs and characters of West Side Story communicate the need to belong. “The Jets Song” affirms “You’re never alone/You’re never disconnected” when you’re a Jet. The Shark boys and girls are torn between their longing for their first-class status in Puerto Rico and their newfound opportunities in “America.” The girls assert “Here you are free and you have pride,” to which the boys respond “Long as you stay on your own side.” “Life is alright in America/If you’re all white in America.” Maria and Tony, caught in the ethnic divide, find their sense of place in each other, which they affirm in the moving “Somewhere,” a place that is destroyed when Tony is gunned down by Maria’s formerly gentle suitor Chino (Jose De Vega). And a very interesting character nicknamed Anybodys (Susan Oakes) exemplifies a different kind of exclusion; dressing and acting like a boy, she rejects her sexual identity and is, in turn, rejected by the Jets. But she refuses to go away or give up on being a part of the action.

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In the end, when violence has claimed three lives and ruined Maria’s, Anita’s, and Chino’s hopes and prospects, the creators of West Side Story decided that shame would bring the Sharks and Jets together to carry Tony’s lifeless body away. This note of hope may seem unrealistic. But it does recall another American Dream, one elucidated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that, in fits and starts, has started to come true. Perhaps West Side Story helped Americans find a new and more worthwhile image for a more mature and realizable Great American Story.


22nd 07 - 2016 | 5 comments »

The Time Machine (1960)

Director: George Pal

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By Roderick Heath

The 1950s saw the first real boom in cinematic science fiction, and those genre halcyon days owed much to George Pal. The Hungarian-born filmmaker had made his name working in the German film industry before the Nazis came to power with a series of shorts linking music and a clever brand of animation he developed known as Puppetoons. After he moved to the U.S. and started working in Hollywood, he captured an Oscar for his shorts in 1943 before eventually turning to feature production with the 1950 fantasy film The Great Rupert, helmed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel. Pal and Pichel quickly followed it up with a more ambitious project extrapolating cutting-edge scientific concepts, most of which were still purely theoretical, about what space travel would be like and turning them into a movie titled Destination Moon (1950). Not the best of the scifi work of the era and not quite the first, Destination Moon nonetheless renewed the template for a brand of realistic science fiction first touched on by Fritz Lang two decades earlier with The Woman in the Moon (1929), and proved the catalyst for an eruption of interest in all things fantastical and futuristic that would cram movie screens for the next few years. Pal, who seemed to harbour ambitions to emulate his Paramount Pictures stablemate, Cecil B. DeMille, as a maker of grandiose entertainments, soon produced two more works still familiar to anyone who loves the genre: When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953), based on the H. G. Wells novel. His brand came to grief with Conquest of Space (1955), an attempt to return to Destination Moon’s template of hard scifi that was generally rejected as hokey and clumsy, although now its ambition and fumbling attempts at a poetic understanding of space flight now look far more prescient.

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Pal didn’t make another film for three years, and when he did, it came as a straight fantasy for MGM, tom thumb (1958), with Pal himself directing for the first time. The film’s success allowed him to return to scifi with a second raid on the works of H. G. Wells, this time the 1895 novella The Time Machine. Wells’ role in shaping the very concept of science fiction is hard to overestimate. If his predecessors and fellow progenitors Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne opened up the strange new landscapes of speculative interest, the former pair as a psychic vista of strangeness and anxiety, and the latter with a grasp on the potential of machinery, Wells synthesised their approaches and used his real scientific learning to start writing stories that investigated a certain driving idea to a logical end, with his real dramatic and poetic gifts used to shade and guide. Wells was eventually frustrated by the way his early, short, sensational writings overshadowed his more literary and philosophical output even before his death in 1945. His most famous tales also defied easy filming, as they tend to be shaped more like travelogues through certain conceptual universes rather than as propulsive narratives. Pal, however, had no problem overseeing their conversion into forceful blood-and-thunder yarns.

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Partly for this reason, Pal’s approach to scifi has often been divisive for genre fans in spite of his films’ iconic status, as he popularised the form by emphasising elements general audiences could grasp and relate to at the expense of more radical aspects: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds are littered with invocations of the biblical and parochial in contrast to the more difficult, sceptical, acidic impulses scifi in its literary form was just starting to contemplate. Yet Pal and his various stable directors had a grasp on the essence of scifi in the popular mindset as a place of vast frontiers, grand promise, and outsized threat: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds successfully visualised the new awareness of the Atomic Age as a place of both possibility and dread in fervent colours and big-type dramatic reflexes. By 1960, the zeitgeist was changing, and Pal took on The Time Machine with a mellower, more thoughtful palate, if also still happily leaping into adventure territory when the time came. Pal saw scifi through the eyes of a man whose life had been shaped by his love of constructing and manipulating his Puppetoons, a modern take on an old mechanistic craft with its roots based on middle Europe’s folk cultures as a new-age wing of the old fairy tale book; unsurprisingly, his next work as director was to be an exploration of the legacy of the Brothers Grimm. The Time Machine manages to be both thoughtful and wistful, but also childlike in its sense of the possible and glee in the process of the impossible.

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The film’s prologue, a series of gently ticking, drifting clocks in the void giving way to the drumming thunder of Big Ben, has a beguilingly poetic quality that infuses the rest of the film, which looks both backwards and forwards with both youthful joie de vivre and an autumnal sweetness. In this regard, Pal’s visuals are inestimably aided by Russell Garcia’s scoring, with sound and image in deep accord in exploring the way the past and the future are another country. As later transposers of Wells’ art would also do, Pal and screenwriter David Duncan wove Wells himself and his ideas into his tale, essentially presenting the anonymous time traveller of the book as Wells himself, or the version of himself he presented through his writing—a thoughtful dreamer and pacifist out of step with the coldly pragmatic mindset of the late Victorian age. Pal also reset the story at the moment of a great pivot, in the last week of the 19th century, charged with intimations of a farewell and a new beginning attendant to every change of year with the special dimension of one world about to give way to another. The book’s recounted narrative is retained, as kindly Scots merchant Robert Filby (Alan Young) and other members of a circle of friends, gruff Dr. Hillyer (a glorious character turn by Sebastian Cabot), boozy Bridewell (Tom Helmore), and stuffy Kemp (Whit Bissell), await dinner with their inventor friend George Wells (Rod Taylor) in his house. Increasingly irked by George’s absence, the men sit down to dinner served up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd), only for George to appear, bloodied, shattered, and dishevelled.

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George, fortified by wine and Filby’s assurances that he has “all the time in the world,” begins to recount the strange adventure he’s had since he last talked to them. A flashback takes them to their last meeting, on New Year’s Eve, during which George tried to thrill and impress his friends with a demonstration of a miniature version of a time machine he’s built. The small machine seemed to work perfectly, but his friends chose to dismiss it as a conjuring trick. Hillyer and Kemp instead prodded George to turn his efforts towards more practical ideas to serve military applications, whilst Filby feared the machine on a more fundamental level, warning his friend that it’s not a good idea to tempt the laws of providence. Frustrated by their lack of belief and understanding, and appalled by more grim news from the Boer War, George arranged for the dinner a week in the future before heading to his laboratory and climbing into the full-sized version of the time machine, determined to brave all dangers and explore the future in his conviction it will prove to be the place where his dreams become common reality.

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The Time Machine chose to take on its source novel in the period during which it was written and employ the odd and fascinating spectacle of super-sophisticated machinery built in a Victorian fashion. In doing so, The Time Machine’s eponymous creation, a glorious thing of brass curves, plush red velvet and blinking multicoloured lights, became one prototype for the subgenre today called Steampunk. The Time Machine wasn’t the first work to render a scifi classic in period, as a handful of Verne adaptations in previous years—Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Byron Haskin’s From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and Henry Levin’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)—had already exploited the charm and colour of retro conceptualism. But that choice was more felicitous in making The Time Machine because of the nature of its narrative and its themes, and because although submarines and spaceships now existed, the idea of a time machine could still be illustrated in a charmingly vague way. George’s time travels didn’t have to be entirely imagined, and the contrast between his ideals and the reality of the new scientific age could be described, with an extra dimension of introspection from a 1960s perspective.

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First and foremost, George’s plunge into what he calls “the fourth dimension” is both illustrated by and analogous with Pal’s own love of ingenious showmanship, visualising time travel through the basic building blocks of cinema itself—stop-motion and time-lapse photography—and replete with good-humoured flourishes, like the mannequin in Filby’s store window who becomes George’s unageing friend and barometer of shockingly changing tastes in fashion. George’s first stop in future time brings not just the chuffing oddness of a horseless carriage, but also a harsh taste of loss, as he sees Filby wearing a military uniform, only to learn to his sorrow that this is Filby’s grown son James (Young again), whose father has died in the trenches of World War I. George takes away one salve: Filby, who controlled George’s estate, refused to sell the house out of faith that one day George would “return.”

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George despondently returns to his machine and presss on, experiencing his house’s destruction during the Blitz before stopping again presumably in the later 1960s, when atomic war has broken out. Again George is confronted by the sight of people fleeing to air raid shelters, and again meets James Filby in a military role, only this time he’s a silver-suited, white-haired air raid warden urging people to safety, astounded by George’s youthful appearance. The sight of an atomic missile drives Filby away even as Geroge begs him for conversation, and George barely survives the horror of an atomic explosion and the volcanic eruption it sets off. He climbs into his time machine and just manages to avoid being roasted by lava. Instead, he is walled inside a rock form for millennia.

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When the rock wears away, he surveys a marvellously new green Earth where a sublime harmony seems to have evolved between human structures and the elements. He stops his machine suddenly, causing it to careen out of control, topple over and knock George out. He awakens to find himself close to a strange, Sphinxlike building, and when he begins to explore the landscape, finds it an Edenic place with apparently no one to share it, the huge, super-moderne buildings nearby uninhabited and run down. Finally, he does encounter other people, a bunch of wan, blonde, innocent and yet also almost pathologically indolent folk who call themselves the Eloi. George has to save one woman he sees close to drowning in a river under the blasé gaze of her friends. George makes the acquaintance of the woman, who says her name is Weena (Yvette Mimieux), and slowly begins to plumb the strangeness of the society he’s presented with.

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The greatest qualities of The Time Machine become apparent in George’s headlong journey through time, experiencing his own erasure from history, the death of friends, and the calamities awaiting humankind thanks to our inability to learn lessons, all with steadily drooping enthusiasm. Pal grasps intuitively the action of time travel not just as discovery, but also as tragedy, as George finds himself doomed to witness looping events and scenes of loss and destruction, until finally, when the rock encasing him and his machine breaks apart, he seems to behold a gorgeous new future. But there are also peculiar proofs of faith, as when George finds that what was his old house has been turned into a park dedicated by James to his father’s love for his friend. There’s a striking intimacy and humanity to much of the film, for example, when George realises Filby has remained behind after his disappointing demonstration to talk, or George’s interactions with Weena, who gropes towards an understanding of him and the apple of necessary, but painful knowledge he brings to her Eden. When he arrives in the future he so dearly wants to see, his pleasure in what he sees is steadily worn down to a state of furious disillusion: the underlying truth about the Eloi and the strange beings that lurk in the darkness they call the Morlocks eventually proves utterly horrifying, but, in a way, less depressing to a man like George, who finds himself shocked and outraged when he finds the Eloi have allowed what’s left of the human intellectual inheritance to petrify and crumble away as they live happily in the sun eating the bounties provided to them without question or heed.

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Wells set out with The Time Machine to disassemble the precious, barely questioned idealism of the high Victorian period, an idealism that had much in common with the 1950s variety—an official faith in the future with a vibrating anxiety over change and threat beneath it all. He took the still fresh and prickly notion of evolution, whose great proponent, Julian Huxley, had been one of Wells’ teachers, and applied it mirthlessly to the satirical idea that if allowed to continue, the stratification of society would eventually lead to two entirely different posthuman species, the Eloi, descendants of a leisure class, and the Morlocks, subterranean workers who, in a twist of brute sarcasm, have become farmers treating the Eloi as free-range cattle and living on their flesh. Pal and Duncan tweaked this concept to look squarely at the idea not just as a permutation of Victorian labour relations, but also as a distant echo of life in the 20th century: the Morlocks round up their flocks of Eloi by blasting out the sounds of air raid sirens that draw the Eloi underground. The Eloi have essentially become children, afraid of the dark and blithe about what supports their lifestyle, but George’s arrival quickly coaxes deeper reflexes from Weena. She braves the terrors of the night to warn him about the Morlocks as he searches for his machine, which he finds has been dragged within the Sphinx. George and Weena spend a night hunkered before a fire after one of the Morlocks has attacked her, but fortunately, the monsters prove vulnerable to bright light and a good right hook.

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The Time Machine treads campy territory in trying to present the Eloi like a mob of listless, young Hollywood ingénues and beach bums (that Mimieux also starred in the same year’s Where the Boys Are amplifies the association), whilst also interestingly prescient on the oncoming age of the counterculture and its history-reboot philosophy, a movement which had much in common with the onset of many similar ideas in the Victorian age that Wells himself often espoused. There is stinging power in the moment when George, led to a collection of books kept by the Eloi by one of their number, realises the Eloi have let their cultural inheritance decay and literally turn to dust, and the previously idealistic and forward-looking savant is appalled and disillusioned to a crushing degree: “At least I can die amongst men!” he bellows in offense before abandoning his attempts to plumb the Eloi culture, because there is none. It’s also hard to deny that on at least one level, the film devolves into a Boy’s Own tale of two-fisted adventure and revolt as George proves the threat of the Morlocks is only as strong as they’re allowed to be. But the future sequences of the film have a similar mood of stripped-down mythos that would later sustain definitive genre TV works like Star Trek and early Doctor Who. In this regard and more, The Time Machine feels like a vital transitional moment in scifi cinema, mediating the chitinous forms of ’50s scifi and the brand that would dominate for the next 15 years or so in English-language scifi filmmaking—looking more closely at human society, its past and present, through the prisms of parable.

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The soul-searching that often bubbled as subtext in ‘50s scifi films here hatches and becomes overt, contemplating the modern inheritance both as one of wonder, but also cringing fear of what terrors it had conjured. The Eloi living space has the quality of being at once futuristic and distantly mythical. The drama turns inward as it contemplates humanity’s fate with an early intimation of the idea of dystopia, a substrata of the genre that’s still powerful, often playing out in extrapolated versions of high modernist architectural environs and evoking common pasts as decayed and neglected memories, and plied with a dusting of fable as here, including the likes of THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974), Rollerball (1975), and Logan’s Run (1976). The headier, questioning aspect of the film seeds many more genre directions, not the least of which was the time travel idea itself, one barely tackled in cinema before this, but which has become an oft-iterated theme in works as diverse as Back to the Future (1985) and Primer (2004). The haunting quality Pal manages to invest in the film continues to recur, especially powerful and poignant in the sequence when Weena leads George to a place where the remains of human civilisation still persist, the voices of men in ages past recorded on spinning rings reporting tales of bleak decline and death; pointedly, both voices heard are Paul Frees, who had loaned his stentorian tones to War of the Worlds as the definitive voice of futurism, now reporting as the ghost of ages lost in a sublime distillation of the scifi creed in a totemic moment: “My name is no consequence. The important thing you should know is that I am the last who remembers when each of us, man and woman, made his own decision.”

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The lingering shadow of the ’50s monster movie still pervades The Time Machine, as the glowing-eyed Morlocks try to snatch Weena. But Pal still manages to generate a weird and tense atmosphere, as when George witnesses the Eloi responding to the Morlock siren call and then descends into their underground works to rescue Weena and in a gleeful action climax as George battles the cannibalistic, humanoid Morlocks, having discovered the gruesome secret in a room littered with human bones by exploiting their great weakness, their fear of bright light. A particular likeness has long intrigued me about this sequence and the way it connects to Pal’s earlier career and background: Garcia’s music in places sounds awfully reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s score for his famous ballet The Firebird, suggesting Pal might well have taken inspiration from that work and its roots in Slavic and Hungarian mythology, and evoking Pal’s own musical reflexes from his Puppetoon days. Certainly Pal had long been fascinated with the classic battery of fairy tales and had adapted several as shorts. This connection makes perfect sense to me, as the story is essentially the same, with George cast as the pure hero descending into a stygian underground to fight the demons and steal back a captive princess, fending off evil with light, and the time machine itself cast as the firebird, the vessel of transformative power. And as silly as George’s battle with the Morlocks is in a way, it’s still a genuinely gripping sequence with a great physicality, particularly as Pal’s eye is strong here, with the nightmarish image of the Morlocks advancing on their penned-up intended meals. The film’s corniest moment is also a highlight—an effete Eloi mans up and wallops one of the Morlocks in the back as it throttles George, saving his life.

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A few good socks to the jaw and some fiery brands fortunately prove enough to give the Morlocks hell, being as they are used to victims who don’t fight back. George is able to rescue Weena and some of the other Eloi, blowing up part of the underground city, and a new dawn seems at hand. But the Morlocks set a trap for George, luring him into the Sphinx with his time machine and then closing the doors, separating him from Weena and forcing him to fight for his life before he manages to escape in time, first travelling forward, witnessing the gruesome decomposition of a Morlock he killed, a surprisingly graphic and spectacular visual punch for 1960. George finally returns to his own time to keep his date with his friends. His only proof for his story is a flower given to him by Weena, and again he is disbelieved, taken by his friends as an attempt to break into the penny dreadful market. At the last, Filby hears the time machine revving up again after George has dragged it back in from the garden and repositioned it in the laboratory so he can reappear outside the Sphinx before Weena.

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It’s appropriate that the last notes of The Time Machine return to that mood of wistful longing and questioning as Filby is left contemplating his friend’s resolve when he and Mrs. Watchett notice George took three books to the future with him, leaving it up to the audience to divine which three books they were. This provides a lovely little supernal flourish that closes off the film on just the right note, again nudging the fablelike with the tiniest signs of human nature—a flower in Filby’s hand, a space on a bookshelf, the lights switching off in a house whose owner will never return, and a man shuffling off in the snow back to his family—proffered as transcendental totems.

The cast of the film lived long and well. When Rod Taylor and more recently Alan Young died, I could not help but think, “You have all the time in the world.”


20th 05 - 2016 | no comment »

Hercules in the Centre of the Earth, aka Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al Centro della Terra, 1961)

Director: Mario Bava

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By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava is beloved by cineastes as the filmmaker who helped define the modern concept of horror and thriller cinema, as well as the founder of the giallo style that would shape both. But like most Italian directorial talents of the time, including rivals like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, who were not lucky enough to be counted amongst the anointed guard of art filmmakers, Bava dipped a toe in the other genres that were mainstays of the Italian film industry of the day: spaghetti westerns and peplum. Peplum films, a genre more usually known outside Italy as “sword and sandal” (the word “peplum” refers to a type of Greco-Roman toga), told stories based in classical history and sometimes outright mythology, and had been a mainstay of Italian film since early spectacles like Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1913). Thanks in large part to the appeal of imported American champion body builder Steve Reeves, 1957’s Hercules, directed by Pietro Francisci and produced by then-major Italian studio Titanus, proved a huge hit and sparked a general explosion in the genre. The once-parochial brand found an international audience amidst fans of zippy, simple thrills, kids delighting in straightforward action fantasy, weightlifting freaks, and aficionados of campy delights. Once Reeves bowed out of the role, Titanus went through several more beefcake heroes, including Jayne Mansfield’s husband Mickey Hargitay and Leeds-born former Mr. Britain, Reg Park.

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Bava had served as cinematographer and special effects whiz on Francisci’s hit. After years gaining a reputation not just as an expert film technician but also as a sure hand at rescuing film productions, including mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956) and the ambitious peplum drama The Giant of Marathon (1959), Bava finally made his proper directing debut with La Maschera del Demonio (1960). It was only natural that at some point, the new filmmaking star would be hired to handle an entry in the Titanus Hercules series, and Hercules in the Centre of the Earth was it. Bava’s forays into the western mode are generally considered his weakest work, but his historical action films are defiantly oddball and striking, in part because he displayed a propensity for mixing genres. On Hercules in the Centre of the Earth he injected a powerful strain of his gothic horror style, and later, in the face of stringent circumstances, blended western plot rhythms with a distant historical setting on Knives of the Avenger (1966). Bava, belated as his recognition was, is today seen as particularly important because of his influence on later filmmakers, including John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Ridley Scott, and others. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth is particularly vital in this regard as a nexus for several later cinematic strands. At first glance, Bava’s lush, baroque, eerie sense of style would hardly seem matched with the aesthetics of peplum, usually shot in the sun-dappled climes of Spain replete with oily guys in loin cloths sparring and chariots trundling across the landscape and releasing basso profundo laughter. But with Hercules in the Centre of the Earth, Bava, who shared writing credits with Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi, and Duccio Tessari, created a work that taps into the deepest spirit of the fantastic in spite of his low budget, cramped production, and the regulation tropes of peplum inimical to his dark and anarchic storytelling spirit.

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That brings up an interesting point: what films do actually channel the feeling of mythology best? Most movie fans are used to the grandiosity of spectacular takes on mythology, from The Ten Commandments (1956) to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films and other CGi-riddled recent fare, or the less expensive, but intricately manufactured works of Ray Harryhausen, whose Jason and the Argonauts (1963) shares some of its strongest aspects with Bava’s film. Art movie stalwarts might let their minds drift to the no-less-stylised, but considerably more allusive, purposefully estranged takes of Pasolini on Medea (1969), or Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), films which evoke the often very surreal aspect of mythic storytelling, glimpsed as if through a veil, broken frescoes in glittering fragments rather, if also neglecting their usually strong, orally based narrative values. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth tends closer to the former, and accepts the general rules of the peplum genre, a style generally governed by very strict rules of firm morality and clean-cut heroes. But it also successfully blends a quality of the otherworldly, verging on the hallucinatory, in its evocations of the comic-booklike storytelling essentials of classical heroic myths, to conjure a work that takes place entirely in a cordoned reality.

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The film’s opening sees Hercules meeting up with friend and fellow monster-slaying mythic hero Theseus (George Ardisson) somewhere in the Achaean countryside. Hercules is heading to the city of Hercalia after a legendary journey to see his fiancée, the Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). Theseus, ever the ladies’ man, is too busy making out with Princess Jocasta (Ely Dracò) to notice a gang of hired assassins sneaking up on them, and a wild melee breaks out as Hercules and Theseus fight off the bad guys, climaxing in Hercules picking up a wagon and sending the assassins skittling.

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Hercules continues on his way to Hercalia, but he finds the city beset by famine and pestilence, the populace deeply unhappy and believing the gods have cursed them. Deianira herself seems to be under an evil influence, wandering the corridors of the royal palace in a dissociated stupor murmuring Shakespearean odes to Hercules, whom she can’t recognise and instead believes drowned at sea. What Hercules doesn’t know is that Deianira’s uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee), serving as regent during her illness, is actually a black magician who has made a pact with the dark pagan gods which used to reign in the region. He also hired the defeated band of assassins. One of them reports their failure to Lico but still demands to be paid. Lico seems happy to do so, only to lure the unfortunate goon into a trap that guards his treasure horde, causing hidden spears to spring out and impale the would-be killer like a pin cushion and leaving him dangling in gruesome rictus. This kind of clever-nasty gimmick harks back to silent serials and anticipates the flavour of the James Bond films, although that series was still a year away.

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Lico’s evil designs are made apparent to the viewer, although Hercules remains oblivious to them for a long time to come. Lico keeps the mesmerised Deianira installed in a sarcophagus in the labyrinth below the palace, intending for her to join the populace of zombielike ghouls already sleeping there. Bava here nods to Nosferatu (1922) as Lico calls Deianira to life, and she stands up from the sarcophagus stiff as a board, and then moves toward the camera in an eerie glide, a flourish Bava would later recycle for a more famous variation in I Tre Volti della Paura (1963). Hercules is warned about the evil befalling the land by Chamberlain Keros (Mino Doro) and decides to speak to the Oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) and delve into the mystery. Medea consults in a stylised chamber of glittering Grecian decor and saturated colours, and delivers her prophecies in a carefully stylised blend of recitation and dance, face hidden by an Eastern-style mask. She warns Hercules that Deianira is under the influence of powerful, baleful forces, and that he must pay a heavy toll if he wants to proceed with any attempt to save her. He volunteers to Zeus to give up his immortality, and once it seems this offering it is accepted by a crack of thunder, the Oracle tells Hercules the only way to break the spell upon his intended is to venture into the realm of Hades and retrieve a totemic stone kept there which can ward off the evil spirits. This mission means penetrating the immutable veil between the living and the dead, and the only way to do that is to sail to the Garden of the Hesperides and fetch a totemic golden apple growing in the branches of a colossal, black tree.

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Park was having his second turn as Hercules here. It’s hard to assess his performing skills as he was dubbed first into Italian and then with an American voice in the English-language version (as was costar Lee, amusingly), and many dismissed him as a big lunk in comparison to Reeves. But I find him a strong screen presence, armed with suggestions of delicate humour (as when he picks up one character between two fingers and moves him aside ever so gently), dashes of romanticism (as when he’s reunited with Deianira), and good humour with his fellow actors, even if his job is mostly to stand around showing his pecs, each about the size of Jerry Lewis. Bava’s gifts for employing colour and composition to create a dense, enfolding atmosphere, the essence of his art as a maker of horror films, gives Hercules in the Centre of the Earth a weird and oneiric quality that distinguishes it from a lot of fantasy cinema, particularly of the time, and steers it very close to Bava’s more familiar genre stomping grounds. This approach suits a storyline erected as a pretext to explore the mystical, incantatory corners of ancient Greek mythology, improvising freely on some of its essential themes whilst also checking off some of Hercules’ less well-known labours, particularly his hunt for the golden apple. Most peplum films minimised the fantastical, emphasising instead muscle, brains, and guts as the essentials tools for forging civilisation.

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The darker side of the source legends, in which Hercules was frequently beset by curses and maladies and his own chaotic nature, underline the prototypical hero as an essentially ordinary man striving to do good and blessed with great natural attributes, but under the sway of malignant forces that serve as metaphors for the pressures that befall all people, trapped eternally between a presumed divine nature and the chaotic impulses of existence and fate. Peplum heroes were rarely so complicated. Bava’s film exemplifies peplum as a genre on some levels, particularly in the emphasis on legitimate and illegitimate governments, with Hercules presented as the embodiment of right as might, an unquestionably decent and gutsy individual blessed with an outsized strength inseparable from his moral compass. I’ve often wondered if peplum’s obsession with this narrative pattern reflected Italy’s postwar identity crisis as much as any Antonioni alienation fest, with Hercules, Maciste, Ursus and manifold other hunky heroes all posited as wandering, selfless fighters for the oppressed and dispossessed, and combaters of corrupt regimes. They were stringent antitheses to the trend toward antiheroes that would start in the next few years and that still permeate pop culture. Bava maintains the series pattern in making Hercules a simple, good-natured man, but critiques it noticeably as Hercules’ trusting nature blinds him to Lico’s evil, obvious to the audience, just because of who’s playing him, and uses Theseus instead as a figure who invokes wayward impulses and ultimately self-consuming emotional impulses. His womanising at the start is mere frivolous fun, but eventually causes other people great evil when he steals Persephone (Ida Galli) away from Hades.

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The journey to the underworld sees Hercules returning to enlist Theseus’s aid, with the intention of commandeering a “magic” ship built by Sunis (Aldo Pedinotti), the only craft that can stand a chance of traversing the sea and reaching Hades. They’re joined by Telemachus (Franco Giacobini), an inept princeling engaged to Jocasta who came looking for her and, confronted by Theseus as a rival suitor, became friends with him instead. (The character’s name is taken from Odysseus’ son, but like several other characters here, only seems to have been named for general mythical association.) Telemachus volunteers to convince Sunis to give them his ship, but instead he finishes up almost drawn and quartered because Sunis wants to punish him for seducing his wife. Hercules intervenes and save Telemachus, and they take the ship whilst Sunis chases after him. On the mystic sea, the ship is assailed by storms, swirling clouds above, and schisms opening in the water, sweeping the ship and its crew onto the shores of the Hesperides. This is a place of perpetual night at the fringe of the underworld, and the Hesperides nymphs are held in check by dark powers, doomed to deliver up anyone who comes to them to the monstrous denizen of Hades’ gateway, Procrustes. Whilst Hercules as a son of Zeus is untouchable, the nymphs send Theseus and Telemachus to sleep in a chamber that serves as the lobby of Hades, where Procrustes lurks.

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An implicit faith of peplum films is that few problems can’t be solved by throwing heavy objects around, and that’s still true here, although Bava emphasises how Hercules uses his strength in conjunction with intelligence. Defeated by the height of the tree on which the golden apple hangs and the furious divine storm that shakes it, Hercules instead makes a giant slingshot with a boulder and uses it to dislodge the apple. Hercules’ success breaks the spell forcing the Hesperides to enact Hades’ will, and their leader, Arethusa (Marisa Belli), warns Hercules he has to save his friends from the monster. The mythic Procrustes was a villainous son of Poseidon whom Theseus defeated; here he’s a demonic figure made of solid rock, impervious to Theseus’s sword blows. But Bava stays true to the gleefully nasty modus operandi of the mythical villain, with Theseus and Telemachus tied down on two beds, one too long and the other two short, with Procrustes intending to fit each to the bed by appropriately brutal means. Bava’s Procrustes, a lumbering but unstoppable creature, is a creation charged with peculiar creepiness, perhaps because of its odd, robotic-sounding voice as well as the sadistic simplicity of its intentions.

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An interesting note sounds here, in spite of the sequence’s brevity, for fans of Bava and horror cinema in general. Bava takes on a purely symbolic brand of evil in a film that captures the aura of Greek mythology as a realm where the entire apparatus of narrative is psychological and symbolic. As Leone would in his westerns, Bava introduced this blank, atavistic sense of dramatic function sourced in myth to his following horror films, helping to give birth to the image of the masked, implacable, infernally motivated alien threat that would drive the slasher film. What is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) if not a much longer version of this same scene, down to the motifs of betrayed hospitality and the weird logic of a certain brand of cruelty? Fortunately, Hercules arrives before it can damage his friends lastingly, and with his aforementioned talent for hefting boulders around, Hercules grasps that Procrustes can be broken against other stone. He hurls the monster against a cave wall, smashing his body to rubble and breaking open the last barrier to entering Hades. After sending Telemachus to guard the ship and the golden apple, once in the underworld, Hercules and Theseus contend with illusory guardians and threats.

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Hercules in the Center of the Earth was Bava’s first colour feature for which he was the unquestioned creative agent, making his instant mastery of deploying it all the more striking. Bava’s eye provides a constant stream of visual delights after Hercules and company set sail: the towering, shaking black trees of the Garden and Arethusa appearing out of ether, the surging, lysergic hues of the clouds as the ship is buffeted by a storm, the glittering tones of Procrustes’ abode, the surreal textures of Tartarus, the surveys of swooning Ruffo, all touched with hints of psychedelia several years before its official arrival as well as the dust of fairytale mystique. Hercules and Theseus’ adventures in the underworld meanwhile look forward to Indiana Jones’ ventures into caves of mystery and danger, with the added threat of illusion and supernatural forces. They negotiate seas of flame and boiling mud to reach the living stone, and slash their way through entangling tree roots that release grotesque screams and wails, which, they realise in a ghoulish flourish, emanate from the souls of the damned trapped in the roots. So often Bava would prove obsessed with damned people clinging onto places and existence, their dark dreams and desires never fulfilled but also never escapable, whilst Greek myth insisted on moral order enforced by overtly totemic, ironic means. These ideas converge here with particularly unsettling import, especially in the truly surreal image of the bleeding vines. Hercules uses some of these to make a rope to cross the last chasm before the resting place of the icon, but Theseus falls into the seething matter below and Hercules thinks him dead.

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Theseus is, however, rescued by Persephone (Ida Galli), daughter of Hades, who falls for him instantly and lets him take her out of the underworld. Hercules braves physical agony retrieving the living stone, and he meets up with Theseus and Telemachus on the way out. Theseus keeps Persephone hidden from his friends and obeys her advice to throw the golden apple overboard to the smooth angry waters on their way out of the magical realms. This act saves their lives, and they manage to reach Hercalia, where Hercules uses the stone to awaken Deianira from her trance. But a new sickness begins to grip the city at large, and when Hercules consults Medea, again she tells him Hades has cursed the city because Theseus is sheltering Persephone there. Theseus has become so obsessed with his new lover that the clashing demands on him become maddeningly self-consuming to the point where, unable to renounce her, he instead starts goading Hercules into killing him. This makes for a very Bava plot motif, desire and obsession as forces that defy all limits of mortality and nature, and it can only be reconciled when Persephone chooses to leave for all their sakes. She takes the living stone back to the underworld, but not before telling Hercules who’s responsible for the threat to Deianira and that Lico plans to sacrifice her during a lunar eclipse to gain eternal life and control over the land.

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Bava’s flow of visual invention continues even in the relative normality of the palace, which becomes an eerie and insidious place out of silent films, where murder happens in the halls and walls split open revealing secret passages, and builds the memorable image of Deianira glimpsing Lico’s face reflected in a pool of blood leaking from the throat of her slaughtered handmaiden. The finale lets Bava slip his nightmarish imagery and shift fully into horror movie territory, as Hercules chases Lico into the underground labyrinth littered with statues of arcane eastern gods and then up to a pagan stone circle on the hill above Hercalia where he intends to stage his sacrifice of the princess. Lico releases his force of enslaved, flying zombies to hold off Hercules, and in a spellbinding sequence that counts amongst the purest of Bava’s vignettes of gothic style, the lids of sarcophagi shudder and lift, gnarled hands reach out swathed in cobwebs, all painted in Bava’s favourite clashing lighting patterns, drenching reds, greens, and blues.

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Fortunately, once more Hercules’ gift for lugging big rocks saves the day, but in a genuinely dramatic fashion, as he rips up the stone circle one monolith at a time and uses them first to pinion Lico and then to fend off the zombies. Finally, the moment of eclipse passes, and Lico, his power broken, bursts into flames whilst his zombies disintegrate. The madcap invention of this climax suggests another nascent genre, crossbreeding action with fantastical motifs that wouldn’t really flower until the 1980s. Hercules and Deianira are safe at last when the end credits roll, even though in the original Hercules myths, Deianira eventually brought about Hercules’ death through magic and sexual jealousy. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth is hardly a perfect film, and enjoying it demands a certain tolerance for the tropes of peplum as a whole and a specific tolerance for Telemachus’ comic relief. But it stands effortlessly tall as a reminder that the essence of the fantastic, even in its grandest fictional corners, can still be captured with imagination and skill without enormous resources.


28th 04 - 2016 | 3 comments »

Point Blank (1967)

Director: John Boorman

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By Roderick Heath

John Boorman, born near the banks of the Thames in Middlesex in 1933, worked his way up to become head of a BBC documentary unit before his 30th birthday. Poised amidst a rising tide of young talents ready to break out of TV work and onto the film scene, Boorman got his chance when offered directorial duties on a film intended as a quick cash-in on the success of the Beatles-starring A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to showcase a rival pop band, the Dave Clark Five. The result, Catch Us If You Can (1965), gained him some attention, but only middling success. Boorman’s career took a hard swerve towards becoming a major Hollywood filmmaker when he encountered Lee Marvin. The towering, famously wild-living, but covertly intelligent and cultured actor was in London shooting The Dirty Dozen (1967). In spite of their diverse origins and experiences, the two men found themselves in close accord, and eventually decided to adapt writer Donald Westlake’s novel The Hunter as their first collaboration. They chose that property because both Marvin and Boorman liked its main character, Parker, who had featured in a string of Westlake’s books published under the regular pen name of Richard Stark. Marvin, who had gained serious clout in Hollywood since his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965), declared to Warner Bros. he was handing total control of the project to the sophomore director, presenting both filmmaker and actor a chance to make films completely according to their own instincts. Boorman, who would soon become alternately lauded and derided for his unique, erratic talent, seized the opportunity with both hands. He and Marvin would make two films together, both charged with Boorman’s eccentric vision and Marvin’s desire to explore his own complex and troubled psyche.

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Like his debut, Point Blank again only gained Boorman good reviews and tolerable box office, but it was destined to slowly emerge as the rock-steady base of his reputation amongst cinephiles and an archetype and benchmark for the cinematic adventurousness of the period, all the more interesting and rich for being matched to genre storytelling. In Boorman’s hands, the script, credited to Alexander Jacobs and David and Rafe Newhouse, was transformed into a fractured and hallucinatory experience, the filmmaking’s experimental bent meshing perfectly with a tale exploring mean justice, wintry love, and mysterious politicking. Above and beyond this, Point Blank reveals the director’s fascination with characters on journeys laden with mystical, even mythical overtones, already mooted in jokey fashion on Catch Us If You Can, emerging more fully in a context seemingly far removed from the remote and primal stages of Boorman’s later works like Hell in the Pacific (1968), Deliverance (1972), or The Emerald Forest (1984).

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The genre is film noir, the settings the chitinous environs of 1967 California, where the cyclopean vaults of highways and sweltering reaches of concrete and tar wear occasional flourishes of counterculture colour but more often lurk under the garish hieroglyphs of advertising, and homes have become blank, entrapping boxes of glass and brick. Boorman’s vision of this New World shore, like Richard Lester’s in Petulia (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s on Zabriskie Point (1970), is both dazzled and estranged, surveying vast stretches of prefab housing and modernist infrastructure like cities on the moon. But the overall tone of the film is oneiric, taking as both its key setting and stylistic gambit the environs of Alcatraz Prison, where blocks of rude geometry and twisting, gothic aesthetics are strangely mated, a dank dream heart for Boorman’s American nightmare to well from.

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Marvin plays Walker, a derivation of Parker, renamed for the film with a specific evocation of the man’s relentless movement, as well as to give him a subtle but definite distinctness from Westlake’s creation. He is first glimpsed awakening in the shadowy recesses of an Alcatraz prison cell, trying to remember how he got there. The opening credits come less in the traditional bracketing manner than wound into the film’s discombobulated texture, abstracted against the prison’s metal and stonework whilst the film captures Walker in the act of escaping in spite of terrible wounds, but not in motion, shot like tableaux vivants. The stuttering motion resembles film winding up towards proper speed, and Walker’s spiritual life is tethered to the texture of Boorman’s filmmaking. Slowly, in a skittering flow of images that eventually coalesce into something like traditional scenes, Walker’s memory returns, and with it Point Blank comes together from a miasma into something like a movie.

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Walker recalls his friend Mal Reese (John Vernon), who came begging him for succour in the midst of a frenetic, boozy party: so desperate was Reese that he socked the drunken, garrulous, distracted Walker, knocking him to the floor, and climbed down to shake the dazed man and plead for attention down amongst the jostling feet of the crowd. Reese, a criminal in big with a crime group referred to only as the Organization, has screwed up badly, and the only way he can make up a debt he’s incurred is to rob a mysterious transaction that takes place regularly on Alcatraz during which a helicopter arrives to pick up a load of something in exchange for a big haul of cash. Walker, an old pal of Reese’s, agreed to aid in the plot, but soon Reese, ready to push things to the limit, guns down the two bagmen at the Alcatraz drop-off. This job turned near-fatal for Walker because of two ominously conjoined elements: his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker), third partner in the robbery, was also having an affair with Reese, who realised that the split loot couldn’t cover his debt. So his solution was obvious—he gunned Walker down. Walker is glimpsed during the credits slowly and agonisingly making his way out of the prison and tackling the dangerous swim to the San Francisco shore.

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Boorman cuts to a year later when Walker, recovered, fit, with a cold, hollowed-out glow in his eyes, rides a tourist ferry to the island and converses with an enigmatic man (Keenan Wynn) who seems set on helping Walker exact revenge on Lynne and Reese, who bought his way back into favour and stature in the Organization with the proceeds of the heist, and gives Walker Lynne’s current address, a house high above L.A. Walker zeroes in on Lynne, an approach of fate she senses psychically, not empirically. She prepares like a pharaoh awaiting the angel of death, glimpsed dressing, making up, getting her hair done, all in static, entrapping frames replete with lenses and mirrors, whilst the image (and sound) of Walker on the march through the alien spaces of airports becomes a rhythm of menace and approaching reckoning. Walker thunders into her house and fires his gun into Lynne’s bed on the assumption Reese is in it, but all his bullets do is make smoking holes in the empty mattress, his load shot off impotently.

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Marvin had the inspiration on set to leave out all his own dialogue in the scene that follows, as Lynne robotically explains her own sad and sorry lot since his shooting of being used and discarded by Reese, whilst Walker sits in silent boding, emotions unreadable. Lynne sounds like someone whose nerve and sense of self has been worn out by guilt, still attached to her husband on a psychic level and able to answer his unspoken questions. This shot goes on forever, Boorman turning the frame into a merciless trap that Lynne can only escape through self-destruction. Her explanation, illustrated in more of Boorman’s jagged, contrapuntal flashbacks, depicts her relationship with Walker and Reese with sublime economy: Walker and Lynne’s first meeting (“It was raining…”) a romantic vignette with the younger Walker cockily charming Lynne as she dances about him and a gang of fishermen look; Walker’s reunion with Reese and the burgeoning of his, Lynne, and Reese’s friendship into something like an unspoken ménage-a-trois.

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Walker goes to sleep on her couch and sees his own actions replayed in languorous, analytical slow motion—the strange dance Lynne performed as he burst into the room and silenced her charged with a savage brand of intimacy; the jarring recoil of firing his gun depicted as a self-enervating force emphasised by Marvin’s physical acting, and followed by a dreamy shot of him emptying spent cartridges from his gun like he’s wasted his most vital seed. He awakens and finds Lynne has killed herself with an overdose, her body splayed like a forlorn husk on the sheets of her chic bed. Walker stumbles into her bathroom in a daze and accidentally knocks some of her perfumes and cosmetics into the sink, and stares dazedly into the stuff pooling there, the muck left behind by Lynne’s collapse, all the makings of her beautified façade now a psychedelic stew. Wynn’s mystery man, Walker sees, hovers outside, waiting for the conclusion of this first act in a campaign directed at the Organization.

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Westlake’s Parker was the definition of antihero, a cool, remorseless, virtually amoral career thief whose purpose was to buy himself extended periods of rest at the price of occasional forays into danger and crime in a world defined less by familiar morality than varieties of criminal enterprise. Boorman and Marvin’s Walker is just as hard-bitten and enigmatic, but emerges in the course of the film as a bundle of contradictions. Gifted in violence and detached from both its infliction and reception, he could be ancestor of such later hulking, remorseless bogeymen of screen lore as Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers or the titular cyborg of The Terminator (1984) when he sees his goal and marches after it with chilly focus. But Marvin, with that scooping nose like a cocked police special and sledgehammer chin poised with grim intent and eyes swivelling slyly under heavy lids, emphasises Walker’s strangely passive, almost bewildered state when he doesn’t have a clear goal in mind or given to him. He’s clearly well removed from the world of organized crime except when pressed by a real motivation, and he even seems rather boyish in glimpses of his younger self flirting with Lynne and when he’s drunk as Reese comes to him for help. There are hints Walker and Reese were once army buddies. Walker’s actual aim isn’t specifically revenge but to get his money, and he seems bewildered when one of his prey doesn’t believe this is his only motive. Hilariously, the sum he’s after is both too big and too small to be easily pried out of the Organization, which represents the criminal enterprise transformed into a modern big business, its fiscal layout all sublimely contained within ledgers.

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Walker buries Lynne in a cemetery perched on a hilltop above suburbs unfolding like lunar colonisation projects where it feels like even the intimacy of burial has become an instant consumer experience. Still with Wynn directing his efforts, Walker starts after Reese, following a breadcrumb trail first to Reese’s fellow middle-level members of the Organization, ‘Big John’ Stegman (Michael Strong), who has a day job as a smarmy car salesman. Walker shakes Stegman up by the novel means of luring him out for a test drive in one of his cars and then turning the car itself into a vehicle of torment, driving it wildly and jerkily until Stegman feels like he’s inside a washing machine. Stegman coughs up one vital piece of information: Reese now has designs on Lynne’s sister Chris (Angie Dickinson), who runs a nightclub called The Picture House that the Organization has taken over. Chris is resisting their efforts to exploit it and Reese’s advances with equal determination. Walker goes to the nightclub in search of her, but is met instead by several Organization goons. This sequence, theoretically a minor action scene, becomes another of Boorman’s fiendishly creative filmic arias, using the nightclub with its high psychedelic-era aesthetic. including pop art swathing the walls and a dynamic soul singer (Stu Gardner, who would later write The Cosby Show’s theme) on stage, as a place where underground nudges normality in surrounds deliberately contrived to resemble the cacophonous modern id with its dialogues of zeitgeists and images. This concept inflects the action on a deadly straight plane, as Walker fights off villains in the wings amidst churning movie projections and thundering noise. But it’s also reflected in a slyer, more blackly humorous way at the same time. The singer gets plump, pasty patrons to join him in screeching lyrics, and the screeches give way to a woman’s scream as she sees the sprawl of pummelled, writhing men left in Walker’s wake, whilst Walker himself lurks in a corner, volcanic cauldrons projected on his face.

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Although as a whole original, Point Blank reveals Boorman, like many young directors stretching their legs, referencing and remixing freely. The themes of corruption and cleansing, fate and chance, describe classic film noir territory, merely translated into an unfamiliar aesthetic. Point Blank was the product of a production template that had fashioned Marvin’s earlier collaboration with Dickinson and director Don Siegel, The Killers (1964). The result can be read as a spiritual sequel to Siegel’s work, albeit moving beyond Siegel’s atavistic but entirely immediate sense of human abnormality into a more overtly surreal and interiorised setting. As Boorman himself noted, one of Point Blank’s funniest scenes reverses a moment in Siegel’s film where Marvin roughs up Dickinson’s character—it’s Dickinson thrashing and beating Marvin, though Walker stops bothering to fight her off and instead stands stoic and unblinking, her fiercest blows bouncing off his chest, squinting at her all the time like one of those dinosaurs whose nervous systems don’t register fatal wounds for minutes. Boorman also trod in the footsteps of Sam Fuller’s Underworld USA (1961): Boorman, like Fuller, surveys crime as an extension of big business, the upper echelons of which have become a sterile zone populated not by bruisers and heavies, but rather by canny plotters and managerial sharks into which a man resurging from the realm of the dead crashes like a wrecking ball. Siegel’s harsh surveys of the prefab cubist wonders of postwar Californian landscapes, long prefigured in the likes of The Line-Up (1958), provide some of Boorman’s palette, much as Boorman’s would inflect Siegel’s on Dirty Harry (1971).

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But Boorman’s more radical efforts here reflect the strong imprint of a more fanciful breed of filmmaker, signalling the young director’s overboiling imagination and ambitions to move well beyond the prescribed limits of genre cinema. The jagged, often dizzyingly perched visuals, themes of interchangeable identity and resurrection, and islets of warped eroticism reference Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) as a significant touchstone, particularly apparent in a scene where one character dies falling from a rooftop. Orson Welles’ works surely also loomed in Boorman’s mind, in the obsessively baroque use of shadow and light, the fascination for strange environs and monstrous architecture, interest in power transactions between individuals, and distorted time as both method and motif. The fractured, subjunctive cutting and sound interpolation looks to France and the New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard had actually unofficially adapted one of the Parker novels the year before for Made in U.S.A. (although Godard, with characteristic wit, remade Parker into a lead role for Anna Karina), but Boorman’s approach owed more to Alain Resnais, who had found a way to translate psychological angst and evocation of a tormenting sense of past-in-present into the very texture of filmmaking, with works like Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Muriel (1963). Boorman repurposed his technique for a ghostly survey of the fallout of violence and feeling that seems much less opaque but that becomes, through such manipulation, an equally elusive statement on liminal experience and the slippery nature of character.

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Chris has both great attraction to her sister’s former husband (“The best part of Lynne was you.”) as well as deep internal conflict about it. She’s eventually driven to express that conflict in spectacular fashion, but it’s still not hard for Walker to talk her into helping him when this is added to the balance along with a desire for revenge for Reese’s virtual murder of both Walker and Lynne. Reese has been ordered by his immediate senior in the Organization, Carter (Lloyd Bochner), to hole up in his penthouse apartment under heavy guard in an attempt to bait Walker into an attack. Walker takes the bait, but twists the trap inside out, firstly by using Chris to penetrate the apartment and distract Reese, whilst he creates diversions to distract the guards and enter a neighbouring apartment. Whilst Walker interrogates Reese, he semi-accidentally causes him to stumble back over the railing of his balcony and plunge to the ground far below.

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Boorman’s sense of queasy eroticism crops up constantly throughout the film. Reese’s death comes humiliatingly when he’s naked, after a session in bed with Lynne, who’s actually desperately awaiting Walker to come and get him off her, and falling to his doom leaves his draping towel in Walker’s hand. Later, Boorman mischievously provides a sex scene between Chris and Walker where two men and two women, Walker, Reese, Lynne, Chris, are seen as interchangeable, urged along by seemingly perverse but actually entirely natural urges towards similar ends manifesting in sexual desire, the will to power, the search for an essential state of being. The violence they do to each other becomes the only way their egos can fend off dissolution into one another.

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Boorman would revisit this catalogue of vital motifs in different settings—the city men and rednecks of Deliverance, the immortals and savages in Zardoz, the warring, often magically disguised knights and sorcerers of Excalibur (1981), the dichotomous twins of The Tiger’s Tail (2008). Much like the hunt for the Grail in Excalibur, Walker’s mission has a stated, totemic goal but involves instead an attempt to understand what life is, what it can be, in the face of death. He grazes the edges of such life in Chris’s arms, and their last moments together evoke both their relative anonymity to one another (“What’s my last name?” Chris asks; “What’s my first name?” Walker replies), but also the truth in such bareness, something that also looks forward to the identity-void sexuality of Last Tango in Paris (1972). Simultaneously, thanks to Wynn’s mysterious sensei, Walker is set on the path to ruthless, methodical exposure of the food chain of the quasi-corporate mob, trying to find a beating heart somewhere that he can attack, and discovering, eventually, there isn’t one, only a shifting series of actors whose attempts to grasp the big brass ring set in motion their own downfall. Carter hires a pipe-smoking assassin (James B. Sikking) to take care of Walker and gets Stegman to be the bait, but Walker senses treachery in any meeting arranged by the Organization. He barges into Carter’s office, drags him out, and forces him to be the one who ventures into the assassin’s field of fire.

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This sequence, set in the Los Angeles River, is both a beautiful piece of staging, with Boorman utilising the vistas of the setting and the human architecture of his actors in alternations of grandeur and diminution, and also a vital nexus of references. Boorman locates the same discomfort in the locale Gordon Douglas exploited for scifi-accented ends in Them! (1954), that myth of atom-age horror, whilst the mechanics of the scene reference the similar punishment-by-substitution in a hard classic of noir, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946): the psychic precincts of two disparate genres combined to describe the new age. The assassin does Walker the neat service of killing both Stegman and Carter (in fact, Walker, for all his potent gestures and aura, doesn’t kill anyone in the film), and so Walker has to move another step up the Organization’s food chain to Brewster (Carroll O’Connor), a fatuous executive whose house Walker and Chris occupy at Wynn’s direction. Brewster, arriving in town in a private jet, shrugs off Sikking’s assassin when he wants to be paid for his perfectly executed killing of the wrong target, and instead suggests he go talk to another of the Organization’s bosses, Fairfax, or better yet, kill him, too. Walker is able to capture Brewster once he arrives home, and he nervously, but honestly explains to Walker the basic problem: the Organization barely works with cash anymore. The only option open to him to obtain what he seeks forces him to (nearly) return to the setting that put him on this path, the money drop in San Francisco, which has been shifted from Alcatraz to the Presidio.

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This sequence provides the last, most beguiling, but also inscrutable stage in Walker’s journey, as it proves not to be the culmination of his efforts, but those of Wynn, who is revealed to be the last, hitherto unseen Fairfax. He has engineered the whole business because his underlings were planning to unseat him and has the assassin gun down Brewster to set the seal on the business. Fairfax then call for Walker to come out and take his pay, but Walker remains hovering in the shadows until the assassin emerges, whilst Fairfax becomes increasingly angry, shouting out, “I pay my debts!” But Walker has learnt a lesson, and he retreats into the darkness. Boorman scans Brewster’s dead, splayed body on the bricks of the Presidio, from high above, pulls back and scans the San Francisco vista before zooming in again on Alcatraz, as if closing the loop on a circle.

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Some have seen this shot as proof that Walker died, and that all we’ve seen is simply his dying fantasy turning into desperate existential surrender. But to me, Point Blank is ultimately not reducible to such a literal resolution. What is certain is that Walker, at the end, sees his mission as fruitless, the final prize illusory and doomed to lead him into the same trap he stepped into before. He will remain a ghost haunting the underworld, literally or not. Boorman felt that for Marvin, who had been badly wounded in his gruelling WWII service and carried both physical and figurative scars throughout his life, Walker became the vessel of his angst, and so Point Blank is both an oblique investigation of his experience and its most specific exploration. It’s a statement purely dedicated to exploring that strange state of being, at once dead and alive, cold and loving, perpetually afraid and entirely justified, empty of knowledge and gifted with wisdom.


25th 04 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Yellow Submarine (1968)

Director: George Dunning

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By Roderick Heath

Amidst the relics of the high psychedelic era, Yellow Submarine is one of the most instantly recognisable, a jokey and absurdist adventure tale built around one of pop culture’s singular creative wellsprings, the music and artistic personae of The Beatles. The film has become an iconic work encapsulating the Beatles’ oeuvre and mystique and indeed the era of its making. Any still from the film could be used as an emblem and summation of the psychedelic creed. Ironically, Yellow Submarine was a byproduct of the band’s uninterest in appearing in another film: their contractual obligation to United Artists forced them to develop a new movie project, and they decided producing an animated film through their newly formed recording and production company, Apple, seemed a good way to discharge the obligation. (Later, UA eventually declared they hadn’t met that obligation, requiring them to make the 1970 documentary Let It Be.)

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I was moved to revisit Yellow Submarine in part because of the passing of Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ illustrious producer and facilitator. Martin, as well as helping to create the Beatles songs heard on the film’s soundtrack, also composed the orchestral score that gives the movie some of its gorgeous, jaunty, romantic gloss. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr kept their distance from the project, which was handled by George Dunning, an animator who had a lot of experience working on a playful, animated children’s show about the band that ran during the second half of the ’60s. The film Dunning was assigned was something very different in concept and style, and only when the film was nearing the end of production did the band members realise something marvellous had been created. Nonetheless, their creative lexicon was key to the vision Dunning and his animation team realised, which extrapolates images and ideas from their songs, as well as builds sequences for their music to play over to create a uniquely textured film.

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Considering that animation opens up to filmmakers a form of expression seemingly without limits, most animated features are amazingly conservative, mainly tethered to realistic precepts and slight fantasies meant for kids. If you look at a recent, lauded, smart, but very anodyne kind of animated film, Inside Out (2015), you can see very similar ideas to those in Yellow Submarine, but bound by neat chains of cause and effect in painting the workings of the psyche in total contradiction to the protean delights of the surrealist wellspring both films reference. Yellow Submarine takes its title and core imagery from one of the most deliberately lightweight, yet naggingly catchy tunes Lennon and McCartney ever wrote, a burlesque-cum-tribute to singalong shanties of the Liverpool docklands surely familiar to any son of that port city, given a new paint job in hallucinogenic hues. In Dunning’s film, thanks to a screenplay penned by a small battery of writers, including original story scribe Al Brodax and future Love Story hitmaker Erich Segal, that jaunty number becomes the basis of an oddball, highly unserious take on a Tolkienesque fantasy quest tale. It starts off in a magical kingdom called Pepperland, where free and easy creativity and benign good cheer reign, only to be targeted by an army of nasty creatures called the Blue Meanies who, with their henchmen, want to destroy this last corner of the nonblue universe.

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Pepperland is reminiscent of an Edwardian bohemian fantasia of polite relaxation and gentlemanly recline, where the mayor of the town plays in a string quartet and the champions of the land are a foursome of bardic heroes called, inevitably, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The invasion of the Blue Meanies, led by a chief (voiced by Paul Angelis, who also does voice work for Ringo and George) who declares angrily to his underling, Max, that Blue Meanies never take “yes” for an answer owing to their dedicated negativity. Their invading army includes a huge, flying glove and shock troops who bonk enemies with giant green apples (making sport of the symbol of the Beatles’ own label). Their bombardments petrify the inhabitants of Pepperland. One citizen, Fred (Lance Percival) is an old man (although the mayor is so ancient he calls him “Young Fred”) who wears a sailor suit but has no actual naval knowledge whom the mayor assigns the task of taking the Yellow Submarine, the vehicle that first brought Pepper’s band to the land, out into the world to find help. His search brings him to a street in Liverpool where Ringo, kicking about the streets bored and frustrated, senses he’s being followed and tries to get the attention of a policeman who’s too absorbed in trying to charm a cat. Finally, Ringo heads back to The Pier, the house he shares with the other band members, and Fred pops out of the submarine to make his appeal for aid, recounting the attack and his adventures in a babbling torrent.

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Yellow Submarine blends many of the contradictory imaginative and cultural reflexes that nestled close to the Beatles’ hearts and energised their art—a faith in electrifying vision and a frontierlike sense of art as a vehicle for life, jostling against a wistful nostalgia for half-remembered ages and semi-mythical qualities of bygone days. The first post-credits sequence, built around “Eleanor Rigby,” envisions decaying industrial Britain through the detritus of its own cultural memory, a monochromatic space populated by figures that appear culled from historical photographs, illustrations, and other bricoleur discoveries, with the jutting, grimy chimneys of the city’s rowed terraces suddenly exhaling like ship’s horns. The sequence doesn’t illustrate the song’s tragic narrative, but underscores its evocation of a blasted, lovelorn corner of the world. Spots of colour, like the Union Jack waistcoat on a very British bulldog overlooking the scene, the periscopes of Fred’s lurking submarine, or the butterfly wings jutting from the back of a meditating philosopher, appear as islets of bliss and invention amidst a landscape dominated by characters who try to do things—footballers warming up on a field, a man trying to get out of a phone booth, a motorcyclist with an anarchic swath of regalia on his helmet but tears leaking from his eyes—but whose motions simply loop. Here the artistic influences hew close to the effects of pop art, particularly Warhol’s obsession with silk-screen derivations of photos and utilising collected, pasted-together images. The images coalesce to evoke a kind of dream-memory in the British psyche where it’s always a chill and depressing day in 1931. The air of melancholy stasis and the soul-grinding side of this dream-memory is countered with images of absurdity and florid mind-over-matter invention as Fred follows Ringo home, who immediately turns the sorrow of the song into theatricality as he laments that “compared to my life, Eleanor Rigby’s was a gay mad whirl.”

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The motifs here reproduce those already well established in Richard Lester’s two films featuring the band, depicting the musical foursome as founts of inspiring anarchy in a dreary and clapped-out world. Lester presented a gag in Help! (1965) where the band members arrived at their homes adjoining terrace houses in the midst of Liverpool, only to reveal spacious, conjoined, luxurious environs within. Here Dunning and his animators take that gag a step further and portray the interior of The Pier as a cavernous expanse that blends a Borgesian dream-labyrinth with Looney Tunes gagsmithing; Fred enters the house and disappears through one of hundreds of ranked, identical doors, as behind his back flit fairytale characters, id creatures, and icons out of Dadaist art. The influence of Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show, a radio programme that left a powerful imprint on Lennon and many other British talents of his generation, including the Monty Python squad, is in constant evidence in both the stock characters and the random jokes, including George’s refrain of “It’s all in the mind”.

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Fred manages to interest Ringo in his incomprehensible pleas, and they round up the other members of the band, each of whom is glimpsed retreating in some bubble of their own self-perception in a house littered with psychitecture zones adapted to their personalities. Ringo drives a vintage sports car down a grand art-deco staircase. John (John Clive) is first seen in a room littered with pop culture iconography, managing to be both Frankenstein and his own monster as he lurches off a laboratory table as a stitched-up hulk before swallowing a potion to shock himself back into normal state. George stands atop a psychedelic mountain riddled with portals into other realities, communing with the sky–although he’s also in two places at once, the mystic strains of the sitar ringing out all the while. Paul (Geoff Hughes) emerges from his rooms dressed as a strutting dandy to a round of orgiastic applause.

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The lads quickly agree, in confused fashion, to join Fred in his quest to retake Pepperland, and they depart in the submarine. “Right, then, let’s get this vessel shipshape,” Fred commands happily, to Ringo’s droning dissent, “I kind of like the way it is—submarine-shape.” Their journey to Pepperland is chiefly an excuse to string together a succession of weird places, each of which is associated with a different artistic style and Beatles song. Yellow Submarine is encyclopaedic in the breadth of its references and appropriations, a freeform surge of artistic modes culled from art nouveau, art deco, fauvism, op art, cubism, comic book art and children’s book illustrations. Filmic technique runs from classic animation to rotoscoping (particularly during a sequence of dancing girls matched to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), whilst the submarine’s departure on its journey back to Pepperland is portrayed in a stroboscopic array of photos set to the famous rising, atonal crescendo from the finale of “A Day in the Life.” Through it all runs a streak of comedy that alternates total surrealism and visionary largesse on the visual level—trains racing out of rooms and halted by a slamming door, a colossal monster that sucks in anything in its path through a giant nozzlelike nose, a hole that can be folded up and kept in a pocket for later use—and verbal humour that runs in an opposite vein, replete with throwaway, non sequitur, sarcastic deflations wielded by the Liverpudlian heroes used to negotiate all kinds of bizarre situations and scarcely fazed by time warps, flying neon piranha, and trotting monsters in Wellington boots.

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It’s rather beside the point to critique Yellow Submarine on a narrative level, although the story holds together in its own, specific, shaggy way. The film acts more like a total immersion in a way of seeing the world, inflected by two seemingly opposite terms of reference. It’s both a sophisticated arrangement of artistic modes, metaphors, and mythic motifs that rarely pauses for the slow members of the class to catch up, but also a deft approximation of a childlike sensibility, a place of multitudinous colours, transforming beings, and amorphous possibility seeking joy in the universe, boiling down to a simple message: all you need is love. This suits the band’s peculiar grip on the pop culture zeitgeist at the time, one sustained by their ready ability to shift their official personas slightly to become something different, depending on the angle from which they were viewed: as happy-go-lucky types living something close to a kid’s ideal of what adult life might be like, as counterculture swashbucklers deriving world-shaping ideas from exotic religions and pharmaceutical enhancements, as roguish bon vivants and barely reformed likely lads out of Liverpool with a pleasant line of blarney just out for a good time, or as the moment’s manifestation of an ancient force, the eternal troubadours, bringers of colour and life, with a dash of messianic messaging.

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All of these facets are present in the film, which amplifies a central joke from the famous cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s album, where the Beatles are presented in the guise of the fake band with their own, earlier, canonical selves standing next to them. Here the Beatles are required, once they reach Pepperland, to pretend to be Sgt. Pepper and his band to step into the ancient and foundational role of the land of pure imagination. To get to that pure land, they have to travel through places of fragmented nature, places where strange animals roam, where time becomes a fluid entity, where the usually invisible geometries of scientific law suddenly become manifest, sound and vision can be interchangeable, and even the absence of form itself can be entered and contended with on the way to shaping a world. Along the way, the band members and Fred have to contend with an engine that breaks down, Ringo being carried off on the back of a bizarre animal, an attack by Indians requiring a secret weapon consisting of a fully bedecked cavalry unit to be loosed by the submarine, the great horn-nosed monster sucking everything including itself into a white void known as the Sea of Nothing, and getting caught in a time eddy where the submarine’s crew rapidly age both backwards and forwards and catch sight of themselves on the way around.

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There are strong affinities between Yellow Submarine and the same year’s science fiction treatment of many of the same themes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, sporting adventurers who journey through a dazzling, trippy-coloured acausal portal through different zones of reality, contending with zones of the Einsteinian universe where time breaks down and they’re old and young at once, and are eventually confronted in the void by a singular being who represents the psyche in all its multifarious, ridiculous aspects. Tonally, of course, they’re completely opposed: Kubrick’s deadly serious contemplation of the transcendent urge via a blend of hard tech and soft psychedelia is viewed in the funhouse mirror here, as the other Beatles give smirks and groans of boredom when John starts extemporising on theoretical physics in the midst of a rupturing watercolour world that embodies the elusive freedom of the psyche’s brighter frontier. Meanwhile, during the Sea of Time sequence, Paul leads the lads in a performance of “When I’m 64” whilst they’re sprouting long, white beards, whilst on screen the animators try to illustrate the possibilities inherent in a mere minute of time, counting off the seconds with elaborately illustrated numbers, a jokey version of the same idea presented with a more fearsome and clammy attitude in another film of the same year, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. In the Sea of Science, scored by the draggy, druggy, glittering sounds of “It’s Only a Northern Song,” the film skirts total dissolution into abstraction, where the film’s soundtrack becomes an animated squiggle and our heroes spin around in convoluted geometries.

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In the Sea of Nothing, the submariners encounter a weird being with a hairy, dextrous body and a face like a Commedia dell’arte mask, who calls himself Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD (or “Phud” as Ringo reads it on his business card), engaged furiously in creativity and learning without any apparent purpose. He’s the embodiment of the hapless hero of “Nowhere Man,” which John leads the band in singing, bringing sworls of colour and form to the void as Jeremy weeps in self-recognition. Jeremy nonetheless starts converting book smarts into real-world practice as he fixes the submarine’s troublesome motor, and Ringo, recognising a fellow misfit, invites Jeremy along on the journey. The submariners then enter what John calls “the foothills of the Headlands,” a place filled with colossal, see-through heads alight with thought-images and coated in a fine dusting of pepper, which when disturbed causes all the big giant heads to sneeze and blow our heroes down a deep pit into the Sea of Holes. There, Jeremy is kidnapped by a stray Blue Meanie, but the Beatles manage to find the way out into Pepperland itself and are soon followed by Fred. They’re greeted by a panorama of petrified Pepperlandians, with Blue Meanies constantly patrolling to refreeze anyone who’s waking up. Told by the mayor they have to stir the populace by pretending to be the Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles sneak into a bandstand surrounded by sleeping Meanies, retrieve their instruments and uniforms, and launch a musical assault on the forces of bad vibes.

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Yellow Submarine purposefully resists, after the “Eleanor Rigby” scene, traversing the more perverse and melancholy aspects of the Beatles’ music, or the darker, more toxic strands to psychedelia captured by other bands essaying the form, like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Nice, and King Crimson. Yellow Submarine is dedicated to being a good trip: even Lennon’s biting self-satire in “Nowhere Man” is given a jolly and positive spin. And yet there is a sneaky, almost subliminal aura of strangeness and distance to the whole project, the style of humour and the textures of the visuals charged with an eliding, cheeky, diminuendoish quality, never quite building to obvious punch lines or the kinds of patronising joke-delivery systems and metaphors too much animated cinema, even the wildly praised Pixar films, still offer. There’s potency to the Blue Meanies as adversaries (my mother, who was 20 when the film came out, still can’t abide them), sibilant, fey and ambisexual in just the wrong manner, the ever-so-faint shudder of the molester’s insidious grinning evil to them, and their oppression of Pepperland, which is at once playful and unpleasant. The bonks of the green apples are comic, but some of the images, like a line of their shock troops, grinning evilly behind dark glasses and giving Nazi salutes, like Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove given a pop makeover, have a charge of lunacy behind them.

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Good triumphs, of course, as a few good licks of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “All You Need Is Love” shake Pepperland back to life and empower the citizens to chase out the Blue Meanies. The chief Meanie, after seeing his flying glove and multiheaded guard dog defeated, is rendered utterly helpless and humiliated by Jeremy, who causes flowers to break out all over his furry form. This leads to a climax set to Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” a triumphant procession of the populace of Pepperland, their saviours, and their defeated, yet accepted, enemies celebrating. Here the film pays its last nod to both the kinds of courtly sagas its narrative resembles, but also the final cast call of the musical traditions it extends. The real Beatles finally make a brief appearance right at the end, showing off their souvenirs of the journey and leading the audience in another of their schoolyard, dittylike numbers “All Together Now,” going out with a last blast of the overall, inclusive idealism Yellow Submarine embodies, the refrain of the song spelt out in a dozen languages. Of course, the love trip went sour by the decade’s end, and this kind of wilful naivete went right out of fashion. But Yellow Submarine’s impact, if not its best lesson, has echoed through animated film after it. And in an age of random terrorist attacks and the seeming willingness of far too many people to buy into the politics and philosophy of hate and resentment, watching a film that preaches acceptance, love, and peace without a drop of sarcasm suddenly feels revolutionary again.


5th 02 - 2016 | 10 comments »

Blowup (1966)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni

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By Roderick Heath

Michelangelo Antonioni was a relatively minor figure in the European film scene until 1960. The former economics student and journalist entered that scene in the days of Mussolini’s regime, and started his directing career making documentaries. His early labours offered hues of the oncoming neorealist movement, depicting the lives of poor farmers in Gente del Po (1943), plied under the nose of the dying Fascist state but then lost amidst its collapse. He had the honour of being sacked by Vittorio Mussolini, was drafted, started fighting for the Resistance instead, and barely escaped execution. But when he made his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (1950), Antonioni began to blaze a trail off the neorealist path, following a contrapuntal instinct, a readiness to look into the voids left by other viewpoints, that would come to define his artistry. Although slower to make his name, he nonetheless formed with Federico Fellini the core of the next wave of Italian filmmakers. Antonioni helped write Fellini’s debut film The White Sheik (1951) before he made his second feature, I Vinti (1952), a three-part study of youths pushed into committing killings, a sketch for Antonioni’s recurring fascination with characters who barely know why they do what they do. Antonioni’s sudden ascension to cause celebre and acclaimed director had to wait, however, until his L’Avventura (1960) screened at the Cannes Film Festival. This remains one of the legendary moments in the festival’s history, as the film was met by jeers and anger from some of the audience and greeted as a ground-breaking masterpiece by others. L’Avventura took on a relatively obvious but powerful idea: what if you set up a film as seemingly one kind of story, then changed tack, refused to solve the mystery presented, and used the resulting discord and frustration to infer a different, more allusive meaning?

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Antonioni sold this idea as something like a Hitchcock film without the suspense sequences and reduced to the studies in emotional tension Hitchcock usually purveyed under the cover of such gimmicks, with rigorous filmmaking and an antiseptic approach to his characters’ private obsessions that left them squirming without recourse before his camera. Antonioni was now hailed as the poet laureate of “alienation” cinema, a filmmaking brand digging into the undercurrent of detachment, dissonance, and unfulfillable yearning lurking underneath the theoretically renewed, stable, prosperous world after cleansing fires of war allowed the ascent of modernity. His was the intellectual, continental, Apollonian side to the same phenomenon observed in the more eruptive youth films in the U.S. and Britain like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955); eventually Antonioni would try to unify the strands with Zabriskie Point (1970). Antonioni followed his breakthrough with two films to complete a rough trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), and his first colour film, Il Deserto Rosso (1964). For Blowup, he shifted to London and its burgeoning “swinging” scene. Blowup, like L’Avventura, superficially repeats the gimmick of setting up a story that seems to promise regulation storytelling swerves, and then disassembles its own motor. Blowup’s murder mystery seems designed to point up a cocky young photographer’s defeat by ambiguity and lethargy and the dissolution of his own liminal senses. Or does it? Again, there was a Hitchockian side to this, taking the essence of Rear Window (1954) and its obsessive correlation of voyeurism with filmmaking, whilst inverting its ultimate inference. But Antonioni took his motivating concept from a story by Argentine author Julio Cortazar, “Las babas del diablo,” based around a man’s attempt to understand a scene featuring a pair of lovers and a strange man he spots in the background of photos he takes of Notre Dame.

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Cortazar’s main character became lost in the unreal space between the photo and his own imaginings, projecting his own anxieties and emotional biography onto the people he inadvertently captured, particular his sexual apprehensions. Antonioni skewed this template to serve his own purposes and to reflect the strange new zeitgeist festering as the 1960s matured. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 sent ripples of profound disturbance and paranoia through the common experience. Conspiracy theorists began scouring photographic evidence for evidence to support their claims even before the Zapruder film came fully to light. Antonioni tapped into a percolating obsession, which joined also to a growing mistrust of public media at large, by reconstructing the central motif of Cortazar’s story to become one of apparent murder—perhaps an assassination. But Antonioni had been delving into some other ideas present in Blowup since his career’s start. I Vinti contained one story set in London, depicting a shiftless young poet who discovers a dead body and tries to sell the story to the press: there already was the peculiar ambiguity of approaches to crime and the weird mix of venality and empathy that can inflect the artistic persona. Antonioni seems not to have lost the reportorial instinct honed in his documentary work. Like Dostoyevsky, he took on tabloid newsworthy stories about murder, vanishings, delinquency, and the sex lives of a new class jammed just between the real masters of society and its real workers. He followed such lines of enquiry through the social fabric of his native Italy at first, and then out into the larger world.

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The aura of abstract elusiveness Antonioni’s works give off tends to disguise how much they are, in fact, highly tactile films, defined by an almost preternatural awareness of place, space, and décor, constructing mood and inferring meaning through the accumulation of elements. Where Fellini increasingly celebrated the inner world and the furore of the individual perspective in the face of a strange and disorientating age, Antonioni became more interested in the flux of persona, the breakdown of the modern person’s ability to tell real from false, interior from exterior, even self from other, and had to find ways to explain this phenomenon, one that could only be identified like a black hole by its surroundings. Cortazar’s protagonist, moreover, was a writer who also dabbled in photography. Antonioni made his central character, Thomas (David Hemmings), a professional photographer whom he based on David Bailey, quintessential citizen of Swinging London, an angry Cockney kid who became the image-forger of the new age. Thomas’ sideline in harsh and gritty reportage from the edges of society for a book on the city he’s working on—he’s first glimpsed amongst a group of homeless men he’s spent the night taking clandestine shots of—suggests Antonioni mocking his own early documentaries and efforts at social realism. Thomas has a side genuinely fascinated by the teeming levels of life around him, but in a fashion that subordinates all meaning to his artistic eye and ego. He shifts casually from wayfarer amongst the desperate to swashbuckling haute couture iconographer, engaging with haughty model Veruschka in fully clothed intercourse, and irritably bullying another cadre of models until he gets fed up, projecting his own tiredness and waning interest onto them, and walks out.

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Thomas takes time out with his neighbours, painter Bill (John Castle), and his wife Patricia (Sarah Miles): Thomas takes recourse in Patricia’s wifely-maternal care now and then, whilst Bill stares at his old paintings and explains that he has no thoughts whilst making them and only finds hints of meaning later, a statement that recalls Antonioni’s own confession that he approaches his works less as systematic codes than as flows of epiphanies eventually gathering meaning. Thomas is nakedly on the make, a businessman-artisan who longs for wealth to become totally free. He has designs on making a real estate killing, hoping to buy a mangy antique store in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood (“Already there are queers and poodles in the area!”) from its young owner, who wants to sell up and hit the seeker’s trail to Nepal. Wasting time before the store’s owner returns, Thomas starts clicking snaps in a neighbouring park, eventually becoming fascinated by an apparently idyllic vignette of two lovers sharing the green space. The woman (unnamed on screen, called Jane in the credits, and played by Vanessa Redgrave), who’s much younger than her apparent lover, spots Thomas and chases after him with a frantic, breathless desire to obtain his pictures. Thomas haughtily alternates between telling her he needs them—he immediately sees how to fit them into his London panoramic, as the perfect quiet diminuendo from all the harsher facts on display—and promising their return, but is surprised later on when she actually turns up at his studio. There have been signs that she and an unknown man might have been trailing him around the city, including watching him during his lunch with his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles).

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Thomas’ studio, usually a scene where his will reigns, now becomes a kind of battleground, as Thomas, fascinated by Jane’s manner, at once nervous and uncomfortable but also sensual and self-contained, keeps using promises of the photos to get her to stick around; she, desperate to obtain the pictures, tries using sex appeal to prod him into submission. The two end up merely circling in a toey, searching dance (albeit with Thomas briefly schooling Jane on how to move to Herbie Hancock’s jittery grooves), their actual objectives unstated. Jane’s pushy determination arouses Thomas’ suspicions, so he allows her to finally dart off after trading her scribbled, fake telephone number with a roll of film—a blank roll in place of the one she wants. Thomas then begins studying the pictures of her and her lover in the park. Slowly, with a relentless and monstrous intimation, Thomas begins to see signs that far from being a romantic tryst, he was actually witnessing an intended crime, with Jane acting as the honey trap to bring the man to the scene, whilst her unknown partner lurked in the bushes with a gun. At first, Thomas thinks hopefully that his presence foiled the killing, but on looking even more closely, realises the target had been gunned down whilst he was arguing with Jane, or is at least apparently lying motionless on the ground. “Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out,” Thomas says with glib, but minatory wisdom to Jane, in reply to her cover story about why she wants the pictures. Eruptions of irrational occurrence and suddenly, primal mystery in Antonioni’s films don’t really sort anything out, but they do tend to expose his characters and the very thin ice they tend to walk on.

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Like the punch line to a very strange joke, Blowup became a pop movie hit, mostly because it became prized as a peek into a scene many were fascinated by and fantasised about, and the allure of that moment, captured forever in Antonioni’s frames, now precisely a half-century old, still lingers in exotic fascination for many as time capsule and aesthetic experience. Blowup’s strangeness, implicit sourness, and assaults on filmic convention might even have helped its success, the aura of shocking newness it exuded perfectly in accord with the mutability of the moment. The ironies here are manifold, considering Antonioni’s insinuation that there’s no such thing as the sweet life and that cool is a synonym for wilful ignorance. One could suspect there’s a dash of the dichotomy apparent in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics, plying the allure of behaviour the moral framework condemns. But that would come from too glib a reading of the total work, which, in spite of its stringent evocation of a helpless state, is a lush, strange, attractively alien conjuring trick, a tale that takes place in a carefully cultivated version of reality, as much as any scifi or fantasy film. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) perhaps owed something to its patient, subliminal method and seeming ambling, but actually highly controlled form. Hitchcock himself was transfixed by it. Its spiritual children are manifold, including not just Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola’s revisions on its themes (The Conversation, 1974; Blow Out, 1982) and attempts by later Euro auteurs like Olivier Assayas (demonlover, 2002) and Michael Haneke (Cache, 2004) to tap into the same mood of omnipresent paranoia and destabilised reality, but more overtly fantastical parables like Logan’s Run (1976) where youth has become a total reality, death spectacle, and nature an alien realm, and The Matrix (1999) where the choice between dream and truth is similarly fraught. There was often a scifi quality to Antonioni’s films, with their sickly sense of the landscape’s colonisation by industry and modernist architecture like landing spaceships, the spread of a miasmic mood like radiation poisoning, the open portals in reality into which people disappear.

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Blowup is a work of such airy, heady conceptualism, but it is also ingenious and highly realistic as portraiture, a triumph of describing a type, one that surely lodged a popular archetype of the fashion photographer in most minds. Thomas is a vivid antihero, but not an empathetic one. In fact, he’s a jerk, a high-powered, mercurial talent, a bully and a sexist with hints of class anger lurking behind his on-the-make modernity given to ordering his human chess pieces how he wants them. Hemmings, lean and cool, the fallen Regency poet and the proto-yuppie somehow both contained in his pasty frame, inhabits Thomas completely. When he and Redgrave are photographed shirtless together, there’s a strong erotic note, but also a weird mutual narcissism, as if both are a new species of mutants Antonioni can’t quite understand that will inherit the earth, able to fuck but not reproduce. Thomas seems like a glamorous, go-get-’em holy terror for much of the film, a study in prickish potency and constant motion—perhaps deliberately, he’s reminiscent of Richard Lester’s handling of the Beatles in places, the free-form artists at loose in the city with a slapstick-informed sense of action. But Thomas slows to a dead stop and fades away altogether by the film’s end.

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Space is the subject of a silent war in Blowup. Within his bohemian studio Thomas is king, able to construct a world that responds entirely to his needs. Antonioni uses its environs to create a system of frames within frames, subdividing his characters and their interactions. Thomas’ ambition to annex the antique store represents a desire to expand a kingdom, and he roams through London keen to the process of the homey old city putting on a new face, whilst energetic young students engaged in the charity ritual known as the “rag” dress as mimes and roam at loose, claiming everything as their own. The empty public facility of the park becomes, ironically, a cloistered space to commit a murder. Later, when Thomas returns to the spot, he finds the victim’s body still sprawled, pathetic and undiscovered, upon the greenery. “He was someone,” is all Thomas can bleat at one point as he tells Patricia about the business, indicating both his bewildered lack of knowledge about the man to whom he’s been left as the last witness, and also his forlorn realisation that the man’s death is the mere absence of his being.

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The giant airplane propeller Thomas buys from the antique store delights him, a relic of technology, the promise of movement now purely a decorative motif for his studio. Thomas craves freedom, but has no sense of adventure: “Nepal is all antiques,” he tells the store owner when she says she wants to escape her wares and their mustiness. Thomas’ talent has made him a magnet for wannabes, a fetish object himself in minor celebrity. His curiosity for Jane, with her intensity pointedly contrasts his insouciance towards two would-be models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) who come hoping for a shooting session, but essentially become a pair of temporary houris for the flailing macho artist. The sequence in which Thomas is visited again the two girls, known as only as the Blonde and the Brunette, sees Thomas revealing a scary side as he monsters the Blonde, only for this to quickly transmute into a gleefully childish, orgiastic moment as the three wrestle and fuck on the floor of the studio. Afterwards, the two girls worshipfully put his clothes back on. For them, it’s a graze with success in all its filthy glory and a moment of holy obeisance to the figure of mystical power in the new pop world. For him, it’s a moment of barely noticeable indulgence, a distraction from the far more interesting mystery before him, which in itself stirs a need in him he barely knows exists, like Jane herself. During their long scene together, Thomas pretends a phone call, possibly from Patricia, is from his wife, apparently just to tease Jane. He casually invents a history and a home life that he then completely revises until he’s left in honest limbo. The image of elusive happiness of Jane and the man in the park and the mystery of Jane stirs a wont—and then proves a total illusion, a siren call to annihilation.

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The film’s crucial movement, a high point of cinema technique and style, comes as Thomas investigates his pictures. He zeroes in on anomalies and blurry, seemingly meaningless patches, even the inferences of his “actors”’ body language, and marks out points of interest and uncertainty. He then makes new prints blowing up these spots. Each reframing and zoom is a partial solution to the last puzzle and the start of a new one, until his studio is festooned with what seems an entire story, which Antonioni can now move through like a primitive flipbook protomovie. It’s a miniature film theory class, a lesson in constructing to elucidate a reality that would have otherwise been missed in the clumsy simplicity of human perception. It’s also a journey in transformation, turning the idyllic moment Thomas prized so much into a menacing and terrible opposite, and dragging Thomas himself through alternating states of obsession, pleasure, depression, and finally nullification, the film character invested with the same alternations of emotion and perception as the audience watching him.

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Blowup fades Thomas out before it fades out itself, and his subjects are revealed as even stranger than they seemed: Jane’s frantic attempt to ward him off, the man’s slightly sheepish, slightly haughty disinterest. In both readings of the situation, something shameful is happening. The lurking killer’s posture and shadowiness are reminiscent of Reggie Nalder in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), but the thunder of Hitchcockian climax has been replaced by the shimmering, Zen-touched hiss of the trees. The aesthetic key comes from Bill, an artist working in a purposefully diametric medium, the man trying to make form out of his own strange chaos, even stating, perhaps superfluously, that it’s like tracking a clue in a detective story. The two art forms collide, mingle, reforge. Aesthetic is no longer décor, but challenge, way of being, even a danger.

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What was profoundly disturbing in Antonioni’s moment has become a playful norm. Today, the manipulation and transformation of images, usually for trivial purposes and day-to-day entertainment, is commonplace. YouTube is crammed with ingeniously faked reels of monster sightings. Anyone who’s worked on retouching a picture with Photoshop has been through the experience of Thomas seeing, say, the eye of a beautiful woman turning into a swirling galaxy of colours and then an array of completely abstract cubes. The difficulty of manipulating film, with its complex chemical properties, has given way to the perfectly malleable states of digitisation. The idea that photographic evidence can automatically or even momentarily be granted complete trust is archaic. Cinema verite gave way to reality television. More seriously, huge amounts of time, energy, and bandwidth have been devoted by some to investigating footage of the moon landings and the 9/11 attacks for proof of conspiracy and mendacity, often provoking staggering incredulity over how different people can look at the same thing and interpret it in vastly different ways. Antonioni was looking forward to our time even as he rooted his film in the mood of a particular time and place—the saturation of the image and the charged, near-religious meaning it takes on in spite of being evidently profane. Many in his time saw a Marxism-inflected, Sartre-influenced meaning in his work as diagnoses of the eddying feebleness that descends when political and social motivation are subsumed by a meaninglessly material world. This was almost certainly an aspect of Antonioni’s thinking, though it also feels reductive: like all art, it wouldn’t exist if what it said could be summed up in a pamphlet. The experience itself is vital, the passage its own reality.

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Thomas’ ultimate confrontation is not simply with impotence, but also with the vagaries of experience itself, as all proof of his experience vanishes and with it, assurance it ever happened. Antonioni toys with the idea that revealing the truth is only a matter of looking closely and seriously enough for something, but then undercuts it, suggesting that on a certain level, reality breaks down, or perhaps rather like the sense of matter in subatomic particles, is displaced and transmuted. Thomas becomes half-accidentally the witness to a murder, not just because he sees it, but because his merely human memory is the only repository for it after his photos and negatives are stolen. Once the murder’s done there’s no real purpose to action, something his “he was somebody” line again underscores—the only real spur to intervene in a crime is to prevent it, whereas anything afterwards is only fit for an undertaker. Thomas finds the man’s body in the park, but the drama’s over. He can’t do anything except try to enlist Ron to give independent testimony to his witnessing. Perhaps, far from simply accusing contemporary artists and audiences of ditzy political detachment, Antonioni was most urgently trying to portray his experiences as a filmmaker, his attempts to capture raw and unvarnished truths on film and then seeing that truth dissolve because of the vagaries of life and the medium shift under study. At the same time, Antonioni imposed rigorous aesthetic choices on his creation, going so far as to repaint houses in the streets where shooting took place to communicate interior states through exterior sign play: he had become an imperial creator even as he mocked his own ambitions.

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The famous performance of the Yardbirds towards the end of the film in which Jeff Beck smashes his own guitar is crucial not as a mere indictment of a slide into neon barbarianism many of Antonioni’s generation saw in the rock ’n’ roll age, though that note does sound, but also a summary of Antonioni’s confession. Here is an artist’s anger with his art and his tools, his sense of form and purpose breaking down in the increasingly nettled sense of what to say and how to say it in the face of a modern world slipping away from any coherent design of understanding. The hip audience watch mostly with faces of stone, happy to let the artists act out their feelings, sublimating temptations towards excess, destruction, anarchy. Although Antonioni’s recreation of the mood of the time was the very opposite of the florid unruliness we associate with the era’s cultural scene, there’s definite sense and accuracy to his portrait, his understanding of the underlying psychic transaction. This scene converts the film’s larger experience into a jagged epigram.

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Thomas needs and uses the mystery he uncovers to shock himself out of a stupor, only to find it doesn’t transcend his situation, only exemplifies it. The film’s last few reels turn into a dumbstruck odyssey for Thomas as he seeks Ron to take him to see the dead body, but is distracted by seeing someone he thinks is Jane enter a mod concert venue. He ventures into the concert looking for Jane, whose brief seeming appearance and then disappearance is one of Antonioni’s finest sleights of hand, and comes out instead with the guitar’s neck as a battle trophy, like the two models with him earlier, for the attention of the famous, only to toss the trophy away, its momentary totemic power spent. He then tracks Ron to a posh party where everyone’s doped to the gills and can barely lift a finger in response to Thomas’ news.

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Some complained at the time that Antonioni’s tendency to find the same qualities in the countercultural youth and bohemians he studied in Blowup and Zabriskie Point as he did in the tepid bourgeoisie of Rome was wrongheaded and phony. But time eventually proved him right in many ways. There’s a cold, mordant honesty to the sequence in which Thomas sits watching a bunch of bohemian toffs getting high, the new lotus eaters buying out of a reality they’ve barely glimpsed anyway, faintly anticipatory of Kubrick’s historical wigs with people underneath in Barry Lyndon (1975), glimpsed in Restoration artlike friezes, and grindingly familiar to anyone who’s been surrounded by very stoned people at a party. Thomas’ resolve dissolves amongst their uninterest and his own exhaustion. He awakens the next morning, restored but now with the grip on his fever dream lost.

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The closing scenes provide a coda much like the one Thomas wanted for his book: perhaps he’s projected himself after all into the zone of his fantasies, a state of hushed and wistful melancholy. Thomas finds the body gone. The drama he happened upon has now dissipated, replaced by the gang of students who have been crisscrossing his path since the start, making up their own realities. Tellingly, these characters are the only ones who have ever made Thomas smile. Thomas finally finds solace, or something, joining in, to the point where the sounds of a real tennis match start to resound on the soundtrack to accompany the fake one the mimes are playing. It’s easy to read this as the final collapse of Thomas’ sense of reality, but it’s also the first time he simply stands and experiences without his camera, his interior reality allowed scope to breathe. Perhaps what we’ve witnessed is not the defeat of the artist but rather a rebirth.


29th 01 - 2016 | no comment »

Wings (крылья, 1966)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Larisa Shepitko

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“War is hell” is a truism for most people, as it should be, but the fact that large numbers of people continue to wage war and fight shows that a lot of people have a lot more complicated, even positive relationship with it. Such films as The Hurt Locker (2008), American Sniper (2014), and even The Third Man (1949) suggest that for some, war offers purpose, thrills, and profits that no other experience in life has or possibly ever will. The excitement and romance of serving one’s country in combat is at the core of Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko’s Wings, a film that offers a unique perspective on the familiar subject of the “old soldier,” as well as a telling commentary on Soviet life, by focusing on a female fighter pilot whose glory days are long behind her.

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Nadezhda “Nadya” Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova), a decorated veteran of World War II, is a school superintendent and civic leader in her provincial town. She faces the usual difficulties of Soviet bureaucrats of the time—her shoddily built school is crumbling, her small staff works overtime to make repairs and manage the day-to-day running of the school, and her students are undisciplined and insolent in the face of authority. During a gathering at which she is to accept an award for the school, some teasing between a male and female student gets out of hand, and the boy shoves the girl hard against a post. An outraged Nadya, her moment in the sun ruined, demands that the boy apologize in front of her guests and his peers. When he refuses, she expels him.

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This incident is only the first of several in which Nadya must confront the breakdown of the values she holds dear and the respect she once commanded. Nadya, who never married, has an adopted daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova), who has grown distant from her. She learns after the fact that Tanya has married her college professor, Igor (Vladimir Gorelov), an older man Nadya has never met. Hurt that she was not consulted nor invited to the wedding, Nadya invites herself over to the newlyweds’ apartment while the couple is entertaining a gathering of Igor’s male colleagues. She listens to the men talk, pinpoints the philosopher of the group as Igor, and goes over to shake his hand. She has guessed wrong, and fumbles awkwardly as Tanya introduces her to Igor.

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Despite her very contained and defined look—a severe haircut, close-fitting suits, and buttoned-up blouses—Nadya is a woman who doesn’t seem to know where she fits anymore. Shepitko emphasizes the irony of her situation in her opening shots: a close-up view of a tape measure moving quickly around a body as a tailor records the dimensions of a person who turns out to be Nadya. She adopted a girl instead of a boy because she thought mothers and daughters become closer, yet this plan hasn’t worked out at all. She commanded respect as a flyer, yet now her students draw unflattering pictures of her on their chalkboard and tell her to her face that they despise her. She is refused entry into a restaurant because it doesn’t seat unescorted women, and is sent next door to a tavern mainly populated by men and treated like one of the boys. She visits a museum that has an exhibit honoring Soviet fighter pilots and finds her picture in the collection—she is quite literally a museum piece, her previous life as dead as the bones her curator and would-be boyfriend collects.

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Her longing to break free asserts itself frequently throughout the film. As we all do at moments of stress, disappointment, or boredom, Nadya escapes into daydreams. She imagines an open sky around her, the sun peeking through clouds, as Shepitko’s camera dips and tilts from inside Nadya’s thoughts. During a sojourn to a riverside beach, Nadya watches planes glide through the sky doing barrel rolls and finds herself traveling to the nearby airfield where one of her former comrades is training these pilots. The two reminisce and talk about getting the gang together for dinner and drinks, though they and we know this gathering will never happen. Too much time and life have passed. Nadya has only her memories now, including one of the man (Evgeniy Evstigneev) she would have married had his plane not crashed, and her duty. As she tells Tanya, “I never even knew such words as these: ‘Let someone else do it.’”

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Shepitko’s eye and ear for detail are admirable. Nadya asks the curator if anyone has brought him a samovar for his collection, referring to an outmoded teapot she no doubt used in her younger days in sarcastic reference to her own age. Shepitko shoots a close-up of a high heel sinking into the school’s cheap floor, turned to putty by a pervasive dampness. She very effective isolates the charged look between Nadya and the student she expelled at the crowded tavern and catches the paralyzed look of the curator when Nadya abruptly asks him to marry her. Shepitko honors the solidarity of women of a certain age when Nadya and a restaurant owner bond over a cup of coffee and dance joyfully together in a spontaneous burst of energy. That energy extends to the final, inevitable scene where Nadya may or may not have found herself again. The open-ended shot of a patch of sky ends Wings on an ambiguous note.

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Shepitko was a student of Alexander Dovzhenko, one of the most important early Russian filmmakers and a pioneer of montage theory. She died in a car crash in 1979 with only a handful of credits to her name, though her final feature film, The Ascent (1977), made her international reputation by winning the top prize at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival. However, it’s easy to see from Wings that Shepitko was on an upward trajectory that would have lasted for years had she lived. Her able direction of both the camera of Igor Slabnevich and her actors, especially the many shades she elicits from Bulgakova and the pointed portrayals of her supporting cast, mark her as a particular talent steeped in a film tradition not even Soviet control could contain.


23rd 08 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958) / Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

Director: Terence Fisher

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By Roderick Heath

Christopher Lee, son of an English soldier and an Anglo-Italian countess who had been an artist’s model, had aristocratic roots that could be traced back to Charlemagne. Born in London, he grew with a diverse education and a swathe of languages at his command, a scion both of imperial England’s waning bastions and Europe’s rapidly fragmenting identities. His gifts and experiences would serve Lee well in life, after his step-father’s bankruptcy and the coming of World War II. His service in the war was shrouded in legend ever after, and some have suggested his step-cousin Ian Fleming based James Bond partly on him. After a suggestion by another cousin, an Italian ambassador, Lee decided to try acting after the war. Lee was marked as a potential star and put through Rank’s “charm school” training, perhaps to mint another dashing screen roué like James Mason or Stewart Granger or to put his fencing talents to work in swashbucklers.

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Lee, however, struggled for a long time to find his place in the cinematic scheme of things. Something about him didn’t quite fit—perhaps he had too much premature gravitas, too little untroubled charm, to be the romantic lead in the anodyne atmosphere of early ’50s British film. Lee carved out a career as a character actor instead, playing everything from a spear-carrying soldier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) to a comedic nightclub owner in Powell and Pressburger’s Battle of the River Plate (1956). Ironically for a performer equipped with a deep, unmistakeable, well-trained voice, he was then offered a role with no lines at all. Lee, who had been dogged by the opinion he was too tall for an actor, was offered the part of Frankenstein’s monster for just that reason. He accepted instantly, perhaps remembering that the same part had turned Boris Karloff, another British misfit, into a star.

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The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) represented a gamble for Lee just as it did for Hammer Films, the small, relatively low-rent filmmaking concern built by actor William Hinds and entrepreneur James Carreras and later developed by their sons Anthony and Michael. After success adapting the Quatermass TV serials for the big screen, the company tried its luck with a series of proper horror movies, a genre that had been largely inactive since the mid-1940s. These films were produced in colour, a choice that would automatically make their product stand out when most fantastical films of the time were cheaply made in black and white, and with the disreputable but commercially smart object of shocking audiences with gore. Lee’s costar in Frankenstein was Peter Cushing, another actor whose career had been varied and frustrating but who had finally become a well-known face working on TV. Reviled by critics faced with its gaudy, painterly, potent revision of both Mary Shelley’s model and the well-worn Universal film series, The Curse of Frankenstein was nonetheless a hit, and Hammer quickly gathered the people responsible back to take on another storied horror property, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Cushing again was cast as the lead, and Lee as the monster that he must fend off. Young screenwriter Jimmy Sangster proved himself ingenious when paired with director Terence Fisher. Fisher, a respected editor, had moved into directing like former collaborator David Lean, but where Lean quickly achieved prestige, Fisher subsisted as a quickie helmsman. Yet, like Lee, such fare gave him a chance to develop a no-nonsense professionalism that would serve his creativity exceedingly well when finally let off the leash, and he proved himself adept at dark melodramas like So Long at the Fair (1952) and injecting such cornball scifi as 4-Sided Triangle (1953) with visual drama far beyond its means.

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Fisher proved to have the perfect sensibility for horror cinema, stimulated by the chance he found to play around with the established tropes of gothic horror. Fisher and Sangster had determinedly distorted the Frankenstein myth to return the scientist to the centre of the tale and strip him of nobility, an idea perfect for the growing cynicism of the atomic age. Faced with the equally hoary figure of Dracula, their take centred squarely on the understanding that the vampire overlord was a version of the ancient folk figure of the demon lover. Some critics have seen the Hammer Dracula as a prefiguration of the movie version of James Bond: a sexual fantasy incarnate, if still here held in check as an image of villainy. The film’s opening credits, exploring the surrounds and interior of the vampire overlord’s castle, resolves in a tracking shot that slowly zeroes in on Dracula’s name carved into the lid of a massive stone sarcophagus upon which blood starts to drip. This vision has a powerful quality as an abstract encapsulation of the visual texture where dusty browns and greys and the violent lustre of gory hues will dominate. But it is perhaps more important as a prototypical pop-art declaration of the Hammer brand and the changing face of pop culture, heralding an awareness of iconography, an idea that the James Bond films would exploit more fully.

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Revising the story for a straitened production and with an eye to a tighter, more intimate story, the filmmakers stripped away much of the foliage of Stoker’s novel, including the long voyage from Transylvania to England, the hunt for the vampire’s resting place, and the wealth of background characters, to concentrate on the essential idea of Dracula as dark force assaulting the Victorian bourgeois idyll and faced down by the forces of iron rationality. Jonathan Harker (Fisher regular John Van Eyssen) was changed from a naïve realtor to a fellow scholar engaged with Van Helsing in infiltrating and uncovering abodes of the undead, letting himself be engaged by Dracula to archive his library as a Trojan Horse warrior bent on tracking down the vampire’s resting place and killing him. Fisher set out to bait the audience into taking Dracula as a figure of campy appeal by having him first appear as a looming shadow at the top of the stairs, and then undercut it by having Lee stride into the light, imperious, courtly, smoothly charismatic. Evil suddenly was sexy.

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Rejecting the images of ruin and infestation that F.W. Murnau and Tod Browning had originally offered in their takes on the material and Expressionist stylisation, Fisher and the Hammer production team instead insisted on a firmly tangible visual texture that is lightly stylised more through use of colour than lighting. Dracula’s castle, first glimpsed under the opening credits complete with a hulking stone eagle statue hovering with unstated menace against the grey sky, is a solid, tangible abode of stonework in a perpetually autumnal land of damp mists and fleeting brown leaves. This setting resituates Stoker’s material in a solidly English tradition of gothic imagery. Sangster discarded all supernatural manifestations, like Dracula’s ability to transform into a bat or a wolf, again for budgetary reasons, but also to aid Fisher’s program to create a universe for his horror material that is substantial, enacted on the level of physical oppression and appropriation. Dracula’s castle dominates its landscape exactly as such castles were built to do: to intimidate and belittle, to ward off and keep out. Harker can only enter by guile. Stoker’s Dracula was a remnant of a legendary past now turned septic remnant; Fisher’s is a still-living force. Dracula’s status as dark romancer was hardly new–Bela Lugosi’s and John Carradine’s counts had both effectively embodied the same idea, in contrast with F.W. Murnau’s rodentlike Nosferatu (1922). But Lee, Fisher, and Sangster pushed the idea into a realm of explicitly erotic menace. Where Lugosi and Carradine compelled with hypnosis, Lee dominates with sensual and corporeal stature, and his close encounters with the women in the films shot unabashedly as erogenous preludes.

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Fisher’s rigorous filmmaking, not as spectacular as Murnau’s or as densely visual as Mario Bava’s, nonetheless made the Hammer brand what it became. Settings are not transformed landscapes of the mind, but islets of obsessively fussy, romanticised folk-memory. Bava, a cinematographer, inevitably offered a decorative eye; Fisher was fascinated by the use of space and the rhythm of structure. Early scenes of Dracula move sonorously through lapping dissolves and deceptive quiet, time slowing to an eerie crawl as Harker enters Dracula’s remote castle on his mission (notwithstanding cheap effects: a “mountain torrent” that looks a bit like someone left the hose on). The sequence leading up to Dracula’s first appearance is a gem of subtle construction. Gaunt’s vampire girl appears in the background as Harker picks up spilt objects from the floor, an unexpected presence bringing unexpected, erotic appeal to the dry-as-dust scholar. Sexual egotism under the façade of gallantry is almost immediately Harker’s downfall when he is confronted after his arrival at Dracula’s castle by a young woman (Valerie Gaunt) who appeals for his help but is actually one of the vampire’s undead companions. Harker is quickly lured close enough for her to launch an attack on his jugular vein, only to suddenly stiffen and dash away. Harker, bewildered, slowly turns and gives a start as he sees a huge, menacing black shadow at the top of a flight of stairs. The shadow advances. Dracula appears, armed with Lee’s looks and impeccably polite authority, instantly dispelling any anticipations of camp amusement. The monster is a charming host, and more importantly, strangely potent. Stoker’s Dracula was a figure out of Europe’s mythical past, a remnant of an ancien regime feeding on the early modern world’s lack of vigilance and credulity for the idea of the past as a haunting thing; Fisher and Sangster’s vampire overlord on the other hand is rudely, impudently alive and assured in tyrannical domain.

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The wry segue from menace to courtly savoir faire gives way later when Fisher restages the sequence for raw horror. This time, when the vampire girl draws close to Harker, his hilariously precious assurances of protective intent are undercut as Fisher privileges the viewer with the sight of the girl eyeing his neck greedily and unsheathing her fangs before plunging them into his jugular. Harker throws her off whilst Dracula appears suddenly in a doorway beyond and between them, in Fisher’s favourite rhetorical device, a single wide shot binding a sudden confluence of actions.

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Fisher then dives in for one of the greatest close-ups in cinema: Dracula, teeth bared, fresh blood smeared on his face, animalistic in his fury at his chattel daring to defy his rule and attack his guest. The effect is delirious after god knows how many viewings: the cool, eerie tone suddenly turns to a display of primal evil, as Dracula hurls his bride about and grips Harker in one hand, squeezing the breath out of him, Lee’s gore-smeared maw elongating with weird and savage glee. Courtly Dracula never returns. The beast is exposed, and it’s a sight so compelling that Lee’s Dracula, for better or worse, would essentially remain in that mode in the next six Hammer entries in which he would star except for a brief scene in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974), where he plays a real estate tycoon and employs a plummy Slavic accent.

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Harker awakens under the threat of becoming a monster himself thanks to the bite that’s festering in his neck, and sets out to destroy Dracula and his bride before the sun falls again. Harker successfully kills the girl, but her death wail awakens the Count on the threshold of night. Harker is terrified to realise he’s trapped in the castle vault with the vampire overlord, and in a memorably dark, mischievous touch, Harker is next glimpsed occupying the girl’s sarcophagus, victim of vampire bisexuality? Fisher fades out on the confrontation in the same way directors of the time faded out on imminent rape scenes.

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The revisions to the novel shifts the rest of the action from England to an enclave of Britons resident somewhere in Austro-Hungary. Rather than Dracula being an exile trying to gain a foothold in a new land, the protagonists are all innocents abroad discovering life is a dank and disturbing adventure. The arrival of Van Helsing (Cushing) in the narrative signals a balancing of scales between good and evil. Van Helsing is first glimpsed with back to camera, face abstract, his status as human, but equal adversary to the monster implied. The hostile innkeeper (George Woodbridge) warns him away from prying into the reign of terror and the conspiracy of silence that enables it, but a barmaid, grateful for Harker’s decency, smuggles Van Helsing Harker’s recovered diary, enabling the erstwhile academic to understand the fate of his comrade. When he penetrates Dracula’s castle, he’s confronted by a hearse carrying Dracula away to new hunting grounds and the sight of Harker looking like a sated leech with teeth in his new bed. Conspiring to kill Harker off in this way provides a neat twist in the familiar tale and also helps make Stoker’s rather awkward narrative a bit more logical. In a manner that would permanently mark the horror film, it also offers a realisation that the traditional, romantic ingénue hero a la David Manners’ Harker in the Lugosi version, upright and decent and slightly effete in the face of evil, was not necessary or even particularly desirable in horror stories. Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough), who takes Harker’s role as husband of the threatened damsel Mina (Melissa Stribling); Gough’s amusingly prissy performance grasps intuitively at the essence of stuffed-shirt Victorian urbanity.

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Murnau and Browning had never really seemed to know what to do with Van Helsing as a character in a drama woozy with fascination for the sepulchral. Edward Van Sloan had been appropriately intelligent and resolute in Browning version, but even there he was left a somewhat passive onlooker, a Merlinlike guide for the handsome young men and women who are the familiar protagonists of romantic melodrama. Instead Fisher and Sangster remoulded Van Helsing as a heroic figure, creating a more direct opposition of the avatars of rationality and chaos. This approach both extends and inverts that of the Curse of Frankenstein, where the scientist and monster were made virtually interchangeable to better explore the implications of science without morality. But in Dracula, the scheme is used to study the inhuman aspect of both unleashed priapism and punitive moralism struggling over the fates of the merely human and the pathetically victimised in a tug-of-war. It also bears noting that in Expressionist-style horror, the rare rational figure was an interloper in a dream world, whereas the solidity of Fisher’s vision reimagines the vampire as the eruption of the id into the everyday.

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The rest of Dracula is dominated by the notion of the vampire eating the Victorian bourgeois home first from the outside and then, most ingeniously, from within. Dracula targets first Harker’s fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh) and then Mina, wife of Lucy’s brother Arthur, in a programme of calculated revenge for the death of the first bride. Lucy’s nightly visitations by the vampire see her lying in thrall in her bed awaiting the black-clad seducer, his approach signalled by stirring autumnal leaves beyond the threshold of her open French windows, whilst James Bernard’s score swirls with increasingly feverish impatience and cloud whips by the full moon. Later, when Dracula sets his sights on Mina, he gets her to hide his coffin in the household cellar.

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The prim and wan Mina turns up the morning after being lured to Dracula’s hiding place with an unmistakeably postcoital glow: Fisher’s wit extends to the impression that Mina has far more blood in her veins after being attacked by a vampire (Fisher purportedly told her to act as if she’d just had the best sex of her life). Whilst Arthur and Van Helsing watch her bedroom windows from outside, the vampire is able to walk into her room for a night of sanguinary passion, a moment as close to the outright erotic as mainstream film could get at the time, Stribling’s Mina the goggle-eyed bird fixated by the beast in her boudoir before he pins her on the bed and caresses her face with imperious appetite. Dracula has been reconstructed, not even the novel’s dark, entitled romancer anymore, but a creature of utterly uncontained sexual appeal. Meanwhile Van Helsing’s attempt to intervene and prevent Lucy’s death fails when the Holmwoods’ servant Gerda (Olga Dickie) clears out the garlic flowers planted to keep the monster out, and Arthur blames Van Helsing for her death. The professor is forced to hand over Harker’s diary as proof of the nature of the evil.

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Lucy’s resurrected form haunts the forests beyond the town, enticing Tania (Janine Faye), Gerda’s daughter, out for moonlit games. Another superlatively mounted, instantly iconic sequence comes as Arthur, with the seeds of expectation planted by Harker’s diary, goes to check Lucy’s crypt and finds her arriving with Tania in tow. The setting is a nirvana of gothic fantasy, with whirling leaves, licking ground fog, and desolate stonework. Sickly intimations of paedophilia and incest abound as Lucy turns from small girl into a dead-eyed parasite delighted at the thought of partaking of her brother’s blood, begging for a fraternal kiss from the appalled Arthur. A crucifix is thrust into the frame, cutting the air between the pair: Van Helsing, the sentinel of implacable reckoning, drives the terrified vampire back and scorches her brow with the touch of the holy object. The dark side of Van Helsing’s heroism is underlined both here and when he subsequently stakes Lucy, giving her rest at the expense of extinguishing a powerfully carnal creature, both victim and byproduct of failed repression. Fisher also takes a moment to observe Van Helsing comforting Tania, giving her a “pretty thing”–the cross–and telling her to wait and watch the sun rise with the solicitude of a favourite uncle. In spite of the brutal necessities and insidious forces in this vision, Fisher accords a simple grace between such Manichaean extremes.

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The flaws of Dracula stem, like its best ideas, from concatenating a complex narrative for a low budget. The relative proximity of Dracula’s homeland and the locale of the Holmwood house here means that the epic pursuit described in the book gives way to a horse chase that could have strayed out a lesser western. Comic relief is variable: the actor and writer Miles Malleson, who had helped pen the screenplay of The Thief of Baghdad (1940), one of the few British fantasy films of its age and in some ways a precursor to the Hammer horror brand (with Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar a definite ancestor of Lee’s Dracula), appears briefly but amusingly as a gabby, absent-minded undertaker, whilst Geoffrey Bayldon contributes less funny stuff as a corrupt border guard. But the proper finale is another breathlessly well-staged sequence that sees the horror film lurching close to something like action cinema. Indeed, Fisher would have an acknowledged influence on later, kinetically gifted, blockbuster filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Burton, and Cushing pushed for a climax that had a physicality worthy of Douglas Fairbanks. The production couldn’t quite stretch that far, but the battle between Dracula and Van Helsing has a ferocity that’s still gripping thanks to the combination of Fisher’s jagged edits, the actors, and Bernard’s thunderous scoring. The fight builds to a swashbuckling move where the vampire hunter leaps onto a long table, dashes down its length and pulls down curtains, pinioning Dracula in the sun’s rays, where he agonisingly disintegrates into a pile of ashes, a moment that stands as one of the most quoted sequences in horror cinema, in spite of, and perhaps because of, the resolutely low-tech effects.

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Dracula was a big hit upon release, one that set a horror renaissance that would power on until the 1980s officially on course. Lee later estimated the film made upwards of $25 million, a huge sum for the day. Lee himself declined to play the vampire again, afraid of being typecast. In the interval, Fisher helmed The Brides of Dracula (1960), with Cushing returning as Van Helsing, but that film, though later reappraised as amongst the finest Hammer films, was greeted as a compromise at the time. Finally, after eight years and some commercial stumbles by Hammer and Fisher in working through the classic canon of horror tales, Lee was persuaded to return as the count in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. The result of this deal, has often itself been regarded as a lesser Hammer horror, but Prince of Darkness deserves more respect, in large part because whilst the original Dracula had been a perfect fit for 1958, the sequel has a prognosticative element, one Hammer would ultimately fail to comprehend, leading to its commercial decline. Dracula: Prince of Darkness strips down Fisher’s concept of Stoker’s mythology to an even more purified essence and, with it, the underpinning anxieties and fantasies of much horror storytelling; in doing so, it looks forward to what would happen in the genre in the ’70s. The basic plot is the same as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and other films where a bunch of young people find themselves stranded in some evil locale at the mercy of malignant foes. This time Dracula didn’t even get a single line, and it testifies to the force of Lee’s performance and Fisher’s direction that he doesn’t need any to bend the gravitational flow of the film.

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This time, Fisher and screenwriter Anthony Hinds, a regular Hammer producer working under his usual writing pseudonym John Elder, replaced Van Helsing with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a creation who, as a religious man, focuses the dualistic take on good vss evil more than Van Helsing could. Following a replay of the first film’s climax, Sandor is glimpsed at the outset berating a fellow priest as a superstitious idiot and warning the Carpathian villagers not go desecrating the dead in the belief the Dracula is still plaguing them. Sandor later warns a quartet of English tourists not to go anywhere near Dracula’s castle, which is missing from maps. The unwitting tourists are brothers Alan (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) and Charles (Francis Matthews) and their wives Helen (Barbara Shelley) and Diana (Suzan Farmer). Charles is the younger, glibber, mostly reformed playboy brother who delights in teasing Helen, the uptight and nervous representative of stiff-necked English mores.

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In spite of Dracula’s death, the locals are still petrified by his memory, a fear that plays a part in the travellers being left stranded before his castle and forced to take refuge there–helped along by a mysterious carriage pulled by a couple of self-directing horses. They find a servant, Klove (Phillip Latham), tending to the castle and maintaining the supposed last wishes of his deceased master to take care of all visitors. Fisher stages Klove’s appearance as a new twist on Dracula’s in the previous film, stepping out of shadow to reveal himself as neither hideously deformed nor towering and charismatic, but rather like someone left Alistair Sim in the fridge too long. Helen quivers with anxiety as she senses the malevolent strangeness behind all of the odd events, but her companions remain oblivious and increasingly irritated by her mood. During the night, the sound of Klove dragging a large chest around draws Alan out to find what’s happening, only for Klove to stab him to death, suspend his body over an open sarcophagus, and use his life blood to reconstitute Dracula from his own collected ashes. Klove then entices Helen out to become the resurrected monster’s first victim/bride. Charles and Diana fight their way out of the castle and take refuge at the monastery headed by Sandor, but Klove brings the count and Helen to the monastery and lays siege.

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Fisher’s direction this time around was more of an experiment in pacing, prowling camerawork suggesting the presence of evil long before it shows its face, a mood of quiet oddness dominating the first half. The narrative is deceptively straightforward, paring away distractions to create a cleverly focused variation on the original’s concerns. Hinds’ script works in elements from the novel left out of the ’58 film, including a version of Renfield named Ludwig (Thorley Walters, in a note-perfect turn), a resident at Sandor’s monastery who lost his mind after some hideous experience near Castle Dracula and now binds books for the monks. He soon proves to be a sleeper agent for the besieging monster, and the key to the moment when Dracula forces Diana to drink his blood from a gash in his chest. Fisher observes the slow gathering of forces that will attack the interlopers, with their readily familiar quirks and flaws plotted exactingly and building to the hideously beautiful sight of Alan’s gushing blood feeding the reconstituting mess in the sarcophagus. Matthews’ Charles makes for a deliberately callow hero, forced to rapidly grow up in the course of fighting for his and Diana’s lives, whilst Diana herself, though in thrall to the vampire later in the film, is, in many ways, the most forthright and gutsy character: her attempt to intervene and save her husband reveals to Sandor a way to kill the monster.

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But Dracula: Prince of Darkness is essentially about Helen, a vehicle for Fisher to return to the obsessive point of duality that drives this fantasy and push the metaphors of neurotic repression and lunatic explosion to an extreme within a single character. She’s insufferable in her vinegary attitude and priggishness, the epitome of a certain cliché of English repression. She’s also the only one with the sense to see the situation for what it is, a Cassandra no one will listen to. Presented to the dark marauder lurking in the castle, Helen is transformed into a devilishly passionate creature, lusting after Diana and clinging tightly to the count. Shelley, who had only gotten to play half of Fisher’s last study in dichotomous female representation, The Gorgon (1963), here describes the shift from lamb to predator with fiendish grace, as when Helen appears at Diana’s window at the monastery, playing the lost and freezing innocent in a vision out of folk myth, then leaping for Diana’s neck with wolfish delight the moment her way is clear.

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Like the use of the monster in Curse of Frankenstein as a way of revealing the monstrosity of the creator, here Fisher reduces Dracula to an almost abstract force peeling away the contrivances of civilisation, anticipating the increasingly blank and faceless avatars of evil that would proliferate in later horror films. When the monks capture Helen, the scene is staged like a gang-rape, Sandor hammering the life out of her. Here Fisher looks forward to the historical savagery and indictments of Witchfinder General (1969) and The Devils (1971). Fisher complicates by not making Sandor an obvious avatar for repressive religious fanaticism, but rather a good-natured, earthy man whose fearsome streak is stirred only by the spectacle of real evil. In spite of his relatively marginal presence in the film, Dracula is not reduced; his authority, and Lee’s, is brought out all the more as he silently and effortlessly dominates any character and any scene he’s in, as when he gestures for a mesmerised Diana to remove her crucifix necklace, a moment that perhaps better than any other captures the level of concentration and rigour Lee poured into his performances as Dracula. The film’s cobra-and-mongoose-like intensity finally combusts for another segue into serial-like action at the climax. Charles and Sandor dash across country to catch the carriage driven by Klove and carrying Dracula and the stolen Diana to the castle. Here the script makes inspired use of a relatively obscure piece of vampire lore, that running water is a fatal barrier. As Charles and Dracula fight on the frozen mantle of the castle’s moat, Sandor shoots the ice until the vampire is stranded on a frigid raft, before he pitches into the brine and sinks to his doom. Naturally, the count would be back. Having broken his ban, Lee would return to the role seven more times, five of them for Hammer. In spite of those films’ varying levels of quality and inspiration, and following a remarkable late-career resurgence as the must-have actor mascot for grand movie fantasies in the 2000s, Lee would, nonetheless and above all, always be Dracula.


8th 08 - 2015 | 5 comments »

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

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

Debut feature film of: Richard Lester, director

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10th 04 - 2015 | 6 comments »

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963)

Director: Luchino Visconti

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By Roderick Heath

Luchino Visconti was a singular and contradictory figure in just about any context. Visconti’s background was dauntingly aristocratic: his father belonged to a branch of the once very powerful Visconti family of Milan, whilst his mother was heiress to a cosmetics fortune. In the midst of Fascist Italy’s halcyon days, however, Visconti stood as a committed Marxist and out homosexual. Raised as an aesthete, he staged lush grand operas whilst directing films that helped define that most stringent and fundamental of film styles, neorealism. The disparities of Visconti’s experience and perspective armed him with a fearsome artistic arsenal, the intellectual and aesthetic reach to encompass the extremities of his age. Visconti started his film career working as an assistant director for Jean Renoir. When he returned home at the start of World War II, Visconti, like everyone else who wanted to work in the Italian film industry, had to labour under the auspices of the state, joining a unit under Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio that also included Federico Fellini. Visconti gave neorealism its first, vital gambit with Ossessione (1942), and the movement soon bloomed, flourished, and peaked amidst the rubble and poverty of the postwar state, as Visconti was joined by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica as the triumvirate of major neorealist directors. As the country and its film industry got back on their feet and the filmmakers who had become famous through the movement felt the changing tides of art and industry, neorealism began to evolve. Some saw this evolution as an inherent betrayal of neorealism’s early purity, given the political ideals the movement strove to express. Visconti seemed to be drifting farthest away from his early brief, as his work became increasingly formalistic, his subject matter leaned toward the historical and the literary, and his productions became increasingly international.

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But the underpinnings of neorealism, with its sociological fascination for ways of life and lucidly detached method of storytelling, continued to be the lifeblood of much Italian cinema for years afterward. Visconti began with Senso (1954) to effect a complex blending of the opposing facets of his artistic persona—the florid and rigorous, the ironic and the fulsome—that took his old style to new places. Senso sketched much of what The Leopard would later develop, depicting the largeness of history in sarcastic contrast with the smallness of people caught up in it and evoking a classically romantic melodrama only to subvert and degrade it, alternating breathlessly florid staging and coolly choreographed, dissembling camerawork. The quietly radical Senso was viewed as a problematic work on first release, but Visconti rebounded with La Notte Bianche (1957) and Rocco and his Brothers (1960), the latter a soaring epic that sought to invest a tale of everyday calamity with the outsized intensity of a Verdi opera. Visconti’s next project was The Leopard, a deliberate antistrophe from the previous film’s focus and tone. The Leopard took on a then-recent cause célèbre, adapting a novel by Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who had died before his book’s publication. Lampedusa’s material was his own family history tracking back to the days of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, blended with his own feelings of antagonism and displacement in the 20th century. Visconti surely felt sympathetic with the novel’s sad, dislocated view of the decline of his class’s influence, and also its vein of unsentimental clarity, its finite blend of tragically inflected romantic nostalgia and biting commentary. Much like Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1938), The Leopard is partly an expression of regret at the loss of the best qualities of an age in the face of a ruder, cruder time.

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Finding an actor to play Lampedusa’s hero, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, wasn’t the smallest of Visconti’s challenges. Eventually Burt Lancaster was pressed on Visconti by his producers, whilst Visconti retained Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, who had gained major career boosts in Rocco and His Brothers. Lancaster’s stern height and leonine visage proved to be crucial, for the part required an actor with great talent and presence, whilst the realities of the production demanded a big star. Visconti’s opening scene is a particularly dense series of signs, most of which are conveyed not through dialogue but through visuals and non-specific sounds: the camera closes in on the palazzo of the Corberas like a visitor stealing in through the orchards and craning an ear to tune in the sound, eventually entering the house to find the family and household at their Sunday prayers administered by the estate’s resident priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli). The chants and catechisms of the prayers evoke a ritual probably unchanged in the 400 years the Corberas have been in Sicily and before, but now is interrupted all too tellingly by the sounds of a commotion outside: the dead body of a soldier has been found on the estate. The soldier’s garb marks him as a follower of Garibaldi, who has just landed his force of volunteers in Sicily to wage a campaign to unify the country under the House of Savoy, signalling the commencement of a civil war. The careful colour composition turns the sight of the soldier’s grim death into a pietà depicting devoted sacrifice, clawing at the red earth of the Corbera estate as a last gesture of trying to claim it for the cause.

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This touch echoes the opening sequences of Senso, where a similarly orchestrated use of colour coding announced political events. This breaking of the peace terrifies some, including the Prince’s high-strung wife, Princess Stella (Rina Morelli), but Fabrizio immediately announces his intention to go into Palermo to find out what’s going on and invites Pirrone to accompany him: Pirrone knows perfectly well that the Prince is actually using the event as an excuse to visit his favourite prostitute. Quickly, both the surfaces and contradictions of this little world have been confirmed, the tight intertwining of role and individuality, state and religion, officious idealism and carefully cultivated hypocrisy, and the way great public events become excuses for personal escapades. After the Prince’s nocturnal adventuring, Pirrone and Fabrizio carefully quarrel as the priest presses the Prince to confess his sins and Fabrizio defends himself as having made the best of a terrible marriage. This shades into a political argument in which Pirrone admonishes the Prince for even giving slight contemplation to a future settlement with the revolutionaries, concerned that the new regime will surely set out to break the church’s power and sell off its land. Their arguments are laced with concessions to different kinds of power, moral versus temporal and fiscal, as the Priest holds off from admonishing the Prince too sternly because he knows which side his bread’s buttered on, whilst Fabrizio feels the bite of Pirrone’s conviction nonetheless.

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The crucial moment of the film’s first half comes when Fabrizio is having his morning shave after his return, and his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Delon), enters the room: Visconti carefully frames the entrance so that Tancredi’s face is caught in Fabrizio’s shaving mirror, capturing him just for a moment as the image of Fabrizio’s own sense of youth. Tancredi announces his intention to join up with Garibaldi’s Redshirt volunteers, distressing the Prince at first, but Tancredi argues that Garibaldi’s mission is preferable to a republican alternative that will completely strip the waning aristocracy of its influence, and delivers a shibboleth of import: “For things to stay the same, things will have to change.” Fabrizio comprehends Tancredi and sends him on his way in a swooningly romantic vision of youthful mission, Tancredi riding away from the palazzo to battle amidst Nino Rota’s swelling music, leaving behind relatives who, apart from the Prince, barely seem to know anything’s happening. Visconti stages a cold cut from Fabrizio and Pirrone’s argument to the midst of a street battle as the Redshirts fight Bourbon troops for control of Palermo. Visconti shoots this vignette of violent spectacle, the one traditional moment of epic largesse in the film, largely in long shots that study the masses of fighters rather than individuals, as contrasts of energy and poise, with the Garibaldi supporters swarming in masses of roiling, messy numbers, countered by crisp, neatly advancing lines of the royalist soldiers (a touch mimicked by fan Martin Scorsese in the climax of his Gangs of New York, 2002).

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Amidst the fighting, Visconti picks out a gruesome, antiheroic study in oppression and reaction, as a suited bureaucrat oversees the execution of several revolutionaries, only to be chased down himself by an enraged plebeian citizenry who lynch him in a public square. This vignette is probably the moment most reminiscent of classic neorealist technique in the film, recalling Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (1945) and evoking the landscape of vicious civic coercion and reprisal that led to Mussolini’s hanging before a crowd. Visconti obviously intends a likeness here, but not just the usual vague connection of the historical made relevant one finds in historical films; here is a thesis in miniature, the essence of Visconti’s political and personal theme of cycles. Visconti films the hapless bureaucrat’s pursuit via a long telephoto shot, the hose-piping effect emphasising the scrambling motions and desperate entrapment. Finally, amidst all the impersonal clashing and communal violence, Visconti locates Tancredi and his fellow aristocrat-adventurer Count Cavriaghi (Mario Girotti, who would later rechristen himself Terence Hill to become a popular spaghetti western star), who remain only part of this swarming crowd of humanity fighting and falling. Tancredi is wounded by a shell splinter, and he and his men dash to take shelter in a neighbouring building.

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Visconti dissolves from the midst of this tumult and slaughter to the sight of the Prince’s family and entourage travelling across the countryside. Tancredi, looking all the more dashing with his face bandaged, barges his way through a Redshirt cordon on the road with a mixture of comradely appeal (“I fought with you in Palermo!”) and hereditary prerogative. Earlier, Fabrizio’s face was enough to get him through a checkpoint, but now that political strength has passed to Tancredi. As the family party continues on its way, Visconti interpolates flashbacks to minor, but significant events that followed Fabrizio’s return to the fold, as he forged links between the family and the new regime. The family is making its way to the heartland of their influence, the regional town of Donnafugata, to sit out what’s left of the upheaval. On the way, picnics by the roadside evoke an age of graciousness all too easy to romanticise; Visconti notes wryly the work of the servants required to make it happen for the family, whilst Tancredi casually, half-unwittingly charms Fabrizio’s eldest daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi). They arrive in Donnafugata to the excited greeting of their tenants and the local bourgeoisie, all dues apparently unchanged, but with quiet expectations underlying: some of the locals have done well out of supporting the Savoyards, and Fabrizio is well aware he must build bridges with them. When the family takes their place in their ornately carved special pew in the cathedral, they’re like a collection of dolls slotted back into place: Visconti rolls his camera past them one by one, finding them bleary and covered in dust from travel, like neglected museum pieces—one of the saddest, most acerbic, concise camera movements in any film.

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The Prince, partly out of a sense of clannish responsibility and partly with the pride of a frustrated father who finds his nephew a preferable avatar to any of his actual children, who are generally as dull and conservative as their mother, decides to take a hand in securing Tancredi’s future. The young man’s family fortune has been squandered, but the Prince knows now Tancredi’s charm and social cunning could gain him a truly important future if well-financed. The new lie of the land must be acknowledged and used to advantage: knowing Italy is being reconstructed to give greater power to a wealthy bourgeoisie who, in turn, are anxious to share the prestige of the old aristocracy, Fabrizio considers making Tancredi a match with an eligible daughter of the new, prosperous middle class. Soon, the perfect candidate presents herself: Angelica Sedara (Cardinale), daughter of Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), Fabrizio’s steward and now the Mayor of Donnafugata, who’s become rich carefully embezzling some of the Prince’s estate profits, and has used it to make himself a major landowner.

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Angelica proves to be an astonishing beauty and a lively personality, one who makes the violation of class barriers all too easy for Tancredi. Only Concetta is infuriated by this potential match, appalled when Tancredi tells an embellished, suggestive tale about his wartime adventures as a naked play for Angelica’s attention. Tancredi’s attempt to help Cavriaghi supplant himself in Concetta’s affections is met with her disinterest. Although initially stricken by scruples at the thought of making a connection with Calogero, an ignoble type in both senses of the word, Fabrizio nonetheless supports Tancredi’s courtship of Angelica, and begins investigating her mystery, prying fact and legend out of his friend, the organist in the city church Don “Ciccio” Tumeo (Serge Reggiani). Ciccio tells the Prince that Calogero discovered Angelica’s mother in a peasant hovel, a fluke of nature blessed with impossible physical perfection but utterly animalistic in nature: Calogero snapped her up and now keeps under wraps in his villa, let out only for early morning prayers. Such is the strange path of genetic luck from the very bottom to the top of society.

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Carefully entwined with the political and social ruminations in The Leopard is a far more personal and intimate story, a confrontation with the strange ramifications that assail us in mortality, in a world and time carefully designed to keep careful checks and balances on such primal forces. Visconti and his post-neorealist followers, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, were fascinated by the juncture of personal proclivity and social constructs, and Visconti wrestled with this nexus in many of his films. His most easily recognisable theme, that of family as a troubling embrace, is counterbalanced by this figuration, the eternal solitude of the unsatisfied being, and he eventually resolved it through taboo in his lunatic self-satire The Damned (1969). Here Prince Fabrizio’s physical lustiness is a part of him, an aspect he feels driven by but cannot express in his all-too-proper marriage—hence his irritable refusal to confess to Pirrone—and also plainly explains some of his fascination with Angelica. Yet this is also bound to a subtler sense of emotional frustration, which slowly emerges as Fabrizio lives to a certain extent vicariously in setting up the perfect match of Tancredi and Angelica, a union that comes to symbolise for him the ideal consummation of a new era as well as a dream of cavalier romanticism that he yearns to make real. Visconti underlines this by removing one significant aspect of the novel, where Concetta was doomed late in life to realise Tancredi always loved her; besides, Delon and Cardinale look too good to buy anything else. This is not to say Visconti idealises the young couple’s union himself: the degree to which the film plays up Tancredi’s dash and beauty only makes the sting of realising that in many ways he’s a callow and facetious figure all the more disturbing. Although Fabrizio is resolutely heterosexual, Visconti still finds definable queer self-expression through him as a figure wrestling with desires in secret (he even baits Pirrone with a dash of homoerotic humour to dry him after a bath).

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Fabrizio’s hopes for Tancredi’s great career also reflects another kind of frustration, that of wasted capacities: class is a trap for its highest levels as well as its lowest. Fabrizio’s reputation is that of a gentleman scientist—he’s an astronomer who takes comfort in the serene peregrinations of the stars—but the Risorgimento brings the tormenting possibility of new uses of his gifts. A representative of the new state, Cavalier Chevalley (Leslie French), comes to Donnafugata to ask Fabrizio to become a senator, claiming his famous intellect and nobility are just the qualities the new country needs to help the great project of overcoming the awful stagnation that has gripped Italy in general and Sicily in particular. Fabrizio is polite with the bureaucrat, but turns him down, offering as an explanation his individual hesitations—his lack of real political and legislative knowledge for one, and, more importantly, his lack of the kind of blended sentiment and self-interest he thinks necessary for a politician—and also his social ones. His explanations frustrate Chevalley, for they contain a poeticism that eludes the technocratic progressivism of the bureaucrat, conceiving of Sicily as a place of people longing desperately for a long rest after centuries of being buffeted politically and socially by invaders and imposed cultures, full of raw humans who think themselves kings of the earth precisely because they remain so close to the earth, and so will resist being transformed into the kind of bourgeois moderns Chevalley means to make of them.

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Fabrizio instead recommends Calogero, exemplar of a new breed of “jackals and hyenas” he sees supplanting the old lions and leopards of the aristocracy. This sequence transliterates much of Lampedusa’s prose into dialogue, but avoids becoming didactic by depicting Fabrizio’s attempt to articulate things he sees as true in a way he never has before with an intellectual force he’s too used to rounding off for less inquiring ears. Fabrizio remains something of a snob in spite of himself, but his snobbery has its uses, as it sensitises him to commonplace habits of democratic states: obfuscation, indulgence, self-promotion, and hypocrisy, whilst he knows his privilege has insulated him from any need to adopt such necessary skills. Visconti offers a great philosopher-hero but one who feels himself bound to what we call today the wrong side of history, even as he tries to give the right side a push.

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The Leopard’s historical thesis is ambivalent in a manner that makes particular sense in contemplating Italian history, and the source of that ambivalence lies in the simultaneous closeness of Visconti and Lampedusa in their emotional intuition, and the disparity of their politics. Lampedusa was expressing, in part, his anguish with the state of his nation circa 1945 by trying to locate the crucial moment in the past that set it on this path. Visconti, for his part, has a prosecutorial eye for the same notion. His film depicts the advent of a new age, but finds it an unfinished revolution that left the nation with a fractured pseudo-democracy defined by the self-interested coalition that eventually augured in Fascism when its interests were threatened by post-World War I socialists. The vignette of the lynched official and its crucial parallel with the collapse of the Fascist regime points to a sense of inevitable repetition, the growth of corruption and oppression that will grip the state again and again just as men are born, grow old, and die—again twinning the personal and the political. The Prince’s contemplation of his mortality and inevitable decline mimics the wane of his class and his time.

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The film’s funniest vignette depicts the events swirling around a plebiscite that will give the stamp of approval to the new state. Fabrizio, despite having championed the pro-unification vote, puts up with cheeky quips from some whilst being feted with scrupulous toadying by Calogero. Later, Calogero reads out the results of the election before an assembly of townsfolk, constantly cut off by an excitable brass band, much to Fabrizio’s entertainment. Eventually, Calogero manages to announce the results, a unanimous “yes” vote. Fabrizio later questions Ciccio, who angrily rants that he voted “no” because he still felt grateful to the former Bourbon Royal Family for financial aid, confirming what Fabrizio had already realised: the vote had been tampered with. Underneath the surface buffoonery and enthusiasm, the well was being poisoned. Democracy had already been subverted at the very moment of its inception.

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Visconti, who hadn’t yet seen some of Lancaster’s more ambitious performances, initially decried being saddled with a cowboy (watching Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961, changed his mind), but this was actually one of the specific strengths Lancaster brought to the role (tellingly, his first choice for the part was Nikolai Cherkasov, who had played Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible for Eisenstein). For from being some effete relic, Lancaster’s height and strength imbue the Prince with a sense of physical power, harking back to some distant ancestor’s more direct use of such endowments to win the power his family is about to lose. Fabrizio literally towers above most of the rest of the cast, and casually picks up both Ciccio and Calogero. The bite of Fabrizio’s sense of impending mortality gains power precisely because he has such strength, evoking a classical sense of tragedy as life and death extract their price from everyone, even the titanic. When Pirrone makes him aware that Concetta has a crush on Tancredi, Fabrizio reacts angrily and then admits that realising his children are old enough for love has pushed old age on him suddenly.

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Visconti’s sarcasm is deftly wound into the solemnity of the material, contemplating the exhaustion of the Prince’s interest in life not in the face of great trials or wrenching losses of more familiar epic fashion, but through a hundred petty annoyances and glimpses of unbearably paltry pathos. He’s not the only one: Visconti’s irony reaches a peak of quiet agony when he surveys the glumly doomed courtship of Cavriaghi and Concetta and then pans away to look over Donnafugata’s rooftops, Rota’s music rising to sublime raptures even as he contemplates the barrenness of the duo’s mismatched hopes (this moment also suggests Visconti annexing the dumbstruck distancing of Michelangelo Antonioni, as if suggesting right here is the seed of high modernism). Meanwhile Tancredi and Angelica stalk each other playfully in a grand old house Calogero has given them as part of a grand dowry, a cavernous space for foreplay littered with dusty paintings, leftovers of another age: decay is already overcoming the aristocracy, its wares falling into the hands of the Calogeros of the world. The temptation to ecstatic physical consummation grips Tancredi and Angelica, but he resists taking her virginity: Tancredi, ever the strategist, knows their game should be played by perfect rules for maximum effect.

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The film’s famous, lengthy, deceptively detached finale depicts the new settlement through social ritual. The grasping bourgeoisie are introduced to the fusty aristocracy on the dance floor. The soldier who has defeated Garibaldi in the field is feted as the man defending the new reasonableness. The well-matched young lovers enjoy their moment in the sun of society. The middle-aged Prince shows off his famous dancing skills and everyone is delighted he hasn’t lost his zest. Yet the sequence enfolds a series of quiet epiphanies defacing the surface glamour, as Fabrizio experiences a dark night of the soul in a bright, gay salon. He regrets having come to the party as soon as he arrives but knows he can’t leave now until early morning, and doomed to wander from station of private cross to station. He contemplates his own inevitable demise and the banality of the world about him, and sourly regards a room full of excitable daughters of the inbred nobility who remind him of a gang of monkeys. The Prince takes a verbal swipe at Garibaldi’s conqueror for his hypocritical declamations about defeating the General and then genuflecting to him, not understanding the political game that must now be honoured: Garibaldi has become a national hero, but the radicalism his movement stirred up must now be suppressed. A painting on the wall depicting a patriarch’s death fascinates him far more than the party, noting such morbid details as the deathbed sheets in the painting being too clean. Angelica and Tancredi swoop in to rescue him in a moment laced with evanescent, mysterious cues of unspoken understandings and concessions admitted amidst the trio. This leads to Fabrizio and Angelica performing a waltz before the assembled partygoers, an islet of perfect courtly grace and mutual admiration between the man and woman, new and old, kept in hypnotic motion as long as the dance goes on.

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The deliberate tone of this sequence and its underlying mournfulness clearly anticipates the same mood in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), though Fabrizio’s anxiety is more ephemeral. The waltz gives way to the prancing jollity of a conga line, evoking, like the similar use of it in the finale of Fellini’s the same year, the ongoing absurdity and heedless motion of society. But whereas Fellini had his hero join in, Fabrizio remains detached. His daughter Concetta is revealed to be just as tragic a figure, upbraiding Tancredi not just for ignoring her, but also for revealing his smooth, smug acquiescence to the Way Things Are by approving of the upcoming execution of some revolutionaries. This last touch is one of Visconti’s more precise and caustic revisions of Lampedusa to set the seal on his parable as well as contrast the Prince’s musings. Whereas in the book the sight of slaughtered animals reminded Fabrizio all too keenly of the gross side of mortality, here the his long night reaches its end when he starts to walk home and hears gunshots signalling the executions. Meanwhile Tancredi grips Angelica all the tighter as they ride away in a carriage, and Calogero yawns and pronounces it a good thing. Fabrizio kneels down at the toll of Vespers and recalls Ciccio’s tale about the mysterious morning appearances of Angelica’s mother, and then whispers a questioning prayer to the stars, wondering when he might die and join them in their certitude. The film’s ultimate irony is the bitterest—the awareness that seemingly resilient, contemplative, complacent Prince is actually the frustrated dreamer of this crowd who have been busy arranging the world to suit themselves.


25th 02 - 2015 | no comment »

Major Dundee (1965)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Coscreenwriter: Sam Peckinpah

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By Roderick Heath

Young Fresno-born Sam Peckinpah spent a stint in the army in the waning days of WWII and was sent to China as part of a noncombat unit assigned to keep peace between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers after the surrender. As Peckinpah told it, peacekeeping became a gruesome spectacle of factional vengeance that left terrible impressions upon him, blossoming into the dark and dangerous melancholia that would fuel both his life problems and his art in later years. After mustering out, Peckinpah did what a lot of young, creative ex-servicemen did—he headed for Hollywood, where he subsisted for years as a sometime actor and TV stagehand. Peckinpah quickly gained a bad reputation for his spiky attitude, but in time became a reliable aide and protégé to Don Siegel, who eventually gave him the task of performing uncredited revisions on the script of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

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That film’s success gave Peckinpah the courage to try writing for TV, and then, directing. He gained a reputation working multiple roles on “The Westerner,” whose star, Brian Keith, helped Peckinpah gain his break as feature director, on 1961’s The Deadly Companions, a minor, modest western that established Peckinpah’s rugged sense of the western landscape and aesthetic, a blend of the barbarous and the limpidly evocative. With his second film, Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah emerged as a powerful and individual talent with one eye for tradition, giving Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott an inspired testimonial, whilst also laying groundwork for dragging the ’50s “adult western” style into a new zone of harsh eccentricity. The weird and unpredictable blend of posturing macho and arch romantic, provocateur and sensitive artist, great filmmaker and self-destructive rebel, would define Peckinpah in the popular imagination until his death in 1984 and beyond.

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Bankrolled by Columbia Studios to round out Charlton Heston’s contract, Major Dundee’s shoot was rocked by discord in the studio and unease with Peckinpah’s growing predilection for on-set hell-raising. Although he and Peckinpah quarrelled violently, Heston still offered to forego his own salary to appease the studio and ensure the film was completed to Peckinpah’s satisfaction. The studio kept the money, but the production was still halted before shooting was done, and a truncated rump of Peckinpah’s vision eventually was released. Peckinpah, embittered and almost blackballed by the industry, managed to rehabilitate his reputation with the telemovie Noon Wine (1968) before The Wild Bunch (1969), for a brief, crucial moment, saw the man’s best abilities coincide with the receptivity of the audience.

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Today, Major Dundee is often dismissed as a warm-up for The Wild Bunch, especially because Peckinpah purposefully recycled elements in the latter film, determined to salvage the essence of his art from the ill-starred earlier work and put it over with an even more furious and unvarnished effect. Both films depict a band of quarrelsome Americans spilling over the Mexican border and being caught up in a local conflict that offers the chance for a nobler end than they ever counted on. Dundee, however, demands respect and reassessment as Peckinpah’s keystone work and a work of vital transition in American screen culture. Costar R. G. Armstrong called the film “Moby Dick on horseback,” an accurate description because of its portrait of a leader as half-colossus, half-madman whose pursuit of a deadly, almost omnipresent foe threatens to resolve only in the consummation of a romance with death. Even after a major reconstruction to try to repair it, Major Dundee is anything but an uncompromised or flawless success, but in some ways, that makes it all the more tantalising as a relic of a great director coming of age.

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Where Peckinpah had laced references to his childhood into Ride the High Country, Major Dundee has many intimations of self-portraiture via Heston’s title character, a man of superlative gifts who seems to be driven to acts of risky defiance and self-debasement. The film’s opening seems to nod to Cy Endfield’s similar portrait of men on the edge between civilisations, Zulu (1964), with a voiceover reporting massacre and calumny. The time is the waning days of the Civil War; the place, rural New Mexico, where would-be titans can strut their stuff. Infamously ingenious and brutal Mescalero Apache chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) has just wiped out a column of Union cavalry, leaving only two members of the company alive: Indian scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz), whose disappearance and return make him the object of suspicion as a traitor, and young bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.), who had been sent to fetch aid for his commander. The relief, led by Maj. Amos Dundee (Heston), arrives too late, finding the corpses of the force and settlers scattered around a blazing farmhouse. Dundee, has been placed in charge of a military garrison on the fringes of nation and psyche, with a prison crammed full of ornery Confederate prisoners his chief responsibility, as punishment for exceeding his orders at Gettysburg. Dundee sees a chance to reclaim his standing by hunting down Charriba, but lacks the manpower to wage a campaign and keep the prison well-guarded. He puts out a call for volunteers and reaps a collection of weathered frontiersmen, including one-armed tracker Samuel Potts (James Coburn), perma-pickled muleskinner Wiley (Slim Pickens), and fighting preacher man Rev. Dahlstrom (Armstrong). Still short of men, Dundee asks for volunteers from among the Confederates.

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Dundee knows the only hope he has for gaining the peaceful cooperation of the rebels is to do exactly the last thing he wants—negotiate with their beloved commander Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), an Irish immigrant with a relentless desire for status and advancement as a gentleman of rank. He was Dundee’s West Point classmate and best friend until Dundee participated in a court martial over a duel that got Tyreen kicked out of the army, only to find another chance as an eager rebel. Dundee tries to maintain a high-handed attitude over Tyreen during negotiations, reminding him that he and his men have two alternatives, hanging as punishment for a recent escape attempt or doing as he says, but Tyreen refuses, knowing that he has Dundee over a barrel. Dundee finally takes out his frustration by visiting Tyreen in his cell and socking him, a gesture Tyreen reciprocates so the two men can finally strike a bargain. Dundee knows that Tyreen takes his sense of honour so seriously his oath will bind him to serve until Charriba is killed or captured. Tyreen brings with him a motley outfit of Southerners, including redneck brothers O. W. and Arthur Hadley (compulsory Peckinpah character actors Warren Oates and L. Q. Jones). But Dundee’s army isn’t quite complete, not until Aesop (Brock Peters) requests that he and his unit of black soldiers who have been serving as guards and flunkies for years without any action, be given a chance to serve, too. Dundee leads this force of uneasy compatriots across the Rio Grande in pursuit of an enemy who seemingly wants Dundee to give chase.

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Major Dundee’s scope is encompassing, a commentary on both the history of the western genre Peckinpah so loved, as well as the proper commencement of his deconstruction of it. It is also a veritable stab at writing a creation myth for modern America, commenting on the state of the union circa 1965 as much as 1865, replete with overtones not just of Melville and Shakespeare, but also Greek sagas—not for nothing is one character named Priam. As the social compacts and conventions that had sustained the healing of the union after the Civil War finally frayed in the years since Little Rock, popular cinema had struggled to find new ways to explore the changing face of American society. Peckinpah’s Melvillian references echo the way the great author portrayed the nation as a polyglot driven by a possibly insane struggle with ancient forces and susceptible to visionaries with suspect goals. Peckinpah is less fatalistic here in spite of his corrosive intentions, for Major Dundee is a tale of ironic triumph and unification, often evoking the sense of communal life and fascination for rites of passage that tied together John Ford’s films. Major Dundee is in part Peckinpah’s tribute to Ford, as a partial remake of Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), recasting John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s war-cleaved couple as Dundee and Tyreen’s broken comradeship, whilst Dundee evokes Henry Fonda’s ill-fated antihero from Fort Apache (1948). Columbia had actually wanted Ford to direct the project, but he was busy making his mea culpa, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

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For Peckinpah, then, it became a dialogue and argument with old masters. Ford had been the great cinematic mythologian for that declining social compact, and Peckinpah highlights the manifold schisms of class and race and the problems of international relations overtaking the national dialogue at the time. The foreign adventuring depicted is half careerist folly, half Quixotic crusade. Equally, Major Dundee fits into a wave of post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962) epic films studying flawed, neurotic would-be übermenschen, including Lord Jim (1965) and Khartoum (1966), also starring Heston, whose aura of the titanic he cleverly adapted and twisted as the taste of the time shifted from the simple heroism of his Moses: Heston plays up Dundee’s smug charisma and physical authority, striding rigidly and defiantly through a sea of infuriated Confederate prisoners, lounging with feet on table as he interviews men to join him on his ego crusade—the essence of swagger—all the better to watch him crumble in the face of impotence and self-doubt. Part and parcel of Major Dundee’s force lies in its male leads giving two of their best performances. Harris, in his first starring role in an American film after This Sporting Life (1963) made him famous (he learned he’d been nominated for an Oscar on set), delivers an expert alternation of gestures soft, batting his eyes with almost coquettish appeal at ladies who stumble into his path, and hard, as when he replies with the precision of a spitting cobra to an uppity Southron underling, “I’m not your uncle, you redneck peckerwood.”

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Dundee and Tyreen are unruly Dioscuri for this neo-Iliad, symbolic of contrasts and engaged in a constant battle of wills made all the more fraught by the personal affection underlying their conflict and their intense similarity, a common thread of Peckinpah’s work. History is written in their names, the troubled dichotomy of Scot and Irish and their relationship to external power amplified by the new domain’s schism of Union and Confederate, loyalist and rebel. But neither man is so singular, each containing more than a little of the other, Tyreen primly correct in his chivalrous pretences, Dundee bullishly individual as the company man. It is very easy indeed to see the pair as Peckinpah’s projected self-concept, his awareness of his volatile and contradictory place in the movie industry and his society in general, as well as his anxiety over where that might eventually lead him. Tim Ryan could be young Peckinpah thrust into the wilds of China, about to be treated to all the great and terrifying experiences a youth could ask for. Around this triptych Peckinpah and his fellow screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and Oscar Saul create a Dickensian gallery of types. The most important is Jim Hutton’s Lt. Graham, another professional but inexperienced soldier seeming to lack all of the ornery specificity of Dundee and Tyreen, in love with artillery, his specific discipline, but initially inept at the ordinary soldierly business of mustering men. Soon after Dundee leads his men in the wilderness, Arthur Hadley tries to bait Aesop, sparking a fight between the two men that becomes the first test of the uneasy contract of the company. Dundee leaves it to Tyreen to intervene as he should, but Dahlstrom takes a hand first, defending Aesop and beating the crap out of Arthur: “Preacher, you sure kick up a lot of dust with your sermon!” one soldier complains as Arthur lands on him in a cloud of dirt. Tyreen then defuses the stand-off that seems imminent by praising Aesop and his men for their professional skill. Legitimacy is acknowledged, a barrier broken, a new paradigm instantly created.

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Peckinpah’s love of odyssey narratives dictates that Major Dundee become a tale as much about the journey and the picaresque epiphanies that come on the way as it is about goals and climaxes, anticipating the vignettes and cultural purview of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1973) as well as the cracked romanticism of Junior Bonner (1972). The expedition is soon brutally tempered when Charriba lures the major into a trap, sending an elderly member of his war party to entice the Americans with the chance of recapturing the children taken captive during the massacre. Dundee loses many men in the subsequent fight when Charriba’s stroke falls on them during a night river crossing. The company manages to fight their way out, but with their supplies lost. The only choice before Dundee is to head into a nearby village that’s garrisoned by the troops from the French army, in the midst of the Juarista rebellion.

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Entering the village, Dundee and his men bear immediate witness to the brutality of the imperialist repression, hanged men dangling from ropes as warnings (according to an urban legend, Peckinpah had real dead bodies used for the scene), and happily use force to extricate the French from their garrison. Bloodless revolution segues into happy fiesta, as the villagers throw a party in celebration. The bedraggled men of Dundee’s force are tended by Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the Austrian-born wife of a local doctor who has been put to death for helping the rebels, and her protégé Linda (Begoña Palacios, Peckinpah’s future second wife). Teresa is archetype for many of the women who cross paths with Peckinpah’s men, as starkly individual and closed-off as them, tantalising in her open and giving sensuality, but also potentially frustrating to their machismo for her unwillingness to be defined entirely by one lover: Dundee, Tyreen, and Graham compete for her favour, whilst Linda, an energetic sprite, deflowers Ryan in the midst of an explosion of joy.

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The village sequence is close to the best thing Peckinpah ever did, a dream of frontier chivalry and communal festivity, the unifying desperation for a sense of purpose, colour, and nobility to life rather than petty oppression and everyday tyrannies. As such, it counterpoints the notorious ballets of blood in The Wild Bunch, eros to its thanatos, whilst also clearly providing the blueprint for the later film’s sadder, more elegiac village visit; the village could well be the same, taking the later criminal band as the ghosts of the good fellows under Dundee, the degraded end of the dream. The sequence also represents Peckinpah’s most overt nod to Ford, reproducing one of Ford’s favourite gags of the young tenderfoot skewered in the butt by an apache arrow and tended with necessary roughness, leading into a sprawl of behavioural delight, from Dundee and Tyreen both plotting how to seduce Teresa only to be foiled by rubber-limbed, half-shickered Graham cutting in for a dance, and Ryan and Linda swapping a look of knowing intensity before ducking out. Linda chasing after Ryan to give him his hat in the midst of the morning’s hangovers and pausing for a farewell kiss certainly represents Peckinpah’s most tender, sentimental interlude.

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Dundee has a good tactical reason for letting his men get wildly drunk and the French officers escape—to entice more French soldiers on a punitive mission and ambush them. This tactic gains Dundee’s forces supplies and arms and time to recover to return to dogging Charriba’s trail, but it also lays the seed for a potentially destructive rift in the group when the memory of the sensual delights of the village becomes too strong and O. W. absconds. O. W. is dragged back by a search party, accompanied by Teresa, who’s hiding out from French reprisals, and Dundee makes clear his intention to have O. W. shot as a deserter, sparking the smouldering rage of the Confederates. The straightforward hunt has devolved into some kind of existential quest, the point of which is lost deep in Dundee’s psyche and can’t be extracted except in crisis.

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The lust for transcendence that drives Dundee beyond the bounds of safe and sane enterprise is, interestingly, a trait that links him with Charriba, whose predations represent not tribal interests but Charriba’s warlike ego, making him and Dundee less fighters for their distinct cultures and more like Sergio Leone’s eternal warriors in an appropriately primal landscape. It emerges early on that Charriba clearly wants to destroy Dundee to create a Little Bighornish legend for himself “to be sung around his tribe’s campfires for a thousand years,” and declares with cackling delight when he thinks he’s about to drop the fatal stroke, “Who will you send against me now?” But Dundee and company instead ambush and destroy Charriba in a deliberately anticlimactic battle, having suckered him in at last by turning his egotism against him. Ryan’s maturation encompasses internal struggle of a kind none of the others can share, in large part because the campaign against Charriba is more personal for him than anyone in spite of his tender years: his pain for the loss of his comrades and his desire for mindless revenge on the Apache scout Riago, whose loyalty is in doubt to everyone except Potts, become interior rhymes to the external conflicts between the other men. Riago’s innocence is grotesquely proven when he’s caught and killed by Charriba, but the chieftain is then himself gunned down by Ryan on the cusp of believed victory, marking both the perfect last of Ryan’s rites of manhood and also the ironic punchline of the great drama: Ryan’s feat is the sardonic undercutting of another man’s myth.

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The landscape Peckinpah creates is brutal and littered with sights and sounds affixed with dreamlike intensity and totemistic import. A blood-smeared cloth tied to a cross made with a sapling and a sabre. A dead girl dressed in white lying riddled with arrows being picked up and carried away by dark-suited men. Flayed, tortured bodies dangling from ropes, another pinned to a tree in a frontier pieta. One-armed and bible-touting righteous warriors. Lakes and rivers of pellucid stillness contrasted with dangling corpses. Moonlit meetings between would-be lovers amidst stark ruins that stand like the gates between lives. Linda and Teresa each watching with sad pride as the scrappy heroes depart. Columns of dazzlingly coloured French dragoons carving the ruddy Mexican earth. Dundee pictured in the moment of his victory surrounded by the barbed branches of a thorny tree, reckoning the size of the felled Charriba with Ryan (“He doesn’t look so big now does he?” “He was big enough, son.”). Signs of human civilisation infiltrate the landscape, already burnt and blistered by time and elements, structures of bare brick like rotten teeth jutting from the earth. Peckinpah’s framings, via Sam Leavitt’s excellent photography, alternates surveys of a vast and impersonal land with tangled and thorny hives, Peckinpah’s urgent desire to get across the feel of the earth, dust, and heat as part of the texture of his film, becoming all the more palpable the farther he drives into the Mexican hinterlands, and the essential mystique of Peckinpah’s sense of this place is created.

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Heston interestingly noted that he and Peckinpah’s quarrels were partly generated by their schismatic concept for the work: Heston wanted to make a film about the Civil War via the microcosmic drama, whilst Peckinpah was already wrestling with the interior struggle of humanism and nihilism that would later galvanise The Wild Bunch. This split accounts for the volatility of Major Dundee and its lack of narrative balance, but also gets to the heart of the film’s power, the dialogue of external and internal wars. Dark frontier logic emerges as Dundee asks why their Apache guides would betray their own kin and help the gringos, to which Potts replies, “Well why not? Everyone else seems to be doing it.” The execution of O. W. provides a crucial pivot in the psychic drama in the film, a bigger event than Charriba’s death as the limits of Dundee’s authority and Tyreen’s honour—and through them everything they stand for—are tested through the awful spectacle of a man begging for his life (an exceptional moment for the ever-excellent Oates): Tyreen actually does the dirty work of killing his subordinate, in part to diffuse the blame, but he promptly vows to kill Dundee once the mission is completed. Dundee begins to fray, taking time out for a sexual frolic with Teresa in the woods, straying beyond the limits of his command only to receive an arrow in the thigh from some of Charriba’s raiders, as close to a castration as cinema could get. Dundee is crippled and Tyreen, still fuming, pointedly asks, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Amos?”

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Dundee has to be taken into Durango, garrisoned by the French, to get medical attention and recover. Ensconced in a grimy rented room, Dundee rapidly descends from imperious leader to alcoholic wretch bedding his nursemaid, Melinche (Aurora Clavel). This sequence, and particularly the moment when Teresa comes to visit Dundee and finds him with Melinche, is the exposed nerve of Peckinpah’s work here, the feeling of a deep personal investment in Dundee’s cringing shame and debasement in the eyes of a woman he respects, the depiction of deep regret and the fear of being exposed as pathetic, febrile, and helpless, a moment of King Lear-like gravitas and utterly immediate emotion that seems all the more telling considering that Peckinpah was reported to have done more or less did the same thing during the shoot. After Teresa leaves abruptly, Dundee turns into a lonely, slovenly wanderer limping about the town, unnoticed by locals and French alike. The movement depicting Dundee’s disgrace in Durango was mostly cut and left as a ghost in the original theatrical cut, and the most crucial part of the film’s restoration a few years ago. Dundee is rescued unwillingly by Tyreen, who, for all his punitive bluster, enters the town to find him and drag him out whilst the rest of the company fight off the French: Dundee tries to fight Tyreen off before collapsing and begging him to leave him to wallow. But Tyreen does manage to drag him away and soon Dundee resurges, now, tellingly, equipped with the kind of wily circumspection and understanding of his enemy, who was in part himself, that gives him the key to destroying Charriba by making a run for the border and forcing his foe to give chase if he wants his great event.

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That fight ends, and Dundee and Tyreen stare at each other in a loaded moment wondering if they can actually duel or not, but then the appearance of pursuing French cavalry makes it an unnecessary question. The Americans find themselves trapped, with French dragoons lined up on the far side of the Rio Grande, determined to punish the rascal Americans. Thus, Dundee has no choice but to lead his men into a final action. The concept of violence as omnipresent, orgiastic consummation of base impulse that would consume Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs (1971) isn’t quite nascent here, partly because Peckinpah’s use of Seven Samurai-inspired slow-motion action shots, which would be used to concussive effect on The Wild Bunch, was unceremoniously excised by the studio, although the ensuing fight is still notably bold in depicting blood spilling to an extent very few films had done before. The depiction of men who have learned too well that they have feet of clay making a tilt at regaining their honour by taking on a corrupt regime in an impossible battle is nonetheless as crucial here for Peckinpah as in his works to come. The battle is a whirlwind of brilliantly handled action that retains a hint of Ford’s jauntiness, complete with Tyreen getting himself mortally wounded by saving the company’s flag from the French commander in a gesture not of mere patriotism, but for faith in the fellowship the men have created, thus recreating their country in miniature before riding into the midst of the massed French to die a death at once glorious and ugly. What’s left of Dundee’s troop rides into the Texan sagebrush, with the fitting final confirmation that their return home has come on the cusp of the Civil War’s very end, Dundee, the captain of the ruined band who are now, once again, countrymen.


25th 10 - 2014 | 6 comments »

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Director: Roger Corman

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By Roderick Heath

When you want to talk about Roger Corman, you have to take into account that there is at least three of him. The most famous is the low-budget film director and producer whose name became a by-word for cheap and tacky movies, building small empires from the stray audiences and industrial detritus of the movie business, and whose career has stretched from providing screen filler for drive-ins to VHS shelves to VOD. The second, the won who received a special Oscar, fostered the careers of dozens upon dozens of actors and filmmakers, some of whom went on to have major Hollywood careers, by giving them jobs in his low-rent domains, trusting young on-the-make talent in the same way that he, lucky in his time, got unexpected breaks and became a film director before he was 30.

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The third Roger Corman is perhaps the most controversial, insofar as many deny he exists, and yet has been acknowledged elsewhere ever since Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival: the important American filmmaker. Corman’s ingenious touch and wily acumen as a director, perpetually motivated by the most nakedly mercenary wonts and yet somehow always characterful and idiosyncratic, had been apparent since his early work like The Day the World Ended (1956), and his first work in the horror genre, if a rather jokey one, The Undead (1957). Those films were made at a time when Corman’s place on the lowest rung of Hollywood belied his status as one of the few filmmakers in town tackling the psychic underside of modernity via perfervid little fantasias designed to tap the tastes and wallets of young audiences. This he essayed through a brand of cinema that seemed, through its very sparse and straitened creativity, to approximate the mind-space of Elizabethan theatre: even something as magnificently absurd as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958) has the kind of delightful quality to it that suggests a play put on by talented kids after raiding the old chests laden with forgotten potential props in the attic. Usually working with screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, Corman’s films, for all their diverting lacks in production values, often had rich conceptual cleverness and an impudent take on storytelling niceties that often legitimately strayed into the territory of the post-modern. Just as a crudely lettered sign could fill in for a forest in Shakespeare’s day, a man in a tatty monster suit could be the hinge for Corman’s films to become little fugues and bonsai myths.

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In 1960, Corman made a move up-market. American Releasing Corporation, the company run by B-movie specialists James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, had morphed into American International Pictures, thanks in part to Corman’s gift for penny-pinching and money-spinning, and their seizure of the nascent youth market. Corman sold them on the idea of making a more ambitious type of product to what they had so far done: to make a relatively classy horror movie in colour, to try and reach the same market Hammer Studios had recently uncovered. Needing a subject to go up against Hammer’s repertoire of Gothic literary sources, Corman chose as a subject a specifically American source of horror fare, one that was also, conveniently, in the public domain: Edgar Allan Poe. The first film he adapted from Poe, House of Usher, proved such a hit that AIP immediately became a dominant force in the new, wide-open post-studio era of exploitation cinema, and Corman made a slew of Poe adaptations in the next four years: Pit and the Pendulum and Premature Burial (both 1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (both 1963), and The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964), as well as two films that fit thematically if not pedantically into the series, the famously, hastily assembled The Terror, and The Haunted Palace (both 1963), named for a Poe poem but actually the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story.

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Corman turned from his usual writing team and commissioned a screenplay for House of Usher from well-regarded sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Matheson was contributing scripts to Rod Serling’s epochal TV show “The Twilight Zone” at the time, and Corman also used scripts by another of the show’s writers, Charles Beaumont, for the Poe series. But the true key to the success of the series was gained when Corman obtained the services of Vincent Price, a stage and Hollywood actor who had a frustrating career in movies for fifteen years, usually playing smarmy upper-crust playboys or menacing Byronic types, until House of Wax (1953), one of the few major American horror films of the decade, had turned him at last into a niche star. Price started drifting towards becoming a full-time horror actor as the decade wore on but many of the films didn’t know what to do with him, for instance The Fly (1958) which cast him as straight man: Corman however offered him roles that stretched his gifts and played on his capacity to shift from avuncular to menacing on the drop of a hat, and offer facially and vocally expressive performances influenced by theatrical melodrama perfectly attuned to the stylised, expressionistic needs of Gothic horror. Price starred in all of the Poe films except for Premature Burial, which featured Ray Milland, lending his inimitably over-large style in cunningly pitched variations that confirmed his second career as a cult figure. In Pit and the Pendulum, the second of Corman’s Poe films, Price plays two parts which merge towards the end, conjoining those two poles of his personality.

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Pit and the Pendulum opens with a desolate and eerie vista traversed by a lonely coach, setting the film’s toey, tense mood in motion. Poe’s original story, one of the most brilliant examples of the writer’s gift for composing what seem like remembered nightmares recorded in lucid detail, was a tale of sadistic suffering anticipatory of Kafka and Orwell, set in a Spain where the terror of Inquisition becomes a cosmic force, and the hero is only rescued in the last few sentences by an avenging army. Corman’s budget couldn’t cope with that, so he and Matheson stuck close to the template that had worked on House of Usher, sticking with the Spanish setting and theme of the Inquisition but shifting the location to a remote castle and revisiting the gambit of an outsider, this case John Kerr’s invasive Englishman Francis Barnard, entering a family house dominated by an intense and morbid air of familial guilt. Worked into the story is a greatest hits-like collection of Poe themes like burial alive, personality possession, erotically-tinged guilt and melancholic obsession. Francis comes to Spain in search of facts about a woman, in this case his sister Elizabeth, who had married Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Price), but has recently died in mysterious circumstances.

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Arriving on the blasted, Salvador Dali-esque shoreline where Medina’s castle teeters on the edge of a sonorously rolling sea, Francis bangs on the door and demands admittance with a haughty, bullish determination to learn why his sister died. He soon finds himself up against a thicket of confused explanations, with the mood of distrust heightened by Nicholas’ bleary sense of responsibility, and the sketchy details of Elizabeth’s demise which prove to have been partly covered up. Soon Francis pries from Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and family physician Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone) the truth as they know it, that Elizabeth died from a heart attack, caused by her accidentally sealing herself into an iron maiden in the torture chamber conveniently located in the castle’s basement, which morbid allure had drawn her to: the chamber had been constructed by Nicholas’ father Sebastian, an infamous torture artist employed by the Inquisition.

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Unlike the mostly mood-driven House of Usher, however, Pit and the Pendulum develops an inwardly spiralling mystery with the classic Gaslight (1940) theme of machinations to drive a person mad for worldly gain. The characters try to solve strange portents infesting the castle, including signs that Elizabeth may well have risen from the grave, a possibility that touches Nicholas deeply. The trauma behind Nicholas’ quivering anxiety and specific fear of burial alive is rooted in an anecdote Catherine has to relay to Francis: Nicholas secretly witnessed Sebastian (also played by Price in flashback) luring their mother (Mary Menzies) and her lover, his brother Bartoleme (Charles Victor) into his torture chamber, where he bashed Bartoleme’s head in and tortured their mother before walling her up alive. Although Leon assures them that Elizabeth was quite dead, the mysterious sounds of her beloved harpsichord being played in the night, a whispering voice shocking the maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) whilst cleaning Elizabeth’s room, and Francis’ discovery of a network of secret passages, begin to suggest the true situation is stranger. Francis eventually theorises that Nicholas is creating the disturbances himself, because he’s mentally unbalanced and suffering dissociative fits. Acting on the possibility that Nicholas’ own belief that Elizabeth might still be alive or at least to satisfy Nicholas’ obsessive anxiety, the men break their way into the sealed crypt below to investigate. In her coffin, they find a gnarled and twisted body that does indeed seem to have died in screaming agony whilst sealed in alive.

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The blend of firmly geographical realism with an undertow of obsessively morbid style that steadily eats into the texture of the film until it breaks out in hallucinogenic blooms, exemplified by Pit and the Pendulum, became Corman’s specific touch. Amongst Corman’s Poe films, this one had probably the most evident, immediate impact on some of Corman’s rivals, particularly Italian brethren including Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, from whom he in turn stole Steele: Freda remixed the plot of Pit and the Pendulum for L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hichcock (1962). As Paul Leni and Tod Browning had done years before, Bava would accomplish so masterfully on Operazione Paura (1966) and John Carpenter would manage on Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), Corman transforms environment and the absence of people and action into a dramatic element key for creating tension and mystery, as cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s camera restlessly probes the Medina castle in the night, the camera suggesting a lurking intelligence in spite of the absence of human presences, long before the eerie sounds of Elisabeth’s harpsichord begin to echo about the castle.

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Author Stephen King has said the moment of the discovery of Elizabeth’s entombed body marked the start of a trend towards ever-more-intense shock-effect horror in the genre, and it is arguable that the film provides the bridge between the lip-smacking sadism of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and the eventual sub-genre based around torture as source of horror that flowered regrettably in the last decade or so. Where Hammer had effectively drenched its horror films with Technicolor to paint them in illustrative verve that made them stand out at a time when the genre was usually too cheap to afford colour or still essaying mood through Expressionist lighting, Corman was the first filmmaker since Michael Curtiz’s work with two-colour Technicolor in the early ‘30s to really seize on the format as an expressive tool, carefully employing costuming and décor in commentary. In spite of the cramped budgets, Corman’s eye for talent snared him two collaborators with years of experience in studio cinema, Crosby and art director Daniel Haller. The palette they created for Pit and the Pendulum grips the actors in a world of musty browns and greys, the dust and dirt of the grave infesting the frames, except for carefully coordinated splashes of colour.

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Corman was fond of blurring the boundaries between distant past and future, and even dramatized the idea in Teenage Caveman (1958), as time eats itself, ouroboros-like. Even the land around the castle has been desiccated as thoroughly as by nuclear fallout, one way in which Corman manages to link the threat of desolation he had explored with real fascination in his scifi, with its nuclear age angst, with Poe’s timeless psychological realm. In a similar way, Les Baxter’s scoring, the most inventive of the composer’s work on the Poe series, utilises electronic sounds and strange, almost musique concrete effects throughout, throbbing and droning in weird, echoic manner, recalling the score of Forbidden Planet (1956) but with futurism replaced by atavistic dread. When Steele’s Elizabath finally appears, rising like a wraith from the shadows, she is nonetheless wrapped in brilliant white with blood-stained fingers, a perverse angel crawling her way out of the fetid psychological trap her husband’s obsessions inadvertently forced on her and which she has now turned into a weapon. Corman would get to work out this concept most fully in the colour codings of The Masque of the Red Death, where he gained Nicholas Roeg as a collaborator. It’s hard not to read Corman’s background as a trained engineer – a career he abandoned after two weeks – in the precision of his use of space and elements, as well as the on-time, on-budget ethic he stuck to as a filmmaker.

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The Poe series tends to take pre-eminence in serious appraisals of Corman’s oeuvre, understandable considering their higher budgets and concomitant, relative smoothness and vivacity, although they do lack to a certain extent the antic humour, self-reference and self-satire that define so many of Corman’s cheaper early films, which shone out particularly bright in the knowing burlesques on Poverty Row enterprise and minor entrepreneurial artistry in A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors, the multi-genre send-up in Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), and his mini-epic of meta-humour, Rock All Night (1957). But the bare-boned, apocalyptic morality plays he was also good at – The Day the World Ended, Gunslinger (1956), The Last Woman on Earth (1961), The Intruder (aka Shame, 1962) – provided a basis for the conceptually hermetic, sparsely populated, intensely oneiric worlds he conjures in the Poe films. One of the most interesting aspects of Corman’s works lay in how, even in his cheapest films (indeed, sometimes particularly there), he was one of the few directors of his era who incorporated visual art as both an element in the films and as stylistic guide, in a fashion similar to how other filmmakers were leaning on Saul Bass to inject their work with the same veneer of stark, modernist quintessence. The pretences to classical integrity in the Poe series stymied his playfully deconstructive instincts his early films often displayed, but Corman compensated by turning the films in referential pieces, quoting Poe on screen during the films to provide literary bookends to his visualisations. The opening and closing credits depict seething colours, a simple effect rendered with paint running in oil, making everything in between some like the feverish product of a mad artist. Artworks that seem to contain the remnant personalities of their subjects becomes a recurring motif in Corman’s films, here manifesting first when Nicholas shows Francis portraits of his father and of Elizabeth, rendered in anachronistic styles, and later, in the waking-nightmare finale, ghoulishly stylised paintings of hooded monks glaring down at the tortured hero, turned into twisted, elongated icons with a faint of echo of Eisenstein’s perversion of medieval Russians into human illustrations in Ivan the Terrible (1945-57), breaking down the barriers between set, décor, costuming, and camera effect. Reality starts to melt on the edge of mortality as the paintings are doubly distorted by lens effects and screen-flooding colours.

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Corman’s later, brief shift into semi-experimental, psychedelic film with The Trip (1967) notably followed on from both the technique and themes he was exploring here and elsewhere in the series, presenting the mind unfettered experiencing past, present, and dream-state in a melange. Moreover, a theme that threads through much of Corman’s oeuvre, a portrait of the attempt to create as a process involving eternal frustrations and cruelty to both self and others, blithely portrayed in stuff like Rock All Night, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, but more seriously engaged repeatedly in the Poe films, The Trip, and elsewhere, here crystallises as Nicholas laments his incapacity to transcend through art in his attempts to capture Elizabeth’s face on canvas, and so, again like many of Corman’s antiheroes, recreates himself to cope. Corman’s noted admiration of Ingmar Bergman, again expressed more completely in Masque of the Red Death, feels most acute in this theme with similarly obsessed the Swedish master, if essayed in far more high-falutin’ ways. True to the intensely psychological understanding Corman and Matheson both shared in relation to Poe’s tales, they relentlessly link the dank, mysterious abodes beneath the castle with the fetid areas of the mind, the castle a mimetic map of that mind, and signal that in spite of Nicholas’ surface vulnerability he maintains a dangerous and obsessive link with his father’s world. When Francis first enters the dungeon, Nicholas appears suddenly from a closed door – a trick Corman repeats when Elisabeth bursts into the film – behind which the sounds of machinery working have startled Francis and Catherine: all Nicholas will say is that “machine needs constant repair.” Why on earth Nicholas needs such a machine we only learn in the climax.

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The deliberate, patient, neurotic tempo of Pit and the Pendulum tightens a spring that won’t release until the finale, but punctuated with brief outbursts of hysteria and intensely rhythmic fulcrums, including the sequence where the men break into Elizabeth’s tomb that sees the hacking pickaxes becoming time-keepers counting down to their own entrance into the tomb, and the later scene where Nicholas finds himself exploring hidden passages. He’s drawn on by the siren call of what sounds like his dead wife, the dazed and terrified man becoming steadily more distracted, at first cringing as he touches thick cobwebs and then stumbling through them without noticing. When Nicholas follows this labyrinth to the opened tomb and sees something climbing out of his wife’s coffin, Corman doesn’t shift the beat, but watches just as calmly as Nicholas retreats in panicky fear and finally collapses until Steele’s Elizabeth suddenly erupts from the shadows screaming his name, turning her husband, or her prey, into a scurrying animal and then catatonic cuckold. Nicholas survives however by going constructively mad, as it becomes clear that Leon and Elizabeth are lovers who have plotted to destroy Nicholas by driving him mad. Nicholas then arises, his own personality subsumed by his murderous, tyrannical father, closing the very circle of inevitably inheritance Nicholas had feared but also armouring him against evil.

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Price gives a quintessential example of his gift for oversized, expressive style, perhaps indeed one of his most florid, although his showiness, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of grand barnstorming melodrama actors as Tod Slaughter, disguises his skill. Price shifts between personas with consummate ease and provides the film with its dramatic nexus, telegraphing Nicholas’ quivering boy-man fear and anguish striated with fixation, his constant worry that he might inevitably inherit his father’s evil dooming him to just that. Next to him, everyone else except for Steele looks stolid and strained. Kerr, whose big claim to fame prior to this was appearing in Tea and Sympathy (1958), has the relatively thankless job of playing Francis, who mostly comes on as obnoxiously insensitive, but he’s effective enough as sounding board for Price’s spectacke and plays the character with admirable chilliness that makes Francis seem, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, to be something like its villain, relentlessly pounding on vulnerable and empathetic Nicholas’ fragile nature. Francis proves however to more a hapless interloper, in a vein that renders him intriguingly close in function and identity to the “final girl” as that figure would arrive in the ‘70s horror genre, as he loses all agency and undergoes terrible suffering and has to be saved by a woman and servant: here Corman and Matheson clearly signal something changing in the genre. Anders, who also appeared in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide the same year, had a kind of raw, slightly uncertain charm that suits her character, who retains innocence amidst the emotional wreckage that is her family legacy and has avoided her brother’s neurosis but certainly feel the weight of experience, staring blankly into her own imagined version of family horror as she narrates it to Francis.

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For horror fans the undoubted appeal of Pit and the Pendulum acting-wise lies in seeing Price and Steele together. That promise was partly hampered, as Steele had her speaking voice post-dubbed by another actress, because her regional English accent sounded oddly out place amidst the mid-Atlantic brogues everyone else in the cast adopted to play Spaniards. Nonetheless Steele’s physicality blazes for her few minutes on screen in her first major movie after being promoted to genre stardom by Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), her remarkable face, the very image of the femme fatale capable of shifting between modes of porcelain doll-like beauty and utter evil, leering gleefully over Price’s prone form, sweetly mocking him with the litany of people who have betrayed him or sinned in his immediate life. Gloating pleasure turns abruptly to queasy fear as Nicholas starts laughing back at her, and grasps her as if the most intimate lover’s embrace as Elisabeth squirms fearfully in his arms before gagging her and shutting her in an iron maiden. Transformation via psychotic breakdown unleashes demonic sexuality as Nicholas/Sebastian gives Elisabeth a voracious kiss. This wonderful moment nails down the base erotic element in so much of the horror genre, the alternations of power within sexuality, the broken wall between desire and hatred, as well as the performative skill of the duo.

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Nicholas’ insanity next leads him to chase down Leon, who plunges to his death in a secret pit, and so Francis, who stumbles down into the dungeon in search of Nicholas and finds him now entirely subsumed by the personality of Sebastian: Nicholas knocks out Francis and substitutes him for Leon as stand-in for Bartoleme, and subjects him to Sebastian’s ultimate torture machine – the pendulum. Nicholas/Sebastian gloats over his tethered victim before setting the torture machine in motion and memorably welcomes Francis to his zone of nullification of reason, giving it names from a panoply of cultures and describing it as the ultimate metaphor for the state of human kind before setting the gears in laborious motion and the machine begins lowering the blade remorselessly towards Francis’ stomach. Price goes gleefully for the rafters here in one of his bravura shows of theatricality, but both he and the film also, finally reach the point of crisis they’ve been working to with sneaky skill, both filmmakers’ showmanship and torturer’s converging to offer a spectacle of torment that allows perfect summation of both the plot and the obsessions of the characters, from Nicholas’ torment/fascination to Francis’ obsession with knowing the whole truth and being given an intimate lesson in fate.

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The final action is entirely riveting, as Catherine and servant Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) break into the chamber: when finally they gain entrance, Maximillian battles Nicholas whilst Catherine tries to halt the pendulum, resulting in Nicholas falling to his death beside Leon and Francis only saved by the thinnest of margins. This is thanks in no small part to Catherine’s pluck and awareness, which up until then have been neglected, another of Corman’s most integral themes. The ending is technically happy as the good guys stumble away unharmed, and yet Corman saves up one of the most coldly ironic final shots in horror film history, as Catherine, Francis, and Maximillian leave the dungeon. “No-one shall enter this room again,” Catherine vows, only for Corman to veer his camera back to the iron maiden from which the gagged Elizabeth stares in silent mortification, doomed to the nastiest possible punishment for her crime. The ritualistic final quote direct from Poe that ends the film ironically fills in a description of the very sound Elizabeth can’t make: the primal scream of purgative fear.


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