29th 02 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Communion (aka Alice, Sweet Alice; Holy Terror, 1976)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Alfred Sole

By Roderick Heath

One reason horror genre fans look back to the 1970s with such keen nostalgia is not simply because lots of horror films were made, but because so many different varieties of horror film were made, before the arrival of the slasher flick late in the decade permanently skewed the genre towards more formulaic bellwethers. This brilliant little crossbreed from independent New Jersey filmmaker Alfred Sole is very much an example of the era. It straddles the mid-’70s Hitchcockian revival that included young filmmakers as radically different as Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg; the George Romero school of gritty, handcrafted genre cinema; and it also breaches the realm of the nascent independent film, with its template of empathic realism in portraying lives in society’s peculiar niches. The setting and characters are depicted intimately, their world investigated with familiarity and feeling, and everyday pains and perversities are invoked, even as the film erupts with intervals of psychotic violence and raw suspense orchestrated in exacting cinematic terms.

Sole cowrote the screenplay with Rosemary Ritvo, and as well as a deep lexicon of film references, much of it has a flavour of being torn from memory and observation. The setting is 1961 in an intensely Catholic neighbourhood, a similar time and place to what John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt tried to revive. The changing mores of the world around the church that is the linchpin of the story and its characters’ social lives is part of the film’s unstated texture, as the tale revolves around young divorcee Catherine Spages (Lisa Miller), who is raising two daughters on the cusp of pubescence, Alice (Linda Sheppard) and Karen (Brooke Shields).

At the film’s outset, Catherine shepherds her daughters to visit the handsome, much-liked young Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich). Tom lives with another priest and a monsignor (Peter Bosch), all taken care of by the dedicated Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton). The purpose for the visit is to arrange for Karen’s first communion, and Father Tom gives Karen an ornate cross on a chain. Alice, distracted and irritated by the attention her sister is receiving, scares Mrs. Tredoni by sneaking about wearing a doll-like mask. When Karen later receives her communion dress, Alice steals the veil and then one of Karen’s dolls; when the distraught Karen tracks Alice to an abandoned building, Alice frightens her by slamming a fire door shut behind her, sealing her in a decrepit space. When she releases her, Alice bullies her sister into keeping quiet about it. When Karen is standing, last in line to receive communion, she’s grabbed by a figure clad in the same doll-like mask and the ubiquitous yellow raincoat all of the young girls who go to a local Catholic school wear. Karen is strangled with a candle, and her killer stuffs her body into a trunk, steals her cross, and places a lighted candle in with it. Alice enters the church wearing a veil she claims she picked up, and soon, the smell of burning attracts attention and Karen’s body is found to a general furor. When Karen is buried, her father, Dom (Niles McMaster), who has remarried, returns to attend and consoles Catherine, whilst police detectives Spina (Michael Hardstarck) and Brennan (Tom Signorelli) and Catherine’s shrewish sister Annie (Jane Lowry) make little secret of their suspicions that Alice killed her sister, a notion Catherine and Dom reject out of hand.

Alice is from the outset one of the most intensely believable and fascinating portraits of bratty youth ever committed to film. Aggressive, frightened, volatile, secretive, Alice is both victim and perpetrator of evils in a landscape where images and rituals of purity, beauty, and just order are often revealed to have seedy and decaying flipsides. She keeps a private shrine littered with stolen objects, a talismanic photo of her father, candles, and a jar full of insects she will eventually put to good use. The neighbourhood hasn’t gone bad, but there’s a feeling that behind many a door things are rotting. The Monsignor is ancient and decrepit, yet technically still an authority. Catherine’s landlord Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) is an obese shut-in with urine stains on his pants who accepts Alice’s insults with smiling menace as he tries to paw her. Alice seems jealous of Karen partly because, like everyone else, she has a crush on Tom, who offers an aspect of the father figure just as he subliminally offers a figure of romantic aspiration for Catherine, and also because she seems to have not experienced the first communion, perhaps when Catherine was still on the outs with the church for her divorce; each time Alice steps forward to actually take communion, someone dies.

Alice is the sort of embryonic troubled youth punk and grunge rock adored celebrating. (Sheppard would go on to play in her only other film, Slava Tsukerman’s equally cultish punk relic Liquid Sky [1982]). Alice is secretly angry at her father’s departure and wants him home again, and she’s begun lashing out at everyone around her with increasingly artful offence. But she also hides a powerful, if manipulative, streak of real despair and fear of abandonment as revealed when she drops a jar of jam when Annie is bossing her about, sparking a furious kitchen confrontation. Alice is certainly infuriating and perhaps even a little dangerous—but is she unhinged enough to be a murderer? For Annie and others, Alice’s transgressive attitude is easily transmutable into sociopathic acts, especially as the killer consciously adopts the same dress and guises as Alice. When Annie leaves the Spages’ flat after her charged clash with Alice and Catherine, the same masked, raincoat-clad figure attacks her and hacks at her legs on the stairs. Annie plunges bleeding and terrified down into the lobby, screaming that Alice has attacked her, and crawls out onto the sidewalk in the pouring rain as Dom and Tom arrive.

The film’s opening titles proffer a weird gag, in which a young woman in veiling white is seen praying with a crucifix in her hands as an image of sanctified youth, only to lift the cross and reveal a dagger point on the end. It’s the first moment in a film that presents seemingly disparate things—devotion and homicide, innocence and sadism—in a confused singularity. The cleverness of Sole’s film is in the richness with which he melds humdrum detail and the heightened realism of the familiar, down-to-earth preoccupations of the characters, full of family tensions that blend love and antipathy in barely separable ways, and the more expansive cinematic gamesmanship of its thriller plot and visuals. Sole’s use of Hitchcockian visuals, justified not only by story, but also by the fact that Psycho is showing at the local movie theatre; so, the texture of remembering an era and a set of events as filtered through an associated aesthetic method is matched by an individual cinematic sensibility that expresses itself mostly keenly through close-ups. Sole builds to singular moments of feverish, almost operatic telegraphy of feeling in his close shots, as when Karen’s body is found and an exchange of looks between Tom and Catherine confirms the worst, and when Annie, screaming in panic, crawls into the torrential downpour. Sole is constantly receptive to faces, particularly those of the female cast. Miller’s Catherine, with a mature beauty, retains at first a sphinx-like aura of self-containment, often shot in cool profile or watched in silent recline, only to be constantly twisted into a mask of anxiety as she’s beset with the trials of Job as many a single mother might feel. Alice’s face with her unnerving large eyes and sullen mouth radiate force of character unleavened by the deference of maturity, and Annie’s face looks like Catherine’s except slightly smudged by a life of bossy and judgemental self-righteousness. Later, there are faces bent in pain and transfigured by madness and anger.

The actual killer calls to mind other horror movie tropes beyond Hitchcock, with the killer’s deceptive physical appearance and raincoat evoking the killer dwarf of Don’t Look Now (1973) and Dom as a similarly doomed pursuing father, whilst the mask is pure giallo movie stuff. Like George Romero’s Martin from the same year, Sole utilises an almost neorealist sensibility in his depiction of his native milieu, his feel for the assailed, decaying sensibilities of the formerly secure, and his use of genre tropes to try to describe an authentic psychic atmosphere of disconnection and alienation in communities that used to be defined by rock-solid values and an insularity both reassuring and suffocating. Alice and Martin are similar square pegs for very round holes, whose inchoate rebellions inevitably bring on punishing forces, all the more hysterical as the certainties that inform the punishers are endangered. Yet in many ways, the actual mood of Sole’s film is closer in spirit to Val Lewton than Hitchcock or Romero, in its sense of ordinary lives inflected with eruptions of the irrational. For the most part, Sole takes his material on at the far more immediate level of a family drama, and many sequences, like the kitchen bust-up, are convincing depictions of simple, emotional fracas amongst ordinary people; indeed, aspects of the film, for example, the depiction of psychologically injured youth in the wake of calamity, anticipate the more precious “serious” stuff of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980). The process of Alice’s becoming a serious police suspect evokes the similar scenes of Antoine Doinel’s passage into the justice system in The 400 Blows (1959), even as Alice still manages to get a blow back by sabotaging a polygraph when the technician is out of the room. The visual texture around Alice becomes encaging, with repeated shots through bars and window frames isolating her from the world.

The thriller plot, then, works in tandem with depictions of the all-too-familiar dangers and threats of childhood, like the dance of malignancy Alice and Lorenzo engage in. Three sequences of sustained emotional volatility in the film’s mid-section serve both in a propelling plot purpose, but also retain self-sufficient qualities of character study and interaction. The first is when Catherine desperately pleads with, and then threatens, Annie in her hospital bed to divert her from saying that Alice attacked her, but Annie, agonised and fraught, still bawls out to her henpecked husband and the police that Alice was the guilty party. The second comes when Dom and Catherine visit Alice, who’s subsequently locked away for psychiatric evaluation, with a doctor (Louisa Horton) concluding she has schizoid tendencies; Alice at first furiously rejects them, but then buckles and chases after her mother in a teary catharsis. Alice’s incarceration means that she ceases to be the centre of the story, as Dom and Catherine move into focus in the third scene, as they momentarily give in, in their brittle and clingy states, to their still-bubbling attraction, only for a phone call from Dom’s new wife to cut into their tryst with humiliating timing. Nonetheless, Dom’s return and his determination to stick about until he can find the real killer, whom he begins to suspect might be Annie’s chubby, sullen daughter Angela (Kathy Rich), seems a perfect way not only to get his daughter out of immediate trouble, but also to prove he’s still a part of her life, vitally important to saving her unstable psyche as well as her freedom. But in a coldly inspired, mercilessly staged sequence, Dom is fooled into meeting with Angela in a park, and, spying the coated, masked figure, chases it into a disused building, where the figure stabs him in the shoulder on the stairs, and flees to a higher floor.

Dom continues to track the attacker, still believing it’s a frightened and unstable girl, only to then be knocked out, tied up, and rolled towards a high drop with chilling, laborious calm, by the murderer. This is actually Mrs. Tredoni, utterly psychotic and determined to destroy the Spages, who represent everything that’s wrong to her with a world of decaying morals, and who keep distracting her beloved Father Tom from his priestly duties and her tender care. Dom’s panicked, prone screams once he revives can’t stop her from continuing to roll him toward his doom. He manages, however, to tear Karen’s crucifix from her neck with his teeth, and won’t give it even as she smashes his teeth in with a stone, swallowing it instead, before sending him plummeting for the coup-de-grace. The grinding sense of corporeal punishment here, suffered for sins directly subsequent to the moment of near-adultery between former husband and wife, beautifully channels Catholic guilt into worldly suffering, as the killer inflicts pain as self-appointed wrath of god, albeit one who returns to scrubbing floors and making tea and grumbling. The film’s signal image inverts meaning: the mask, which on Alice signifies a longing for the depersonalised power of adult eroticism, is on Mrs. Tredoni a borrowed guise of sensuality turned grotesque, as she seeks to punish “that whore” Catherine for her perceived transgressions, and the secret perversity of the conformist, rather than the outsider, is revealed. Tredoni’s attack on Dom’s teeth carries Freudian dimensions, redolent of a prepubescent oedipal violence.

Bloodied and dirty from her exertions, she returns to the church and takes refuge in the confessional, where she admits vaguely to her sins to be given a reassuring absolution by Father Tom, who tells her she’s a good person, accidentally, implicitly affirming the rightness of her determination to punish the wicked: Tredoni, slumped in the shadows and quivering with feeling after her deed, now lifts her eyes in beatified happiness. Momentary calm, however, threatens to dissipate as Alice returns home, restored to her life by a repulsive sacrifice Catherine decides to keep secret from her for a time. Catherine still taunts Tredoni with her presence in the church, and her attempt to kill Catherine is forestalled by the most bizarre device: Alice, in her return home, leaves her jar of bugs propped on the sleeping Alphonso’s lap. When he wakes with the bugs crawling on him, his cries brings the watching detective charging in, and Tredoni, alarmed, stabs Alphonso to death and is seen fleeing. She makes it to the church, where she stands in the queue to receive communion, unaware that the police are gathering outside. Father Tom begs them to let him extract her, but Tom’s conscientiousness finally proves his own undoing as he asks Tredoni to leave and she, in a rage of betrayal and lunacy, asks why he’d ask her to leave and not “that whore” and stabs the priest in the neck.

Again, Alice’s attempt to receive communion is ruined, this time by the savage annihilation of her last father figure right in front of her, and the spectacle leaves her wandering away with Tredoni’s bag, fingered her mask and knife with a boding purpose. It’s arguable that here finally Sole steps too close to a glib twist ending, but there’s a terrible concision to it: like the same year’s Carrie, there’s a dark catharsis where damaged youth finds itself irrevocably tethered to the sins of the parents and broken morality, and rational forces no longer present any credible barrier to the young inheritor’s vengeful mind. Either way, Communion is a small masterpiece. For a cast of virtual unknowns, with the exception of I’ll Cry Tomorrow scribe Lillian Roth in a droll cameo as a medical examiner and, of course, future star Shields, the cast is remarkably effective. Sole, sadly, never came close to matching it again: whereas, by his own admission, he would have been better off remaining an independent local filmmaker, a la Romero and John Waters, he went Hollywood, and after making the utterly bizarre-sounding Tanya’s Island (1980) and the weak slasher-movie send-up Pandemonium (1982), he finished up in a career as a production designer.


28th 02 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Shutter Island (2010)

Director: Martin Scorsese

By Roderick Heath

Author Dennis Lehane’s specimens of ethically, physically, and psychologically assailed masculinity have many similarities to those troubled men who have littered the cinema of Martin Scorsese. Lehane’s byzantine 2004 psycho-thriller Shutter Island, however, didn’t seem like the kind of material that would immediately appeal to the great American director because it was a tribute to genres that Scorsese has rarely taken an interest in. Other Lehane works, like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, already well-filmed, would seem more natural for the director of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and the novel’s story revolves around the kind of trick narrative Scorsese has mostly disdained. Scorsese’s previous efforts at playing the generic entertainer, like 1991’s cheesy shocker remake of Cape Fear, and 2006’s disjointed, oddly bland thriller The Departed had me convinced that Scorsese wasn’t very good at subordinating his familiar artistic volatility to the needs of commercial cinema without losing his bearings.

Scorsese’s reasons for filming Shutter Island become plainer in the viewing, however, as he and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis stick scrupulously close to their source, which tells the story of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who comes to the titular island in Boston Harbour by ferry along with hastily provided new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). The island is the location of Ashecliffe Hospital, a repository for the criminally insane, where an inmate named Rachel Solando (the always-wonderful Emily Mortimer) has supposedly escaped from her cell. The marshals are there to lead the manhunt for her. They encounter the smooth head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), his Germanic offsider Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), the efficient deputy warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch), and the intimidating warden (Ted Levine) who seems only slightly saner than his patients. Soon, Teddy and Chuck discover the utter improbability of Rachel’s escape given the circumstances.

Deeper levels to Teddy and his presence on the island begin to manifest: Teddy, a former soldier who had helped liberate Dachau, lost his wife Dolores Chanal (Michelle Williams) in an apartment fire two years earlier. He tells Chuck that the firebug who killed her, Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), is one of the inmates and that he thinks Cawley and Naehring are adapting Nazi medical experiments under the aegis of HUAC and using the patients as guinea pigs. Teddy seems under tremendous psychic pressure as he begins to experience bizarre hallucinations of Dolores and grotesque dreams in which she and Rachel become interchangeable and Teddy becomes accomplice to Rachel’s supposed murders of her three children. Pictures of Rachel remind him of inmates at Dachau, and, indeed, the whole institution reminds him of that locale and the hideous violence he witnessed and participated in there. Rachel is found, but Chuck abruptly disappears, and Teddy encounters a woman living in a cave claiming to be the real Rachel Solando (Patricia Clarkson), a psychiatrist working at the hospital forced into hiding when she refused to collaborate. She warns Teddy that he’s already falling victim to psychosis-inducing drugging. Teddy determines to find Chuck, believing he’s being held in an old lighthouse where the nastiest experiments seem to take place.

If Scorsese’s camera dynamics are cooling noticeably, the emotional temperament of his films isn’t: indeed, Shutter Island is most sustainedly hysterical work in years, essayed with some thoroughly confident cinema. His imagery is closest in spirit to the hallucinogenic noir that punctuated his badly underrated near-masterpiece Bringing Out The Dead (1999), and this film plays as something of an evil twin to that work: both works center on conscientious, dutiful men suffering ugly demons and fantastical dreamscapes, haunted by women they feel guilty for not being able to save, and engaging in soul-tearing reckonings with their innermost natures and their place in the world. Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Teddy’s delusions of knighthood conceal illness and incapacity to cope with the world. Where those films were, however, at least nominally works of realistic drama, Shutter Island is a thoroughgoing stylised nightmare, as Teddy is forced closer and closer toward his own heart of darkness, symbolised by the lighthouse, and into a reckoning with the hideous truth behind his presence on the island and his whole past: he is Laeddis, it was his own wife who murdered their children before he killed her in distraught revenge. He’s been through a desperate attempt by the doctors and staff using role-playing to reach him in his delusional state.

Scorsese opens the film with an eerie long shot of the island that evokes the approach to the Isle of the Dead in Mark Robson’s 1945 film, and sporting blasts of deeply reverberating, menacing music announcing immediately that something truly nasty awaits on Shutter Island. And yet, in a curious fashion, nothing truly horrific happens in the course of the film’s present-tense narrative: the island is actually a hide-away for guilt and tragedy lurking in the past. The entire story is set up to penetrate that hideaway, that ultimate retreat, locked behind metaphorical shutters. Simultaneously, Lehane’s novel used the tropes of trashier pop culture to illustrate a period version of psychosis, whilst erecting a tale about the collapse of traditional masculinity in the Age of Anxiety, humiliated before the face of war and holocaust and the impenetrable ambiguities of the unbalanced mind. Scorsese goes to town recreating those tropes, as he turns Lehane’s template into a vivid, bristling tribute to Val Lewton, Michael Powell, Orson Welles, Samuel Fuller, and many other filmmakers.

Scorsese’s a more ingenious director than Lehane is a prose stylist, and he illustrates Lehane’s clever scenario with thunderous gothic chic. Some have characterised the film as a return to Scorsese’s one-time flirtation with the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, and there’s a dash of truth to this, apparent in the zest with which Scorsese offers up gnarled graveyards, hordes of rats, scar-faced villains, mysterious caves, and eerie hospital wards. But Scorsese was only briefly a member of that school, making Shutter Island more like the Corman film he never got to make. There are more levels to this, however: as a novel and as a film, Shutter Island plays a taut and revealing game with psychological credulity and a well-constructed thriller narrative that replicates the intricacies of paranoid psychoses. The twist ending of the work seems to hit many people with particularly disorientating force because it actively subverts the noir tradition, as so many of the juicy elements prove manifestations of a ruined, craven mind.

In fact, the film is closest in effect and design to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), of which Scorsese is well aware (and also Robert Bloch’s wacko 1962 reimagining of that film). Particularly in the sequence in which Teddy ventures into Ward C, the place for the most dangerous inmates within a Civil War-era fort, Scorsese conjures a pure space of expressionist dread—dank, dark, and labyrinthine—in which Teddy encounters both physical and psychological enemies in the persons of escaped inmates and George Noyce (a grossly convincing Jackie Earle Haley), Teddy’s schizoid source for the horrors of Ashcliffe. Ward C evokes the twisted interiors of Lewton’s Bedlam (1946)—Scorsese even reproduces one fright from that film exactly—and the bowels of the Courts in Welles’ The Trial (1963) with spiraling stairwells and grilled shadows.

Likewise, Teddy’s perfervid dream sequences are little masterpieces of style from Scorsese, offering in suddenly lush colours that contrast the blues and greys of the hospital and island with Teddy’s suppressed Technicolor romanticism: visions of Dolores as a bleeding, crumbling illusion and Mortimer’s Rachel perversely pretty in appealing to Teddy for help whilst drenched in blood like a Hammer horror vampire girl. This could all be the closest Scorsese will ever come to making a Tarantino film, but he keeps the narrative rocking along with grace, and the conscious riffing on generic style has a uniquely clever point. That point is found particularly in Ruffalo’s sly performance as a psychiatrist playing a role, his glued-on Dragnet cadences perfect for a man whose idea of policing comes from the television. And the patterns of such shows are reenacted with mordant humour, such as when fake Teddy interviews fake Rachel who’s, warning her about a “known Communist subversive.” Shutter Island encapsulates far more about the tortured ’50s psyche than any number of Revolutionary Roads, as it builds with relentless force to the ultimate moment of familial disintegration as Teddy/Andrew revisits his real trauma.

Not all of the tricks and explanations in Lehane’s eventual resolution are entirely convincing, and Scorsese hardly wastes much time trying to make them so. But he does expend a great deal of subtly employed effort to construct the film so that it adds up to a convincing wholeness, with offhand details—Chuck’s fumbling with his prop gun, Teddy’s obviously delusional ranting—to avoid making another Fight Club. This was my advantage in being familiar with the story in simply being able to watch some consummate conditioning by a master storyteller. It’s amusing to note how much Koteas as the nonexistent Laeddis resembles De Niro as Travis Bickle with his wicked-pixie grin, as if Scorsese is doing a little of his own demon-exorcism in the course of wholeheartedly embracing a portrayal of a broken psyche. An interesting addition to the conclusion, where Teddy/Andrew faces losing his identity to a lobotomy, tweaks Lehane’s dark conclusion ever so slightly, as Di Caprio’s last line suggests that, rather than having merely reverted to madness, he’d choose another way to forget over remembering.

The cast of Shutter Island is amazing, and they uniformly rise to the occasion. I’m starting to miss the wry, light-touch DiCaprio of Titanic and Catch Me If You Can a little, and it’s possible that Teddy really ought to have been played by an actor with the kind of igneous quality invoked by Charles MacGraw or Robert Mitchum. But then again, the book’s Teddy is defined by his difficulties in living up to the he-man image; either way, Di Caprio does bloody well by the difficult part, particularly in evoking the flurries of nearly psychotic rage that punctuate his interactions with other characters. And at 80 years old, Von Sydow still wraps scenes around his little finger. If the whole enterprise is certainly not Scorsese at his greatest, it is by far the most coherent and purposeful of his efforts to embrace the mainstream and pay tribute to movies of yore. l

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1st 01 - 2010 | 15 comments »

Gosford Park (2001)

Director: Robert Altman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There aren’t many types or genres of film Robert Altman didn’t tackle, but at the time he and Bob Balaban conceived the idea for Gosford Park, he had yet to direct a whodunit. Thus, the idea of a traditional murder mystery at an English country estate a la Agatha Christie appealed to Altman, but as a humanist director who was always much more interested in character than plot, he characteristically turned this genre on end.

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Altman gives us a film full of people with a motive for murder, and some portentous shots of bottles of poison and a scene in which the kitchen staff discover a knife is missing. Yet, we are well into the film before the fatal deed occurs. Rather than present a straightforward crime showcasing a traditional effort at a solution, Altman prefers to handle the crime perfunctorily, in Altman’s words, as an “it was done” and concentrate on the various personal mysteries that broaden the genre into a teeming microcosm of passions and betrayals. As an added bonus, Altman manages to subvert the genre entirely by turning its imposing police inspector into a minor character without a detecting bone in his body.

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“The butler did it,” Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) says to an unseen, unheard Hollywood honcho in California just as Mr. Jennings (Alan Bates), butler at the English country estate where Weissman is a weekend guest, passes by. Weissman produces Charlie Chan pictures and has wrangled an invitation to do research for his next film through movie star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who is related to the head of the household, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon). Here is Altman indulging his perennial delight in sending up the denizens of Hollywood, as Weissman, a homosexual vegetarian who would have taken to cellphones like a fly to shit, exists oblivious to his insignificance in this aristocratic, snobbish, hypermasculine gathering of flesh eaters who intend to shoot dozens of grouse and pheasants from the sky as part of their weekend recreation.

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Weissman and his valet, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), seem to be the only ones at the McCordle mansion who don’t seem to know where they fit in the grand scheme of things. Yet England is a country in transition as well. The relics of the British Empire are still evident—the massive estate, the hereditary aristocrats and their servants who descend on it for the weekend, the house staff who manage the weekend party in the “old ways” by calling visiting servants by the surname of their employers and seating them according to their employers’ rank at the below-stairs dinner table. Yet, the time is the 1930s, and England has lost its cocksure vigor in the debacle of the Great War. When the subject of the war comes up, William’s statement, “I did my part,” means that he made himself rich enough in business to buy himself some class, namely his blueblood wife Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Their visiting relatives are near financial ruin or dependent on William’s largesse to maintain the style they previously assumed as a birthright. And there is nothing meaner than elites in the throes of losing their entitlements.

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The oldest of the old guard is Lady Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), who makes her new lady’s maid Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald) stand unprotected in a bone-chilling downpour as she herself is escorted under an umbrella into her coach; she forces the young woman out again during the journey to open a stubborn thermos for her. Constance is as mean as a spitting snake, insisting Mary share house gossip with her and cutting her “inferiors” down to size. For example, she loudly criticizes the “common” Mabel Nesbitt’s (Claudie Blakely) limited wardrobe, though Mabel can’t afford to expand it because her fortune-hunting husband Freddie (James Wilby) has run through all the money settled on her by her merchant father. Freddie is romancing Sylvia and William’s daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), and appeals to her for a loan. Mabel comforts herself listening to Novello play and sing his own tunes, as Constance snipes from the bridge game that he never knows when to stop.

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Sylvia hates her husband, confiding that she and her sister Lavinia (Natasha Wightman) cut cards to see who would get him. Sylvia encourages Denton to come to her bedroom, and is indifferent to William’s affair with Elsie (Emily Watson), Isobel’s lady’s maid. Lavinia’s nearly bankrupt husband Tony (Tom Hollander) is desperate to have William finance a business venture in the Sudan, and Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance) insinuates that he would like to be hired as a translator and cultural expert. None of their machinations seem to matter, however, as William has decided to pull out of the scheme altogether. It is only after this drawn-out look at the large cast of characters and the minutely observed workings of an old-style aristocratic household that Altman finally decides to kill someone.

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Altman is keenly interested in examining the dynamics of power. In addition to familial struggles and old versus new money, he sets his sights on the ruling class versus the servant class and men versus women. Strikingly, we see that there is an entire industry dedicated to addressing the smallest private whim of a single family. We watch the McCordles and their guests assemble for a meal and some leisurely lounging around, and then follow the large staff of resident and guest servants working extremely hard to create this leisure of their “betters.” An entire room is devoted to cleaning and shining their employers’ shoes. A shortage of homemade marmalade has housekeeper Jane Wilson (Helen Mirren) concerned. Yes, the servants are paid for their services, but they are, nonetheless, victims of the imbalance of power in the relationship. Henry Denton may come to Sylvia’s bed chamber, but he would be instantly sacked if he were discovered in the wing that houses the female servants. When the servants are betrayed by Denton, they exact a small revenge on him. At a time of socialist agitation across Europe and the United States, it’s easy to see the foolishness of Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) in dismissing the servants as suspects for not “being close” to the victim.

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At the same time, male dominance is a problem both above and below stairs. William is a serial seducer of both the females working in his factories and those on his house staff. Elsie confides to Mary that William has numerous bastards from factory workers he forced to give up their babies or face dismissal. Elsie’s affection for him gets the better of her when she defends him from Sylvia’s attacks at the dinner table; she immediately flees the dining room and prepares to leave the household for this breach of etiquette, not expecting William to intercede on her behalf. Even the likeable Robert Parks (Clive Owen), Lord Stockbridge’s valet, presses a kiss on Mary. Despite what appears to be a small, but mutual attraction between the pair—and our desire as an audience to see that attraction acted upon—this kiss isn’t that different from Denton trying to force himself on the inexperienced Mary. In this film, sex is largely a commodity and an instrument of domination.

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Altman’s gift for large set pieces is beautifully on display. The hunting party is rhythmically choreographed, as we watch the drummers flush the birds from the bushes and into the sky, only to spin toward the ground following a rifle report. Balaban plays the perfect buffoon as he, the vegetarian in a fur coat, watches the slaughter with horror and then panics when several slain birds nearly fall on top of him. The viciousness of the hunt reflects as little else can the ruthlessness of the class of men who indulge in it as sport.

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Much more appetizing is the extended performance of Jeremy Northam singing and playing several charming tunes by Ivor Novello. The servants gather at the edges of the drawing room and in the kitchen stairwell to listen and dance, scurrying away whenever one of the guests walks nearby or through a door. Music is a staple in many of Altman’s films, and I’m inclined to think that he asked Julian Fellowes to write Novello into the script just so that he would have a chance to use his songs and air Northam’s genuinely wonderful voice and interpretive skills. But Fellowes shrewdly uses the set piece as the innocent interlude during which to stage the murder.

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It was also extremely clever to take the bloom off the image of the intuitively brilliant British detective by making Fry’s character a complete imbecile who exasperates the diligent Constable Dexter (Ron Webster) by failing to understand what a clue is. Dexter sees a broken cup and saucer on the ground and calls it to Det. Thompson’s attention, only to be told that the servants will clean it up. Fry, a skilled comic, milks these scenes for all they’re worth, and provides a needed contrast with the real detective in the house, one with a true depth of understanding about human nature.

Gosford Park represents another superior ensemble piece in the Altman oeuvre as well as another believable world created down to the smallest detail. While his technique of overlapping dialogue can be an impediment to those not familiar with a variety of British accents, its effectiveness in breathing life into film is as great as ever. Gosford Park is delightful and deep. l


3rd 11 - 2009 | 10 comments »

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

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By Roderick Heath

Legendary and lauded as most of them have become, few of Stanley Kubrick’s later films landed immediate punches with viewers. 2001: A Space Odyssey took time to find an audience, A Clockwork Orange was so controversial in its time Kubrick removed it from British cinemas, Barry Lyndon remains largely unloved, and The Shining underperformed badly on first release, catching neither the Oscar-bait nor the Friday the 13th crowds. And everyone knows that Kubrick’s final film, a mordant and menacing sexual satire, gained a collective shrug from general movie-goers, even after the death of the director and the pairing of then-married superstars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman earned it an avalanche of hype.

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I found Eyes Wide Shut a deliciously weird, funny, beautiful, and original piece of work, then and now. Eyes Wide Shut did for writer Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle what Apocalypse Now did for Joseph Conrad—transpose it to the modern day without ejecting its crucial flavour of timeless, mystified sensuality, filtered through a cutting sarcasm that was Kubrick’s own. Frederic Raphael, who wrote the screenplay with Kubrick’s aid, had tackled similar themes, with some similar narrative touches, in Two for the Road (1967). Kubrick’s ironic-realist approach always shaded into a deep stylisation, and Eyes Wide Shut was stupidly criticised for being unreal-seeming when such was the whole damn point of a film based on a “dream novel.” But it’s a judgment I also take issue with: I can think of very few better films that capture with accuracy the haunted feel of a great city late at night as we follow Cruise as he stalks the frigid streets, lost in mists of sexual jealousy and aching fear.

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Sold as a sexy thriller, which means, in standard terms, a tawdry morality play like Fatal Attraction, Kubrick’s swan song is closer in spirit to Italian horror films, Val Lewton (particularly The Seventh Victim, 1943), Ernst Lubitsch, and the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” Eyes Wide Shut isn’t actually about sex—it’s about what it means to individuals and to couples and the anxiety it engenders, built around the basic joke that the top male movie star of his era can’t get laid. That would be Cruise, who plays Dr. William Harford—named after Harrison Ford, the whitest-bread guy Kubrick could think of—who plays (as he did in his two other best roles after it, in Magnolia and War of the Worlds) one of his cocky ’80s golden boys getting a rude shock when it comes to growing up.

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Fit, handsome, prosperous, and criminally self-satisfied, Harford and his wife Alice (Kidman) leave their gorgeous apartment and young daughter (Madison Eginton) for an evening at a party thrown by Bill’s wealthy, randy patient Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his wife (Leslie Lowe). Bill encounters a friend who dropped out of med school, jazz pianist Nick Nightingale (Todd Field, before becoming a Kubrickian director), and playfully chats with two models (Louise J. Taylor and Stewart Thorndike) who try not so subtly to sell him on a threesome. Alice dances with the fishy Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), who, with gentlemanly affect and a strong whiff of sleaze, tries to make her. Bill is soon called upstairs to aid Ziegler, who is hurriedly putting on his clothes near a naked girl named Mandy (Julienne Davis) sprawled on a chair, almost dead from a drug overdose. She comes to, and Ziegler asks Bill not to speak about this, which Bill takes as all part of the business.

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Alice extricates herself eventually from her would-be lover’s arms, but suspects that Bill may have gone romping with the models, an anxiety that doesn’t reveal itself until the following night. After a day in which Bill works and Alice, an unemployed gallery curator, packs Christmas presents, they get stoned together. Alice taunts Bill with a story about her powerful attraction to a young naval officer she encountered a year before at a resort she and Bill visited. Before the discomfort of the revelation can be settled, Bill is called away to “show his face” at the apartment of one of his patients who has died, commencing a series of charged scenes in which Bill is confronted by distorting mirrors to his plight: the dead man’s daughter (Marie Richardson), who’s willing to throw away her fiancé for a professed love of Bill; the fur-clad, oddly named hooker Domino (Vinessa Shaw) he meets on the street, whose professional glaze slips in dealing with her good-looking, charming, slightly befuddled client; a European costumer, Milich (Rade Sherbedgia), who rents out his pubescent daughter (Leelee Sobieski) as a prostitute; and a gay hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) who swoons, figuratively, in his presence, not long after a mob of obnoxious frat boys have assaulted Bill on the street and hurled homosexual abuse at him.

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Most dizzying and bizarre of all, Bill crashes an orgy of a secretive cabal of society patricians, alerted by the intimations of Nick, who plays music for their hedonistic mock-religious rituals while blindfolded. Bill wanders through the mansion while dozens of black-draped, masked guests cavort in approximations of passion with the exquisite females provided for their entertainment. One of the faceless, lushly formed women chooses him as the assembled pair off, but seems to recognise him. She warns him to leave, but he’s soon hauled before the assembled hedonists and forced to remove his mask. Only the masked girl’s intervention seems to save him from a grisly fate, and Bill is ejected with a warning to keep his mouth shut. It’s a scene that evokes and exploits a deep anxiety, desire (both sexual and social) seguing into the needle-sharp moment of being revealed and humiliated. After Bill returns home, Alice awakens from a dream and recounts it to him. It is startlingly similar to his experience, and for Bill, the settled boundaries between life and fantasy, waking and dreaming, threaten momentarily to dissolve. In the clear light of day, Bill finds no solace: in retracing his steps, he finds Nick has vanished, receives another warning from the cabal, and soon suspects that an ex-beauty queen, found dead from an overdose, may have been his guardian angel from the orgy. He senses he might be pursued around town by what may or may not be malevolent agents.

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Like most of Kubrick’s other films, Eyes Wide Shut is indeed coal-black comedy, but the humour tends to die in the throat: the recurring gag that goes beyond a joke quickly enough is that while he gets come-ons from every direction, every flirtation Bill engages in, consciously or unconsciously, sees him frustrated or embarrassed. He withdraws from Domino when he gets a call from Alice; later, when he returns to visit her, he’s about to screw her roommate Sally (Fay Masterson) when she halts their tryst with the news that Domino has AIDS. The darkest reflection of his appetites comes with Milich and his daughter, who whispers a come-on in his ear and backs away in a provocative pose, and later appears at her father’s side as he explains he and her Japanese fancymen (Togo Igawa and Eiji Kusuhara) “came to another arrangement.” The film is, in many ways, a comedy of manners, and again like most of Kubrick’s films, it is about how social ritual masks games of power and desire, a method Kubrick initiated with the contrast of the elegant waltzers and the office politics that destroy hundreds of men, in Paths of Glory (1957), and evolved into more delicate and intricate shadings.

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That Bill becomes the ultimate in uninvited guests is both the biggest and coldest of the string of humiliations he receives. The unmasking is also Bill’s “outing,” for a recurring counterpoint to his desire to reaffirm his masculinity that leads him into situations that rob him of it. He’s taunted as gay by rowdy, vicious young men, and becomes the object of Cumming’s obvious ardour. There’s a quality of vicious humour in using Cruise, so long associated with on-screen potency and off-screen rumours, and the narrative constantly moves to cut off both Bill the character and Cruise the actor from the usual recourses. He is transmuted from beaming, cocky would-be stud striding through the party with two women on his arms, to weeping, unshaven fool of fortune confessing every minor and major seamy act of the previous two days.

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The great conspiracy that Bill considers unwinding proves to be little more than a bunch of rich wankers having a good time, as Ziegler, who was one of them, admits to get him to stop digging into what is nonetheless a potentially volatile situation. He awakens Bill to the fact that the dead girl, his saviour, whom he was able to recognise in the morgue from the colour of her eyes, was Mandy and that her death was, so he swears, her own stupid fault. It’s particularly galling for Bill considering that despite his mask, Mandy could recognise him, or least sense his outsider status. The long sequence between Ziegler and Bill is one for which Pollack received almost more praise at his death than he did for the films he directed. As was once said of Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1966), Pollack cuts like a knife through the mouldy cheese of Bill’s self-absorption. Victor accuses Bill of spending the past two days in a metaphorical jerk-off. Ziegler’s admissions deflate Bill’s mounting panic and put a leash on—but do not seal away—the genie of erotic dicontent, as Bill’s journey has conclusively revealed a pattern of how people use one another in sexual situations for whatever motives and prices. Only in his marriage is there something more than a variety of economics involved.

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Eyes Wide Shut is also about marriage, its failings, frustrations, and intrinsic intensity; the shadow people lovers construct from each other and the damage that results from the demolition of those images; and the necessity of both the construct and the demolition for the survival of any union. Bill and Alice’s intimate moment after the first party sees them touching each other but admiring themselves in the mirror, trapped in a state of narcissistic self-contemplation by their experiences at Victor’s. Alice’s admission of her deepest temptation, which mingle desperate ardour both for another man and for her husband, sends him out to half-consciously replicate the journey, to provide himself with objects of desire, and then reject them for his wife. He, in his waking life, and she in her dream, tear apart the false versions of themselves in order to return to where they essentially began. I’ve never liked Kidman as an actress more than here, with her mordant deliveries in the hypnotically brutal confession scene, and her weary, frightened, but hopeful affect in the final few moments.

Kubrick’s visuals, festooned with shades of muted colour and embracing warmth contrasted with deep blues and evocations of a frigid northern city night, light Bill’s path between inside and outside, acceptance and rejection. Beneath the fastidious, facile realism of the details, the expressionist intent is readily apparent in the city sets that, like Val Lewton’s settings, vibrate with stylised liveliness. Kubrick had quoted Euro-horror before in The Shining, which utilised the fetishist visual patterns of Dario Argento with impunity, and Kubrick’s saturated colours and textures here again resemble Argento’s. The orgy sequence, with its sex-as-theatre dreaminess, clash of flesh and formal clothing, and psychedelic music, evokes many a work of Euro underground sex-gothic and surrealist cinema. It’s an aspect that many viewers seemed blind to, perhaps because Kubrick had always been assumed, despite the distorted expressionist violence and comedy and pop-art reflexes in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange (and classical art in Barry Lyndon), to be a careful realist. The film’s core musical theme is Shostakovich’s “Jazz Suite,” a cunning choice that fuses the lingua franca of America and Europe in a jaunty waltz time that contributes to the blurring of space and era.

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But as well as making its own felicitous quotes of other oeuvres, Kubrick readily referenced his own obsessions all the way through. His script for the unproduced Napoleon had a scene in which a young go-getter is ushered into decadent society to his shock and delight. Milich’s daughter is another Lolita. The film’s mix of formal elegance and impudent humour reflects how deeply the influence of Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita he filmed in 1962, seeped into Kubrick’s style. What is rare about Eyes Wide Shut and what made it a particularly lovely coup de grace, is the final, fecund warmth it tries to locate between Bill and Alice. It is able to approach the nature of human decency as well as corruption, leading to one of the greatest, pithiest, most meaningful final lines in any movie. l

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24th 06 - 2009 | 8 comments »

This Man Must Die (Que la bête meure, 1969)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Claude Chabrol

Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This review is part of Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon hosted by Flickhead.

What do Claude Chabrol and the Coen Brothers have in common? They’ve both sought inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey. While the Coens provided an impeccably turned-out riot of music and over-the-top adventures with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Chabrol turned out a delicious mess of a revenge story, both films treat their respective social strata—rural America and the nouveau bourgeois—with a certain condescending humor. While This Man Must Die’s tone changes may have more to do with Chabrol trying to develop Nicholas Blake’s pulp mystery The Beast Must Die into a sophisticated French thriller, there’s no question that Chabrol takes full advantage of the melodramatic aspects of genre to make his cast look ridiculous.

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This Man Must Die opens with the central crisis that will set the plot in motion. An American sports car—a Mustang—is speeding down a curvy, single-lane road. A boy is fishing from the ocean shore. He climbs an access road with his catch proudly displayed in his net and heads toward the center of town, smiling. The boy and car collide. The woman passenger screams, but the man bellows at her and drives off. A high, overhead shot shows the boy, a small body sprawled in a large, empty, gray square. In the next scene, a close upward shot captures the faces of curious onlookers until a man, mostly hidden from view, parts them, stoops below camera level, and rises with the boy in his arms. A cry of despair escapes him.

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In the first genre touch of the film, a chalk outline of the boy with a red splotch of blood emerging from the tracing of the boy’s head gives us our only relatively close view of the crime. Was the outline drawn before the body was moved? Probably not, but we’re not concerned with police procedure here. Chabrol wants to shock us into caring about his protagonist in the same way he plucks at our heartstrings through his manipulations of the boy’s father, Charles Thenier (Michel Duchaussoy). He shows Charles returning home after a three-month stay in a hospital—shock and depression—warning his maid not to speak of the boy, crying into a teddy bear left in his son’s room, and playing a home movie of his son from infancy to the end of his life. The absent mother (dead? divorced?) is seen only in these films; if she still existed, she would only slow the plot down.

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With no witnesses or physical evidence, the police investigation goes nowhere. Charles, however, has dedicated his life to tracking down and slaying the man responsible for his son’s death. He scours the car repair shops and junk yards looking for the telltale dent without success. In another genre convention, chance moves him closer to his target. Charles’ car gets stuck in the mud, and he learns from the man who will tow it out that the same thing happened on the same day as the fatal accident. The car held a television star named Hélène Lanson (Caroline Cellier) and an unpleasant man.

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Charles keeps a notebook in which he writes his angry, murderous thoughts in red. He writes, “I hadn’t considered it might be a woman. But I will show no mercy.” He locates the television station where she works and hangs out at a bar she frequents until she shows up. Under the assumed name of Marc Matthieu (coscreenwriter Paul Gégauff’s pen name was Martial Matthieu), Charles courts her and slowly extracts details that convince him her brother-in-law Paul Decourt (Jean Yanne) was behind the fatal wheel. When he is at last invited to Decourt’s estate in Brittany for a weekend, he savors the thought of his coming revenge.

A mansion near a seaside cliff, a well-to-do family, an indulgent mother of a monster hated not only by Charles, but also by his wife, son, and probably his business partner—how did we suddenly enter an Agatha Christie novel? Chabrol, by focusing on Charles, skews the standard mystery story, but also, perhaps inadvertently turns the film into a comedy of sorts. His characters are typically shallow bourgeois and totally mockworthy. Charles starts by laughing at the perfectly dreadful taste of the room to which he is shown. Paul is a caricature of evil, a Snidely Whiplash twirling his metaphorical mustache with malice and greed. Paul’s doormat wife Jeanne (Anouk Ferjac), in an endless attempt to find something to do with her life, writes poetry so bad that I actually don’t blame her husband for reading it aloud to mock her. Hélène, who, when confronted by Charles as someone who not only had an affair with Paul but also was in the car that killed his son, talks about her own suffering. Even Paul’s son Philippe (Marc Di Napoli), on two days’ acquaintance, tells Charles he’d rather have him for a father; perhaps we can forgive a needy boy for such an instant attachment, but would he really confess to killing his father to save a near stranger, even if he feels his life is over already for having defective Decourt genes? The situations and motivations are so ridiculous, that it’s hard not to laugh.

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The biggest laugh of all is that Charles, spouting some bullshit philosophy in a letter to Hélène, sails away to “find my own punishment.” Yup, and I have some farm land in Death Valley I want to sell you. Chabrol has taken us from an affecting tragedy, to a paint-by-numbers revenge story, to a drawing-room murder mystery, and finally to Homer. His lying, sneaking Odysseus, having completed his mission, sets sail—perhaps to return to his home-movie version of Penelope? That this might be his “punishment” is just another twist of the knife to the bourgeois sensibilities Chabrol has been murdering all along.


24th 03 - 2009 | 7 comments »

Hukkle (2002)/The Angelmakers (2005)

Director/Screenwriter: György Pálfi
Director: Astrid Bussink

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The past few days, “cinematic” has been a notion that has been much with me. On Saturday, I saw Silent Light, a film whose plot was overwhelmed by obsessively formal shot compositions and beautiful images of sunrises, stars, and other glories of nature. Over at Coosa Creek Cinema, Rick Olson wrote Cinematic, Whatever That Means to examine his own reaction to Wong Kar-wai’s so-called “pure cinema” and other films like Wong’s. And I was reminded of what might be the epitome of a cinematic film and my idea of the perfect marriage of visual and narrative—Hukkle, a dialogue-free telling of the true story chronicled in Astrid Bussink’s The Angelmakers.

The opening shot of Hukkle, one of many that take us extremely close to unseen worlds in nature, shows the scales of a snake moving sinuously through the grass. What kind of snake is hard to tell at first, as the camera catches only partial glimpses of its sides, the bends in its body. Eventually, however, we hear, then see, its rattle. The camera pulls back, and a diamondback rattlesnake is revealed in all its frightening glory. This opening sequence is as eloquent as a Shakespearean prologue, though we won’t know it until director Pálfi slowly inserts all of the pieces of the film’s central puzzle.

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An old man, his face furrowed like a field ready for planting, shuffles through his home, preparing to go out. He has the hiccups. He finds his way to a bench on the main road of his rural Hungarian village and sits down. His hiccups, like the steady tick of a clock, lift one loose leg of the bench slightly to squeak in response. He will remain on this bench the rest of the film, seeing only what passes in front of him on the road, making the incessant, unintelligent noise of a hiccup (“hukkle”) the entire day.

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The village has the bucolic charm one might find in a Merchant/Ivory film—lovely stands of trees and ponds photographed like postcards, verdant fields made into pleasing shapes through aerial photography, quaint cottages from out of a fairytale. On closer inspection, of course, the village is teeming with the mindless cruelties of nature. Close-ups of bubbles give way to a small frog swimming innocently in a pond, then being swallowed by a huge catfish, which then becomes the prey at the end of a fishing rod, lunch for an entire family, and well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Human intercourse is the main concern of this film. A young man delivering milk in a horsedrawn cart falls asleep. Soon enough, he awakens and alights at one stop to funnel water into a can on his cart. He steals away and hides behind a tree to leer at a young lady in the field who is listening to music on her Walkman. The water overflows and tips the can over. We watch his team take off and walk along the wooded path without him with the certain knowledge of beasts that know the route by rote.

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Men bowl on an outdoor lane, shouting happily at their play. From a man’s face, the camera cuts to a close-up of the swollen bollocks of a pig being driven along the road by his owner. They pass by the hiccupping man. Soon, the pig is doing his studly duties, as the man and a large woman look on approvingly. The camera, however, finds something a bit more interesting to focus on. It moves between the man and woman and concentrates on the movements of an old woman in the house next door. Like the opening shot of the snake, it’s not easy to make out what she’s doing. Eventually, however, we can see her pouring something into bottles and storing them on shelves.

Next we see a tight shot of a needle making a large hole in fabric. Then, three screws are seen spinning in a gray disk. A hand reaches up to hold, then push, the disk. The camera opens out into a textile factory where women are sewing garments. One woman gets up and receives a cloth-wrapped bottle from another woman.

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Soon, village life goes more somber as a young girl joins the many small animals that die from one thing or another in this film. A policeman arrives at the fishing hut of a villager who has died. He takes photos of the scene while the woman who called him picks up and empties a water bottle. The bowlers gather with thinning numbers of players. In the end, only one is left. A wedding takes place, and the women sing a Hungarian folk song. The old man continues to hiccup on his bench, his guttural sounds mixing with a cacophony of animal and insect sounds that eventually drown him out.

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Pálfi reveals a dark and merciless tale by paying attention to the details that escape everyday notice or that add up to nothing meaningful in and of themselves. Like the hiccupping man, viewers can only see what is placed in front of them, a notion Pálfi makes fun of by inserting a scene of the film itself jumping out of its sprockets and then pulling back to show a villager moving into a tavern through a curtain made of strips of film. Pálfi emphasizes that we are not the only ones who are blind to the realities of life around us and in a political sense, of life in other countries, which he dramatizes in an absurd computer-generated scene of an American fighter jet roaring close to the ground and passing under a bridge in the village, then soaring up to the heavens. Did that fly-by tell its pilot anything about life on the ground? Does even Pálfi’s magnetic microcinematography? It’s clear that being too close up is as bad as being too far away.

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The director of The Angelmakers interviews the villagers of Nagyrev, where Hukkle was shot and where the specific story upon which it was based took place. I say “specific” because this particular part of Hungary contains a number of villages where murder most foul was committed—140 in all, primarily men. Dutch director Bussink also seems to have taken some inspiration for her shots from Pálfi, including livestock and housing, and suggesting something rotten at the core by documenting a dying rural town (though certainly, rural towns die without the help of a history of arsenic poisoning).

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She films a women’s folk-dance club, mirroring the wedding shot at the end of Hukkle showing women dancing and singing, and interviews the members about their participation in the club. One woman complains that her husband wouldn’t let her join the club, but she talked him around to the point where he now admonishes her not to be late. Would his continued refusal have been grounds for execution in days gone by? These days, the women universally agree that divorce is the only way to go.

A woman whose great-grandmother was one of the killers who died in prison has assigned herself the job of unofficial historian of the crimes. She talks about how the town’s midwife leeched arsenic out of flypaper and provided bottles of it to women who wanted to lighten their burdens. She talks about her grandmother’s sadness that both her parents were taken away, though the woman didn’t realize until she was an adult that it was through murder and prison that these losses occurred.

Two women who were alive at the time of the murders said they occurred for a variety of reasons—some women lived with abusive men, divorce was illegal, some felt burdened by husbands made sick and invalid from fighting in World War I. Some also killed women who were in the way due to age and infirmity. It was common knowledge that these murders were taking place, but only the officials in Nagyrev actually arrested anyone. There is resentment that Nagyrev is singled out for infamy when the murders were widespread.

The Angelmakers is a short film, but its grasp of the intricacies of a rural town bleaching in an unwanted spotlight is impressive. The interviews are well chosen and tightly edited to bring out the essence of each interviewee’s story, from a divorced woman who perseveres in her “oddball” yoga practice to calm her anger to a seriously depressed man who is the source of all information on the death of the town in a modern age. We see underneath the surface, just as Hukkle literally scratched below the dirt to see how life is corrupted and killed in almost unthinking ways.

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Rosika, a 93-year-old woman who lives in the midwife’s former home, says the woman saw the police coming to her door and was prepared. Rosika points to a spot high on her pantry wall as the place where the noose the midwife used to hang herself dangled. “Does it bother you?” asks Bussink. “It used to,” she says. “But now I’m used to it.”

It’s time, I think, to reveal the words of the wedding song in Hukkle:

If your husband has you seething
Belladonna you must feed him
Add some pepper, make it pleasing
He’ll be laid out by the evening
If you love your husband dearly
Good meals will keep him cheery

I’ll away to that far valley
I’ll away to that far valley
Where even birds go very rarely
Where even birds go very rarely
As the stork I too am lonely
As the stork I too am lonely
I have no one to console me
I have no one to console me
Days of sadness, life of sorrow
Days of sadness, life of sorrow
Star of sadness scars the morrow
Star of sadness scars the morrow

The Angelmakers ends with a ferryman returning to Nagyrev’s infamous shores, unworried despite it all. l

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10th 03 - 2009 | 6 comments »

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

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By Roderick Heath

A children’s skipping rhyme from the same corner of London where Alfred Hitchcock was born:

Jack the Ripper’s dead
And lying in his bed
He cut his throat with Sunlight soap
Jack the Ripper’s dead.

To me, that’s Hitchcock’s background and sensibility in a nutshell—the alternations of awful violence with casual humor, childish wit, bloodlust and surrealism mixed into a deft doggerel.

The Trouble With Harry is Hitchcock’s breeziest, yet also his most esoteric film, the closest he came to bringing his native love of black comedy to the screen. The film is easy to forget amidst the near miraculous run of his mid 50s films (six films in three years), busy as it is alchemising the intrinsic angst that’s so iron-grey in I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) into a morbidly comedic counterpoint. In Harry, death is the springboard for a people coming to life. This is, of course, an essential aspect of all his films, but usually fulfilled with an explosion of danger and intrigue, not Shakespearean pastoral romance.

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Beneath its modest exterior, Harry is Hitchcock at his most personal and rigorous. The physical beauty of the film is a wonder to behold, with its lustrous autumnal landscapes and casually perfect framings, and the tone is exactly the sort of casual black joke Hitch loved so dearly, composed of multiplying ironies and sarcasm for social sacred cows. The New Wave film critics who made an icon of Hitchcock always seemed to regard his jester’s humor as an impediment to viewing the inner artist, but in fact it’s impossible to extract, and you wouldn’t want to. But it’s a mistake to call The Trouble With Harry a comedy per se. It only gains a comedic patina with its sly, quietly absurd refrains: the burials and unburials of Harry; the peregrinations of the dreamy, poetry-reading Doctor Greenbow (Dwight Marfield) who keeps tripping over Harry’s corpse and not noticing; and the utter lack of concern anyone has for the dead guy who suddenly complicates their lives.

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The basic, obvious gag of the film is that where sudden death—especially murder—is supposed to be a calamitous moment demanding the forces of justice and social propriety to engage with due solemnity, very often, that’s not how it work. Harry’s death, which three of the main characters think they caused, validates their existence as something more than mere doormats of fate. Timid, middle-aged virgin Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), retired tugboat captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), and deadpan, runaway wife Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) are all escaping something oppressive in the way the world has forced them to inhabit pre-formulated roles. Wiles’ fantasies of being a sea captain who’s travelled the world obscure the humdrum reality of his actual working life. Miss Gravely’s blooming out of the part of repressed, man-fearing spinster commences with a forthright response to a perceived assault. And Jennifer has refused to play anymore in a silly remnant of a patriarchal tradition, happy to be free of the last encumbering representative of it: the hapless Harry, who only married her because his brother, father of her son, died in the war, and then he became strangely, horribly obsessed with her.

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Standing with them and also apart is the film’s tenderly mocking take on the cliché of the heroic, individualist artist, embodied as Sam Marlowe (John Forsyth), a proto-hippy dropout painter who doesn’t give a fig whether anyone likes his paintings as long as he has enough to live on and pursue his vision. His works are the type of nonfigurative scrawls that lead to the inevitable joke of the painting being viewed upside-down; as his loyal storekeeper friend and art dealer Mrs. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) puts it, “I don’t understand your work, but I think it’s lovely.” When a rich man (Parker Fennelly) recognises his genius, Marlowe sells everything for only what is vitally important to his friends, including the film’s punchline object, a double bed for him and Shirley to share. He’s a figure of fun with his edge of pomposity and oddball imagination, but the film also hinges on Marlowe’s capacity as a creative visionary to build community: he’s the one who remakes Miss Gravely as a new woman and draws the three “murderers” together into a band of outsiders. Marlowe never sees something as it is, but as it might be.

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The four main characters—five if one counts Jennifer’s toy-gun-toting son Arnie (Jerry “Beaver” Mathers)—each summon a classic Hitchcock figure that’s also a perfect square of types: elderly eccentric fantasist; young eccentric artist; virginal spinster; droll, experienced younger woman; and Puckish, amoral, time-ignorant kid (he literally gets yesterday and tomorrow the wrong way around, a malapropism that eventually serves a deftly clever purpose). There’s an intrinsic link between art, sex, and death, signaled in the opening credits, where a childish drawing reveals sundry, everyday features of the small New England town where the action occurs, and accidentally, felicitously, incidentally offers Harry’s corpse at the conclusion, over which, of course, “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock” appears. It’s Hitchcock delighting in his ghoulish reputation, and claiming his peculiar provenance—the artist of murder.

Arnie, standing over Harry’s very real dead body with his toy gun, is both a jokey admission of the put-on that’s about to take place and a tacit concession to the idea of just how much fantasies of death and killing are part of human nature. From there the film follows with jovial concision this thesis: birth, creativity, death, and around again. As in classical drama, the film’s very structure contains this circular idea, as it describes the arc of a full 24 hours everything is back in place at the conclusion, but only after having been completely rearranged. The very first shot of the film is of the town’s church, traditional crucible for life starting and finishing. As in the Elizabethan pastoral, the characters congregate for a time and without actual reason in the woods where anything can,and does happen. Normal social mores slip away, and life reinvents itself.

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Not that the guilty Catholic Hitch is entirely absent: it’s just that he plays a game here with the nature of guilt. His characters are on the retreat from being anyone until they think they’ve killed Harry. It takes sin (that is, experience) to know life and then discover redemption. Although animated in the lightest of fashions, Wiles and Gravely can only really escape their rut through believing in their guilt; Jennifer can only breathe easily once Harry is dead; and Sam’s life and art only make a breakthrough once he’s committed himself to other people. Present is a curious, contradictory ethic: the living are responsible to each other. The dead body is trouble precisely because it’s an encumbrance apt to cause legal difficulties. But Harry’s passing also liberates and draws together people; his being dead is both the end of one type of responsibility and the beginning of another. Justice looms in the ineffectual form of suspicious hick deputy Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who gets a whiff of a possible crime and thinks he has evidence in the sketch Sam has made of Harry’s face.

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Of course no one has actually committed a crime: Harry’s death was natural, though possibly exacerbated by various wallops on the head, and the much ado about nothing finds a gentle conclusion. Harry is a film about and full of small pleasures. The action climax is Sam altering his portrait of Harry and so ruining it as potential evidence, and its most vital moment is when Miss Gravely weighs up a coffee cup she’s considering buying for when she asks Wiles around to her place, a moment of crystallisation so sacrosanct Sam and Mrs. Wiggs fall silent and watch.

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who died last November, wrote four superb scripts for Hitchcock in a row at this time, which probably made him Hitchcock’s most reliable of writing collaborators (apart from his wife, Alma Reville), though he’d later disgrace himself with the deadly awful Peyton Place (1957) and Butterfield 8 (1960). Though the story ambles a bit slowly to its conclusion, his crisp dialogue is peppered with double entendres (“Do you realise that you’ll be the first man to…cross her threshold?” Sam asks Wiles when he finds the Captain has a date with Miss Gravely). The cast, even the peculiarly cast Forsyth, as well as MacLaine, delightfully, deftly dry in her screen debut, assay their roles with perfect poise.

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Hitchcock is at his least showy throughout most of the film, but even his minimalism emphasises his mastery when he delivers such humorous and telling framings as when Arnie stands over Harry’s body, his boyish amazement framed by the two vertical shoes of the very dead man, or when the camera pans slightly from a laboring shovel to take in Wiles watching with a content expression, and we realise it’s Miss Gravely digging up the body this time. He lets you see Harry’s face early on, but later deliberately masks and avoids it, as Harry fades further from being any more than just a body, and becomes an abstraction. Otherwise, Hitchcock is perfectly content soaking up the langorous air of New England, the widescreen planes of his landscape absorbing and contrasting raw natural beauty with the tidied geometric forms of farmland divided by rows of trees and fences, emphasising the patterns created by a fecund interaction of mankind and environment. (This stylistic patterning anticipates how he would build a rather more urgent tale of death and nature in The Birds). Harry also claims a very important place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre for the very simple reason that it’s his first film with a score Bernard Herrmann, the composer who seemed, within a couple of movies, to have joined at the hip with Hitch.

Like the Doctor with Harry’s body, Harry’s a film that is always ready to surprise me when I stumble over it. l


14th 07 - 2008 | no comment »

Famous Firsts: The Verdict (1946)

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

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Debut film of: Don Siegel, director

By Roderick Heath

A tale of a vigilante policeman that begins with the peal of a church bell—this could describe Dirty Harry (1971), the biggest hit of Don Siegel’s career. And yet it also describes The Verdict, Siegel’s directorial gambit of 25 years earlier.

Siegel had been for many years the top editor at Warner Bros, contributing his superb montages to films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Across the Pacific (1942). As Siegel put it: “I actually shot more footage for Warner Brothers than any of their highly touted directors, but when I went to Jack Warner and said I wanted to be a director…He said ‘Look, I can get directors a dime a dozen. But who am I going to get to do the action sequences, the inserts, and the montages?’ So I said, ‘Fine, pay me what you pay the directors, and I’ll carry on doing that stuff for you.’”

After a couple of shorts and a lot of patience, he finally got to helm a vehicle for one of Hollywood’s strangest, and yet most entertaining, double acts: Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who had proven their star worth without Humphrey Bogart in two terrific films, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and Three Strangers (1946). The Verdict is Victorian era, and right from the brilliant opening shot where Siegel’s camera swoops in on the tower where the bell tolls in Newgate Prison’s chapel tower for a condemned man on a fog-wreathed night, it’s easy to spot his talent. As well as establishing Siegel’s visual fondness for vertiginous heights and angles, the shot also anticipates one in Dirty Harry in which Siegel’s camera swoops upwards dizzyingly from Harry Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) torture of Scorpio (Andy Robinson) in the centre of a football field; both shots entwine the sometimes cruel and salutary nature of a thirst for justice with godlike perspective.

The condemned man here is Harris, convicted for the murder of social scion Hannah Kendall. The man who convicted him, Supt. George Grodman (Greenstreet), meditates on the ironies of a profession where success means taking a man’s life: “I have no personal feelings. We are only instruments of justice, like the court that condemns.” But Grodman is in for a nasty shock. Called in by his superior (Holmes Herbert) at Scotland Yard, Grodman learns from his chief rival—the ambitious, supercilious Supt. Buckley (George Coulouris)—that he has proven Harris’ innocence. Scandal erupts and tars the Yard’s competence, and Grodman is forced to retire. The case haunts him, not just because of Harris’ fate, but also because the murder victim’s nephew, Arthur Kendall (Morton Lowry), is his next-door neighbor and friend. Grodman sets out to write an account of his career.

Grodman’s best friend, artist and bon vivant Victor Emmric (Lorre), attempts to cheer him up by throwing him a birthday party, inviting Kendall and another next-door neighbor, liberal MP Clive Russell (Paul Cavanaugh). The pairing of Kendall and Russell is disastrous. Russell detests Kendall who, as a mine owner, exploits and degrades the men who are Russell’s constituents. Russell threatens to silence him once and for all when Kendall promises to pressure him with the identity of his secret mistress. Kendall, not a popular man this night, also argues with his girlfriend, singer Lottie Rawson (Joan Lorring), before settling down to bed. The next day, Kendall doesn’t answer the knock at his door by his batty, smitten landlady, Mrs. Benson (Rosalind Ivan), and she runs next door to fetch Grodman. He busts through Kendall’s door, and warns Mrs. Benson not to look…

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It is assumed that whoever killed the aunt returned for the nephew. Buckley leads the investigation, and casts his unctuous suspicion on everyone. The case is baffling, as there’s no explanation for how the killer got out of the locked room—even a burglar (Clyde Cook) can’t work out a method. Grodman is hugely amused by Buckley’s floundering, and he and Victor begin a little sleuthing, chiefly an excuse for Victor to romance Lottie.

Lottie is suspect when she attempts to retrieve a valuable watch fob she gave to Kendall, and is caught by Buckley. Attempts to locate the fob prove fruitless until it’s suggested it was buried with Kendall, prompting his exhumation. Lottie is released when the fob is found, but is now stalked by a shadowy presence assailing her with warnings not to talk about Russell and his mistress. But Lottie has already blabbed about that to Buckley.

Russell becomes the chief suspect, and his refusal to divulge the name of his lady friend entraps him. Meanwhile, Victor’s suspicions are closer to home, and he searches Grodman’s apartment. When the stalking presence tries to enter Victor’s bedroom, he takes a shot at it. Russell is tried, and sentenced to death. Grodman convinces Russell to let him track down his mistress, the estranged wife of a Lord, and convince her to confirm his alibi. Grodman pursues her all over France, only to catch up with her at her funeral.

With all avenues of saving Russell from the gallows exhausted, Grodman triumphantly confesses to the murder. Having realized that Kendall killed his own aunt for her money, and then used Grodman in setting up Harris for the fall, and with no way of proving it, Grodman took justice into his own hands. He used many contrivances designed to muddy the waters and fool Buckley as much as possible, but won’t let Russell pay the price for his acts.

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Siegel handles the stringent production expertly, slathering the action in fog and shadow. With some terrific actors, Siegel conjures the kind of ripping yarn that’s a pure pleasure to watch. Even the awful Cockney accents of the bit players add cheesy fun. Siegel replies to the evidently low budget with an economic, but technically accomplished style, with expressionistic camera angles, careful lighting (witness the ghoulish delight that is the exhumation scene), and inventive model work (as in the opening shot) to conjure an elegantly bogus Victorian London that looks like the one you imagine when reading a Sherlock Holmes story. Indeed, The Verdict was based on a novel, The Big Bow Mystery, by Victorian writer Israel Zangwill. Zangwill’s novel was a social satire and riff on the detective genre that was already cliché-ridden. Siegel and screenwriter Peter Milne toy with the novel’s elements to give it a more individual moral imperative. The murder victim is changed from an orator of leftist values into a filthy example of capitalist evil, and the progressive, Russell, is the pillar of conflicted conscience whose life must be saved. Grodman’s actions and motivations have been altered to make his crime utterly sympathetic.

But it’s the detail of Grodman’s ironic status as both avenger and murderer that proves Siegel was fascinated by the idea of breaking the law in a heinous fashion to achieve justice, which casts Dirty Harry, still often regarded merely as a sop to reactionaries, in a different light. Harsh reversals of moral expectation and identification are a Siegel trademark—witness the people who have to fear and kill their own neighbors in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the schoolgirls who are far more dangerous to the soldier than he is to them in The Beguiled (1969), or the criminals who gain our empathy in Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Many Siegel heroes are criminals, bastards, or not what they appear to be. He took that last device to an extreme in Body Snatchers, but also including heroic figures like Robert Mitchum’s army officer pretending to be a gangster in The Big Steal (1949) and Shirley MacLaine’s whore-dressed-as-a-nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1971).

The Verdict is a transitional film. It straddles genres that were running out of puff in post-war Hollywood—the crisp, quaint mystery yarn with an Anglophile bent, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, The Falcon, The Saint, and all the other detective franchises and one-offs and the Universal-style gothic chiller. The Verdict pays homage to these, whilst, simultaneously, the harder, dark-drenched, morally ambivalent noir genre was taking grip. Siegel toys with the structure, sympathies, and style of The Verdict to make it count as a noir work; though the first two-thirds of the film are fun in the Holmesian tradition, the last third in which Grodman’s efforts to save Russell gain in grim urgency, take it to another level.

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Siegel observed of Greenstreet and Lorre, who work together so well on screen they seemed to have been doing it for decades, that they actually had very different work habits: “If you changed so much as a comma, Sydney was upset…He wanted to get his cues down to the word, and studied his part very carefully. On the other hand, not only didn’t Peter study, but he would come on the set as if he didn’t even know what studio he was in.” The Verdict riffs on their screen personas. It’s fun seeing Lorre play a party animal and ladies’ man, but Victor is also incurably morbid, crowing, when Kendall’s body is exhumed that “I’ve always had an unconscious desire to see a grave opened, especially at night!”and complaining, in illustrating Grodman’s book, “I’ve done three stabbings in a row! How about a nice juicy strangling?” The film uses Lorre’s real-life hobby of sketch art creatively. And there’s a recurring gag where Grodman remarks on Buckley’s attempts to fill Grodman’s britches, emphasizing the capacious girth of Greenstreet’s posterior. Backing them up is Coulouris, always a joy at playing slimy arrogance. One weak link is Lorring’s lousy accent.

It’s far from being a great or perfect film. It’s weighed down by standard touches, like clumsy comic relief and the ever-tiresome staple of the shoehorned song-and-dance number, here a “racy” song performed by Lottie, in a “Royal Music Hall,” which looks more like a bad theater restaurant. Although it portends many of the themes and interests of Siegel’s career, in other ways, its retro, studio-bound class is at odds with the style the director would develop. With The Big Steal, Siegel dragged the noir film out on location and kept it there, leading to the stark, utterly modern stylishness Siegel had mastered by the time of Coogan’s Bluff (1969) and Dirty Harry. But The Verdict is a delightful melodrama and the sort of film that stands for what Old Hollywood at its best was all about.

Grade
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6th 10 - 2007 | no comment »

Yella (2007)

Director: Christian Petzold

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is a secret at the heart of Yella, and as the saying goes, if I told you what it was I’d have to kill you. This atmospheric film, which won for its star Nina Hoss the Silver Bear for best actress at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, has a curiously basic quality. The story is straightforward, but details are lacking. Like Waiting for Godot, Yella and the people she encounters behave purposefully and aimlessly at the same time.

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Yella (Hoss) lives in a small town in Germany with her father (Christian Redl). When we first encounter her, she is on a train, changing her red blouse behind the curtains of her compartment for a simple black sweater set. As she walks home from the train station, an SUV pulls alongside her. Yella registers alarm at the man behind the wheel. It’s Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), her estranged husband and former business partner. He climbs out of the SUV and starts walking alongside her at a respectful distance. At first, he is complimentary. He guesses that she got a new job, a good one. “I can tell by the way you walk.” When he tells her how much he misses her, Yella becomes defensive. This turns Ben hostile. He blames her for the bankruptcy of his business and for going on with her life. Yella hurries home.

In fact, Yella has gotten a new job in Hanover, two hours away. Her loving father and she share a last evening at home, and he tries to send her off in the morning with a roll of cash. She tells him to keep it because she is making money. When they go to the front door to wait for the taxi, Ben is there. He wants to take Yella to the train station. At just that moment, a frightening sonic boom rings out overhead. Nonetheless, Ben persuades Yella to let him drive her to the station. He detours from the route on the pretext of showing her a place where he plans to start up a new business. As they cross a bridge, Ben says, “I love you, Yella” and turns the wheel. Yella tries to stop him, but it is too late. The car crashes through the railing, sending them into the river below.

yella08.jpgThe crash is horrific, but both Yella and Ben escape from the SUV and make it to shore, where they lay in exhaustion. Yella hears the sound of a crow, the rustle of leaves above her head on the river bank. Yella recovers first. She sees that her bags have floated to shore as well. She collects them and slips away, walking to the train station and just catching the train to her new life. A wave of fear and fatigue overcome her in the compartment as, dripping wet, she collapses into a deep sleep.

Once she arrives in Hanover, she goes to the hotel where she has taken a room until her trial period on the job is completed. The hotel manager says she has not put down a deposit. None of her credit cards work. However, when she reaches into her coat pocket, the roll of bills her father tried to press on her is there. She settles into her temporary home.

While eating dinner in the hotel, she notices the screen saver of a laptop at the table next to hers. It shows a giant wave breaking. Yella is mesmerized. The owner of the laptop, Philipp (Devid Striesow), asks her rather sarcastically if she is interested in balance sheets. Brought out of her reverie, she answers that she is. Although she has a model’s looks and carriage, Yella is actually an accountant. She says she has a job and mentions the name of the company. Philipp registers surprise, not aware that they were still hiring. He asks if Schmitt-Ott (Michael Wittenborn) hired her. Surprised that he knows this, she answers “yes.” His look becomes more rueful. “Well, good luck tomorrow,” he offers and goes up to his room.

When Yella arrives at the company, her new boss is talking on a cellphone in the parking lot. He asks her to take his keys and go to his office to retrieve a portfolio. She is unlocking his desk when a man comes in and shoos her off the premises. Schmitt-Ott, it appears, has been sacked that morning. Yella returns to the hotel and tosses her suitcase in frustration. She has left her door ajar, and Philipp enters. He learns of her problem, then says he needs someone to accompany him to a meeting the next day. He will pay her for her trouble.

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Philipp is a bank negotiator who specializes in making risky loans. Although Philipp instructs Yella on some body language to use during the negotiation, he underestimates her. She is able to negotiate more effectively by actually reading and interpreting the balance sheets. Philipp and Yella turn out to be a very effective team—and a larcenous one. Philipp takes kickbacks from his clients and Yella tries to steal from him—she says to get Ben off her back. He’s still stalking her, and has shown up in Hanover. She feels guilty for not loving him anymore and for leaving him in his hour of need. Philipp understands that her guilt isn’t genuine. The pair grow closer and eventually fall in love. But one final deal creates a moral dilemma for Yella unlike any she has experienced before, and we flash back to the day of the crash.

Throughout the film, Yella appears to be experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. She is unusually attracted to water. She hears the harsh sound of a crow, the sonic boom, and the rustle of leaves at odd moments. Ben appears to have been in her hotel room. When he chases her down the hall, she runs to Philipp and hugs him. When she turns back to look at Ben, he has vanished. She wears the same red shirt and black skirt every day, only suggesting after several days that she needs to buy some clothes. There is something questioning, bewildered, provisional about Yella.

The acting is uniformly superb in this film. Although I was a bit distracted by the resemblance that Hoss and Striesow bear to Sela Ward and Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigemann, the pair had a great chemistry that was, nevertheless, filled with a sense of dread. Schönemann scared the bejesus out of me, and that created a disconnect for me. Why did Yella keep putting herself near him, not only letting him drive her to the train station but running out into the night to look for him in Hanover? These actions set a fatalistic tone, setting the narrative on its ear in a subtle way that another director might have accomplished with skewed camera angles and odd lighting.

Puzzling, urgent, and fascinating, Yella is an amazing film, an excellent example of films of its type. But remember, if you value your life, don’t ask which type that is. l


27th 09 - 2007 | 2 comments »

The Illusionist (2006)

Director: Neil Burger

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is the 200th post on Ferdy on Films, etc. No, unlike the 100th episode of a TV series, I’m not going to be set for life with some lucrative syndication deal, nor am I likely to win a car for being the first blogger with 200 posts on this particular day of the month. It’s simply a way of marking what I and my contributors have accomplished in the way of productivity and especially, how many bloody movies I’ve seen since December 2005 that I have found inspirational enough to write about. Looking back on such films as Make Way for Tomorrow, Habit, Sadie Thompson, and The Call of Cthulhu, to name but a tiny few, I’d have to say I’ve been a lucky film geek indeed.

Believe it or not, I have thought a lot about what film I’d take up for my 200th post. There are so many classics still waiting for me to see and write about, so many directors, stars, and screenwriters who deserve more of a spotlight than they’ve gotten. Ultimately, though, I think I’ve known all along which film would take this “honored” place—The Illusionist, the last film my mother ever saw in a movie theatre, one I was privileged to choose and take her to see.

My mother, who died last November, is the first and greatest inspiration for my love of film. She would regale me and my brother with stories of entire Saturdays spent at the movies, eating the lunch her mother would pack for her while feasting her eyes on serials like Buck Rogers, newsreels, cartoons, and, of course, the feature film. Sometimes she’d take dishes home when the theatre was handing them out as a promotion. She was a big fan of musicals—of Judy Garland, Fred and Ginger, Der Bingle. Of course, she also loved the women’s films like Mildred Pierce and Mrs. Miniver. One afternoon, she and I shared a box of Kleenex as we sobbed our way through Madame X.

As I became a more serious film buff, I began taking her to see foreign-language films. She especially loved The King of Masks, a charming film from China, and soon she wanted to see all the foreign films she could. She accompanied me to Ebertfest several years in a row, enjoying some of the offerings very much and sitting patiently through some of the more experimental films I wanted to see. Mom was a good sport, and she liked to be out among people, sharing the experience of watching a movie.

For a brief period of time after her cancer treatments ended, Mom regained a bit of strength and energy. She didn’t go out much, but whenever she did, it was a joyful event. That’s why The Illusionist holds a very special place in my heart. This tale of a 19th century master magician pitted against a police chief in the pocket of a ruthless monarch seemed just the right mix of costume drama, romance, intrigue, and visual spectacle to delight Mom. We went with the hubby to a cineplex five minutes from our home; Mom picked up the tab.

The film opens on the friendship of young Sophie von Teschan (Eleanor Tomlinson), an aristocrat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Eduard Abramowitz (Aaron Johnson), the son of a cabinet-maker. The young couple fancy themselves in love. Eduard, using his cabinet-making skills and ingenuity at creating trick devices, carves a locket with hidden compartments for Sophie. However, the unsuitability of a commoner as a suitor for Sophie is obvious to her family—though not to her and Eduard—and she is shipped out of the country to a finishing school.

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Years pass, and Vienna is all abuzz about the magnificent tricks of Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), a renowned magician who has been making a name for himself throughout Europe. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) consider his show to be exceedingly clever—Uhl is particularly fascinated with Eisenheim’s growing of a small orange tree on stage—but certainly not magic. Leopold charges Uhl with helping him to discover Eisenheim’s secrets. They go to a performance to observe him more closely; the Duchess Sophie von Teschan (Jessica Biel) accompanies them. When Eisenheim calls for a volunteer from the audience for a trick, Leopold urges Sophie to go, hoping she will be able to tell him what happened to her afterward. Eisenheim—in reality her long-lost love Eduard Abramowitz—recognizes Sophie immediately. He captures her image in a mirror and makes it move independently, in another triumphal performance; she can offer nothing of his secrets to Leopold.

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The next day, on the prince’s orders, Uhl goes to Eisenheim’s workshop to invite him to perform for Leopold and his guests at the palace. He confesses a fascination with Eisenheim’s abilities, and Eisenheim teaches him a very simple trick. When Eisenheim learns Sophie will be present at the palace—though dismayed to learn she is engaged to Leopold—he agrees to come. When Sophie encounters Eisenheim again, she greets him as her old friend, recognizing himbelatedly after the show.

Illusionist%20court.jpgLeopold watches Eisenheim’s tricks carefully, skeptical of a floating ball stunt. He asks Eisenheim to do something more basic. With this, Eisenheim asks for Leopold’s jewel-encrusted sword. He balances the sword on its tip and challenges members of the audience to lift it, like Arthur removing Excalibur from the stone. None can do so. When Leopold steps up, Eisenheim does not release the sword immediately, vexing the prince and bringing down a vendetta to have his show closed down.

In the meantime, Sophie and Eisenheim renew their romance. He begs her to come away with him, but she says Leopold would never let her go and would hunt them down and kill them eventually. Nonetheless, she determines not to marry the prince. She rides alone to the palace one evening and confronts Leopold with this news. He slaps her. She goes out to the stable to ride off, and he follows. The next image we see is of Sophie slumped forward on her horse as it gallops through the palace gates.

When Sophie’s horse is found with a bloodstain on its neck, the search for the duchess is on. Eisenheim soon finds her floating in a river and rushes to her; she has a sword wound in her neck. He cradles her soaked, pale body in his arms and cries. Uhl goes to view the body in a covered cassion and finds a jewel in the folds of her dress. When he surveys the stable, the apparent crime scene, he sees something in the straw in the stall. But his attentions are diverted to other matters—seeing that Eisenheim, who is accusing Leopold of Sophie’s murder, is removed from Vienna.

Eisenheim decides to close his show. He goes off, only to return several months later to prepare a new show in a theatre he has purchased. The theatre is guarded by Chinese helpers, lending the impression that Eisenheim has been studying some very mysterious arts during his absence. When the new show opens, it appears that Eisenheim can conjure the spirits of the dead.

Championed by the religious faithful for providing proof of an afterlife, Eisenheim tempts fate by conjuring the spirit of Sophie, who provides cryptic information about her death. Whispers about Leopold’s complicity in her murder—he has been rumored to have killed women before—force Uhl to take action to shut down the show and place Eisenheim under arrest for fraud. “Why did you do it?” Uhl implores. “To be with her,” answers Eisenheim. A truer word was never spoken.

In fact, Eisenheim never pretends to be anything but an illusionist—indeed avoids the fraud charge and jail by telling the assembled crowd outside the police station that what he does on stage is not real. Perhaps that should have tipped me off that all was not as it seemed, but I completely went with this movie. Even seeing obviously computer-generated illusions that would have been exceedingly difficult to pull off as a mechanical trick in any case, I let Eisenheim trick me. It was fun. Nonetheless, Eisenheim’s plans were, in the final analysis, ruthless and unjust. The film made Leopold look like a slime who deserved whatever was coming to him and did so in the name of love. Maybe that’s fine for the romantics, but it certainly cast a shadow for me.

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The cat-and-mouse game between Eisenheim and Uhl was very entertaining. Although Eisenheim clearly found Uhl’s toadying to Leopold disgusting, Uhl’s admiration for Eisenheim’s skill was genuine and ultimately redeeming. Giamatti was never better than as this pragmatic cop with strong powers of observation—yet not quite strong enough. Norton was a convincing lover and charismatic mesmerist, particularly in the period theatres that blazed with flaming torches for footlights. Sewell, a highly underrated actor, brought a steely determination to his character; every action was completely consistent and intensely felt. One feels Biel tried her best, but she really is little more than a very pretty face. That works, however, in this context of eternal love, and she really wasn’t in the film enough to ruin it.

All in all, this is a clever, visually exciting film—well-paced, well-acted, and especially intriguing for mystery lovers. I want to thank everyone responsible for making The Illusionist for providing this great send-off for my mother, a loyal film fan to the end. l

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25th 06 - 2007 | no comment »

The Naked City (1948)

Director: Jules Dassin

Naked%20city%202.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Long before I knew there was a film called The Naked City I was a committed fan of a TV series that ran from 1958 through 1963 called Naked City. An important element of that show was its narrator, who took viewers through the procedures of a compelling crime case each week and spoke the words “There are 8 millions stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”

The entire template for that popular series, which TV tried to revive in the early 1990s without success, was this unusual movie by one of the best crime-film directors around, Jules Dassin. Influenced by the Italian Neorealist style, the film’s producer, a former newspaperman named Mark Hellinger, was convinced that a movie filmed entirely on location in New York City would create a thrill in audiences unlike any they had yet experienced. And as the film’s voiceover narrator, he comes right out and says so.

In its opening shot, which would be reproduced for the TV series, an airplane flies over Manhattan, from the Battery, over Central Park, along the East River, and past other locations. Cameras at ground level show people going about their daily activities as Hellinger describes their doings—some with no knowledge that they are being filmed; some, characters in the screenplay; and then the money shot. A blonde named Jean Dexter is being murdered in her apartment—strangled unconscious and then drown in her bathtub. In this way, the film sets the stage for a police procedural that manages to capture both the methodical drudgery of investigative police work and the exotic thrills Hollywood is good at delivering to eager fans.

The investigation launches after Martha Swenson (Virginia Mullen), the victim’s maid, lets herself into Miss Dexter’s apartment, picks up a newspaper lying on the floor, rights some toppled knick-knacks, and tries to rouse her employer from sleep. She enters the bedroom, finds the bed rumpled but empty, then notices water on the floor. Martha peers into the bathroom, and then we get the stock close-up of her whipping her head around, eyes wide with horror, mouth twisted in a scream. Soon the police are on the scene questioning her.

Naked%20City%204.jpgIn classic fashion, the veteran cop is mated with the new member of the detective squad. I absolutely love Barry Fitzgerald as Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon, the man who’s seen it all but hasn’t quite gotten used to it. The role shows that Fitzgerald, practically bleached of his actory colors by his sentimental rendering of Father Fitzgibbon in the Bing Crosby cornfest Going My Way, knew what he was doing. Even the few Irish ditties he sings while he’s washing up at home seem part of his character, not a page out of the Irish caricature manual. His young partner, Detective Jim Halloran (Don Taylor), is smart, good-looking, and completely comfortable wearing out his shoe leather walking from lead to lead throughout Manhattan. A short scene of character-building shows him coming home to his wife (Anne Sargent), who has donned a sexy summer outfit to coax him to give their son a whipping for crossing a busy street alone. It’s a good sparring match, entertaining, and in keeping with the day-in-the-life style of the film.

As the homicide squad works the case, they turn up Dr. Stoneman, (House Jameson), a doctor who wrote a prescription for the dead woman; Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart), a friend with whom she modeled at a dress shop; and Frank Niles (Howard Duff), a man the maid said came by frequently to visit Miss Dexter. They also are searching for a Mr. Henderson, described as a tall, thin, older man, possibly from Baltimore, who called on Miss Dexter and apparently gave her expensive jewelry, according to the maid, who saw a drawer full of jewels in the murdered woman’s dresser. All of the interviewed people say they’d do anything to help capture Dexter’s killer.

Naked%20City%203.JPGHoward Duff plays the spoiled rich kid gone bad with devious precision. He is an incredibly convincing liar. Even after Muldoon quickly and accidentally learns that he has lied during his very first interview—Niles says he barely knows Morrison, then she walks into the interview room and identifies him as her fiancé—he, and we, continue to get ensnared in his web of intrigue. Eventually, it all comes down to a neat conspiracy and a man who plays the harmonica, capped by one of the most exciting chase sequences in film history—one that may have inspired Jimmy Cagney’s run up a gas tower in White Heat just a year later. All along the way, Hellinger interjects comments about what someone might be thinking, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, as though he were sitting in our heads and narrating our thoughts.

Some people have called this film a noir, but the femme fatale is the murdered woman, and to me, that’s not noir. Additionally, there is no web of fate drawing unsuspecting pigeons into its trap. Instead, we have several career criminals drawing an amateur, but willing, man (Duff) into their ring and entrapping another in a blackmail scheme. Therefore, what we have is a straight-up detective story handled expertly by Dassin, a director of cracking noirs who made it big in Europe under his own name after he was blacklisted; his masterful Rififi (Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes, 1955), a French noir that plays more like a crime caper, captures some of the attention to detail of actually doing a job found in The Naked City, but from the criminal’s point of view.

naked%20city%201.jpgHellinger’s narrative grounds this film solidly in the work-a-day world, capturing the motives and movements of its members. But it is the location shooting that really gives this film its vitality—the vitality of New York itself. The kids playing in the water released from fire hydrants are real. When the murderer jumps over fences and darts down alleys with Halloran in pursuit, they’re real fences and alleys. Whether we wish to believe in the robbery ring, which seems to come right out of central casting, we have to admit that this film makes it seem that crimes like these happen in neighborhoods like this.

As much for its time-capsule depiction of New York as for its other fine attributes, The Naked City has received a fine Criterion Collection release. Enjoy this story in 8 million from the Naked City and all the extras. l


8th 06 - 2007 | 1 comment »

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

satanlady04.jpgDirector: William Dieterle

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The title of the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon (1950) passed into the language to describe any single incident seen from varying points of view. It’s a useful word, though now falling out of use as familiarity with the film has faded. But I’m half-surprised that some other word didn’t come out of the cinema long ago for such a situation. The abundance of remakes and films based on the same material stretches way back, and the variety of ways a single story can be spun truly boggles the mind.

Take, for example, the venerable Dashiell Hammett novel The Maltese Falcon. There are three film versions of it, and the consensus opinion is that the 1941 John Huston version starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor is the definitive one. I know some classic film buffs have a particular fondness for the 1931 The Maltese Falcon helmed by director Roy del Ruth. And then there is the current film under consideration here at Ferdy on Films, Satan Met a Lady. It is here where the Rashomon idea is most useful, because this comedy—yes comedy—takes this story places it’s hard to dream it could go. I really didn’t believe it myself until nearly the end, when Warren William as Ted Shane (this version’s Sam Spade) utters that classic line, “I won’t play the sap for you.” Yes, I guess this is Hammett after all.

You won’t see much in this film that you’d recognize from the other versions. In fact, Satan Met a Lady is basically a B picture with a B cast. Even the great Bette Davis as the femme fatale Valerie Purvis is still an actress in the formative stages who looks and acts pretty much like all the other blonde ingenues of the 30s. But I recommend that you put any preconceived notions aside about what The Maltese Falcon is supposed to be. I had a fantastically fun time watching this respectable example of the screwball comedy form that brightened the dreary reality of the Great Depression.

The film opens on the platform of a soon-to-be departing train. Photographers are swarming for a shot of someone famous who is boarding the train. Shane, standing on the stairs of one of the cars fixes his angular face into a bright pose. Alas, the photographers work to arrange the parents of quintuplets and their offspring for the camera. A 1936 audience would instantly recognize this ripped-from-the-headlines moment as the media circus surrounding the Dionne quintuplets. We return to the marginalized Shane who, far from getting a hero’s send-off, is being run out of town for his shady activities as a detective.

While on board the train, he makes the acquaintance of a wealthy older woman named Mrs. Arden (May Beatty) and suggests that she needs a body guard. He recommends the Ames Detective Agency, where it just so happens, he is headed to claim a job from his old pal Ames (Porter Hall). We see a woman sitting with her back to Shane. We can’t see her face, but it’s obvious that she’s listening.

satanlady02.jpgCut to a door with Ames Detective Agency stenciled on the glass. Shane walks in on Ames and a blonde bubblehead named Miss Murgatroyd (a delightful Marie Wilson), who is packing up her desk due to nonpayment of salary. Shane, an inveterate womanizer, puts the soft touch on Miss M, trapping her into trying to spell her own name. I’m really not sure what this bit was all about, because the dumb blonde routine just doesn’t track. Murgatroyd (if that’s really her name) isn’t nearly as useless as she seems to be. In fact, she ends up being pretty handy throughout this film, and not just as part of a running gag about “having some fun” with Shane when he’s not chasing a lead of some kind or other. Marie Wilson knows how to put a very slight, knowing spin on all her clueless line readings that had me smiling every time she appeared.

SatanMetALady2.jpgShane tells the financially strapped Ames to relax. A $250 retainer as a body guard will be coming his way any minute. The slightly bumbling Ames takes Shane back into the agency as a rainmaker, though Ames’ wife Astrid (Wini Shaw) had a hot affair going with Shane before she married Ames. Shane is not eager to pick up with Astrid where he left off. In fact, he’s got his eye on classy, innocent Valerie—the woman from the train—who has engaged Ames to find the fiancé who abandoned her. When Ames goes to the hotel where Valerie said the fiancé was said to be, both men end up dead. Shane spends the rest of the film tracking down Ames’ killer, avoiding Astrid, promising to take Murgatroyd out, and keeping up with a complicated race to recover an ancient ram’s horn filled with jewels.

Warren William is perfect as the slick, superficial Shane. His pointy face may have suggested the title of the film, but he’s certainly no Satan. He’s not very principled, but certainly seems to have more scruples than Bogie’s Sam Spade—no extramarital affairs with his partner’s wife (though this might have had more to do with the morality restrictions of the relatively new Hays Production Code than anything else), a more genuine affection for Ames than Spade ever had for his partner Archer, and a thief’s respect for his own kind as each of the horn’s pursuers steps into the picture.

Arthur Treacher as Anthony Travers is a delightful fortune hunter, apologizing like a proper Englishman as he tears apart Shane’s furniture with the zeal of a puppy savaging a pair of slippers. Alison Skipworth plays Madame Barabbas as a shabby-genteel “appropriator” who turns her prim-and-proper act on and off at will but goes to pieces when her infantile gunsel (Maynard Holmes) gets roughed up. Skipworth and Holmes set the tone for Sydney Greenstreet’s and Peter Lorre’s similar turns in the later film, but Madame and Kenneth make a much funnier pair imitating an overbearing mother and her mama’s boy.

satanmetalady1.jpgAnd what of Bette Davis? Frankly, she’s a very unconvincing liar and makes no real attempt to seduce Shane. I never believed for a second that Shane had any trouble turning her in because neither of them seemed all that interested in the other. A blind man could have seen through her stories. She just seems lost in the film, though perhaps her problems with Warner Bros. that led to a well-publicized dispute with and suspension from the studio the year this film was released accounts for her lackluster performance. That William Dieterle, one of the cadre of great German directors working in Hollywood at the time, couldn’t get more out of her just doesn’t seem possible.

Satan Met a Lady won’t make you forget the classic The Maltese Falcon we all know and love, nor should it. As a rapid-fire comedy with a fascinating cast of types, you can learn to love it as something quite different and delicious. l


7th 03 - 2006 | 6 comments »

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Director: Billy Wilder

By Roderick Heath

Sherlock Holmes comes just behind Dracula as the most portrayed fictional character on the movie screen, but few films about the great sleuth hold claim to greatness. One of the few is Billy Wilder’s elegiac The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It was a dismal flop on release even after being shortened drastically from its original three hours plus, which is a true pity, as it stands as probably Wilder’s best post-The Apartment work in his unique genre of films, so ruthless in observing human nature but so deeply sympathetic to it.

The personal attraction of Holmes to Wilder is intriguing and crucial. Holmes is the quintessential intellectual’s idealised self. Holmes is mythic and eternal because Conan Doyle deliberately avoided rounding him out. He presented a man that avoided normal human entanglements – in a word, women. With his usual writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder sets out to mock and subvert Holmes, and yet strengthen him as a man. The opening credits roll over the disinterment of Holmes’ and Watson’s personal effects, 50 years after Watson’s death, with Watson’s (Colin Blakely) accompanying letter promising the revelation of the more discreet details of Holmes’ life that were left out of his heroic Strand magazine accounts. Holmes’ deductions are skewered in the narration’s account of a murder’s solution: “You may recall that he broke the murder’s alibi by measuring the depth to which the parsley had sunk in the butter on a hot day.”

Holmes (Robert Stephens) is bored, and, thus, crabby, exacting (he berates Mrs Hudson (Irene Handel) for cleaning up his filing system, which relied on the depth of dust for dating) and puckishly humorous as he complains about Watson’s distortions of him for the stories. Holmes wastes time sawing his violin, composing monographs on varieties of cigar ash, and finally taking to his seven-percent solution for days at a time (“Holmes, aren’t you ashamed?” “Thoroughly, but this will fix it.”) to kill his great energy. Holmes is suffering in the emergent cult of celebrity. His life mythologised by his friend, devoured by the public, he is a target for everyone who seeks to pick his brain for trivialities. Searching to escape this rut, he surveys various available cases and offers. One is from a circus owner, whose six-man midget acrobatics team has vanished. Holmes concludes from the offer of five pounds to find them (“that’s not even a pound a midget!”) that the owner’s a stingy blighter and the midgets obviously took a better job.

Watson insists they accept two free tickets to the Imperial Russian Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake”. On top of his hatred of ballet,Holmes is wary of ulterior motives. Predictably, Holmes is spirited backstage by the ballet’s director-general Rogozhin (Clive Revill, who here and in Avanti! provided priceless comic performances for Wilder). He is introduced to prima ballerina Madame Petrova, who has an unusual offer: Holmes is tofather a superchild with her in exchange for a Stradivarius. Rogozhin explains, as Holmes chokes on embarrassment, that Holmes was not their first choice for a father:

“We considered Russian writer. Tolstoy.”
“Oh that’s more like it, the man’s a genius!”
“Too old. Then we considered philosopher. Nietzsche.”
“Absolutely first-class mind.”
“Too German. Next we try Tchaikosvky.”
“Oh you couldn’t go wrong with Tchaikovsky.”
“You can and we did. It was catastrophe! Women – how you say – not his glass of tea.”

This last revelation provides Holmes with the perfect excuse to opt out, claiming to having been in a relationship with Watson for “five happy years.” Watson,meanwhile, dances in ecstatic abandon with ballerinas at the backstage party. As word of his apparent predilection spreads, he promptly finds his dancing partners made up of men. Watson, enraged, storms into 221B Baker Street. Holmes calms his distraught friend, who fears scandal, by reminding him of his legendary heterosexuality. “Yes,” Watson declares, “I’ve got women on three continents who can vouch for me!” But when Watson asks Holmes if any can vouch for him, “ I hope I’m not being presumptuous…But there have been women in your life…?” Holmes’ chilly reply is, “The answer is ‘yes,’ you’re being presumptuous.”

This sustained comic movement brings up two important themes: shifting identities (the swan who is not a swan has several fellows in the story) and the question of what kind of sexual creature Holmes is. The possibility of his being gay is, for Holmes, a preferable smokescreen. We’ve heard him protest that Watson has “given people the distinct impression that I’m a misogynist. Actually I don’t dislike women. I merely distrust them.”

Soon, Holmes and Watson are presented with a classic case. A woman (the always tantalising Geneviève Page) is brought to them by a cabbie who found her in the river, assaulted, with Holmes’ name on her lips. Holmes is brutally eager to get solve the case (“the sooner we find who she is, the sooner we can get rid of her!”) Holmes is disturbed by her crying in her sleep, and finds himself grasped by her, stark naked, in a feverish state, thinking he is her husband. Picking up various clues, he tracks down her belongings and identifies her as Gabrielle Valledon, wife of a Belgian engineer. When she’s clearheaded, Gabrielle explains her husband disappeared whilst on a job in England, working for a company called Jonah, Ltd., with only a postal address for contact.

Checking out this address, they find only an empty shop where letters picked up by a wheelchair-bound lady, and a cage full of canaries, a number of which are picked up by some workmen and transferred to a smaller crate lined with copies of The Inverness Courier.

The mysterious Jonah is mentioned again; even more mysterious is that a letter left by the woman is addressed to Holmes. It is from his brother, timed to the minute, requesting a meeting. Their trip to that museum of Empire fossils known as the Diogenes Club is occasion for Holmes to theorise about his brother’s involvement in all sorts of Foreign Office shenanigans. Christopher Lee’s Mycroft radiates a calm, acid authority as he warns Holmes to drop this case, shrinking his younger brother from indomitable hero to bohemian brat meddling with grown-ups’ games. Of course, this merely deepens Sherlock’s interest. But Mycroft may have a point. Mme. Valladon has an odd habit of flashing Morse code with her umbrella to an accomplice on the street.

Holmes and Gabrielle travel to Inverness as “Mr and Mrs Ashdown”, with Watson posing as their butler, riding third class, conversing – one-way – with a group of Trappist monks who are reading the Book of Jonah in their Bibles and whispering in German to each other. Meanwhile, in their sleeping compartment, Holmes, explains to Gabrielle why he distrusts women:

“The most affectionate woman I ever knew was a murderess. It was one of those passionate affairs at odd hours right in my laboratory. And all the time right behind my back she was stealing cyanide to sprinkle on her husband’s steak and kidney pie…”

“You musn’t judge all women just because…” Gabrielle protests.

He cuts in, “Of course not. Just the ones I was involved with. And I
don’t just mean professionally. Kleptomaniacs. Nymphomaniacs. Pyromaniacs. Take my fiancé for instance. She was the daughter of my violin teacher. We were engaged to be married, the invitations were out, I was being fitted for a tailcoat, and 24 hours before the wedding, she died of influenza. It just proves my contention that women are unreliable.”

This explanation for Holmes is brilliantly offered by Wilder as an affliction of cruel logic for a rigorously logical man. After a grievous early loss cheated him of a traditional romantic sensibility; of course, the devious genius obsessed with criminals would be most attracted to women with hints of unstable or criminal tendencies, the only ones with minds that work like his, to tantalise all the poles of his personality. That he is attracted enough by Mme. Valladon’s beauty and mystery is enough to rattle him; the more intelligent and supple she proves, the more rapt he is.

As this unlikely threesome book into their hotel room overlooking Loch Ness, Watson swears he saw the monster in the loch, strenuously disbelieved by Holmes. In a graveyard they witness a burial of coffins, one large, two small, which the gravedigger (Stanley Holloway) tells them was a father and two children who drowned in the loch. Then comes a peculiar spectacle, four schoolboy mourners who, as Holmes realises even before seeing their wizened faces, are midgets, the band who abandoned their circus; two of their fellows are now buried. Holmes, Watson, and Gabrielle disinter the larger of the two coffins, fearing it might contain M. Valladon, in the night, and find the engineer buried with several dead canaries stained ghostly white, signs of gas poisoning. Gabrielle is distraught, with Holmes providing less-than-delicate consoling, but soon they’re back out, searching for any sign of where Valladon was working, with Gabrielle signalling via umbrella code to the Trappist monks trailing them. At Urquart Castle, they find restoration works being run by an auxiliary of the Diogenes Club and soldierly guides who know nothing of history. Holmes pursues his gathering theory, and he, Watson, and Gabrielle ride a rowboat on the loch chasing the monster. He is able to hear, through Watson’s stethoscope, a throbbing engine beneath the waves, just before the “monster” surfaces, overturns their boat, and heads for its “lair” in Urquart Castle.

Returning to shore, sopping wet but unharmed, Holmes is called for by a carriage and driven to the castle. Holmes is confronted by Mycroft, who explains to him what Holmes has already deduced – that the navy is testing an experimental submersible, the HMS Jonah, crewed by midgets; that it is run by a battery system built by Valladon that, when it leaked and mixed with water, produced gas that choked Valladon, and what he surely has not deduced – that Valladon’s real wife was murdered weeks before and the woman posing as her now is Ilse von Hoffmanstall, a German agent who has subverted Holmes’ method and used his abilities to trace the Jonah project.

In silent agony, Sherlock now must watch as Mycroft, in fatuous style, shows Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) the craft. Victoria, pint-sized, grandmotherly, is delighted by the machine, and asks, innocently, “Where’s the glass bottom?” Mycroft explains confidently that she misunderstands the machine’s purpose: “Jonah is to be commissioned as a warship!” Victoria’s horrified opinion, almost word for word that of a real British admiral, is, “It’s unsportsmanlike! It’s un-English!” and orders it destroyed.

Sherlock is given the job destroying the warship, which he does, and unmasks Ilse with dutiful melancholy. He gives Ilse the gift of knowledge that she outwitted him. As she is driven away by Mycroft and his men, she signals with her umbrella “Auf wiedersehn” to him. Some months later, after she has been exchanged back to Germany, Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft, informing him that Ilse was shot for spying by the Japanese. Holmes turns back to the seven-percent solution, which even Watson cannot argue against, and Holmes disappears in his room.

This is one of the most gossamer tragedies ever pulled off in a film, one highlighted by Miklos Rozsa’s sublime score. But it’s hardly depressing, as the film’s richly funny texture endures in the heart. It’s worth stating that Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are possibly the best Holmes and Watson ever. Properly, they’re both relatively young, especially Blakely’s Watson, a boyish-at-heart ladykiller and slightly ridiculous, and Holmes, stuck somewhere between Oxford and Bohemia, portrayed with enormous wit and feeling by Stephens. There’s so much to praise in the film it’s almost absurd to say that it’s unsatisfying. You can’t help but wish that three-hour epic with more discursions, more humour, more detail, was extant. As Holmes experiences with Ilse, this film is the beautiful mystery woman you have all too briefly, but it’s somehow enough. l


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