23rd 02 - 2014 | 7 comments »

The Night of the Generals (1967)

Director: Anatole Litvak

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By Roderick Heath

Peter O’Toole’s death last December was a hard blow. One of a formidable battery of theatre-trained talents who found movie stardom as a minor cultural explosion regenerated British performing and cinematic arts in the early ‘60s, O’Toole had electrifying skill and intelligence as an actor. Of course, tributes to O’Toole’s career zeroed in on inarguable highlights. His name-making lead performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a textbook of what film star acting can be. His second turn as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) combines dramatic largesse and cinematic intimacy with hypnotic finesse. His high-comedy roles in The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), and My Favorite Year (1983) readily stir fond memories, and the frail but keen intelligence in his late performances in Troy (2004) and Venus (2006) was stirring all the more for the sense those turns were delivered against the resistance of much-abused flesh. O’Toole made quite a few bad movies in the course of his career, some in which he hammed it up or walked through with his contempt all too obvious. He also made many undervalued films, particularly in his post-Lawrence run when his star was at its height. He was epic in Lord Jim (1965), and funny and charming in How to Steal a Million (1966).

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O’Toole is ferocious in The Night of the Generals, a fascinating and very neglected film, one of the most singular by-products of the era’s tumultuous screen culture. Produced on a lavish scale by Sam Spiegel, who had fostered O’Toole’s stardom in producing Lawrence, it’s a big-budget war movie with scarcely any combat. Rather, it’s essentially military noir, combining an early variation on the serial killer hunt motif with a typically ’60s fascination for antiheroic and antiauthoritarian narratives. The Night of the Generals is also unusual as an English-language film about WWII from the German side, standing up with a relative handful of such works, like Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008). The film was based loosely on a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, a German writer who, although overshadowed by the likes of Gunther Grass and Heinrich Böll, was one of the first postwar writers to articulate disillusionment with and resentment of the Nazi era, portraying little guys and men of conscience struggling with the all-pervading evil of the regime, gaining particular attention for his much-loved Gunner Asche stories. Kirst, however, had legal problems with the book, which was partly drawn from work by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, and both are credited as the source of the film.

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The film kicks off in Warsaw, 1942. As Operation Barbarossa is nearing Moscow and Polish partisans are tormenting occupying forces, a tenement dweller, Wionczek (Charles Millot), hears an ugly scream on a higher floor, and fearfully hides in a toilet as someone descends the stairs. He catches a glimpse of the man’s military trousers, sporting a red stripe: the uniform of a German general. When he ventures out, he finds the body of a prostitute, Maria Kupiecka, savagely murdered in her apartment. Because she was an occasional informant for the Germans, Maj. Grau (Omar Sharif) of Wehrmacht Military Intelligence is sent to investigate whether it was a crime of punishment or passion. It’s immediately obvious to Grau he’s dealing with a sex killer. After extricating the witness’ testimony and believing it, Grau whittles down suspects to three generals whose whereabouts can’t be established. Gen. Von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), head of the city’s military garrison, has a penchant for prostitutes. Gen. Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance), his chief of staff, seems the most suspicious due to his habitual secrecy and lack of personal attachments. Gen. Tanz (O’Toole), in charge of the “Nibelungen” Division of the SS, is newly arrived in the city from the Russian front, personally detailed by Hitler to quell resistance.

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Spiegel threw his weight around a lot during the making of the film, alienating director Anatole Litvak and O’Toole considerably, as he tried to lay claim to ownership of the project. Yet the film represents a coherent culmination for Litvak’s career. The director had fled first from Soviet Ukraine and then from fascist Europe, where he made some notable works, including Mayerling (1936). He then landed in the United States, where he made the long-delayed opening salvo in Hollywood opposition to Nazism, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Litvak wasn’t really a film noir director, but his instincts were sharpest with stories involving ordinary people faced with oppressive violence by tyrants and their own foundering sanity and decency, often with political overtones or an acidic contemplation of marriage. All This, and Heaven Too (1940) offered a lunatic wife who compels a hapless husband to murder. Out of the Fog (1941) shows two elderly men driven to contemplate homicide by a vicious gangster. Litvak remade Le Jour Sur Leve (1939), Marcel Carne’s study in fatalism as a man awaits arrest and death after committing a crime of passion, as The Long Night (1947), and transposed Lucille Fletcher’s radio play to film with Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), depicting a woman who, through blind chance, finds her husband is planning to have her killed. The Snake Pit (1948) made headlines for highlighting treatment of the mentally ill, as an unstable young woman is cast into an asylum. In the ’50s, Litvak decamped back to Europe but remained a quasi-Hollywood filmmaker. The Deep Blue Sea (1955) studied suicidal impulse and transgressive romance, and Anastasia (1956) offered an amnesiac young woman whose past is rewritten to fill a political void. Five Miles to Midnight (1962) turns a dying marriage into a bleak Sartrean thriller.

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The Night of the Generals was Litvak’s penultimate film, and it treats his major themes on an epic expanse. The film’s chief liabilities are common to a lot of big-budget films of the era, with a production polished to brittleness and corny asides, like scenes in a tourist-board-approved Parisian night spot, complete with warbling Juliette Greco. But the film’s overlooked status is more due to its cool, cerebral approach to garish subject matter, via the script by Joseph Kessel, a collaborator of Litvak’s who dates back to Mayerling, Paul Dehn, and an uncredited Gore Vidal, who perhaps provided the film’s litany of quotable lines. Litvak eschews suspense sequences and action in favour of generating a trembling sense of neurotic repression and tension, less a whodunit than a study in competing pathologies. An individual’s will to kill is contrasted with an epoch that takes mass murder as an everyday reality and even a gallant activity. Grau’s peculiar sense of mission leads him first to confront his three suspects when they’re together at a reception thrown by Gabler’s haughty wife Eleanore (Coral Browne) for Tanz. Eleanore tries matchmaking by introducing Tanz to her daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet), a member of the German equivalent of the WAAFs. But this goes awry, as Ulrike is furious because of her mother’s plotting to have her sent back to Germany to work in a religious hospital, more out distaste for her newfound independence than concern for her safety. She questions Tanz about using dead bodies as sandbags at the siege of Leningrad: “The story has been exaggerated,” Tanz replies, but adds with chilling assurance, “Nobody rots with me.”

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The Night of the Generals charts the various social tensions and blocs within Nazi Germany, giving it a sociohistorical richness as it anatomizes the peculiar madness of the time and place. Gabler is described as a “Junker of the old school” and his aristocratic equivocations contrast both the internalized, ideological attitude of Hitlerian golden boy Tanz, and the intelligent, conscientious characters who keep their heads pulled in nervously whilst trying to work out how to resist. Ulrike is one of these, and another is introduced when Kahlenberge’s adjutant Otto (Nigel Stock) presents his cousin Kurt Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), a newly decorated war hero and an artistic, educated man all too happy to take a staff job under Kahlenberge’s wing. Assigned to program music for Eleanore’s soirée, Hartmann encounters Ulrike and quickly becomes her lover, confessing, to her delight, that he was only decorated because he ran away whilst the rest of his unit were killed in battle. The two lovers neatly fill in for the perspective of the late ’60s audience in their disdain for their elders and betters, and sense of unity in being endangered by the war, as Ulrike’s already lost two boyfriends in Russia. Grau, equally detached from the Nazi cause, makes it his mission within the delineations of his job, to punish hubris: “We live in an age in which dead bodies lie around in the street,” Kahlenberge barks at him, but Grau invokes the legend of the Eumenides and declares his intent: “Some general thought he could play God in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield. Well, I am going to prove to him that he is not God.”

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Tanz, on the other hand, articulates the mix of idealism and low chauvinism that defined the drug-like appeal for those who were on the “right” side of the Nazi ethos, airily declaring things for Ulrike’s benefit, like, “We’re building a new world order—women should not be exempt from playing their part,” and trying to win hearts and minds with food and sweets for the homeless children of Warsaw. At the same time, his plan to crush Polish resistance is characterised by Kahlenberge as monstrous, as it has a contingency to demolish the entire city if necessary. “What constitutes resistance?” Kahlenberge questions, “A rock thrown at his golden head?” Grau, trying to interview the overlord, becomes privy to the operation, as buildings are swept clear and partisans gunned down in the street, before Tanz casually has tanks pummel buildings to rubble in an orgiastic survey of destruction. There’s anticipation in Tanz (whose name implicitly evokes the tötentanz or death-dance from plague-era religious allegory), as a character and locus of thematic interest, of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Schindler’s List (1993), in the fascination with the almost mystical figure of a mad military leader who commits crimes that seem absurd against the backdrop of generally permitted murder, and whose power takes on hubristic scale. Grau sees Tanz is a megalomaniac, but is also persuaded that Tanz is not his killer: why would someone who can get their rocks off on such a scale need to kill a prostitute? Grau’s gambit at the soirée misfires, as Kahlenberge defensively has him transferred to Paris.

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Two years later, the players are reunited as the Allied landings at Normandy bring Tanz, Gabler, and Kahlenberge to Paris, stirring Grau to reopen his investigation. Tanz is assigned by the Fuhrer to mastermind retaliation, but Gabler and Kahlenberge insist that he take time off, supposedly to give them time to prepare military resources for him. Tanz reluctantly obeys, and Kahlenberge frustrates Hartmann’s impending reunion with Ulrike by insisting that he chauffeur Tanz about the city. As Hartmann is forced into close company with Tanz, he becomes privy to the deep veins of neurosis underlying Tanz’s self-willed image as the iron-willed, water-drinking, obsessive-compulsive übermensch, gets stinking drunk and smoking profusely whilst Hartmann gives him a tour of Paris. Much of the film’s middle third is dedicated to an intensely rhythmic portrait of mental upheaval and dread, building fascinating, troubling little scenes like orchestral movements. One such scene comes when Hartmann is distracted from his guide duties by the sight of Tanz guzzling spirits in the back seat, an intimate play of shots that compartmentalise the two men in separate universes. but unites them in the rearview mirror until the general notices and tells the corporal to keep his eye on the road. Most striking is a scene that’s repeated in ritualistic fashion, when Hartmann takes Tanz to an art gallery filled with paintings requisitioned for Nazi bigwigs.

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Tanz, intrigued by the gallery’s “decadent” modernist works, finds himself stricken with horrified self-recognition as he stares at Van Gogh’s “Vincent in Flames” self-portrait. Matching zooms and cuts between O’Toole’s sweat-swathed face and the portrait’s infernal flames and blue eyes with Maurice Jarre’s nerve-jangling score render an impression of the soldier’s wits turning inside out, in a superlative conflation of cinematic devices. The film also notes with malign humour the nature of the Nazi antipathy to “decadent” art, for its stylised, introspective exploration of the vagaries of human nature, that offend most particularly the psychopath. Tanz asks Hartmann to define “decadent” art, and Hartmann replies that according to his best definition, the potent art is anything but decadent, but then appends his reply with dry political awareness, “But I don’t really know what decadence is—not officially anyway.”

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Hartmann and Tanz’s relationship is unusually charged because Tanz generally has utmost contempt for his underlings, who fear his rages for good reason: he has one orderly confined to barracks for a month for getting polish on his boot laces and abuses another for having dirt under his fingernails. He finds in Hartmann a subordinate as intelligent as himself and more cultured, but still a subordinate, thus all the more pleasurable to destroy. Tanz seems to descend into a fugue state in his first encounter with the Van Gogh, and might have no memory of it the next day after a drinking binge. He nonetheless insists on a return and confronts the painting again, and this time seems to gain control over his stylised doppelgänger. Tanz even seems humanised after this, as he makes conversation with Hartmann and congratulates him on his “good taste” after forcing Hartmann to show his wallet photo of Ulrike. This conceals, however, Tanz forming a plan of attack so he can indulge his intimate homicidal side.

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Litvak, like many old studio dogs, was trying to learn new tricks, and he annexed flourishes of New Wave cinema with more success than many, giving the film a stylish instability as he conjoins theatrical actor blocking and glossily over-lit interiors with islets of modernist punch: dialogue becoming voiceover, jump cuts, and whip-pan transitions pepper the film. One shot takes in the former Polish royal residence as a tourist attraction in the present day, and then cuts to the same angle when depicting the palace’s days as Gabler’s headquarters. The film’s colour palate is intelligently muted, the blood reds of the generals’ uniform insignia isolated in fields of hard greys and browns, with other colours washed out. One of the film’s strongest images is Wionczek’s eye peering out through the fateful gap in the lavatory door, grain in the wood and terror in the eye captured as a precise emblem of the era’s paranoid, seamy, assailed mindset, reminiscent of the similarly surreal shots of the spying eyes in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), but with the innocent spying out on the evil rather than the other way around. The stark and eerie opening credits play out the first murder as a fetishistic dreamscape, picking out details like fishnet stockings on glossy legs and squirming fingers in black leather gloves, flickering in and out of distorting shots, before the fatal knife swing hacks through a light bulb in slow motion, an eerie, technically accomplished touch that was stolen for the TV show “Callan” a few years later. The film has an uncommon flash-forward structure, as the film leaps between the 1940s and 1965, eschewing introduction via the present tense to emphasise not the past nature of events, but the still-vibrant connection between eras and the people reporting them, where consequences are still being played out.

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Tanz sets up Hartmann to be his patsy as he kills another prostitute (Véronique Vendell) and gives Hartmann the choice of either fleeing for his life or having his brains blown out. When Hartmann asks Tanz why he’s become a killer, Tanz replies, “Oh, the war, I suppose,” whilst espousing his confident belief that Hartmann would inevitably be executed for the murder instead of him because, naturally, he’s a general, and his word is worth more. Grau, however, realises exactly what’s happened when his contact in the Parisian police, Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), calls him to the crime scene and then learns Hartmann was assigned to Tanz.

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Whilst O’Toole is dominant in the film, he’s surrounded by a cast of mostly British and French actors of enormous vitality. It’s distinctly possible, for instance, that Grau is Sharif’s best performance. The Egyptian actor has wryly commented on the degree to which producers were willing to cast him in nonethnic roles according to his star status. Reunited here with O’Toole after Lawrence as they were both still contracted to Spiegel for frustratingly little pay, Sharif couldn’t have asked for a more different role to his image as swarthy lover, with Grau as a poised, electrically intelligent savant who has no interest either in hiding his smarts or his delight in making his superiors uncomfortable. Sharif relishes the dialogue thrown his way, from imploring a pathologist at a murder scene, “There’s no need to be vivid,” to charmingly telling Morand he knows his Resistance code name. Grau, like Hartmann, is absurdly out of place in this milieu: cold-shouldered by the German elite for his impolitic zeal, he finds friendship with Morand. The two men dine as gentlemanly enemies, with Grau cutting deals to release some of Morand’s men in exchange for gathering intelligence on the generals, whilst swapping oddball pearls of wisdom like, “Sex and great cuisine do not mix.”

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Indeed, the depth of quality in the cast is another of the film’s major assets, with mostly British actors modishly familiar at the time. Handed the lion’s share of good lines, Pleasence is superlative as Kahlenberge, who approaches a world that disgusts him with dripping cynicism and abuse of the bottle. Particularly good is his early interview with Hartmann, as he surveys his press clippings and notes with the finest edge of mockery, “I see that you are the reincarnation of Siegfried, a German hero of the Golden Age!” And, later, when assigning Hartmann to drive Tanz, telling him to satisfy the general’s taste with a very Vidal-esque twist: “Let us hope that whatever it is, it is not you, corporal. However, if it should be, remember that you’re serving the Fatherland.” There’s an obvious, but well-handled irony in the suspicious Kahlenberge turning out to be the film’s moral centre: he is involved in the July plot to kill Hitler, whilst Gabler knows what’s going on but wants to remain “usefully alive” sitting on the fence. The Night of the Generals also provides an amusing keepsake of the days when Tom Courtenay was considered a heartthrob, as Hartmann’s incredible appeal to women is spoken of even as his spindly physique is mocked. Courtenay is certainly fine as Hartmann, however, as he brings the right mix of doe-eyed sensitivity and discomforted acumen and angst to the role.

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The sadly neglected Pettet, who hit big in ’67 after her other highest-profile role that same year in Casino Royale, is more uncertain as the icily aristocratic Ulrike. She’s most effective when firing off arch rejoinders to Browne’s patented maternal monster and O’Toole’s marble demigod, aware of the contradiction that wartime has liberated her whilst condemning millions of others to horror, but as she’s slowly humanised by love for Hartmann, she becomes less interesting. Christopher Plummer has a strong cameo as Rommel, whose joining the plot is celebrated by Kahlenberge and the others. The film links Grau’s intent to catch the god-playing general with Rommel’s intent to deny Hitler the glory of a fiery apocalyptic end: both are heroic in motivation, but touched by hubris conjoined with the core problem of the Nazi cause, and thus both men are unable to prevent horror. Rommel’s wounding by a strafing Allied plane hurts their confidence. Four decades before Valkyrie, The Night of the Generals encompasses a brief, but sharp and accurate telling of Von Stauffenberg’s (Gérard Buhr) excruciatingly near miss at killing the Fuhrer. Once the bomb goes off and the plotters assume victory, Kahlenberge dispatches men to arrest Tanz at his division headquarters, but Grau gets there ahead of them to arrest him for murder. Tanz’s response is merely to shoot Grau and claim he was one of the traitors, and he accepts the Nazi salute from his massed soldiers as Hitler’s survival is announced. If the film had ended here, its portrait of an age of moral nullity would be bleak, but, of course, there’s another act to play out in peacetime, as the flashes to 1965 have promised.

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Morand, now an Interpol agent, is trying to piece together the crime to honour his dead friend, and he explores that peacetime landscape with its perspective-imbuing vignettes. Otto has become a fat and satisfied restaurateur, hailing the Marshall Plan. Kahlenberge, who fled ahead of the vicious reprisals for the assassination plot, is now a busy diplomat, recalling with fascination Grau’s obsession in the midst of a collapsing world. Gabler is still sitting on the fence, and he and his wife are alienated from Ulrike, with Eleanore sniping, “Our generation believed in being happy!” Tanz’s pompous adjutant Sandauer (John Gregson) has become a Volkswagen executive, exasperatedly bossing around Spanish and Italian labourers because he “can’t get Germans for real work anymore.” Ulrike has dropped out and become a farmer, married to a man named Luckner, who is, naturally, Hartmann, living under an alias. Tanz has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for war crimes, and now plans to attend a reunion of his division in a politically charged moment of fascist solidarity. Tanz looks like he’s calcified in prison, but he’s already committed another murder, one that has drawn Morand back to the case, and he and Inspector Hauser (Michael Goodliffe), the investigating officer, collaborate to confront Tanz with a greyed, frayed, but coldly intent Hartmann. Few film resolutions are more satisfying than this one, as Morand goads Tanz to shoot himself, his body left sprawled on the banquet table under Nazi paraphernalia under the stunned and silent eyes of his men—one last victim of the war and one delayed, but not denied, serving of justice.


29th 09 - 2013 | 6 comments »

CIFF 2013: Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Alain Guiraudie

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Stranger by the Lake has been making waves internationally for its frank exploration of gay cruising, which includes explicit, mostly unsimulated sex scenes. The film’s director and screenwriter, Alain Guiraudie, won the directing prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for the film, a prize I think he deserved because of the unself-conscious performances he got from his actors and the subtle changes in mood he brings to the looping scenes of the lake, beach, and wooded area that form the single location of the film. At the same time, this film doesn’t offer a major departure in form or structure—Guiraudie, known for his more audaciously experimental approach to film, has said that he surprised himself by how formal the film ended up being. Of a piece with the New French Extremity movement that began in the early 2000s, Stranger by the Lake indulges the themes of loneliness, fatal attraction, and the linking of sex and death that go back to the beginnings of film, but that were elided until the end of the studio system in Hollywood and the coming of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

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The central character, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), is a young, slim, gay man without a career, job, or any specific goal beyond spending the summer at the cruising beach swimming, sunning, and having sex in the woods that surround the lake. Franck uses his first visit to the beach to get acclimated. He greets a friend, strips to his underwear, and goes for a swim. As the summer progresses, he’ll forgo the underwear, sunning and swimming in the nude like the other men. Franck also goes out of his way to become friendly with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a middle-aged man who sits apart from the beach dwellers, never sunning or swimming, but rather just watching them. Henri has split from the woman in his life (girlfriend or wife is never made clear), who has remained on the other side of the lake, presumably where couples roam in more conventional fashion. Henri may feel like an outcast from that world, but he also doesn’t seem to fit into the gay scene and, in fact, seems rather naïve about it. When Franck tells him that he doesn’t go with women ever, Henri seems surprised, thinking that all homosexuals also keep a woman around, perhaps because Henri is just such a man, trying to come to terms with his repressed homosexuality.

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Franck is attracted to Michel (Christophe Paou), a man who epitomizes the ’70s style of desirable homosexual—tall, muscular, tanned, and sporting a thick mustache. However, Michel has a possessive lover, Eric, (Mathieu Vervisch), who sends Franck on his way. Franck, who has a habit of staying at the lake into the night, watches Eric and Michel swimming one evening. They appear to be playing, but the play turns deadly as Michel holds Eric under the water and soon emerges alone from the lake. Despite the fact that Eric’s red car and beach towel remain in place for several days, nobody remarks on it, and Franck says nothing of what he saw; instead, he and Michel become lovers. When Eric’s body washes up on shore and the police come snooping around the lake, the film moves steadily toward a suspenseful end.

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Stranger by the Lake mildly indulges a backward-looking pastiche that seems to be forming a contemporary current in French cinema. The sun-washed days of idleness and pleasure by an Edenlike beach are bathed in Summer of ’42 (1971) nostalgia. The film is shot through with comic moments that seem to look back in time to a different, less dangerous era of free love; for example, Franck hooks up with a man who insists he wear a condom, even though Franck is only giving him a blow job. The caution this man won’t throw to the wind is not only gently ridiculed, but also contrasts with Franck’s attitude, which eschews the future to live in the moment. It’s possible to look at Franck’s fatal attraction as being akin to the search of the main character for a lover who will kill her in the 1977 Richard Brooks film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but Franck is not the suicidal one here. The notion of a gay-hating serial killer picked up from the much-reviled Al Pacino vehicle Cruising (1980) is voiced by Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte), who pops up at the lake regularly like Lieutenant Columbo, comic, but unavoidable, as Guiraudie refuses to open up his film beyond the lake. His intense focus on this locale has the effect of demystifying gay cruising for straight audiences through an honest depiction of desire that transcends sexual orientation. In this context, the explicit sex in the film is not pornographic, but an organic part of the world Guiraudie is trying to explore.

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One wonders why Franck doesn’t run fast and far from Michel after what he has witnessed. Certainly, linking sex and death is nothing new—Gloria Grahame was more turned on by Robert Ryan in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) after she asked him if he ever killed anyone, and Vanessa Paradis seemed to orgasm when carnival performer Daniel Auteuil threw knives at her in Girl on the Bridge (1999). It is usually not the aim of such foreplay, however, to actually end in death. More likely, Franck has been caught by the devouring charisma many emotionally damaged people give off that traps so many would-be rescuers and innocents who mistake their immediate connection with discovering a soulmate. Franck says after only a couple of meetings with Michel that he thinks he is falling in love, and Michel says all the things that would lead Franck to think he is feeling the same way, too. Only Henri sees Michel for what he is—an amoral psychopath who killed a possessive lover when he found someone he wanted more.

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I found myself quite involved in this movie and concerned about what would happen to everyone. D’Assumçao exudes a pathos that nonetheless is grounded in reality. He tries to reach out to Franck, but knows that the young man is busy being young, and not a candidate to fill his empty heart. Paou is an implacable avatar of entitled desire—remorseless, sexually greedy, and quick to action. Deladonchamps, for all his sexual adventuring, seemed a bit like Bambi to me, particularly at the end of the film, when his plaintive cry was like a baby doe looking for its mother. By that time, we realize how much he’s made us care.

Stranger by the Lake screens Friday, October 18, 9:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 20, 4:10 p.m at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com


14th 08 - 2013 | 5 comments »

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The touring show The Hitchcock 9—the nine surviving features from Alfred Hitchcock’s catalog of silent films restored by the British Film Institute—finally hit town this weekend. For those unfamiliar with the director’s formative years, The Hitchcock 9 will prove enlightening, as nearly all of the films represent comedy and melodrama rather than classic suspense. The one exception, and my favorite of Hitchcock’s silent output, is The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. The film, based on the best-selling 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, establishes in one package all of Hitchcock’s major obsessions—the wrong man, blondes, voyeurism, and the threat of nature. The latter, more suggested by the subtitle Hitchcock tacked onto Belloc Lowndes title than an actual menace, nonetheless is used to great effect to veil the title character in mystery and menace.

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The Lodger is based loosely on the exploits of Jack the Ripper, and Belloc Lowndes’ book was widely known and read when the film premiered (in fact, it’s still in print today). The key, therefore, to building suspense is to arouse fear in the audience that our heroine, vivacious blonde Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), is to become a victim of the man who has been slaughtering golden-haired women in a pattern that suggests Daisy’s street is the next to be hit.

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First, though, one must fill their hearts with dread. A terrified woman looks up into the camera and screams in the night. Too late, as would-be rescuers find only her mangled corpse on an embankment and a note marked with a triangle and the scrawl of “The Avenger” claiming to have done the deed. A witness says she only saw a man with a scarf covering the lower half of his face. A music hall marquee blinks “To-nite. Golden Curls,” ironically taunting the audience that blondes will be murdered over the next 80 or so minutes to provide us with a guilty pleasure perhaps not unlike the killer’s.

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Daisy, a mannequin at a London atelier, returns home to her parents’ (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney) boarding house, where her suitor, Detective Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen), drops by to flirt with her and gossip about the Avenger case. The doorbell rings, and Mrs. Bunting goes to answer it. Enveloped in the fog and a heavy cloak, a pale man (Ivor Novello) stands before her carrying a small grip and wrapped up to his nose in a scarf. When asked to state his business, he raises a ghostly hand toward the “To Let” sign above the door. After being led upstairs to inspect the room, he pays a month’s rent and becomes the lodger. He asks that the various pictures of blonde-haired women be removed from the room, and when Mrs. Bunting sends Daisy up to help carry the pictures out, she and the lodger meet for the first time.

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Novello’s acting in the opening scenes is very broad, emphasizing the lodger’s peculiarities and secretiveness, filling him with a torment that seems largely overdone. There’s no doubt that Hitchcock the control freak wanted this type of performance, which shows up one handicap of soundless pictures—the inability to use vocal inflection to inject subtly suspicious tones and phrases. He throws further suspicion on the lodger when Novello admires Daisy’s golden curls and locks away his grip, which looks like a doctor’s bag in direct reference to the theory that the Ripper was a physician skilled in using surgical tools. One night, when the lodger goes out at about the same time another woman is murdered, Mr. and Mrs. Bunting start developing their own suspicions and quake at the thought that the murderer is living under their roof and, as it turns out, romancing their daughter.

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There’s nothing terribly subtle about The Lodger. Daisy is a flirt who keeps Chandler on a leash until she finds someone she deems better, and Chandler is an overbearing blowhard who would love it if the girlfriend-stealing lodger were the killer. When we get to the truth that the lodger is wealthy (of course) and lost his sister to The Avenger, we understand his fixations and sensitivities. His promise to his dying mother that he will bring The Avenger to justice has worn on his last nerve, which is better exemplified by Hitch’s trick photography—letting us peer through the ceiling to see him pacing in his room—than with the sunken-eye make-up and fragility Novello displays.

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Nonetheless, the murder of one of the Golden Curls dancers (Eve Gray) shows Hitchcock at his suspenseful best. The Avenger has been a topic high on the list of the dancers for weeks. Gray’s character is no less wary than the other girls, but she is often met at the stage door by her boyfriend and feels safe in his company. One night, they have a quarrel, and she storms off without him, blinded by her anger to the danger she has just put herself in. The scene unspools like any fateful encounter, building from the stage door to a secluded square where Gray fumbles with the undone buckle of her shoe. The dreadful build-up and horrible end to this scene, perhaps the best of the film, reflects the economy with which Hitchcock can terrify an audience.

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He also knows how to titillate the old-fashioned way. In what a modern viewer can only see as a precursor to the shower scene in Psycho (1960), Daisy prepares for a bath. We watch her strip off her garments one by one until Hitch cuts to the bathtub drain and Daisy’s toes wiggling in the water. The lodger has no peephole like Norman Bates’, but he listens at the door nonetheless, and we get to see Daisy in her all-together, though the rim of the bathtub obscures any flagrant nakedness. Norman would have killed her, but the lodger’s interest is amorous, not murderous. I was quite overwhelmed during a love scene between the two when Hitchcock practically climbed up Novello’s nose with a close-up that took up the entire screen; this is one time I can honestly say the effect—and what Hitch was going for is anyone’s guess—would not be the same watching a DVD at home.

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Hitchcock takes a dig at vigilante justice as well, when the lodger is arrested but breaks free, only to be chased by a mob and beaten as he hangs helplessly by his handcuffs from a wrought-iron fence he tried to climb. Carefully placed shadows make the lodger into a Christ figure, and Hitch would return to the court of public opinion with no less than a priest at the center of suspicion in I Confess (1953).

Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.

All’s well that ends well, as the lodger is saved by Chandler and his men when they get word that the real Avenger has been apprehended. Failing to give the audience a glimpse of the killer is not only anticlimactic, but also a cheat. We are at the movie because we have a certain bloodlust that needs slaking, but Hitch proves to be more the moralist than usual and scolds us for suspecting the wrong man. The disappointment that must have greeted this omission was not lost on the master, however. He would not make that mistake again.

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It was a treat to see this film with its restored color tints, and what looked like two-strip Technicolor in the penultimate scene of the mob chasing the lodger. The title cards, a clear homage to German Expressionism, must have been a delight for the director to work on, harkening back to his days of drawing them for other filmmakers. Finally, the live accompaniment of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was appropriate, elegant, and a huge asset to enjoying this classic from the silent screen. If you have the opportunity, make time to see some or all of The Hitchcock 9, and especially The Lodger.


6th 08 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Passion (2012)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Brian De Palma

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By Roderick Heath

Crime d’Amour (2010), starring Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott-Thomas, was the last film of reputable French director Alain Corneau. Corneau, who had a penchant for studying master-pupil rivalries and characters under extreme duress, combined his interests in his swan song for an amusingly ruthless, well-told, if essentially lightweight spin on a specific brand of crime drama. That brand is often mistaken for Hitchcockian, but actually has distinctly native roots, as displayed in fare like Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), and continuing through to many a recent French film like Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner (2006). This darkly comic Gallic style often reveals a wry and probing sense of what constitutes justice in the context of a corrupting and oblivious society in which human relations are reduced to intimate games of power and humiliation. La Chienne was famously remade in Hollywood as Scarlet Street (1945), a noirish look at an antihero’s self-destruction. Corneau’s final work, which he cowrote with Natalie Carter, has now also been remade in English as a French-Belgian-German coproduction by Brian De Palma six years after his involuntary leave of absence following his messy, furious Iraq War drama Redacted (2006).

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De Palma is returning from one of his periodic fiscal and/or critical disgraces, which only seem to have become more frequent as the homogenisation of modern film product is completed. One would forgive him if he played his comeback straight—after all, he’s getting to the age now where he doesn’t have too many more comebacks left in him. But no director in mainstream film has embraced the musical idea of each film they make being a variation on a theme, or an opus in a linked cycle, quite as fulsomely as De Palma. Sometimes, whole films in his oeuvre seem to have been made to critique or develop an idea in a previous entry, and this tendency contributes both to the fun in contemplating his work as a whole while making their qualities as individual dramas highly variable. Thus, critiquing a new De Palma film is a fraught task: one desires, nay, demands a great new work from the quiescent but still-major auteur, but De Palma might deliver the cinematic equivalent of one of those Picasso doodles on a restaurant napkin. The appeal of the material in Passion to De Palma is obvious— a barbed study of the nexus of sex and power in the world of big business from a refreshing female perspective, building to a definitely nonmetaphoric act of corporate throat-cutting.

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De Palma starts out by mimicking the cool, stand-offish style of Corneau, who drank in the modernist chill of chicly minimalist interior décor, as fitting surroundings for people whose behaviour remains primal, but whose practice of sadism has moved with the times. Like Crime d’Amour, Passion pits a young rising corporate whiz, Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace), against her immediate superior, Christine (Rachel McAdams), in a battle of sex, will, and finally, lethal intrigue. Isabelle works as a mid-level concept monger at the Berlin office of a marketing firm, Koch Image International: although a relatively new hire at the company, Isabelle has become Christine’s right-hand woman. The duo, contemplating how to improve a clichéd marketing campaign the company has commissioned to advertise a new smartphone, are introduced happily getting tipsy in Christine’s apartment. When Christine’s lover Dirk (Paul Anderson) arrives, Isabelle absents herself, but awakens in the middle of the night with a terrific idea for an ad. She quickly calls in her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), and shoots a rough version of her idea, which she then presents to Christine: declaring her trust in Isabelle, Christine sends her in her stead to a meeting in London, accompanied by Dirk, where her ad seems to be a smashing success. Christine sinuously takes credit for the idea in hopes of landing a job at the company’s New York office, whilst assuring Isabelle there’s enough glory to go around.

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De Palma’s major tweaks to the film’s first half, which otherwise follows the patterns of Crime d’Amour’s plotline closely, are to build his narrative around the furtive power of images to expose and indulge sexual obsession. Isabelle’s gimmick for her ad is double-edged: Isabelle plays a young lesbian delighting in showing off her girlfriend’s behind in a pair of tight jeans, with Dani filling the denim out. With the Koch smartphone stuck in the back pocket, providing “ass-cam” as she walks down the street, Dani attracts the delighted and appraising eyes of men and women. This touch introduces one of De Palma’s signature motifs from as far back as his first theatrical release, Greetings (1968): voyeuristic desire mediated through media imaging, the doubled experience of observing and being observed, narcissism and exhibitionism engaged in a dance. The edge of lipstick-lesbian chic touted playfully in the ad has echoes of Isabelle and Christine’s slightly charged friendship, as well as Dani’s simmering desire for her boss. Dani herself has undergone a sex-change from Corneau’s film, where Isabelle’s assistant was a devoted, dronelike male, an apt joke in the battle of the neomatriarchy, with the more traditionally predatory male, Dirk, reduced to an increasingly pathetic patsy. Dirk and Isabelle commence an affair while in London, a development Christine seems to expect and one that gives her an excuse to start pulling the wings off her collection of butterflies. Having covered up Dirk’s embezzling from the company, she now manoeuvres to ensure his disgrace and arrest. Once Isabelle gets sneaky revenge by posting her raw original ad on YouTube, garnering the company a smash hit that suddenly makes Isabelle rather than Christine the new favourite for promotion, Christine begins a programme of intimate humiliation.

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De Palma’s fascination for the erotic element of cinema has always worked hand in hand with his explorations of human cruelty and perfidy, counterpointed with the search for safe harbour and human connection. Corneau and Carter reduced sex to a kind of side function of gamesmanship, an indulgence of basic physical need that, like other such needs, is mere addendum to the real business of profit and loss. For De Palma, it is the whole show, the drive underneath the other drives, but fatefully entangled with them. His casting shifts the grounding of the material considerably: Scott-Thomas, with her classy bone structure and capacity to radiate haughty disdain for lesser mortals, is somewhat older than Sagnier, with her Christine pitched somewhere between ruthless, destructive ice queen and aging wizard who’s exiled herself into a realm of isolating success, not yet paying the price as her physique holds up but sensing the bill’s in the post; the rivalry of the two women is therefore based as much in biological angst, the fear of the supplanting of the older by the younger, as it is in corporate ambition. Sagnier, who’s always looked younger than her years, was a more vulnerable-seeming Isabelle, whereas Rapace, most famous of course for playing the petite Valkyrie Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, stands toe to toe with McAdams, who first found fame playing a similar bitch-queen role in Mean Girls (2004): her Isabelle stands on a fine edge between neurotic self-destruction and pansexual übermensch. McAdams’ Christine is rather a smiling assassin, bordering on sickly-sweet in her charm and seductive approach, the spark of bi-fi magnetism between Christine and Isabelle becoming a hot flame, albeit one that is subordinated to Christine’s need to control or annihilate. She spins dramatic bullshit about her childhood that makes Isabelle partly forgive her until warned by Dirk about her propensity for saying and doing anything that will weaken her opponents.

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The closer ages of Rapace and McAdams also help enforce De Palma’s investigation of similarity edging constantly into doppelganger territory, another of the director’s favourite motifs, as characters can alternate identities and dramatic functions, like Nancy Allen’s hooker waking up from dreams of homicide in the bed of a murdered woman in the climax of Dressed to Kill (1980). Isabelle is fascinated and titillated to learn Christine’s peccadilloes through Dirk, opening a drawer to find her array of sex toys, including a fanciful Venetian mask based on Christine’s own face she occasionally has Dirk wear, a fetishistic totem of refined beauty that begins an inevitable journey to the point at which Isabelle will don the mask and annihilate her anima. The great ideal of physical love in human understanding is supposed to be the unity of two people in a transcendent moment, but De Palma has always suggested the logical end point of modern sexuality, with its layers of concept constructed by the act of looking, is a polarised schism of godlike voyeurism and perfect narcissism. Isabelle’s ad taunts as well as exploits, playing a lesbian enjoying showing off her girlfriend’s wondrous rump, sexually attracting whilst remaining off-limits to the gazing male.

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One quality of De Palma’s career that remains unique is that in spite of his advancing age, his thematic interests only seem to have become more relevant, to the point where it feels like he’s one of the very few filmmakers actually wrestling with one of the great aspects of the modern world: its saturation by media that can potentially turn every experience into an observed one, a perpetual loop of present-tense that is also past-tense, moment and document. Redacted dealt with his interest in the changes the digital age were wreaking in the bluntest of fashions, presenting the age of the War on Terror as a matrix of images, acts, and reactions. Passion does the same more obliquely, but as completely: no private or public act, Passion suggests, is now free of the lingering anxiety of being filmed and becoming a weapon to be turned against you.

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Both Christine and Isabelle reproduce this game in offering themselves as objects of worship and lust to get what they want, as Christine tries to seduce Isabelle as a replacement for Dirk as well as useful hireling, and Isabelle, in turn, plays on Dani’s very real crush on her to make Dani her accomplice. Meanwhile, Christine is in her garters and bodice, strutting around her apartment getting sloshed trying desperately to dig up someone to answer her booty call now that Dirk’s out and Isabelle’s unresponsive. In a pointed gesture, Isabelle, having switched from victim to impending avenger, suddenly calls the bluff on Christine’s constant blend of bullying and flirtation by kissing her with aggression, an act of seeming passion that is also very clearly a fuck-you. Christine instantly repurposes it to her own ends, however: aware that Dani has walked in, she then makes a show of kissing Isabelle more passionately. The film’s funniest self-commentary comes when Isabelle and Christine, still nominally pals, go to a fashion show at which one model falls flat on her face, her attempts to play the glamazon conqueror suddenly brought down with her lost composure and the upskirt shot. This moment proves to be the basic joke of the whole film, a concept of lacquered haute couture perfection that crumbles to reveal the human clumsiness and carnality within: the colossal, tottering heels the woman gawk at become symbols, literal big shoes they all have a stab at filling. Christine attempts to deliver a death blow to Isabelle’s self-esteem first by squeezing Dirk to produce a sex tape he made of himself and Isabelle in bed, and then broadcasting it over the net to Isabelle’s utter mortification. She then exhibits footage of Isabelle’s distraught response, crashing her car in the office block car park, captured on CCTV, as part of a supposedly humorous video played at a company party. Isabelle responds with a strange and lunatic laugh, and immediately seems to spiral into drug-dependent depression. Anyone used to De Palma’s visual style and grammar will spot the shift here with some amusement, as he veers away from reproducing Corneau’s stand-offish approach and goes to town in displays of purified De Palma.

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Isabelle and Christine’s master-pupil, Faustian rivalry easily evokes Swan and Winslow’s in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), exacerbated as Isabelle hovers outside Christine’s house, looking to penetrate it and gain revenge, whilst she herself is unwittingly captured by video, watcher becoming watched, lover/victim/killer seeking to assert power but becoming victim of another possessive force. Christine’s actual killing sees De Palma shifting into one of his most distinctive and striking conceits, presenting the unfolding action at Christine’s house in a split-screen effect alongside a performance of a ballet to Debussy’s Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faun, a gorgeously sensual dance in which the female dancer keeps her gaze locked much of the time on the audience/camera in a manner both intimate and challenging, a call to passion eternally out of reach for the voyeur. There’s a narrative purpose to this: Isabelle is supposed to be attending this performance when, in fact, she’s preparing to kill Christine. Its real purpose, however, is as another of De Palma’ patented, operatic, self-reflexive set-pieces, invoking, like the great opening of Femme Fatale (2001), a deeply aestheticized entwining of crime and art, false surfaces and genuine hurt arriving in turn. The dancer holds the eye of the audience/camera, inverting the idea in Isabelle’s ad, turning what’s surreptitious and leering into challenge and mirror. As Christine showers and prepares for what she thinks will be an erotic encounter, the dancers caress and sway, whilst Isabelle’s eyes peer out with lethal voyeuristic intent. An exquisitely art-directed act of butchery finally occurs, as Isabelle, wearing Christine’s mask, assails her, black giallo gloves gliding over her form, and Christine strips off her lace eye-veil, part of her kink, revelation and realisation that segues into murder.

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The main problems of Passion stem from its translation of Corneau’s film and De Palma’s half-hearted annexation of its actual storyline. Whereas the original offered a certain sly, dark humour and obliquely considered consequence in its resolution, De Palma deconstructs everything to the point where suspense and empathy are essentially rendered unimportant: Christine, Isabelle, Dirk, and Dani are all pretty loathsome, whilst the representatives of the law, a bullying prosecutor (Benjamin Sadler) and stern cop (Rainer Bock) who becomes smitten with Isabelle, are, ironically, increasingly castrated. Rapace feels faintly miscast as a victimised fawn with a neurotic psycho under the surface, though that might be a result of associating her too much with her canonical role. McAdams, on the other hand, seems best in key with the film’s sly-malicious tune, particularly when Christine tries to bully Dani by setting her up on a sexual assault charge, an apex of campy humour. De Palma loves reiterating that his characters and their plights are all inventions, variations on themes that can be suddenly turned in upon themselves, revised, sent into rewind, or erased altogether, usually with some moment of choice from which guilt or complicity, a nexus of consequence both for good and evil, is identified.

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De Palma’s films always teem with meta-narrative devices and implications, but just about the only occasion on which De Palma ever became overtly extra-narrative in his employment of this was in Body Double (1984), where an actor’s demand for a retake coincides with his resurgence from defeat by the villain. That film was also essentially a comedy, which Passion is, too, but a far more restrained and sour type. De Palma usually prefers to pass off his cinematic structural conceits as internal phenomena: dream sequences or chains of imagined consequence in the protagonist’s mind, which can then be safely revealed as bogus or tricks of perception so his films can retain their functionality as commercial cinema.

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But that’s the beauty and welcomeness of a new De Palma film that sees him returning to the overtly fetishistic, deeply stylised manner of his best work. In spite of the film’s weaknesses, Passion still offers the pleasure of a cinematic imagination based unashamedly in visual beauty and expressive technique, increasingly rare in modern film: the sensuous zooms that punctuate scenes like Dani spying on Dirk and Isabelle, the zeroing in of the frame capturing fulminating jealousy planted like a seed, and overhead shots that coolly turn humans into furnishings or chess pieces in analytical notation of strategy and intent. The tilted camera and onerous shadows that suddenly infuse the squeaky clean offices of Koch as Isabelle’s murder plot gathers pace, and workplace bitchery becomes mounting psychodrama. The spiral staircase of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926) and De Palma’s own precursors like Dressed to Kill recur as the stairwell in Isabelle’s apartment building transformed into an abstract pit of Hades, with a bouquet of blood-red roses hovering above nothingness. Colour design as lushly camp and exactingly psychologised as Douglas Sirk’s recurs throughout: indeed De Palma highlights the links of his film to a near-vanished class of melodrama based in such über-femme battles royale, a genre of which De Palma has often seemed to circle the edges. Dani, no longer a drone but encouraged to follow in Isabelle’s footsteps as a wily creature of predatory economics and sex, blackmails Isabelle into becoming her lover by revealing the evidence she has proving that Isabelle is the murderer, with footage of Isabelle setting up and committing the crime all captured on the very smartphone the two of them collaborated on to advertise.

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So Dani becomes the latest to exemplify De Palma’s general, well-established fascination for the theme of individuals who, for whatever reason, are obsessed with another and wish to assert control over, first established by William Finley’s fruitcake psychiatrist in Sisters (1973), and then in many variations since: whether for sex, love, politics, power, De Palma delights and detests this vaguely osmotic process apparent in human desire and will. De Palma has also often refused to spare certain character types usually left untouched in the morality-play tradition underlying a lot of western drama. Isabelle becomes Christine; Dani becomes Isabelle, and the dance begins again, except that Isabelle’s fragmenting psyche proves a joker in the deck. The film’s last act is a series of absurd, dreamy sleights of hand that sees De Palma at last return to the kind of high-style expressionism that punctuates his career, as in the finale of Dressed to Kill and the infinitely rebootable realities of Raising Cain (1992), entering a loopy multiplication of doppelgangers, repeating events, and murder: Isabelle is shocked to see Christine at her own funeral, but this is instead Christine’s twin sister, an image of chic mystery, who stalks her way toward a reckoning with Isabelle, whilst Isabelle and Dani are locked in a death struggle over the smartphone where one click is literally all that’s necessary to destroy her, a perpetual sword of Damocles that finally drives Isabelle mad. De Palma fans will spot the last-act fake-out a mile off, as dream enfolds reality and imagined retribution shades into actual brutality: the sleeper awakens, the dream ends, but the body lying on the bedroom floor is very real.


18th 05 - 2012 | 7 comments »

Suspicion (1941)

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Paroma Chatterjee

Welcome guest blogger Roma Chatterjee.

“Let me go! Let me go!” screams Lina right at the beginning of the radio play, Suspicion, made barely a year after the film. No introduction, no lead-up to the characters, no sense of place; just a woman shouting frantically at her assailant.

If the play darts straight to its point without wasting a minute, the film saunters along, gazing at the flowers, humming a tune, until it is surprised (repeatedly) by dark shadows on its ambles. We meet Lina and Johnny on a train, at a hunt, at Lina’s house, and on the way to a church, until we get to those climactic words, “Let me go! Let me go!” The first 15 minutes or so of the film read suspiciously like a drawing – room comedy. The characters make small talk, pose for a local photographer, flirt on their way to church until, without the slightest warning, we cut to the top of a hill where a man and a woman seemingly struggle for dear life. Articles of clothing fly off, one after the other, and the fact that none of them denude the woman in the least, takes away nothing from the unexpected violence of the scene. The music, chirpily bucolic until this moment, soars and sustains its pitch, a suitable analogue to the height of the hill, and the goings-on on top of it.

Barely a minute later – nay, less – the struggle is over. The man teases the woman with talk (again, of the small variety). We are back in the realm of light comedy. There is an infinitesimal moment when the comic threatens to shade into something more richly erotic a la Hitchcock, when Lina says that Johnny “need not touch” her “ucipital mapilary”, but the moment is undone no sooner than it begins. Johnny blithely messes with (and messes up) Lina’s hair, and that is that.

Why would Hitchcock, for whom every scene counted, insert such ostensibly superfluous business in this film? Oh, one could argue that each moment, no matter how inconsequential, only adds yet another nuance to Johnny’s superbly insouciant amorality, that each scene goes toward heightening the layers of suspicion that surround and threaten to overwhelm Lina in the second half. And yet the gravity of the “light” episodes in Suspicion are still worth some thought. In no other picture did Hitchcock extend these as much. No other work of his, to my mind, teeters so precariously on the line between mild comedy and full-blown drama.

And, I suggest, that that is part of the very suspense generated by Suspicion. This suspense does not simply consist of us, the audience, wondering with Lina how much farther Johnny will go – whether he’ll cross the milestone from cheating at cards to mercenary seduction, from confidence-trick(st)-ing to embezzlement, from embezzlement to murder. It is also the audience wondering when the cinematic codes capturing each of those misdemeanours will shift, when a melody played by an orchestra will become a tune, whistled nonchalantly – and with a touch of menace – by a feckless young man, when a bland churchyard peopled by worthy parishioners will transform itself into a windswept hill with a couple, fiercely locked, at its summit.

Suspicion reiterates this effect constantly. In the process, it triggers off suspense even in those arenas of life that do not, on the surface, seem to merit it. Right up until Lina elopes with Johnny, suspense resides in whether Johnny will ever call Lina again, if he’ll ever write to her (remark the scene in which Lina keeps asking the postmistress if there’s a letter for her, if it has been misplaced), if he even remembers her. Suspense animates, if in a rather more humorous vein, the story Johnny will come up with to explain the disappearance of those priceless chairs that are Lina’s family heirlooms. There is an interesting and surely deliberate resemblance between this scene and an earlier one in Lina’s father’s study, when Lina and Johnny run away from the ball. When they kiss, the camera moves from their left profile all the way to their right. It doesn’t envelope the lovers completely; it merely offers us both sides of that osculatory exchange. It is the only prolonged kiss between the two in the entire film – a strange phenomenon, as Lina is passionately in love with Johnny in every sense of that word, and Hitch was certainly not one to shy away from exploring erotic obsession. But this picture doesn’t delve deep in that sphere.

There’s a point to that lone, long kiss, nonetheless. When his foolishly amiable friend Beak, goads Johnny into telling him and Lina what happened to those chairs, Johnnie is shown moving from the mantelpiece on the right in a half-sphere toward the left, behind the sofa. It is the other half of the sphere described by the camera during their kiss, its delayed counterpart, if you will. In both cases, Lina and Johnny are accompanied by a third person, even though the dramatic content of the scene involves just the two of them. (In the case of the kiss, they are constantly surveyed by the portrait of Lina’s father in full military regalia.) As Johnny moves, the audience can literally see him trying to decide whether to evade the question of the chairs altogether or whether to come up with a lie so thumpingly good as to be applauded as the truth. This is the cross Johnny bears throughout the picture – he is continuously being put on the spot as a performer. Being a good liar takes skill and patience, after all, for his story must convince.

If Johnny’s persuasive powers (including his innate charm) are constantly put to the test against Lina’s burgeoning suspicions, then Lina herself is measured against her doubts. How well does she bear up under them? What does an ever-thickening mist of suspicion literally do to a person?

In Lina’s case, one cannot help but notice that for all her inner anguish, she looks better for them. Clothes, especially female apparel, was stuff that Hitchcock took seriously. In the second half of Suspicion, Lina looks every bit the belle of the ball. Her clothes get darker (she is in mourning for her father), and her figure is more pronounced. Her evening dress when she puts together the word, “M-U-R-D-E-R-E-R”, is magnificent – simple, sophisticated, and with a very low, very elegant neck. I was tempted to ask upon my fourth or fifth viewing whether Lina deliberately made up this fantasy of a scoundrel-spouse precisely so it would enhance her attractions. It is almost as though Hitch is suggesting that suspense – living with it, responding to its shadows – can make us sexier! Not a bad campaigning point for one whose livelihood was based on it.

And speaking of sexy, what are we to make of the fact that Lina wears reading glasses? This certainly doesn’t impede Johnny from flirting with her, though she hastily tears them off when he shows up at her house. All through the narrative, when she must read a telegram, a newspaper, or a letter, Lina looks at the piece of paper, adjusts its distance somewhat, then fumbles for her glasses. The few seconds that it takes for Lina’s sense of vision to come through, clear and unobstructed, correspond to the sudden changes of register from the comic to the dramatic that punctuate the entire picture. A telegram turns out to be an entirely unexpected missive from Johnny that draws Lina out of the depths of depression into ecstatic expectancy; an innocuous newspaper sows the seeds of suspicion that Johnny murdered Beaky; a mundane letter from the insurance company convinces Lina that she will be Johnny’s next victim. The reading glasses thus become instruments signaling a series of vital changes in the narrative, never mind if some of the changes they effect are erroneous perceptions on Lina’s part.

Which brings me to the final coup of the film: the ride in the car when Lina fears that Johnny will somehow push her over the precipice. (As a friend of mine commented, the “chaser” and self-proclaimed “chase-ee” occupy the same space and the same shot here, quite cozily, even though one of them is terrified out of her wits). When it comes to these sweeping vistas – the top of the hill, the steep drop to the sea below, the winding roads – Lina doesn’t require her glasses. She isn’t called upon to read anything, though she does, insistently and maniacally. She spins her own narrative parallel to the one that is being played out, reading the various signs her life with Johnny have thrown at her. The original ending, of course, revealed that Lina’s made-up narrative coincided perfectly with the “real-life” narrative, that Johnnie was indeed a merry ladykiller. Although the ending of Suspicion as we know it today is a let-down, I’d suggest that in one (albeit feeble) way, it maintains a marvelous spring of tension: it carries Lina’s obsessive “reading” to the point where she manages, for a few moments, to force the “real life” story to coincide with the one in her head. She actually almost falls out of the car, with no help from Johnny.

What follows are the weakest moments of an otherwise quite brilliant and unexpected narrative. Can the “happy ending” be attributed to yet another twist of the plot? Can we read it as the “ever-after” for Lina and Johnny, the two basking in mutual trust and assistance for the rest of their lives? Or is this a brief hiatus that will transmute into another series of suspicions?

I prefer to believe it is the latter.


13th 05 - 2012 | 14 comments »

Vertigo (1958)

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


7th 01 - 2012 | 4 comments »

Marnie (1964)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Roderick Heath

Alfred Hitchcock’s career, after a wane in the late ’40s, gathered new steam in 1951 with Strangers on a Train, and for the next decade or so, his creative zest and cinematic brilliance seemed practically limitless. His exploits came within his official brief as the “Master of Suspense” and yet often, both covertly and overtly, tested those limits, setting and overcoming challenges of form, tone, technique, and substance even before gaining a strange, but harmless and even encouraging boost from a new generation of young French critic-filmmakers. All that seemed to come to an abrupt halt in 1964 with Marnie, an awkwardly received work that became a battleground for auteurists and their enemies. All involved came out somewhat battered.

For Hitchcock himself, the experience seemed to cause a creative crisis, and except for the coldly beautiful, maliciously funny Frenzy (1972), his final works display the hit-and-miss tone and intent of effect that characterised his lesser, earlier work. Perhaps age and the uncertainties of the suddenly permissive, authenticity-craving zeitgeist began to catch up with him; or perhaps, as some have said, Hitchcock finally let his perpetual actress crushes get the best of him on the set of Marnie, where he fell out with leading lady Tippi Hedren, who had been carried over from The Birds (1963) after an abortive attempt to get Grace Kelly to return to filmmaking. His powerhouse technical crew also began to disintegrate after its release; he lost his editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Robert Burks, and composer Bernard Herrmann ended their epochal partnership after his score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain (1966), was rejected as uncommercial.

Whatever truths pop psychology and industry rumour can extract from the situation can’t match the evidence of Marnie itself, that it is one of his most personal, intense, fervent films and one where he tried to finally bust out of the role of Master of Suspense. Marnie is essentially an expressionist romantic melodrama rather than a thriller, boiling down many of his basic themes to a basic dialogue of suspicion and passion, transgression and forgiveness. Hitchcock’s least generic film since The Trouble with Harry (1956), but also an antithesis of that film’s deceptively flip aesthetic, Marnie’s declarative style echoes through the contemporary cinema of Lynch, Almodovar, Argento, Scorsese, De Palma, and many others, and noncinematic visual artists, too, indicating the degree to which he succeeded in laying out his most electrified images in a purified visual language. That language is largely one of raw iconography, often imitated, even fetishized, yet rarely reproduced coherently: the yellow handbag with which Marnie (Tippi Hedren) spirits away her loot in the first shot, the enormous close-up of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) searching for her bright red lips in a moment of electric fear and passion, the equally huge close-up of her hand clutching a revolver as she shoots her beloved horse Florio, the repeating motifs that combine basic Freudianism with the axiomatic power of images.

Adapted from Winston Graham’s novel by Jay Presson Allan with the customarily loose approach of the Hitchcock development phase, Marnie is in some ways a gender-switch remake of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Marnie is nonetheless also a deeply ironic film that sets out purposefully to pull apart multiple forms of institution—family, sex, marriage, business and social hierarchies, even the authoritarianism of psychiatry itself—and recompose them in new, distorted shapes.

Marnie Edgar herself seems both the chicest and the most dedicatedly duplicitous of Hitchcock blondes, but that is an illusion: she’s really from a poor Southern family, scion of hellfire religion and seamy rendezvous. Marnie is almost always the smartest person in the room and yet crippled by a powerful compulsion that sees her use up her talents and intelligence in repetitive, nominally profitable, but essentially pointless crimes. The audience, as so often in Hitchcock, is invited into complicity with her crimes, her satisfaction in ripping off the smug, bottom-pinching paternalists of the American business class and showing up their frauds, incompetence, and self-satisfaction. Who is her first and most troublesome victim in the film? A man named Strutt (Martin Gabel). She pays an early visit to her mother Bernice (Louise Latham) carrying the treasure from her latest assault, only to be driven insanely jealous by her mother’s affection for a young urchin, Jessie (Kimberly Beck), and Bernice’s dislike of being touched by her daughter, who begs her mother for any kind of physical affection with the exposed pathos of a child. Psycho’s silhouetted, looming maternal figure is here still alive and quietly torturing with inchoate love, standing over Marnie’s bed as she’s stricken with nightmares from a childhood incident she can’t remember yet obsesses over. Marnie is clearly a fractured mess contained by the trappings of the Hitchcock blonde, making it Hitchcock’s most overt deconstruction of his figure of obsession. Marnie’s misanthropy and frigidity, enacted through her gratifying raids, fascinates and entices Mark, knowing full well who and what she is, after her robbery of his business associate Strutt.

Hitchcock’s jokiness always had a peculiar habit of concealing notions of discomforting profundity, and here the narrative is sustained by a restlessly clever conflation of human behaviour with zoology, a pragmatic and amoral science that balances and rivals the medical psychotherapeutic conceits with its specifically human constructs and egocentric world view (and also inevitably invoking the animal motifs of Psycho and the avian apocalypse of The Birds). This idea is introduced as Rutland’s essential interest, a form of thought which codifies his worldview of the predatory, yet frustrated, alpha male. Mark himself is a contradictory figure, a nerd forced into the role of business tycoon to protect the prosperity of his American Brahmin family. The notion of Mark being as quietly entrapped in his own, specifically masculine way as the more overtly neurotic, yet hardly more perverse Marnie is a significant substrata to the film’s psychic drama: if Marnie is near-fatally afflicted not only with profound childhood trauma, but also corrosively retrograde concepts of morality, Mark Rutland seems to be an almost purified edition of the era’s version of playboy male—aggressive, darkly charming (played by James Bond himself), entitled, and conquering. Mark’s approach to Marnie, engaging in what is basically a form of sexual and emotional blackmail with Marnie in a desire to satisfy his taste for an exotic female specimen, blends confusedly with his actual affection and interest in her, an affection that becomes mediated and complicated through an interminable array of defence mechanisms and biological instincts.

Marnie’s credits announce a literary motif as the names are presented printed on turning pages, an almost satirical touch, as if Hitchcock was delving back into the era of the oppressively vulgar romanticism of former patron David Selznick and classic Hollywood. But the romanticism is also very real, if livid in its perversity, and the film’s opening moments—Marnie, seen from behind, stalking a railway concourse carrying that yellow bag, and then a jump-cut to Strutt’s angry exclamation of “Robbed!” immediately clarifying the strange importance of the bag and the mysterious figure—represent formally arranged cinema at its height, brusquely free of the literary. This segues into a ritualised shift of identities, with Marnie switching Social Security cards hidden in her compact in a marvelous conjunction of practical trick and metaphor for the immutable impersonality of femininity, washing the black dye from her hair, and dropping the first of the film’s many talismanic keys to the bus station locker where she abandons her most recent alternate guise. One major structural difference between Marnie and other Hitchcock films is in the final melding of the figure of the ice-cool woman of mystery and the fearful fugitive, usually a male character who at some stage becomes captor or captive to the female. Whereas early films in the canon like The 39 Steps (1935) mediate the idea of being at the mercy of a criminal with humour, here the motif is explored in disturbing ways through a situation where the relationship allows neither character unsullied dignity nor freedom from culpability.

After her robberies, Marnie always rides her beloved horse Florio (“If you must bite someone, Florio, bite me!”) with all its ripe suggestions of adolescent sublimation. Marnie’s guises enable her status as a subversive agent without a cause within the structure of contemporary society, but they soon prove ineffective armour against the world, and the relentless male gaze of Hitchcock and his protagonists: “Stare,” Marnie spits in response to a word-association game Mark plays with her, “And that’s what you do!” Such a tantalising surface must be shattered. Only the forces that compel that shattering largely come from within Marnie herself rather than Russian spies or harassing police, but still Rutland, like many (usually female, sometimes equally malevolent) Hitchcock protagonists before him, becomes accomplice and protector, persecutor and lover to the fugitive. Rutland’s half-protective, half-greedy entrapment of Marnie becomes then the overture for a perverted inversion of the rituals of marriage and social courtship laced with acidic import, as the narrative moves through a quickie wedding, a first honeymoon night that turns into an oppressive disaster, a sexual encounter that grazes rape and concludes with a suicide attempt (“The idea was to drown myself, not feed the damn fish!”), and finally a return home whereupon Rutland coaches Marnie sarcastically in the arts of respectable cohabitation and newlywed rituals: “This is the drill, dear—wife follows husband to front door, gives and/or gets a kiss, stands pensively as he drives away…”

Later, Marnie is inducted into the ritual of hosting a party, where she’s almost driven to flee by the sight of Strutt, invited with malicious intent by Mark’s sister-in-law Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker). Rarely was Hitchcock’s sense of sarcastic humour and utter contempt for domestic institutions so sharp as in such scenes. This is the marriage role-playing stage of Rear Window’s (1954) many windows, replayed through a more immediate, torturous prism. Whilst the film thoroughly validates Freudianism, it proffers an intense distrust of official interventions and authority: the psychiatrist Marnie sees in the novel is conflated with Mark himself, whose amateur tilt at the art is blended in multifarious, dangerous, but also more personal and crucial ways. Marnie meets Mark’s attempts to tease psychoanalytic self-recognition out of her with equal contempt in a moment that recalls the similarly inquisitorial courtships of The Birds: “You Freud – me Jane?” The old gag, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” here is rewritten as, just because Marnie knows that she’s criminally neurotic, doesn’t mean she’s wrong to want to invert the power relations backed up by ever-present hints of brute, vindictive force that surround her.

Marnie’s sequential set-pieces are far less expansive and spectacular than in the likes of North by Northwest (1959) or even Psycho (1960), and yet represent exercises in technique and symphonic emotion just as bravura and compelling for the attentive viewer. Mark and Marnie’s relationship, which bobs to the surface first when she is sent into an animalistic frenzy by the electric brightness and saturating red of a thunderstorm, retreating to writhe against the office door in proto-orgasmic panic, attracting Mark to embrace her in an intimate moment that resolves in that colossal kiss, a moment that seems to represent an absolute reduction of one aspect of the cinema just as surely as the shower murder of Psycho. The next climax, Marnie robbing the Rutland and Co. safe, builds from the moment Rutland steals away with Marnie into a corner of the family mansion’s stables to kiss her in a moment of supposedly illicit passion, with Marnie playing along whilst keeping her mind on her upcoming theft as the price she will exact. This moment of covert retreat jumps almost immediately to the image of Marnie hiding within a toilet cubicle, waiting in the semi-dark for the office women to retreat and leave her to her peculiar, solitary form of sexual release. The actual heist makes a Jules Dassin-esque use of silence, as a cleaning lady strays unperceived into Hitchcock’s coolly framed widescreen cage as Marnie does her deed, and she strips her shoes off to make a getaway, only for one to fall with calamitous volume to the floor.

Only the cleaning lady’s lousy hearing saves Marnie, but her seemingly clean getaway is abruptly ruined when Marnie’s customary post-heist fling on Florio is interrupted by Mark’s appearance, now the glowering force of male vindictiveness, or so it seems at first, before Mark’s actual, far stranger program becomes apparent. The image of Joan Fontaine’s repressed intellectual in Suspicion (1941) reading a book on child psychology whilst keeping one eye on the gorgeous threat of Cary Grant is soon inverted, as Mark peers over the edge of a book on seashore animals into Marnie’s bedroom, with sex on his mind. He releases his frustration on Marnie, tearing off her skirt, then bundling her guiltily with his bathrobe: the switchbacks here between desire and hate, protectiveness and lust, violation and embrace, nakedness and protective layering, are articulated with stunning rapidity. Marnie’s wide, dead eyes and Mark’s predatory gaze form a dialogue of primal sensation, completely at odds and yet locked in a dying fall onto the bed. It’s one of the most brilliant, disturbing, multifaceted moments in movie history, and one that has links to the much simpler and yet so similar moment in Hitchcock’s first mature film, The Lodger (1926), in which the frame is filled with Ivor Novello’s face looming upon the camera in the act of a kiss, an image of both love and fear, threat and affection.

Hitchcock’s style, which always seems so singular as to be sui generis, actually represents a weird and fascinating blend of the two basic approaches to cinema: he learned from Fritz Lang and the Munich filmmakers under whom he served an apprenticeship a form of expressionism and symbolism, one in which his interest in psychology readily found release, and yet he was also a fundamental realist in the British school, anticipating aspects of neorealism in work like Shadow of a Doubt (1943) in his way of observing specific detail and utilising milieu. His later films offer a violently eclectic technique, and that’s true enough in Marnie, a deeply stylised film, full of grandiose shots that show off their inauthenticity but only for the sake of enriching the film’s emotional palate and elemental drama. Such tricks range from the hugely looming, oppressive ship that sits moored at the end of Bernice’s street, to the thunder clouds that hang over the Rutland and Co. offices, presaging the storm that will soon break on both physical and psychological planes. The film resolves into overtly expressionistic alternations of drained colour and sudden, violent hues and the interplay of the present and past screaming faces of Marnie, beholding the horror of her accidental homicide, practically begging for Edvard Munch’s scream to be added to the montage. Whilst it’s tempting to admit Hitchcock’s effects get too bluntly, even cornily declarative in places, like the in-and-out zoom that punctuates Marnie’s final robbery and the rush of unlocked symbols in the finale, it’s still important to recognise their place in the film’s final idealisation of image not simply as a picture but as an expressive device.

It’s taken me a long time to come around to Hedren, but lately I can’t take my eyes off her on screen, as what Hitchcock saw in her seems plainer. In comparison to his great triumvirate of female stars, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly, Hedren was much less subtle, but also had both a febrile intensity under the simpering cool, and a precise type of aggression, a spiky hauteur the other three usually rounded off. This quality works especially well here, an edge that comes out in Marnie’s bitterly self-aware humour and her serpentine defensiveness when cornered: she could alternate between softness and hardness with precise timing. Although by logical standards oddly cast as an American Brahmin, Connery is simply marvelous in one of his best performances, capturing Mark’s natural imperiousness and delight in game hunting with eruptions of shame and tenderness. Herrmann’s score is one of his most lush, irradiating the images with a swooning sense of yielding desire and unfettered feeling, which the characters constantly stymie. It’s easy to see why Hitchcock’s style has had such a deep impact on queer aesthetics and artists, with his immediate sense of illicit passion, unease, and duplicitous surfaces. It’s tempting enough to read the tale of Marnie as that of a closeted lesbian, which would probably be the first reflex of a modern analysis, as, like the heroine of Rebecca (1940), she practically trembles with the constant threat/invitation of being recognised/outed.

Baker’s marvellously supine Lil evokes Suzanne Pleshette’s antipathetic brunette Annie Heyworth in The Birds as one who stands as a nominal rival for the affections of the hero. Whereas Pleshette was easier to read in her affectations as an embodiment of same-sex attraction, Lil is more a quietly murderous sprite, an example of a younger generation for whom the weaknesses of the older are invitation to cruel sport. The grand climactic scenes of Marnie come somewhat before the actual finale’s perfervid revelations, as Marnie, made nervous by Lil’s plot to spring Strutt on her, and with Mark trying to strike a bargain with him, joins a fox hunt. She registers the laughter of the hunters and the jollity of the blood sport as a specific psychic anticipation of her own destruction, and flees, chased by Lil until she tries to make Florio jump a brick wall, the horse smashing its rear legs and sending Marnie tumbling head over heels. The interplay of editing and shooting here, ranging from helicopter shots to close-ups that feel like comic book frames in their illustrative quality, is as amazing as any of Hitch’s vaunted scenes, and the pungent emotionalism of Marnie, bedraggled and hysterical, begging a farm woman for a pistol to shoot her beloved steed, and angrily shoving aside the pleading Lil (“Haven’t you killed enough today?”) to deliver the coup de grace.

Mercy killing of her most beloved creature segues into thievery as Marnie, almost entirely unhinged though back in her near-catatonic state, tries to rob the Rutland mansion’s safe, but with her paralysing psychological blocks now preventing her from taking the money. Mark determines to drive her to the showdown with her mother that will finally unveil the base trauma that has caused her compulsions and phobias. That finale tries to pack a little too much into one scene, but the completeness of Marnie’s devolution is remarkable, as she’s reduced to a childish state, whilst Mark finally achieves the authority he’s always sought, ripping away the bandage of forgetfulness Bernice had thankfully idealised as a gift from god, relieving not only Marnie from guilt but also herself from her past. Marnie escapes the total collapse and rot that finally cocoons Norman Bates, the death wish of Vertigo’s Madeleine/Vicky, and the collapse of The Birds’ Melanie Daniels, Marnie’s immediate psychic ancestors. And that, perhaps, is truly why Marnie feels like the end of something.


12th 09 - 2011 | 11 comments »

Hanna (2011)

Director: Joe Wright

By Roderick Heath

On a desolate plain at a forest’s edge, caked in polar snow, an aptly primeval scene unfolds: a fur-clad hunter aims to bring down a reindeer for food. Skewering it with an arrow, the hunter, revealed to be an adolescent girl, says apologetically over the animal’s collapsed, slow-expiring body, “I just missed your heart.” The girl is Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), and with her utterance, the film immediately segues to her name emblazoned on the screen in big Godardian white-on-red letters. Hanna is being raised in a remote cabin in a state of complete removal from a modern world that hovers about the edges of this still-wild and ahistorical zone: when she sees an aircraft fly low overhead, Hanna screams in ecstatic fear.

Hanna’s father, former American-employed German spy Erik Heller (Eric Bana), has trained her in everything from martial arts to speaking dozens of languages, and given her a complete, if purely abstract knowledge of the outside world thanks to reading encyclopaedias to her every night. Slowly, the reasons behind this strange upbringing emerge. Erik is keeping Hanna secret from the world, and specifically, from ferocious CIA bigwig Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Erik digs up and presents to Hanna a transmitting device that will, if set in operation, draw American special forces down on them. Because Erik knows that they will have no chance of surviving out there in the world, Hanna’s very first act in the world of modern humans must be to grow up in an instant and undertake Marissa’s murder.

On the face of it, Hanna sounds like a remake of Kick-Ass (2010), divested of comic book satire to concentrate on the dissonant notion of a lethal teenage girl at large in a world completely at odds with her alien perspective. It also represents a jarring U-turn for Joe Wright, in seeming determination to leave behind period and prestige flick affectations. Since Wright culled a surprising gem from the hoariest of source material for his cinematic debut, 2005’s fleet-footed and beguiling Pride and Prejudice, he’s been emerging as a worthy rival for fellow Brit Michael Winterbottom as a metamorphic stylist, suggesting great talent, yet without quite nailing a great film. Atonement (2007), in spite of excellent scenes and casting, struggled to overcome the limitations of its own source material in remoulding litterateur pizzazz as tragic epic, and The Soloist (2009) didn’t find much of the Oscar favour it seemed to court.

The result of this boundary pushing is Wright’s best film to date, a flashy, visually inventive, fiercely controlled and stylised piece of utterly contemporary cinema—even if it does in its way pay tributes to pulp and pop art of the past—amazingly layered and moving at a lightning pace. Hanna doesn’t seek to subvert genre so much as twist it to its own purpose, simultaneously aspiring to evoke mythical mystique, political fable, and gritty action flick with an edge of cinematic freebasing. The eerie, yet warmly intimate qualities of the opening scenes segue into a curious, magic-realist portrait of life on Earth, in which Hanna sees everything imbued with secret beauty and delirious strangeness. Berber washerwomen, camel traders, flamenco artists, clubbing young Euro hipsters, punks, and magicians form a sprawl of humanity who, as seen through Hanna’s eyes, seem genuinely, blessedly peculiar and all the more real because she’s literally seeing them for the first time.

On a basic level, Hanna works similarly to the Jason Bourne series with its super-skilled protagonist keeping a step ahead of the forces of neofascism, and yet it’s closer in some ways to Being There (1979) or Bad Boy Bubby (1991), delighting in its heroine’s complete innocence to all experience,while simultaneously being a deadly weapon who can kill without blinking. Hanna has distinct links to an increasing contemporary strain of pseudo-thriller, using the structure of the globe-trotting actioner to expose the simultaneous fragmentation and openness of the modern world, full of beauties and terrors almost unaware of each other’s existence.

The Godardian pretence of the title card is not unjustified: like the New Wavers in their early work, Wright takes genre material and twists it with visual invention and thematic radicalism. Marissa, ensconced in a citadel of technological imperialism, contrasts the peripatetic world of hippies and good-time teens where Hanna finds herself once she escapes Marissa’s clutches. Erik’s plan was for Hanna to be captured, and when taken to Marissa, kill her before escaping and making her way to a rendezvous in Germany. Hanna pulls this off, but she mistakenly snaps the neck of a decoy (Michelle Dockery) sent into Hanna’s cell as a stand-in for the Texan-accented redhead. The escape is a feverishly staged sequence in which The Chemical Brothers’ terrific pulsating score infuse Wright’s trippy images, the lighting effects and polymorphic environs reminiscent of the likes of the original The Prisoner TV series, whilst offering strange overscaled sets and wild edits evocative of Orson Welles, an influence which is again suggested in a fight in a shipping terminal reminiscent of Confidential Report (1956), and in the very finale, a death-duel in a rundown amusement park that calls to mind The Lady from Shanghai (1946).

Hanna seems such an unstoppable rogue that one agent lets her shut him in his locker, and she finally, in a moment that evokes the end of THX-1138 (1971), emerges from the secret base to find herself in the midst a Moroccan desert. Hanna’s herculean physicality allows her to flee on the underside of a Hummer, finally finishing up in the middle of nowhere, only to meet garrulous British teen Sophie (Jessica Barden) and her kid brother Miles (Aldo Maland). They’re travelling with their counterculture flame-keeper parents Rachel (Olivia Williams) and Sebastian (Jason Flemyng), on a camping journey, and Hanna sneaks into their van to make the journey across into Spain.

Hanna’s voyage of discovery is imbued with a sense of personal wonder, as Wright brilliantly manages to pack the film with a physical lustre that captures Hanna’s essential naivete, in spite of her fearsome capacities. Hanna is a genuine primitive in the sense that she has all the gifts required for survival and absolutely no sense of the corruption in the human world: she is simultaneously completely open and utterly indestructible. Wright constructs a strikingly orchestrated little scene in which Hanna, who is not familiar with any kind of technology, spends a night in a grotty Moroccan hotel room where all the manifestations of the electricity-run world vibrate with menace and rapture. A boiling electric kettle seems to contain demons, the telephone won’t obey the remote control like the television does, and Hanna, who has been curious about music, having never actually heard it, hears it for the first time on a TV station playing Arabic vibes. She’s used to surviving off the land, and so drinks water from a hotel swimming pool, and stuns her hippie adopters by catching and slapping down before them some freshly skinned rabbits for breakfast. Hanna has carefully memorised personal details for a life she hasn’t lived as taught to her by Erik, which she emits in a ready stream when provoked, but beyond this, she has only a distinctive mix of guileless purity and an honesty so total, even the determinedly alternative Rachel and Sebastian are stunned when she answers Rachel’s question about how her mother died: “three bullets.”

Hanna forms a friendship with Sophie and Miles in spite of the Brit girl’s lippy adolescent sarcasm, venturing out together to a Spanish party with boys, leading to Hanna’s first encounter with a member of the opposite sex. It finishes up with her pummelling him into submission when he’s just about to kiss her. “Should I let him go?” she asks Sophie, who retorts, “As opposed to what?” The stirring erotic edge to life freaks Hanna out right at the point where lips touch, registering the frisson of attraction as electric danger, but later, in a moment reminiscent of the sisterly under-the-covers moments of Pride and Prejudice, she kisses Sophie in an innocent fashion, which nonetheless seems subtly charged with a new awareness of physical proximity and intimacy.

Part of the pleasure of Hanna is that it evokes multiple levels of narrative awareness and texture without belabouring any of it: it’s a road movie, a coming-of-age comedy, a walloping action flick, a psychedelic-tinged satire, an existential fairytale. It’s also impossible to shake its political overtones as a dig at the worst excesses of the War on Terror, as Wright tries to portray the porous nature of the modern world where greatly different cultures are just a few hours’ drive apart, all humming with the same multitudinous vibrancy; the possibility of living “off the map” as Erik has managed undercuts fantasies of total control. At one point, a scrawled graffiti message takes a dig at “One Nation Under CCTV,” calling to mind the agitprop methods of Lindsay Anderson. The story is arguably a parable for how secrecy and violence tend to breed blowback; Hanna is the living embodiment of Marissa’s attempt to get the genie back in the bottle. At the same time, Hanna is clearly never intended to be realistic, taking on a wilfully fantastic quality at points as Hanna defies human limitations; Wright seems to enjoy the sight of the willowy-haired, petite blonde beating the crap out of guys far larger than herself. There’s actually a clever reason for this, as there finally proves to be a science-fiction element to the story: Hanna is not Erik’s daughter at all, but the result of genetic research to produce a superhuman, research Marissa tried to erase, but managing only to kill Erik’s fellow agent Johanna Zadek (Vicky Krieps).

In a touch more definitely reminiscent of John Le Carré, Marissa has to play a risky game trying to stall the CIA, and hires sleazy German nightclub manager and assassin Isaacs (Tom Hollander) because she has to keep her own secrets. Isaacs runs a nightclub/brothel, and he announces to Marissa that his new star dancer has “male and female genitalia,” part of his proud efforts to give people what they want. Hollander must have enjoyed being cast as a nasty bugger with a hands-on approach to violence, as Isaacs and his two goons stalk Hanna from Morocco to Germany, parading around like evil clowns ready to beat and bash information out of the British family. Wright and the screenplay by Seth Lochhead and David Farr make overt references throughout Hanna to Grimm Brothers’ tales (a popular motif in this year’s movies), casting Hanna as an all-action Gretel or Snow White to Marissa’s wicked stepmother/evil witch: the code message that Hanna sends to Erik to confirm she killed Marissa reads, “The witch is dead,” and in the finale, Marissa strides from within the maw of a giant fake wolf’s head. Wright stages one of his now-familiar epic tracking shots when Erik arrives in Germany. Bana strides through a bus station as Marissa’s spooks lurk in readiness to corner him, finally converging on him in an underground car-park where Erik unleashes his tremendous survival skills and bests his attackers in a dazzling blend of showmanship from actors and camera operators, with a little tweaking from the FX guys too.

It’s a little bit disconcerting to see two Aussies—Bana and Blanchett—playing a German and a Texan in an international action thriller. Bana delivers one of his best bits of acting since hitting the big time, a pithy and stripped-back performance evoking his part in Munich (2005), barren of all idealism and hope whilst clinging to steely purpose. Blanchett plays a perfect inversion to her villainess in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and is at her most menacing and technically impressive in a sequence in which she appears in the apartment of Johanna’s mother (Gudrun Ritter) and carries on a long conversation entirely in German before shooting the old woman in the back of the head with wintry calm. There’s a terrific scene late in the film in which Erik almost corners Marissa in her hotel room: Wright offers a grimly funny and well-framed shot as in the foreground Marissa talks on the phone with Erik, the penny dropping that he’s just outside a moment before his bullets smack through the door and take out her deputy. Marissa, floundering on the floor as Erik riddles the room with bullets and starts kicking the door in, is momentarily huddled in shock with her gun in a recess, before commanding herself, “Move!” and fleeing the room.

But the film belongs to Ronan, whom Wright discovered for Atonement. She pulls off Hanna’s lack of hatefulness even when shooting and cracking bones, whilst mindful that innocence can have a blithe viciousness to it. When Erik finally does battle with Isaacs and his two goons, who resemble rejects from a skinhead oompa band, it happens in a children’s park in the midst of a council estate littered with postindustrial detritus, redolent of modern history’s conflicts reduced to a playground squabble, as the men viciously beat each other to pieces. Marissa performs a coup de grace on Erik, who, answering her bewildered question, “Why now?” replies, “Kids grow up.” The playground motif repeats when Marissa, skewered by an arrow fired her way by Hanna, ends up sliding down a slippery-dip before being put down in an Ourobouros repeat of the opening. Hanna is a product, punishment, and messiah of a new age, and her film could be the most aesthetically and thematically rich thriller of the year.


5th 09 - 2009 | 13 comments »

Sea of Love (1989)

Director: Harold Becker

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Do you remember
When we met
That’s the day
I knew you were my pet

Female serial killers are few and far between in the movies, but when they hit theatres, they usually create a sensation. Friday the 13th (1980) trafficked in the usual revenge-seeking psychokiller conception of a female serial killer; I Spit on Your Grave (1978) took the psycho part out of the equation, but still gave revenge as the main motive, as did 1983’s Sudden Impact. Basic Instinct (1992) blasted Sharon Stone and her crotch onto the Hollywood map, while enraging feminists, in general, and lesbians, in particular, for perpetuating the stereotype of the man-hating lesbian. Monster (2003), which tells the story of real-life killer Aileen Wournos, garnered Charlize Theron an Oscar for both a riveting performance and her willingness to hide her loveliness under piles of make-up; again, revenge and lesbianism are linked explicitly and implicitly to her murderous ways.

Then we have Sea of Love, a genuine oddity in the history of movie-making. Coming as a reverberating ripple from the tidal wave of second-wave feminism, it plays unironically with the possibility that a straight female is killing men.

Al Pacino plays Frank Keller, a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department who is facing a lonely, alcoholic retirement as a divorced and very unattached man. He is investigating a murder in a Manhattan apartment; a man has been found lying naked, face down on his own bed with a bullet in his head. He was discovered by his next-door neighbor who had come to complain about a recording of “Sea of Love” that had been playing in an endless loop on his old-fashioned turntable.

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Keller and Det. Gruber (Richard Jenkins)—husband of Keller’s ex-wife—have no real leads until Det. Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) comes to them with a similar case in Queens. They link the killings to a singles magazine and the fact that the men used poems to attract responses. Keller and Touhey become partners on the case and theorize that a woman is the “doer,” imagining anger/revenge scenarios to explain her crimes. They decide to place their own ad, have drinks with the women who answer it, take fingerprints off their cocktail glasses, and eventually find a match to the prints at the crime scenes. The set-up works fine until Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin) takes the seat in front of Keller, sizes him up quickly, decides they have no chemistry, and leaves without even picking up her wine glass.

The investigation continues fruitlessly, briefly detouring to a black grocery delivery boy, until Frank runs into Helen at a convenience store. When she accuses him of not writing the poem he placed as his ad, he tells her he used a poem his father (William Hickey) gave him, one Frank’s mother had written in high school during his parents’ courtship. Impressed, Helen decides to give Frank another chance, and Frank plots to fingerprint her. He ends up falling for her instead. On the verge of asking her to move in with him, he becomes convinced she is the killer, and the film moves rapidly to its climax and denouement.

This sounds like an exciting thriller—and it is—but director Becker and Richard Price, one of the smartest screenwriters around, have something more substantial on their minds than giving audiences a roller coaster ride. Much like Frank’s adoption of a false front to catch a killer, they use the cover story of the murder investigation to explore the state of heterosexual relationships that second-wave feminism had shaken to the core.

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As the film begins, Becker takes us to the old Times Square teeming with strip joints and hookers. This is an interesting way to signal not only the noirish aspects of the cover story, but also the squalor that characterized traditional male-female relationships—the unveiled picture of Dorian Gray, so to speak. It is also smart to feature a man in full midlife crisis as the protagonist. Stripped of his place at the head of a household and a loss of career identity looming, Frank represents Man at his most vulnerable. The men around him in the squad room and among those he questions carry on as though nothing has changed—telling dirty jokes, Sherman celebrating his daughter’s marriage with extended family and friends dancing the night away; it seems only Frank knows that the world has turned upside down. When he and Helen share a sweet moment in bed, he says, “Neither of us lives for our jobs.” Helen answers, “I guess I live for love. What else is there?” Although this may seem like a traditionally female answer, it’s clear that this lesson is something Frank is meant to learn, and learn the hard way. When Frank questions how a guy he barely spoke to in six years on the job could have stolen his wife, Gruber says, “Maybe you weren’t giving her what she wanted.” Disparagement of the emo or sensitive man is nothing but whistling in the wind for a traditional masculine culture that cannot accept that men need to find what is soft and vulnerable within themselves, not locate it externally among their women.

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The film also allows us to see women in a fresh light. We get to see Helen at the shoe store she manages, serving her customers with smooth confidence. She has a daughter, conceived during her bad first marriage; she left her husband as soon as she knew she was pregnant and made a life for them on her own, a move Frank finds incredibly gutsy. She is aggressively carnal; when she and Frank have sex for the first time, she looks as though she is going to devour him. Frank doesn’t even use a crude term to refer to their physical relationship, preferring to say “making love” when he tells Sherman how bad he feels about spying on her.

Perhaps the ultimate recognition of women as they really might be is the fact that nobody at the NYPD questions the idea that a heterosexual woman could be the serial killer. Certainly this is not an equality women might want to accept, but it does recognize that women are capable of the full range of emotions and of acting on those emotions. Tellingly, Sherman and Frank don’t think their shooter was motivated by a hatred of men or really even revenge; they posit that she might not have liked the men’s performance in bed or the fact that they sleep around. That’s a reverse on why men traditionally ditch or kill their wives and girlfriends.

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The performances are quite interesting in this film. Ellen Barkin is at her sexiest; while she does not abandon vulnerability, her embrace of assertiveness ensures that she will not be considered mere window dressing by any but the most obtuse moviegoer. John Goodman is a sympathetic partner, recognizing Frank’s plight and understanding the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.

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But this film really belongs to Al Pacino. He contains his tendency to go too big, while using it appropriately to convey Frank’s confusion, such as when he is about to bed Helen and sees a gun in her purse. Panicked that he almost literally has been caught with his pants down with the killer, he locks her in a closet and must stammer his way to an apology when he realizes that the gun is a starter’s pistol that she carries to scare off would-be muggers. “What this city does to a person,” is all Frank can say in a supremely human moment. More impressive is the undercurrent of mixed messages and motives behind Frank’s actions. Frank betrays himself in a drunken moment when he chides Helen for dating through the personals and reveals that for him it was part of his job. Later, he lies about the sting as a way to reveal a deeper truth—that he got scared when he realized how attached he was to Helen and tried to foul up their relationship. This performance of duality—distrust of Helen as both a woman and a suspect—adds a complex layer to an already intricately constructed film.

The most telling moment of all—a beautiful scene that seems almost like a throwaway—occurs when Frank spies Helen’s collection of 45s and finds a recording of “Sea of Love” among them. He pulls the record out of its case, only to have Helen surprise him in the act. Shaken by this marker toward her guilt, he asks her about it. She says she hasn’t looked at those records in years. “I kept them to leave to my daughter,” she says. “They might be worth something some day.” Although 50s-style romance with women as pets was dead to these characters, this tidy scene sounds the film’s hope that love might once again be so simple, sweet, and precious.


17th 04 - 2009 | 4 comments »

Breach (2007)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Billy Ray

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Billy Ray’s third feature, State of Play, opens widely today, so, naturally, I’m reviewing his second feature. (We at Ferdy on Films are nothing if not a bit perverse.) Ray’s debut feature, Shattered Glass (2003), told the true story of Stephen Glass, a rising star at The New Republic who was fired and drummed out of journalism for fabricating stories. State of Play, a truncated adaptation of a six-part BBC miniseries, returns to journalism, as a newspaper reporter follows his nose to discover conspiracies and cover-ups behind two seemingly simple deaths.

Breach bridges the gap between these films—another based-on-fact drama about Robert Hanssen, the most dangerous traitor uncovered in the United States to date. Hanssen’s history of spilling state secrets to the Soviet Union and, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, to Russia, spanned a 20-year period—almost his entire career in the intelligence division of the FBI. Two confirmed deaths occurred as a result of his activities, and up to 50 more are suspected. Hanssen’s is a story made for the movies and especially the type of movie for which Billy Ray is becoming known.

The film opens with archival footage from February 20, 2001, of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing that an enemy of freedom, Robert Hanssen, had been arrested. The date sent a chill down my spine, which only intensified when the title card “Two months earlier” introduces a scene of counterintelligence surveillance of a married couple from the Middle East. A cleverly hidden cameraman, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), snaps picture after picture of the arguing couple, then climbs back into the black van that contains two of his colleagues. They offer up a copy of a report he wrote and rag on him for ignoring the team. “If you’d read it, you’d see you two were named in the acknowledgments,” the ambitious O’Neill shoots back, a subtle way the film suggests that the FBI is like any other workplace—full of work that never gets read and people who make assumptions based on appearances.

O’Neill wants to become an agent, and when he is called on a Sunday into the office of Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and given an assignment to spy on newly promoted Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). He is to work as Hanssen’s assistant and look for evidence that Hanssen is posting or distributing sexually explicit material, which Burroughs says could be a major embarrassment to the bureau. O’Neill sees this as a demotion from his counterintelligence work, but asks if this is a major case that will forward his ambitions. Burroughs tells him nothing.

O’Neill meets Hanssen for the first time in their triple-lock-protected office space. Hanssen asks O’Neill to tell him five things about himself, four of which are true, an exercise he used to play with colleagues to keep sharp on reading people. O’Neill says he’s not a very good liar. After a pause, Hanssen says, “That would count as your lie.”

As O’Neill gets to know Hanssen, he learns the man is highly suspicious and attuned to the slightest detail, extremely intelligent about computer systems and security, a devout Catholic, resentful of the FBI’s gun culture that determines whether you’re in or out, and alarmed to hear that O’Neill’s wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) is from East Germany. Nonetheless, the two men begin to form a relationship of sorts based on Hanssen’s desire to get the lapsed Catholic back into the fold. The O’Neills spend one Sunday with Hanssen and his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan) at church and then have dinner at the Hanssen home, where Eric watches Bob play with his grandchildren and learns about Hanssen’s tough, unsympathetic father. Hanssen presents him with a binder full of articles he spent the night pulling from the Internet to help O’Neill cope with his mother’s Parkinson’s disease.

Eric, having observed no evidence of sexual deviance and convinced Hanssen is the salt of the earth, confronts Burroughs with doubts about the investigation. “You admire him,” she says. “Actually, you had to to serve our purposes.” She then stuns him with the news that he is helping to break the biggest case in FBI counterintelligence history, and introduces him to Agent Dean Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) and the rest of the very large team. They have accumulated evidence of Hanssen’s treachery, but Hanssen has been so clever that it won’t be sufficient to convict him of the most serious charges. They want to catch Hanssen in the act of passing secrets. “But that will mean the death penalty,” says a shaken O’Neill. “Don’t you think he deserves it?” Plesac retorts.

The rest of the movie essentially pits O’Neill’s wits against Hanssen’s. Can he get information on Hanssen’s Palm Pilot downloaded without Hanssen noticing? Can the team dismantle Hanssen’s car to search it without arousing his suspicions that the car was touched? Now that O’Neill knows just what a rat Hanssen is, will he be able to keep his head?

Breach is pretty much a standard-issue thriller, with a number of cooked-up moments of suspense that are there by the grace of the screenwriters. For example, when Hanssen is unexpectedly stood up for an appointment, he orders O’Neill to drive him back to his office well before the team can reassemble Hanssen’s car. What’s O’Neill to do? He takes a longer route that just conveniently is jammed up by a jack-knifed truck. Or, when the team learns that Hanssen has decided to go underground, O’Neill tells them to back off their surveillance tails—he can get Hanssen to make an expected drop. Naturally, this ploy puts O’Neill at risk for his life. Or, Hanssen carelessly gives O’Neill a package to deliver (which he steams open) that contains a film of him and Bonnie having sex. These kinds of creaky plot devices should have sunk this movie.

But they don’t, not surprisingly, because Chris Cooper, perhaps the finest American actor working today, is at the helm. Because the story takes place at the end of Hanssen’s run as a spy, we don’t really get much background information about him or his motives. We are fortunate that this smart script offers us Hanssen’s real words in the form of his deencrypted letters to his Soviet/Russian handlers. His arrogance regarding his intelligence, his contempt for his coworkers, his graciousness toward the comrades who realize that he’s a very important person are ego issues that few of us haven’t experienced. Yet because of where he works, he literally holds lives in his hands. He wasn’t trying to get rich—greed would have undone him by arousing suspicions over a lavish lifestyle or enlarged bank accounts—just accumulate a quiet power. Cooper realizes that a double life can only be maintained by making each life deeply felt. A veneer of respectability is easy to see through. True respectability is not, and Hanssen, as embodied by Cooper, is completely convincing as a devoted convert to the extreme Catholicism of Opus Dei and a superpatriot who sees godlessness as the fatal flaw of the Soviet bloc. And yet, this belief must have been at least a bit of a fraud—perhaps a remnant of his preconversion self—because he actively worked against the United States for this godless empire. Hanssen must have been the king of compartmentalization—which is prerequisite for a fanatic—but because this film compresses events, it’s hard to see clearly. It is only through Cooper’s superhuman skills that we are able to understand a bit about what makes a master spy on the inside.

I’m not a big fan of Ryan Phillippe, but playing with Cooper sharpened his game. He inhabits O’Neill (perhaps also through the help of the real Eric O’Neill, who was ever-present on the shoot) as a naïve do-gooder who learns how to lie and play on this man’s religious convictions and family-values morality to get what he wants, using Juliana as an excuse for just about every deception he has to run. When, in the end, he gives up the spy game, we’re not surprised. He admired Hanssen at first because that’s the kind of FBI O’Neill wanted to believe in.

The rest of the cast don’t really emerge from their stock characters, despite Ray’s scheme to first show the façade of the principal players—ambitious O’Neill, imperious Hanssen, hard-as-nails Burroughs—only to reveal the more vulnerable people underneath as soon as Burroughs lets the cat out of the bag to O’Neill. This might have worked in an entirely fictional film, but in a case as well-publicized as this one, we already know that nothing is what it seems. O’Neill is actually the only dynamic character in the film, but his growth seems a bland meal of insight indeed when it’s Hanssen we really want to know about.

The film benefits from its use of real locations, and in an extra on the DVD, we learn that Hanssen’s office and the surrounding FBI offices and corridors were built as exact duplicates of the real things. In fact, the DVD extras are superb, and fill in many of the gaps left by the film itself. On the whole, I enjoyed this film. Great writing and performances disguise what a paint-by-numbers job it is. Ray is a director the James Bond franchise might want to consider.

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1st 04 - 2009 | 4 comments »

Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin, 1967)

Director: Suzuki Seijun

By Roderick Heath

Seijun Suzuki, now 86 and still making films, helmed a mind-numbing 39 movies between 1956 and 1967 as a stable director of Nikkatsu Studios. During that stint, the independent-minded director became fed up with formula films and began expanding, perverting, and subverting the gangland drama, a personal crusade that reached its apogee in Branded to Kill. That film drifted so far away from the script and the requirements of the studio, Suzuki was sacked and could not get work outside of television for a decade afterwards.

Branded to Kill is utterly original and utterly strange – and as we all know, there’s no strange quite like Japanese strange. Suzuki’s film is a crossbreed of genre yarn with Kafka, Orson Welles, Euro-art cinema, and the Japanese underground aesthetic. The arty existential assassin flick has been done to death over the past half-century, with entries from Jean-Pierre Melville and John Boorman to Beat Takeshi and Jim Jarmusch. Branded to Kill is particularly reminiscent of Boorman’s own 1967 picture Point Blank, but it’s more ferocious, more stylish, more sexy, more insane, more…more, than any rivals. Other aspects recall the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner, also from 1967. Branded to Kill is, amongst other things, a perfect exemplar of 1960s Japanese cool, with omnipresent stovepipe suits, dark sunglasses, crisp black-and-white in a widest-of-wide frame, a blearily expressionist jazz score by Naozumi Yamamoto, and the sheer never-in-Hollywood boldness of it. It’s a blinding genre trash job that drags the gangster film into a surreal and cruel netherworld punctuated by startling sexuality and violence, as well as presenting a no-holds-barred savaging of the corporate-ladder existence at the high point of its near-religious grip on postwar Japanese society, leaving even Kurosawa’s cynical The Bad Sleep Well (1961) in its wake.

Penetrating Suzuki’s plot is initially a tall order, as the film’s visual narrative is sliced into cubist hunks. A shadowy organisation of assassins ranks its members according to prowess. The current No. 3, Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido), arrives back in Tokyo with his wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) and is driven from the airport by Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami), another assassin who’s slipped far down the totem pole and is trying to get back in the game. He invites Hanada in on a job he’s been given by crime boss Yabuhara (Isao Tanagawa) to pick up a man who’s sneaking into the country and shuttle him to Nagano. On the way, they’re tracked by other top assassins hired to keep Hanada and Kasuga from getting their charge to his destination. In a battle within the grounds of a deserted building, Kasuga’s drunkenness sees him make a fool of himself, much to Hanada’s disgust, so Kasuga hysterically charges at No. 4, Koh, and the two men kill each other. Hanada then has to fight through another ambush on his own, this time taking out the No. 2 man before finally, and in underwhelming anticlimax, dropping his man at his rendezvous in a motel car park.

Returning to Tokyo, Hanada’s car breaks down, and he gets a lift with a young woman, Misako (Anne Mari), who claims to hate men. Holing up in his bleakly modern apartment, Hanada indulges in bestial relations with Mami and his own fetish for the smell of cooking rice, but continues to think about Misako. He’s hired by Yabuhara to kill several more men, and then Misako asks him to kill a western agent (Franz Gruber). But a butterfly landing in front of his rifle scope causes him to miss and kill an innocent woman instead, a foul-up that will spell his doom in the assassin’s ranks. But it’s at home that Hanada is shot by an apparently jealous Mami and left to die in their burning apartment. But he’s not fatally wounded, and he stumbles bleeding to Misako’s place.

He and Misako ensnare each other in erotically charged but aggressive, inchoate trysts. When he has recovered from his wounds, Hanada locates Mami at Yabuhara’s place. She’s been having an affair with Yabuhara and was ordered to kill her husband. Mami spills the beans before Hanada shoots her: both the assassinations Yabuhara had him commit and the one Misako hired him for are linked in an effort to stem the damage that’s been done to a diamond smuggling scheme by rogue operators. Yabuhara is shot by another killer before Hanada can take care of him, and Misako is snatched; a film left playing on a projector in the apartment shows footage of Misako being tortured for not killing Hanada. A voice on the film challenges Hanada to come and do battle with some other assassins. Hanada ventures into battle and defeats all five enemies, only to be confronted by his real enemy, No. 1 (Koji Nambara), the man he took to Nagano, who plans to grind down and destroy his last rival just for the hell of it.

Summarizing the plot can only partly communicate how all this unfolds in Suzuki’s fractured, oblique, intensely fetishist sequences. The Byzantine world of intrigue and insensible relations of power and lust is reflected in the style, all acute dividing angles shot in deep focus with mysterious nooks of the frame. Branded to Kill is fundamentally the drama of a man who assumes himself to be a man of power and certainty and discovers he’s anything but. The story follows the ritualised structure of so much Asian genre cinema that has the hero confronting an escalating series of professional and physical challenges from his opponents, and yet Suzuki’s film also eats away at the cliché of the arch-professional lone warrior. Unlike, for instance, Itto Ogami of the Lone Wolf and Cub series or, indeed, Melville’s Le Samourai or Walker of Point Blank, Hanada is not ennobled by an awesome ascetic stoicism. He begins the film icy cool, sneering in disdain at Kasuga’s incompetence, and is steadily reduced to a shambling, despairing wreck. The causes of his steady disintegration are laid out by Kasuga, whose degeneration he blames on loneliness, leading to women and drink, the two great pitfalls of the profession: soon Hanada gives in to one and then the other.

The narrative is suspended by Hanada’s three fraught, intimate relationships with Mami, Misako, and No. 1. Mami’s animalistic sexual encounters with her husband seem to reflect her inner certainty that “we’re all beasts,” a theory the film bears out. When Hanada shoots her through the head, her blood swirls in the flushing toilet over which her head hangs; later, the same image returns in a moment of pure madness in a restaurant washroom when Hanada’s equilibrium has been almost completely destroyed by No. 1. The narrative sustains a series of reversals. Mami’s veneer of chic conceals raw, masochistic carnality. The ethereal, misanthropic, almost ghostly Misako surrounded by images of gothic fetidness (dead birds, butterflies, soil, leaves, and most constantly, water) becomes an icon of selfless love, tortured almost to death without losing her faintly satisfied smile. And Hanada’s uber masculinity is so deeply undermined that he’s reduced to walking around in one of Misako’s midriff-baring tops and strolling arm-in-arm with No. 1 (the only way they can be sure the other can’t get away or get hold of a weapon).

Misako, the ultimate femme fatale, seems as much an angel of death as the Snow Witch in Kwaidan and is the butterfly that blinds Hanada’s perfect aim. But she’s also associated with the decayed remnants of a natural world that has otherwise been entirely exiled from the world of apartment buildings and ruined institutional monstrosities. When he’s in a particularly dire place, Hanada showers dead humus on his head, weeping for Misako, desperate for some return to that natural world. When Hanada meets Misako, she’s driving in the rain with her convertible open to the elements, utterly soaked. When she comes to his apartment, Mami becomes upset, so Hanada throws the naked Mami out into the rain where she claws despairingly at the window, as electric an image as any in the cinema of illogical emotion. The tables are turned as Hanada’s increasingly hysterical, unwound machismo grapples with the impossibility of penetrating Misako’s psyche.

As a pervert and a thug, Hanada is hardly a figure fit for heroic identification. And yet his situation compels in the urgency of his attempts to avoid being consumed. Hitman films usually are commentaries on the relationship between the individual and conformity. Branded to Kill makes the observation that to be a perfect killer is to essentially lose individuality and become a force of total nihilism: the compromise of the human existence, and the pleasures of that existence, is to accept weakness. The relentless striving to reach the top, to triumph in this rattiest of rat races, is skewered. The actual point to the business—the diamond-smuggling concern—is far less important than the mutual use and abuse of human beings.

Hanada is at the mercy of a hierarchical designation that seems almost deistically ordained. His struggle is with pure fate as much as it is with a concrete opponent. Fate ruins Hanada when the butterfly ruins his shot, and No 1 will unquestionably kill Hanada and destroy him mentally before doing it physically. Or at least that’s what No 1 thinks: Hanada eventually resolves to try and outwit No .1 and claim that post for himself. That he succeeds, but destroys himself and Misako at the same time, confirms that Hanada is good, but not quite good enough: to become No. 1 is to become a force of pure nihilism. This is a philosophical statement, but also a vicious joke on the desire to climb that corporate ladder, leading to the ultimate version of the cliché that it’s lonely at the top. Although Hanada finally beats No. 1, he’s still reduced to dancing around as bullets whiz about him, just like Kasuga, and the competition finally lays everything waste.

Parsing the substance of Branded to Kill is secondary nonetheless to simply absorbing its delirious visuals. Suzuki stages some excellent, uniquely terse action sequences, especially in Hanada’s battle on the breakwater pier, where he uses a pulley to drag his car over him as a shield that allows him to get close enough to take out his enemies. Other, more humdrum sequences are just as inventive. For example, when Hanada and Kasuga believe they’re being followed, they pull over suddenly, and the pursuing car passes them by. Suzuki cuts to close-ups of clapping hands and laughing mouths accompanied by blaring music to indicate it’s just a car full of rowdy teens in a fusion of unique visual technique and aural cues.

Another is the scene where Mami scratches on the glass in the rain, her fingernails squeaking excruciatingly to her face is a mask of pure woe. The only real clanger in the film is an overwrought moment where Hanada drifts in a delirium while being assaulted by animated butterflies. Suzuki’s direction is aided immeasurably by Kazue Nagatsuka’s startling, deep-focus cinematography by which even the smallest aspect in a frame can become a point of necessary attention. The film’s sound effects deserve accolades, too, and the way Suzuki uses imposing edifices and ruins to emphasise labyrinthine mystery in a genuinely dreamlike realm.

Branded to Kill is one of the best films of the ’60s. l


8th 06 - 2008 | 3 comments »

Knife in the Head (Messer im Kopf, 1978)

Director/Co-Screenwriter: Reinhard Hauff

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Following the massacre at the Munich Olympics and the domestic insurgency of the Baader-Meinhof gang, West Germany—not yet united with the East—reverted to some of its bad old ways. Any group who protested against the loss of freedoms under a more vigilant government and police force could find themselves under threat of physical violence and imprisonment. It is the story of one man with ties to one such group that director and co-screenwriter Reinhard Hauff takes up in Knife in the Head.

Biogenetist Bernhard Hoffman (Bruno Ganz) putters about in his laboratory one evening, putting away cells he has been working on and closing things up. He makes a phone call. We don’t hear the other end of the conversation, but he says, “I’m coming to pick you up.” Where he is headed is a community center rife with anti-oppression slogans. The police have surrounded the building and are holding back crowds. Hoffman is initially stopped from going into the building, but he breaks away and enters as a man and a woman being pushed into a paddy wagon yell his name. He moves to the back of the community center, in which police are scuffling with civilians, presumably to look for the person he spoke with. At that moment, the frame freezes and a loud gunshot is heard. Fade to black.

When we next see Hoffman, he is on a hospital gurney, his head in bandages obviously applied in the field, and being rushed to surgery. Apparently, a policeman was stabbed by Hoffman and shot him in self-defense. He’s being attended to as well. Hospital personnel can’t say whether either man will make it.

The next time we see Hoffman is postop. He’s just waking up, and the two people we saw yelling to him from the paddy wagon are there to visit. Ann (Angela Winkler) appears to be Hoffman’s wife. The man, Volker (Heinz Hoenig), protests as the police make them empty their pockets. Just to show him whose boss, a cop pats him down for weapons. Ann and Volker don gowns; Ann goes in to see Hoffman. His eyes are deeply bruised from the surgery, and he has an almost greenish look about his skin. His lidded eyes look at Ann without recognition. She kisses him. He sputters out imperfectly, “Those bastards” and “Ann.” His life still hangs in the balance.

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Once he is over the first hurdle—surviving—his long rehabilitation commences. His verbal and motor skills have been damaged, as well as his memory. He looks at a picture book and repeats with his therapist the words that match the pictures, “dog, spoon.” He has trouble with “banana.” He writes with his left hand, considered progress until Anleitner (Hans Christian Blech) his lawyer and friend says, “he used to be right-handed.” No more of that—his right side is mostly paralyzed.

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More of Hoffman’s larger story starts to emerge as he relearns just about everything. His wife and he separated several months before the incident, and she is living with Volker. She visits Hoffman dutifully but does not intend to take care of him for long after his discharge. Oh, and officials are claiming Hoffman is a terrorist working with the community center group, whose headquarters they plan to raze. Hoffman becomes something of a minor celebrity in the hospital. When he is practiced enough to walk, he goes to the patient lounge on the neurosurgical ward and orders a beer. One fellow patient asks for his autograph on an article that has his picture and the headline, “Bernhard Hoffman – Terrorist?” and purports to tell of his double life.

As the pressure comes down hard on Hoffman’s doctor (Eike Gallwitz) to release Hoffman to a prison hospital, Anleitner works hard to persuade zealous detective Scholz (Hans Brenner) that Hoffman was not involved. Scholz assures an incredulous Anleitner that he not only thinks Hoffman is a terrorist, he “knows it. Don’t let the absent-minded professor act fool you.” In a face-to-face confrontation, Hoffman has been positively identified by Schurig (Udo Samel), the stabbed officer, as his attacker. Soon, in an attempt to take back control of his life, Hoffman escapes from the hospital, and after a difficult reunion with Ann and recapture, eventually confronts Schurig to find out if he is indeed a knife-wielding terrorist or simply has a knife in his head.

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The script and direction of this film layer it with ambiguity and suspicion. We don’t know who Ann is at first. When she and Volker come to the hospital to see Hoffman, the estrangement between the married couple seems more like an activist trying to take advantage of a brain-damaged man. For what purpose, it’s hard to say, but her insistence that Anleitner get him out of the hospital as soon as possible might indicate that Hoffman has something she wants or could reveal something damaging to the police—or maybe something else entirely. Right before his escape, we know his wits have returned to him in some measure when he finds the policeman guarding his hospital room playing chess with himself, and handily puts the guard into checkmate with one move. His escape isn’t particularly difficult because he seems to be counting on hospital staff to assume he is too handicapped in mind and body to attempt one. Is Hoffman really a terrorist adept at fooling people, or is he just gaining back some measure of the intelligent man he once was, as well as the desire to be free?

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It would be easy to sympathize with Hoffman if Ganz had portrayed him as the type of brain-injured victim we are used to seeing in movies. Think Regarding Henry, and you’ll know how wrong and false it is to think that injury is ennobling. Ganz’s performance is nothing short of miraculous. His rehabilitation is slow and painful to watch, his frustration palpable, his desire to become a whole man—including a sexual being who can win his wife back again—relentless. We can’t really be sure of the reality of his double life until the very end of the film because we don’t see him before his fateful night. That superb choice by Hauff keeps us focused on Hoffman as a complex man with unfortunate ties to a political enemy of the state who can arouse doubt as well as sympathy in us.

Last year’s Oscar-winning foreign language film from Germany, The Lives of Others, is heir to Knife in the Head. As that win shows, the paranoia and police-state measures that have reemerged in modern times have made Knife in the Head relevant again. Bruno Ganz, with his uncanny ability to play everything from a devil to an angel, always was. l

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20th 03 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, 2006)

Director/Co-Screenwriter: Guillaume Canet

2008 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Guillaume Canet is the Robert Redford of France. A handsome leading man perhaps best known in the United States and other countries for costarring with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, he has taken the plunge into directing. Tell No One, his second feature film, shows that this young actor/director really knows what he’s doing. While Tell No One breaks no new ground in the action/thriller genre, it is a tightly paced, assured handling of an exceedingly complex story that will keep you on the edge of your seat for all of its 125 minutes.

The film begins at a French country home Alex Beck (François Cluzet) and his sister Anne (Marina Hands) inherited from their recently deceased father François (Philippe Canet, the director’s father). The pair is having a small summer party that includes Anne’s lover Hélène (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Alex’s wife Margot (Marie-Josée Croze). The conversation at the picnic table is intimate and fun. One of the party has a new baby. Hélène suggests that Margot and Alex need a baby. “That’s the last thing he needs,” says another, “after just finishing medical school.”

After the party breaks up, Margot, Alex, and their new briard puppy drive to a lake on the family’s property. The couple walk through the woods to a pier, strip, and go for a swim. In a memory, we see them as children swimming together. Other such memories will show them carving their initials and a heart into the trunk of an ancient tree and add slash marks beneath it for every year of their love.

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The couple lay naked on a pontoon float in the middle of the lake. They argue briefly about Alex’s desire to sell the summer home, over Anne’s objections. Margot eventually says it’s none of her business, then says she is going to let the dog out of the car. She swims to the pier, grabs her clothes, and disappears behind the trees. A few moments later, Alex hears her scream. He swims to her aid, but the last thing we see is a heavy object bashing him in the head. He falls, unconscious, into the lake.

A title card over the exterior of a hospital says “Eight years later.” Alex is now a pediatrician, (and we get a nice sight gag when we see the puppy as a massive dog). We see him talking to a couple flanking their young daughter. They’ve been told she has a serious medical problem. He explains that the only thing wrong with her is that she’s being pressured by her overprotective parents. He prescribes ice cream, toys, and lots of playtime. The growing delight on her small face as her parents stare at Alex in confusion is priceless. He abruptly leaves them when a nurse insists he come right away.

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A man named Bruno (Gilles Lellouche) has brought his hemophiliac son into the clinic and insists he only trusts Dr. Beck to care for him. Bruno is grateful to Alex for diagnosing his son and contradicting the police who wanted to put him in jail for beating his son. Alex takes the boy, who he thinks has internal bleeding from a fall, to the operating room. The men meet again outside of the hospital where Bruno, with his very cool tattoo of The Godfather logo visible for the first time, gives Alex his phone number and says that he’ll help him get anything he wants. Bruno, it seems, makes his living in less than legal ways. I absolutely loved this character.

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Sadly, Bruno can’t get Alex the one thing he has wanted for eight years—his murdered wife. Alex can’t get over her death, despite the urgings of Anne, Hélène, and even Margot’s parents, whom Alex visits each year on the anniversary of her death. That very evening, however, Alex gets a cryptic e-mail that links him to a YouTube video that apparently shows that his wife is still alive. Another e-mail comes later, apparently from Margot, confirming that she is indeed alive but cautioning Alex to “tell no one, they’re watching.” With the mystery now launched, Alex sets about to learn the truth about what happened on that summer night and whether Margot is, in fact, alive or whether he is the victim of a cruel hoax.

To tell you more about the plot would be to spoil the fun and suspense. I will say that Alex is pursued by the police, who had questioned him before he received the e-mails about two bodies found at the lake and now feel that he is implicated in those deaths, another crime, and possibly even the murder of his wife. At one point, Alex must beat it on foot from a large posse of pursuing police. Unlike the “heroes” in American films, Alex and his pursuers do, indeed, start to sweat and get winded. Alex even slips and falls, raising a groan from the audience. I even liked that the computer screen had Yahoo! on it and the e-mail was real. However, there is one hiss-worthy villain right out of the James Bond school of bad guys that was a little over the top, but in a good way. There’s also a massive car crash that would satisfy any action movie buff.

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Cluzet, a Dustin Hoffman look-a-like to my eyes, was wonderful as Alex. His grief was pitch-perfect, his lack of skill at dodging the law played in a totally believable way, and his intelligence in ferreting out information ingenious. I didn’t realize I was watching Kristin Scott Thomas (I know I’ve seen her somewhere!) because her French is flawless (at least to me it is). It was great to see Jean Rochefort, whom I so admired in Patrice Leconte’s 2002 drama The Man on the Train, in a small, but crucial, part.

The denouement left a slightly sour taste in my mouth because while natural law may have been satisfied, justice was somewhat shortchanged and a lot of lives were ruined in the process. But this is a minor objection. Canet and his very gifted cast make hardly a wrong turn. The film has a very American feel to it, without the irony I usually associate with French takes on American genres. I’m not sure I like that the imitation is so nearly perfect. But it certainly means that Hollywood will have a run for its money with such great thrillers as Tell No One to contend with. l


7th 01 - 2008 | 3 comments »

Open Your Eyes (Abre los Ojos, 1997)

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The questions of identity and the nature of reality have penetrated deep into the world zeitgeist in the past 10–15 years, if we are to judge by the movies that have been made. From the visually dazzling juvenile entertainments like the Matrix films and genre-bending films by Quentin Tarantino to perceptually distorted horror films like Identity, it seems that the new generation is trying to figure out who they are in the same way my generation used drug movies, genre benders of the various New Waves around the world, and perceptually demented horror films to mirror our confusion. The year 1997 saw the release of two superior examples of this class of identity thrillers—the American independent film Habit and ace Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes.

In both films, the main characters are men in their 20s dealing with loss. Habit’s Sam is grieving the death of a father he barely knew and a relationship that has ended. César (Eduardo Noriega), the main character in Open Your Eyes, is grappling with a drastic change in his body. Both men are plagued by vampiric women and a hallucinatory existence that keep them separated from ordinary existence.

The film opens onto a black screen with a woman’s voice gently urging, “Open your eyes. Open your eyes.” An alarm sounds, waking a young man. We see his naked back as his outstretched arm silences the alarm. We next see him staring drowsily at himself in the mirror. We see him through frosted glass as he showers. Then, his hand wipes away the steam on the mirror as he regards himself again. Now dressed, he races down the stairs of his exquisite, modern home and out the door. He drives his vintage VW bug through the streets of Madrid and notices that absence of people. He pulls over, gets out of his car, and wanders into one of the city’s main drags. He is the only person there.

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After this stunning, empty cityscape, the film repeats the same sequence as the opening credits roll and extends it. This time, the streets are abuzz with life. The young man, César, stops on street corner to pick up his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martinez). “You own three cars. Why do we always have to drive in this piece of junk?” asks Pelayo. César is an orphan made rich by his inheritance of his family’s catering business. Pelayo complains that César‘s extraordinary good looks and money help him get any woman he wants, that he basically leads a charmed life, doing exactly as he pleases. The pair play a hard game of racketball. After one intense point, the scene shifts. César, sitting on the floor with his head down, is being questioned by Antonio (Chete Lera), a psychiatrist at the prison for the criminally insane where César is being held. César has killed someone, and Antonio is trying to determine if he was legally insane when he committed the crime. Antonio is drawn to helping César, who hides his face behind a mask.

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Slowly, the events leading to César’s incarceration are revealed. César is a playboy who never sees a woman more than twice. This doesn’t sit well with his latest conquest, Nuria (Najwa Nimri). She crashes a birthday party César is throwing for himself. To get away from her, he begins to chat up Sofia (Penélope Cruz), the beautiful woman Pelayo has brought to the party as his date. César tells her he is in catering; she says she’s an actress. “I don’t like actors,” says César. “They’re so skilled at hiding their true feelings.” Nonetheless, César begins his seduction of Sofia—much to Pelayo’s disgust. They leave the party and go to her place. César looks at pictures of a happy and clowning Sofia surrounded by friends and loved ones; he’s touched. They sketch pictures of each other. Sofia’s picture is a caricature that shows César surrounded by expensive cars and bags of money. He’s offended by it, then shows her the beautiful sketch of her he has done. They watch TV, on which a man is being interviewed about cryostasis. It is light when he finally leaves her apartment, but their night has been a chaste one.

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He is greeted on the street by Nuria, who convinces him to let her drive him home. Jealous, she accuses César of sleeping with Sofia. She starts speeding and then asks César if he believes in god. She intentionally plunges off the road and down an embankment. The car hits a solid wall and crumples. The horrific crash kills Nuria and grossly disfigures César. Surgeons work on his face to allow him to breathe and talk normally, and they give him the good news that he has suffered no long-term neurological impairment. But they can do nothing to rescue his face. He is outraged. They provide him with a mask, which they only offer in cases of “extreme rejection” of their cosmetic efforts. César is shunned, particularly by Sofia. He confronts her in the park where she earns extra change as a mime/statue. She agrees to meet him at a nightclub, but when he arrives, he finds Pelayo is there at Sofia’s request to provide a buffer between her and César. César gets drunk and passes out on the street.

Luckily for César, Sofia has a change of heart. She finds him in the street in the morning, kisses his disfigured face, and tells him she loves him. A few months later, the doctors call and say they have new, experimental technology that could restore his face. About a month after the surgery, Sofia approaches César, who is sitting in a chair with plastic molds on his face. She pulls them off one by one to reveal César as he looked before the accident. They make love in a scene of touching beauty. It is then that César’s mind begins to play tricks with him in scenes of confusion and terror, with Nuria and the man from the cryostasis commercial popping up where they are not expected, and César’s appearance randomly changing from gruesome to woosome and back again.

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Amenábar’s nightmarish thriller weaves us through César’s experience, confusing us along with him, and providing Antonio as our guide through César’s dreams and experience every bit as much as he is one for César. The cinematography and art direction of brothers Hans Burman and Wolfgang Burmann are flawless. I was particularly struck by the nightclub scene; it’s bluish glow a ghostly metaphor for the unconscious, it quite reminded me of another nightclub in another movie in part about madness—Sean Penn’s The Pledge. César’s despair over his change in appearance is so profound that we realize that he is lost to himself without his good looks. Indeed, his struggle has larger implications for the surfaces of life we all maintain like a smooth, but fragile layer of skin. Would the people in our lives be willing to accept us if our status changed drastically? Were our existential masks to crack, we might go into the self-annihilating despair César experienced.

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Eduardo Noriega is one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen; he’s also one of the best actors around. He knows how to radiate confidence as a birthright and anger at his loss of control in all its many shades. Those who may first have been introduced to Penélope Cruz in Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s remake of this film, will see how good an actress she really is when able to use her native language. She has since developed more as an actress in English, but I still prefer her work in Spanish. Chete Lera is a wonderfully compassionate psychiatrist whose fate is unbelievably heartbreaking.

Slowly, the film reveals its secrets in ways that any thriller/scifi fans will love. The ending is both shocking and satisfying as it returns to César control of his life. The film’s opening is repeated at its end, after we, too, have opened our eyes. l


5th 09 - 2007 | 1 comment »

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Spy%20new.jpgDirector: Martin Ritt

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”
— Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

It’s doubtful most of 1965’s moviegoing public thought anything like the above quote. We were awash in the fantasy spy adventures of James Bond and the hilarious hijinks of Our Man Flint. On television, comedy writers gave us Get Smart, fantasy writers gave us The Prisoner, and an industrial mindset that recognized the world’s eternal love of gadgets gave us Mission: Impossible.

Like a spy “out in the cold,” novelist John Le Carré, a former civil servant in the British Foreign Service, was himself working on the fringes of the West’s thrilled fascination with Cold War intelligence operations, creating a vision of bleak, bureaucratic squalor in place of diamonds and dames. Le Carré’s large body of work often includes operative George Smiley as his central protagonist. By contrast, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carré’s fourth Smiley book and the one that put him on the literary map, has Alec Que Leamas as its central character, a spy bone-weary of the game who must complete one more mission before he can come out of the deep-freeze of the Cold War.

Martin Ritt has made a number of stylish films of mixed quality that are more hot than cool (Paris Blues, The Long, Hot Summer). I’m not sure how he got the nod to do Spy, but this film is definitely his best showing. Helped greatly by the moody black-and-white cinematography of Oswald Morris, Ritt captures the isolation of the men in the shadows who are the perfect embodiment of the desperate, life-and-death play acting of T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men.

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The film opens with a high-angle look down on Checkpoint Charlie, the flashpoint of the physical absurdity that is the Berlin Wall. Leamas (Richard Burton) is standing in the Western sector telling a guard that he has a man coming through and that it would mean a lot to him if they left the man alone. The guard shrugs. “They shoot, and we are told to shoot back.” Leamas spots his man, Karl Riemeck, walking his bicycle to the gate. The gate lifts, then another, and it looks as if he’s home free. Then the siren sounds. The man mounts his bike in a desperate attempt to outrun the bullets that come flying at him. Leamas watches with a kind of stony horror as his agent falls, a tangle of legs and machine on a wet, cobblestone street.

spy_cold.JPGBack in London, Leamas meets with Control (Cyril Cusack), who recognizes that his agent needs a break. He suggests a desk job, but Leamas insists he’s an operative. In a soothing tone, Control suggests that Leamas would like to come in from the cold, but he is needed to do one more job—get the German agent Mundt (Peter van Eyck) who killed Riemeck, a double agent Leamas had spent a great deal of time turning. The need for revenge and his desire to keep at the job lead Leamas to agree. He is to offer himself as a double agent to get inside German Communist headquarters and implicate Mundt as a double agent, leading to Mundt’s execution.

To set up his cover, Leamas goes to an unemployment office and is referred to a library for a job as a cross-indexer (an ironic turn for someone about to offer himself up as a double-crosser). He meets Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), an idealistic British Communist who works at the library. Leamas does a very convincing job of acting the disillusioned agent who has been “made redundant.” He drinks constantly, lives on the cheap, and in a drunken fit, beats a grocer who refused him credit and lands in jail. Naturally, Nan makes a play for him. So do the Communists.

Leamas is contacted by Peters (Sam Wanamaker) and Carlton (Richard Hardy), who blow him to a nice dinner and all the whiskey he can drink at a strip joint. Leamas agrees to tell all he knows for a large sum of money and a nice place to live in the East. He meets once more with Control at the home of George Smiley (Rupert Davies), then goes to say good-bye to Nan. He is transported to Amsterdam for what he thinks will be two weeks of questioning. When he sees his picture in the paper as a missing agent, we get an enormous reaction shot of Burton looking completely betrayed. His interrogator, Patmore (Bernard Lee), is unimpressed with the information Leamas has provided. He is sent to Germany, where he will most likely be killed. This is what Leamas has been waiting for.

Spy%20Fiedler.jpgOnce there, a cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Leamas pitted against Fiedler (Oskar Werner), Mundt’s assistant, who is trying to get more information. In fact, Fiedler wrests enough data from Leamas to hang Mundt—just what Leamas wants. Then, things really start to get nasty as the true ruthlessness of the spy game snares innocent and guilty alike in traps they failed to anticipate.

The plot of Spy is tight and diabolical, though the film’s denouement is inevitable from the start. Leamas is more than tired—he’s completely adrift. Although he takes the assignment, one senses that he already is out of the game. Burton plays Alec’s disaffection so convincingly that the beginning of the film is extremely confusing. Is he on the mission, or has he really gone off the deep end? This instability makes the film a little difficult to settle into. Burton gives us a little more, however, to help us understand that Leamas is an actor almost as good as the one playing him. When Alec sees the newspaper story about himself, for example, we get a chance to witness the spy create his character before his interrogator returns to the room.

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Claire Bloom is wonderful as Nan. The script doesn’t really build the reasons for Nan’s affection for Alec, but if the romance comes up a little abruptly, it certainly seems genuine. The change of the character’s name in the book from Liz Gold to Nan Perry may have been an attempt to distance the character from a perception that she is Jewish and soften what would have been a more strident variety of Jewish Communism to one that emphasizes world peace. This choice works in making the romance between Nan and Alec seem more genuine, and has the additional benefit of isolating Fiedler as the lone, identified Jew in the film. His opposition to Muntz, a former member of the Hitler Youth, sets up an ideological struggle—perhaps the only genuine one in the film—that makes the pragmatic choices of both sides look very bad indeed.

There are some interesting cinematic choices as well. The whoring aspects of spying come strikingly into focus as Leamas and Carlton sit across from each other in the strip club with the stage in the background and the stripper near the end of her act framed squarely between them. It’s a startling shot, even today. Throughout the film, Burton is lit to highlight a mole that sits under his right eye. It’s distracting, mars his good looks, and provides a metaphor for what his character is in an extremely subtle, archetypal way. The final shot will take your breath away with its clinical simplicity.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was very much a film of its time. Nonetheless, it’s a cautionary tale whose message is scarily appropriate for our stricken political times. l

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10th 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Flies on the Wall (Fluerne på væggen, 2005)

Director: Åke Sandgren

2007 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

My Larsen (Trine Dyrholm) is a fictional documentary filmmaker who joins another fictional amateur filmmaker, Arne Thorsen (Kurt Ravn), and director Åke Sandgren in shooting what we identify as Flies on the Wall. The concept of films within a film and the plural title are the conceits around which Sandgren builds a tale of political intrigue in which, by definition, things are not what they seem.

The film starts in a police station in which the shadowy figure of a woman is standing with her back to us in an interview room. A detective comes into the main squad room and says that she won’t talk until they view a CD he has in his hand. He and two of his colleagues gather around a computer. He loads the CD, and they begin to watch a film that is a personal diary My has begun to discover her own truth. She has interviewed friends and ex-lovers, always with her camera running, about herself. We learn that My is a taker who keeps emotional engagement at a distance.

Into this personal meditation comes Peter (Henrik Prip), a former boyfriend who is a PR executive for Denmark’s Liberal Party. He asks her to profile a Liberal district, warning her that the mayor, Svend Balder (Lars Brygmann), will assume that the film is about him and try to control her actions. My does not hold with the Liberal agenda, but she is persuaded because Peter promises her total autonomy, a chance to expose the Liberals if that is what she wishes.

At first, My is treated with efficient deference by Balder’s staff, but the mayor dodges her attempts to speak with him. She finally catches up with him and three of his aides and follows them into a men’s locker room. They are preparing to take a dry sauna and jokingly suggest that if she wants to film them, she’ll have to join them. She strips and follows them into the sauna; only Balder stays in the sauna with her. He finally agrees to be completely accessible to her.

Flies%202.jpgMy, of course, does not expect him to be as transparent as he claims he will be. She plants cameras and microphones in his office and slowly unravels a secret. Balder and Arne, who has lost his personal life during his long service to Balder, have taken money promised for a beachfront development to benefit the city and used it to speculate in Asian investments. Their investments have been profitable, and proceeds were plowed back into the town’s schools, but not the beachfront project.

Arne invites My to his home. He used to fish and hunt with bow and arrow, but now concentrates on making film. He rigs a small camera on his chest so he can have his hands free to do other things. He shows her one of the fishing trips he filmed. He’s patient. That’s obvious. He has given up everything to rise with Balder. He suspects My may foul Balder’s future. Balder, however, feels Arne is a bigger risk, and fires him, promising to rehabilitate his career after a suitable amount of time has passed.

Flies%205%20edit.JPGIn fact, My begins an affair with the married mayor. What started as a cynical attempt to gain his confidence becomes a true love affair. When she is given documents that would incriminate him in the funds scandal, she holds onto them. Balder, out of love for My, decides to come clean about everything. This is certainly not something we expect from crooked politicians. Could love really be so powerful? Will we have a happy ending?

The answers to these questions hinge to some extent on what Balder tells My after one of their intimate meetings. He says honesty and truth are not necessarily the same. This we know instinctively to be true because we don’t all have access to the same information. The various points of view Sandgren sets up in this film—My’s, Arne’s, and his own—show clearly how people can be dupes while thinking they are deeply in the know. The modern world is one of artifice and shallow digging, well represented by My’s character. Once she becomes emotionally involved in her life, she truly sees how much she has missed, not only in terms of personal fulfillment, but also in how she interprets the world around her.

The film builds into an exciting thriller reminiscent of Silkwood. I had a little trouble with the bouncy handheld camera work, but overall, Sandgren uses the different looks of all the cameras he employs in telling this tale to great effect—not giving us easy information by clearly identifying whose version of the truth we are seeing. If this calculated confusion frustrates one at first, sticking with it reaps great rewards.

We live in time when surveillance and information are everywhere. As human beings, however, we’ve become less sophisticated about processing it. Just spend some time on a discussion board or in a chat room and find out how much we miss by not seeing the people with whom we are speaking. Flies on the Wall illuminates the confusion of our three-card monty world of enormous cynicism and even greater naivete. l


5th 03 - 2007 | 3 comments »

The Ax (Le Couperet, 2005)

Director: Costa-Gavras

2007 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I used to work for an encyclopedia company, some of whose workers answered the siren call of Microsoft and wafted to the Pacific Northwest to create the Encarta digital encyclopedia. A book about the creation of this product was published, and Bill Gates, the Harvard dropout who fooled us all into making him stratospherically wealthy, mused about why established encyclopedia publishers had not come up with such a product themselves. When certain conservative business models were proffered to him, his answer was said to be, “Oh, they have finite greed.”

Since at least the late 1970s, the world economy has been convulsed by corporate mergers, hostile takeovers, downsizings of epic proportions, entire industries made obsolete, and a flood of jobs taken from higher-paid workers in developed countries and moved to less expensive quarters in the Third World—partly in the name of true progress in production, but primarily because, like Bill Gates, corporate moguls and shareholders didn’t understand the concept of finite greed. To this world, Donald E. Westlake applied his considerable gifts for cynicism and comedy and wrote The Ax, a tale of a downsized executive who decides the only way he can land a job worthy of supporting not only his lifestyle but his inflated identity is to create the vacancy himself and eliminate all of the competition for it through the industrious application of a pistol.

Now we have a film of this disturbing novel by a director best known for disturbing his audiences with highly charged political thrillers. He seems a somewhat unlikely choice for this darkly comic crime story, but Costa-Gavras’ outrage at injustice actually brings the necessary horror to a story that is farcical but certainly no joke.

The action has moved from the United States to France, but there certainly is no paucity of well-to-do neighborhoods chock-a-block full of “resting” executives trying to keep up appearances. A newly minted reject is Bruno Davert (José Garcia) a 20-year veteran of the papermaking industry whose company not only downsized but also moved to Romania. At first, he isn’t thrown at all. He has 18 months’ severance pay and stock options he can cash in. A man of his experience and abilities is sure to find another job in no time.

couperet.jpgNine months later, Bruno is still stuffing resumes and headshots into envelopes in the family living room. His sweet and supportive wife Marlene (Karin Viard) suggests that maybe he should have a new photo taken, one that isn’t so… So what? Bruno bellows. Marlene tries to be diplomatic, but the photo is sour. What might once have been a content and vaguely smug face is now stony, angry, resentful. The privileged who lose their entitlements are a fearsome breed indeed, and Bruno will prove just how fearsome as the film progresses.

Bruno’s son Maxime (Geordy Monfils) hands his father a CD from a trade journal, redundantly named Papier and Paper. Bruno watches as Raymond Machefer (Olivier Gourmet), a man who has the position he desires, leads viewers on a little tour of the nirvana that is Arcadia Paper. Bruno hatches a plot to kill Machefer and land his job. But first he must find out what other out-of-work executives might be his rivals and eliminate them. He opens a post office box and places an ad in the journal soliciting applications for a job very much like the one he wants. He then sorts through the resumes and headshots and finds five men who could pose a threat. He rummages through his father’s World War II memorabilia and comes up with his captured German luger and a box of ammunition. His practice shooting leaves him sore-shouldered from the recoil and discouraged that he cannot seem to hit the broadside of barn door at close range.

Still, when it comes time to hand out his first pink slip, it goes surprisingly well. He simply drives up to the mailbox as his first rival goes to see if he’s gotten any job leads and calls out the man’s name. The man approaches Bruno’s car and bang. One down.

His second job isn’t quite as easy. As he sits in his car awaiting his next victim’s arrival at his mailbox, a crazed woman on a bicycle screams at him to leave them alone. “You’ll kill her father” she cries in what seems to Bruno to be a prescient moment. How has he given himself away? She enters his car and finds his gun on the passenger seat. A struggle ensues, and he accidentally shoots her through the neck. When her husband comes out to see what all the commotion is about, Bruno shoots him dead.

Sure he will be arrested, Bruno returns home and dresses in a suit and tie for dinner. He has to look his best for the television cameras. When the news comes on, Bruno hears that the story of the double murder is the top story. Apparently, his victims’ daughter had been having an affair with an older man who has been brought in for questioning. Fearing that if he does not confess, an innocent man will be put on trial, Bruno determines to turn himself in. At just that moment, the television camera catches the man leaping to his death from a top-floor window. Even when Bruno’s instincts are to do the right thing, fate seems to ensure that his corruption will be complete.

The characters in this film are stereotypes imbued with such earnest conviction that we are attracted and repulsed by their very real personalities at the same time. Maxime turns out to be part of a major software theft ring. Marlene turns to a therapist to get Bruno to start confiding in her and is satisfied with their progress, though she never ever finds out she is living with a killer. The police who have discerned a pattern that spells danger for paper executives visit Bruno, not to investigate him, but to warn him. Inspecteur Kesler (Thierry Hancisse) confides, “We always get them” but of course, they don’t.

Only Gérard Hutchinson (Ulrich Tukur), a paper executive working in a men’s wear shop since he lost his job five years before, presents us with a sympathetic view of the discarded white-collar worker. He sits with Bruno in a fitting room and pours out his sadness as Bruno ridiculously looks for an opportunity to stab him with something that looks like a machete. Perhaps Bruno has been touched by his story, but he doesn’t waste much time on sentiment. Sparing Hutchinson’s life, he dismisses the man as a loser who is no competition for him.

Le%20couperet.jpgGarcia does a superlative job of portraying a driven man who may look like a psychopath given the extreme actions he has chosen, but who would be rewarded for his determination in the work world without a thought that there might be something wrong with his character. The pathology of the world Bruno inhabits is underlined by scenes of billboards and sides of trucks that have wordless images of women in slutty lingerie and jewels being held up as the icons of the consumer culture. As conceived by Costa-Gavras, we can only laugh if this is the gold ring men like Bruno are willing to kill for. For what else can greed be good?

In the end, we are left with the (a)moral of the story: just like Charlie Chaplin caught in the gears of his giant machine in Modern Times, we’ll all get chewed up and spit out. When it comes to comedies with bite, they don’t make ’em much better than this one. l


6th 06 - 2006 | 2 comments »

Body Double (1984)

Director: Brian De Palma

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Brian De Palma has made a successful career as a director of thrillers. His first big splash (of blood) was his smart adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. He went on to make an uberviolent Scarface that shocked and delighted film buffs and regular moviegoers alike. He graduated to more stylish action/thrillers with his remarkable The Untouchables. And then there’s Body Double.

Body Double is a film that almost defies category. It is a Hitchcockian thriller. It is a comedy. It is a horror movie. It is a music video. It is not as graphically violent as some of De Palma’s other films, but it has one of the most famously bizarre murders the silver screen has ever known. It is riddled with continuity errors and obviousness in its scripting. Its cast of C+ list actors (excepting maybe Melanie Griffith, whose career was still revving up) screams direct-to-video. Yet, this film is so stylish and does all of its cobbled-together bits with such professional ease and verve that I have to call Body Double a major motion picture in the manner of The Big Sleep. It stands the test of time almost despite itself.

The film’s opening is reminiscent of the beginning credits of Ed Wood, panning through a fake graveyard on a movie set. We land on a man lying in a coffin. He opens his eyes, bears his vampire’s fangs, and freezes. The man is Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), an actor who suffers from claustrophobia. After his director (Dennis Franz) tries fruitlessly to get him to snap out of it, Jake is dragged from the coffin and sent home to recuperate. When he arrives there, he surprises his live-in girlfriend (Barbara Crampton, star of the cheesy horror comedy Re-Animator, reviewed elsewhere on this site) having sex with another man. One defiant look from her sends him scurrying from his home and off in search of temporary quarters

Jake learns that the director who promised he’d be able to come back to shooting in the morning has lied. The newly unemployed Jake starts making the rounds of acting auditions, interviews, and classes, where he keeps running into another actor named Sam (Gregg Henry). Sam overhears him tell a friend he needs a place to stay, and Sam asks Jake to fill in temporarily as housesitter while Sam leaves town for an audition. Jake is overjoyed and especially when he arrives at a luxurious space-needle bachelor pad. Sam brings Jake over to a telescope and lets him get acquainted with the next-door neighbor, a beautiful, rich woman who Sam says does a masturbation show in the window every night like clockwork.

Of course, the lovelorn Jake is a return peeper, but he starts seeing some things he doesn’t like. A man comes into the bedroom one night, awakens the woman (Deborah Shelton), argues with her, slaps her, and leaves after taking money from the wall safe. The next day, Jake is driving past the gate of the woman’s home and sees a man waiting at the end of the street in a car to follow her. Jake follows them both, and a long sequence weaves the three characters through a mall, to the beach, and into a tunnel where the woman, Gloria, pulls Jake out of a claustrophobic terror and comes close to having sex with him.

Now that he’s made a connection, Jake has to follow through. He practices what he will say to her on the phone until he sees the man who followed her in his car, a Native American, up in her bedroom robbing her safe. He phones, not to make a date, but to warn her of the danger she’s in. What happens next has to be seen to be believed.

It’s obvious from fairly early on that Jake is being set up. We can even guess by whom. The set pieces are so familiar and played for all their cliche value. Nonetheless, at some point, De Palma actually has us wondering what is up. I think that point is the near sex on the beach scene. It has to be a fantasy, we think, but De Palma plays it as a reality. I’m still not convinced it really happened. This twist on our own voyeurism puts us in Jake’s place. What are we seeing? Have we been set up to expect the obvious? It’s ingenious and one of the things that sets the film a cut above many others of its type.

I especially enjoyed Jake’s foray into the porn movie industry to track down who he thinks is Gloria’s body double (Melanie Griffith). Posing as a porn actor, he is cast as a geek in sexual toyland in a very colorful, well choreographed and scored scene. A real porn director could never imagine shooting something like this, but De Palma had fun experimenting with making a music video. It’s a good one, too.

De Palma also has fun with props, making them outlandish, cheap, and delightfully cheesy. His touches of eroticism are light (almost too light in the porn movie) and have us wondering what kind of a creep we’re cheering for. Jake seems like an all-American boy, the kind that masturbates to R. Crumb comic books, that is. De Palma knows his target audience and lets them sit in the driver’s seat of this bumper-car thriller.

I recommend Body Double to anyone who wants something a little different. It’s got it all—and a little bit more.

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15th 02 - 2006 | 1 comment »

A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, 1956)

Director: Robert Bresson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

A Man Escaped, one of my all-time favorite films, is a singular experience. How does a film whose title tells you how it ends still manage to be one of the most suspenseful films ever made? It’s not easy to articulate, but I’ll try.

The source material certainly has built-in drama. The film is based on a book by André Devigny, a WWII French Resistance fighter, who escaped from Fort Montluc prison in Lyon, France, where the Gestapo held political prisoners awaiting trial and execution. Indeed, a more accurate translation of Bresson’s title is “A Condemned Man Escaped.” Bresson’s adaptation clings very closely to the details of Devigny’s account and was filmed in Montluc itself, thereby creating an almost unbearable suspense by nearly recreating the experience.

Then, of course, there is Bresson’s artistry in using small, closely observed moments built up meticulously to place viewers in the position of a prisoner of the Gestapo. Consider the opening, which perfectly sets the tone for the entire film. Fontaine (François Leterrier), the condemned man of the title, is riding in the back seat of a car, his wrists handcuffed together. His eyes shift warily above his angular face framed with loose, dark hair. The camera shifts several times from his face to his hands, which move tentatively on and off the door handle. The car slows and Fontaine seizes his chance. We watch him suddenly push the handle all the way down and fly out the door. Yells and scuffling (was there a shot?) follow. Moments later, we are inside the car again and watch as Fontaine is shoved back in. This time, his guard handcuffs himself to Fontaine. When Fontaine reaches the prison, his escape attempt is conveyed to the commandant. When next we see Fontaine, he is being carried into a cell. Bloodied and unconscious, he is dumped unceremoniously inside the cell. We hear a key turn heavily in the lock. At this point, voiceover narration from inside Fontaine’s mind is added to the sparse dialogue that propels the story.

Fontaine’s further experiences are built up with equal care. He learns the tapping method prisoners use to communicate with each other through their cell walls. By examining the walls of his cell, he finds a means to look out his high cell window. He observes three prisoners walking up and down the exercise quad and stage-whispers to them about the possibility of getting a message out to his comrades. The risks of trusting anyone in this regimented setting where nearly every movement is observed are made glaringly clear. People appear and disappear, their fates known only by a quick sentence from one prisoner to another—or not at all. Notes pass surreptitiously between prisoners as they conduct their toilet. The furtiveness of each movement, the uncertainty of what each day will bring, the ever-present blood stains on Fontaine’s only shirt, put there by his initial beating—all these reminders of danger and death persist in our view.

Certain of execution, Fontaine hatches an escape plan. He notices a weakness in the boards of his wooden cell door. Saving a spoon off his meal tray, he hones its handle on the rough stones of his cell floor into a chisel to remove the boards. His neighbor, despairing and normally uncommunicative, tells him as they talk at their cell windows that Fontaine will get them all killed with his scratching. Fontaine tells his comrade to have courage. In this subtle way, Bresson introduces a theme that he will revisit from many angles in many of his later films—irrepressible fate resisted through faith and persistence. Indeed, Bresson adds a secondary title to his adaptation, Le vent souffle où il veut. Dona nobis pacem. Translated, it means The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth. Give Us Peace.

At last, Fontaine, having methodically tested his escape plan and assembled his homemade tools, must make his move. At that very moment, a young man (Charles Le Clainche) wearing a jacket from a German uniform is placed in his cell. Fontaine either must take Jost along or kill him. The tension of this moment, the gravity of his dilemma, are almost too much to bear. The actual escape juxtaposes silence with potentially lethal noise—a slipping tile on the roof, an unidentified squeaking in the yard separating the inner and outer walls of the prison. Bresson is famous for his use of sound. His mastery was never more apparent than in this film, where sound often must substitute for sight for prisoners cut off from ordinary life.

This film, like most Bresson films, rewards close attention. In fact, it would be hard to watch without fixing all one’s senses to it. In this distracted age, Bresson is not an easy director to warm up to. He is, however, one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and one who grapples with difficult, but important subjects of the human spirit. I hope you will seek out his works and come to love them as I do.


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