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Director: Pablo Larraín
By Roderick Heath
The biopic has become the most reliably rancid of contemporary prestige film genres. It’s supposed to be a mode for exploring vital cultural and historical touchstones in stirring, dramatic, thought-provoking fashion, and nothing should be as rich and strange as the life of a great man or woman explored in all its implications. But the biopic has instead become excruciatingly formulaic and facetious even as it reliably captures awards for actors. Pablo Larraín, one of the most interesting talents to emerge on the world film scene in the past decade, has turned his hand to not one but two biopics this year, with the implicit promise to shock the form back to life. He comes mighty close with a diptych of smart, epic, often electrifying filmmaking. Larraín’s cinema has thus far been strongly rooted in his native Chile’s tumultuous modern political and cultural history, explored through films like Tony Manero (2008) and No (2012), works particularly concerned with the lingering ghosts of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a tyranny initially backed by the CIA and defined by the inescapable gravitas of the modern epoch’s dichotomies. But Larraín’s concurrent, more particular interest is with the way we perceive such history and culture, the way they feed and distort each other. Particularly in an age of mass media, that great fount of mutual reference and levelling messaging so often sourced in the United States, the king of the heap in the Americas, the place where butterflies of intrigue and reaction have so often flapped their wings to cause earthquakes in Latin America during the fierce social and ideological ructions and sometimes outright conflict that defined the Cold War.
Neruda explores relatively familiar territory for Larraín in this regard, taking on an episode in the life of arguably Chile’s most famous cultural figure, the poet and political activist Pablo Neruda, whose experiences and career were forever inflected by the repressive tilt his country took in the 1940s and who died just as the Pinochet regime was ascending in the 1970s. That episode is turned by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón into a Shakespearean pastoral comedy-drama like The Tempest, where banishment and eternal searching are the prices paid for honesty and the use of magic. Jackie, on the other hand, sends Larraín on a trip north to adapt a script by Noah Oppenheim and stage a shift of perspective, one located right at the great axis of power in second half of the 20th century at its most dazzling and frightening pivot: the end of the Kennedy administration, a grotesque play of blood and toppled power on just about the only modern stage Shakespeare’s tragedies could unfold without diminution. The two films offer a wealth of binaries contemplated in opposition – North America and South America, man and woman, communist vs. capitalist, political vs. creative power. Both films do, to a certain extent, exemplify a tendency in recent biopics to engage in portraiture through deliberately limited focus on the lives of their subjects. Neruda depicts only the few months in 1948 during which the poet attempted to remain hidden in Chile even whilst being declared verboten and hunted by the police, whilst Jackie concentrates almost entirely on the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy and his widow Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy’s attempts to define his legacy and her own life through the process of arranging his burial.
Neruda is inflected by a peculiar evanescence, at once elated and melancholic, and the use of arch literary tropes to reorganise the reality of the event into something befitting a memoriam to an artist who belonged unashamedly to the age of literary modernism, whilst Jackie depicts an attempt to turn violent, messy reality into a form of art itself. Neruda’s most overt conceit is to offer a viewpoint not through its title character but through his nemesis. This fictional antagonist is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a fatherless by-product of the nation’s whorehouses and slums who has ennobled himself relatively by claiming the name and heritage of a founder of Chile’s police – a happy bastard, identifying himself with the state and its hard, disdainful fist. His narration, mordant and cynical and casually lyrical as we’d like the poet’s voice to be, drags the film along, offering a constant counterpoint to things seen on screen, delivering witty and withering putdowns of the nominal hero Neruda from the very start, when the Neruda (regular Larraín face Luis Gnecco) is enjoying the last moments of the gleefully feted, decadent artistic-bohemian life he leads even as a Senator of the nation and hero of both the Communist intelligentsia and proletariat. Thus we see Neruda, dolled up in drag amidst his amigos in their orgiastic revels, reciting his most popular poem for the billionth time, as the detective sardonically notes this mob of well-off, well-travelled, oversexed elitists claim to stand up for the ordinary people. But Neruda’s downfall is already nigh. He breaks with the President whose election he supported, González Videla (equally regular Larraín face Alfredo Castro), because Videla has imprisoned union leaders and striking miners in a concentration camp, as prelude to banning the Communist Party.
Neruda and his wife, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), try to cross the border into Argentina as they sense the heat rising, but are turned back on a technicality, and soon they’re forced to hide out in the apartment of a glum ally. So begins a game of hide and seek between artist and persecutor where Neruda lives books and missives to taunt and intrigue his unseen opponent, whilst the detective relishes the thought of the prestigious, high-living superstar forced to live a life of drudgery: “By now the poet must be chopping onions for his repugnant fish stew.” But the period sees Neruda more productive than ever, writing the poetic history Canto General and other works taking aim at the government, foiling the government through simple but effective devices for getting his words out. Neruda is blunt about its hero’s failings, his rampant priapic needs, his hunger for attention, his occasionally piggish treatment of his wife as their exile tests and finally nullifies their nonconformist union. But it also carefully teases out his ardent connection with Chileans of all stripes, the real fibre of his conscientiousness, and the peculiar place of the artist in their culture, so often barely detectable and yet equally so vital. Larraín illustrates such moments of genuine connection, as when Neruda visits a brothel and recites a poem for the prostitutes, including a transvestite chanteuse, who later recounts to Peluchonneau the sheer uplifting delight in the candidness of Neruda’s amity in contrast to the contempt and reproach of the law, and the power of his art to elevate. Neruda tries to assure a fellow Communist and hotel maid that the revolution when it comes will make everyone a project of glory rather than diminution to the lowly status she’s always known. Later, when Neruda’s exile is biting more sharply, he weepily hugs a street beggar and gives her his jacket as if his own problems are a mere irritation.
The detective’s hunt becomes all the more frustrating as he is constantly presented with the problem of the detachment of the people from the power he represents and their tendency to identify with the mercurial poet rather than the adamantine lawman. In a hilarious sequence, Peluchonneau has Neruda’s Dutch first wife invited on a radio show for the sake of character assassination, only for her to rhapsodise about his qualities, apart from the fact he owes her money. Meanwhile Neruda tests the limits of power with delight in the occasions he gets to treat his travails like a freeform artistic act, delighting in disguise – he dresses up as one of the prostitutes in the brothel to elude Peluchonneau, and later poses as a Mexican tourist in splendid white suit – and turning the act of the hunt into a game of signs and obtuse communication, a pursuit where the detective is trying to gain the measure of a system of thought and approach to life he’s purposefully rejected. Larraín employs some devices similar to Michael Almereyda’s equally eccentric biographical study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015), particularly in the deliberately archaic and unconvincing scenes of characters riding in cars before back-projected landscapes. This calls back to both familiar classic Hollywood film technique but also recognises it as a vehicle of surrealist strangeness, a method of the poetic easily found in the supposedly stolid methods of old-fashioned moviemaking. The photography is reminiscent to that of No, which was shot on an old camcorder; the textures of digital cinema here, preternaturally sharp in stillness and fuzzy in motion, refuse sentimentality about the past whilst still sometimes isolating vistas of great beauty and capturing the feel of Chile, particularly during the final phase of the film. That portion depicts Neruda’s escape from Chile, a move sponsored by his Communist fellows as it seems increasingly inevitable he’ll be captured, whilst Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) is whipping up international interest in his plight in Paris.
Little of Neruda’s actual poetry is heard in the film, in part because of a recurring tragicomic joke that most people only want to hear the one poem over and over anyway – Neruda’s greatest hit – and because the film proposes to alchemise it into the texture of cinema itself, as Larraín dances through expressive refrains and motifs, alternating realism and hyperrealism, grit and romanticism, solid historical account and flight of metaphoric fancy. Peluchonneau is nominated as the poetic persona through which Neruda’s self-accosting, sometimes scornful, sometimes alienated contemplation of his place in the world is interrogated. Fillips of airy dialogue drop on the voiceover, as the detective calls the Andes “a wave that never breaks,” and evokes the ghosts of future past as Larraín’s camera explores the hellhole the dissident miners are exiled to in the midst of the Atacama Desert’s aptly desolate reaches. “Those who try to escape turn to pillars of salt,” Peluchonneau recites: “But no-one ever escapes, because the prison captain is a blue-eyed fox. His name is Augusto Pinochet.” The process of mythologising is contemplated as anyone who comes into contact with Neruda in the course of this adventure becomes subject to two layers of transformation, via Neruda’s artistic perspective and Larraín’s filmmaking, in both of which Neruda is the pole of all action. Neruda himself is a kind of artistic act: his real name is Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, a fact that’s used by the government as an excuse to prevent him leaving the country. When Peluchonneau encounters Delia after Neruda has taken his leave of her, heading for the border, she informs him that they’re not real people who have become woven into Neruda’s legend, but rather his creations who are struggling towards life.
The counterpoint of sound and vision in this manner, the restless, roaming quality of Larraín’s imagery and the ambient commentary by the voiceover, contrasts the game of motion with an increasingly contemplative, transformative perspective, a rite of passage for the innermost soul of the Chilean character, pulled by the unremitting gravitas of stern authoritarian nationalism on one hand and the expansive dreamscapes of the Latin American inheritance. The finale works as both sarcastic, antiheroic replay of such epic journeys in tales of dissidence and exile as those found in movies like Doctor Zhivago (1965), Cry Freedom (1987), and Kundun (1997), with hints of the Homeric grandiosity of westerns like The Searchers (1956) too, as Neruda and his entourage and Peluchonneau and his underlings venture into Chile’s rainy, mountainous, finally mystically-tinged southern regions. Here the detective discovers the limits of authority as a rich local man aids Neruda just for the anarchic pleasure of it, and Peluchonneau’s own henchmen knock him out and foil his mission, as they too don’t want him to succeed, or at least can’t be bothered venturing into danger’s way for his sake. But this is also the scene of a peculiarly rapturous movement towards apotheosis and rebirth. Peluchonneau, dazedly stumbling after his quarry into the snow-capped mountain peaks, “dies” but gains new existence as the emblem of his nation’s confused heart and avatar of the poet’s ability to redefine the national character, the sprout from a seed of awareness and possibility planted by Neruda’s art.
Jackie similarly deals with a person close to the political epicentre of a nation but also set at a tantalising, frustrating remove from it, forced to settle for becoming a psychological lodestone, and learning to work through the soft power of culture. It envisions Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) as a woman who tried to turn the seemingly supernal role of first lady into the post of national historical conscience, a mission described in recreating her famous television tour of the white house with all its wooden, tentative charm. The murder of her husband John (Caspar Phillipson), an act at once terrifyingly intimate and personal and also instantly the stuff of morbid public obsession, also provides the catalyst for her to take this effort to a larger, more consequential level, in the attempt set the appropriate seal on an epoch suddenly and violently curtailed without any apparent, natural climax. The film’s first third is a headlong experiential event with jarring contrasts between past and present, the present being Jackie’s private, one-and-one interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) one week after the assassination, and the event itself, pieced together in shards of gruelling detail. It’s made immediately clear that the interview Jackie is submitting to is intended as no purgative of raw emotion or the type of confessional we adore so much today, but a ruthlessly controlled exercise in directing and defining the face Jackie is showing to the world: the journalist has agreed to let her check and edit his notes. Jackie, with her preppie lisp suggesting a delicacy her spiky eyes belie, is still engaged in a campaign that began the instant her husband died, or perhaps has been waged since she married him.
Jackie shifts into flashback and recounts the immediate aftermath of the President’s death, an almost moment-by-moment recreation except for the crucial moment of the assassination itself, which instead comes in brief, ugly snatches, befitting Jackie’s own confused memory of it and emphasising the moment as something so fast and awful that it can be parsed and probed but never properly known – Jackie’s memories of her husband’s shattered head rolling on her lap, her flailing desperation on the limousine trunk, trying haplessly to collect piece of John’s skull, and the limousine’s flight for safety along a motorway like a headlong rush into a great white void, are just as mysterious to her as to any observer. The passage from downtown Dallas back to the White House is described in exacting terms and clinical detail, stations of the cross visited as Jackie watches Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) get sworn in whilst still wearing her blood-soaked Chanel suit, waits through his autopsy, and rides with his coffin along with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Just as Neruda notes the seeds of later history, so here too we glimpse defining moments in the midst of seemingly chaotic events, as Bobby casually sparks Johnson’s feud with him by bossing him around even though he is now in command. These scenes are a tour-de-force for Larraín in conjuring the sensation, at once intense yet detached, of intense shock and grief, and for Portman in capturing those feelings. Her Jackie fumbles for clarity and necessary detail, making plans and declarations of intent and defiance, amidst friends and figures of import, their stunned, patient solicitude in stark contrast to her hyper-intense grappling for focus. Jackie reenters the White House still in that suit, a figure out of Greek drama, the queen suddenly without king or kingdom, dressed in rags of primal violence.
The sharp contrasts of Neruda and Jackie’s backdrops, the neo-imperial glamour of the Kennedy White House and the earthy environs of post-war Chile where Neruda must hide out, are nonetheless defined by a common sense of space as a form of meaning. The constriction of the poetic impulses Peluchonneau relishes imposed on Neruda contrasts the stage for realising a grand vision of a newly mature sense of power and prestige the White House offered Jackie, as backdrop for high statecraft and meaningful action. Bobby roams its space dogged and taunted by the memories of great acts, particularly a room that was formerly Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet room and the place where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, now the nursery for the Kennedy kids, where Jackie registers the same atmosphere as one of beneficent calm. But this stage turns into a trap for Jackie, filled with the detritus of an irrevocably ended life – the antiques she laboured to restore now have arguably more substance to them. The nature of the battle ahead of her, clearly in her mind even in the frantic moments after John’s death, is how to ensure that his tenure in the office doesn’t get instantly lost in the flow of events and the indignities of history. The Kennedy family wants to claim John’s body and spirit it back to the family plot, but Jackie, with her awareness of history and the role of purposeful theatricality in it, instead lays down a plan to see John entombed as poet-king with pomp patterned after that of Lincoln’s funeral. She picks out a space in Arlington for his grave, braving the sucking mud and rain that lap at her high heels as she finds the perfect spot for the fallen Cincinnatus. But her orchestrations are threatened by possible turf wars as Johnson’s new administration takes charge and with the lingering anxiety that John’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald might not have been acting alone. Other conspirators might try to strike at the funeral procession.
Jackie extends the concerns of Neruda but also more urgently those of No in contemplation of political theatre and its meaning – the use of artifice in defining a common sense of reality. The purposefully poppy, sugary flavour of the advertising at the heart of No, wielded as part of a successful campaign to unseat Pinochet’s government, is here contrasted by the grim and grand business of mourning and memorialising. Jackie finds both an accomplice and a cynical check in this project in Bobby, who, equally angry and frustrated, rails against the amount of work left unfinished, without a firm foundation of achievement except for the double-edged sword that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie on the other hand sees this as precisely what lends mythos to her project, the image of the hero cut down midst-battle. Sarsgaard’s casting as Bobby is cunning – not quite as All-American handsome or perma-boyish as the original, he nonetheless readily wields the sharp, critical, hard-bitten intelligence of a foiled and internally injured princeling, matched by Portman’s equal evocation of a similarly unsentimental, but determined spark. Jackie and Bobby’s shared scenes crackle from the mutual awareness of their status as pieces still on the board of political chess but stripped of offensive power and protection, both of them leaking anger and resentment, whilst also riven by powerful, squalid emotion and trying to play appropriate roles as grieving loved ones. “History’s harsh,” Bobby hisses in a squall of bitter pathos as he beholds his sister-in-law as she counsels him not to second-guess himself: “We’re ridiculous. Look at you.” Meanwhile Jackie struggles with the necessity of telling her two children they’ve lost their father, as well as perhaps the grim necessity of using them as props in the theatre of grief. And there’s the looming inevitability of being turfed out of the White House to find whatever life remains for her.
Jackie is a study in grief and grieving, whilst also analysing how such a figure as the wife of the President of the United States, and indeed any major figure, is so often obligated to find ways to express private and personal feeling in public and discernible ways. Left alone, briefly, in the great sepulchre that is the presidential mansion, she drinks, dresses up, and listens to the soundtrack of that fateful musical Camelot, Richard Burton’s stentorian grandeur scoring as she revisits the yardsticks of a high-life all the while aware that already the living reality of that tenure and the man she shared it with is rapidly slipping into abstraction. Jackie’s true emotional furore, her anger at John’s infidelities and feeling of being pathetically abandoned, she admits to a priest (John Hurt) the White House staffers find for her. The latter part of Jackie rhymes and counterpoints fleeting moments in free-flowing, Malickian snatches. The islet of graceful success that was a performance by Pablo Casals (Roland Pidoux), representing the “Camelot” dream for Jackie versus the heady pomp of John’s actual funeral. The admissions of dark and inchoate feeling Jackie offers the priest versus the carefully crafted but perhaps no less honest descriptions she offers the reporter. The central, irreducible urgency of John’s death and the moments of delirium that followed it, and the moments of pleasure and frivolity that defined the Kennedys’ marriage at its best, still perhaps to be plucked from the fire.
Though Jackie lacks a device as clever as Neruda’s fictionalised antagonist to tether its ideas together, the same motif is present in Jackie, as the priest and the journalist are both known only by those blank job descriptions, functions of its heroine’s designs, the two faces of the human project, private and public, chorus to her life. The priest sees the anger, sorrow, and desperation, the reporter witnesses Jackie’s thinly veiled contempt as a Yankee aristocrat for media hype and frosty, wilful self-composure in the face of desolation and solitude, but both men are only ever seeing a facet of a person. Portman’s performance is both refined enough not to mute the intense emotion of the character but also detached enough to remind us it’s all an act on some level. The one moment of unmediated feeling comes fairly early in the film, as Jackie wipes her husband’s gore from her face, a distraught mess. It’s a sight difficult to countenance and stands as a biting corrective to the semi-pornographic quality of emotive insight we so often seem to demand in this mode of biography. So here’s a great woman with her husband’s blood splashed over her face. Are you not entertained? For the most part, Jackie counters this, via its lead character’s frost intransigence, with a determined look instead at the sublimation of emotion into creation. We see, bit by bit, the legend of JFK and Camelot fashioned to make sense of a terrible moment and to offer a new locus of political meaning.
It’s possible to read the film as reclamation and a riposte to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), a film named for the man but which also utterly erased him and the horror inherent in his demise from its focus, chasing the echo of bewilderment and derangement that followed his death through an endless house of mirrors. Jackie by contrast depicts the paranoia squirming under the surface of the days following the President’s death, the fear of guns and madmen and conspirators in every shadow, but also dedicates itself to studying the acts that rob such spectres of power, as well as the utterly intimate, corporeal reality of such a death. The flaws of both Larraín’s films are as complimentary as their qualities. Neruda has a subtle but cumulatively telling difficulty finding a powerful end-point for its cleverness, in part because there is no natural and obvious climax for a story about the unseen influence of literature. The second half of Jackie maintains its stylistic intensity, but cannot entirely hide the rhythm of the familiar portrait biopic blueprint in Oppenheim’s script – here’s the scene where she reaches a crisis point, here’s the scene where she stands up for herself against a usurper (Max Casella’s Jack Valenti), here’s the scene where she shows spunk and challenges Charles de Gaulle to join her in marching through the streets, jolts of tinny hype in a film that needs none.
Jackie’s authority remains on a visual level, as it zeroes in for a climactic emphasis on the point where private and public experience coalesce, and Jackie, wreathed in black veil, triumphant in her desolation, becomes martyr. Through Larraín’s eye, the empress of the Yankees becomes, both fittingly and sarcastically, an incarnation of that most Latin American of mythical figures, La Llorona, the spectral mother who cries for her lost children but who also mediates all the grief in the world. But she’s also suddenly a fashion plate, as Jackie sees from a car her personal style on sale in storefronts – pop icon, avatar of chic and grace under pressure. Two such personas could be considered a form of insanity or a fulfilment of a yin-yang view of existence, the withered branch and green leaf. It would be easy to interpret Jacqueline Kennedy as Larraín’s avatar as both student and sceptic of the arts of political myth, disgusted by its necessity. But Larraín’s fascination is more than merely cynical, signalled in No through his ability to see both the absurd and important facets of such arts. The innermost thesis of both Neruda and Jackie is the necessity of such construction, the need to create ways of seeing to counteract the spasmodic absurdity of communal life, which so often seems to take random swerves from the best and worst sides of natures. Even as the fact of that absurdity remains impossible to deny.
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Director: Frank Wisbar
By Roderick Heath
Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.
Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.
The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.
This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.
Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.
Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.
Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.
The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.
The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.
Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.
Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.
The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.
In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.
One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.
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Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass. For whatever reason, they departed before Glass had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and at first literally crawling his way cross country, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.
Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up. But the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.
Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision right at the outset: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.
Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was by all reports already amazing. His adventures included a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.
Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.
The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.
By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.
Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.
Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.
Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.
The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth or stage one sweeping chase sequence—he gives variations on both several times.
DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.
Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.
Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.
Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
By Roderick Heath
Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.
The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.
The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.
Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.
Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.
This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.
Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.
The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.
Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.
Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.
At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.
Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.
At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.
Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.
Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.
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Director/Screenwriter: Masato Harada
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The story of Japan’s surrender to Allied forces on August 15, 1945, which unofficially ended World War II, is one of obvious interest to the Japanese people. In August 1967, director Kihachi Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day, the first major film to deal with this event, premiered in Japan (and showed at the 1968 Chicago International Film Festival), where it was a smash hit. Now we have a new film version of that story. Of course, remakes are standard operating procedure in Hollywood and something audiences around the world are used to, but some in Japan have wondered why The Emperor in August needed to be made.
Director Harada felt the time was ripe for a retelling, not only to reveal established and new information about the surrender to a new generation of Japanese indifferent to their country’s history, but also to correct some misperceptions about the emperor’s responsibility put forward in two American histories that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and 2001, respectively—John Dower’s Embracing Defeat and Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. His approach eschews the melodramatic style of Okamoto’s film to reveal the workings of Japan’s constitutional monarchy and the real power behind the symbolic power of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito).
When the film opens, Japan’s war effort is on its last legs, and its government is faced with the decision of whether to accept the Potsdam Declaration Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender issued by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Chinese Chairman Chiang Kai-shek or go on fighting. Harada focuses mainly on Prime Minister Suzuki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the aged general who reluctantly formed a new cabinet at the request of the emperor (Masahiro Motoki), Army Minister Korechika Anami (Kôji Yakusho), and Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Sakomizu (Shin’ichi Tsutsum) as the main political players in deciding the fate of the Japanese nation.
Anami is a proud soldier who believes the Japanese could yet win the war through a coalition of all of Japan’s military branches and has the joyous support of the army in pushing for the “decisive battle” on Japanese soil, using the Soviet sacrifice of 20 million soldiers to win the war against Nazi Germany as an example of what can be accomplished. The emperor (Masahiro Motoki) implores Suzuki to persuade the cabinet to accept the Declaration, fearing that there will be no Japan if all of its people are killed; the “new bomb” has already been dropped on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki will be bombed within the film’s timeframe. Suzuki is old and mostly deaf, but he knows that if he presses Emperor Shōwa’s case, he could be executed for treason under the terms of the constitution, which grant no governing authority to the emperor. Sakomizu observes and records every cabinet meeting, an uncomfortable neutral party in a war of words and passions.
The 2¼-hour film is filled with politicians and military brass moving from meeting to meeting, securing the emperor underground after the Imperial Palace is destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo, and outsmarting the army, which is poised to stage a coup. Yet it is the more personal moments in the film that resonate most deeply. Anami is shown at home having dinner with his wife, daughter, and future son-in-law as they plan their marriage. Despite the material privations and bombing threat, Anami insists that they start the marriage right with a grand affair at the Imperial Hotel, though the venue will change when the hotel is burned in the firestorm. Anami is deeply touched when the emperor asks him late in the film whether the wedding occurred as planned—a show of concern from a godlike man that convinces Anami that his sacrifice of his political position and his life in the honorable ritual suicide of seppuku are in service to a worthy man and his cause.
The prelude to his suicide—the suicide itself is shown in semigraphic detail, including the politely refused offer of one of his retainers to “relieve (cut off) the head”—is intermixed with scenes of his wife walking for four hours to bring her husband news from a soldier who served under their beloved son, who died in battle at age 20. She arrives in time to see his corpse laid out carefully by his retainers under his uniform, and delivers details of her son’s service as though Anami were sitting across from her drinking tea. The decimated countryside through which she travels is the only time we see the common people of Japan, and their lot is desperate indeed.
Harada lavishes attention on the gung-ho young officers, focusing on Major Hatanaka (Tôri Matsuzaka) as the touchpoint for all of the young officers who refuse to accept surrender, the loss of national sovereignty, or a diminution of the position of the emperor. The emperor has made a recording for national broadcast in which he reads the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War. The officers seize the radio station, though quick thinking by Sakomizu puts the recording out of their reach. They later try to coerce a general into signing a false order to continue fighting; Hatanaka shoots him when he refuses and forges his signature—an ink impression of his official seal. The passion of these nationalists is furious and intense, a reminder of why war and nativism stubbornly persist.
The film is mainly procedural and a bit confusing until all of the characters are firmly assigned in one’s mind; a quick review of the history of this event in an encyclopedia would help audience members make sense of some swiftly moving action. Harada offers some visually stunning moments, which include the glow of Tokyo burning to the ground and a vision of fully flowered cherry trees that Suzuki fears will never bloom again if the war continues. His landscape of faces front extremely impressive performances of all the principal actors, with Yamazaki and Yakusho particular standouts, the former full of shrewdness as well as decisiveness, the latter burning with pride and a surprising vulnerability. I hoped against hope that he would wait for his wife to arrive before gutting himself, perhaps allow her to talk him out of it, though, of course, she would never even try, military families being what they are.
Harada hopes that this film will help frame the debate in Japan about rewriting the country’s pacifist constitution. He wrote a line of dialog with this in mind: “Gun o nakushite, kuni o nokosu” (get rid of the military, save the country).” No one can say for sure whether The Emperor in August will provide the wake-up call Harada thinks his country needs, but his masterful treatment of a crucial historical moment should be must-viewing for any serious cinephile or student of history.
The Emperor in August has only one screening, on Sunday October 18 at 1:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)
Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)
Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)
Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
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Director: Roger Corman
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has come to Chicago. The Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting most of the 21 films, curated by Mr. Scorsese and restored with the help of his Film Foundation, now through July 3 as part of the traveling show that audiences in 18 lucky cities (so far) in the U.S. and Canada will have a chance to view. Pharaoh, an Academy Award nominee, is a film that, up to now, has been treated very poorly. The long, rather slow film has been available almost exclusively in truncated, dubbed, or faded versions and as hard to see, even in a bastardized version, in Poland as it has been in the rest of the world. The new DCP version reveals the majesty of this adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s late 19th-century novel about the fictional Ramses XIII at the fall of the 20th dynasty and New Kingdom of Egypt. Although I can’t be sure, the story appears to be based on the reign of Ramses VIII, a pharaoh who ruled for no more than two years and about whom almost nothing is known—the perfect blank canvas for a writer whose complaints about the authenticity of most historical novels allowed him to provide the best available information about ancient Egypt at the time without needing to worry in the least about being accurate about his characters.
In what is surely one of the best prologues to a film I’ve ever seen, the opening credits roll over a parched patch of earth as the clashing, atonal score of Adam Walachinski sounds. The portentousness of this introduction finally resolves as a pair of dung beetles push a round turd from one side of the screen to the other, battling to possess it. A functionary’s face rises into the frame, and he runs the length of several regiments to the high priest Herhor (Piotr Pawlowski) to inform him that the sacred scarabs are in the direct line of the advancing troops. Herhor orders the troops to go around the beetles to avoid trampling them, to the protests of Ramses (Jerzy Zelnik) and the despair of a Hebrew slave (Jerzy Block) who spent 10 years digging a canal that Herhor now tells the troops to fill in so that they can advance. This opening perfectly communicates on both symbolic and literal levels the clash between governmental and religious leaders, the latter a frequent whipping post for director Kawalerowicz, as well as the puniness of their struggle in the face of the vast, uncaring forces of nature and history.
Ramses is a young, ambitious man who craves his own military command and the chance to wrest control of Egypt from the priests who have both the confidence of his parents, Osiris-Ramses XII (Andrzej Girtler) and Nikotris (Wiesława Mazurkiewicz), and control of a vast cache of gold held in the temple labyrinth for a “time of great need.” Ramses has modern ideas, believing in science and in using the gold to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians and pay for a first-rate military force to help Egypt regain its stature and power on the world stage. Instead, he must go to Dagon (Edward Raczkowski), a sleazy Phoenician merchant, to borrow enough money to pay the soldiers to whom he rashly promised bonuses. Thus, when Ramses XII dies, the stage is set for a power struggle between the new pharaoh and the priests.
Pharaoh provides a heady mix of stunning visuals and set pieces that bring this ancient world of sand and superstition vividly to life, while at the same time concentrating on its intimate human drama with an expositional style that has much in common with Shakespeare’s works—indeed, the scene with Dagon seems almost directly lifted from The Merchant of Venice. Contrasting it with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which was reviewed below by Rod, is a useful exercise because Pharaoh actually conflates its story with the story of Passover while making obvious reference to the Nazi Holocaust to form a continuum of Jewish suffering that, while much more understated, actually packs a powerful punch.
Whereas DeMille, the grand showman, created a world so fantastical that his film is a legend in its own right, Kawalerowicz creates an almost alien and primitive world in which the power of myth and ritual is real and rather terrifying. The entrance of Ramses XII to court is handled with great chanting and solemnity, his every move as stiff and controlled as a hieroglyph. A complete believer in his own place in the divine line of Egyptian pharaohs and thus seeing the priests as enablers of his strength, he puts down young Ramses’ earthly concerns about being denied a military command with a simple, but crushing authority that the heir to the throne, no shrinking violet himself, cannot oppose. Ramses XII’s final ritual—his burial—is a dread affair, with female mourners leading the procession down a passageway to his tomb with wrenching wails, turning to face the walls to allow the funeral bier to pass them as a downward shot lends a claustrophobic angle to the scene; while we do not see these retainers locked in the tomb to serve their lord in the afterlife, the implication is there.
At the same time, Kawalerowicz takes pains to suggest that the priests are charlatans. After the opening scene, Ramses meets Sarah (Krystyna Mikolajewska), a beautiful Jewish slave who came out to the desert to see the army, and has her brought to the palace as his mistress. She gives birth to a son who, during Ramses’ absence, she names Isaac at the insistence of the priests. With this evidence of his son’s Jewishness, Ramses demotes Sarah to servant of Kama (Barbara Brylska), the priestess-mistress chosen for him by the priests, who seduced him in her temple by appearing and disappearing as if by magic (or, if you prefer, cinematic magic tricks).
Later, when the Egyptian people are induced by Ramses to storm the temple labyrinth, Pentuer (Leszek Herdegen), a prophet sympathetic to Ramses, tells him that an eclipse of the sun is about to occur. Herhor mounts the high wall of the temple labyrinth and stretches his arms to the sky, and the day goes dark. While the populace panic, screaming and running from the scene or digging in the sand to try to hide themselves, Ramses reminds himself to elevate the priests who study the sky to a higher position at court, deflating a dramatic moment with his modern mind. This eclipse, along with a bit of hyperbole from Nikotris that the water has turned to blood, as well as the murder of Sarah and her son, Ramses’ firstborn, echo the plagues visited upon the Egyptians by the god of the Hebrews that DeMille gave so much divine force.
The Hebrews themselves are hardly seen, apart from Sarah and the canal digger. The former seems much beloved of Ramses, but there is no salvation for her or her son inside the palace walls. The canal digger, told he and his family would be freed once the canal was finished, commits suicide following the order to fill it in. The echo of the slogan of Auschwitz, “Work Makes (You) Free,” certainly cannot be mistaken by a modern audience, and the image of the man hanging from a tree limb outstretched above the canal looks less like a suicide than a lynching—it is an image that comes to haunt Ramses, and with the counsel of Pentuer, a peasant elevated to priest, sets him on a course of public welfare that ensures his reign will be a short one.
There are moments that, in DeMille’s hands, would provide entertainment and thrills of the highest order. Sarah sings a Hebrew song to Ramses. Ramses drives his chariot through the desert. Ramses’ army attacks an Assyrian force many times its size and wins. Ramses and Hebron (Ewa Krzyzewska), the fiancée of Ramses’ right-hand man Tutmosis (Emir Buczacki), flirt while Tutmosis hovers nearby. Tutmosis, sent to arrest Herhor and Mephres (Stanislaw Milski), another high priest, is speared in the back by a traitor to Ramses. I can just hear the music punctuating each exciting moment, every footfall sure and rapid, a grin of pure abandon on Ramses face as he races to his destination. In Kawalerowicz’s film, however, each scene is as life itself. A scene of troops running up and down sand dunes shows it to be a slow, clumsy affair. Tutmosis doesn’t clutch himself and keel over as sinister music signals his death—he twists and squirms as his attacker continues to jab him, taking forever to succumb. Sarah sings a slow lament with her back to the audience, as though praying at the Wailing Wall. The complete lack of prudery in the film normalizes Ramses’ promiscuous sexual appetites and frees the other characters from jealousy. And driving a chariot takes concentration—it’s not a ’50s hot rod. Each of these scenes is beautifully realized by the stellar cast and DP Jerzy Wójcik, but we feel as though we are actually part of the scene rather than voyeurs looking for some thrills.
Kawalerowicz offers brutal reality on a personal level as opposed to mass slaughter. Ramses makes good on his vow to take 100,000 Assyrian hands, as baskets of severed hands from the fallen enemy soldiers are carried off the field of battle. A captured Assyrian horse becomes the target of one, then another, then another spear as Ramses gets his men into a fighting spirit. A confederate of Ramses who says he knows the path to the treasure chamber gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinth before taking poison upon his capture. Ramses shoots birds with arrows with the superstitious notion that if he hits each target, he will get what he wishes for. I can’t but think that this is how ancient Egyptians lived, and Kawalerowicz took great pains to stick as close to the historical record as possible, even building a boat for a scene on the Nile according to 4,000-year-old plans.
Kawalerowicz combined shooting at Łódź studios with location shooting in Uzbekistan and Egypt. The latter location provided him with some strangely poetic moments: Ramses laments that he will never build his own grand tomb to stand with the pharaohs of ages past as we look at the Great Pyramids, their outer skins ragged and time worn, a head of an ancient pharaoh toppled to the ground. These details make the story more lamentable, the greatness of this civilization—like all great civilizations—perishable. Even before his demise, Kawalerowicz seems to suggest, Ramses is already finished.
I was utterly captivated by the use of wigs in this film—Mazurkiewicz even went so far as to shave her head to wear one as it must have been worn in ancient times. Apart from the opening credits, music is only used diagetically, which cannily prevents us from soaring above the drama. The entire cast, led by a regal and rash Zelnik as the strong core of the film, is superb, communicating a great deal with a single look or movement. The villians, particularly Dagon and Kama, were a bit stereotypical, but not distractingly so, nor were Ramses and his compatriots glowing paragons of virtue. None of us will ever have the chance to experience life in ancient Egypt, but thanks to Pharaoh, we can at least imagine this remote time and its concerns. Moreover, Kawalerowicz has given us another approach to epic filmmaking that allows for our empathy and participation. With so few filmmakers working in this manner, the return of this film to its full glory is a welcome addition to the library of world cinema.
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Director: Josef von Sternberg
By Roderick Heath
In the hectic days of 1920s Hollywood, Jonas Sternberg, son of Austrian Jewish emigrants who had lived in the United States since childhood, was just one of many prodigious blow-ins. But he worked his way up through the ranks, and eventually appended an exotic, aristocratic background to his resume for his prestige-hungry industry by adding “von” to his name. The affectation fit Sternberg, a fan of the similarly faux-Junker, equally talented Erich von Stroheim, as it suited his aesthetic sensibility and self-image as outsized cinema artist, with a boldly cosmopolitan outlook and floridly artistic eye. He found success as a director with his stylised melodramas, like the prototypical gangster film, Underworld (1927); The Last Command (1928); and Docks of New York (1928).
Sternberg’s delight in rapturously visualised storytelling was threatened as cinema culture changed with the coming of sound. His first work in the new medium, Thunderbolt (1929), wasn’t popular, so he accepted an offer to work in Germany on an adaptation of a Heinrich Mann novel, which became The Blue Angel (1930). For the film, he made the discovery that would revive his career, and then mark it forever, by casting Marlene Dietrich as the femme fatale Lola-Lola. Dietrich gave Sternberg a face to fetishize, a model to construct intimate and spectacular cinematic dreams around. Dietrich was Sternberg’s canvas and alter ego, an actual upper-crust German, as imperious on screen as Sternberg wished to be off it. The Blue Angel became one of the most legendary films of the early sound period and an international hit.
Few collaborations of director and star have sustained as much mystique and fervent fascination as that between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s work with Dietrich remains something of a by-word for the quasi-erotic entrapment that can develop between the director male and the acting female, a reputation that probably stands in the way of the duo’s very real accomplishments. Sternberg brought Dietrich back to Hollywood with him, and initially gained great success in a feverishly creative partnership, as the fleshy Teutonic ingénue transformed into svelte Hollywood goddess. But within a couple of years, things were running off the rails. Having initially cast Dietrich as an amoral tart, and then as a redeemable woman of mystery in films like Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), Sternberg elevated her to majestic feminine power with The Scarlet Empress, whilst the main male protagonist becomes the rueing fool, seemingly a studied autobiographical portrayal of how the power relations between director and star had steadily evolved.
For a time, however, it looked like both were doomed. Repeated flops sent Sternberg to the fringe, and Dietrich struggled to find a way to make herself acceptable to audiences tired of continental mystery. Dietrich recovered and became a fixture, but Sternberg, in spite of making several great films in the strangest ways and places after their union was sundered, remained an exile. The Scarlet Empress looks both forward and back, but is fundamentally unconcerned with its moment—the stolid, businesslike mid-1930s. The passion for visual expressiveness harks back to the already faded apogees of late silent film, as does the blending of New World energy and sardonic attitude with a hysterically Never-Never Land take on Russian political antiquity, in opposition to the stately, stagy charms of sound’s new prestige cinema like Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Cavalcade (1933), or Conquest (1937). And yet it plants seeds for high cinematic style’s resurgence with directors like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein in his later works, and through to modern filmmakers.
The air of fin de siècle folly is exacerbated by awareness that the film’s calamitous flop was partly due to being targeted by Legion of Decency condemnation, making it a figurehead for the rising regime of the Production Code and the Hays Office, to which the film’s ornery sexuality and feverish celebration of an open id’s vision of history feels like a last blown raspberry. Sternberg reinterprets the life of Catherine The Great as a kind of filthy novel passed around the girls in a boarding school, girls much like the naïve but excitable young lady Catherine was when she was still called Sophia Fredericka. Raised by a sternly fixated mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth (Olive Tell), as one of a stable of marriageable Hapsburg princesses, Sophia is introduced as a small girl (played as a child by Dietrich’s own daughter Maria) suffering from scarlet fever, already being bullied by her mother to conform to the plans for her, though her wry doctor encourages a show of defiance: “Stick out your tongue and say ‘ah.’”
Her tutor, Wagner (Edward Van Sloan), reads to her accounts of the wicked excesses and depravities of Russian nobility, accounts that spin Sophia’s rapt mind off into a whirl of sadistic delights. This is the first show of Sternberg’s wild imagery, a startlingly stylish roundelay of blood-curdling cruelty, with the various depictions seeming to “turn” as if on pages: a naked woman tumbling out of an iron maiden; men tethered in semi-abstract arrays, a horizontal tracking shot depicting a proliferation of bound hands; cruel machines with men spinning on them; an enthusiastic executioner lopping off heads; a gleeful Tsar tearing open the blouse of a trussed young woman; another beaming with lunatic pleasure as he rings a huge bell whose clapper has been replaced by some victim; and more stripped, topless lasses being burnt at the stake. Even after you’ve seen this sequence a handful of times it’s hard to process, so raw and stunning is it, how barely censored, how far beyond the pale of what would very soon be Hollywood norms. Sternberg uses blurring effects in the scene transitions to just slightly mask the bared breasts and gore. What makes it doubly weird and potent is the fact that a young girl’s head is being filled with this stuff and that on some level, like many kids, Sophia delights in such morbid detail. It will define her understanding, and, later, her wholehearted entrance into that world.
The grotesquely sexualised violence anticipates the friezes within the palace of the tsars, Sternberg cheekily dissolves from the man swinging in the bell to the grown Sophia, now a blond-ringleted, doll-lipped, wide-eyed naïf on a garden swing, signalling her fate has been sealed. Indeed, when she returns to the palace, she learns that her mother and slightly more empathic father, Prince August (C. Aubrey Smith), have arranged for her marriage to Grand Duke Peter of Russia. The rakish Count Alexei (John Lodge) has come to collect the princess, and Sophia’s mother insists on accompanying them to Russia, just managing to stymie Alexei’s nascent desire to seduce Sophia before their arrival. Met with all the grandeur and pomp of the autocratic state, Sophia is plunged directly into the midst of an insanely Byzantine world. The suffering victims of the early montage now seem to live within the fabric of that state, as the palace is filled with carved grotesques and statues mimicking and mocking the pretences of the living people who share space with them.
Although based on Catherine’s diaries, The Scarlet Empress is mostly a hymn to the way history ought to have gone, presenting Catherine at once as liberated debauchee and yet also cleansing force of futurism, and casually dismissing the national history as a hymn to “ignorance, violence, fear and oppression,” of which the grotesque Peter is a perfect example—imbecilic, devolved, and malignant. That was certainly Catherine’s own story, though some historians now think Peter was a much stronger liberalising influence who fell afoul of reactionaries thanks to his goodwill for Prussia and democratic proclivities. Sternberg doesn’t even seem to think much of Catherine as enlightened despot, describing her rather as the Messalina of the North, although that’s eventually revealed to be a kind of compliment. Although The Scarlet Empress depicts a woman rising to power in a highly masculine realm, Sternberg finds this logical, depicting it as a triumph for the exceptional female who harnesses men as a source of power through sex and charisma.
Catherine emerges, however, from the clasp of powerful matriarchs, in this case, her mother and then her stepmother, Russia’s present ruler, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), who makes it perfectly clear to young Sophia that she’s been imported to give Russia an heir, and changes her name to Catherine to meet parochial standards. When Catherine is introduced to her husband-to-be, she finds Peter (Sam Jaffe) diverging widely from Count Alexei’s description of an exemplary specimen of manhood: he proves to be a bug-eyed half-wit with a free-floating id, a love of toys and a black-haired, feral-like mistress, Countess Vorontsova (Ruthelma Stevens). She has a habit of appearing at inopportune moments to collect the gadgets Peter leaves behind him, hoping to catch people in incriminating poses, as she does Catherine and Alexei. The gadget, a kind of spinning wheel with a soldier mounted on it, offers one of Sternberg’s many visual jokes, as when Peter first appears, he places it in Catherine’s lap, the rotating figure readily mirroring Catherine’s shock and sense of starting on a ride she can’t get off.
Sternberg had readily adapted to sound cinema, and indeed was one of the directors, along with the likes of Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, and Fritz Lang, who had done the hard work of proving the new form could balance visual form with the theatrical necessities of dialogue. And yet the scene grammar and structuring of The Scarlet Empress deliberately harkens back to the pure visual-tapestry effects of Fritz Lang and Stroheim, whilst anticipating the open-sprawl, elliptical structuring of later filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Sergio Leone, hacking back dialogue for many scenes and preferring visual exposition not just of story, but of character and psychology. Sternberg structures the film around two affairs of state, each building a particular rhythm, the first a plunge into eroticised hell. Catherine and Peter are married in a scene of heightened, almost dreamlike-beauty, where only Peter’s mad eyes belie the insidious realities behind the plethora of religious icons, veils, spectacular ornaments, robed holy men, and faces.
Sternberg binds Dietrich, Jaffe, and Lodge together in serial edits, making it clear the marriage is a strange kind of ménage a trois bound by guilt, jealousy, fear, and lunacy. Dietrich’s face becomes holy icon, as a votive candle is held up before her face in voluminous close-up, good looks transduced into adult beauty, the proximity of the candle sharpening the image with the kiss of hot light seeming to burn both pretty cheek and cinema screen, at the edge of both religious transcendence and infernal pain, as she is transfigured from single girl to woman who is going to have to survive in a world where marriage is a soul-rending crucible. The wedding gives way to arcane ritual, as Orthodox ministers bless the marriage bed, making it clear that Catherine has not married a man so much as a state, whilst she journeys to the wedding banquet through the bowels of the palace with more of its bizarre statuary.
The banquet is just as dense and tangled with overflowing detail as the wedding, but whereas Sternberg shot the nuptials from angles that carved up those details into faintly abstract, even cubist spectacles, the banquet is first glimpsed via an overhead tracking shot. The camera surveys the massive table festooned with the carcasses of roast animals and oddball decorations—a leaning skeleton arranged as if to drink from a pitcher of wine, a lushly female figurine clasping bunches of grapes, a roast deer with fruits stuck on its antlers—in a whorl of animal appetites and images of fecundity and death violently juxtaposed. A pull-back crane shot then regards the whole scene in all its teeming detail, like some vision of a Renaissance parable painter. Sternberg then offers portrait shots of the protagonists at the feasting table—fatuous Elizabeth is drunk and wobbly, doll-like Catherine is regaled by a fiddler, houndlike Alexei slouches testily, the patriarch Todorsky (Davison Clark) tilts his head in wry tedium—each lost in their own space of conflicting necessity and will, whilst other guests are unified with the twisted statues and bones. Catherine is soon installed in her bedroom, with its walls covered in spectacular gilt and icon paintings, promises of religious fulfilment both warding off evil and encaging her, as her husband, silhouetted and monstrous, steals in for the wedding night, and a title card and cutaway shows all Russia praying that night for an heir to the throne. But it soon becomes clear that Peter didn’t know what to do with her, and Catherine is increasingly browbeaten by Elizabeth for not conceiving yet.
Sternberg’s vision of the Kremlin is thoroughly psychologised, every corner dense with shadows and seemingly packed with gargoyles that leeringly mimic the stances and mindsets of the characters. Peter is a slinking, crawling id-beast, abused by his aunt the Empress, who drills holes in the walls of bedrooms for erotic insights. One of those walls is Elizabeth’s, whom he hopes to see with Catherine. One of the film’s most funny and memorable moments sees Catherine agog at the sight of Peter’s drill slowly worming its way through the eye of a portrait hanging on the wall. The hidden eyes that perceive all in a paranoid state are literalised in this shot as the décor comes to unseemly life, and reveal the luridly voyeuristic side of Sternberg’s imagination. Alexei, who starts off as the very image of a cavalier dripping masculine power, is increasingly marginalised, an onlooker of dark, marauding potency doomed nonetheless to be Catherine’s passive fool because he’s also Elizabeth’s lover. The Empress humiliates Catherine and chokes off her attachment to Alexei through an elaborate game whereby she has Catherine admit Alexei to her chamber via a secret door. Later, Catherine herself repeats the gesture with Alexei now as the unlucky doorman, as her way of letting him know why he’s out of favour, a gesture Alexei can finally only accept with wry, abashed grace. Sternberg’s framings see Alexei variously juxtaposed with arrow-stuck sufferers, looming beasts, and a horny devil that suggests both his sexual desire and his status as cuckold.
Elizabeth’s gesture in quelling Catherine’s crush on Alexei backfires, however, not on her, but on the system in which Catherine’s intended to be a mere cog. She tosses the locket Alexei gave her with his portrait out the window, and Sternberg portrays its fall as almost eternal, seeming to move through several different seasons and climes, a vision of romance wilfully denied. Catherine dives out into the snowy night immediately to find it, but instead is caught by guards, whereupon she determines to let one seduce her, initiating her into a self-willed future. The affair gives her a son, and whilst her husband’s wits are sharpened surprisingly by fury in realising he’s been cuckolded, Catherine’s motherhood is popularly hailed. This leaves her unshakeably secure for the time being, even as Elizabeth demands stringent care for the baby boy on pain of torturous execution if he so much as sniffles or coughs. Nonetheless, Peter declared war on Catherine as he invites her to his play pen to entertain her with the sight of his sawing the head off a blonde doll, signalling his intent to execute her once he becomes tsar, whilst Vorontsova mocks her. Of course, Catherine is arming herself well, having systematically seduced the entire officer corps. Peter, as a title card reveals, enjoys marching his living tin soldiers up and down the corridors of the palace when it’s raining, and stages a mock execution of Catherine. When faced with rows of fit young officers paraded before her, Catherine picks and chooses her lovers. Where Alexei almost seduced her in a horse pen as she nervously chewed on a stalk of hay, now she surveys her assemblies of manly flesh chewing on a hay stalk as insouciantly as Groucho Marx on his cigar.
When Elizabeth expires, Dietrich’s performance reaches an apogee in a subtle moment, when the patriarch rings the bell to announce the Empress’s death whilst Catherine is playing a game of blind-man’s bluff with her admirers. Catherine strips the blindfold from her eyes and, upon realising the bell’s import, her face is charged with electric fear, then exaltation and determination, now that her last defence other than what she can provide for herself is gone. The patriarch had already solicited Catherine to keep her husband from becoming tsar: “I suppose you know that the Grand Duke isn’t exactly pleased with the present state of affairs,” to which she replied, “State of affairs? What affairs? I haven’t had an affair for some time,” before assuring the priest that her own arts will get her further than any mere political conspiracy. Peter’s plotting perversely lays the seeds for his own destruction, during a particularly bratty display at a religious feast where it’s customary to give alms for the poor: Catherine and her circle donate lavishly to the patriarch, whilst Peter gives the patriarch a slap in the face, to which he responds so coolly, “That was for me—now what have you got for the poor?” Peter then offends Catherine by toasting Vorontsova and humiliating one of Catherine’s officer lovers, Captain Gregori Orloff (Gavin Gordon).
Sternberg offers more than a hint of onanistic delight in detailing Catherine’s gradual perversion from doe-eyed girl to hood-eyed seductress, but mixes it with a powerful strand of feminist-minded melodrama, a form popular in the pre-Code era that was just moving out of favour. Yet Sternberg laid a template for whole zones of modern popular culture yet to be invented. Camp culture would delight in the film’s exemplification of Sternberg’s fetishistic textures, particularly when regarding Dietrich, who occasionally becomes mere mask of female perfection bathed in delirious light and shade, shadowed by lace and veil. Shifts in status are registered in costuming in a way that rejects historicism and moves according to haute couture magazine logic: Catherine graduates from fluttery, flowery, conservative dresses to huge gowns adorned with frou frou, and then, as she charges to victory, a fabulous snow-white cavalry uniform that speaks to the deepest reaches of camp, as Sternberg, who had not shied away from spelling out Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous edge, rings the bells for his creation’s emergence not just as tsarina but as pansexual deity. Surface is gateway to truth in Sternberg’s vision here, every element placed not just for aesthetic value but also the creation of a mimetic world. Moreover, The Scarlet Empress, in its approach to a historical figure as a study of Catherine’s ascent from pawn to powerbroker, has proven persuasive; modern films taking a similar slant, like Elizabeth (1998) and Marie Antoinette (2006), do not merely evoke it, but recreate some of its accents note for note.
Sternberg’s approach, moreover, expanded the palette of Lang, Abel Gance, and Stroheim, and then permeated other directors’ sense for the possibilities of cinema even as it seemed to sink into oblivion. Michael Curtiz would slick it up and use it in his historical swashbucklers. Sergei Eisenstein would take permission from it for his Ivan the Terrible films. Similarities to and anticipations of Citizen Kane (1941) have been critically documented, particularly in the theme of lost innocence, power, and torment expressed through psyche-describing surroundings, whilst Orson Welles’ baroque Shakespeare films owe much of their similarly seething, surrealist-tinged sense of landscape and setting and internally divided visual grammar to Sternberg. The plethora of dreamy double-exposures and transformative close-ups run through an underground current into the short works of Kenneth Anger and into Martin Scorsese’s most stylised works: Taxi Driver (1976) is replete with its layered, interiorised, oneiric edge; Casino (1995) owes some of its mood of the imperial charnel house to it, as well as its swooning direction; whilst Kundun (1997) retells it as positive fable, but with a rhyming structure and vivaciously similar visual touches, like the entrance of the Chinese army carrying icons of their religion of Maoism, as Catherine’s partisans do here. Meanwhile, Ken Russell tried many times to affect a similar mix of high cultural spectacle and down-and-dirty exposé.
Sternberg had a fascination for intense, infernal moral fables, often with characters that trail their pasts like guilty secrets and are catapulted between social levels. All of his films with Dietrich contain an element of such fables, as does The Last Command. His version of Crime and Punishment (1935) walks Raskolnikov’s sweating existential terror through the expressionist world of Sternberg and fellow silent masters like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage, whilst The Shanghai Gesture (1941) similarly spins a young, spotless heroine down into Hades, where she finds she likes it. The Scarlet Empress plays its narrative as just such an innocent’s infinite corruption, but inverts the usual moral to end in a triumph that plays as cultural orgasm of nascent matriarchy. Only by accepting and indeed outpacing the process of corruption by others does Catherine master it and become a world-ordering force. The finale builds with intense rhythm as Catherine makes her move, joining her cavaliers and the patriarch for a ride first to refuge, and then into the palace. The perverted interior of the royal abode is invaded by brilliant white stallions ridden by Cossacks, raw natural force expelling evil, whilst the patriarch carries a cross festooned with a buckled Christ figure that suggests less religious exculpation than substitution.
Orloff takes revenge and does his duty by Catherine as he corners Peter in his bedroom and strangles him, a fate presaged earlier as Catherine, furious at Peter’s spurning of her at the fest, tied a scarf into a lethal knot. The soundtrack churns together Wagner and Tchaikovsky as apotheosis nears, whilst the visuals explode into criss-crossing double exposures, the very substance of the world seeming to leap as Catherine gains victory, the “1812 Overture” blaring out. The motif of political coup was undoubtedly as touchy to audiences of 1934 as was the general moral nullity, as much of Europe had just gone fascist, and the eventual downfall of the Russian nobility echoes right through the film. Sternberg subverts this, too, as he refashions the triumph of revolutions, be it American republican, Russian Soviet, or German Nazi, as the annunciation of Woman, with bells ringing out in sanctifying peals. Dietrich, beaming with almost fearsome glee, is last glimpsed with Sternberg’s wickedest symbolic flourish, holding onto the reins of her grand white steed as she is hailed by her studs. Here Sternberg again evokes the seamy flipside to the triumph, via the popular rumour that Catherine eventually died taking her obsession with large phalluses to an extreme with a horse.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Otto Preminger
By Roderick Heath
Cinematic adventuring tends to be a macho occupation filled with derring-do for the hell of it, but Forever Amber depicts a different kind of adventure and adventurer at its heart. Amber St. Claire, eponymous heroine of Otto Preminger’s rollicking, deliciously colourful take on a female rake’s progress through the underbelly and high society of Restoration England, one forced to extremes to survive whilst determinedly indulging in a life outside the safety zone of normality, no matter the cost. Forever Amber doubles as one of the more striking crossbreeds of late 1940s Hollywood cinema, as Preminger combines the lush Technicolor expanse of an historical melodrama with a powerful dose of female-centric noir. At the same time, Forever Amber also belonged to a batch of films, including producer Darryl Zanuck’s near-simultaneous production Captain from Castile (1947), that revived the prestigious historical epic with new hues of darkness and complexity not found before World War II. Sexuality and class struggle, psychopathology and feminism percolate with feverish intensity under the surface of Preminger’s fast-paced and artful rendition of Kathleen Windsor’s hugely popular, dauntingly thick bodice-ripper.
Forever Amber proved a wearisome project for Zanuck and Preminger, the latter of whom disliked the book and was far outside his comfort zone. The big-budget production ran into serious problems early in its shoot when the original lead actress, Peggy Cummins, chosen in a much-publicised Scarlett O’Hara-like hunt for a new actress, proved too inexperienced, and original director John M. Stahl, who knew his way around both strong melodrama and noir with films like Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1936), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), was over budget and behind schedule. Both director and star were swiftly replaced. Preminger, for all his disaffection, was a smart choice to take over, however, as he shared at least one trait with Stahl. Perhaps the strongest strand in Preminger’s cinema, apart from his delight in controversial subjects and moral complexities, is his fascination for transgressive, even criminal heroines: certainly such figures recur in such films as Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Carmen Jones (1954), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and in degrees in several more of his films. That Preminger, one of the most dictatorial and caustic directors in classic Hollywood, had a rich and fascinating feel for maladapted feminine subjects is notable. Many of his anti-heroines attempt to twist the world to suit their own egos, but find they are impossibly outmatched. Amber (Linda Darnell) certainly fits the mould.
Amber is left as a foundling on the doorstop of a rural Puritan family by the driver of a coach speeding to elude Roundheads in the midst of the Civil War. The coach is overtaken, the passengers lost to history, but Amber is raised in the secure surrounds of a Puritan squire’s household. Once she’s full-grown, however, Amber feels the boiling blood of a tempestuous and easily tempted nature and, far from struggling with it, resolves to leap in feet first when she encounters a cavalier, Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). Bruce, along with his friend Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Greene) and other confederates, are returning from exile and extended guerrilla warfare to claim rewards for service during the war, now that Charles II (George Sanders) has been crowned. Thrilled by these good-looking emissaries of the larger world, Amber contrives to follow Bruce and Harry to London, and despite Bruce’s misgivings, she becomes his lover.
Winsor’s novel had been a huge hit because it captured something in the zeitgeist of the immediate postwar era, coinciding neatly with the United States circa 1946. Amber is the prototypical rebellious girl dreaming of wider pastures via media-informed images of beauty and esteem, maintaining a fervent secret fantasy life even under the stern and watchful eye of her adoptive father Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll), who whips her to keep her wilful nature at bay. Amber keeps a scrap of paper sporting crude illustrations of elegant ladies and tries to imitate their dress and posture by candlelight in the dark of night, cleverly adapting her modest nightgown into a revealing approximation of glamour. A billion daughters who had been to the movies were doing the same, and before the new repression of the 1950s kicked in, and the flux of the late ’40s comes through in the excitement of the Restoration, where everybody’s on the make. This is, of course, counterbalanced with a regulation moralism: Amber is driven by desperation to morally null acts and constantly attempts to manipulate situations for her own ends only to have her efforts blow up in her face. Winsor’s tale relied on a similar dynamic to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and its film version, the singular paradigm of such popular storytelling, in presenting an anti-heroine who continually ruins herself through her attempts to manipulate people and her determination to snare one special man, whom she wants but can never quite have because of his stolid conscientiousness.
When Bruce and Harry join the long queue of loyalists seeking rewards, and they find themselves fobbed off and ignored by courtiers like Charles’ gatekeeper Sir Thomas Dudley (Robert Coote) and the King’s mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine (Natalie Draper), a former flame of Bruce’s. On a visit to the theatre, Bruce ventures into the royal box where the Countess is already ensconced to prod her for a remembrance. Amber, jealous, contrives to have the King catch them together: this works, but the upshot is that Charles calls Bruce to the palace late at night and grants him all of his petitions, including ships for his planned privateering ventures, in an effort to get him out of the Countess’ life. Bruce leaves some money for a sleeping Amber and quietly departs; Harry leaves the next day to his reclaimed family estates. Amber, now alone, soon finds out just how rapacious London can be, as her dressmaker Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and her friend Landale (Alan Napier) offer to keep Amber’s money safely for her, and then of course steal it and testify at court that she owes them money. Amber is incarcerated in Newgate Prison, where she learns she’s pregnant with Bruce’s child, and befriends pickpocket Nan Britton (Jessica Tandy). She attends a debauch organised by the jailers with visiting gentlefolk on Christmas Eve, where she encounters imprisoned highwayman Black Jack Mallard (John Russell), who treats prison like a winter hideaway between arrests and escapes. He offers to spring them both.
Forever Amber structurally mimics classics of picaresque literature like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Moll Flanders, taking its heroine through an anatomisation of society in a period setting. But it’s really a thorough-going product of the mid-20th century, following familiar templates for women’s films: elements of the story distinctly echo the Bette Davis hit Jezebel (1938) as a scheming woman accidentally creates havoc between two men and gets one killed in a duel, but proves herself redeemable by nursing the one she loves through sickness. It also has aspects in common with another ripe costume drama of the postwar period, the British film The Wicked Lady (1945), which similarly deals with quandaries of then-contemporary femininity through the tropes of period England, with the highwayman as the scarcely disguised avatar for an expert sexual partner freed from the rules of conventional society appealing to bad girls who want the same freedom. However, whereas Margaret Lockwood’s character in that gleefully proto-camp British film was an out-and-out sociopath, Amber only takes recourse in the gutter with Black Jack due to circumstances. When she escapes with Jack, he takes her to his base of operations and proves to be in thrall to a dark matriarchy, for Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) is the head of a ruthless shadow capitalism that quite literally only puts value on humans as far as they can generate profit.
Amber is forced to work in league with Jack in rolling drunks to pay for her infant son’s keep. But Jack is soon killed in a battle with lawmen, and Amber, fleeing through the grimy, vertiginous streets in a deliciously visualised sequence of quasi-expressionist colour, takes refuge in the house of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Morgan conceals Amber and makes her his mistress, arranging the perfect legal protection for her by getting her a job as an actress, as all actors have been made wards of the Crown. Whilst Amber resists the entreaties of Charles, when she learns Bruce has returned, she immediately runs to him and gives him a chance to meet his son. But Bruce is less than thrilled when he learns that Amber’s attached herself to another man, and even less thrilled when the territorial Morgan challenges him to a duel. Forever Amber is thus sustained by a narrative dynamic that sees Amber eternally torn between material gain and her love for Bruce, which overrides all concerns and constantly results in self-sabotage: Bruce is insufferably self-righteous at many turns, repeatedly spurning Amber, at first for fear of corrupting her and then because of her willingness to get by using every means at her disposal.
Winsor’s novel was a loaded project to take on, condemned by the Hays Office even before the film rights were sold, but of course, therein also lay the challenge and potential reward of a success d’scandale. Underlying the film’s half-hearted moralism, which accords accurately with an underlying eye for the double-standards of both 1660s England and 1940s America, is gleeful celebration of Amber’s bed-hopping and survivalist, social-climbing cunning, constantly provoking the intensely egotistical, proprietary conceit of the men she hooks up with, but always tellingly remaining independently minded regarding where she places her loyalty and affection. Black Jack and Morgan, who is killed by Bruce in their duel, give way to the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn), an icy, aged patrician who collects beauty like others collect paintings: shades of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” enter the film as it’s hinted Radcliffe may have had his last disobedient wife killed. Radcliffe approaches Amber initially when she is still working on the stage, and, after Morgan’s death and Bruce’s furious departure, he returns to offer Amber marriage. The union could make her immensely rich upon his death, but this requires living with him first, a dicey proposition. Radcliffe’s chill English brand of brutality is spelt out as he beats his Italian servant Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames), a veteran of the Earl’s residence in Italy where occurred his first wife’s untimely demise. And so Amber reaches the ultimate destination of her experiences, as the most sovereign of ladies tethered to the most ruthlessly controlling of men, one who takes the prevailing social tendency to reduce human being to property to a logical extreme: too old to provide her with any physical affection, he nonetheless demands perfect fidelity.
The story’s underlying vein of noir brought out in the film’s second half is given special piquancy in its resemblance to noir tales that revolve around female protagonists, including Laura and Whirlpool, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name Is Julia Ross (1946), and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1951), all of which include a heroine entrapped by controlling and destructive men. Amber fatally offends her husband when, hearing that Bruce has returned to London yet again, leaves their wedding reception to track Bruce down. She finds him at the dock, but Bruce quickly keels over, stricken with plague. Amber undertakes his care, bribing a soldier to let her take him into an abandoned townhouse, a shadowy cavern that becomes a battle zone of life and death. Thanks to Amber’s hardiness and grit, including killing Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), a hired nurse who tried to kill Bruce and steal his valuables, Bruce recovers, only to be confronted with Radcliffe who arrives looking for his wife.
If there’s a major fault with Forever Amber, it probably lies in part with the film’s troubled production and the resulting pressure to turn a profit from a whopping investment, something it didn’t quite manage. The film moves a touch too quickly at several points, especially its marvellously melodramatic climax, as if the filmmakers didn’t quite have time to piece the film together properly. But in spite of the fact that Preminger later described this as his worst film (very hard to swallow, especially in a career that also includes Hurry Sundown,1967), the director’s usually restrained sense of style is a great part of the pleasure of Forever Amber. Preminger, like Orson Welles, had been a stage director before entering cinema, and like Welles, had an interest in using camera mobility to imbue a sense of theatrical space, which would give way in his later films to a rougher and readier interest in realistic location work. His camera direction is fluidic, sustaining some dynamic shots in weaving about the sets tracing movement, whilst also offering a diagrammatic sensibility in the way he positions actors, evoking Renaissance painting with a theatrical tinge that Preminger sets up in one of his droller scenes, in the early playhouse scene with the players enacting Romeo and Juliet in similarly blocked poses, launching into dance-like duelling which they break off momentarily to bow at the royal box before recommencing. Interpersonal dialogue scenes are rendered less usually in the familiar over-the-shoulder two shot than in squared-off diptychs, triptychs, and group shots reduced to ritualised forms, as in the moments before Bruce and Rex’s duel, where the seconds spread out into geometric positions in front of which the two duellists cross in slashing movement to balance either wing, all before a dreamy, fog-gnarled approximation of a parkland setting.
Amber was shot by Leon Shamroy, arguably the first great visual poet of colour cinematography, having contributed superlative work to Zanuck’s other productions, like The Black Swan (1942). Here, working with “Technicolor Director” Natalie Kalmus, Shamroy creates the film’s saturated visual palette, swinging from poles of candy-coloured foppery in the daylight to dark-flooded, cleverly lit and expressive recreations of a tangled, medieval London about to meets its cleansing reckoning in fire. His saturated blues and inky black dotted with pools of brilliance from fire and lamp, and the Hogarthian confines of Newgate, Mother Red Cap’s house, and the plague-stricken city of night, all offered with painterly care in source lighting and tonal lustre.
Amber’s stint as an actress is inevitable, as she’s already played many roles to survive, and a note vibrates through the whole film that it’s really a long-shot metaphor for the exigencies of survival in Hollywood. Certainly, deliberately or not, Winsor’s original tale rests on a sensibility informed by the common fantasies of a largely female readership, much of which would inevitably have included success in the Dream Factory. Just as Amber fantasises about a swankier life, practising her act by candlelight early in the tale, so does she tackles her various parts, in thrall to powerful men but also using them deftly, as a protean being. Both Zanuck and Preminger would have affairs with ill-fated starlets, Bella Darvi in Zanuck’s case and Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s, that would echo this story, and star Linda Darnell constantly placed herself in bruising conflict with the hierarchy of Hollywood since rising from bit parts to play alongside Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941). Darnell, surprised when she was rapidly transferred onto this film after preparing for a lead role in Captain from Castile, was a talented and stunningly good-looking actress, possessed of a certain truculence toward the studio system’s attempts to reduce her to a glamour-puss, and usually typecast in parts that relied on her darkly exotic looks. There was an irony in her landing Amber after Zanuck, Stahl, and Preminger had placed emphasis on getting a natural blonde like Cummins or Lana Turner for the part. Darnell doesn’t give her best performance here—three years later, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, she showed her true mettle—but Forever Amber was her greatest star moment.
Inevitably, Amber is drawn into Charles’ orbit again in the theatre and as Radcliffe’s wife, presenting a tempting morsel to the King at a dance, after Charles has just broken off with Castlemaine and where the bored and restrained Amber makes it plain she’d very much like to be Charles’ next concubine and Radcliffe resists with stern resolve, a full-on macho pissing contest with Amber as the stake taking place under the genteel phraseology and strained politeness. Radcliffe’s patience with Amber finally burns out, aptly on a night when the Great Fire, blazing in the background, comes weeping towards Radcliffe’s city mansion. Radcliffe sees a chance to rid himself of another problematic spouse, and tries to lock her within the house to die in the flames, only for Nan and Galeazzo to come to the rescue. Preminger sweeps in for a dramatic close-up of the Italian servant’s face, transmuted into a mask of wrath, as he marches over to Radcliffe: in a delirious moment of violent revenge, Galeazzo picks up the Earl and hurls him bodily into the fire that’s consuming the house, before he, Nan, and Amber flee ahead of the fiery collapse, concluding a brief but effectual rebellion of the underclass that completes a circular movement from the blaze that consumed Amber’s birthplace in war at the start to this fiery consummation.
Forever Amber is too hampered by it concessions to punitive morality to really be a feminist work, especially in the film’s concluding phase, in which Amber is emotionally blackmailed into giving up custody of her son to Bruce and loses favour with Charles after being his mistress for a time. But it’s arguable the film reflects the problems of being an adventurous female in the era far more accurately than a more liberal depiction would, and the film never entirely abandons a winkingly mischievous attitude to its sexuality. Bruce, who has since settled in America and returns with a bride, Corinne (Jane Ball), has become a big enough prig to fit in with any Puritans in the New World. He approaches Amber to convince her to let him take their son back across the Atlantic to let him grow up in a more morally fecund environment than the British upper-class (he has a point). But his American-born spouse proves to be a better sport. As Amber tries another of her tricks—bringing Charles and Corinne together so the King will seduce her and sunder the Carltons’ marriage—Charles spots her ploy and pleasantly sends Corinne on her way. He posits as she leaves, “What if we hadn’t both realised we were both the victims of a plot, if you had simply been my guest here tonight, what might the result of been?” to which Corinne replies with fearless good humour, “It’s a pity we shall never know, your majesty.” Amber fails doubly, as Charles feels disillusioned by Amber’s plotting and reveals his own peculiar pathos in having to settle for approximations of love when his social role was predetermined, and so commands Amber to leave court. It’s made clear that Amber won’t be falling on hard times—she has Radcliffe’s fortune and quickly has Dudley calling dibs—but as Bruce takes away her son and she’s faced with exile from the pinnacle of her dreams, Amber is left a tragic figure. Her tragedy is of someone who liberated herself from the repressiveness of her society but not from its deeper hypocrisy: the tendency to reduce human being, even loved ones, to playthings and properties.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall
By Roderick Heath
English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.
Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.
Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.
On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.
The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.
Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.
On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.
Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the traditional belief that the Ninth Legion disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.
Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.
Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.
More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.
Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.
The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).
The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.
Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.
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Director: Pablo Larraín
By Roderick Heath
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made a name for himself a few years ago with the outré mission statement that was Tony Manero (2008), a vicious black comedy detailing life on the lowest level of Chilean society under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Larraín followed it up with the similarly dark Post Mortem (2010), and now concludes what could be called a loose trilogy of films about the most infamous chapter in his country’s existence with a study of the military dictator’s unexpected, purely politically enforced downfall. Larraín has changed tack from the punkish provocations of his debut (No is actually an adaptation by Pedro Peirano of a play by Antonio Skármeta), but his method and viewpoint in tackling Pinochet’s unseating retains a fascination for the unpredictable power of media imaging to fuel the fantasies of “ordinary” people and the perverse influence of those fantasies on reality. Whereas in Tony Manero Larraín investigated the culturally deadening nature of fascism through a degraded psychopath obsessed with disco glam, here his hero is a real person, albeit one who corrals fascinating contradictions: René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) has his cred in his name, as the son of exiled personage of the Allende years. René himself spent years in exile, too, schooled in the contemporary, first-world arts of advertising and media messaging, and has returned to his native country to work for the advertising agency run by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), engaged in what is commonly dismissed as the shallowest and most brain-deadening, thought-clogging of arts.
René carries with him the sensibility of a different country’s youth culture, riding around on a skateboard, as if Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future (1985) hero has been dumped in the middle of a Costa-Gavras film, and conversing easily in an argot of branding, image-consciousness, and rapid-edit razzle-dazzle. Yet he also possesses the faintly battered, haunted spirit, the melancholy eyes and taciturn frustration that infuse almost everyone about him, the awareness of an oppressive reality enforced by everyday detail and intransigent memory. René is introduced giving a spiel to executives for the soft drink Free Cola that makes it sound like the commercial they’re about to see is some great seismic shift in the zeitgeist, when it’s actually a compendium of meaningless pop images built around that most essential embodiment of western licence and enthusiasm, the rock band, including, most irritatingly to one of the execs, a mime. But René is right, to a certain extent: his ad does portend the arrival of consumer culture in Chile, something the regime claims to have fostered with its economic competence and political stability, but which will turn on its master by demanding choice and brighter colours. As international pressure mounts on Pinochet, his regime announces a referendum for the public to decide whether or not it wants the General to continue his personal rule for several more years. Most opponents assume the election will be rigged or least made impossible to win, and indeed, the regime tries to ensure the No campaigners have as much difficulty getting their message out as humanly possible in spite of the legalisation of political advertising.
René is approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a leading activist and opposition spokesman who knew René’s father, to give the first ads and strategies of the No campaign. These prove to be ads formed around that mantra of activism, “raising awareness,” trying to draw attention to the appalling number of dead, missing, and tortured under Pinochet’s regime, complete with tactics like ominous music and mournful mothers clutching photos of their dead or vanished sons. René initially turns down Urrutia’s request to supervise the campaign because of the lack of pay, tight deadline, irritation with the resigned attitude of the campaigners and their negative messaging that is likely to be suppressed quickly, and his own general ignorance of political specifics. But the niggling truth of his past and his percolating social conscience are soon given new solidity by his boss Guzmán’s pro-regime browbeating and veiled threats, and the sight of his ex, Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), being arrested along with coworkers in a raid by government goons. He works up what is at first a mere variation on his standard cola ads, and shows a rough cut assembled from other ads to give an idea of what he intends. Screening it to a collective of No campaign honchos, one stands up and upbraids René for belittling and hiding his and others’ pain and the horror that the regime has committed, barking epithets before stomping out. But others see what René is getting at, or at least sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and they commission him to make the all-important ads that will be squeezed into the allotted 15 minutes for the No program. René puts together a team from the agency who hold meetings and plan strategy under Guzmán’s nose, and shoot an ad to kick off the three-week campaign.
Larraín’s major stylistic choice, and coup, was to shoot No on a vintage ’80s video camera recovered from a rubbish dump, to keep the film’s mise-en-scène consistent with the news and television footage, including the real advertisements that doubtlessly burned themselves into the memories of Chileans who saw them. René skateboards through streets, or he and his No fellows discuss strategy on the beach, bathed in the blazing light and colour bleed familiar to anyone who worked with such cameras, this world reenvisioned as an artefact of its own technology. Such an approach, retrofitting the dramatic recreations of the movie to the period footage, is a reverse to more usual practice, though it does harken back to older films like The Longest Day (1962), which deliberately eschewed shooting in colour to interpolate documentary war footage. Larraín’s insistence on building his film around the original ads confirms his demand for specificity, not only because of the familiarity as mentioned above, but also because Larraín’s subject is not just the creation of iconic media moment, but that moment itself, its specific textures that encode their messages beyond the overt and immediate.
René forges ahead with his plan despite the uncertainty of other No campaigners, including his own aide, Fernando Arancibia (Néstor Cantillana), who wants to promote agitation. The process of shooting his centrepiece ad is depicted as a collage of seemingly random bits of business, which coalesce into a whole that’s equally random, except in its suggestion of an upcoming, entirely joyous event. René’s team even supplies the compulsory campaign anthem, except it’s not really an anthem, as René insists, but a jingle: plain and simple, catchy and easy to remember. The Yes campaign’s showpiece ads are, by contrast, terrifying in their staid, fatuous displays: glossy-faced blue-bloods singing operatic, patriotic songs and attempts to sell Pinochet as a hard-working manager in suits, not a uniform.
The nightly 15-minute slot for the No side has been chosen in the hope that “everyone will be sleeping,” as a bemusedly hopeful government minister, Fernández (Jaime Vadell), says to Guzmán. As an emblem for the campaign, René chooses from his designers’ options a rainbow, to suggest the accord between many political factions, which bemuses Fernández entirely: “Isn’t that for faggots?” The assumption that the opposition is a collective of communists and homosexuals is so endemic for the regime that its members literally can’t conceive of any other alternatives, a symptom of a sclerotic and self-involved administration. Larraín offers scenes of the regime’s senior bureaucrats and military overlords discussing their own strategies, believing they have all the aces by pushing their economic achievements. But René and team identify two groups with apparently completely divergent interests likely to abstain from voting: the nation’s youth, who despise the regime, and its elderly, who are frightened of change but even more frightened of the endemic poverty in the country. The team targets them specifically with different campaign strategies.
Larraín and Bernal adroitly chart the divide between René’s yuppie success story, working for a firm that’s almost a jewel in the regime’s crown for creating and sustaining the trappings of a modern economy, and his identity as a child of his time and place. The son of exiles, René is also the divorced single father of Simón (Pascal Montero), with an activist ex-wife who has a strong remnant affection for him, but holds him in not so subtle contempt for his affluent, apolitical security and shallow, disengaged occupation. “It’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” she drones amusedly as she considers his showpiece ad, a line he later repeats in a rant when Guzmán tries to imitate it. An air of exhausted fatalism has long since drowned Veronica’s romanticism of being young, bright, and full of zeal. René still has his zest, but he shares her weighted melancholy. René wants to reconnect with Veronica, but is stymied by her cynical, bleary distance, accentuated when she’s abused in custody and released with black eyes; later, René disappointedly finds she’s shacking up with a new guy. Meanwhile, his home’s security is violated as Fernández, lobbied by Guzmán to take action against his wayward employees, sends out his goons: they enter René’s house in the night and paint vicious slogans on his windows.
There’s a certain Spielbergian flavour to the way the narrative boils down to a father’s desire to protect his son and reunite his family, but also win something on their behalf in the context of a broad social drama, both participant and prisoner of upheaval and grand drama. However, in method and tone, Larraín aims closer to the likes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), especially in the film’s later stages, as news footage and staged scenes combine to recreate the violence unleashed on the No campaigners on the day of the plebiscite. Larraín doesn’t entirely succeed in meshing his various tones: the deadpan earnestness of René’s private life doesn’t feel as vital or urgent, and certainly not as gripping in its withering humour, as the rest of the film, nor does Larraín have the emotional fulsomeness of Spielberg or the livewire tone of Wexler or Godard. It would be easy to describe No as a sort of sarcastic triumphalist tale where retro commercial kitsch helps bring down a powerful evil, much like the cheap exploitation of that theme in Ben Affleck’s smooth and smarmy Argo (2012), where Hollywood bluster helps leaven a small good in the midst of geopolitical crisis.
Larraín is much slyer in his wit, more exacting in his sense of milieu, and more cogently ironic in his investigation of the uneasy discourse between popular media imagery and politics than Affleck would be if he lived to be a million. Larraín is hip to the faint ring of sarcasm in the original campaign, its playful, yet passive-aggressive refusal to treat the toppling of murderous dictators as a grim business, or buy into the Yes side’s game of political name-calling and fear-mongering. René and Guzmán argue incessantly and bitchily as they’re drawn into direct opposition, but still keep up their pretences in their daily labours, shooting ads for kitchenware and overseeing a marketing campaign for a popular soap opera, “Hair Salon Love.” René orchestrates a publicity stunt designed to infiltrate the evening news in which the soap’s male star lands by helicopter on a skyscraper roof, greeted by the show’s bevy of female beauties. This aside seems at first like a device to highlight the silliness of René and Guzmán’s profession at its lowest, but as the film circles back to this vignette in the stinging coda, the soap’s panoply of femmes being romanced by a debonair suitor mockingly reflects the new political paradigm of nascent democracy, a series of artfully constructed seductions, where the soap star’s silver-haired Latin charm turns the paternalist patronage of Pinochet’s regime into a pop culture canard, a grinning, aged lothario trying to chat up an assortment of affluent and picky, yet superficially flirtatious doñas.
Larraín builds anticipation and tension in leading up to the No campaign’s kick-off, sparking desire to see how René’s seemingly silly and incoherent assemblage of ideas will come together. The particular genius of Larraín’s employment of the original ads comes out in the way they’re linked in essayistic clarity. The war of messages is allowed to play out so the movie audience can absorb them as artefacts that, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, prove how much their encapsulation of the medium is itself the message. René’s ads are occasionally corny and provoke howls of recognition for the dated branding style, and yet the technical competence, the slickness and professional intelligence behind them shine through, as well as the genuineness of their enthusiasm and the openness of their messaging. Just as Larraín used the siren call and fetishization of American pop-culture imagery in Tony Manero to reflect the cultural debasement of life in a dictatorship, here he directly counterpoints the flashiness of René’s product with the increasing desperation, derivativeness, and sloppiness of the regime’s ripostes. In René’s showpiece ad, the signature rainbow flag is passed on by horse riders like an Olympic torch, picnicking families celebrate peace and freedom by consuming culturally specious baguettes because they’re more photogenic, randomly excited dancers appear like they’ve dropped in from Footloose (1984), and those bloody mimes sneak in for another go around, presumably because René saw them in a David Bowie video or something. But all accumulate into a memorable panoply of images that spell “liberation” as insistently as the name of Free Cola flashes on the screen in the earlier ad without needing the literal words.
René’s plan, no matter his motives and lacks in conceiving it, works brilliantly: by removing content from his ads and replacing it with ephemeral promise and good humour, he leaves the regime’s advertising looking, ironically, all the more hollow for trying to infer villainy behind the No side’s deliberately fostered party atmosphere, which takes its cues from René’s approach and soon infuses their street rallies in displays of playful positivity. Guzmán looks increasingly like an asshole—and the regime with him—as he tries to break the spell of René’s ads, but only seems to make them all the more alluring in their class and pep. In an ad that makes the infamous “Daisy” spot for Lyndon Johnson look subtle, the regime offers an ad with a steamroller threatening a toddler, inferring disaster, whilst another ad tries incompetently to satirise the upbeat tone of the No ads by depicting terrorists behind the scenes preparing anarchy and terror. But perhaps the most telling comparison comes through one of René’s joke-based ads, depicting a man and woman in bed, the woman resisting the man’s implorations with murmured “nos” until the man finally gives in and cries, “Alright then, No!” It’s a little gem of advertiser’s art, combining an exceedingly simple joke with an impudent, Yippielike tone, the basic advertising truism that sex sells, perfect and succinct on-brand messaging, and also deeper echoes to the Lysistrata myth, a play on the anxiety of discord in the nation played as bedroom agony. Guzman tries to counter it with a version where it’s the woman who finally says “Yes,” and a voiceover prods the audience as to which ending they like better. The lack of imagination, humour, originality, the crass appeal to machismo, the lack of inner sense or autonomy in the regime’s sensibility, all are laid bare cruelly. “This will be remembered as the campaign where the bosses worked for the regime and the workers for the opposition!” René warns Guzmán, and the results become all too amusingly obvious.
But the harsh reality momentarily held in check by the war of gags and memes isn’t elided, as the No rally on voting day is attacked by police and dispersed with flagrant violence. Even the carnival atmosphere René and others have strived to create is not sufficient to ward off the vindictive brutality of a self-righteous, threatened junta. Veronica is beaten again and arrested by police, and Guzmán proves his essential loyalty to René in spite of all – and perhaps tries to protect his ass from reprisals if and when Pinochet falls – by using his regime friends to get her released. René now switches from orchestrator to bewildered bystander, a man who’s helped unleash forces, truths, and passions beyond what he’s allowed himself to countenance, as even his defanged version of opposition is ripe for pummelling. But the winds of change slowly make themselves apparent as the No campaign scores a crushing victory, at first denied by the state-run announcements but finally admitted as it becomes clear Pinochet’s military cabal won’t resist the tide of opinion, one that’s overcome all obstacles.
René drifts in mute confusion as the moment of victory comes, suddenly not one of the animators but one of the paradoxically liberated and lost beneficiaries. Where Guzmán and other regime allies had promised punishment once the vote was stitched up, instead Guzmán introduces René with smug confidence to clients as the successful designer of the No campaign, before unveiling the company’s latest achievement, the soap opera’s news spot. Larraín closes on René’s uncomfortable expression after he offers a repeat of his opening folderol, a sharp and mordant punchline that reminds us that all great causes, once concluded, leave us stranded in the banality of the everyday and the mercenary. For René, that’s even truer, facing a return to life pretending that selling cola is as important an endeavour as changing regimes.
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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
Lincoln’s opening shots depict warfare: writhing bodies in primordial mud, flesh punctured by bayonets, and mouths yawing in screams of pain and murderous passion. White Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers are engaged in war as primal and terrifying as anything out of Homer, evoking not merely the awesome violence of the American Civil War in general, but of war itself. Here is the threatening spectre of apocalyptic racial blood feuds, too, uncontained by nominal loyalties to uniforms and factions beyond skin colour.
Director Steven Spielberg’s gambit here clearly evokes some of his career’s many scenes of brutal conflict: this charnel-house vision is grimly realistic in its squirming, thrashing, intimate corporeal violence, and yet also distinctly stylised, bordering on abstract, in its depiction of clashing bodies and frenzied motion, a reductio ad absurdum of humanity in the very pit of self-willed dehumanisation. In such a moment men are not men, but rather bundles of desperate, murderous/survivalist impulse. Such dehumanisation is to be the stake of the story, but of a different kind, that is, the condition of the slave rather than the soldier, although these states are linked in many ways. The stylised quality continues in the subsequent scene at an army staging post, as columns of soldiers being deployed march past President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to another terrible, but possibly climactic, campaign. This is a churning cauldron of rain, squelching mud, filthy and sodden men, eerie light and shadow, the president backlit, half iconic, half ogrish, attempting to interact with patient politeness with the men. Lincoln listens to the testimony of two black soldiers (Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo), who are veterans of such internecine slaughter. One recounts his experiences, and the other tries to lobby for better treatment, pay, and advancement, looking forward already to the painfully slow crawl toward the epiphanies of the mid-20th century. Lincoln listens with polite rectitude, as he will continue to do through most of the following narrative, resisting outright declarations and positions until he has made up his mind and knows that his displays will carry weight.
The mood here is similar to the climactic scene of Spielberg’s previous drama, War Horse (2011), with a similar purpose, albeit with different inflections: where that film was mythic and romantic in its approach to a cruel historical milieu, this is quite different, but still sustaining that film’s sense of hovering on the edge of a dream memory. Spielberg imbues the soldiers’ camp with an appropriately bustling realism, but also somehow suggests a more ethereal, spiritual, elemental drama in the offing. This scene signals a nexus of testimonial artefact, historical tableau, and Brechtian drama, underscored when some of the white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) attempt to recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered in halting and stilted terms, whereas one of the black soldiers recalls it verbatim and with a certain poetic flare whilst walking off into the shadows, transmuted from immediate presence to an almost elemental voice, the scene suddenly empty except for Lincoln. The specific impact of Lincoln’s most famous speech is reflected back to the man himself, via the people to whom it was a missive of mourning and also a promissory note, a hope of a restoration of moral order and centrifugal reason to an age of wild slaughter.
This scene is a clear declaration from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that what follows is a hindsight study, full of after-the-fact epiphanies and perspectives, an evocation of the inevitable gap between us and Lincoln, and between the man and his own works and words, rather than a documentary. It’s a necessary declaration, particularly as Lincoln soon devotes itself to a specificity occasionally redolent of political journalism, depicting the minutiae by which Lincoln and his “team of rivals” (per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s source history) achieved their last and greatest political coup against a backdrop of epochal brutality and moral compromise. Lincoln is as panoramic as it is biographical. Here is the Union’s political universe, the landscape of a society at war, a complex system of interrelated personages, institutions, ideals, and necessities. Lincoln’s recent reelection has empowered him to take bold actions to win the war and also find its essential purpose and meaning. The air of hallucination from the opening continues even as a more domestic, intimate note is struck, as the scene shifts to the White House, where Lincoln recounts a stark and distressing dream of riding headlong into calamity aboard a strange vessel (actually a stylised Monitor warship). His wife Mary (Sally Field) interprets the dream as his anxiety over an upcoming military assault, but then realises it actually portends his need to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment.
Lincoln makes his desire clear to his Secretary of State, William Seward (a particularly cagey David Strathairn). Lincoln illustrates the spur for his determination to get the Senate-approved amendment passed in the House of Representatives by turning a petitioning interview with a petty-minded landowner and his wife (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) into a quorum on the abolition question. The couple tacitly supports it as a war measure, but finds the idea objectionable if peace were to come out of fear of an imagined horde of larcenous ex-slaves on the loose. Lincoln thus argues to Seward they need to get the amendment passed before Republicans elected on Lincoln’s coattails are swept into Congress, because the war could be over by then. Seward agrees to help but feels Lincoln should stay out of the murky activity this demands, as many Democrats sacked by their constituencies can be inspired to vote for the amendment with the promise of mid-level bureaucratic jobs and other semi-corrupt devices. To this end Seward puts together a team of operators, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who begin working on the lame ducks.
Lincoln, in its subject matter and aspects of its approach, is definable as Spielberg’s follow-up to his antislavery epic Amistad (1997). But whereas the earlier film was rendered as a kind of visual-dramatic operetta, Lincoln is superficially cooler in style, offering character portraiture intertwined with a procedural take on political manoeuvring in the context of a particular society’s most crucial moment of redirection. Amistad depicted the process by which the slow asphyxiation of that primordial American sin, slavery, began, by both direct and violent action and legal minutiae and cultural reconstruction; Lincoln takes up the culmination. Spielberg’s instincts as a cinema artist and a practised, “mainstream” entertainer have often noticeably clashed in his films, but here they work in perfect tandem. Dashes of low comedy, even slapstick, graze against high-flown orotundity, grand carnage, bruising domestic tumult, and purposeful theatre of righteousness, all with a Shakespearean sense of interconnectivity, traced to common roots, a clash of essences enacted on every scale from the most intimately personal to the pan-national.
Lincoln’s depiction of the disparity between solemn institutional responsibility and the vulgar, lively, often absurd nature of communal life, has roots in Spielberg’s early films—The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), 1941 (1979)—in which a carnival-like Americana was evoked with a craft similar to, if less cynical and purposeful than, Robert Altman’s. The film justifies its title in its concept of Abe Lincoln not merely as an icon of the era, but as its fulcrum, the man on whose face and, ultimately, whose very mortality, the struggle’s course is written. And yet in the course of the film’s narrative, Lincoln himself is often sidelined for stretches of running time, waiting for results of actions he’s set in motion, at once removed from them and yet feeling their abstract import all the more keenly as a result. It is this sense of moral culpability as well as virtue that Spielberg and Kushner look to as the measure of worthiness; a genuine engagement with the problems of human worth becomes a right and proper yardstick for determining that worth.
Everyone is judged by this maxim, from Lincoln himself, who is all too aware that his labours are often on some level at cross-purposes, wielding violence and subterfuge to secure the liberty of one sector of the populace at some expense to another, to anti-abolitionists who subordinate humanistic concerns to those of sectarian interest. These are represented in the film by the “copperhead” Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie), who attempt to forestall the abolition bill for various myopic reasons that masquerade as matters immediate, overriding, and pragmatic. Spielberg avoids repeating himself in regards to Amistad, because he can take it for granted that he’s already portrayed the immediate horrors of the slave’s condition.
Spielberg has big shoes to fill here, even by his standards; Honest Abe’s stature as the most iconic and admired American President in history has inspired some hefty artworks over the years, including John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which depicted Lincoln’s evolution from frontier whelp to canny lawyer whose meandering folksiness conceals a stiletto-like sense of purpose. Ford’s film is also about the world around Lincoln. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is trapped within a more elevated but no less tumultuous community, that of high democratic politics. Whilst waging a war that calls into question every presumed bond, ideal, and motive in the nation Lincoln leads, he attempts to lay down its greatest claim for future self-respect.
Lincoln’s specific heft is saved for negotiating with two major political figures who stand as nominal partners, but who could also choke his efforts if they choose. The first is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Republican Party cofounder, a pure-bred optimate who claims to have founded a “conservative anti-slavery party”: Blair agrees to aid the bill but only on condition Lincoln lets him try to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederates. At the other extreme is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of radical Republicans, set on imposing a punitively righteous reckoning on the remnants of slave power and whose cabal in Congress regards Lincoln as a prevaricating sell-out. Lincoln must tread the torturously narrow trail between the two camps. He agrees to Blair’s project and, surprisingly and problematically, it bears fruit: a team of negotiators led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) starts north for Washington. Lincoln is faced by an immediate crisis of conscience, albeit only a newly sharpened version of the one he’s been wrestling with for four years, as he must choose between negotiating an end to the murderous war but possibly ruin the cause for many believe it has been waged. Meanwhile, as Bilbo and his team work, they manage to sway a large number of their targets, but finally come up against insurmountable barriers.
Lincoln’s constant frustration with his businesslike War Secretary Stanton (Bruce McGill) during a Cabinet meeting sees his jokey non sequiturs segue into a lengthy exposition of the lawyerly skill and intellectual heft Lincoln is used to wielding not in frontal charges, but in sneak attacks, against positions as various as proletariat obtuseness and aristocratic pomposity. He outlines the seemingly impossibly tangled thicket of dilemmas and self-contradictions involved in his Emancipation Proclamation, an edict that theoretically could be reversed, and therefore his desire to see it backed up by constitutional amendment. It’s a hypnotic piece of actor’s linguistic legerdemain and screenwriting, with Spielberg, via Janusz Kaminski, executing a creeping dolly move towards Day-Lewis like with unblinking attention. The scene is all the better for the concision with which it aids not merely an understanding of the issues at stake, encapsulated with rapid-fire yet entirely coherent intensity by Lincoln, but also characterisation. The Lincoln who got himself elected to the highest position in the land suddenly reveals himself as well as the even more elusive one, the agonised moralist and thinker. Spielberg’s empathy with Lincoln could well be described as that of one communicator who knows well enough to coat ugly truths in sweeter flavours for another. Lincoln’s “folksiness” is consistently revealed not just as his way of buttering up people, but also of disarming them, making them underestimate him, of clearing space and shifting the style and intent of attention turned upon him. Later, Lincoln purposefully distracts his colleagues and military staff as they wait for news of the attack on Wilmington with a jokey anecdote harkening back to the Revolutionary War and its easy patriotic associations that stand in contrast to the somehow more painful immediacy of civil slaughter. Stanton, irritated beyond measure by another story, stomps out whilst the President rambles on, only to come back and grip Lincoln’s hand as news comes in.
War is only glimpsed at the very start of Lincoln, but it is manifest throughout the film, working as a slow poison that infects everything. This is made apparent on an ontological level, but described most tellingly in Lincoln’s home life, in barely dampened turmoil since the death of the Lincolns’ third son. His youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) has taken to wearing a uniform. He likes to lull himself to sleep studying Alexander Gardner’s photos of freed slaves, obsessing over their ragged desperation like many a morbidly conscientious youth of Spielberg’s generation (and after) fixatedly rereading Anne Frank’s diary. The White House is at once home and bunker, jail and mill for the Lincolns, a warren of light and dark, cosy nooks and painfully cramped spaces for nation-administrating labour.
Lincoln’s scenes with Tad call to mind irresistibly the father-son moments of Jaws, linked in the portrait of the paternal figure as an assailed, troubled figure in whom real authority and civil responsibility is invested, still keeping a grasp on his family life as a way to stay sane, but the sons also mimic his stance and reflect his own attitudes back at him with painful/beguiling acuity. The intelligent but unbalanced Mary lives in mortal fear of losing her eldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), who’s been studying law but desperately wants to join up before the war ends for the sake of social and personal approval. Mary dreads the possibility of his death so intensely that even the promise of a cushy staff position can’t mollify her. Lincoln tries to give Robert a sobering experience by taking him to tour a hospital full of wounded soldiers: Robert demurs, but, following a blood-leaking cart hauled by orderlies with curiosity, he’s revolted by what proves to be its load of amputated limbs. But Robert is still not dissuaded.
One of the best, most realistically, penetratingly human scenes Spielberg’s ever filmed has Lincoln reduced almost to a wraith cowering in the window bay, accepting Mary’s wrath for failing to dissuade Robert until she attacks him for a lack of feeling, whereupon he finally reacts with the indignation of a man who had to bury his grief because he had to remain functional for his job. Field’s brilliance as Mary lies in how she suggests both Mary’s aggravating pathos, which has a showy, demonstrative quality, but also her frustrated intelligence and scathing verbal force. Such force is exhibited when, confronted by Stevens and his followers when Abe holds a White House gathering to court necessary support for the bill, she quietly and mercilessly rips Steven apart for his parsimonious interest in her efforts to decorate the presidential mansion. At such a moment, it’s clear both why Abe married her and also what she might have been in a different time, and also why she’s like sweating dynamite now. Mary finally sums herself up, perhaps a tad too neatly, but with apt self-awareness, as the necessary counterbalance to her husband’s heroic stature, the face of the gnawing fear and pain of the age.
A second female figure in Lincoln’s household is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mary’s maid and a former slave, whom Tad asks with guileless fascination whether she was whipped. Keckley is the moral barometer, as her face and attitude often silently charts the course of events, feeling on the most immediate level the fear and hope the drama is depicting. Lincoln’s solicitation of her opinion is another fascinating moment, as Keckley asks him bluntly about how he looks personally at the racial problem. Lincoln (and Spielberg and Kushner) attempts to avoid mealy-mouthed piety at the risk of sounding standoffish, explaining his difficulty in assessing the matter because he doesn’t “know” black people with real understanding: “I expect I’ll get used to you,” he says with dry Midwestern humour, as if aware that in trying to regard the problem from Olympian heights, he recognises that common humanity is only ultimately a matter of neighbourliness. But humour only goes so far, as Keckley reminds Lincoln she’s the mother of a fallen soldier, questioning what this makes her for the country if not a citizen worthy of veneration as well as emancipation and tolerance.
A race against time enters this narrative as Blair semi-wittingly threatens Lincoln’s intentions with his successful entreaty to the Confederates. Their emissaries are ushered across enemy line into the hands of Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), to Union Army reception committee stacked with black soldiers, a seemingly calculated provocation. Grant, determining that the emissaries are serious men, recommends to Lincoln that they be interviewed, leaving Lincoln with a most definite choice, either to stymie the negotiators briefly to help ensure the vote’s passage, or allow the Confederate company to come straight on and possibly end the war. The issue leaves Lincoln a peripatetic insomniac, awakening his assistants in the night by sitting on their beds to discuss pardons for deserters, and finally, hovering on the edge of decision, seeming to discursively explain Euclidian geometry with two signalmen. But of course he’s actually considering moral calculus, drawing the lesson that peace and safety for one group cannot be obtained if it means abandoning another group to tyranny, and this informs his last-minute decision to order Grant to delay the emissaries and work on the vote for the bill. When he finally confronts Stephens, his entreaties fall on deaf ears. Spielberg pulls off one his most adroit pieces of editing, cutting to the infernal sight of blazing Richmond, its devastation the implicit result of both Lincoln’s politicking and Confederate intransigence. The images, long since soaked into the folk-memory of the U.S. and the world, of Lincoln’s journey across the pulverised battlefields to Richmond, and Robert E. Lee’s (Christopher Boyer) plaintive return of Grant’s salute after surrender, retain not gallant lustre but a newly bleak sense of the nature of leadership: “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln tells Grant.
In this regard, the John Ford film Spielberg’s Lincoln feels kin to is less Young Mr. Lincoln than his sublime Civil War segment for How the West Was Won (1962), where Grant and Sherman argued with palpable personal angst in the midst of carnage. The filmmakers’ relish of Lincoln as a protagonist and his mental alacrity calls to mind A Man for All Seasons (1966), and like that film, it manages to invest history’s saints with living wit and artistic poise. The depth and intensity of this film’s preoccupation with political and personal responsibility is thankfully leavened by counterpointing such weighty matters with Bilbo’s rather less moral, although equally determined, efforts, which include, at one point, his having to fend off a congressman who tries to shoot him. When Lincoln pays a visit to Bilbo, he amiably quotes Henry IV Pt. 1 to him (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!”), a knowing glance at the Bard’s skill at conflating the business of kingship with that of knaves, and Bilbo’s Falstaffian demeanour sit well with this (a superbly bluff performance from the once wolfishly poised Spader). Lincoln’s decision to engage more directly with the vote-reaping process, as it looks like it’s failing, sees him directing his more intricate and psychological gifts at the problem, as appeals to self-interest and the ephemeral pleasure of being seen to do good cannot entirely sway more powerful, if not always more reasoned, emotional and intellectual stances they’ve encountered. William Hutton (David Warshofsky) is touched by hatred for blacks since his brother died in battle for their sake. George Yeaman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) hates slavery, but fears sudden emancipation might expose the people it’s designed to help to calumny. One thing Spielberg and Kushner get particularly right is the degree to which the era’s political verbiage was as much theatre as message, pitched to the galleries rather than the cameras and to awe journalists into recording them like prophets rather than bewilder them until the news cycle ends. In the film’s broadest scene, as the anti-abolition forces try to bait Stevens, Stevens must muster restraint and linguistic cunning, mixed with raw abuse of his opponents, to survive the moment. He immediately earns the upbraiding of a fellow radical for demurring on the issue of equality, to which Stevens ripostes he’d do anything if it means having ensuring that the only inclusion of the word “slavery” in the constitution is an amendment proscribing it.
Lincoln is, by and large, a study in the fundamental dilemma of democratic government of how to identify and achieve the most good for the most people as a natural extension of the communal will rather than an imposition. The relationship, prickly and peculiar, between Lincoln and Stevens is the film’s ideological engine. When Stevens outlines a plan for post-war punitive legislation to reconstruct the American body politic by replacing Southern oligarchs with empowered free blacks, it’s startling how much force and beauty his plan still has. Lincoln drolly describes this as the “untempered version of Reconstruction,” but interestingly, Stevens, like Lincoln, is a study in human frailty under statuesque heroism, and all the more so literally, forcing himself to stand erect before the Congress when he must bend and shuffle to walk, clad in a dreadful wig to hide his bald pate, hiding his love affair with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). The ironic reveal of this dalliance fascinatingly confirms the sort of implications aimed at the abolitionists of the era, but Spielberg treats it with delicate good humour, as Lydia welcomes Stevens back from Congress with the bill in his hand, and segues to the politician getting in bed with Lydia and asking her to read the bill out whilst counting off the clauses himself. There’s a reprise of the almost recitatif-inflected opening here, as hallowed political language is again employed, but with the immediate force of its human implications presented in the most unexpected of fashions: the muted tenderness of the couple in bed automatically undercuts the scurrilousness, and instead imbues the film with the first glimpse of peace as a promise after the fractious bitterness and soul-searching.
The actual vote is a Spielberg set-piece of the first order, albeit with a difference, because, whilst the outcome is known, the tension is still remarkable, with Lincoln in part reduced to audience surrogate as he must wait for the result of the vote. The exact outcome remains in the balance until the crucial cry of “Aye!” escapes Yeaman’s lips, and even the Speaker (Bill Raymond) adds his vote to the balance. Spielberg pulls off a great discursion here as he cuts away from the final tallying to Lincoln in his office, awaiting word, alerted by the pealing of bells to his success, and then cutting back to the eruption of jubilation in the Congress where the dignified politicians rejoice like teenagers at a post-game kegger—a singular and well-earned moment before the reckoning. Part of the thrill here comes from the natural power of seeing great good achieved, and also from the simple release of the film’s weighty mood, as the Representatives whoop and hoist the amendment’s manager James Ashley (David Costabile) in the air, the man himself almost weeping with relieved glee, whilst Stevens, with the silent satisfaction of a man who’s triumphed against time and the world, asks to take the bill home with him.
If there’s a downside to the muted bravura Spielberg wields throughout this work, as the first drama he’s offered in a long time to gain near-universal acclaim, it is thus; the moments of truly expansive vision glimpsed in the likes of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are dampened in favour of a more convincingly intimate, but less overwhelmingly pure exuberance in cinema. But Spielberg self-critiqued is still Spielberg, apparent in the authorial deftness of his camera precisely charting dramatic highs and lows, in shots as casually telling as the camera movement that follows Stevens as he strips himself of his worldly regalia and gets into bed with his mistress, or as strikingly odd as the semi-surreal visions of Lincoln’s dreams. Spielberg’s partnership with Kaminski has achieved more spectacular results, but rarely more expressive, and indeed quasi-expressionistic, in a film that uses the dance of light in an either naturally illuminated or candle-and-lantern interior world. There’s a strong suggestion of the influence of Victorian painting in the visual scheme, and a particular debt to Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” with its similar manipulation of source lighting to create a surgeon-hero bathed in the light of reason. A recurring motif of the characters framed in windows, poised between light and dark, hearth and world, sees Lincoln both demonic in his row with Mary, and ethereal, as he draws Tad behind a curtain to look out on the celebrations of the bill.
It’s peculiar to think of Spielberg, often described as the Peter Pan of American cinema, entering his autumnal phase, but whilst there’s still plentiful verve and control in evidence, the usual tones of a late-career masterpiece are here. Late in the film, Spielberg offers a brief sequence that feels utterly vital, a signature flourish that reveals much: a visit to a theatre, which at first glance is immediately processed by an expectant audience as Ford’s, but proves rather to be one where Tad watches an Arabian Nights arabesque that sees hero save damsel from devilish villain who falls only to release a phoenixlike spirit. There’s an obvious, deliberately naïve quality to this bit, offsetting the agonised dragon-slaying of the historical drama with its most childish, Manichaeistic representation. It is also reminiscent in its brief window of theatrical wonder to the pantomime visit in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a moment spared for the mystique of the Victorian theatre and its transformative strangeness, a prelude to the cinema in transfixing spectacle remembered on the hazy horizon of popular culture.
There’s also a nod here to Spielberg’s awareness of his own wrestling with the themes of his “serious” films earlier in his career through his equally colourful stylised genre excursions, like the equally Arabian Nights-esque absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Here the fantasy illusion is ruptured in the worst possible way, as Lincoln’s assassination is abruptly announced to the theatre, and the horrified Tad begins to scream and scream. Of course, for Spielberg, the nexus of tragedy in Lincoln’s death is found in the fundamental image of an orphaned son, both consummation and defloration of the director’s career concern with paternal care and the child’s wayward path to maturation, and so the film connects history with a gaping hole in the family life. The film’s final moments, lapping back to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, risks lurching at last into the familiar refrains of the historical pageant, but manages to capture the vibrating question and threat in Lincoln’s words, still echoing 150 years later.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jan Troell
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At 81, Jan Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman, continues to make finely crafted films that plumb real figures of Scandinavian culture to illuminate seminal events in Troell’s life and world history. In 1996, Troell made a warts-and-all biopic of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, a beloved Norwegian novelist who felt appeasement was the best way to ensure Norway’s sovereignty in the face of German aggression under Adolf Hitler. With his latest film, The Last Sentence, Troell trods this same territory as he examines the life of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt, a vehement anti-Nazi who did all he could to end Swedish neutrality during World War II. Even moreso than in Hamsun, politics in The Last Sentence takes a back seat to the peculiarly Swedish preoccupation with unhappy marriages.
Troell sets the stage brilliantly in the opening credits with newsreel footage from 1932 of Hitler being named Germany’s chancellor, followed by a hand moving a fountain pen across a piece of paper, a linotype operator punching the words into his machine, and a compositor lifting the type sent out by the linotype machine, applying ink to it, and rolling a paper proof sheet over it. The column-wide proof is delivered into the hands of newspaper publisher Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), who chuckles at Torgny Segerstedt’s (Jesper Christensen) characterization of Hitler as “an insult.” Axel’s Jewish wife Maja (Pernilla August) joins the men in a celebratory drink at their “declaration of war” against Germany’s new chancellor and steals back to Torgny after her husband thinks he has left her at the elevator to give her lover his well-deserved kisses.
At the Segerstedt home, Torgny wife’s Puste (Ulla Skoog) worries absentmindedly over the place cards and glassware for a dinner they are hosting. Puste has been in a state of suspended grief since the death of her 13-year-old son seven years earlier; Torgny has forbidden any mention of the boy, driving Puste around the bend and creating an estrangement between the couple. Torgny and Maja flaunt their affair at the dinner party, with Maja rearranging the dinner cards and entertaining guests by asking them if her nose looks like the Jewish caricatures rampant in Germany. Talk of Sweden having good Jews who are more evolved that the kind in Germany underlines the fight Torgny will have as his crusade against Hitler proceeds all the way to the end of the war, when Torgny dies in bed moments after hearing the news of Hitler’s demise.
The Last Sentence is punctuated with war news that has the effect of coming as news flashes that immediately recede into the background as the drama of Torgny’s domestic affairs take center stage, yet there is a subtle parallel between the macro and micro in the film. Sweden faces subjugation not only from Nazi Germany but also Soviet Russia when the Red Army invades Finland. A panicked populace hangs onto its gossamer-thin lifeline of neutrality. In the same way, Torgny openly pursues his passion for Maja while holding Puste hostage with his contempt and, yes, his love. Axel has a surprisingly open attitude to the affair, embarrassed rather than angry when he comes home early and runs into Torgny taking his leave from Maja. Puste, a Norwegian, suffers where Torgny, Maja, and Axel do not, throwing into relief the apparent ability of Swedes to compartmentalize, thus allowing them to maintain their political neutrality in the face of overwhelming misery and threat from without.
One of the lovelier touches in the film is Torgny’s relationship with his three dogs, a Great Dane, a black lab, and a bulldog. Every day, his limousine takes Torgny and the dogs partway to his office, and then lets them out for their brisk walk the rest of the way. The bulldog, old and squat, can’t negotiate the steep hill and stairs on the route, so the car picks him up to take him up the hill, and he rides the elevator to Torgny’s office. The dogs are present throughout the film and add a dimension of unconditional love and devotion that balances the unhappiness between Torgny and Puste.
The acting is without peer, and I was very happy Troell decided to cast Christensen, a sexy and vital Danish actor who quite resembles Segerstedt, instead of his first choice, Max von Sydow. August lent a charismatic female presence to the film, whose lust for life and doing what she liked blew like a breath of fresh air through the rather conventional storytelling; equally, August deftly handles Maja’s fading light as her health begins to fail and Torgny takes up with his secretary Estrid (Birte Heribertson). While Puste is a fairly commonplace drudge, Skoog draws a line that refuses our pity; even when she sings a passionate love song to her husband, she remains emotionally true, the antithesis of a rejected mate open to our ridicule.
I have nothing but praise for the look of the film. The locations are sumptuous and perfectly appointed, the costumes add to the characterizations, and the luxurious HD black-and-white cinematography by Mischa Gavjusjov a good choice to accord with the newsreel footage and the opulence of the world Torgny inhabited. The excellent soundtrack, too, was meaningful in painting mood and feeling.
Although the film is based on two biographies of Segerstedt, neither of which has been translated into English, thus making fact-checking for this review a real challenge, facts have been altered for dramatic purposes. A number of names have been changed, persumably at the behest of the families involved, and Torgny died several months before Hitler, making his deathbed triumph satisfying only to the moviegoing audience. I’d venture to guess that a certain death did not actual occur as written, but rather was made to fit a Nazi movie cliché.
The Last Sentence is a worthy follow-up to Troell’s moving 2008 drama Everlasting Moments, and will satisfy most moviegoers with its superb craftsmanship and intriguing tale. For me, the film suffered because of its close likeness to Hamsun, which made the project seem more like one Troell felt capable of making rather than one he felt compelled to make as an artist. As I hold Troell in high regard, I felt a bit let down. On the other hand, this story offers a wonderful example of how necessary a truly free press peopled with brave journalists who will speak truth to power is to creating a just world. Torgny Segerstedt is virtually unknown outside of Scandinavia, but hopefully many people the world over will learn about him through this full-bodied work by one of Swedish cinema’s elder statesmen.
The Last Sentence screens Tuesday, October 16, at 5 p.m., Friday, October 19, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, October 20, at 4:30 p.m. The director is scheduled to attend the October 19 and 20 screenings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Michael Curtiz
If Raiders of the Lost Ark represents the adventure film reborn, The Sea Hawk is its classical ancestor at zenith. Few director-star collaborations provided more pleasure, and yet have resulted in surprisingly few encomiums of the kind that, say, Hitchcock and Grant or Stewart, or Ford and Wayne, have earned over the years, than that between Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn. That could be, perhaps, because both men are feted for what they did obviously well, whilst remaining strangely under-regarded. The Budapest-born, eruptive, malapropism-prone Curtiz, born Mano Kurtesz Kaminar, first rose to fame in European cinema before he followed a path to Hollywood that was well-worn, and yet he quickly installed himself as one of the town’s arch professionals, and one of its most inimitable stylists, surviving and flourishing where so many others sank or settled for less. Curtiz’s development of a muted but acutely animated kind of expressionism proved a perfectly adaptable style that loaned a veneer of intrinsic mythos to even the most humdrum and realistic material, mixed with an eye for quicksilver visual exposition and mise-en-scene, and a grasp on shooting and cutting together action sequences that deserved comparison with Eisenstein and DeMille. Curtiz’s style found its most perfect purpose in a run of filmmaking from 1935 to 1945 that produced several of the works by which people still define the very essence of Classic Hollywood, including Angels With Dirty Faces (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, which Curtiz took over directing when William Keighley was taking too long), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945).
Similarly, Flynn, who tackled almost every type of lead role, is nonetheless one of those stars bound to be associated forever and ever with one specific kind of movie and part. His embodiment of the swashbuckler was here at his absolute height: he brought his own distinct mix of romantic sensitivity and a certain ardent, intrinsic rebelliousness to the template first laid down by Douglas Fairbanks, of the grinning, devil-may-care, impudently charming, infinitely athletic man of action. The Sea Hawk both continues and slightly distorts the formula laid down by Curtiz and Flynn in their earlier collaborations, Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which also set Flynn’s personality in high-contrast conflict with the imperious Renaissance matriarchy of Elizabeth I. Here the terms of reference were closer to the historical action of the other entries. Flynn’s usual object of romantic interest, Olivia de Havilland, is swapped for the under-used Brenda Marshall, a slightly harder, chillier personality, albeit one who melts darn well, fit for a slightly harder, chillier brand of the genre. If I’ve chosen to speak of The Sea Hawk rather than The Adventures of Robin Hood, perhaps the most perfect swashbuckler ever made, or Casablanca, a study in the chamber-piece adventure movie, to celebrate this one, it’s partly because The Sea Hawk fascinates me in how, whilst sustaining the innocent, ebullient traditions of the pre-WW2 swashbuckler, it can be seen assimilating a darker new reality into its form, intuitively reshaping itself to match an oncoming era of total war. On the cusp of the era that would spawn film noir and see the adventure film sink largely to candy-coloured lampooning, The Sea Hawk looks at times awfully like proto-noir in the least generically familiar of contexts. The Sea Hawk flaunts Warner Bros. production resources, not stretched to a limit as Robin Hood did, but employed with an exacting sense of talent employed for appropriate results, crammed to the rafters with terrific character actors and technical wizards.
By the time The Sea Hawk was made, WW2 had begun in earnest, and whilst released still in the time of the US’s official neutrality, this Warner Bros. production took an overt tilt at an historical parable of Hitlerian ambition through the prism of Elizabethan England’s conflict with imperial Spain. Warner’s adventure films might have seemed the escapist flipside to the studio’s famous run of social-realist and gangster films, and yet they internalised similar values; Flynn’s heroes were usually patriotic, but in a fashion that demanded they fight corrupt oligarchs and tyrants domestic and foreign, often even driven to sacrifice or destroy themselves or commit an act of betrayal, if a greater cause demanded a forbidden act. The Sea Hawk tweaks the dynamic insofar as the Flynn’s often outright rebellious attitude to authority, which often segued late in the tale to a new loyalty as the corrupt fell and regimes changed, here his relationship with Elizabeth is based on differing definitions of defensive patriotic action. The Sea Hawk’s opening immediately establishes the agenda: Philip II (Montagu Love), characterised as a majestic egomaniac, gesticulates at the world map upon his wall, his shadow falling in classic Curtiz style upon the continents fashion like a stain, as Philip airily declares that soon “it will no longer be a map of the world, but of Spain!” Philip’s wrath has been drawn by England’s recalcitrance, in particular its sponsoring of privateers, or “Sea Hawks” as they’re dubbed here, to justify the film’s title after tossing out the Rafael Sabatini source novel. Secretly planning to build the Armada to swamp England’s resistance, Philip sends his ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) to browbeat Elizabeth (Flora Robson) into curbing the Sea Hawk raiders.
The galley taking Alvarez and niece Maria (Marshall) to England, under the captaincy of Lopez (Gilbert Roland) and driven by slaves committed to the oars by the Inquisition, falls prey in the English Channel to the most infamous of the Sea Hawks, Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn), who swoops upon the Spaniards and pulverises their ship before boarding. The Sea Hawk thus really kicks off with its biggest action set-piece, signalling an intent to play with the usual narrative structure, and, as Flynn and several of his familiar company like Alan Hale appear, deliberately evoking a feeling of stepping in where one of the earlier Flynn-Curtiz swashbucklers left off. The action that follows is close to perfection in form and function, and, like the desert chase in Raiders, has a solid spot in my private list of all-time great action sequences. If all the infrastructure of classic Hollywood was worth anything beyond putting interesting actors together in small rooms, it was to put together a bit of filmmaking like this, an escalating series of visually thrilling, artful, yet perfectly expedient shots that stands at such a remove from the endemic gibberish of so much modern action filmmaking. Even The Sea Hawk’s classiest twenty-first century offspring, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), couldn’t come close to it for managing both intensity and clarity at the same time in depicting close-quarters carnage.
Curtiz and the production team were evidently trying to match the finale of Captain Blood – a couple of shots from which augment the sequence, including snatches from the first silent version of The Sea Hawk (1923) that film itself interpolated – and to outdo it for flow and tactile detail, a quality of the film as a whole that leaps out. The eternal assumption of the classic swashbuckler, that British sailors were incontrovertibly better shots than anyone else, sees Thorpe’s crew cripple their lumbering, slave-driven foe and board it, albeit a little earlier than Thorpe wished because one of his men, Eli Matson (J.M. Kerrigan), jumps before he gives the order. The battle sequence proceeds with a micro-managerial sense of detail outlay: the cannon balls of Thorpe’s ship, the Albatross, shattering the hull of the enemy; grappling hooks skewering enemy soldiers; the galleon’s oars shattering as the two ships are pulled together; the frantic, multi-levelled, impossibly teeming shots of the two crews battling; Thorpe getting his trusty lieutenant Pitt (Hale) to force the Spanish trumpeter to sound surrender, saving Lopez in the nick of time from Thorpe’s blade; Lopez requesting that Thorpe leave his ship so he can be the last man to abandon the sinking vessel, the Spaniard finally swinging over to a general cheer.
A level of gentlemanly forbearance and essentially anti-chauvinistic feeling is evoked in Thorpe’s attempts to mollify the outraged Spaniards, giving them run of his decks and treating his unwilling guests to fine dining with captured Spanish silverware, and Maria’s maid (the compulsory, evergreen Una O’Connor) gives the English sailors a tongue-lashing for speaking contemptuously of Spanish culture. But the underlying emotional kick is delivered when Thorpe is reunited with a former crewman, Tuttle (Clifford Brooke), one of the galley oarsmen who could recognise the English Channel purely by the shifting of the swell. Thorpe’s sense of justice and outright contempt for the draconian tyranny Philip is asserting across the globe is established in front of Alvarez and his daughter, planting a seed in her sensibility that proves inseparable from Thorpe. In spite of her attempts to remain icy towards Thorpe for his freewheeling piracy and disregard for international diplomatic niceties, Maria slips quietly and quickly under the spell of his charm.
Hollywood in the late ‘30s avoided engaging with contemporary political realities with an oft-astonishing amount of pussyfooting: when Confessions of Nazi Spy (1940) was released one critic quipped that it was only five years too late. Strangely, but with intuitive aptness, the historical remoteness and playfulness of the Warner Bros. swashbucklers reflected the era’s undercurrents with the greatest concision, growing in force throughout the Curtiz-Flynn films, with the air of oncoming fascism in Captain Blood and the ethnic repression in Robin Hood, as Flynn’s characterisation became increasingly revolutionary: “You speak treason!” “Fluently!” as the classic line in Robin Hood goes. The cheery pseudo-socialism that often bobbed up in these films resurges, here with a cheeky tilt at imperialistic plunder. When Maria furiously spurns Thorpe over his acts of piracy, Thorpe, asks, oh so innocently, whether she considers a thief to be only “an Englishman who steals.” “It’s anybody who steals!” she retorts, only for Thorpe to question, then, just how the Spaniards obtained the Aztec gold she has in her jewel collection. Game, set, match. The Sea Hawk sees Thorpe, constantly warning Elizabeth about the dangers represented by Philip’s ambition and overtly breaking the rules in order to fight the threat before a properly sanctioned war has started between England and Spain, looking like the archetypal premature anti-fascist, and an equivalent of an international volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, contrasting Elizabeth, who tries Chamberlain-esque peacekeeping, until she’s pushed too far and unleashes Churchillian rhetorical force.
It’s made clear right at the start of the film that Philip’s intentions are entirely malevolent, planning to sweep away the single bulwark against his spreading influence, so the audience knows that Thorpe’s assumptions are correct whereas Elizabeth has to work purely by instinct, protocol, and expedience. The film’s most insidious villain, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell) is characterised as a Halifax or Quisling type, arguing from the midst of Elizabeth’s royal council for mollification of Spain whilst secretly plotting with Alvarez to weaken England as much as possible, including destroying the credibility and effectiveness of the Sea Hawks, in order to ensure the ease of the Armada’s eventual victory, and hoping to be installed himself as a puppet king. Re-armament is the chief plot stake: Philip’s arms build-up, in constructing the Armada, and diplomatic bullying, is, like Hitler’s before the war, put off onto the demands and rights of a sovereign nation, regardless of the logical targets and obvious intent. Thorpe, in turn, prods Elizabeth to build a fleet to meet any threat, but she staves off the necessary moment in not wanting to empty the national coffers, so Thorpe hatches an ambitious plan to step up his plundering, and attack Spanish gold shipments in Panama.
Elizabeth approves the plan, but Alvarez and Wolfingham, hoping to get the jump on Thorpe’s next venture, try to spy on his activities, but actually discover his intention through clever deductions: Thorpe’s efforts to maintain secrecy extend to having charts prepared without place names, but Alvarez and Wolfingham manage to steal a glance at the charts whilst under preparation and are able, thanks to an astronomer (Halliwell Hobbes), to determine the location purely by the shape of the land and an unexpectedly revealing decorative motif. Such a deftly clever little plot pivot is another reason I love The Sea Hawk, as it points to the genre’s counterbalance of physical action with a demand for wiliness and intelligence in both heroes and villains. Alvarez and Wolfingham are splendidly smooth, aristocratic bad guys, although Alvarez is less a villain than a man doing his national duty, and who gets his comeuppance not on a sword but when, in delivering grim news about Thorpe’s venture to Panama, he tries to needle Elizabeth, only for his own daughter to faint in a heap in despair: “Your arrow hit the wrong mark,” Elizabeth chides him drolly.
Thorpe’s ill-fated Panamanian venture sees him stumble into a well-laid trap, seeming to capture the across-land gold caravan, only to then be almost caught in an ambush: Thorpe and his men flee into the jungle, cueing one of the all-time great examples of the much-satirised “stumble through the swamp” sequence, complete with random, separated members of the crew lurching through the parboiling, mosquito-infested marshes, going mad and dying one by one: “It’s too bloomin’ hot!” one screams as he claws at his own flesh before collapsing. What’s left of Thorpe’s crew fights its way through to the coast in sight of the Albatross. But the Albatross proves mysteriously deserted as they row back to it, in a sublimely eerie sequence that builds to the inevitable realisation that the crew of the ship has been slaughtered, with corpses hanging in the rigging, and Spanish troops, under Captain Lopez, waiting for what’s left of the would-be raiders. No gentlemanly courtesies for these prisoners: Thorpe and company are soon committed in a show trial before the Inquisition and sentenced to die at the oars of the galleys. Suddenly The Sea Hawk’s reversed structure becomes coherent, as the film deliberately destroys the Merry Men crew and reduces Thorpe to the abject slave he was set upon freeing at the start, bringing a new edge of threat and suffering to the scene, and homoerotic S&M fantasy blends weirdly with perfervid concentration camp parallel, with anticipations of Ben-Hur (1959). Thorpe, his last remaining fellows, and the potential new crew of English prisoners have to concoct a plan to escape.
Within the more realistic confines of Hollywood cinema, Curtiz’s visuals in The Sea Hawk both reflect the lingering influence of the art-moderne touches that permeated the gnarled dream-state historicism of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1923) and the futurism of Metropolis (1926), whilst also anticipating the total stylisation of Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: Part One (1944), in utilising the geometric precision of Anton Grot’s sets, which largely reject the twisted contours of Expressionism that had been the familiar influence on such settings in favour of a kind of historical wonderland by way of Bauhaus, to create Elizabeth’s royal court. An overt, deeply stylised contrast then is constructed between the tangled, busy environs of the ships, the open sea, and the fetid jungle, where power is a matter of guts and muscle, with spaces that express power through voluminous reaches, reducing the players to twisting figures arranged like chess pieces in the political gamesmanship. Curtiz’s love of carefully shaped compositions infuses even the most functional and throwaway shots. The opening battle is a whirl of shots balanced geometrically or on lines of Renaissance perspective painting, conjoined by the newer arts of montage, weaving all into an organic mass. Sol Polito’s camera glides with gossamer grace at low angles as Elizabeth and her cohort of ladies-in-waiting, like petticoated paladins, sweep through the ranks of armoured warriors and plumed, hose-clad courtiers, investing the feminine not simply with beauty but strength through its spectacular contrast with the surrounds, and the reversal of the hierarchy.
Robson’s marvellous Elizabeth, not the grouchy spinster Bette Davis played nor the masochistic self-made idol Cate Blanchett espoused, is a warrior in frilly collars wide enough to serve as radar dishes, strutting about in costumes that contain her homely features within declarations of monarchic strength and wealth. This Elizabeth’s lack of good looks is initially the sport of men’s talk (“They say Elizabeth surrounds herself with beauty in the hope it may be contagious,” Lopez quips), but her flirtatious relationship with Thorpe is a dance of patriotic and erotic fascination, crystallising Thorpe’s similarity to Walter Raleigh – I love the big, hearty, satisfied breath Robson takes in after meeting with Thorpe, his descriptions of gallant action and explanations of daring plans, mixed with flattery, leaves her with orgasmic pleasure. Such liaisons reflect The Sea Hawk’s place in a genre that was always defined by a playfully anarchic take on sexual mores, so often played out in the dance of fascination and repulsion between mischievous, swarthy, criminal, usually lower-class males and ladies fair, dying to be ravished even as they spit in the rogues’ faces. The Sea Hawk however sustains the courtly, restrained take on this essential element of the swashbuckler that Flynn’s films offered, keeping the star’s overflow of randy energy on a tight leash, in comparison to the out-and-out kink in Henry King’s deployment of Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in the reflexive self-satire The Black Swan two years later.
Here Marshall’s Maria, like De Havilland’s ladies from Captain Blood and Robin Hood, is the daughter of the oppressive regime won over by the untamed but innately good male, but whereas in those earlier films the final kiss of hero and damsel set the seal on a reconciliation of social spheres – classes, races, and genders – here Maria is left behind by her father and forced to pick a side in the upcoming war, choosing her mate’s side rather than her sire’s in a matter of moral as well as sexual gravity. Curtiz pulls off a marvellous visual coup in a sequence in which Thorpe visits an increasingly smitten Maria, who gains an almost religious solemnity in regarding the man she now loves whilst holding an armful of roses: “That’s how I’ll always think of you from now on,” Thorpe says to her, likening her to a religious icon he once say in South America, “As Our Lady of the Flowers.” Simultaneously, the image of the two standing in the garden, underneath the palatial sprawl, in a symmetrically balanced shot, gives true visual resolution to the notion of the film’s driving oppositions, the masculine and the feminine, the natural and the civilised, the warlike and the civil, meeting in perfect harmony in the English country garden. Later, in a ripely iconic scene that hovers on the edge of a semi-mystical gulf of longing, just as the last scenes of Casablanca offer, Maria’s attempt to warn Thorpe before he leaves that her father has unlocked his intentions, sees her gazing tragically at his just-sailed ship from a foggy wharf, and Thorpe, not knowing he’s just missed her, still gazing back to land clearly thinking of her, from the stern of his boat.
Of course, in spite of its modernist touches and the elements that reflect a sub-genre entering a state of flux, The Sea Hawk still often embraces and defines the big, unabashedly fanciful, theatrical, slightly campy quality that defined the classic swashbuckler, in moments like the lengthy, rivetingly structured escape sequence that resolves in the liberated crew burst into singing, in perfect harmony, along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music. Korngold’s music, like Max Steiner’s, although arguably in a more sophisticated manner, maintained direct links between Hollywood scoring and the Vienna music schools, capital-R Romanticism, and the legacies of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, both of whom had praised the prodigious young Korngold. Korngold’s lush style eventually fell way out of favour before becoming, in the late ‘70s, the model again for anyone who wanted to make an adventure film and needed the sweeping emotional thunder Korngold’s work offered. Here his work, particularly the major heroic theme and its constant partner, the central romantic theme which ebbs and soars to the rhythm of ships upon the waves, is indelible and arguably even better than his great work on The Adventures of Robin Hood. The effect of that fade-out upon the boisterously singing crew is precisely the glory of films like this, even if it’s a touch embarrassing, especially in how it caps off the escape, the culmination of the steady, musically intricate build from deadly, intense silence to frantic, liberating action.
The escape from the galley is just as good a piece of filmmaking as the opening battle in a subtler fashion. Again, there’s a ferocious sense of realistic detail and storytelling rhythm as the galley slaves, grimy, sweaty, hairy, quietly and carefully work their plan to escape, picking away at the embedded hooks that keep them chained to their oars, sliding the chains out from their shackles, in feverish, desperate, ingenious labour. The English then slowly, remorselessly work their way up through ship as an embodiment of the resurging repressed, strangling their captors and infiltrating the neighbouring ship where the plans that confirm the Armada’s purpose are in the hands of Spanish officers, and Thorpe has to wrestle with one as he tries to dispose of them over the side. Doubtlessly Spielberg was thinking about this scene for the opening of Amistad (1997), and it feels like a draft for generations of prison escape movies and heist movies – as in Rififi (1955), the escape sees the men attempting to break their bonds in as near-complete a silence as possible – and other entries in more familiarly realistic genres. The finale shifts gears into another proto-genre, the spy movie, as Thorpe has to sneak back into the queen’s palace where now he’s a proscribed outlaw and Wolfingham’s cadre has cut off access to Elizabeth, to bring her news of Philip’s plans. This demands using the cover of Maria’s carriage: she’s incidentally at the wharf as her uncle plans to leave on the Spanish ship that Thorpe and his followers now possess, only to find the mysterious stranger in her cab is her lost lover. Thorpe then has to make a dash through the cordons of spies and guards, and Flynn gets to cut loose as a swordsman, ticking off the now-iconic moments of any good swashbuckler, including taking on three enemies at once in a whirlwind of physical genius, until Thorpe tries to elude his pursuers only to lock himself into a room with Wolfingham.
The essential, ritually demanded climactic duel promptly erupts, for a third and final piece of bravura cinema, with the witty touch of Thorpe being the one clad in a Spanish uniform, which Wolfingham airily announces he should be wearing. Curtiz enlarges some of the flourishes of Robin Hood’s final battle as the duellists leap and tumble, crash over furniture and through windows, and dance across the cavernous spaces, shadows projected like titans against the castle walls. Daniell, though a great actor, clearly wasn’t as athletic an opponent for Flynn as Basil Rathbone, and the duel is augmented with more stunt doubling therefore than Rathbone needed on Captain Blood, Robin Hood, or The Mark of Zorro (1940), and thus the near-lethal sense of physical unity those duels provide is slightly despoiled by deft edits. And yet you’d have to be paying the closest kind of attention to really notice before the twentieth viewing. By this point, the Kafka-esque quality of the settings, the grand halls of the palace now shadow-flooded and oppressive, and the attendant mood of oncoming tyranny, has become dominant. Thorpe bests Wolfingham but, unlike other Flynn heroes, he is finally driven into a corner and at the point of being skewered by Wolfingham’s guards when Elizabeth, fetched by Maria, arrives to save his neck. The fade out leaves the audience not with the sense of missions fulfilled and final romantic clinches, but conflict only just begun, as Elizabeth gives a rousing speech upon launching the first of her new fleet to take on the Armada with obvious morale-raising purpose. In movie terms and in real life, a long fight was only just starting.
The great old swashbucklers seemed to have sadly short lives, with Fairbanks dead at 56, Power at 45, and Flynn had only another 19 years of life ahead of him, albeit years he crammed with experience and indulgence far beyond most and which accorded strangely with the aura he gave off on screen of mercurial manhood. He died with an awful swan song, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), just after he’d gained new appreciation as an actor with The Sun Also Rises (1957) and Too Much Too Soon (1958), where he exhibited the harsher lessons of growing old with a fearlessness equal to his heroic image. And yet, as long as the cinema continues to exist, I think, the image of Flynn in his prime will continue to reign over cinema’s fantasies like his Sea Hawk ruled the oceans.
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Director: John Ford
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The year 1939 stands out in film history as a banner year, when such megaclassics as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair, Dark Victory, and John Ford’s Stagecoach came out and competed for the best picture Oscar. You might say that 1939 was an especially good one for Ford as well. He premiered two other noteworthy films that year, both starring Henry Fonda—Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, his first Technicolor film. All period films, Drums Along the Mohawk has the feel of a Western, but covers the period just before to just after the Revolutionary War. Noteworthy for its realistic period detail and a level of hardship and brutality I had not remembered from my first viewing of this film many years ago on a local TV show called Family Classics, Ford exposes just how hard and fragile was the life of early American homesteaders.
The film starts in the elegant city home of the Borst family, where Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert) is being married to Gilbert Martin (Fonda). After the simple ceremony, the film cuts to the young couple leaving in a covered wagon for a homestead in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, towing a wedding present—a dairy cow—behind them. The long day’s journey through varying terrains, shot with Ford’s signature expansiveness, brings the Martins to an inn, where Gil persuades Lana to have some vodka to toast their marriage. The innkeeper (Spencer Charters) embarrasses them by teasing them about their newlywed status, and a patch-eyed colonial named Caldwell (John Carradine) asks them about their political affiliation—American or Tory—in an intrusive and sinister manner.
The following evening, the Martins arrive at the cabin Gil built on the homestead. It is very cold and a very far cry from the type of home Lana left behind. As she tries to put on a brave face, Gil builds a fire in the hearth and goes out to shelter the livestock. While he is gone, Lana is scared out of her wits by the intrusion of a Native American. Blue Back (Chief Big Tree) is a friend of the white settlers in the region and a Christian convert given to shouting “Hallelujah,” but Gil barely calms Lana’s hysterics before she says she intends to return to her parents. Gil brings her around slowly, and Lana eventually integrates into the community and starts working the land with Gil.
The primitive conditions of life on the farm don’t factor much into the hardships the Martins face; instead, war is the “natural” element that heaps tragedy upon the Martins and their community. Native Americans in the employ of Caldwell gather a war party to attack. They burn the Martins’ home and crops and send every homesteader in the vicinity running for their lives to the nearby fort commanded by the genial Gen. Herkimer (Roger Imhof), where Lana collapses and has a miscarriage. Economic necessity forces the Martins to work in the house and farm of Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), a scrappy, well-to-do widow. They hope to save enough money from their earnings to rebuild. Unfortunately, the approach of British troops and their Native American mercenaries pushes every member of the settlement into battle in one way or another, as more homesteads are burned and more attacks are made on the fort. By the time American troops reach the remote Mohawk Valley to inform its residents of Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington, the homesteaders claim the right to raise the Stars and Stripes themselves as the defenders of their piece of the United States. After witnessing the grueling trials of the homesteaders, the audience wouldn’t have it any other way.
Drums Along the Mohawk doesn’t romanticize the war for independence, nor does it make the eventual victory of the Americans seem a forgone conclusion for the people it portrays. Indeed, the Mohawk Valley settlers are in trouble from the get-go—isolated, loosely organized, outnumbered. So outnumbered, in fact, that every eligible fighting man is told that if he does not report for battle, he will be hanged. Even the preacher (Arthur Shields) is a reluctant sharpshooter and the women work on reloading the one-shot rifles and dumping boiling water on the attackers when the fort is under siege. The fort itself looks like it could blow down in a good wind, and its walls are easily breachable by the fairly short ladders the Native Americans carry for that purpose.
Ford handles graphic violence in a suggestive way that only slightly blunts the horror. After a face-to-face battle, one-third of the men who went out to engage the British return. Gil, looking shell-shocked, sits against the wall of a make-shift infirmary and recounts the battle to Lana, who is busily cleaning and dressing his wounds. Every detail is burned into his memory, including the fact that his friend Adam (Ward Bond) actually was enjoying himself. His last memory is of a Native American mercenary being impaled on a pike. Gil complains that Gen. Herkimer sat holding his knee after being shot early in the charge; he is not aware that the general will lose his life in an attempt to amputate his gangrenous leg, a procedure we know will happen but will not be allowed to hear or see. Another shattering scene occurs when the simple-minded Joe (Francis Ford) volunteers to try to reach reinforcements. After apparently getting away, his friends can only look on in horror as the mercenaries wheel into the open a smiling Joe, who is tied to a wagon stuffed with hay. The homesteaders try frantically to keep the mercenaries from setting fire to the wagon, only to fail and force the preacher to shoot Joe to spare him burning to death.
Ford’s superlative facility with ensembles and the details that bring a time and place to life are on full display here. We watch the community help Gil and Lana clear their land, cutting trees and pulling stumps using oxen and fulcrums made of young birch trees, and burning the felled timber to make ash to fertilize the soil. A scene in the church shows the organist playing an instrument made with two bellows that must be pushed by hand. The sacrifice of livestock and belongings when the Native Americans come a-burnin’ is done without endless complaint—homesteaders do what must be done.
I very much enjoyed the interplay between Edna May Oliver and Ward Bond. Bond’s Adam is more than a little flirtatious with Oliver’s widow woman. He clearly loves her and gives her a passionate kiss at one point in the film, rather a surprisingly wonderful moment that she brushes off as her due. Mrs. McKlennar is a woman who never liked being confined to domestic duties and does what she pleases now that she’s a widow. Imagine a woman, and a pioneer woman at that, actually saying she doesn’t like cooking and cleaning! Imagine a woman like Edna May Oliver being considered desirable by a strapping man like Ward Bond. In Hollywood, it’s just not done. In John Ford films, however, it is!
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert have a tremendous chemistry, playing a passionately in love couple with very convincing feeling. I must admit being able to see Fonda’s brilliant, blue eyes added to the believability of Colbert’s ardor, but her initial shock at seeing the cabin and Blue Back was horrifyingly real as well. Other supporting characters, like the snobbish Mrs. Demooth (Kay Linaker), add color and humor, but not a great deal of depth. Like many Ford films, the teeming mise-en-scene and expansive vistas of a wild country (filming took place in Utah) create the big slice of life Ford seeks to capture more than completely rounded characters.
On the other hand, the enemy Native Americans are allowed to be people, not caricatures. In the final scene, Ford gives us close-ups of a number of characters, including Daisy (Beulah Hall Jones), a free black woman who works for Mrs. McKlennar, showing us the diversity of Americans present at the birth of the nation. It’s a bold statement from a man who felt peace should be as inclusive as war. Drums Along the Mohawk is a fine film that more cinephiles should take the time to rediscover.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Teinosuke Kinugasa
By Roderick Heath
The postwar rebirth of Japanese cinema and its eruption on the world stage reached its apex in the years 1953-54. Almost every great Japanese director of the age released a film within an 18-month period, and examples of the national cinema burst upon the international scene to general acclaim. Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse made multiple works, including Mizoguchi’s eclipsing classics Ugetsu Monogatari and Sanshô the Bailiff, and Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums; Yasujiro Ozu released his most famous film, Tokyo Story; Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Nobuo Nakagawa likewise had movies in theatres; and Hiroko Inagaki made the first of his three-part Samurai series, which would win what was then a special Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1955. What would eventually prove the two most famous Japanese movies ever produced, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, came out in their homeland, headed for slow but permanent infiltration of Western culture. Of all the films amongst this cavalcade, it was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell which captured both the 1954 Cannes Grand Prix, which was the festival’s top award at the time, and multiple Oscars the following year. Gate of Hell was Daiei Studio’s first colour production, utilising imported Eastmancolor technology, and adapted from a play written by Daiei’s erstwhile chief, Kan Kikuchi.
Kinugasa, by comparison with the other Japanese greats of the time, is now largely obscure, partly because little of his work was released overseas, and is also poorly represented on DVD. But Kinugasa’s life and career were multifarious, somewhat analogous to someone like King Vidor as a restless and innovative director whose oeuvre spans great shifts in cinematic modes and tastes and who settled into an uneasy relationship with studio cinema. Kinugasa began as an actor who had specialised in onnagata (female roles) in kabuki theatre before moving into film. In spite of his stage background, when he broke out as an independent filmmaker, he rode at the vanguard of emboldened, semi-experimental directors who severed Japanese cinema’s hitherto close relationship with the stage, in a flowering of revolutionary technique roughly equivalent to movements occurring then in Germany and Russia. Key to his early importance was his virtually self-financed, much-hailed, only partly extant drama A Page of Madness (1926), cowritten by the future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata. Kinugasa then went overseas, managed to get one of his films distributed and praised in Germany, and studied for a time under Sergei Eisenstein. When he finally returned to Japan, he settled down as a studio hand. Kinugasa wasn’t particularly proud of Gate of Hell, disliking the studio interference he had to contend with, and was bewildered when it became such a sensation overseas.
Gate of Hell’s impact abroad was based chiefly in its use of colour, resplendent in the eye-gorging cinematography by Kôhei Sugiyama and set and costume design by Kisaku Ito and Sanzo Wada, to wilfully transform the cinematic space into a sprawl of segmented tones that often resemble the hues of classical Japanese ukiyo-e art. Depending on the emphasis of the scene, the effect was to imbue the drama with both naturalism and a saturated, psychologised air of abstraction. Whereas most serious Western filmmakers in the mid ’50s were still often embarrassed by the decorative quality of the era’s colour as a less-serious form of expression that that found in the black-and-white sparseness of television, Kinugasa’s work embraced the idea of high artificiality as an artistic device. Otherwise, Kinugasa’s film would almost invite an audience challenge to prove just how it was so much better than Seven Samurai and Sanshô the Bailiff. Well, it has neither the overflowing narrative richness nor psychological depth of either of those films, but then again, few things do. Kinugasa’s film is still a formidable drama that is something close to a noir film wrapped in the guise of historical exoticism, and Kinugasa’s formal control of the film is superlative.
Like Luchino Visconti’s near-concurrent Senso, Gate of Hell reverses the common structure of historical dramas by starting off with large-scale events and epochal ructions before spiraling inward toward a personal crisis that mirrors and subverts the presumptions of the larger battle. Set in the late 1100s, during the Heian period that was the dusk of Classical Japan, Gate of Hell’s main protagonist is Moritoh Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa), a mid-ranking provincial-born samurai attached to the imperial Taira clan. He finds his moment to show his worth during the Heiji Rebellion, an attempted coup d’etat against the ruling emperor that occurs when his chief supporter, Tairo Kiyamori (Koreya Senda), leaves the capital city of Kyoto to visit a monastery, giving rivals an opportunity to attack his stronghold and take over the government.
The imperial loyalists at the film’s outset frantically try to arrange to smuggle the emperor’s sister out of the Sanjo Palace, and Moritoh is called upon to stage a diversion where he and a band of retainers will defend a carriage carrying a decoy in the princess’ place. One of her handmaidens, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô), volunteers to be the decoy, and Moritoh and his men have to fight their way through a pursuing force. Moritoh finally arrives alone with Kesa at his family villa in the country, only to encounter his brother Moritada (Kunitaro Sawamura), who announces that he’s siding with the rebels. Moritoh is outraged and refuses to join his brother, and as Moritada restrains his own men from killing Moritoh, Kesa runs away. Moritoh manages to reach the temple and report to the emperor and his men. He also kills one of the emperor’s retinue who tries to sneak away and warn the conspirators that the emperor is about to strike back. A battle follows that sees the emperor’s loyalists victorious and Moritoh distinguish himself again, but his brother is killed.
Moritoh visits a shrine for the dead set up just next to the Sanjo palace’s jigokumon, or, literally, hell gate. Moritoh encounters Kesa and her aunt Sawa (Kikue Môri) there, also intending to pray for the fallen, and Moritoh’s interest in the comely courtier hardens into ardour. When the time comes for the emperor to reward his followers for their aid, Moritoh asks to be given Kesa’s hand in marriage, and only then learns that Kesa is married to one of Kiyamori’s ministers, Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata). Moritoh refuses to retract his request, asking the emperor to annul the marriage and thus entering into a public and conscious rivalry with Wataru.
Unlike Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), the film which largely opened the curtain on awareness of Japanese cinema in the outside world and which is set in the same period, Gate of Hell has a rigorously straightforward narrative, if a tad difficult to grasp towards the start as the film engages history presumably more familiar to Japanese than Western viewers, and a deceptive simplicity that nearly disguises the skill with which the tale has been pared down to its essentials. It could easily have been a mere sprawl of candy-coloured prestige pageantry, but it is instead a tightly wound and skilfully paced study in obsession, albeit one that proceeds with the clear delineations and iconic rigours of classical literature. The film barely runs an hour and a half, but fits in a whirlwind of events that flows with the same descriptive precision as the historical scroll painting that is unfurled at the film’s very outset. In his use of such motifs and his colour effects, Kinugasa anticipates and probably influenced aspects of Kobayashi’s dark plunge into the national mythology with Kaidan (1964): Gate of Hell is conscious of itself as not merely a film set in the past, but of the artistic prisms through which we conceive the past, lending depth to his stylisation. Kinugasa also downplays the sprawl of historical events and personages after the opening, and concentrates instead on his antiheroic protagonist, who for the film’s first half at least seems the definition of a loyal cavalier.
The rush of action in the first 10 minutes is worthy of Eisenstein or Michael Curtiz in its precise design and flow. Kinugasa’s camera is either at eye level or dizzyingly high above the action, in shots filled with actors and extras arranged in streams of colour, the panicking populace and chasing armies churning like multicoloured flotsam under boughs of hallucinogenic green leaves, more like an explosion in an orchard than a battle. This leads to the hard, vigorous edits of the decoy carriage and its guards fleeing, Kesa within the carriage fainting from the heat and bustling motion as the pursuers catch up with the retinue, who turn to engage in a few seconds worth of brutal combat. Moritoh cuts his way through a swathe of enemies with devastating panache, and repeatedly demonstrates his utter loyalty to his chosen master, even going so far as to riposte to his brother’s entreaties of pragmatism with the assertion that once a man’s given his loyalty, that’s the end of the matter. Moritoh’s race to reach the emperor’s friends at an island temple is another dazzling little sequence, as he chases a team of enemy assassins, shooting arrows at their backs, one plunging from his mount and lolling on the beach dying, his furled fingers leaking sand in symbolic place of his blood and life; but a few minutes later, Kinugasa offers a jarring moment of gore as in Moritou’s duel with the traitor, he lands a katana blow to the enemy’s face, bright gleaming blood seeping between his fingers before Moritou lands the coup de grace.
Moritou is offered literally anything he wants for his service, except, as the ruler jokes, “my head on a plate!”, but immediately finds this is a dishonest offer, if hardly without a good reason. Moritou’s obsession apparently transcends any materialist interests, but erotic fixation blends with awareness of Moritou’s subordinate role as a lesser samurai and a provincial outsider in the aristocratic, urbane ranks his new fame lifts him to, in a society that rewards the values he espouses but only in selective degrees. Moritoh’s singular determination to possess the lustrous Kesa warps him steadily into a lethal bete noir for the courtly, noble, but finally deferential Wataru, and the loyal, genuinely conscientious Kesa. The emperor even indulges Moritoh’s obsession so far as to invite Kesa to the palace to play the koto for him, and arranges for Moritoh to corner her and try to wring out an admission of mutual admiration for him, which he’s sure she feels.
Michiko Kyô soon became the closest thing Japanese cinema had to an international star after Toshiro Mifune, appearing in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) opposite Marlon Brando. She presented a specifically old-fashioned, specifically Japanese ideal of feminine beauty, with a sensual edge, emphasised here in her lips daubed a delirious red, which glisten throughout and lend a distinct quality of sexual intensity to Kesa. She is otherwise defined strictly by her rectitude and decency, which readily explains why Moritoh is so ardent in his quest to possess her. The film’s narrative revolves around the explicit likeness between the attempt by the emperor’s enemies to impinge upon his domain and Moritoh’s attempt to impinge upon Wataru, both eroticised acts of violent grasping and overthrow, and a distinctly Buddhist motif of desires that sooner or later dominate reason and torture men into irrational acts. In her suffering purity, Kyô’s Kesa is a practically archetypal distillation of feminine qualities, stoically attempting to hold her life together under the incessant battery of masculine force with the stoic determination of Mizoguchi’s women , but unlike, say, the ethereal remnant of such victimization found in Ugetsu’s Lady Wakasa, Kesa is provocatively corporeal.
The story’s underpinnings as a tale of sexual jealousy and fidelity amidst of a warrior culture evoke plentiful examples in the western canon, like Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece. Kinugasa’s background as an onnagata, a profession which leading man Hasegawa had also once essayed, supports a hint of an actor’s delight in Kesa’s role as tragic pivot for outsized passions and moral quandaries. As I’ve said, there’s also a hint of the noir film to Gate of Hell, as it zeroes in on a situation that’s a heady mix of desire and power, one that can only resolve in crime. In a mode with links to the same traditions Mizoguchi’s films also invoked regularly, and close to the Hollywood style of women’s pictures, Gate of Hell conflates the usually disparate figures of the femme fatale, whose sexually pulchritudinous existence taunts a man to the limits of sanity, and the self-sacrificing female apostle. The specific cleverness of the tale is in the way Moritoh starts out as a hero and finishes up as a murderer, viewers following him towards his calamity with perfect logic and forced to ponder its loyalties constantly. Like Moritoh, the audience has no idea Kesa is married until it’s revealed to him before the emperor, and Moritoh’s humiliation before the watching audience is palpable precisely when his triumph should be complete. But where a cheaper narrative might have made Kesa’s spouse unlikeable or cold, Wataru soon proves to be a patrician who is decent, good-natured, and deeply in love with his wife. He presents only a solicitous concern when he hears about the story that’s amusing the court involving his wife, and proves ready—perhaps, finally, too ready—to roll with Moritoh’s antagonism.
When Moritou enters a horse race held on an annual religious festival that Wataru is recognized for consistently winning, the challenge of the now-notorious suitors becomes a must-see event. When Moritou wins, Wataru graciously applauds the victory, but Wataru’s friends and others of the aristocratic party are boisterous at the banquet afterwards and suggest that Wataru let Moritou win, a bone thrown to a dog to keep him quiet. Moritou, hearing this, angrily challenges Wataru to a duel, but a courtier forestalls this, forbidding a fight at a holy event. The film’s title has a certain portentous quality, one fulfilled right in the last shot, but it’s interesting to note that like Rashomon, the titular gate is a real location in Kyoto, which becomes a fulcrum for a social, historical, and spiritual understanding of the action. Early in the film, the severed head of Shenzei, a Confucian monk and minister for the emperor, is hung from the gate, and the common folk flocking about it state that he deserved his fate for his past acts of repression. Kinugasa zooms in to the faded murals on the gate depicting the tortures of hell, amazingly similar in spite of the vast separations of culture and distance to Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions. Monks often sit apparently oblivious to the worldly goings on that swirl near this landmark. The notion of hell on earth takes on macro- and microcosmic, sociopolitical, and emotional overtones in the course of the narrative, with the gate arching over all.
Moritou literally and figuratively passes through the gate of hell several times, including when he approaches the shrine to the rebellion’s dead with his brother’s name on it, murmuring, “The poor bastard!” whilst steadily marching toward the fate he becomes agent of, entrapping Kesa through a ruse and promising, in his fearsome state, to kill her and her relatives if she will not help him to eliminate Wataru and become his wife. Moritou’s transformation of himself into a kind of demon in his pursuit of his desired one is matched by Kesa’s act of martyrdom, built up to in a spellbinding sequence reminiscent of the best Val Lewton films, in which Moritou sneaks up on the Wataru house through moonlit fields whilst Kesa, inside, cajoles her husband into swapping rooms. When Moritou strikes at his quarry in bed, he finds that he’s skewered Kesa, which, with bleak irony, breaks the spell of obsession on Moritou. Shocked and aggrieved, he awakens Wataru and demands that Wataru kill him as punishment and atonement for his crime.
But the stunned and horrified Wataru rather thinks about the implicit message of Kesa’s decision to offer herself in such a fashion, for he feels it reveals she did not trust him to protect her from the danger, and in fact, took it upon herself to protect him. Thus, both men are framed together in the house’s courtyard, Wataru standing over the kneeling Moritou who begs for death, in a shot that somehow castrates both of them, even before Moritou cuts off his samurai’s topknot and pledges to live the rest of his life in shame, probably as a monk. For both of them, not simply the woman they loved, but also the ideals and structures that guided them are dead. Kinugasa provides an interesting ending, partly for its explicit rejection of violence as an answer to violence, the acidic commentary on a culture where the capacity to wield lethal force is heralded but will inevitable cut into the very heart of its presumed sanctuaries, and the idea suggested by the final shot, of Moritou emerging out of the mist and heading through the hell gate, that his new life may give him something of the same selflessness and redemption Kesa was able to find.
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Director/Screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius
By Marilyn Ferdinand
They’re back again. The creative team behind the successful OSS 117 spy parodies—filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo, and his leading man Jean Dujardin—have turned their talents not only to another subgenre, but to film history itself. The Artist is a backstage Hollywood story made as a black-and-white silent film, complete with title cards and music score. Modern silent films are more numerous than many people think, though The Artist will be a novelty to the majority of people who go to see it. Unfortunately, as a silent-film fan, I found myself quite confused by this film and feel it distorts the record on the transition from silent to sound pictures in a way that further offends John Gilbert, a silents legend who ended up unjustly on Hollywood’s ash heap.
The film begins unlike any real silent film: a spy is shown in extreme close-up being tortured with electroshock treatments by some Russians who want him to spill his secrets. He refuses to talk and is tortured to unconsciousness. Fortunately, the spy’s faithful dog comes to the rescue, the baddies are beaten, and the spy returns to the arms of his lady love. This sequence, the climax of the new George Valentin (Dujardin) film “A Russian Affair,” is intercut with an audience in a large theatre and George and his costar Constance (Missi Pyle) sitting behind the screen waiting to take their bows at this, the film’s premiere. This clever opening signals the modernist sensibilities that will be brought to bear on a film era spanning from 1927 to 1931, from the Roaring Twenties through the 1929 stock market crash and into the Great Depression and the rise of the movie musical.
Following the (silently) thunderous applause of his appreciative audience, George mugs with Dog (Uggi) on stage like the old vaudevillians they must have been, as Constance fumes about not being introduced until the very last moment. George exits the theatre, and one of his fans, while trying to retrieve the autograph book she drops, stumbles into George. He forgives the intrusion, and the young lady, Peppy Miller (Bejo), makes herself an overnight sensation by posing for the newspaper photographers and giving George a kiss that makes it to the front page of Variety. George’s disaffected wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) refuses to believe the innocence of the encounter, particularly when she sees George with Peppy at the studio, where the aspiring starlet has wormed her way into a nonspeaking cameo on George’s new picture. The pair signals their attraction by repeatedly flubbing their brief moment together on camera; studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants to fire her, but George uses his clout to keep her on.
In a classic reversal of fortune, Hazanavicius produces credits for several films showing Peppy moving from the bottom of the list, through the common variant billings of the time (“Pepi”), to top-billed star as the studio switches to all-sound pictures and new faces to usher the new era in. At the same time, George, scoffing at talking pictures, heads toward ruin. He loses his fortune in the stock market crash, his wife leaves him, and the studio drops him like a hot potato. He and Dog move into a small apartment, along with his loyal chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), who works without pay until George fires him for his own good. After George has pawned everything of value and become a full-fledged alcoholic, Peppy rescues him after he has nearly died in a fire of his own making and resurrects his career by turning him into a musical comedy star alongside her. Their final number, a tap dance routine reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s “Begin the Beguine” turn in Broadway Melody of 1940, is the only nondream sequence with sound, as the stubborn silent “artist” embraces light entertainment in all-sound pictures.
The character of George is a compilation of classic silents stars, including Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, but he seems most modeled on Greta Garbo’s regular costar John Gilbert. Dujardin’s appearance mimics Gilbert’s, and George’s reason for refusing to make talkies, “Nobody wants to hear me speak,” alludes to the myth that Gilbert did not make the transition to sound because he had a poor speaking voice. Gilbert also got an assist out of obscurity from Garbo, who insisted that he was the only man she’d play with in Queen Christina (1933), and Gilbert was an alcoholic. However, making George an egoist who declared his own film artistry as the reason to reject sound, not to mention a laughable voice test by Constance a la Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), undercuts the real reasons behind Gilbert’s problems and those of other silents stars—high salaries and more power than the studio bosses cared for them to have. George is reduced to an actor whose pride is his only impediment, and that includes having the hubris to declare himself an artist when Hollywood insists that it will support only happy campers who churn out light entertainment for a downtrodden nation.
Filming The Artist without sound seems a very confused choice to me. The big reveal at the end that George has a French accent would seem to confirm his fear of sound due to his voice, but what exactly does the choice do for the rest of the film? I’m afraid I don’t really see the point as anything other than some high-concept conceit that seems a particular attraction of The Weinstein Company, which picked this film up for American distribution. Is it fun to see modern acting styles done without sound or color, or to pick through the film references placed like Easter eggs throughout the film (e.g., the breakfast table scene between Charles Foster Kane and his wife in Citizen Kane  or the verbatim score for Vertigo  in the fire sequence)? Honestly, I felt these were cheap attempts to engage my cinephilia instead of giving me a film that was well conceived with a strong point of view.
The area where this film shines is in the incredible talent and likability of Dujardin and Uggi. The pair works very well together, particularly in the gripping scene when George is overcome by smoke in his apartment and Dog barks desperately at him to get up and leave, finally exiting the scene and racing down the street to attract a policeman (Joel Murray) to the conflagration. This scene plays remarkably true to silent film conventions and maintains its own integrity, with the exception of a comic moment when an older woman (Annie O’Donnell) waiting for a bus tells the cop he probably should see what all the fuss is about.
The extremely crisp look of the film gives a hint of what a new nitrate film might have looked like to audiences in the silent era, though even restored films from nitrate we see today don’t look quite this good. In general, the costumes were a treat, but I was a bit disconcerted to see Peppy in full flapper regalia for a 1930s film she was starring in. The Artist was also surprisingly chaste by both 1920s and pre-Code standards; George and Peppy never act on their attraction, making the relationship one of mentor-protégé despite plot developments that assert it should have been more, for example, Peppy buying all of George’s personal effects at auction and saving them in her mansion for a time when he could be reunited with them.
I enjoyed various components of this film and thought the performances were generally quite good, but perhaps I am too much of a silent-film buff to really give it my full endorsement. And if I’m not the target audience for this film, then who is? This talented team should have thought this one through a little further, as I feel there’s a first-rate film in here somewhere straining to come out.
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Director: Raúl Ruiz
By Roderick Heath
Raúl Ruiz’s recent death came as a shock to the system for cinema aficionados who admired that restless, protean stylist and dramatist, a filmmaker who never quite broke out of the box of niche affection in the English-speaking world. One comforting thing, however, was that he left us with one of the best films of the year. Mysteries of Lisbon was produced for television, but released this year worldwide in a cinema edit, and like Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1983) and Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) it makes medium distinctions entirely disappear. Mysteries of Lisbon is as visually rich and pervasively controlled as the best of movie-making, even as a work based essentially in people speaking and relating events which unfold in the nerveless gaze of Ruiz’s camera.
Mysteries is based on a work by 19th century Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, a writer heavily influenced by Victor Hugo, and it’s a grand, sprawling tale full of classic Victorian narrative twists and lush, period romantic drama. And yet Ruiz articulates Branco’s tale with a poetically incisive vision, creating a psychological and imaginative epic depicting in a subtle, but steady fashion the depths of influence that go into creating an adult psyche, penetrating the haunted mind of its main protagonist, and the collapse from moral rot and hypocrisy of old world Portugal and the physical and interior processes creating a new one. In its immersive sensations, Mysteries calls to mind the best of Luchino Visconti, Max Ophüls, and the Kubrick of Barry Lyndon (1975) in the sustained intensity of mood, whilst the teeming layers of narrative gears working to elucidate the complex forces that create individuals blended with a layer of effervescent fantasy evokes, if more subtly, the wild storytelling riffs of Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1964).
Describing Branco’s novel as “homonymous,” a title declares, “This story is not my child, or my godchild. It is not a work of fiction. It is a diary of suffering.” Mysteries of Lisbon initially centres around João (João Arrais), first glimpsed as a sad-eyed, black-haired young orphan in a school run by the strangely intense, but benevolent Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). The story commences in the 1820s, during the “Revolução Liberal” that ended much of Portugal’s colonial activity and British domination after the Napoleonic Wars. That theme of revolt and collapse flows through Mysteries of Lisbon like an underground river.
João is first seen through the eyes of an English lady who sketches his remarkable, melancholic face. João’s melancholy has definite causes: he is made sport of by other students for being parentless, with one accusing him of being a criminal’s child. When João becomes violently ill, he awakens in a delirium to find a number of people, including a mysterious and lovely woman, standing over his bed. When João recovers, Dinis takes him to see the woman, who appears at the window of a great house, before the belligerent lord of the manor chases them away. The truth, which João suspected, soon emerges: the woman was João’s mother, Countess Ângela de Lima (Maria João Bastos), who has been kept a virtual prisoner by her husband, the Count of Santa Bárbara (Albano Jerónimo) for all the years João spent growing up. Ângela is regarded as a victimised saint by most who know her, including Dinis, who soon begins revealing facets of his background and personality that seem completely at odds with his role as religious educator and taskmaster.
Mysteries of Lisbon begins to unfold with a roundelay of revelations and narrative layering familiar to anyone who has read Hugo or Dickens, and yet the manner in which Ruiz treats them sees them begin to blur into each other, stretching into the past across several generations in distinct yet curiously repetitious incidents, full of shape-shifting characters and dramas. A recurrent motif is having incidents enacted via the puppet theatre that young João retrieves from within the orphanage, as if he’s conjuring a vision of things to be, or just romancing an identity for himself. What Marilyn described in her review of Klimt (2005) as Ruiz’s way of telling a story through almost subliminal detail is apparent throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, though that can entrap the wary viewer. Branco’s novel was sourced in his own troubled childhood as an orphan and peripatetic, indecisive adult life before he finally found recourse in writing. João, the youthful hero, is initially virtually anonymous—just look at the cast members of the film to see how common the name is in Portugal—but eventually learns his real name and family background. But his identity is like a suit of borrowed clothes with a naggingly unpayable price tag.
In a more literal fashion, other characters in the tale change identities with their apparel. Dinis, revealed eventually to be a former Napoleonic soldier and revolutionary hiding out in the guise of a Catholic priest, has himself a similarly deep hole in his past to João’s, and has been a cunning master of self-reinvention. His intense empathy for João and Ângela seems, at first, to hint that he himself is João’s father; the real reason is because of his own familiarity with being alone in the world, and personal reasons for detesting cruelty to women and the lot of orphans.
The first mystery of the title is João’s parentage, which is slowly explained once Dinis is able to help Ângela flee from her husband’s house when he’s away trying to fight the revolutionaries. João is the lovechild of Ângela and a young suitor, Pedro da Silva (João Baptista), a man of noble birth but, sadly, no fortune, causing her father, the breezily contemptuous Marquês de Montezelos (Rui Morrison), to reject his marriage offer. Their aboveboard courting then turned clandestine and physical, until Da Silva was shot by the Marquês’ gypsy minion Come-Facas (“knife-eater”; played by Ricardo Pereira): Da Silva managed to find refuge with Dinis and tell his story before dying. When Ângela was spirited away to a remote country house to give birth, along with Come-Facas, who was instructed to kill the infant, Dinis followed her there in the guise of a gypsy. He bought Come-Facas off, allowing him to spirit João away and see to his upbringing. Ângela was then married off by her father, with supple smiling threats and pressure, to the uptight Count.
Upon hearing that his wife has finally fled him, the Count spreads rumours that she is Dinis’ lover, and Dinis promptly tracks him down to get him to recant, but finds the Count is dying, tended by his long-time lover and serving maid Eugénia (Joana de Verona). The Count, consumed by guilt and bemused by his own mad behaviour, which he finally puts down to realising that the Marques suckered him, begs Ângela for forgiveness from his deathbed. Meanwhile, Dinis encounters a face from the past in the form of Alberto de Magalhães, a strapping gentleman about town who publically mocks the Count’s version of his wife’s affairs: de Magalhães is actually Come-Facas, who used Dinis’ money to go to Brazil and started bankrolling piratical ventures, allowing him to return to Portugal rich, if not exactly a gentleman.
Ruiz’s approach to filmmaking here is almost like ambient music, so unobtrusive, and yet so fluidly mobile and attentive to shifting tones: I doubt if I’ll see a better-made movie this year. Ruiz’s camera slides about like the servants who are constantly glimpsed hovering, listening, undermining the affectations of privacy and discretion the mostly upper-class protagonists maintain, and virtuoso tracking and deep-focus shots that constantly keep his characters alive within painterly, yet realistic environs. There’s a quietly bravura scene early in the film describing the abuse and peculiarities in the Count’s house, the camera passing back and forth through walls and rooms as the action unfolds, and casually revealing the Countess’s loyal servant hiding in an alcove and listening. Later, there’s a scene that’s all the more strange and funny for the peculiar way Ruiz shoots it: Dinis, riding along a boulevard in his carriage, is stopped as, on the street, a society fop challenges de Magalhães to a duel for offending some female guests at a soiree. Dinis, seated in his conveyance, does not quite understand, as the audience does, what is going on, and yet Ruiz holds the camera fixed to “his” perspective as the fop tries to shoot de Magalhães after he refuses to duel: de Magalhães picks up and hurls him bodily against the side of the carriage, and is glimpsed in partly obscured fashion that renders the action all the more bewildering, and funny.
An often hilarious vein of dry humour and tragicomic farce peppers Mysteries of Lisbon, as when de Magalhães causes two society dames to literally faint with shock when he challenges their careless gossip about Ângela, a scene that has a Buñuel-esque flavour, and later when he abuses scurrying staff in his mansion whilst talking with Dinis, part of a play-act to maintain the appearance of consuming preoccupation. Later, Ângela, having become a nun, playfully teases Dinis about another nun whom he seems to be on fascinatingly intimate terms with, aware that their reasons for taking up lives of sedulous devotion are contradicted by remnant links to the emotional and sensual world; Dinis is using it as a hideout, even if he’s certainly still a spiritually yearning man. The erotic plays underneath all of the seemingly uptight, yet constantly semi-hysterical actions of the characters in spite of the period polish: everybody seems to be having sex, or, more precisely, to have once had sex, with everybody else in this world, and indeed it’s the only real fun that anybody belonging to the upper classes could have once marriage, a vessel for the exchange and continuity of property, is a done deal. Frei Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes) gently chastises Dinis for failing to indulge in the Lord’s blessing of good food and drink, but as Encarnação’s later narrative reveals, such indulgence is a stand-in for other appetites, one which is burnt out of Dinis. Vast emotional pain is the result, and yet nobody is all that repentant for grasping at their moments of pleasure and happiness.
There’s no moral absolutism in Mysteries of Lisbon, and it’s Ruiz’s understanding of how that can make drama more gripping, rather than less as so many lesser artists think, that really makes the film compelling. His feather-light narrative shifts nonetheless completely change the emotional meaning of what’s occurring. Such moments come in the Count’s repentant attitude, Ângela’s surprised reconsidering of Eugénia’s part in her family melodrama, and the final glimpse of the Marquês, who, in his old age, is left poverty-stricken and blind, completely alone in the world, and yet still possessing an undimmed pride and a complete contrition for all of his acts. It is this absence of bogeyman figures to react against that seems part of first Ângela’s and then, much later, João’s tragic aura, victims of and testifiers for human weakness. As such, Mysteries of Lisbon is a classic example of a grace-note film from an aging director, simultaneously subtly scathing and unsentimental, and yet also big-hearted and, in spite of a lack of large gestures, sublimely emotional.
Despite the drollery and sexcapades, the keynote is one of irreducible emotional longing tuned to the key of young João’s desire for a home and identity. But the moment he gains his “family”—mother Ângela, proxy patriarch Dinis, and a real name (Pedro da Silva after his father) — he promptly loses it again. He recognises that something in his mother shifted inalterably after the Count’s deathbed plea: her still-youthful quality was extinguished by the spectacle of her husband’s contrition and the moral weight of it. She subsequently retreated into a nunnery by the conclusion of the film’s first half, unable to support herself after having rejected the Count’s inheritance. Dinis, in the first movement of the second half, learns something about himself that also explains his intense interest in João’s and Ângela’s welfare and his general attentiveness to the unfairly exiled and abused. He himself was the son of an illicit aristocratic passion, as he finds that the priest, Frei Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes) who was giving the Count of Santa Bárbara his last rites is, in fact, his own father. Himself a former roué, Álvaro de Albuquerque (Carloto Cotta) seduced and fell deeply in love with the Countess de Vizo (Maria João Pinho), the wife of an acquaintance. They had run off to Italy together, but she died in childbirth: Álvaro handed young Dinis over to a friend, who then had to pass him on, and so on until Dinis finished up being raised by a French nobleman. That’s how he came to be fighting for the Napoleonic cause in Spain under the name of Sebastiao de Melo—the name under which he once entreated the Count of Santa Bárbara not to marry Ângela.
There has been no shortage of superheroes on movie screens this year, and whilst this fare might seem light years from Thor or Captain America, it struck me while watching Mysteries of Lisbon that Dinis is another superhero, and by far the best of them. Unfailingly conscientious, weary and wary-looking, yet darkly charismatic, a master of disguise, and a kind of swashbuckling holy man, Dinis acts for much of the first half of Mysteries of Lisbon like an unstinting force for good. He fearlessly rights wrong once he builds up a head of steam, even as he sits on a deep well of brooding emotion, saddled with a past, aspects of which he’s proud yet can’t acknowledge, and others that torture him with guilt. He keeps a room in the orphanage where he sits and contemplates the past, his alternate identities and dark secrets just waiting for João to penetrate on one of his inquisitive ventures. All those passions, sexual and political, are for him and so many other characters in the film the provenance of the past, as happiness constantly becomes something that can only be remembered, with their living products like João and Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme) left troubled, even damaged. The doubling in Dinis’ life and young João’s is hardly coincidental, as the narrative moves into a final movement in which João, grown into a young poet and going by his proper name (played as an adult by José Afonso Pimentel), encounters Elisa, a woman with a resemblance to his mother and a fine line of near-crazed manipulation.
Elisa is the daughter of Dinis’ own tragic love, Blanche de Montfort (Léa Seydoux), who married Dinis’ comrade in arms Benoit (Julien Alluguette), but eventually took a lover, Lacroze (Melvil Poupaud). Lacroze was a man whom Benoit and Dinis saved from a firing squad during the war and introduced to her, and whom they later pretended was dead so that she would finally marry one of them. Benoit finally killed Blanche and tried to cover it up in a fire. In his bleakest and most telling instance of presenting a lingering, deep-focus frame, Ruiz shows Benoit, dressed in his old cavalier’s uniform, calmly reading whilst everyone else tries to douse the fire and Dinis carries out Blanche’s body; Benoit eventually goes wandering off idly to disappear in the smoke and distraction.
The offspring of that tragedy, Elisa, in her turn, proves something of a disturbed and vengeful mirror to Ângela’s capacity for suffering, acting like a hellhound on the trail of de Magalhães, who, under one of his other names, had an affair with her in Paris. With finesse she tries to disturb de Magalhães’ happy marriage to the Count’s former mistress, Eugénia. Eugénia hides under a table and demands that her husband keep out all threats to their security. Whilst Dinis recounts to Elise the story of her mother’s death, de Magalhães bursts in and almost strangles Elisa to death in front of the priest after she threatens to shoot him; Dinis’ invocation of their long-past bonhomie in other guises talks him out murder. Elisa later enlists João when he falls for her in France to return to Portgual and avenge her besmirched honour by challenging de Magalhães to a duel, having no idea of the part de Magalhães once played in saving João’s life. The scene seems set for some sort of ironic tragedy, as either man could kill someone to whom they owe their life in a fashion, but the narrative sidesteps the obvious. De Magalhães, after making it clear that he can easily kill João in a duel, gets him to call it off and explains the less romantic truth about what happened between him and Elise: she and he signed a contract that was really just a gambit to an erotic game, where he would pay her for sex. Forming a passion for him that he could not reciprocate, she developed a nasty habit of repeatedly convincing romantic young men, like João and even her own brother, to try to kill him.
Mysteries of Lisbon works on more levels than just the literal one of plot and character—it’s also a meditation on storytelling, in a subtle but irreducible fashion, and on circles of life that resemble yet do not exactly reproduce each other. Ruiz isn’t trying, like so many postmodern stunt merchants, to sunder the nature of narrative so much as to suggest that life itself as a complex interweaving of repeated events and constructed perspectives. Time folds back on itself at the end of Mysteries of Lisbon as João, who might be dying, and is certainly feeling the impact of having his shaky chivalry and sense of what his life means broken in pieces by Elise’s game-playing. As inheritor of all these stories and truths which leave him old before his time, he leaves the country and finishes up deathly ill in a hotel in a foreign land, dictating a memoir. The final tragedy—and it is a tragedy when all is said and done—is that João finally reaches a point where, just like the rest of the characters, he achieves maturity at the point of losing his illusions, retaining only a memory of perfection, the one moment in which all of life and hope seemed to lie before him: when he awoke from a similar sickbed to find his mother, still a stranger and yet somehow familiar to him, hovering over him. It would be an insult to leave off without mentioning the general excellence of the cast, especially Luz, Pereira, and Bastos.
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Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
By Roderick Heath
Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel has, unlike her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, thus far largely resisted attempts by filmmakers to transpose its multifaceted charms and subterranean perversities into worthy cinema. Whereas Wuthering Heights has received such memorable, sharply contrasting and complementary adaptations from the likes of William Wyler, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, and Kiju Yoshida, versions of Jane Eyre have tended to be disappointing and dryly handled. Even the seemingly perfectly cast 1944 version directed by Robert Stephenson, starring Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester, doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. Perhaps this is because there’s something defiant about the novel, which possesses elements of, and yet does not give itself over to, the same hallucinogenic romance-noir atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, whilst balancing elements of reportage-like exposure and moral symbolism within its own insistently dialectic structure: it’s the work of someone in constant interior argument with herself.
Jane, Brontë’s heroine, is one of the best ever put on paper, a fiercely self-contained young woman who operates according to her own moral compass regardless of whether the world is in accord. The novel’s finale both fulfills and subverts its own gothic-romantic reflexes in a peculiar series of anticlimaxes with curious sadomasochistic overtones. The promise of another film version hardly set the world on fire, and yet this new adaptation struck me as by far the best stab at Classics Illustrated cinema in several years. It’s surprisingly well-cast, with two of the best up-and-coming actors in the business, and equally well-directed by the California-born Fukunaga, who had previously helmed the admired Sin Nombre (2009). Fukunaga seemingly made a great leap in subject matter in moving from contemporary third-world experience to well-thumbed library shelf filler, and yet perhaps not so great after all.
Part of the reason why Fukunaga’s film works better than other adaptations is because he understands the dialectic nature of the story. He pitches his adaptation, consequently, both on a level of sharply composed realism, with an emphasis on physical environs and extremes, which helps give back to the material a grounding in immediacy, whilst allowing hints of stylisation, to evoke the psychological and expressionistic elements of the novel, to come forth without being hoary. The period rural England glimpsed in the opening scenes practically conjures a sensation of wind chill and ice burn as Jane (Mia Wasikowska) flees from Thornfield Hall into the embrace of a rural landscape that offers no sustenance to the outcast. The underlying paranoia of so many of the “classic” novels of the early 19th century is of the fate of the social castaway in a civilised land completely inimical to multiple forms of outsider; it’s easy to miss the often-shouted note of social protest in adapting such works. This Jane Eyre restores some of the immediacy and anger sucked out of most such adaptations through the figure of Jane, who tries to keep a grip on her Christian charity and also her outspoken honesty in circumstances where people try to subordinate one and destroy the other.
You can also see the influence on such writing looping back to its roots through the Harry Potter stories in the opening scenes in which Jane is assaulted by her spoilt cousin and, when she sticks up for herself, is exiled to the remote and gloomy Red Room, where she freaks out so intensely, believing the stories hurled at her by vengeful adults about ghosts and spectres, that she knocks herself out cold in beating at the door. The vision of Jane as someone driven by such an intense sense of justice and survival instinct that she’s almost self-destructive comes into immediate focus. This sits alongside the observation that her grim childhood (Amelia Clarkson as young Jane), which also includes being sent to a death camp in the guise of a school where girls, including her best friend Helen Burns (Freya Parks), expire from pneumonia in the parsimonious climes, actually arms her for future travails with an uncommon rigour, a fact she senses and forgives.
Fukunaga attempts artfully, though not entirely successfully, to downplay the novel’s loss of momentum in its long third act, when Jane finds aid and shelter with rural pastor St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters Diana and Mary (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant), by commencing with this plot point and using the licence of cinema to both disperse these scenes and retain their narrative meaning—Jane’s capacity for gratitude and perseverance, the way St. John subtly shows up the lacks of a more seemingly spiritual type of man as petty and narrow. It also allows Fukunaga to explicate Jane’s childhood and early experiences in fragmented flashbacks, allowing him to jump between periods without laboured narrative grammar, particularly inspired in one moment that reduces years of abuse to a single crack of a cane against her back. Jane is thus exiled when she falls afoul of her spiteful aunt, Mrs. Reed (an unusually cast Sally Hawkins), whose feelings of familial responsibility towards kin are easily discounted in the face of a girl who insistently mirrors back a lack of charity and decency. Jane survives her education and adolescence and takes the post of governess at Thornfield to school the French-speaking, rather daffy young Adèle (Romy Settbon Moor), and encounters ‘umble ‘ousekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (a nicely subdued Judi Dench) and her personal dark marauder riding out of the mist, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
Wasikowska, with an uncommon capacity to seem shrinkingly plain and luminescently beautiful from shot to shot, emphasises Jane’s innate decency with an edge of sullen, clipped, subtle resentment she tries not to let dominate her personality and hinted in the way she gives Jane a Midlands accent, rather than the “received pronunciation” for proper, educated English. Rochester is a difficult part to play, easy to push too far towards monstrous Byronic cliché or expose as a himbo fantasy. But Fassbender tackles the character with a blend of harshly honest force and pained discomfort within his own skin, with a faint edge of trapped bohemian energy and the intense hate of lies clashing with his beholdenness to a man who perpetuates one enormous lie to secure his future happiness. He’s both prisoner and driver of the steely rivets holding together patriarchal, conformity-driven Christian England that Fukunaga goes on to realise with effectively eerie scenes; Jane becomes witness to the manifestations of Rochester’s dark secret, the Minotaur at the heart of his personal labyrinth, as she tends injured Mason (Harry Lloyd). Hearing menacing knocks and windy whistling in a splendidly paranoid scene, Jane rides out the night with fortitude, remindful that, amongst other things, Brontë bridged a gap between Gothic and psychological fiction.
A similarly strong scene with a fine control of point of view comes earlier when Jane is invited to join Rochester’s toff friends, including his designated paramour Blanche Ingram (an underutilised Imogen Poots), and sits ignored and shell-like in company that cares not a jot for her, dismissing governesses as “detestable incubi … hysterics … degenerates.” Jane leaves, pursued only by the man attracted to her precisely because she sits so far outside the whimsical world. Fukunaga is nicely aware of the importance of physical contact in a world where it’s verboten in all but the most profoundly private moments. The scene of Jane’s unexpected appearance causing Rochester and his horse to take a violent fall. The sight of the squealing animal and the bellowing man tethered in toppled, flurrying alarm encapsulates everything dark and ferocious about the male sexuality Jane knows nothing of and yet gravitates to with inevitable, physical compulsion: Fukunaga then extracts a deeply sensuous feel from a moment as simple as Jane leaning her face against Rochester’s leg much later when he’s mounted on his horse, and at the end when she takes his hand when he’s been blinded, both moments alive with the profundity of human touching human. Such sensuousness inhabits other scenes where it’s less expected, as when young Jane and Helen share a bed, providing both with emotional and physical warmth. There’s an admirable sense of awkward, fearsome determination when Jane bitterly remonstrates Mrs. Reed before being cast out of her life, and when Rochester leads Jane to their ill-fated wedding with a sense of a threat as yet undefined. Their subsequent confrontation by Rochester’s lunatic wife Bertha Mason (Valentina Cervi) elides her pathetic beauty and captures with subtle framings the humiliation and horror transfixing the undeserving Jane.
If anything finally limits this Jane Eyre’s success, it is that for all its casting and stylistic strength, it’s still an essentially conservative and modestly aimed adaptation, straining at the limits of the tasteful period film but also conceding to them. The screenplay by Moira Buffini, who wrote Tamara Drewe (2010), Stephen Frears’ amusing riff on Far from the Madding Crowd, is, in spite of the reorganising of the narrative, still anchored to studious novelistic progression and point of view, to the extent that it even avoids portraying the climactic conflagration that destroys Thornfield. There’s a devilish perfection in Bertha’s auto-da-fé destruction of the entire infrastructure of the English country order she’s been sitting within like an alien, spidery presence, which deserves filming. This omission robs the tale of its fiery apocalyptic grandeur, obvious even in the second person on the page, and so that the film feels curiously lacking in a climax: it’s not full-blooded in a way that the most bold and aggressively cinematic adaptations visibly fight to achieve in different fashions.
We tend to associate classic novels with the classic cinema styles that inflated them like fragments of myth, for example, David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946). Yet Fukunaga’s mise-en-scène offers a sinuous, deceptive kind of expressionism, with its twinning poles of the frantic, handheld, opening shot and a sense of vertiginous plunging into the unknown, and the equally woozy, but tonally opposite, scene in which his camera and edits spin and jump lithely as Rochester and Jane glance off each other in a teasing game of attraction and repulsion and attraction again in a garden that erupts to life as if spring is coming only in response to their unleashed passion. Jane Eyre the novel is hardly a work of interior monologue and deep psychological investigation, and yet it is closely tethered to Jane’s inner life and her accounting of her thought processes, explaining both her severe temptation to accept Rochester’s proposal that they live in sin and the power of her determination to resist when it’s deeply against the grain of her personal sense of integrity. This sort of stuff is hard to get across on screen and part of what tripped up earlier adaptations, which endlessly stalled waiting for the moment when Rochester and Jane kiss. But Fukunaga’s relative success relies on his careful camerawork and on Wasikowska’s and Fassbender’s capacity to depict warring internal impulses in gesture and speak in ways that convey several layers of meaning.
Fukunaga seems determined to tell this story as if it’s never been told before, with a clear-eyed sense of where to stress the narrative beats, which is uncommon in a lot of modern adaptations. Jane Eyre is a good yarn, and he’s not afraid to let it flow with a natural confidence that avoids the academic or drearily faithful adaptation of a TV miniseries. There’s something a little unpredictable about this Jane Eyre, even if the ending is never in doubt.
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Director: Henry King
By Roderick Heath
Henry King was a director who evolved with movies from the silent era to sound and then the threshold of Hollywood’s first great decline. As with many luminaries of that heyday of studio filmmaking, his last few films, including neutered adaptations of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were a flat end to a good career. Nevertheless, King made some of the best, most substantial Hollywood films of the 1940s, including The Song of Bernadette (1942), A Bell for Adano (1945), and his masterpiece Twelve O’Clock High (1949), movies in which he mustered a spacious, sober, humanistic intensity worthy of William Wyler and George Stevens. He benefited especially from collaborating with 20th Century Fox titan Darryl F. Zanuck, taking the hefty, detailed productions Zanuck could set in motion and turning them into excellent cinema. Captain from Castile stands apart in that run of good films for being an attempt to revive, in a rigorous, grown-up fashion befitting the more muscular, realistic postwar mood, the period melodrama and the swashbuckler, genres that had lost traction during WWII. The film is also worth attention for being just about the only English-language film of note to deal with one of history’s most pivotal incidents: the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez. Sporting an unusually strong lead performance by Tyrone Power, it’s a minor gem of high Hollywood’s Technicolor filmmaking.
Power plays Pedro De Vargas, a privileged, but decent young caballero in 16th century Spain who, when out riding one day, meets his oily neighbour De Silva (John Sutton), a bigwig in the local Inquisition (or, as it’s inaccurately called here, the “Santa Hermandad,” the Spanish rural police of the time). A slave of De Silva’s, whom he was trying to force to convert to Christianity, has escaped, and Pedro decides to help, utilising his superior hunting skills to track the slave. He finds, however, that the slave is Coatl (Jay Silverheels), a kidnapped Aztec prince he knows and likes, and instead of handing him, over gives him money to help him make his escape. Power also helps a young woman, Catana Perez (Jean Peters, making her film debut as a last-minute replacement for Linda Darnell), who is harassed by some of De Silva’s goons. Pedro takes her back to the tavern where she works, and meets Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb), a recently returned colonial who’s grown rich in Cuba and is now seeking to extricate his mother from the clutches of the Inquisition. Pedro himself falls foul of the Inquisition, as De Silva, infuriated at Pedro’s interference with business, has the entire De Vargas family arrested, including his respected former soldier father (Antonio Moreno) and his 12-year-old sister (Dolly Arriaga). De Silva has the girl tortured, and she dies, earning De Silva one of film history’s most memorably lethal stares from Power.
Luckily, in his plan to get his mother out, Garcia has bought a job as a turnkey in the local prison; Garcia’s mother has died before she was scheduled to be burnt at the stake, so he helps the De Vargas clan escape instead. Just before the appointed hour for the breakout, De Silva comes to demand a confession from Pedro in his cell, but Pedro’s been smuggled a sword by Cobb. After a speedy duel, he delivers a mighty comeuppance: he fools De Silva into renouncing God before running him through. A thunderous horseback chase follows as the family and their helpmates, including Catana, who’s smitten with Pedro, flee across country. Forced to separate into two groups, with the others heading to Italy, Pedro, Garcia, and Catana make it to a seaside port. They decide to sail to Cuba, and join up with the expedition Cortez is planning. Once signed on with Cortez (Cesar Romero), Pedro encounters the expedition’s appointed priest, Father Romero (Thomas Gomez), and confesses what he did to De Silva. Romero gives him the penance of having to pray for De Silva’s soul, and tears up the arrest warrant sent out by the Inquisition. But as Cortez’s expedition penetrates the Mexican interior and wars with the natives, Pedro gets a shock when De Silva turns up. Having recovered from his sword wound, he’s been sent as an emissary to make peace between the Spanish authorities and Cortez and set up a branch of the Inquisition in the New World.
Captain from Castile was based on a noble doorstop of a bestseller by Samuel Shellabarger. It shares aspects with other films based on such popular tomes, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Anthony Adverse (1936) and Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947: in fact, Linda Darnell jumped ship to star in that), in straining to include the huge, incident-packed sweep of that brand of florid pulp. This attempt results in some narrative diffuseness, sheering off the novel’s last act in favour of an interesting in medias res conclusion depicting Cortez and his by now multinational, conglomerate army of followers marching on the island capital of Tenochtitlan. Captain from Castile was, of course, made some 20 years before the revisionist strand of cinematic history gained traction, and the historical events here are painted in the legendary, rhetorically triumphant terms classic Hollywood was fond of. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t mince many words about Cortez’s motives as a greedy adventurer and presents an interesting portrait of the man, played with wit as well as bravado by Romero. Cortez is offered as something of an historical used car salesman in cavalier’s clothing, using a beaming demeanour and professional veneer to conceal his awareness of how far out on a limb he is. He bluffs both his Spanish masters and the Aztecs as he convinces his men with the argument not to accept the bribes of gold the natives offer when the whole caboodle can be gained. His most memorable scene comes when threatened with the wrath of the Aztec gods by a prince, he has a canon pound an idol, and asks whose wrath the prince thinks could be worse.
Real incidents of Cortez’s adventure are woven with some finesse into the narrative, and the film’s opening scrawl proudly announces that it was shot in many of the real locations through which Cortez moved. Cortez’s lover and translator, La Malinche or Malina (Estela Inda), the slave who is often depicted as both mother of Mexican culture (and one of Cortez’s sons), and also the model of the phrase “Malinchista,” akin to Quisling or Benedict Arnold to denote a disloyal Mexican, is glimpsed as an exotically dressed, Pocahontas-like icon of cultural bridging. In one of the film’s more cunning, colourful incidents, Pedro is assigned to watch over some treasure, handed over to the Spanish, stowed in the peak of a pyramid. That structure proves, in a pure Indiana Jones moment, to be riddled with secret passages through which some of Cortez’s rebellious men manage to make off with the treasure whilst Pedro’s distracted by a drunk and violent Garcia. Told by Cortez to find the treasure or be hung, Pedro tracks the thieves on board one of the expedition’s ships. After recapturing the loot, undoing the rebels, and being gravely injured in the process, Pedro is promoted to captain, hence the title, and this is also the cause of Cortez deciding to burn his fleet rather than risk a repeat.
As Cortez’s army drives deeper inland, Pedro has to hole up in the village of Cholulu with the advance guard whilst Cortez doubles back to fight a battle. The town becomes a kind of frontier not just of empire, but also of the spirit and history, as Pedro encounters Coatl again, restored to his homeland and rank, who pointedly asks Pedro why he’s invading Mexico and what value the religious polarisation the white man is bringing has. Whilst the battle Pedro and Coatl have with De Silva is arch melodrama, it also prefigures a theme about the first severing point of the Old World from its certainties. Paracutin, the famous volcano which grew out of a farmer’s field, was still in eruption at the time of the film’s production, and King made sure to make use of this extraordinary example of nature as art director, including its plumes of smoke in as many shots as possible. Towards the end, as Cortez musters military might, Father Romero brings together a congregation of Spaniards and Aztecs in front of the rough-hewn crucifix he’s set up, delivering a sermon that serves as an institution of a New World religion, whilst in the background volcanic smoke imbues the frame with an apocalyptic lustre. It’s a moment that manages to be spiritually engaging whilst avoiding piety, as well as framed and visualised with the keenness of a Renaissance painting. The variegation repeats in the very last shot of Tenochtitlan bathed in streams of golden sunlight like the promised land itself at the end of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) but also with the heavy cloud looming, as if the whole world’s on a tipping point between the great and the tragic.
Whilst it encompasses themes of substance, then, Captain from Castile is still 90 percent rollicking tall tale in the straightforward, old-school mould. King, however, avoids action except for the central set-piece escape from prison; he’s really more interested in atmosphere, and in the intense ambient emotion that hovers about Pedro and his rage at De Silva, a rage that’s easily empathetic thanks to Sutton’s terrifically arrogant performance. It’s interesting that the usual revenge plot, which has easily identifiable echoes in modern movies like Gladiator (2000), is essentially ditched less than halfway through. What develops when De Silva turns up in the New World is decidedly off-beat, as Pedro struggles to contain his hate and obey Romero’s prescription. In an early scene, when Pedro visits Luisa De Carvajal (Barbara Lawrence), his lady fair, it’s in a garden that’s a swooning feast of blossoms, an image that is an encapsulation of a romantic, chivalric past the film begins immediately and steadily to deconstruct, laying bare class and religious injustice as central to the way the Old World works. Luisa’s father, a marquis, (George Zucco) is a supposed friend of Pedro’s father, but won’t aid them when the Inquisition comes knocking and promptly marries Luisa to De Silva once Pedro’s out of the picture. Once in the New World, romance blossoms between Pedro and Catana, who’s anxious that her low-class status can never erase Luisa in his heart, and gets the expedition’s surgeon and astrologer Botello (Alan Mowbray at his most dissolute) to sell her a love charm. After she and Pedro dance in the inevitable flamenco scene, with both actors scorchingly sexy, Pedro suddenly erupts in fiery passion for her and Luisa freaks out, afraid she’s bought his love unfairly. Peters is surprisingly deft in her debut performance, long before Howard Hughes ruined her.
There are interesting undercurrents, too, in Cobb’s role as Garcia, who warns Pedro early in the film that he turns murderous when he’s drunk and so stays clear of the booze. When the treasure thieves get him liquored up, Garcia’s ranting makes it clear that the cause of his madness is his rage at the Inquisition, and when De Silva turns up, it’s revealed that Garcia actually strangled his mother in the prison to save her from a hideous death. “We talk of gold, but maybe we mean something else,” Garcia states vaguely, pointing to the film’s underlying theme. In the end, someone strangles De Silva in his tent after he’s had a heated exchange with Pedro, who is immediately arrested and sentenced to be hung. The killer is actually Coatl, eking out some revenge of his own, and he confesses to the murder in time to save Pedro. But as Cortez enters to tell Pedro of his good fortune, Catana, who has been waiting with Pedro and thinking Cortez has come to perform the execution, stabs Pedro in the chest to save him from the ignominious death. I thought that would have been a brilliant end, but it’s quickly revealed that Pedro’s not mortally wounded, and when he recovers, the expedition continues on to its destined end. That last-minute hesitation from ironic tragedy underlines the film’s failure in the end to work up enough narrative confidence and originality to make it build the mythical drive of the greatest screen adventure-melodramas.
The screenplay, written by Lamar Trotti, who also produced under Zanuck’s aegis, is spotted with some gilded clichés, including variations on “It’s too quiet!” and “I wish the drums would stop!”, and the finale is a bit rushed in detail—what happens to Coatl is oddly left by the wayside. But Captain from Castile is thoroughly worthwhile for anyone who likes their adventure high, villains villainous, history dubious, and heroes hot. It’s also a must for Technicolor fetishists, thanks to the work of DPs Arthur E. Arling and Charles G. Clarke, who render locations in the cinematic equivalent of illuminated manuscript.
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